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Copper Downs, Postpartum
I HAVE RARELY recalled my dreams, not in those years of which I now tell, nor since. I do not know why this should be. Life has perhaps always been so vivid, so overwhelming, that the far countries of sleep pale by comparison. How can a dream offer more than the simple richness of a mug of kava whipped with cream, cinnamon, and red pepper? How can the illusions of the sleeping mind overwhelm the feel of the wind on one’s face as dawn paints the eastern sky in the colors of flame and life, while the first birds of morning leap to the air in their chattering hordes?
Yet during that last month or so of my pregnancy, I had been dreaming as never before. Even now I recall my extraordinarily vivid awareness of life beyond the gates of horn at that time. I awakened time and again in the tent that my old friend and Selistani countryman, the pirate-turned-priest Chowdry, had made my own out of his concern for me. Swollen and awkward from the babies in my belly, I was barely able to waddle in order to break my fast amid the overgrown children who labored to build this new temple to this new god Endurance whom I helped create. Those last weeks of my pregnancy were certainly the dullest of my then-sixteen years of life.
Perhaps it was thus that the dreams came to prominence.
Not for me visions of the face of my long-lost father, ancient wisdoms dripping from his lips, as I have heard others tell. Nor the refighting of old battles. Little enough, judging from the books I’ve read that speak of such signs to be found in the night mind. Instead, my dreams had been of heaving oceans and sheets of flame leaping to the sky. Ships and burning palaces and always I ran, looking for those whom I have lost. Always I begged and swore and promised I would never again do wrong if only I could set right what had been overturned in my careless haste.
Dreaming, in other words, of what was real. A girl and a young woman lost as hostages borne across the Storm Sea. The girl is Corinthia Anastasia, child of Ilona whom I loved though she did not love me the same in return, stolen away by my enemies as a hostage to my future good behavior. Likewise the Lily Blade Samma, my first paramour from my days in the Temple of the Silver Lily. Those two, each dear to me in different ways, were being held to bind me to the will of Surali, a woman high in the councils of the Bittern Court back in Kalimpura.
In short, I awakened not from prophecy, but from memory.
And now my belly hung empty. Two tiny mouths gnawed at my breasts, which I swore belonged to some stranger. I was never pendulous, nor did my nipples weep before childbearing. There was little about pregnancy consistent with dignity. Motherhood had not begun much better.
If there had been a blessing of late, it was that the gods and monsters who haunted me stayed away from both my dreams and the waking moments between them. Somewhat to my surprise.
My children were my own. None of the prophetic threats made for them had come true.
Not then, in any case.
“Green?” Chowdry lifted the flap of my tent, though he did not peer within. “It is almost time.”
“Thank you,” I said. “When the children are done suckling.”
“I will send Lucia.”
Lucia? I thought. My favorite acolyte of late, and sometime bath-and-bed partner. How odd that Ilona did not claim for herself the joyous task of dressing the babies this of all days.
Chowdry withdrew, leaving me alone in my bed with my children. The little iron stove smoked a bit—spring had come to Copper Downs, but here in the chilly northern realms of the Stone Coast, that did not necessarily mean warmth. Bright-dyed hangings decorated the wool-lined canvas walls. Two chests, one lacquered orange in the Selistani fashion, the other a deep, rich mahogany, held my worldly goods along with what was needful for the babies.
Almost I could fit into my leathers again. That thought brought me immense cheer.
Lucia bustled in. She was a beautiful Petraean girl, her skin as pale as mine was dark, though we shared the same golden brown color of our eyes. It was something of a scandal around the Temple of Endurance that she had been an occasional lover of mine, before the last stages of pregnancy had forced me to give such up. I think she would have played nursemaid to my children every day, but Ilona was letting no one else near them for anything she could do first.
Her need for her lost daughter was so profound, and my responsibility in the matter so deep, that I could deny her nothing with respect to my children.
“Will you be ready soon?” Lucia smiled fondly. “Ilona is desperate to be in two places at once right now. Chowdry has convinced her to finish preparations in the wooden temple.”
“And so she ceded her care of the babies to you.” I found myself amused, though I realized that was unkind of me.
“All of them dressed and ready,” Lucia said in a fair imitation of Ilona’s voice. “And mind you don’t forget the rags!”
I had to laugh at that. My girl shifted from my breast and mewled some small complaint. “Help her spit,” I told Lucia. “I’ll get the boy to finish.”
