Book: Death in the Meadow
The floor creaked to the slightest step, and Stilcho moved quietly as he could across to the old warehouse door, not trying escape, no, only that it was so everlasting cold and he wanted the sun to warm his flesh, the sun that shone bright through a crack in the shutters. He wanted it, and he had thought a long time about getting up from that board floor and venturing outside-
-he had thought about going further too, but the front step would be enough, the front step was all he dared think of, because Haught sleeping back there had ways to know what he planned-
-so he thought, o gods large and small, gods of hell and gods of earth, only of getting out into that light where the sun would warm the stone step and the bricks and warm his dead flesh which right now had that lasting chill of rain and mud and misery. He could not abide the stink and the cold of mud, that made him think all too much of being dead, in the ground, in the river cold-
I'm not running, I'm not going anywhere, just the sun.... That, for Haught's benefit, should he wake-with his hand on the door.
The hair stirred at Stilcho's nape. His flesh crawled. He stopped still and turned and looked, and saw Haught sitting up in the shadows, a bedraggled Haught with a bloody scrape on his face and the whites showing dangerously round his eyes. Stilcho set his back against the door and gestured toward it with a shrug.
"Just going out to get the-"
Do you play games with me? With me, dead man?
No, he thought quickly, made that a torrent of no, letting nothing else through, and felt every hair on his body rise and his heart slow, time slow, the world grow fragile so that for a moment he knew the progress of Haught's mind, the suspicion that his one failure had diminished the fear of him, that a certain piece of walking meat needed a lesson, that this thing Ischade slept with (but not with him) could be dealt with, shredded and sent to the deepest hell if it needed to learn respect-
-Stilcho knew all that the way he suddenly knew Haught was running through his thoughts, knowing his doubt, his dread, his hate, everything that made him vulnerable.
"On your knees," Haught said, and Stilcho found himself going there, helplessly, the way every bone and sinew in him resonated to that voice. He stared at Haught with his living eye while the dead one held vision too, a vision of hell, of a gateway a thing wanted to pass and could not. But if he was sent there now, to that gate, to meet that thing-
"Say you beg my pardon," Haught said.
"I b-beg your pardon." Stilcho did not even hesitate. A fool would hesitate. There was no hope for a fool. Ischade would banish him down to hell to confront that thing if he went back to her now after what Haught had done, and Haught would tear his soul to slow shreds before he let it go to the same fate. Stilcho knelt on the bare boards and mouthed whatever words Haught wanted.
For now. (No, no, Haught, for always.)
Haught gathered himself to his feet and ran a hand through his disordered hair. His pale, elegant face had a gaunt look. The hair fell again to stream about it. The smile on his face was fevered.
He's crazy, Stilcho thought, having seen that look in hospital and in Sanctuary's own street lunatics. And then: O, no, no, no, not Haught! No!
The prickling of his skin grew painful and ceased. Haught came closer to him, came up to him and squatted down and put his hand on Stilcho's cheek, on the blind side. Chill followed that touch, and a deep pain in his missing eye, but Stilcho dared not move, dared not look anywhere but into Haught's face.
"You're still useful," Haught said. "You mustn't think of leaving."
"Don't lie to me." Silken-soft. And the pain stabbed deep. "What can I give you to make you stay?"
"L-life. F-for that."
"No gold. No money. No woman. None of that."
"To b-be alive-"
"That's still our bargain. Isn't it? They know about us. They took care enough to set a trap for us. You think then that She doesn't know? You think then that we have infinite time? I've covered us thus far. They might not know who we are. But careful as 1 am, dead man, Stralon came close to us. He probably knew us. He probably passed that on. And that damnable priest and that damnable mage may know who they're looking for now. They might have thought it was Her. Now they may go to Her and tell Her our business. And that won't be good for us at all, will it, dead man?"
"No." It came out hoarse and strangled. "It won't."
"So let's don't take chances in the daylight, you and I. I have my means. Let's just be patient, shall we? I'll take the Mistress. I'll deal with Her. You wait and see." Gently Haught patted him on the cheek and smiled again, not pleasantly. "The thing we need went back to the priest. It's not there and it is. I know how it works now. And I know where it went. Right now we need to move a little closer uptown-when it's dark, do you see?"
"Yes," Stilcho said. If Haught asked him if pigs flew he would have said yes. Anything, to make Haught go away satisfied short of what he could do, and what he could ask.
"But in the meanwhile there's a trip for you to take."
"Oh gods, no, no, Haught-there's this thing, I see it, gods, I see it-"
Haught slapped him. The blow was faint against his cheek. The dark gateway was more real, the thing ripping at it was clearer, and if it looked his way-
"When it's dark. To Moria's house."
Stilcho slumped aside on his knees, rested his back against the door, his heart hammering away in his chest. And Haught grinned with white teeth.
The old stairs creaked under any step (they were set that way deliberately, for more than one Stepson used the mage-quarter stables and the room above)-and Straton trod them carelessly, which was the best way to come at the man whose sorrel horse was stabled below.
He had left the bay standing in the courtyard. It would stand. He left it just under the stairs, out of line of the dirty window above, if Crit had come to look, if he were wary. But perhaps he would be careless. Once.
Or perhaps Crit was waiting behind the door.
Strat reached the top landing and tried the latch. It gave. That should tell him enough. He flung the door inward, hard; it banged against the wall and rebounded halfway.
And Crit was standing there in the center of the room with the crossbow aimed at the middle of his chest.
The stream Janni followed ran bubbling over the rocks, among the trees, cold and clear; and a wind sighed in the leaves with a plaintive sound, like old ghosts, lost friends. The trees stood, some unnaturally straight, some twisted, like old monuments. Or memories. They afforded cover, and the place had a good feel to it, this shade, this shadow of green leaves.
The brook left that place and flowed into sunlit grass. The meadow beyond hummed with the sound of bees, was dotted with wildflowers, was eerily still, no wind at all moving the grass, and Janni looked out into that place with a profound sense of terror. That meadow stretched on and on, lit in uncompromising day, and the grass that showed so trackless now would betray every step. There was no cover out there.
If he were so foolish she could find him, Roxane could track him down in whatever shape she chose, and he could not stand against her. He knew that he could not. He had failed once before, and that failure gnawed at his pride, but he was not fool enough to try it twice. Not fool enough to go out where Roxane waited in the bright sunlight, in a center defended by such emptiness and calm that there was no surprise possible; but he had the most terrible feeling that the sun which had stood overhead had at last begun to move toward its setting, and that that sunset would signal a change and a fading of life in this place. The moment he conceptualized it, that movement seemed true, though he could not see it clearly through the trees-he saw shadows at this margin of the woods, cast out on the yellow grass, and they inclined by some degree.
"Roxane!" he called out, and Roxane-ane-ane the forest gave back behind him; or the sky echoed it, or the silence in his heart. He felt small of a sudden and more vulnerable than before. He had to keep moving in the woods, constantly seeking some place of vantage, some place where the trees ran nearer to the heart of that meadow where the trouble lurked.
But wherever he went, however far he circled this place, the brook reappeared in its meanderings. He knew what it was, and that if there was a place where it did not exist, then it would be very bad news indeed.
It ran slower than it had, and more shallow. Now and again some dead branch floated down it, which presaged something. He was afraid to guess.
"Come in," Crit said. "Keep your hands in sight."
Strat held his hands in view and walked into the doorway of the mage-quarter office. He kept the door open at his back. That much chance he gave himself, which was precious little. In fact there was such an ache in him it was unlikely that he could run. It had been anger on the way here. It had been resolution going up the stairs. Right now it was outright pain, as if that bolt had already sped. But he cherished a little hope.
"You want to put that damn thing down, Crit? You want to talk?"
"We'll talk." But the crossbow never wavered. "Where'd she go, Strat?"
"I don't know. To hell, how should I know?"
Crit drew a deep breath and let it go. If the crossbow moved it was no more than a finger's width. "So. And what are you here for?"
"That's real nice."
"Dammit, Crit, put that thing down. I came here. I'm here, dammit! You want a better target?"
"Stay where you are!" The bow centered hard and tendons stood out on Crit's hands. "Don't move. Don't."
It was as close as he had ever come to death. He knew Crit and what he knew sent sweat running on him. "Why?" he asked. "Your idea, or the Riddler's?" If it was the one, reason was possible; if it was the other. ... "Dammit, Crit, I've kept this town-"
"You've tried. That much is true."
"So you try to kill me off a friggin' roof?"
The bow did move. It lifted a little. About as much as centered it on his face. "What rooP"
"Over there by the warehouse. And come bloody fnggin' along with me last night, that's why I came here, dammit, this morning, to see whether you'd gone crazy or whether you think I didn't bloody see you up there yesterday. I figured I'd give you a good chance. And ask you why. His orders?"
Crit shook his head slowly. "Damn, Ace, I saved your life."
"On that roof. It was Kama, you understand me? It was Kama that was at your back."
A little chill went through him. And a minuscule touch of relief. "I hoped. Why, Crit? Is she under his orders?"
"You think the Riddler'd do it like that?"
"You might. If he was going to. I don't know about her. You tell me."
Crit swung the bow off a little to the side, turned it back again, then aimed it away and let it angle to the floor. He looked tired. Lines furrowed his brow as he stared back. "She's into something of her own. Into-gods, something. That's all. The Third's got interests here and she has, and gods know- What the bloody hell is it about this town? Damn woman goes crazy, up on the roofs with a bow-. It's Walegrin she's after, I'm thinking; and then I'm not so sure-"
"You were following me."
"Damn right I was following you. So was she. She bends that bow,. I put a shot right across to discourage her and put the wind up you, what the hell d'you think I'm doing? IfI'd've meant to shoot you I'd have hit you, dammit!"
Strat wanted to think that. He wanted to believe every word of it. It was all tangled, Kama with Crit-that was old business; but maybe not so old to either of them. And Kama the Riddler's daughter. He saw the trouble in Crit's eyes, saw the pain which was the real Crit, behind the nothing-mask. "I guess you would," he said hoarsely. It was not so easily patched up. There was nothing mended but maybe the roughest of the edges. "I guess that was what set me to thinking. It didn't feel right."
