Authors: Robert Asprin,Lynn Abbey
The Face of Chaos
Edited by Robert Lynn Asprin
Robert Lynn Asprin
Robert Lynn Asprin
Diana L. Paxson
Robert Lynn Asprin
'The Face of Chaos will laugh at us all before the cycle completes its turn!'
The words were barely audible above the din of the bazaar, but they caught the ear of Illyra, stopping her in her tracks. Ignoring her husband's puzzled glance, she made her way into the crowds in search of the source of the voice. Though only half S'danzo, the cards were still her trade and she owed it to her clan to discover any intruders into their secrets. A yellow-toothed smile flashed at her out of deep shadow, beside a stand. Peering closely, she recognized Hakiem, Sanctuary's oldest and most noted storyteller, squatting in the shelter, away from the morning sun's bright glare.
'Good morning, old one,' she said coolly, 'and what does a storyteller know of the cards?'
'Too little to try to earn a living reading them,' Hakiem replied, scratching himself idly, 'but much for one untrained in interpreting their messages.'
'You spoke of the Face of Chaos. Don't tell me you've finally paid for a reading?'
'Not at my age.' The storyteller waved. 'I'd prefer that the events of the future come as surprises. But I have eyes enough to know that that card means great change and upheaval. It requires no special sight to realize it must be showing often in readings these days, with the newcomers in town. I have ears, Illyra, as I have eyes. An old man listens and watches, enough not to be fooled by one who walks younger than her makeup and dress would lead most to believe.'
Illyra frowned. 'Such observations could cost me dearly, old one.'
'Thou art wise, mistress. Wise enough to know the value of silence, as a hungry tongue talks more freely.'
'Very well, Hakiem,' the fortune-teller laughed, slipping a coin into his outstretched palm. 'Dull your ears, eyes and tongue with breakfast at my expense
... and perhaps a cup of wine to toast the Face of Chaos.'
'A moment, mistress,' the storyteller called as she turned to go-'A mistake!
This is silver.'
'Your eyes are as keen as ever, you old devil. Take the extra as a reward for courage. I've heard what you have to do to gather the stories you can tell!'
Hakiem slid the coin into the pouch belted within his tunic and heard the satisfying clink as it joined the others secreted there. These days he extorted breakfast money more out of habit than need. Purses were growing fat in Sanctuary with the influx of wealth brought by the newcomers. Even extortion was growing easier, as people became less tightfisted. Some, like Illyra, seemed almost eager to give it away. Already, this morning, he had collected enough for ten breakfasts without exerting the effort hitherto required to obtain enough for one. After decades of decay. Sanctuary was coming to life again with the influx of wealth brought by the Beysib troops. Their military strength was far greater than the Sanctuary garrison could muster, and only the fact that the foreigners had made no claim to the governance of the city itself kept it in the hands of the Prince and his ministers. But the threat was always there, potent, lending a new spice of danger to the customary activities of the people of the city.
Scratching again, the storyteller frowned into the morning brightness, and not all his wrinkles were from squinting. It was almost... no, it -was too good to be true. Hakiem had too many years of anguish behind him not to look a gift horse in the mouth. All gifts had a price, no matter how well-hidden or inconsequential it might seem at the time. It only stood to reason that the sudden prosperity brought by the newcomers would exact a price from the hell hole known as Sanctuary. Exactly how high or terrible a price the storyteller was currently unable to puzzle out. (There were still hawks in Sanctuary, though not so easily brought to hand ... and one hawkmaster in particular.) Sharper eyes than Hakiem's would be scrutinizing the effects and long-range implications of the new arrivals. Still, it would do him well to keep his ears open and ...
'Hakiem! Here he is! I found him! Hakiem!'
The storyteller groaned inwardly as a brightly bedecked teenager leapt up and down, flapping his arms to reveal Hakiem's refuge to his comrades. Fame, too, had its price ... and this particular one was named Mikali, a young fop whose main vocation seemed to be spending his father's wealth on fine clothing. That, and serving as Hakiem's self-proclaimed herald. Though the money from the more fashionable sides of Sanctuary was nice, the storyteller often longed for the days of anonymity when he'd had to rely on his own wits and skills to peddle his stories. Perhaps it was for this reason he clung to some of his old haunts in the Bazaar and the Maze.