It is the custom among the Selistani people of my birth not to name children until they reached their first birthday. The world was filled with demons, disease, and ill will that might be called to a weak, new child if their name were spoken aloud. Here in Copper Downs as all along the Stone Coast, I was given to understand that children were generally named at birth.
Having been born a Selistani but raised among the people of the Stone Coast, my compromise was to allow my babies to pass their first week in anonymity, then name them. Regardless of which practice I chose to follow, no child of mine would ever be safe. My list of enemies was longer and more complex than I could keep an accounting of. Some of the most dangerous among them even considered themselves my friends.
Besides, their father, my poor, lost lover Septio of Blackblood’s temple, was Petraean. To name the babies was to honor him.
Lucia hummed and bustled with my girl, wrapping the little one in an embroidered silk dress that would serve for the Naming, even if the baby should do any of the things babies so often do to their clothing. I separated my reluctant boy from my aching right nipple and briefly hugged him close to my shoulder.
The love I felt for them was foolishly overwhelming. I knew it was some artifice of nature, or the gods who claimed to have made us in their image, for a mother to adore her child so. Otherwise no one sane would tolerate the squalling, puking, shitting little beasts. But I did love him and his sister with an intensity that surprised me then and continues to do so to this day.
It was akin to the sensation of being touched by a god—an occurrence that I had far more experience with than I’d had with the demands and requirements of motherhood thus far.
I sat up. The boy lay above my breast against my shoulder. My gut continued to feel empty, weak and strange. I would not care to be in a fight for my life right now. Soon enough I would be able to work my body as I was accustomed to doing. I scooped up a rag and gently dried my sore nipples. Lucia leaned to take the baby from me so I could clothe myself.
“Thank you,” I told her.
Her eyes lingered on me. I had not dressed at all yet, still naked as birth or bath required. “You are welcome.” Her smile was warm, welcome, and just a little bit wicked. “It is nice to see you more yourself again.”
I took her meaning exactly and felt warmed for it. Definitely time for me to dress. Though it was very much not the fashion for women of status here in Copper Downs, I was still most comfortable in trousers—my midsection felt a bit better supported, somewhat more firmly held in. The pale blue silk robe would hide the pants well enough. Not that I cared so much what people thought, but that would reduce the potential for argument and satisfy the sense of propriety shared by various of those around me.
Somewhere in the recent months, getting along better with people had started to become important to me. Troubling myself with the opinions of others was still a new experience.
I strapped my long knife to my right thigh beneath the robe. My short knives I secured to my right and left forearms. I truly did not expect any sort of fight at this ceremony, and was not in much shape to join in if one were to take place, but they were part of me. Bare skin would feel less naked to me than going into public without my weapons. I had birthed my children with a knife at my hand, after all.
Lucia had both the babies ready. My girl was in a fall of flame orange and apple red silk that ended in a ruff of yellow lace. The needlework across her bodice was a vibrant, bleached white that stood out like the Morning Star. My boy’s dress matched in cut and design, but was sea green and sky blue with a ruff of violet lace, embroidered in a blue so dark, it was very nearly nighttime black.
They were beautiful.
I stared into their strangely pale eyes, those unfocused infant gazes looking back at me. Though Lucia had one of my children balanced in each arm, they knew their mother.
My heart fluttered and my entire body felt warm. My breasts began to swell, which was not what I wanted. Not more milk, not right now.
I shrugged my careworn belled silk over my shoulders, then took my daughter’s new silk in my hands to cradle her at my left. Her bells were so few and small that it hardly made any noise at all. Still, this custom was all I had of my grandmother and the family of my birth—the single memory of her funeral, the sound of her bells, and the constancy of my own bells.
Prepared now, I reached for my girl, then for my boy, who would have to find his way in the world without the protection of a cloak of belled silk. The four of us left the tent. As I stepped through the flap, I wondered anew how Chowdry had convinced Ilona to allow Lucia this duty. She had been by my side almost continuously since the birth.
The kidnapping of Ilona’s child by my enemies hung over the two of us like a shadow. Or a blade, twisting by a fraying thread but yet to drop. That thought dimmed the glow in my heart a bit.
* * *
Outside was brisk. Spring might have been there, but the sun had not yet found her summer fires. Not in this place. Still, no one had told the trees and flowers. The brisk air was rich with scents of bloom and sap and leafy green.