"Dammit, wake up! What does it take? Tempus is going to have your guts for string if you don't solve it, hear me? He's given you more room than you've got a right to, he's left you your rank, he's left you in titular command, for godssake, how long is he going to be patient, waiting for you? You know how patient he's being? You know what he'd have done with another man?"
"He left me in command. I still am. Till he takes it." The last came out hard, and left a dull shock behind. Tempus could ask. And get nothing from him. He knew that, the way he knew rain fell down and sun came up. He was hollow inside. Crit could have shot him. That would have been all right. That would have solved things. As it was, he failed to care. He walked over to the table and the cheap bottles of wine they had here because it kept and the water here tasted like lye and copper. He pulled a loose cork and poured a little glass, knowing it was a deadly man at his back and matters were no more resolved now than they had been. He turned and held it out to Crit. "Want one?"
"No." Crit still stood there with the bow aimed at the floor. "Where's the horse? You leave that damned horse down there in the yard in full view?" .
"I don't plan to stay." Strat drank a mouthful of the sour wine and made a face. His gut was empty. Even a little wine hit it hard. "I've patched up a peace in this town. I figured it could make me some enemies. And Kama has contacts in the Front, doesn't she? I figure-I figure maybe she's got her answers, and they're not mine."
"She tried to shoot you in the back. I stopped it. You come in here madder than hell at me; and her, you just-No. You're not bloody mad, are you? You came in here-what for? Why did you walk in here, if that was what you expected?"
"I told you. I thought if you'd meant to hit me you would have. Didn't get a chance to talk to you last night. That's all." He downed the rest of the wine in the cup and set it down before he looked around again at Crit, at the bow and the open door. "I'd better go. My horse is in the yard."
"That damn horse-that damn spook. Ace, the damn thing doesn't sweat, it doesn't half work, like the zombies, f'godssake, Ace, stay here."
"Are you going to stop me?"
"Where are you going?"
He had not truly considered that. He had not known whether there was truly any time beyond this room. Nothing he did presently made sense: there was no need to have come, no need to have patched things up with Crit, only it was something he had not been able to avoid thinking on since yesterday and last night, and now there was no more need to think about that. His partner was not trying to kill him. Tempus was not. Unless Tempus had sent Kama, but somehow other things rang more true. Like the PFLS. The Front. Like the agencies that wanted chaos in Sanctuary. He felt himself carrying the whole town on his back, felt his life as charmed as if the gods that watched over this town watched over him, who was trying to save it. And they both were corrupt, and they both were wreckage, he and the town. He perceived compromises that he had made, by degrees. He knew where he was now, and it was on the other side of a wall from Crit and all his old ties.
He had not seen Ischade since that day outside Moria's. Since he had blinked and lost her round a comer. Or somewhere. Somewhere. The wards drove him from the river house. He hunted Haught and failed to find him. He was altogether alone, and altogether losing everything he had thought he had his hands on.
"I don't know," he said to Crit. "I don't know where I'm going. To find a few contacts. See what I can turn up. If you haven't figured it out, it's my peace that's holding so far. The bodies that've turned up-aren't significant. Or they are. It means that certain people are keeping their word. Keeping the peace in their districts. You could walk the Maze blind drunk right now and come out unrobbed. That's progress. Isn't it?"
"That's something," Crit admitted. And stopped him with a hand on his arm when he tried to walk past him. Not a hard hand. Just a pressure. "Ace. I'm listening to you. You want my help, I'll give it to you."
"What kind of trap is it?" It was an ingenuous question. He meant it to be. The whole affair, Kama, the shot from the roof, had ceased to trouble him acutely, had become part of the ennui that surrounded him, everywhere, in every inconsequential move he made, every damned, foredoomed, futile move he made since She had turned her back on him and decided to play bitter games with him. Haught had given him the ring; Haught had made a move which might be Her move, gods knew, gods knew what she was up to. The whole world seemed dark and confused. And this man, this distant, small voice, wanted to hold onto his arm and argue with him, which was all right as far as it went: he had a little patience left, while it asked nothing more complicated than it did. "Whose orders, Crit?"
"I'm on my own. I'll go with you. Easier than following you. I'll do that, you know. I've been doing it."
"You've been pretty good."
"You want the company?"
"No," he said, and shrugged the hand off. "I've got places to go, rounds to make. Stay off my track. I'd hate for somebody to put a knife into you. And it could happen."
"But not to you."
"Not so likely."
"You hunting that Nisi bastard?"
It was more complicated than that. Ischade was involved. It was all too complicated to answer. "Among others," he said. "Just stay off my track. Hear?"
He walked on out the door.
The bow thunked at his back, the air whispered by him and the quarrel stood buried in a single crash in the stout railing just ahead of him. He stopped dead still, then turned around to Crit and the empty bow. His knees had gone weak for a moment. Now the anger came.
"I just wondered if you'd wake up," Crit said.
"I am awake. I assure you." He turned on his heel and headed down the stairs with his knees gone undependable again, so that he used the lefthand rail, shaking and shaken, and hoping with the only acute feeling he had left, that between the wine and the shock he would not stumble on the way. That it was Crit up there watching him, Crit who knew how to read that white-knuckled grip on the rail, made his shame complete.
Damn Crit to hell.
Damn Tempus and all such righteous godsridden prigs. Tern-pus had dealt with Ischade. Tempus had said something to her at that table, in that room, and she had said something to him at great length, concluded her business like some visiting queen, before she went running off, leaving him for a fool in front of the whole damned company. He had not gone back after his cloak. Had not been able to face that room.
But suddenly it occurred to him that Crit might know what Tempus and Ischade had said together. He stopped at the bottom, by the bay horse, his hand on its neck, and looked up the stairs where Crit stood with the unarmed bow dangling by his side.
"What's the Riddler's dealing with her?" Strat asked.
Strat frowned, wondering whether it was deliberate obtuse-ness. "Her, dammit, at the Peres. What was she after?"
"Maybe you ought to ask him. You want to shout his business up and down the stairs? Where's your sense, for gods-sake?"
"That's all right." He turned and gathered up the bay's dangling reins. "I'll manage. Maybe I will ask him." He flung himself up to the bay's back, felt the life in it like a waking out of sleep, a huge and moving strength under him. "It's all right." He turned the bay and rode out of the courtyard, down the narrow alley.
Then the malaise came back again, so that the street began to go away from his vision, like an attack of fever. He touched his waist, where he carried the little ring, the ring that would fit only his smallest finger.
She had sent it by Haught.
Haught attacked the column and tried for-whatever Tempus was on the other side of. Tempus and the priest. And the gods.
Damn, it shaped itself into pattern, it shaped all too well: Ischade owned no gods. Haught and the dead man, who made a try that might, succeeding at whatever they were after-have shaken the town.
Ischade had sent him back to Crit that night Crit came to the riverhouse and nothing had been the same.
He slipped the ring into the light and slipped it onto his finger, the breath going short in his throat and the touch of it all but unbearable; it was like a drug. He had not dared wear it into Crit's sight, a token like that. But he wore it when he thought there was no one to see, no one but the Ilsigi passersby who might see him only as the faceless rider all Stepsons were to the town: he was a type, that was all, he was a power, he was a man with a sword and everyone in town wanted to pretend they had no special reason to look anxiously at a Rankan rider too tall and too hard to be other than what he was. So if that man's eyes were out of focus and all but senseless, no one noticed. It was only for a moment. It was always, in the last two days, only for a moment, because when he held that metal in his hand he had a sense of contact with her and his soul was in one piece again.
He shivered and looked up where a rare straightness of a Sanctuary street afforded a sliver of sunlight, the gleam of uptown walls.
There was a rattle at the window, a spatter of gravel against the second-story bedroom shutters, and Moria started, her hand to her heart. For a moment she had thought of some great bird, of claws against her shutters; she expected some such visitation, even in the daylight. But she came up off her bed where she had flung herself, dressed as she was in the stifling, tight-laced satins that were what a lady in Sanctuary had to wear, O Shalpa and Shipri, so that her head reeled and her senses wanted to leave her every time she climbed stairs or thought too much on her situation.
Now she knew that rattle of gravel for what it was: someone down in the side lane that led back toward the rear of the house and the stable. Someone who knew where her bedroom was, maybe that importunate lord who had beseiged her step; maybe- Shalpa! maybe it was Mor-am come back. Maybe he was in some dire trouble, maybe he needed her, maybe he would try that window, the only one off the street except the servants' and the kitchen at the back.
She went and flung the inside shutters open, looked out and saw a lately familiar, handsome face staring up at her with adoring eyes. At one breath it drove her to rage that he was back, rage and fear and grief at once, for what he was, and what a fool he was, and how handsome and how helpless in Her spells which had somehow gone all amiss.
"Oh, damn!" She flung open the casement and leaned out, her corset-hard middle leant across the sill and the compression of her ribs all but choking the wind out of her as she set her palms on the rough stone. Cold wind stung her face and her exposed front and blew her hair. Loose ribbons hit her in the face. "Go away!" she cried. "Hasn't my doorkeeper told you? Go away!"
The lord Tasfalen looked up with a flourish of his elegant hands, a glance of his eyes that would melt a harder heart than an ex-thief's. "My lady, forgive me-no! Listen to me. I know a secret-"
She had started to pull back. Now she leaned there all dizzy in the wind, with the air chilling her upper breasts and her bare arms, and her heart beating so that the whole scene took on an air of unreality, as if something thrummed unnaturally in her veins, as if the feeling that had come on her when Haught touched her and turned her like this went on happening and happening and growing in her, so that she was a danger and a Power herself, poor Moria of the gutters, a candle to singe this poor lord's wings, when a conflagration waited for him, a burning that was Power of a scope to drink them both down....
"O fool," she moaned, seeing that face, hearing that word secret and that urgency in his voice. It had as well be both of them in the fire. "Come round back," she hissed, and closed the casement and the shutters without thinking until then that she had just asked a lord of Sanctuary to come in by the scullery, and that at her merest word he was going to do it.
She stepped into her slippers, unable to bend in the corset, and worked one and the other on with a perilous hop and a catch-step as she headed out to the stairs, saving herself on the railings as she flew down in a flurry of too many damned Beysib petticoats that kept her from seeing her feet or the steps. She fetched up at the bottom out of breath, with a catch at the newel-post and an anguished glance at a thief-maid who gawped at her.
"There's a man out back," Moria said, and pointed. "Go let him in."