'Here he is!' the youth proclaimed to his rapidly assembling audience. 'The only man in Sanctuary who didn't run and hide when the Beysib fleet arrived in our harbours.'
Hakiem cleared his throat noisily. 'Do I know you, young man?'
A rude snicker rippled through the crowd as the youth flushed with embarrassment.
'S ... Surely you remember. It's me, Mikali. Yesterday ...'
'if you know me,' the elder interrupted, 'you also know I don't tell stories to preserve my health, nor do I tolerate gawkers who block the view of paying customers.'
'Of course.' Mikali beamed. In a flash he had produced a handkerchief of fine silk. Cupping it in his hands, he began moving through the assemblage, collecting coins. As might be expected, he was loathe to undertake this chore silently.
'A gift for Sanctuary's greatest storyteller... Hear of the landing from the lips of the one who welcomed them to our shore ... Gifts ... What's that?
Coppers?! For Hakiem? Dig deeper into that purse or move along! That's the bravest man in town sitting there ... Thank you ... Gifts for the bravest man in Sanctuary ...'
In a nonce a double handful of coins had found their way into the handkerchief, and Mikali triumphantly presented it to Hakiem with a flourish. The storyteller weighed the parcel carelessly in his hand for a moment, then nodded and slipped the entire thing into his tunic, secretly enjoying the look of dismay that crossed the youth's face as Mikali realized the fine handkerchief would not be returned.
Though I took my post on the wharf near midday, it was after dark before the fleet had anchored and the first of the Beysib ventured ashore. It was so dark, I did not even see the small boat being lowered over the side of one of the ships. Not until they lit torches and began pulling for the wharf was I aware of their intent to make contact before first light,' Hakiem began. Indeed, on that night Hakiem had nearly dozed off before he realized a boat was finally on its way from the fleet. Even a storyteller's curiosity had its limits.
'It was a sight to frighten children with; that torchlit craft creeping towards our town like some great spider from a nightmare, stalking its prey across an ink-black mirror. Though I was hailed as brave, it embarrasses me not to admit that I watched from the shadows. The wise know that darkness can shield the weak as easily as it harries the strong.'
There were nods of acknowledgement throughout the crowd. This was Sanctuary, and every listener, regardless of social status, had sought refuge in the shadows more than once as the occasion arose, and did it more often than he would care to admit.
'Still, once they were ashore, I could see they were men not greatly different from us, so I stepped forth from my place of concealment and went to meet them.'
This brave deed that Hakiem took on himself had been born of a mixture of impatience, curiosity, and drink ... mostly the latter. While the storyteller had indeed been at his watchpost since midday, he had also been indulging all the while, helping himself to the wines left untended in the wharfside saloons. Thus it was that when the boat tied up at the wharf he was more sheets to the wind than its mother vessel had been.
The party from the boat advanced down the pier to the shore; then, rather than proceed into town, it had simply drawn up in a tight knot and waited. As minutes stretched on and no additional boats were dispatched from the fleet, it became apparent that this vanguard was expecting to be met by a delegation from the town. If that were truly the case, it occurred to Hakiem that they might well still be waiting at sunrise.
'You'll have to go to the palace!' he had called without thinking. At the sound of his voice, the party had turned their glassy-eyed stares on him.
'Palace! Go Palace!' he repeated, ignoring the prickling at the nape of his neck.
A figure in the group had beckoned him forward. Of all things he had anticipated or feared about the invaders, the last thing Hakiem had expected was to be hailed by name.
Almost of their own volition, his legs propelled him shakily towards the group.
'The first one I met was the one I least expected,' Hakiem confided to his audience. 'None other than our own Hort, whom we all believed to be lost at sea, along with his father. To say the least, I was astonished to find him not only among the living, but accompanying these invaders.'
'By now you all have not only seen the Beysib, but have all grown accustomed to their strange appearance. Coming on them for the first time by torchlight on a deserted pier as I did, though, was enough to panic a strong man ... and I am not a strong man. The hands holding the torches were webbed, as if they had come out of the sea rather than across it. The handles of the warriors' swords jutting up from behind their shoulders I had seen from afar, but what I hadn't noted was their eyes. Those dark, unblinking eyes staring at me with the torchlight reflecting in their depths nearly had me convinced that they would pounce on me like a pack of animals if I showed my fear. Even now, by daylight those eyes can ...'