The Temple of Endurance was blessed with high walls, thanks to an accident of location. This site was an old mine head, long since hidden away from view or casual trespass. Beyond those walls was the relatively clean, quiet wealth of the Velviere District. That meant here inside the compound we were spared the worst of the reeks that emanated from the sewers, slaughterhouses, fish markets, and middens of Copper Downs. In fairness, distant, tropical Kalimpura brought a whole new definition to a city’s smells, but even the wrong district here on Stone Coast could put out a standing reek fit to stop a horse. I was glad of the air being washed with spring and nothing more for this Naming.
Beyond the line of tents, a scaffolding rose around the stone temple under construction. I’d helped a little with laying out the foundations before the last months of my pregnancy. Since then, Chowdry and his congregation had made great progress without my aid. Endurance was well on his way to having a permanent fane here in Copper Downs. Pillars rose, and wooden forms were being hammered together to support the laying of a grand vault.
So odd, such a distinctively Selistani god here so far from home. And entirely my doing. Even more odd, this was the first new temple built in over four hundred years, thanks to the late Duke’s centuries-long interdiction of such activity. The lifting of his rule was also my doing, in point of fact.
We walked slowly toward a chattering crowd surrounding the wooden temple, the music of my silk ringing out our every step. This was the small, temporary place of worship, in effect a glorified stable built around the ox statue that was Endurance’s physical presence here amid his worshippers. Both dear friends and total strangers awaited us. The acolytes and functionaries of Chowdry’s growing sect were naturally in attendance. But also a few familiar faces from the Temple Quarter, and the women’s lazaret on Bustle Street. Several tall, pale young men who were surely sorcerer-engineers on a rare venture into sunlight. Even some of the clerks from the Textile Bourse, home of one of this city’s two competing governments struggling through a slow, apparently endless round of ineffective coup and countercoup.
Most important, Mother Vajpai and Mother Argai awaited me. Senior Blade Mothers from the Temple of the Silver Lily in Kalimpura, and Mother Vajpai one of my two greatest teachers, they had been stranded here by the betrayals of Surali of the Bittern Court when the Selistani embassy had come to Copper Downs the previous autumn. The Prince of the City had ostensibly arrived on these cold northern shores in pursuit of trade agreements, but he had really been brought across the Storm Sea to serve as the Bittern Court woman’s puppet in a far more convoluted series of plots. These two lonely Blades so far from home were the closest I had to family anymore. In many ways, these women knew me best.
I smiled at them all, warmed even by the pallid sunshine of this northern place, and walked slowly toward the plain doors of the wooden temple. The crowd parted around me like a pond confronted by a prophet. The babies gurgled, enjoying the outing it seemed, and without fear of the people.
May they live a life free of fear, I prayed to no one in particular. I had too much experience of gifts from the gods to want any of them to hear me just now. Besides, twinned prophecies had hung over my children’s birth. Both could go forever unfulfilled for all I cared.
At the door to the wooden temple, I paused and turned to the crowd. Dozens of faces stared back at me. Joyous. Friendly. Loving, even.
It was such a strange feeling, to witness this outpouring.
“My friends,” I began. My son shifted in my arms, responding to my voice. He could not know this young that those simple words that were at once so inadequate and yet so true. “We are drawn together this day in celebration.” I sounded foolish to my ears. Like a tired priest lecturing an even more weary congregation. I summoned my courage and my sense and continued. “My children are my life. My life is yours. Thank you.”
With that, I rushed into the shadows behind me.
* * *
At that time, the temporary wooden temple was still little changed from the first occasion on which I had visited it. The beaded curtain on the doorway stroked me with the caress of a dozen dozen fingers. The walls held their same roughness, though prayers had been hung upon them. Brushwork in dark brown ink on raw linen, written in both Petraean and Seliu, they had the same beauty as those Hanchu poetry scrolls one sometimes sees decorating great houses.
Endurance was present in the form of a life-sized marble sculpture of an ox. His blank-eyed calm was soothing to me. Tiny prayer slips still dangled by red threads from his horns, but the usual array of incense, fruit, and flowers had been cleared away. Instead, I saw a line of offerings fresh from the bakeries and groceries of the city. Food still warm and crisp, the odors from the bread and nuts and, yes, more fruit, joined to form a lovely incense of their own. It was an offering for the eyes and nose and mouth all at once. I hoped Chowdry would allow the array of food to be eaten later.
The reluctant priest waited by the ox with Ilona. They were the only people in the wooden temple when I entered, though others pushed in behind me, led by Lucia carrying my girl. Chowdry wore a green silk salwar kameez that I’d never seen before. Ilona had found an orange silk dress that recalled the cotton dress of hers I’d loved so much back at the little cottage in the High Hills.