"Aye, mum," the gaptoothed girl said, and tucked up her curls under her scarf and went clattering off in unaccustomed, too-large shoes to see to that. The maid was one of those who had come for the Dinner; and stayed, Moria not knowing anything else to do with her. Like the new chef. As if She had forgotten about everything, and left her with this huge staff and all these people to take care of, and, gods, she had given Mor-am part of the house accounts, had given him too much. Ischade would find it out. She would find this out....
Moria heard the maid clattering and clumping along the back hall, heard the door open, and went into the drawing room where there was a mirror. She stood there hunting her hair for pins to put the curls back in place.
O gods, is that me? Am I like this, this ain't me, outside, this is Haught's doing and She's got Haught by now. She has. Maybe She's outright killed him, taken him into Her bed and thrown him in the river an' all-like She'll throw me, all these damn' beggars to come on me in the night and cut my throat- O gods, look at my face. I'm prettier'n Her, She must've seen that-
A step sounded in the hall. A face appeared in the mirror beside her own. She turned, dropping her hands as a curl tumbled loose, her breast heaved-she suddenly knew what effect she projected, natural as breathing and dangerous as a spider.
She saw adoration glowing in Tasfalen's face, and the terrified pounding of her heart and the constriction of the laces brought on that raininess again.
"What secret?" she asked. And Tasfalen came and seized up her hand in his, in one move closer to her than she had planned to let him get. He smelled of spices and roses.
Like a flower seller. Or a funeral.
"That I want you," Tasfalen said, "and that you're in deadly danger."
He let go her hand and took her by both shoulders, staring closely into her eyes. "Gossip. Rumors. You've become known in town and someone has slandered you-incredible slander. I won't repeat all of it. Say that you've been accused of- trafficking with terrorists. Of being catspaw for-Is that part true? That woman, that dark woman-I know her name, dear lady. My sources are highly placed. And they mention your name-" His eyes rolled toward the uptown height, toward the palace, the while he slid his hands to hers and drew them against him. "I want to take you into my house. You understand, you'll be safe there. In all uncertainties. I have connections, and resources. I place them all at your disposal."
"I can't, I daren't, I daren't leave-"
"Moria." He gathered her against him, hugged her so tightly that the sense half left her, tilted her face up and brought his mouth down on hers, which was perhaps all he could do, being a fool; and perhaps there was something wrong with her too, because his touching her did something to her that only Haught had done before, of many, many men, some for money and some for need and most of them come to grief and no good in the scattering of the hawkmasks. That was a world that had nothing to do with the silk and the perfume and the smell and the craziness of the uptown lord who smothered the breath that was left in her and ran his hands over her with an abandon that would have gotten him a knife in the gut back in her old wild days, but which now, through the lacings and the silk and the lace, made her think nothing in the world so desirable as shed ding all that binding and breathing and doing what she had wanted to do with this man since first she had laid eyes on him there on her doorstep. He would not be like Haught, not reserved, not holding so much of himself back: this man was fever mad, and it was all going to happen right here in the drawing-room for the servants and all to gawk at if she did not prevent him....
"Upstairs," she murmured, fending off his hands from her. "Upstairs."
Somehow they got there, him carrying her part of the way, till she lost a shoe and he stopped for it; and she pulled him up the steps by the hand, damning the shoe and the laces and all, which he started undoing at the top of the stairs. She shed ribbons all the way to the bedroom, and they fell down together in a cloud of silk sheets and her petticoats, which he made shift to shove out of their way, layer after layer.
He got the last laces of her bodice and the damned corset finally, and she lay there with her ribs heaving in the sheer sensuous pleasure of clear breaths and the feel of his hands on her bare skin.
She knew, when the sense had gotten back to her along with her wind, that she was the most utter fool. But it had all gone too far for more thinking than that.
"I love you," he said, "Moria."
He had to, of course. She knew that, the way that the air thrummed and whispered and the blood ran in her veins with that kind of magic Haught had put into her.
Am I a witch myself? What's happening to me?
She stared into Tasfalen's face, that of a man bewitched.
Or what is he? O gods, save him! Shalpa, save me!
"He's quiet again," Randal said. Randal's foolish face was beaded with sweat and white under its freckles, and his hair hung down in sweat-damp points; and Tempus stared bleakly at the mage, his hand curled round a cup that sat on a polished table, there amongst his maps and his charts. Behind the mage in the doorway Kama stood, looking frayed herself.
Kama. Gods alone remembered how many others gone to bones and dust. She was smart as she was likely to be: she had that hard shining in her eyes, about her face, that he knew all too well: it was youth's conviction it was without sin or error; and if he troubled he could think his way through the maze of all the things she thought, but he did not trouble: there was enough to occupy his mind, and Kama was only a shallow part of it, shallow as a young fool was likely to be, though complex in her potentials. She had the potential for surprises to an enemy; was one part crazy and one part calculating and he had not missed the gravitation of the two points that were her and Molin. The look of a young woman in love? Not in Kama. The look of a young woman with a complex of things seething in a still callow mind, which muddle he evaded with a mental shrug of something close to pain: another complex fool, not born to be a fool ultimately, but at that stage of growing when the wisest were prone to the most wearisome, repetitious mistakes as if they were new in the world. He knew what she had come to say. He read it before she opened her mouth, and that irritated him to the point of fury.
"I'm going back into the town," she said. "I can't sit still here."
Of course she couldn't. Who of her age and her nature could? The battle was going on here, but it was nothing she could get her hands into, so she went out to find trouble.
"I'm going to find this Haught," she said, and he could have mouthed the words a second before they left her mouth.
"Of course you are," he said. And did not ask Where are you going to look? because of course she had no particular idea. Haught was the witch's servant; Haught was the trouble they had had previous; and Ischade-was by far the more interesting question.
Ischade was keeping a promise. Or she was not, and a bargain was off. That was something it would take time to leam. The souls of his dead, she had promised him. And the safety of his living comrades as far as she could guarantee it. There was something deadly dangerous in the wind and the woman was onto it, doing battle with it-if she had told the truth. The possibility that she had lied was one of those lines down which he was quite willing to think, down which he had been thinking continually.
"Find Ischade while you're at it," he said. "Ask her whose Haught is."
Kama blinked. He watched her put it together. He watched the caution dawn in her immature-pretematurally mature mind, and watched the predictable thoughts go on, how she would do this, how she would need more caution than she had planned on in the other business.
Good. Things in the lower town wanted more caution than Kama was wont to use.
"Get out of here," he said then, staring past her and thinking what the world would be like without Niko, if they lost; if they lost Niko they would lose a great deal more than one man; and he, personally-Niko was one who engaged him on all levels, on too many levels. Niko was one who could cause him pain because he could give him so much else, and without Niko, that magnet for the world's troubles, that fool of fools who thought the world his responsibility-Niko almost made him feel it was, when he knew better. Niko was vulnerable the way his kind was when the uncaring little fools got past his guard; when the holding-action stopped and the god came thundering in to wrench the world apart again and Niko was the one standing rearguard to fools more vulnerable than himself. One like Kama was walking around and Niko was lying there in a bed losing a fight far too abstract for Kama to understand. She went out to do battle.
He did his fighting from this table, with a cup in hand. And could not, now that he wanted to surrender, find the god. Even that, he might have foreseen.
Randal stayed when Kama had gone. Randal was a fool of Niko's breed; and for a moment Randal, sweating and white as he was, looked at him with Nik's kind of understanding, and came and took the cup out of his hand, which gesture might have gotten another man killed. Foolish man. Foolish little mage. Who blundered his way along with more deftness and a keener sight and more guts than most ever had at their best.
So Tempus let him do it.
"You won't dream," Randal said, "if you pass out."
"I won't pass out," Tempus said, patiently, oh so patiently. "I heal, remember. There isn't any damn way. Now I want the damn god I can't get there."
"I've got a drug might... put you down a bit. If you let it."
"Try it." It took patience to say that. He already knew it would not work, but Randal was trying.
No god answered him. Not even Stormbringer, who was- gods knew where. There was not a cloud to be had out there.
Randal went away to find-whatever concoction he meant to try. Tempus filled his glass again, perversely, in a cold fury at his own vitality, a fury on the edge of panic. His body was not even in his control when the god was out of it. He could not do so simple a thing as fall asleep, when the ache of the world got too much. He healed, and that was what he did. He healed of the very need of sleep and the effects of alcohol and the effects of drugs and every other mortality. Askelon could have come and claimed him by force. But the gods were not answering today.
None of them bloody cared.
Even Abarsis failed him. Or was held, somewhere.
A door opened somewhere far away. Ordinarily this would have alarmed Moria, though servants came and went for their own reasons. This sounded deeper and heavier than inside doors.
But just at that moment Tasfalen did something which quite took her senses inside out; and in the danger in which they both pursued this moment she cursed herself for butterflies and turned her mind to doing something which she had learned off a hawkmask lover-easy to pick a man's brain when he was feeling that good. Then Tasfalen gave as good back, and better- Shalpa and Shipri, she had never known a man with his ways, never bedded with a man who knew what he knew, not even Haught, never Haught-
"Oh," she said, "oh," and "O gods!"-when she brought her head up from the pillows and saw the dark figure standing in the doorway.
Ischade said not a thing. The air became charged and heavy, copper-edged. Tasfalen turned on an elbow. "Damn-" he said, and that was all, as if more than that had strangled somewhere in his chest.
Moria caught at her bodice, caught her clothing together against a chill in the air that breathed through from the hall. A scent of incense had come in, heavy and foreign, recalling the riverhouse so acutely that the present walls seemed darkened and she seemed to be in that room, strewn with its gaudy silks and hangings and the spoils of dead lovers....
"Moria," Ischade said, in a voice that hardly whispered and yet filled all the room. "You may go. Now."
It was life and not instant extinction. It was an order that sent her wriggling amongst the sheets and her rumpled petticoats as if there were hot irons behind her. Tasfalen caught at her arm, and his fingers fell away as she reached the edge of the bed and her bare feet hit the floor.
Ischade moved out of the doorway, and extended a dark-sleeved arm toward her freedom and the hall.