The storyteller was pleased to note that he was not the only one who started at the sudden cry. He had not lost his touch for drawing an audience into a story. They had forgotten the morning glare and were standing with him on a torchlit pier.
Fast behind his pride, or perhaps overlapping it, was a wave of anger at having been interrupted in mid-tale. It was not a kindly gaze he turned on the interloper.
It was none other than Hort, flanked by two Beysib warriors. For a moment Hakiem had to fight off a wave of unreality, as if the youth had stepped out of the story to confront him in life.
'Hakiem! You must come at once. The Beysa herself wishes to see you.'
'She'll have to wait,' the storyteller declared haughtily, ignoring the murmurs that had sprung up among his audience, 'I'm in the middle of a story.'
'But you don't understand,' Hort insisted, 'she wants to offer you a position in her court!'
'No, you don't understand,' Hakiem flared back, swelling in his anger without rising from his seat. 'I already am employed ... and will be employed until this story is done. These good people have commissioned me to entertain them and I intend to do just that until they are satisfied. You and your fish-eyed friends there will just have to wait.'
With that, Hakiem returned his attention to his audience, ignoring Hort's discomfiture. The fact that he had not really wished to start this particular session was unimportant, as was the fact that service with the leader of the Beysib government-in-exile would undoubtedly be lucrative. Any storyteller, much less Sanctuary's best storyteller, did not shirk his professional duty in the midst of a tale, however tempting the counter-offer might be. Gone were the days when he would scuttle off as soon as a few coins were tossed his way. The old storyteller's pride had grown along with his wealth, and Hakiem was no more exempt than any other citizen of Sanctuary from the effects of the Face of Chaos.
Just south of Caravan Square and the bridge over the White Foal River, the Nisibisi witch had settled in. She had leased the isolated complex - one three storied 'manor house' and its outbuildings -as much because its grounds extended to the White Foal's edge (rivers covered a multitude of disposal problems) as for its proximity to her business interests in the Wideway warehouse district and its convenience to her caravan master, who must visit the Square at all hours.
The caravan disguised their operations. The drugs they'd smuggled in were no more pertinent to her purposes than the dilapidated manor at the end of the bridge's south-running cart track or the goods her men bought and stored in Wideway's most pilferproof holds, though they lubricated her dealings with the locals and eased her troubled nights. It was all subterfuge, a web of lies, plausible lesser evils to which she could own if the Rankan army caught her, or the palace marshal Tempus's Stepsons (mercenary shock troops and 'special agents') rousted her minions and flunkies or even brought her up on charges. Lately, a pair of Stepsons had been her particular concern. And Jagat - her first lieutenant in espionage - was no less worried. Even their Ilsig contact, the unflappable Lastel who had lived a dozen years in Sanctuary, cesspool of the Rankan empire into which all lesser sewers fed, and managed all that time to keep his dual identity as east-side entrepreneur and Maze-dwelling barman uncom promised, was distressed by the attentions the pair of Stepsons were payin her. She had thought her allies overcautious at first, when it seemed she would be here only long enough to see to the 'death' of the Rankan war god, Vashanka. Discrediting the state-cult's power icon was the purpose for which the Nisibisi witch, Roxane, had come down from Wizardwall's fastness, down from her shrouded keep of black marble on its unscalable peak, down among the mortal and the damned. They were all in this together: the mages of Nisibisi; Lacan Ajami (warlord ofMygdon and the known world north of .Wizardwall) with whom they had made pact; and the whole Mygdonian Alliance which he controlled. Or so her lord and love had explained it when he decreed that Roxane must come. She had not argued - one pays one's way among sorcerers; she had not worked hard for a decade nor faced danger in twice as long. And if one did not serve Mygdon
- only one - all would suffer. The Alliance was too strong to thwart. So she was here, drawn here with others fit for better, as if some power more than magical was whipping up a tropical storm to cleanse the land and using them to gild its eye.
