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-"