Moria fled in a cloud of her undone clothing, barefoot down the stairs, not for the downstairs hall but for the door, for anywhere, o gods, anywhere in all the world but this house, Her servants. Her law-
It was not where Ischade would have chosen to be-here, standing in a doorway, in a ludicrous Situation in her own house: because the uptown house was hers, and Moria one of her more expensive servants who had considerably exceeded her authority.
This man who sat half-naked and staring at her-this lord of Sanctuary and Ranke, who lived his delicate life on the backs and the sweat of the downtown and the harbor and the ministerings of Ilsigi servants, this perfect, golden lord-she felt him straining at the spell of silence she wove, saw him try to shift his eyes away. But he was at once too arrogant to clutch the covers to him like a frightened stableboy and far too arrogant to be caught in the situation he was in. She let the spell go.
"It's supposed to be an outraged husband," he said, from his disadvantage.
She smiled. For a moment the black edges cleared back from her mind. /'// walk out, she thought. There's more to him than I thought. I could even like this man. But the power strained at her fingers, at her temples, the soles of her feet and ran in red tides in her gut. She felt Strat's attention, somewhere, felt the essence of him trying to get at her, to tear at her and wound like something gnawing its own flesh to get at the iron that ringed it; Strat would find her, he would kill himself finding her and that, for her, was her wound. She could walk out and find another victim, find anyone else, anywhere, stave off the hunger an hour, a day, another few days....
Tasfalen patted the sheets beside him. "We might discuss the matter," he said with his own arrogant humor. And tipped the balance and sealed his fate.
She walked in, and smiled in a different, darker way. Tas-falen stared at her, the humor dying from his face, eyes quite fixed on hers in a mesmeric fascination. His lust became evident.
Hers was uncontrollable.
Pavings tore Moria's bare feet, a dozen passersby stared in shock, and Moria burst past a gaggle of old housekeepers on their way up from market. Apples and potatoes tumbled and bounced after her on the pavement, old women yelled after her, but Moria dived into an alley down a track she knew, ran dirty-puddled cobbles and squelched through mud and cut herself on glass and rubbish, mud spattering up on her satin skirts and silk petticoats, blood as well, while the breath ripped in and out of her unlaced chest.
The old warehouse was there. She prayed Haught was. She flung herself against that door, bleeding on the step, pounded with both her fists. "Haught! Haught, o be here, please be here-"
The door opened inward. She gaped at the dead man's eye-patched face and screamed a tiny strangled sound.
"Moria," Stilcho said, and grabbed her by the arms, dragged her across the threshold and into the dark where Haught waited, in this only refuge they knew, the place Haught had told her to come if ever there was a time she had to escape. He was here.
And the change in him was so grim and so profound that she found herself clinging to Stilcho's dead arm and pressing herself against him for dread of that stare Haught gave her.
"She," Moria said, and pointed up the hill, toward the house, "She-"
Only then in her terror did it sink in that she was half-naked from another lover's bed, and that it was rage which turned Haught's face pale and terrible.
"What happened?" Haught asked in a still, steely voice.
She had to tell him. Ischade's anger was worth her life. It was all their lives. "Tasfalen," she said. "He-forced his way in. She-"
A dizziness came over her. No, she heard Haught saying, though he was not saying a thing. She saw Tasfalen leaning over her in the bed, saw Ischade as a shadow in the doorway, felt all her terror again, but this time Haught was there, in her skull, looking out her eyes and running his fingers over Tas-falen's skin Haught's anger swelled and swelled and she felt her temples like to burst. "Gods!" she cried, and: "Stop it!" Stilcho was shouting, his dead arms around her, holding her up while the blood loss from her wounded foot sent a chill up that leg and into her knees. She was falling, and Stilcho was shouting: "Gods, she's bleeding, she's all over blood, for the gods' sake, Haught-"
"Fool," Haught said, and took her arm, gripping her wrist so hard the feeling left her hand. The pain in her foot grew acute, became heat, became agony so great that she threw back her head and screamed.
The bay horse clattered up the street and sent fragments of apple and potato flying, sent a clutch of slavewomen screaming and cursing out of its path, and Straton did not so much as turn his head. The ring had no need to be on his finger. He felt. He felt all of it, lust running in tides through his blood and blinding his vision so that he had only the dimmest realization what street he was on or what house he had come to. He slid down from the saddle as the bay came right up on the walk and the jolt when his feet hit the ground was physical agony, much beyond any pleasure, as if sex would never again be pleasure to him, as if it had always been pain masquerading as enjoyment and now he was on the other side of that line. He came up the steps, grabbed the latch with all his strength, expecting a locked door.
It gave way and let him in. A fat woman stood in the hall, mouth agape. He never focused on her, only lifted his eyes toward the stairs and the next floor and went that way, knowing where he was going because there was at the moment only one focus in all creation. He grabbed the bannister and started up, blind in the shaft of sunlight that flooded in there through a high small window, and feeling the pounding of his blood as if he breathed awareness in with every breath, like the dust that danced in the light.
"Ischade!" he cried. It was a wounded sound. "Ischade!"
The woods were held in a terrible stillness. Janni stopped, having worked himself to the edge again, that margin where the sunlight and the meadow began. But the sun was surely sinking. It was sinking rapidly, and the breeze had stopped.
He looked down at the stream which always guided him and it was still. The water had stopped running at all, and stood invisible except for the sky-reflection and the light-reflection on its surface, which showed the maze of interlocked and breathless branches overhead.
A leaf fell and another and another, disturbing that surface, breaking up the mirror in which he and the sky were true. It began to be a shower of leaves, falling everywhere in the forest.
"Niko!" he cried. He abandoned hope of attack. He tried to wake the sleeper, back deep in the safe shadow, in the dark. "Niko, wake up, wake up, for the gods' sake. Niko-"
A breeze stirred from off the meadow, loosening more leaves, which turned yellow and tumbled and lay like a carpet, covering the stream.
Then the water began to move, reversed its former course and flowed out of the meadow into the forest, moving sluggishly at first, sweeping the leaves on in a golden sheet. Then the current gathered force and swept all the leaves away as he hastened into the dark.
A red thread had begun to run through the water, a curling wisp of blood that ran the clear depths and grew to an arm-thick skein.
Janni ran and ran, breaking branches and stumbling over falling branches and the slickness of the dying leaves.
Strat ran the stairs and nearly took the fragile bannister post down as he spun round it on his way to the bedroom. He hit the doorframe with his arm as he fetched up in it and stopped still at the sight of the figures in the tumbled bed, the dark and the light entangled.
He stood with his mouth open, with the words choking him. And then waded forward in a blind rage and grabbed the man by the shoulders with both his hands, hurled him over and confronted a face he had seen before in this house.
"Strat!" Ischade shouted at him. It had the grotesquerie of comedy, himself, the shocked uptown lord, the woman's shout in his ears. He had never looked to be made a fool of, dealt with the way she and Haught had dealt with him, made a partner to her rutting with another man-who for one moment hung shocked in his grasp and in the next flung up both arms to break his grip. "Damn you," Tasfalen yelled at him, "damn you and damn this lunatic house to hell!"
And the man tumbled against him, collapsing in a way that nothing alive ever felt. Straton caught him in first reflex, recoiled on the second with the dead man tumbling down off the bed and onto his feet. Movement drew his eye and his reflexes: he seized Ischade's wrist in an access of disgust and horror as she got to her knees; he jerked her off the bed and to her feet in her disarray and the entanglement of the sheets and the lord lying on his face on the floor against his feet.
"Damn!" he cried, and shook her by both arms till her black hair flew and her slitted eyes rolled white in her head. "Damn you, bitch, what do you think you're doing, what have you done?"
Her eyes opened wider, still showing whites, blinked again with the dark where it belonged, a widening dark, a dark that filled all their centers and turned those eyes into the pit of hell. "Get out of here." It was not the voice he knew. It was a feral snarl. "Out! Get out, get out, get out-"
The blood pounded in his veins. He shoved at her, flinging her onto the bed in a flood of grief and rage and outright hate. She scrambled to get to the other side, and he dived after her to stop her, hurling his weight on her, felt her under him and himself in control for a moment, himself in a position to teach her once for all that he was not hers to tell to come and go and do her errands and do it all her way, when she wanted it, if she wanted it....
"Get off me!" she yelled at him, and hit him like any woman, with her fist. His own hand cracked open across her face and blood spattered from her mouth, red flecks on the pale satin pillow, her black hair flung in webs across her face with the recoil. He jerked with one hand at his own clothing, pinned her with his weight and his forearm, and elbowed her hard when she twisted like a cat and tried to bite his arm. In that distraction she came within a little of getting her knee into him, but he got his where it counted instead, and got both her hands pinned.
"Fool!" she screamed into his face. 'Wo/"
He looked into her eyes. And knew suddenly that it was a terrible mistake.
"Let me go," Niko whispered to Randal, while Jihan was off doing something, while Jihan flitted somewhere about the countless things that somehow diverted the Froth Daughter in wild gyrations of attention. It might be Tempus, who still courted unwilling sleep, and who was, in his present state, a magnet for Stonnbringer's daughter. It might be some other difficulty. She was likely where trouble was. And Niko, so wan and wasted, so miserable his voice sounded childlike soft, wrung at Randal's heart.
"I can't, you know," Randal said. "I'm sorry, Niko."
"Please." Niko strained at the ropes. His unbandaged eye was open, bleary and glistening with Jihan's godsawful unguents. His skin was white and glistened with sweat. "I'm all right, Randal. I hurt. In the gods' mercy give me some relief. I've got to-"
"I'll get a pot, it's all right."
"Let me up. Randal. My back hurts, you know what it's like to lie like this? Just let me shift my arms a little. Just a moment or two. I'm fine now. I'll lie back down, I'll let you put the ropes back again, oh, for the gods' own sake, Randal, it's not your joints that feel like they've got knives in them. Have a little pity, man. Just let me sit up a moment. Do for myself. All right?"
"I'll have to put you back again."
"That's all right. I know that. I know you have to." Niko made a face and shifted his shoulders. "O gods. My back."
Randal bit his lip and put out a little magical effort on the strain-tightened knots. They loosened, one after the other. He got the two closest, which tied Niko's feet to the bedframe. And got up off the end of the bed and carefully undid the one on the left wrist, carefully, around the thick padding they had put there to protect the skin. Niko sighed and flexed his legs and dragged his arm down to his chest while Randal went around the bed to get the other one. "Thanks," Niko said, a ghost of a voice. "Ah. That's better. That's a relief."