She should have been home by now; she would have been, but for the hundred ships from Beysib which had come to port and skewed all plans. Word had come from Mygdon, capital of Mygdonia, through the Nisibisi network, that she must stay. And so it had become crucial that the Stepsons who sniffed round her skirts be kept at bay - or ensnared, or bought, or enslaved. Or, if not, destroyed. But carefully, so carefully. For Tempus, who had been her enemy three decades ago when he fought the Defender's Wars on Wizardwall's steppes, was a dozen Storm Gods' avatar; no army he sanctified could know defeat; no war he fought could not be won. Combat was life to him; he fought like the gods themselves, like an entelechy from a higher sphere -and even had friends among those powers not corporeal or vulnerable to sortilege of the quotidian sort a human might employ. And now it was being decreed in Mygdonia's tents that he must be removed from the field - taken out of play in this southern theatre, manoeuvred north where the warlocks could neutralize him. Such was the word her lover-lord had sent her: move him north, or make him impotent where he stayed. The god he served here had been easier to rout. But she doubted that would incapacitate him; there were other Storm Gods, and Tempus, who under a score of names had fought in more dimensions than she had ever visited, knew them all. Vashanka's denouement might scare the Rankans and give the Ilsigs hope, but more than rumours and manipulation of theomachy by even the finest witch would be needed to make Tempus fold his hands or bow his head. To make him run, then, was an impossibility. To lure him north, she hoped, was not. For this was no place for Roxane. Her nose was offended by the stench which blew east from Downwind and north from Fisherman's Row and west from the Maze and south from either the slaughterhouses or the palace - she'd not decided which. So she had called a meeting, itself an audacious move, with her kind where they dwelled on Wizardwall's high peaks. When it was done, she was much weakened - it is no small feat to project one's soul so far - and unsatisfied. But she had submitted her strategy and gotten approval, after a fashion, though it pained her to have to ask.
Having gotten it, she was about to set her plan in motion. To begin it, she had called upon Lastel/One-Thumb and cried foul: 'Tempus's sister, Cime the free agent, was part of our bargain, Ilsig. If you cannot produce her, then she cannot aid me, and I am paying you far too much for a third-rate criminal's paltry talents.'
The huge wrestler adjusted his deceptively soft gut. His east-side house was commodious; dogs barked in their pens and favourite curs lounged about their feet, under the samovar, upon riotous silk prayer rugs, in the embrace of comely krrf-drugged slaves - not her idea of entertainment, but Lastel's, his sweating forehead and heavy breathing proclaimed as he watched the bestial event a dozen other guests found fetching.
The dusky Ilsigs saw nothing wrong in enslaving their own race. Nisibisi had more pride. It was well that these were comfortable with slavery - they would know it far more intimately, by and by.
But her words had jogged her host, and Lastel came up on one elbow, his cushions suddenly askew. He, too, had been partaking ofkrrf-not smoking it, as was the Ilsig custom, but mixing it with other drugs which made it sink into the blood directly through the skin. The effects were greater, and less predictable. As she had hoped, her words had the power of krrf behind them. Fear showed in thejowled mountain's eyes. He knew what she was; the fear was her due. Any of these were helpless before her, should she decide a withered soul or two might amuse her. Their essences could lighten her load as krrf lightened theirs. The gross man spoke quickly, a whine of excuses: the woman had 'disappeared ... taken by Askelon, the very lord of dreams. All at the Mageguild's fete where the god was vanquished saw it. You need not take my word - witnesses are legion.'
She fixed him with her pale stare. Ilsigs were called Wrigglies, and Lastel's craven self was a good example why. She felt disgust and stared longer. The man before her dropped his eyes, mumbling that their agreement had not hinged on the mage-killer Cime, that he was doing more than his share as it was, for little enough profit, that the risks were too high. And to prove to her he was still her creature, he warned her again of the Stepsons: 'That pair of Whoresons Tempus sicced on you should concern us, not money - which neither of us will be alive to spend if -' One of the slaves cried out, whether in pleasure or pain Roxane could not be certain; Lastel did not even look up, but continued:'... Tempus finds out we've thirty stone of krrf in
She interrupted him, not letting him name the hiding place. 'Then do this that I ask of you, without question. We will be rid of the problem they cause, thereafter, and have our own sources, who'll tell us what Tempus does and does not know.'