The two of them smiled, proud as any grandparents. I was pleased that Ilona did not feel the need to bestow her usual frown on Lucia. Not jealousy, precisely, but the two of them disagreed so much over me.
Holding both my children close, I advanced jingling toward Chowdry and Ilona. The jostling crowd behind me maintained a respectful silence.
“Who comes before Endurance?” Chowdry asked formally.
Resisting the urge to say, Me, you idiot, to this man upon whom I had bestowed both a god and the mantle of priesthood, I answered in kind. “Green, of Copper Downs and Kalimpura, to present my children to the god.”
He swept his hands together and beamed as if delighted by some strange and wonderful surprise. “Be welcome, and come before the god.”
Chowdry stepped to one side, Ilona to the other. Her face was troubled now. I knew why. My old would-be lover could hardly help thinking of her own daughter stolen away. With the heft of a baby in each of my arms, I was all too aware of how keenly Ilona missed Corinthia Anastasia, mourning her child’s absence.
I have not forgotten my promises, I thought fiercely, willing her to hear the silent words from behind my eyes. Then I was before the god I myself had instantiated from a flood of uncontrolled divine energy, naïve hope, and my own earliest memories.
Kneeling, I placed my children against his belly. Had the artist sculpted him standing, I would have laid them between Endurance’s feet as I myself had once played and sheltered beneath my father’s ox. This was the best I could do.
Then I touched one of the horns. A few of the prayers tied there stirred, so I brushed my fingers across them. Whatever power or influence I had with the divine I put to wishing the prayers might be heard.
“I am here,” I told the ox.
Now all the prayers on his horns stirred. The air felt thick, even a bit curdled. Something was present.
“I know you will not answer me. That is not your way.” Endurance was a wordless god, given to guidance through inspiration rather than immediate intervention in the lives of his followers. “But when I was a small child, you watched over me. Your body sheltered me. Your lowing voice called me back from danger. You followed where I wandered, and led me home again.”
I paused for a shuddering breath, wishing in that moment that my father could have seen this time of my life. He would have been delighted at his grandchildren, I was certain of it. And amazed at what had become of his ox. That, too, was certain.
“Watch over these children of mine, so new to the world. They do not know its risks. Shelter them. Let them wander, and call them back from danger.” In a rush, I added, “Also, please watch over Samma and most especially Corinthia Anastasia, for they are in grave peril, needing of shelter, and surely wish more than anything to be called back as well.”
I touched my girl. She gurgled, bubbles forming on her lips, and stared up at the curving flank of the ox god with the myopic expression that all new babies seemed to share. “This girl-child I name Marya, to honor a goddess slain unfairly, and through her, to honor all women.”
Behind me rose a muttering. People didn’t like that name so much. Marya had been a woman’s goddess, her name unlucky now after her demise, though I had avenged her deicide. These grumblers could fall on their own blessed knives. I was hardly going to name this child Green after me, given that my own name was a product of my enslavement.
I touched my boy. He didn’t bubble or coo, but rather turned his head toward me with a gummy, toothless smile. “This boy-child I name Federo, to honor a friend who died badly but bravely, his entire being possessed by godhood. And to honor the fact that nothing in my life would be as it is today without him. For good or for ill.”
That name raised a greater hubbub behind me. Federo had very nearly been the death of so many of us. But he was who he had been to me—the man who had bought me from my father as the smallest of girls, fostered my secret training to slay the late, unlamented Duke, protected me, before turning on us all when he was corrupted by divine power. Everything and nothing, enslaver and redeemer both. But in the end, he was just another of my kills, and a city’s-worth of trouble had come with that deed.
Careful of my balance and of their fragile little necks, I collected my children and turned to the crowd of well-wishers. “I give you Marya and Federo,” I called loudly enough for my voice to ring within the confines of the wooden building. “May they live long and happily under the protection of Endurance.”
That provoked a round of applause that was most pleasing to me. People pressed forward to touch the children, to touch me, to push gifts upon the three of us. I did not like this so much, but I understood it to be inescapable, at least not without deep gracelessness on my part.
So I smiled and let my children be welcomed into their lives.
* * *
Ilona had helped me back to the shadows of my tent. The brazier within was warm. I’d grown chill outside, and worried that the babies had as well. Their two little cradles were already drawn up before the potbellied brass heater on its curled-out chicken legs. Someone had placed chips of sandalwood on the fire. The scent was soothing.
My breasts ached again, and the children were fussing. I figured they would suckle a short while, then go down to nap. Both at the same time, if I were lucky. I was already learning what a trial twins could be.