"Ought to give you a rubdown, that's what." Randal unwound the last rope, and held onto Niko's hand to work a little life into the arm.
Then something hit him in the side of the head and he went down blind and numb and dazed from the impact of his skull on a marble floor.
"Niko," he cried, trying to focus his eyes or his talent or to organize his defenses, but the dark and the daze swirled around him in clouds and gray and shooting flashes of red. He heard bare feet, going away at speed. "Ischade!" He shouted the name aloud, silently, threw all he had of talent into that scream. "Ischade! Help!"
Two men lay motionless in the bedchamber. Tasfalen was one, already chilling, his eyes half-open, his body curled up like a child where he had fallen, wrapped half in the bedspread and the sheets. The other lay sprawled in a twist where she had pushed him when he lost consciousness. He was still breathing. His face ticced in what might be dream, in such dreams as she gave him, tilled his nights with, confused the truth with.
And Ischade was trembling all over, shuddering and shaking from sheer fright and aborted rage and the rush of power that, given time, would have done more than wrenched the life away from the uptown libertine, would have wrenched his soul out and shredded it beyond any power of demons or fiends to locate it.
As it was something got to it, something that wanted that kind of rage as it had known when it died. That something wanted through, wanted the essence of a god, wanted to be a god, or something like. It wanted a witch's soul at second best, and got Tasfalen's, which was far from enough to pay what Roxane had raised. It scented Straton's soul unguarded, loosened from its ordinary resistance, and Ischade flung power about him, a shrug as she caught her cloak up from under his legs and jerked it free in a series of violent, angry pulls.
The appeal hit her like a scream at her back. She physically turned and looked in the direction from which it had come. It was Randal's voice. It was blue light. It was...
She ran to the window, flung open the shutters, flung wide the window and launched herself from the floor of the bedroom to the incoming wind that swept the curtains, never questioning whether she had the control or knew where she was going: Randal's outpouring was a shriek of utter panic, shuddering and wavering in and out of focus in a wild undulation across the whole of the town.
"She's gone," Haught whispered, gathering himself to his feet. "Her attention's elsewhere. It all is-"
"What are you doing?" Moria gathered herself up off the dust of the warehouse floor and the mouldering sacking which was the seating Stilcho had provided her. Her foot still hurt, though the bleeding had stopped. She staggered, blinked at the ex-slave turned magician, her Haught, who had stood straight up and looked off toward a blank wall of the rotting building as if his eyes saw through walls. Stilcho caught her arm when she wobbled on her feet, his hand cool but not cold, certainly not the deathly cold she always expected to feel. He held her there; she held onto him a moment; then Haught just stopped being there.
There was a thunderclap that rocked the building, a wind jerked roughly and once at her clothing and her hair toward the spot where Haught had been, and her skull all but split with Haught's voice thundering in it and into her soul and her bones and her gut.
Go home. She's not there now. I'll find you at the house.
There was threat implicit in that order. There was rage and jealousy and all promise what that power that racketed about her skull could do.
That and disgust for her soiling. Haught was always fastidious.
Dead man and damned drab. Wait for me.
She sobbed. It was different than a voice. It got into her soul and she had never felt so dirty and so small and so worthless to the world.
Stilcho hugged her head against his chest, hard. She heard his heart beating, which, through all her pain and her confusion, confounded her further; she had not thought it beat at all.
The door to Molin's office slammed wide, hit the wall and started a cascade of books and papers about the feet of the apparition which staggered into the room half-naked and wild and going straight for him, his desk, his life. And the pottery globe which was/was not there. Molin flung himself in a dive which intercepted Niko in mid-lunge as they both skidded over the desktop and off it. The sick man rolled and twisted and it was Molin who hit the ground on the bottom, Molin who had the wind half knocked from him and his skull cracked on the rebound of his neck as he tried to curl and save himself. Sparks exploded across his vision; Niko was trying to rip free, sweating, naked skin offering precious little purchase as he surged to his feet.
Molin grabbed Niko's leg with both arms, rolled and brought the Stepson down in another scrape and clatter of furniture. The chair this time. As shouting closed in on the room and he had hope of help if he could only hang on to the madman who was trying to scrabble and twist round to get at him. He bent the leg and grabbed the ankle and got his own foot around to slam into Niko's face.
"Get him," someone yelled from the doorway.
"Niko!" That shout was Tempus.
And something exploded through the window in a shower of glass, something that existed a moment in midair and then toppled in a tumble of black cloak, black hair and dusky skin that landed with a thump in front of Molin's dazed eyes.
Ischade lay on the floor like a dead thing, eyes open, lips apart, a strand of her black hair lying across her open eyes without a reaction at all, her bare arm outflung, fingers curled in the light of the broken window. Blood welled up in cuts on that arm-did not spurt, but only leaked, slowly, to pool under the arm, amid the fragments of glass. All this he had time to see: Niko had suddenly gone limp as Molin sprawled atop him. Ischade lay not breathing at all and he was desperately afraid that Niko was not breathing either.
He pushed himself up on his arms, had help as a strong hand grabbed him and pulled, and Tempus waded in, shoved the oak desk aside to get room and grabbed Niko up in his arms.
"He collapsed," Molin said, "he-just-"
Reason tottered. He felt himself pulled up and set aside like a child, and the Froth Daughter let him go and sank down to grab Tempus's arm as he held onto Niko.
"I can't get through," Tempus shouted in desperation. "Dammit, Stormbringer-let me get to him!"
"You can't go in there," Jihan yelled. Her fingers closed on his arm and dented the muscle. "She's there, Riddler, she's in there, and you want it too much-Stay here!"
It was wreckage, everywhere wreckage. Ischade cast about her in the woods, with the wind blowing everything to wrack and the trees creaking and groaning in the gusts. A stream ran there, and it was clear water around its edges, but its center was blood; and in the center of the blood was a thread of black, like corruption.
She knew where the attack came from. She clutched her cloak about her to shield herself from it as best she could and ran with her back to the wind, trying to find the lost soul whose refuge this was. A little bit of hell had crept in and settled in the meadow. A great deal of it was not that far away, and there was in a place this numinous a great deal of what it could use, if her enemy was an utter fool and let it in.
A tree gave way at the roots and crashed down, taking others with it, showering her with its ruin. She had no magic in this place. She had nothing but her mind, and that was unfocused, chaotic as this place was chaotic: she was the worst of helps for it, a raw Power without a center of her own, an existence without a reason. It was the worst of places for her to come.
The ground quaked. Thunder rolled and a voice pursued her without words, a shrieking shout that impelled the winds and stung with mortal cold.
She stumbled upon a tumble of rocks, a little rise, a place where a guardian waited, faceless, selfless, a pale shape that shone with inner light and its hands glowing more terribly than its face as it lifted them to bar her way, light against her black, certainty against her doubt. It had had a name once, and she suddenly knew it: once she knew that name, it took on shape and became Janni, a torn and failing ghost that blew in tatters in the wind.
"I need his help," she said. "Janni, I need yours."
She had raised only his Seeming out of hell; the part of Janni that stood there flaring with light came on loan from elsewhere, an elsewhere with which she had as little to do as possible, wanting its expensive bargains no more than hell's.
But he had come for this. To stand here. For hell's reason: revenge; and a reason out of that other place: raw devotion. It shone out of him like a candle through paper, and made his face unbearable: she flinched and avoided the sight of it. He blinded. He burned the eyes and left his imprint when she looked aside, so that a shadow-Janni drifted in front of her eyes when a shining hand at the edge of her vision indicated the sleeper by the streamside.
"Niko," she said, and exerted all the power she had stored, one vast push against the wind and the accumulated ruin of this place. "Niko. Nikodemos. Stealth, it's not your time. Do you hear me?"
Mine, a voice said on the wind. Damn you. Damn you, Ischade.
It was, delivered out of a witch's power, a curse that wrenched at the locks on hell.
"Fool!" Ischade whirled in the echoing gust and shoved back with all that was in her, keeping that Gate shut. It strained. It manifested, over across the stream, a barred door in the stone cliff beside the stream, a door bent and creaking under the blows of what might be a shoulder, an arm, a fragment of night itself reaching for Niko's soul-
"Niko!" she shouted. And: "Roxane, you utter fool!"
Niko's back arched. It was Jihan and Tempus who held him. Molin attempted to get his jaws open and to stop him choking while an occasional flutter of white betokened a priest dithering this way and that in the doorway, between help and hindrance. "Get her!" Molin snarled at the priest, applying all his strength to Niko's spasmed jaws, and nodding with a toss of his head toward the crumpled black-cloaked form on the floor. "Keep her warm, I don't care if she isn't breathing, tie up those wounds, shut her eyes, she'll go blind, for godssakes-" Niko spasmed again and Tempus swore and yelled his name as another staggering form appeared in the doorway.
Randal came reeling in, with blood all down his chin and down the front of him.
"Nooo!" Randal cried, his eyes lighting suddenly as if they had spied something, and he made a wild lunge toward the desk, but the priest got in his way, staggered him and knocked him reeling into a chair against the wall as something which was not-there burst with light.
Fire came back, blue and scorching as Randal recoiled out of the chair and threw power at it. White light blazed out, for a moment illumining a figure that clutched a Globe in its hands. The Globe spun without moving. It lit the whole room.
And when it and the holder vanished the contents of bookshelves came pouring out in a thunderclap.
"He put himself into it," Randal yelled, his hands clenched, his hair standing up in blood-matted spikes. "Into the cabinet! He put himself in and he moved it!"
"I'll get it," Jihan cried, and: "Danunit, no!" Tempus shouted at her, for Niko flung out the arm she let go: she grabbed it again, grabbed all of him and held onto him with bonecrushing strength, her unnatural skin aglow and her eyes full of violence for whoever had done this thing.
It was still going on, in whatever Place that racked body contained or was linked to: Molin could not describe it. He had only the conviction it existed, and it was coming apart under their hands: Roxane was tearing it apart from inside, he understood that much, while Niko's joints and muscles cracked and strained. Niko would shatter his own bones, rip tendons from their moorings, break his own spine in the extremity of the convulsions: it was a preternatural strength. It destroyed the body it lodged in; and the mind-
A wind was blowing through the room, the air was cold where it met bare skin, and Straton came up from his abyss with a gasp after air and a wild motion of his arm that sought after Ischade.