A slave serving mulled wine approached, and both took electrum goblets. For Roxane, the liquor was an advantage: looking into its depths, she could see what few cogent thoughts ran through the fat drug dealer's mind. He thought of her, and she saw her own beauty: wizard hair like ebony and wavy; her sanguine skin like velvet: he dreamed her naked, with his dogs. She cast a curse without word or effort, refiexively, giving him a social disease no Sanctuary mage or barber-surgeon could cure, complete with running sores upon lips and member, and a virus in control of it which buried itself in the brainstem and came out when it chose. She hardly took note of it; it was a small show of temper, like for like: let him exhibit the condition of his soul, she had decreed.
To banish her leggy nakedness from the surface of her wine, she said straight out; 'You know the other bar owners. The Alekeep's proprietor has a girl about to graduate from school. Arrange to host her party, let it be known that you will sell those children krrf - Tamzen is the child I mean. Then have your flunky lead her down to Shambles Cross. Leave them there - up to half a dozen youngsters, it may be - lost in the drug and the slum.'
'That will tame two vicious Stepsons? You do know the men I mean? Janni? And Stealth? They bugger each other, Stepsons. Girls are beside the point. And Stealth - he's a/wzzbuster-I've seen him with no woman old enough for breasts. Surely -'
'Surely,' she cut in smoothly, 'you don't want to know more than that - in case it goes awry. Protection in these matters lies in ignorance.' She would not tell him more - not that Stealth, called Nikodemos, had come out of Azehur, where he'd earned his war name and worked his way towards Syr in search of a Tros horse via Mygdonia, hiring on as a caravan guard and general roustabout, or that a dispute over a consignment lost to mountain bandits had made him bond-servant for a year to a Nisibisi mage - her lover-lord. There was a string on Nikodemos, ready to be pulled.
And when he felt it, it would be too late, and she would be at the end of it. Tempus had allowed Niko to breed his sorrel mare to his own Tros stallion to quell mutters among knowledgeable Stepsons that assigning Niko and Janni to hazardous duty in the town was their commander's way of punishing the slate haired fighter who had declined Tempus's offered pairbond in favour of Janni's and had subsequently quit their ranks.
Now the mare was pregnant and Tempus was curious as to what kind of foal the union might produce, but rumours of foul play still abounded. Critias, Tempus's second in command, had paused in his dour report and now stirred his posset of cooling wine and barley and goat's cheese with a finger, then wiped the finger on his bossed cuirass, burnished from years of use. They were meeting in the mercenaries' guild hostel, in its common room, dark as congealing blood and safe as a grave, where Tempus had bade the veteran mercenary lodge - an operations officer charged with secret actions could be no part of the Stepsons' barracks cohort. They met covertly, on occasion; most times, coded messages brought by unwitting couriers were enough. Crit, too, it seemed, thought Tempus wrong in sending Janni, a guileless cavalryman, and Niko, the youngest of the Stepsons, to spy upon the witch: clandestine schemes were Crit's province, and Tempus had usurped, overstepped the bounds of their agreement. Tempus had allowed that Crit might take over management of the fielded team and Crit had grunted wryly, saying he'd run them but not take the blame if they lost both men to the witch's wiles. Tempus had agreed with the pleasant-looking Syrese agent and they had gone on to other business: Prince/Governor Kadakithis was insistent upon contacting Jubal, the slaver whose estate the Stepsons sacked and made their home. 'But when we had the black bastard, you said to let him crawl away.'
'Kadakithis expressed no interest.' Tempus shrugged. 'He has changed his mind, perhaps in light of the appearance of these mysterious death squads your people haven't been able to identify or apprehend. If your teams can't deliver Jubal or turn up a hawkmask who is in contact with him, I'll find another way.'
'Ischade, the vampire woman who lives in Shambles Cross, is still our best hope. We've sent slave-bait to her and lost it. Like a canny carp, she takes the bait and leaves the hook.' Crit's lips were pursed as if his wine had turned to vinegar; his patrician nose drew down with his frown. He ran a hand through his short, feathery hair. 'And our joint venture with the Rankan garrison is impeding rather than aiding success. Army Intelligence is a contradiction in terms, like the Mygdonian Alliance or the Sanctuary pacification programme. The cutthroats I've got on our payroll are sure the god is dead and all the Rankans soon to follow. The witch - or some witch - floats rumours of Mygdonian liberators and Ilsig freedom and the gullible believe. That snotty thief you befriended is either an enemy agent or a pawn ofNisibisi propaganda - telling everyone that he's been told by the Ilsig gods themselves that Vashanka was routed ... I'd like to silence him permanently.' Crit's eyes met Tempus's then, and held.