“Let me hold Marya,” Ilona said. “You care for Federo first.”
I heard the pain in her voice. “If not for Federo, we would never have met,” I reminded her. Fleeing from his army, wounded and exhausted as I’d stumbled through the unfamiliar High Hills leagues north and inland of Copper Downs, I had been taken in and sheltered by Ilona and her daughter.
From that, so much had grown between us. I wished then and sometimes wish still that more might have grown between us. How different my life would have been.
“If not for Federo…” She couldn’t finish articulating her thought, though the words were clear enough to me.
“If not for Federo, Corinthia Anastasia would yet be with you. And your little house would still stand unclaimed by fire.” I slid out of my belled silk and my fine dress, pulled on a quilted cotton jacket that I left open, and settled little Federo into my breast—one privilege his adult namesake had never tried to claim from me, to the man’s credit. Looking up, I caught her eye and willed the haunting I saw in there to fade like darkness at dawn. “I know your pain, Ilona. And I will set it right.”
“No, Green. May you never know my pain.” She clutched little Marya so tightly that I briefly wondered if this was a threat. I was certain that Ilona had never trained to be a fighter, but a woman who’d lived alone in wild country as she had for years was dangerous enough in her own right.
“I have dreamed, over and over, of finding them. If I could run across the wave tops, I would already be gone.” My own words captured my imagination a moment, boots from some magic cavern out of a child’s tale that might take me from crest to crest in strides of a dozen rods per pace. I could feel how the wind would pluck at my hair, how the storms would dog my back without ever catching up to me.
“No one runs the waves except in a boat.”
“Ship,” I said absently, wincing as Federo sucked overhard. For a child with no teeth, he could chew far too well. “And I have crossed the Storm Sea three times already in my life.”
Ilona looked down at Marya. “You cannot take the children with you.”
There she touched on what had rubbed me hardest these past weeks. I had thought much about this exact question. “I cannot leave them behind,” I said gently. “They would be … well … claimed. They would be claimed by others.” Oh how true that would have been; I knew it then and still know it now all these years later.
“You stand too close to power.” She laughed, though there was no mirth in her voice. The joy of the Naming had leached from me as well, I realized. “The gods will strip you naked and bloody, and all you will get in return is a demand for more.”
The way she said that gave me a moment’s pause. After considering why, I spoke. “I have never seen you pray. Or lay out an offering. And you came of age under the Duke, when the gods here were stilled.”
“There are many voices in the High Hills.” Ilona stepped toward me and helped me switch the babies. “Not all of them boom from the grave,” she added as we completed our efforts.
She’d never spoken of her past, not between the time she’d left the Factor’s house and when I’d met her living in the cottage tucked within the feral apple orchards. Who had fathered Corinthia Anastasia, for example? How had Ilona come upon the trick of listening to the ghosts?
I’d just been handed a hint. Huge and painful and difficult, and one I could not pursue now. Would not, for love of her.
“There are many voices in this world,” I said gently. “As you said, not all of them boom from the grave. We will find your daughter, and we will bring her home. This I swear on the lives of my own children.”
“Don’t.” Ilona’s finger touched my lips. I shivered at the caress, though she meant nothing so intimate by it. “Do not make me promises you will not keep.”
Stung, I replied, “I keep all my promises.” But even in those days, I knew that was not true. Such a thing could be true of no one except she who was a miser of her spirit and never promised anything at all.
Ilona’s eyes glittered with unshed tears as she walked away. Carefully I put the babies down in their cradles, then took up my knives and went out into the cold. My body might not be quite sufficiently healed for the work of readiness, but I could not deny it.
Besides, I needed to do something with my rage before someone else came along and stumbled upon the brunt of it.
* * *
I chopped again at the wooden man I had lashed together from beams and stakes. Chips arced away from me into the weeds. This was wrong of me—bad for my blades, bad for my own form, wasteful of the wood—but I needed to cut, and cut deep.
Everything ached, not just my breasts and loins. Muscles in my back and legs screamed their protest after long disuse. My arms burned with the exertion. My eyes burned with tears.
Trapped. So damned trapped. I had only one course open to me, and it was impossible for me to follow. How could I take the babies across the Storm Sea? How could I leave them behind?
Another flurry of blades and blows, and stinging pain to my wrists as metal bit wood. I imagined Surali’s face before me, cheekbones crushed under my assault, eyes bleeding, lips spread wide by the slash of my knives. The architect of all my troubles, she was a human woman as confounding to me as any god had managed to be.