It met chill, empty sheets.
"Damn!" he cried and rolled off the bed, staggering on the rumpled rug and the sheets and the forgotten obstacle of Tas-falen's body lying there stark and cooling with the chill.
It was true. It was all true, what they said about Ischade, she had left him with her dead and gone off somewhere to sleep it off. He felt of his throat and felt of his chest with a chilled hand and staggered about with a throbbing headache and no concept of direction while he got his clothes to rights.
Damn her. Damn, damn, and damn her to bloody hell.
Am I alive? Am I like that poor sod Stilcho, alive-dead, killed and brought back out of hell, o gods-
A door opened downstairs; wind sucked in a chill gust from the window.
"Ischade," he yelled, and flung himself past Tasfalen's corpse, out the door, toward the stairs. He caught himself at the top, looking down on Moria in a torn and muddy gown, on Stilcho standing there ghastly as the truth in that bedroom.
He came down the stairs, broke through between them and headed out the door where the bay horse stood curiously nosing the remnants of an apple core on the walk. He ran for it, took the reins in his hand with no idea in heaven or hell where he was going.
To Crit, maybe, to that place where Crit was waiting for him.
He got his foot in the stirrup and heard a sound he had heard on a score of battlefields and a hundred ambushes. An arrow hit the wall and shattered. He dropped from the stirrup, whacked the bay to get it out of fire, already knowing it was stupid; he should have the horse for cover, the damned, foolish horse which was the only thing in all the world which had never betrayed him.
It snorted and shied up and stayed. That was what made him hesitate in his dive for cover, one half-heartbeat of disbelief...
... that persisted when the arrow smashed high into his chest and he staggered back and fell on the pavings. There was a smell of apples. The pavings were cold. The sky showed a clear, strange glow, going lavenders and white, and the upper stories of the buildings went all dim. It did not particularly hurt. They said those were the really bad ones.
Moria saw him fall. She never thought. She ran out onto the walk with Stilcho shouting after her and the bay horse rearing and plunging in hysterics over Straton's body. She ran; and a man's arm grabbed her around the waist and swept her back to the safety of the doorway. In that moment she had time to realize that she had just risked her life for a man she knew for another of Hers, for a man she had seen only twice in her life, who had burst past her down her own stairs, shoved her painfully against a wall and run out like the devils of hell were after him.
She could comprehend pain that strong. Ischade's service was full of it. It was that fellowship which sent her pelting out after him, no other reason; and now Stilcho in a terrible slowing of time and motion drew his hands from her waist, turned in a flying of his cloak, a falling of the hood that normally hid his eye-patched face-for a moment it was the good side toward her, the sighted side, mouth open in a gasp for air, legs already driving in a lunge back to the street. He skidded in low almost under the bay's legs, grabbed the Stepson by the collar and one hand and dragged him toward the door-he looked up as he came, his half-sighted face wild and pale, the dark hair flying, and his mouth opened.
"Get out of there!" he yelled at her, "get out of the way!"
An arrow whisked past with a bloodchilling sound she had heard described and instantly recognized. She spun back around the comer to the door and the inside wall, and saw the arrow lying spent on the rug as Stilcho dragged the Stepson in past her to drop him in the hall.
Moria hurled herself at the door and slammed it with all her might, shot the bolt and went and shuttered the drawing-room window in haste, ducking down beneath to slam the shutters tight and shoot the deadbolts. "Shiey!" she screamed. "Shutter the downstairs! Quick!"
Something banged back in the kitchens. Outside on the street she heard the clatter of hooves, the horse still outside the window: it whinnied loud and stamped this way and that. Hooves struck stone pavings up close to the window; and another shutter banged shut at the rear of the house.
"Upstairs," Stilcho said. He squatted over the unconscious Stepson. He had a knife out and he was cutting away the cloth from around a wound that might have been high enough to miss the lung but which might have cut the great artery under the collarbone-there was blood everywhere, on him, on the carpet. Stilcho lifted a pale face contorted in haste and effort. "The upstairs shutters, woman! And be careful!"
Moria gasped a breath. "Help him," she yelled as Cook came waddling out in panic, one-handed Shiey, who was worse as a cook than she had been as a thief. But they knew wounds in this house. There were servants who knew a dozen uses for a knife and a rope. She never looked back to see what Shiey did, only flew round the newel-post, never minding at all the pain of her sore foot. She had only the new and overwhelming fear that a shutter might be open, someone might find a way in even on the upper floor-
She reached the bedroom and froze in the doorway, dead-stopped against the doorframe.
Not a sound came out of her throat. She was Moria of the streets and she had seen corpses and made a few herself.
But the sight of a man who had lately made love to her lying dead on the floor in her bedspread-her heart clenched and loosed and sent a flood of nausea up into her throat. Then she swallowed it down and ducked down low, got across the room to get the shutters closed and bolted-for the window itself she did not try.
Then she ran, past the dreadful death on the floor, out of that place and down the stairs again for the comfort of Stilcho's presence, for the dead-alive man who was the only ally she had left, and to the Stepson who had come running out of that upstairs room the same as she.
He was still lying on the hall floor, there beside the stairs, with Stilcho's cloak wadded under his head and Stilcho crouching over him. Stilcho looked up as she came down the last steps, and his face and the face of the Stepson on the floor were the same pale color.
"Name's Straton," Stilcho said. "Her lover."
"T-Tasfalen's d-dead," Moria said. She had almost said my lover, but that was not true, Tasfalen was only a decent man who had treated her better than any man ever had, and who had died a fool. Of her doing, never this Straton's fault: Moria knew who she had left him with; and suddenly Moria the thief felt a pang of tears and the sting and ache of all her wounds. "What'll we do?" She leaned with her arms about the bottom newel-post and stared helplessly at Stilcho and stared at the man who was dying on her hall rug. Stilcho had gotten the shaft broken. The remnant of the arrow stood in the wound, with bloodstained flesh swelling it in tight. High in the ribs with bone to help lock it up and gods knew what it had hit. "O gods, gods, he's done, isn't he?"
Stilcho held up the fletching-end of the arrow from beside him. It had been dipped in blue dye. "Jubal," he said.
She felt a twinge of chill. Jubal was another who had owned a piece of her soul, once. Before Ischade took her and set her in this house that no longer seemed safe from anything. "You know how to pull it?" she asked.
"I know how. I don't know what I'm cutting into. Your staff-that cook of yours ran back in the kitchen after another knife. I need two to get on either side of this thing. I need waddings and I need hot oil. Can you get them moving back there?"
"They've locked themselves in the cellar, that's where they are!" The silence out of the servants' end of the house suddenly interpreted itself and filled her with blind rage. She knew her staff. She flung herself from the newel-post and started down the hall.
And screamed as a light and a thunderclap burst into the drawing-room beyond the arch beside them. Wind hit her.
She turned and saw Haught there, Haught disheveled and without his cloak, and holding a pottery sphere in his hands, a sphere that by odd seconds seemed not to be there at all and at others seemed to spin and glow.
Haught grinned at them, a wolf's grin. And he let go the globe which hung where he had left it, in midair, spinning and glowing white and a thousand colors. The light fell on him and on her drawing room and paled everything. Then he tucked it up again under his arm and ran one hand through his hair, sweeping it from his face in that child-gesture that was like the Haught she had known, the Haught who had shared her bed and been kind to her. Both of them stood there on the same two feet, the mage she feared and the man who had given her gifts and loved her and gotten her and him into this damned mess.
Whatever it was he had gotten, it was not a natural thing and it was not something the Mistress meant him to have, Moria knew that by the look of it and of him. And she was cold inside and full of a despair so old it made her only tired and angry.
"Dammit, Haught, what the hell are you into?"
He grinned at her. Delight radiated from him. And he looked from her to Stilcho to the man on the floor, the grin fading to curiosity.
"Well," he said, and came closer, his precious strange globe tucked up in his arms. "Well," he said again when he looked down at Straton. "Look what we've got."
"You can help him." Moria remembered her foot and a touch of hope came to her. "You can help him. Do something."
"Oh, I will." Haught bent down and laid one hand on the Stepson's booted ankle. And the Stepson's whole body seemed to come back from that diminished, shrunken look of something dead, to draw a larger breath and to run into pain when it did. "How did this happen?"
She opened her mouth to say.
"That's all right," Haught said. "You've told me." He still had his hand on the Stepson's ankle, and closed it down till his fingers went white. "Hello, Straton."
Straton's eyes opened. He made a small move to lift his head from the wadded cloak, and perhaps he saw Haught, before the pain got him and twisted his face. "Oh, damn," he said, letting his head back, "damn."
"Damned for sure," Haught said. "How does it feel, Rankan?"
"Haught!" Moria cried, as the Stepson made a sound nothing human ought to make. She jerked with both hands at Haught's shoulders. "Don't! Haught!"
Haught stopped. He stood up, slowly, the globe still beneath his arm. And Moria flinched in the first backward step, then stood her ground, jaw clenched, muscles shaking in the threat of this utter stranger who stared at her with eyes that held nothing of the Haught she had known. There was something terrible inside. Something that burned and touched her inside her skull in ways that ran constantly through her nerves.
"Oh, I know what you've done, I know everything you'll say, and what you really think. It's more than a little trying, Moria." He reached and brought a finger under her chin. "It can be a damned bore, Moria, it really can."
"Ischade doesn't own you anymore. I do. I own you, I own Stilcho, I own this house and everything in it."
"There's a dead man in my bedroom! Dammit, Haught-"
"A dead man in your bedroom." Haught's mouth tightened in the ghost of an old smile. "You want me to move him?"
"O my gods, no, no-" She backed away from Haught's hand. He could. He would. She saw that in his eyes, saw something like Ischade mixed with Haught's prankish humor and a slave's dire hate. "O gods, Haught-"
"Stilcho," Haught said, turning his face to him, "you've just acquired company."
Stilcho said nothing at all. His mouth was clamped to a hard line.
While upstairs something thumped, and that board that always creaked near the bed-creaked; and sent ice down Moria's back.
"Gods, stop it!"
"You don't want your lover back?"