'No,' he replied, to all of it, then added: 'Gods don't die; men die. Boys die in multitudes. The thief, Shadowspawn, is no threat to us, just misguided, semi literate, and vain, like all boys. Bring me a conduit to Jubal, or the slaver himself. Contact Niko and have him report - if the witch needs a lesson, I myself will undertake to teach it. And keep your watch upon the fish-eyed folk from the ships -I'm not sure yet that they're as harmless as they seem.'
Having given Crit enough to do to keep his mind off the rumours of the god Vashanka's troubles - and hence, his own - he rose to leave. 'Some results, by week's end, would be welcome.' The officer toasted him cynically as Tempus walked away.
Outside, his Tros horse whinnied joyfully. He stroked its mist-dappled neck and felt the sweat there. The weather was close, an early heatwave as unwelcome as the late frosts which had frozen the winter crops a week before their harvest and killed the young sets just planted in anticipation of a bounteous fall. He mounted up and headed south by the granaries towards the palace's north wall where a gate nowhere as peopled or public as the Gate of the Gods was set into the wall by the cisterns. He would talk to Prince Kitty-Cat, then tour the Maze on his way home to the barracks.
But the prince wasn't receiving, and Tempus's mood was ill -just as well; he had been going to confront the young popinjay, as once or twice a month he was sure he must do, without courtesy or appropriate deference. If Kadakithis was holed up in conference with the blond-haired, fish-eyed folk from the ships and had not called upon him to join them, then it was not surprising: since the gods had battled in the sky above the Mageguild, all things had become confused, worse had come to worst, and Tempus's curse had fallen on him once again with its full force.
Perhaps the god was dead - certainly, Vashanka's voice in his ear was absent. He'd gone out raping once or twice to see if the Lord of Pillage could be roused to take part in His favourite sport. But the god had not rustled around in his head since New Year's day; the resultant fear of harm to those who loved him by the curse that denied him love had made a solitary man withdraw even further into himself; only the Froth Daughter Jihan, hardly human, though woman in form, kept him company now.
And that, as much as anything, irked the Stepsons. Theirs was a closed fraternity, open only to the paired lovers of the Sacred Band and distinguished single mercenaries culled from a score of nations and diverted, by Tempus's service and Kitty-Cat's gold, from the northern insurrection they'd drifted through Sanctuary en route to join.
He, too, ached to war, to fight a declared enemy, to lead his cohort north. But there was his word to a Rankan faction to do his best for a petty prince, and there was this thrice-cursed fleet of merchant warriors come to harbour talking
'peaceful trade' while their vessels rode too low in the water to be filled with grain or cloth or spices - if not barter, his instinct told him, the Burek faction of Beysib would settle for conquest.
He was past caring; things in Sanctuary were too confused for one man, even one near-immortal, god-ridden avatar of a man, to set aright. He would take Jihan and go north, with or without the Stepsons - his accursed presence among them and the love they bore him would kill them if he let it continue: if the god was truly gone, then he must follow. Beyond Sanctuary's borders, other Storm Gods held sway, other names were hallowed. The primal Lord Storm (Enlil), whom Niko venerated, had heard a petition from Tempus for a clearing of his path and his heart: he wanted to know what status his life, his curse, and his god-bond had, these days. He awaited only a sign.
Once, long ago, when he went abroad as a philosopher and sought a calmer life in a calmer world, he had said that to gods all things are beautiful and good and just, but men have supposed some things to be unjust, others just. If the god had died, or been banished, though it didn't seem that this could be so, then it was meet that this occurred. But those who thought it so did not realize that one could not escape the intelligible light: the notice of that which never sets: the apprehension of the elder gods. So he had asked, and so he waited. He had no doubt that the answer would be forthcoming, as he had no doubt that he would not mistake it when it came.