"He's not my lover, he wasn't my lover, he was a poor, damned man She got her hands on, I just-I just-I was sorry for him, that's what, I was sorry for him and he was good, and I don't give a damn, Haught, I'm not your damn property, I'm not Hers, you can blast me to hell if you like, I've had all I'll take from all of you!"
Her shouting died. Her fists were still clenched. She waited for the blow or the blast or whatever it was wizards did and knew she was a fool. But Haught's face stressed and it smoothed, and something flowed over her mind like tepid water. "Congratulations," he said. "But you don't get those kind of choices. The world doesn't give them to you. / can. I have the power to do whatever I like. And you know that. Stilcho knows it. You want power, Moria? If you've got a shred of talent I can give you that. You want lovers, I can give you those, whatever amuses you. And I'll amuse you myself when the mood takes us. Maybe you'd like Stilcho. Ischade's probably taught him a lot of interesting things. I'm not jealous."
The hell you're not.
Haught's eyebrow twitched. Dangerously. And the cold eyes took on a little amusement. "Only of your loyalty," he said. "That, I'll have. What you have in your bed is your business. As long as I have the other. I don't hold anybody my property. Moria."
Slave, she remembered, remembered the whip-scars on him, and saw his face grow hard.
"I was apprenticed on Wizardwall," he said. "And Ischade was fool enough to take me on. Now I have what I need. I have this house, I have hands to do what I want, and I have one of my enemies. That's a beginning, isn't it?"
He looked up toward the head of the stairs. Moria did, unwillingly, and saw Tasfalen standing there naked to the waist and with his hair all rumpled as if he had just risen from sleep.
But there was something wrong in the way he stood there, in the lack of reaction, in the way the hand reached out listlessly for the bannister, all the reactions of life but no reaction to what ought to stir a man. As if he did not know that there was anything amiss with him or in what his eyes must register in the hall below him.
"The body's working," Haught said. "The mind's rather spotty, I'm afraid. Memory's not what it was. The soul might retain the missing bits-decay sets in very soon, you know; some tiny bits of him have just rotted, already. So a lot it had is gone. But it doesn't need a soul, does it? It doesn't need one for what I want."
"You said you'd help me," Stilcho said from where he knelt by the wounded Stepson.
"Oh. That. Yes. Eventually." As the body that had been Tasfalen came down the stairs in total disinterest. And stopped and stood at the bottom. "It doesn't have much volition. But it doesn't need that either. Does it?"
Niko's body went into still another spasm. Jihan had gotten his jaws open and Tempus had forced a small wooden rod there-gods knew where Randal had come up with it, out of what debris of the office. It kept Niko from biting his tongue through. And Randal had pulled another thing out of that otherwhere of a mage's storage-had gotten bits and pieces of that armor he had worn and tried to fit the breastplate to a body that kept trying to break its own spine.
Niko screamed when that touched him. He screamed and flung himself into a spasm that Molin would not have thought was left in that wracked body; his own muscles ached with pity and his hands sweated. "It's killing him," Tempus yelled, and shoved Randal and the collection of metal aside. "Dammit, let him be; Jihan, hold onto him, hold onto him-"
Tempus hugged him hard against him and shut his eyes and tried. Molin saw what he was trying, sensed the effort to break through the barrier that existed in Niko now. He threw his own strength into it, and felt Randal add his.
Trees groaned in the wind, crashed and fell, and the ground quaked. Ischade put out all her effort to stay others, her arms about the sleeper, Janni's white shape holding him from the other side. The wind grew colder, and the thing battering at the gate grew more powerful.
Even Roxane was afraid now. Ischade knew it. "Get out of him!" Ischade yelled into the wind. "Witch, you've lost, get out of him, leave this place!"
I'll know when to go, the voice came back. Give me Niko. "Fool," Ischade murmured, holding tight. "Fool, fool-You won't get him, Roxane, I'll send his soul to hell before you get your hands on it, hear me?"
And then a gate would exist indeed, snake swallowing its tail, a gaping hole in the world's substance which would pull them all in. She said it and knew it was not bluff, that she was not going to let go; she did not know how to let go, in the way that Roxane did not know how; and at the end that was what would happen, the thing would find its way up out of the pit that had opened in this place and take the sleeper, and when it did, when it did, that snake-swallowing-tail effect would envelop them all. Her doing, and Roxane's.
Storm broke overhead.
Something else had manifested. Lightnings crashed. The ground shook; and of a sudden a bolt crashed down nearby, where the gate was. All of existence shuddered.
And there was sudden nothingness in her arms and in Janni's. The sleeper melted from them. The sky dissolved in rack and lightnings.
And a dark shape flew from the direction of the meadow to mingle with it, one fused whirling mass of lightnings, of gray cloud, and of night that shot destruction everywhere....
Niko's unbandaged eye opened. He flung himself in a spasm against Jihan's strength and Tempus's inert weight and Molin flinched at the scream that came past the gag. Let him die, he prayed, was praying, when Randal scrambled out of his disarray with the armor and reached after something else. The painting manifested in his grip.
"Get a light," Randal yelled at him. In one dullwitted moment Molin knew what Randal was after, recoiled from the thought of the deed and wondered in the same numb-minded flicker why a candle, why not call fire: but a candle was apt for fire, the canvas was magical and unapt, it resisted destruction. "Light!" Molin bellowed at the priest who hovered terrified in custody of Ischade's body. The priest cast about this way and that, and in that selfsame moment Randal snatched up a handful of papers and blasted them into flame. The fire whumphed up and took the corner of the canvas on which Tempus and Niko and Roxane existed in triad, and Molin clenched his hands on the back of the chair in front of him and flinched as the smoke poured up from it, as Randal held onto burning paper and burning canvas, his face twisted in the pain of the burning that went up and up, the fire licking out at sleeves, at robe, at hair, at anything it could get while Randal turned and twisted in what looked like some grotesque dancer's contortions, keeping it away from himself and what else it reached for. Silver smoke poured up, mingled unnaturally with black. There was a stench of sulphur, and a shadow poured out of that smoke, a presence of intolerable menace. The priest screamed and covered his head. Then that darkness went- somewhere.
At the same moment Niko's body went limp as the dead and a slow trickle of blood flowed down from his nose and around the comer of his mouth where the stick was set between his jaws. Jihan looked puzzled and Randal stood there breathing in great gasps with the sweat standing on his white face and his hands all black and red, his lips drawn back in a grimace of pain and doubt.
Cloth whispered. Molin glanced aside in his distress and saw Ischade move and rise on one elbow and the opposing hand. Her dark hair hid her face. She looked up then, toward Niko, and that face was drawn and grim.
Tempus stirred and shoved himself up off the floor. His jaw clenched and knotted as he looked into Niko's face; while Jihan carefully pulled the stick from between Niko's jaws and closed his mouth, down which a ribbon of blood still poured.
"He's alive," Ischade said. Her voice was ragged and hoarse. "He's free of her."
"But not of it," Tempus snarled, "dammit, not of it-"
"Let it alone!" Ischade shouted. Her voice broke. She reached out a forbidding hand and straightened the other arm, supporting herself. "It's not loose. Yet. Don't meddle with it. It's not something you can handle. Or that I can. I don't make that kind of bargain."
"No!" She got herself up on her knees and staggered to her feet. "He's got Janni still. And Janni on that ground is power enough to keep him till he wakes. She's still loose, do you hear me? Roxane's still free, and she's pacted with that thing. She's somewhere, and your meddling in that Place can only make it worse: she's still got ties there. She doesn't want that gate open any more than we do: not unless she can get it what she promised. Then she'll open it. She's lost her power, she's lost her hiding-place, we're that much better off, but not if you go head-on against her ally-"
"That's not the worst of it," Randal said. "Your apprentice just stole the globe in all the confusion. I heard him coming and I couldn't get here in time. I do trust it wasn't your idea." Ischade opened her mouth to say something. The air shuddered and Niko choked and moaned. Then she shut it and her jaw went hard, her fists clenched. "It wasn't," she said. And did not speak any curse, which restraint sent a chill down Molin's back and reminded him what she was. "Well," she said, "now we know where Roxane's gone, don't we?"
"Don't hurt him," Moria said, "Haught, don't."
"Another of your lovers?" Haught asked, and prodded Straton's side with his booted toe.
"No. For Shalpa's sake-"
"Your old patron." Haught shifted the globe he held to the crook of his arm and touched her under the chin. "Really, Moria, I make you a lady and look at you, you smell like a whore and you swear like a gutter-rat. Carry a knife in your garter, do you? No? Your brother stole it. What a life you lead."
"Stay out of my mind, dammit!"
"You're going to have to leam to control yourself, you know. Stilcho does. He thinks about things when I ask him questions. He thinks about things other than what I'm asking, he's gotten very good at it. Sometimes he remembers being dead. That's his greatest weapon. Sometimes I see other things in his head, like what it feels like to have people flinch away from you- bothers you terribly, doesn't it, Stilcho? You ran right out there to collect this bit of dogmeat just because Moria was going to do it, just because death doesn't mean a damn to you and you wanted to do something she wanted, you wanted her to look at you and not flinch, you want her, don't you, you sorry excuse for a living man?"
"Stop it," Moria cried.
"I just want the ones I love to know themselves the way I know them. Isn't that fair? I think we ought all to know where we stand. You want to go to bed with him? He's dying to."
"That's very funny," Stilcho said. "Excuse him, Moria, he's not himself."
She clenched her hands together to stop their shaking and clenched her jaw and stared up the bit she had to go to stare Haught in the eyes. "Well, dead, he's still got a heart in him. Where's yours? They beat it out of you?"
It scored. It scored all too well. For a moment she thought she would die for that, and she ought to be scared; but she was what he had said, she was a gutter-rat, and a rat was a coward until it got cornered, its back to two walls. Then it would fight anything. And these were her walls. This was her house. "My house, damn you, and mind your manners, I don't care what you've brought in with that damn jug. Get this man off my floor, put him to bed where he belongs, get this other poor thing set down somewhere where he won't scare my servants, and let me go up and take a bath, I've had enough of this goings-on."
"There's a love." Haught chucked her under the chin. She hit at his hand. "Go clean up. I'll take care of the rest."