On his way to the Maze he brooded over his curse, which kept him unloved by the living and spurned by any he favoured if they be mortal. In heaven he had a brace of lovers, ghosts like the original Stepson, Abarsis. But to heaven he could not repair: his flesh regenerated itself immemorially; to make sure this was still the case, last night he had gone to the river and slit both wrists. By the time he'd counted to fifty the blood had ceased to flow and healing had begun. That gift of healing - if gift it was - still remained his, and since it was god-given, some power more than mortal 'loved' him still. It was whim that made him stop by the weapons shop the mercenaries favoured. Three horses tethered out front were known to him; one was Niko's stallion, a big black with points like rust and a jughead on thickening neck perpetually sweatbanded with sheepskin to keep its jowls modest. The horse, as mean as it was ugly, snorted a challenge to Tempus's Tros - the black resented that the Tros had climbed Niko's mare.
He tethered it at the far end of the line and went inside, among the crossbows, the flying wings, the steel and wooden quarrels and the swords. Only a woman sat behind the counter, pulchritudinous and vain, her neck hung with a wealth of baubles, her flesh perfumed. She knew him, and in seconds his nose detected acrid, nervous sweat and the defensive musk a woman can exude.
'Marc's out with the boys in back, sighting-in the high-torque bows. Shall I get him. Lord Marshal? Or may I help you? What's here's yours, my lord, on trial or as our gift -' Her arm spread wide, bangles tinkling, indicating the racked weapons.
'I'll take a look out back. Madam; don't disturb yourself.'
She settled back, not calm, but bidden to remain and obedient. In the ochre-walled yard ten men were gathered behind the log fence that marked the range; a hundred yards away three oxhides had been fastened to the encircling wall, targets painted red upon them; between the hides, three cuirasses of four-ply hardened leather armoured with bronze plates were propped and filled with straw.
The smith was down on his knees, a crossbow fixed in a vice with its owner hovering close by. The smith hammered the sights twice more, put down his file, grunted and said, 'You try it, Straton; it should shoot true. I got a hand breadth group with it this morning; it's your eye I've got to match...'
The large-headed, raw-boned smith, sporting a beard which evened a rough complexion, rose with exaggerated effort and turned to another customer, just stepping up to the firing line. 'No, Stealth, not like that, or, if you must, I'll change the tension -' Marc moved in, telling Niko to throw the bow up to his shoulder and fire from there, then saw Tempus and left the group, hands spreading on his apron.
Bolts spat and thunked from five shooters when the morning's range officer hollered 'Clear' and 'Fire', then 'Hold', so that all could go to the wall to check their aim and the depths to which the shafts had sunk. Shaking his head, the smith confided: 'Straton's got a problem I can't solve. I've had it truly sighted - perfect for me - three times, but when he shoots, it's as if he's aiming two feet low.'
'For the bow, the name is life, but the work is death. In combat it will shoot true for him; here, he's worried how they judge his prowess. He's not thinking enough of his weapon, too much of his friends.'
The smith's keen eyes shifted; he rubbed his smile with a greasy hand. 'Aye, and that's the truth. And for you. Lord Tempus? We've the new hard-steel, though why they're all so hot to pay twice the price when men're soft as clay and even wood will pierce the boldest belly, I can't say.'
'No steel, just a case of iron-tipped short-flights, when you can.'
'I'll select them myself. Come and watch them, now? We'll see what their nerve's like, if you call score ...'
'A moment or two. Marc. Go back to your work, I'll sniff around on my own.'
And so he approached Niko, on pretence of admiring the Stepson's new bow, and saw the shadowed eyes, blank as ever but veiled like the beginning beard that masked his jaw: 'How goes it, Niko? Has your maat returned to you?'
'Not likely,' the young fighter, cranking the spring and lever so a bolt notched, said and triggered the quarrel which whispered straight and true to centre his target. 'Did Crit send you? I'm fine, commander. He worries too much. We can handle her, no matter how it seems. It's just time we need ... she's suspicious, wants us to prove our faith. Shall I, by whatever means?'
'Another week on this is all I can give you. Use discretion, your judgment's fine with me. What you think she's worth, she's worth. If Critias questions that, your orders came from me and you may tell him so.'