She tightened her lips as if she would spit at him. It occurred to her. Childhood reflex. Then her eyes fixed on a move behind his shoulder. On Tasfalen, who had stood listless till then; now Tasfalen's head lifted and the eyes focused sharp; the chest gave with a wider breath and the whole body straightened. Damned trick of his, she thought, to scare me with it.
"Not a trick," Haught said, turning even while that cold touch ran over her mind. "We have a visitor. Hello, Roxane."
Crit slid down from the saddle breathless and sweating, was on the marble steps at the second stride, and took them two at a time. "Watch my horse," he yelled at men whose proper job at the doors was not hostelry, but one of them ran to do that, and Crit kept going, inside the building in long strides-he wanted to run. Being what he was, where he was, he refused to show that much of his anguish to the locals.
He grabbed a middle-aged man by the arm, a Beysib who turned and stared at him in that way a Beysib had to, with eyes that had no white and no way to turn in their sockets. "Tempus," Crit spat. "Where?" His haste was such that he had no time to waste hunting; no time even to hunt an honest Rankan: he took the first thing he could get.
"Torchholder's office," the Beysib lisped, and Crit let him go and strode on.
Broke finally into a jog, his steel-studded boots ringing down the marble hall and echoing off the central vault. He saw the room, saw white-robed priests hanging about outside its open door, and came up on them in his haste.
"Wait," one said, but he shoved through and into the stench of burning and the tumble of chaos in the room.
Tempus was there. Ischade. Molin. And a couple of priests. Molin and the priests he ignored; he ignored the stink of fire, the ashes, the strewn papers and tumbled books.
"They shot Strat," he said. "Riddler, your damned daughter's friends've shot Strat, they got him in Peres, someone in Peres pulled him in and we're trying to pick the snipers off the street so we can get in there. They've got it ringed, only thing they can't hit is that damned horse, they got Dolon in the arm and Ephis got two in the leg-"
"Damn, who?" Tempus grabbed him by the arm. "What in hell's happened?"
"The Front, the damned piffles! They made one try on him, this time they shot him. News is all over town, we got barricades going back up, we got every precinct flaring up, we haven't got the men to cover the whole damn city and fight a sniper action: they got that whole damn street and I had to come way wide and around to get in here."
"My house," Ischade said. "Strat's there?"
"The Peres house. They got him in. We don't know whether he's alive or not-"
"Gods blast it!" Tempus shouted. "What's your intelligence doing?"
Crit sucked in his breath. Walking rings around your daughter, was the thing that leaped up behind his teeth, but he stopped it before it got out. "We fouled up," he said. That was all there was to say.
"Tempus." Molin thrust out a hand to stop him on his way out. "Niko. Niko's at risk, you understand me."
"Haught's there," Ischade said. "So's Roxane by now. Right in the middle of it. And Roxane's got her ally poised here. In Niko. You need me for either and we could lose it in either place. You choose. You're the strategists."
The witch stirred a step, looked down at her/his own body, and up again. Tasfalen's eyes burned with a preternatural clarity. "Give me that," Tasfalen/Roxane said, taking a second step toward Haught; and Haught clutched the pottery globe the tighter and backed that step away while Moria shrank back against the outside of the bannister.
"Oh, no," said Haught. "Not so readily as that-compatriot. You may even be outranked. Do you want to try me? Or do you want to take the gift I've already given you and be reasonable?"
The witch laid a hand on her own naked chest, ran it down to the belly. "Is this your sense of humor, man? I assure you I'm not amused."
"I worked with what I had at hand. If you've seen the staff in this house you know I did quite well. This one-" Haught grasped Moria by the arm and dragged her behind him. "-is mine. The body is Tasfalen Lancothis. He's quite rich. And with your tastes I'm sure you'll find amusement one way or the other."
Tasfalen's eyes looked up from under the brows and all hell looked out.
"We'll do better," Haught said, "if we both live that long." He nodded toward the street. "There's considerable disturbance out there. They're back at it again. I found you, I offer you a body. I have the globe. For two wizards, this is an opportune place and an opportune time: Ranke is dying in the streets out there by what I gather. And here-" he moved his foot aside, against Straton's leg. "Here's Tempus's own lieutenant. His chief interrogator. His gatherer of secrets. I think we have something to discuss with him, you and I. Don't we?"
Tasfalen's nostrils flared. The face seemed hollowed. "I want a drink," Roxane said. "I'm parched."
"Moria," Haught said.
"I'm not your damned servant!"
"I'll get it," Stilcho said, and got up from beside the unconscious Stepson and went for the drawing room.
"Moria," Haught said. "Don't be a total fool." His hand caressed her shoulder but he never looked her way. "Lover's quarrel," he said to Roxane.
"Who are you?" Roxane asked, and Haught stiffened; his hand stopped its motion and Tasfalen's face went hard and careful.
"Answer enough?" Haught asked. "You knew my father. We're almost cousins."
Roxane/Tasfalen said nothing to that. But the expression became thoughtful, and then something else again, that sent a shiver up Moria's Ilsigi spine. The face of the man she had lately made love with began to take on different lines, flush with lifelike color, and settle into expressions alien to its personality.
Stilcho brought the drink in a glass, from the carafe and service on the drawing room sideboard. Tasfalen reached for it; Roxane took it and lifted it with a lingering suspicion in the look she turned toward Haught. Then she sipped at it carefully, and let go a small sigh.
"Better," she said. "Better." And finished the glass and gave it to Stilcho. She put out her male hand in the next instant and stayed him in his departure, then turned the hand as if it had suddenly interested her as much as Stilcho. The fingers ran up the fabric of Stilcho's sleeve. And he stared back with a hard, revolted stare. Of a sudden Tasfalen's face broke into Tas-falen's grin, and a small short laugh came out. "Well." Then the hand dropped and the face turned to them again with the eyes aglitter. "You hold onto that globe so tightly-cousin. You're young, you're handling something you're only half able to use, and you're vulnerable, my young friend. This house is Ischade's property. Anything she's ever handled is a focus she can use; and this is a place she owns, you understand me. I felt your wards when I came through them, a nice little bit of work for what they are, but that streetwalking whore isn't what she was, either. Now do we put something around this house she'll have trouble breaking, or do we just stand here playing power games? Because she's on her way here, you can believe me that she is."
Haught tucked the pottery globe the more tightly in his arms, then slowly reached out and set it in the air between them. It spun and glowed and Moria flinched away, her arm flung up between herself and that thing. It hummed and throbbed and hung there defying reason; it beat like a heart as it spun, and her own hurt in her chest; her tangled hair lifted on its own with a prickling eerie life, her silken, muddy-hemmed petticoats crackled and stood away from her body with a life of their own. All their hair stood up like that, Tasfalen's, Stilcho's, Haught's, as blue sparks leapt from Tasfalen's outstretched hand, from Haught's fingertips, flying against the globe and spattering outward against the walls, lining the crack of the door, whirling up the stairs and into the drawing room and everywhere. From somewhere in the cellars and the rear of the house there was a general outcry of panic; it had gotten to the servants.
The sound became pain. It throbbed in time to the pulse. It screamed with a high thin shriek like wind and became her own scream. "No," she cried, "make it stop-"
Strat moved. It was the hardest thing he had ever done, torn muscles and swollen flesh tensing round the shaft in his chest; something else tore, and the swirl of light spotted with black and went all to gray, but he knew where his enemy stood and he had coordination enough to brace his good hand against the floor, draw up the opposite leg while the pain turned every move weak and fluttery, muscles shaking and weak: one good push, his foot behind the damned Nisi's leg-
He shoved, with all that was in him. Haught screamed; he thought that was the scream he heard, or it was his own.
Tasfalen's hands clutched the globe. Tasfalen's face grinned a wolf's grin "There, wizardling."
Moria made herself as small as she could against the side of the stairs: she shut both eyes, expecting a burst of fire, and opened one, between her fingers. Haught and the witch stood facing each other, Stilcho was down on his knees by the writhing Stepson, but no fire flew.
"You've a bit to leam," Tasfalen said. "Most of all, a sense of perspective. But I'm willing to take an apprentice."
From Haught, a long silence: then, quietly: "Is it mistress or master?"
Tasfalen's right eyebrow jerked in wrath. Then a grin spread over his face. "Oh, I like you well, upstart. I do like you." The pottery globe vanished from his/her hands. "First lesson: don't leave a thing like that in reach."
"Where is it?" There was the ghost of panic in Haught's voice, and Tasfalen's grin widened. Male hand touched male chest.
"Here," Tasfalen said. "Or as close as hardly matters. I learned that trick of a Bandaran." He-Moria shuddered: it was impossible to look at that virile body and think she- walked closer and stood looking down at the Stepson, who lay white and still by Stilcho's knee. "Ischade's lover. Oh, you are a find, aren't you? And you're not going to die on us, oh, no, not a chance of that-"
"... A chance of that," a strange voice said; and another, hated: "I've no intentions of it. Not with what he knows."
"He has uses other than that. Her lover, after all. It has to play havoc with her concentration. Even if personal pride is all that bothers her."
"Oh, it's more than that." A grip closed on Strat's wrist, lifted that, let go and lifted the other, the wounded hand, with a pain that drove Strat far under for a moment; he came back with the feeling of someone's hands on him, roughly probing among his clothing. "Ah. Here it is."
"I gave it to him. It should have come to you. In your other life."
He thought what it was then. He would have kept the ring. He was sorry to lose it. He had been a fool. He was sorry for that too. Play havoc with her concentration.
With what he knows.
He understood that well too. He had asked the questions for years. His turn now. He thought of a dozen of his own cases and had no illusions about himself. He tried to die. He thought of it as hard as he could. Probably his own cases had thought the identical thought at some stage.
"He wants to leave us," the one voice said. A feathery touch came at Strat's throat, over the great artery. "That won't do." A warmth spread out from it, his heart sped, a hateful, momentary surge of strength, like a tide carrying him up out of the dark. "Wake up, come on. We're not even started yet. Open the eyes. Or just think about what I'd like to know about your friends. Where they are, what they'll do-it's awfully hard, isn't it, not to think about a thing?"
Crit. O gods. Crit. Was it you after all?
"We can take him into the kitchen," one suggested. "Plenty of room to work in there."
"No," a woman cried.
"Let's not be difficult, shall we? There's a love. Go wash. You'd rather be taking a bath than stay for this, wouldn't you? You do look a mess, Moria."