'I will, and with pleasure. I'm not his to wetnurse; he can't keep that in his head.'
'It's hard on him, pretending to be ... what we're pretending to be. The men talk to him about coming back out to the barracks, about forgetting what's past and resuming his duties. But we'll weather it. He's man enough.'
Niko's hazel eyes flicked back and forth, judging the other men: who watched; who pretended he did not, but listened hard. He loosed another bolt, a third, and said quietly that he had to collect his flights. Tempus eased away, heard the range officer call 'Clear' and watched Niko go retrieve his grouped quarrels.
If this one could not breach the witch's defences, then she was unbreachable. Content, he left then, and found Jihan, his de facto right-side partner, waiting astride his other Tros horse, her more than human strength and beauty brightening Smith Street's ramshackle facade as if real gold lay beside fool's gold in a dusty pan.
Though one of the matters estranging him from his Stepsons was his pairing with this foreign 'woman', only Niko knew her to be the daughter of a power who spawned all contentious gods and even the concept of divinity; he felt the cool her flesh gave off, cutting the midday heat like wind from a snowcapped peak.
'Life to you, Tempus.' Her voice was thick as ale, and he realized he was thirsty. Promise Park and the Alekeep, an east-side establishment considered upper class by those who could tell classes of Ilsigs, were right around the corner, a block up the Street of Gold from where they met. He proposed to take her there for lunch. She was delighted - all things mortal were new to her; the whole business of being in flesh and attending to it was yet novel. A novice at life, Jihan was hungry for the whole of it.
For him, she served a special purpose: her loveplay was rough and her constitution hardier than his Tros horses - he could not couple gently; with her, he did not inflict permanent harm on his partner; she was bom of violence inchoate and savoured what would kill or cripple mortals. At the Alekeep, they were welcome. They talked in a back and private room of the god's absence and what could be made of it and the owner served them himself, an avuncular sort still grateful that Tempus's men had kept his daughters safe when wizard weather roamed the streets. 'My girl's graduating school today. Lord Marshal - my youngest. We've a fete set and you and your companion would be most welcome guests.'
Jihan touched his arm as he began to decline, her stormy eyes flecked red and glowing.
'... ah, perhaps we will drop by, then, if business permits.'
But they didn't, having found pressing matters of lust to attend to, and all things that happened then might have been avoided if they hadn't been out of touch with the Stepsons, unreachable down by the creek that ran north of the barracks when sorcery met machination and all things went awry. On their way to work, Niko and Janni stopped at the Vulgar Unicorn to wait for the moon to rise. The moon would be full this evening, a blessing since anonymous death squads roamed the town -whether they were Rankan army regulars, Jubal's scattered hawk-masks, fish-eyed Beysib spoilers, or Nisibisi assassins, none could say.
The one thing that could be said of them for certain was that they weren't Stepsons or Sacred Banders or nonaligned mercenaries from the guild hostel. But there was no convincing the terrorized populace of that. And Niko and Janni - under the guise of disaffected mercenaries who had quit the Stepsons, been thrown out of the guild hostel for unspeakable acts, and were currently degenerating Sanctuary-style in the filthy streets of the town thought that they were close to identifying the death squads' leader. Hopefully, this evening or the next, they would be asked to join the murderers in their squalid sport. '
Not that murder was uncommon in Sanctuary, or squalor. The Maze, now that Niko knew it like his horses' needs or Janni's limits, was not the town's true nadir, only the multi-tiered slum's upper echelon. Worse than the Maze was Shambles Cross, filled with the weak and the meek; worse than the Shambles was Downwind, where nothing moved in the light of day and at night hellish sounds rode the stench on the prevailing east wind across the White Foal. A tri-level hell, then, filled with murderers, sold souls and succubi, began here in the Maze. If the death squads had confined themselves to Maze, Shambles, and Downwind, no one would have known about them. Bodies in those streets were nothing new; neither Stepsons nor Rankan soldiers bothered counting them; near the slaughterhouses cheap crematoriums flourished; for those too poor even for that, there was the White Foal, taking ambiguous dross to the sea without complaint. But the squads ventured uptown, to the east side and the centre of Sanctuary itself where the palace hierophants and the merchants lived and looked away from downtown, scented pomanders to their noses.