I drove my long knife into the target so hard the blade sang as if it would break. A rope snapped, bits of hemp flying off in the air as the wooden man collapsed. Embedded, my blade went with it. I would deserve the trouble it would cause me if I’d broken the weapon.
Whirling, I confronted Mother Argai. She’d spoken in Seliu. Even after months here in Copper Downs, her Petraean vocabulary was largely limited to coinage, drinks, and cursing.
“What?” I demanded, feeling as clumsy with my words as I had been with my weapons.
There was no watching crowd. My bursts of rage and energy were well known now. Even Lucia had not followed me out past the temple foundations to watch me scramble among the weeds and piled dirt. Only Mother Argai, her face quirked into a curious expression.
“What, indeed,” she said softly. “What?”
“I don’t know,” I confessed. Now I was ashamed of my mood. Anger was not power. It was just anger. A disease of the soul, if one indulged the emotion overmuch.
Mother Argai sat on my broken pile of wood. “What don’t you know? What it is you should be doing?”
“Oh, I know that. We return to Kalimpura.”
“As soon as…” As soon as what? When the babies were ready? When I was ready? My voice was small and shamed as I finished my thought. “As soon as I am able.”
“Breaking weapons does not increase the likelihood of you being able.” Her tone was mild, but I could hear the scorn as she tugged my long knife free of a shattered baulk of timber and flipped it toward me.
That was an old Blade teaching trick. Throw a weapon at a student and see what they did. Most people needed stitches only once or twice.
Not me. I’d never been cut that way. I snatched the spinning knife out of the air, whipped it against my forearm to sight down the edge, then sheathed it. “A dull blade.”
A dulled Lily Blade, of course. I’d stepped right into that bit of rhetorical trickery. “We are going,” I told her. “As soon as I can arrange passage. Will you inform Mother Vajpai?”
I had missed being so decisive. This was as if I’d woken up from a longer sleep than was reasonable.
“If you wish,” Mother Argai said quietly. “She has gone back to rest.” The amputation of Mother Vajpai’s toes at Surali’s orders was one of the many sins I held higher than the value of that wretched woman’s life. “What of your friends and enemies here?”
“For the most part, they are the same people.” I snorted. “Still, you have the right of it. I must make my farewells.” And parting bargains, it would seem.
That appeared to satisfy Mother Argai. “I will pass the word. The women of the Bustle Street Lazaret will wish to know.”
“I shall call there in the next day or so.” My arms were flaccid and my body ached, but I felt like me for the first time in months.
“Farewell,” she said in passable Petraean, and walked away.
Stumbling toward my own tent, I called for Lucia to help me bathe and rub liniment into my back and legs. And other things besides, no doubt, once we were snugged together and touching.
Of course, I had not reckoned on the babies crying and Federo learning a new trick of vomiting into his cradle while lying down. Neither bath nor gentle caress was mine that night.
* * *
The next day after having fed my children, I passed over breakfast and forced myself into my leathers for the first time since my pregnancy. They stank a bit of molder and old sweat. Sunlight and use would do them good. Not to mention the good such exposure would do for me.
It was time to go calling, remind Copper Downs who I was, and make my farewells to those who might care to hear them. I would start with the hardest parting of all—the god Blackblood, whose boy-priest had fathered my children, and who had prophesied to claim my son. Threatened to do so, speaking more accurately.
Ilona had goat’s milk for the children and Lucia to argue with. I tucked spare rags into my sleeve to clean myself if my milk ran hard while I was away, and headed into the streets outside the temple walls.
At the time, I had not left Endurance’s compound in almost two months, I realized. To simply feel cobbles beneath my feet was such a privilege. It was a delight to be passed in the street by total strangers. Horses! Wind! The rising scents of the slowly warming weather were welcome, as evidence of the wider world.
My children I already loved foolishly, in fact beyond reason, but these first few hours of escape since their birth were a blessing unlooked for. I thanked Endurance, which seemed safe enough, and proceeded happily upon my errands.
The Temple District was showing the first signs of spring. The trees that struggled in the great iron pots lining the Street of Horizons were putting out their first buds of leaf and flower. Vendors hawking food from carts and trays seemed to have improved their wares. People walking along the street smiled, or so I thought.
Life was better.
I paused in front of Blackblood’s temple. I had done murder here twice, or near as made no difference. First back in the dark days at the end of Federo’s reign as a god, I’d caused the then-priests of Blackblood to be locked within alongside Skinless, their patron’s fearsome avatar. Vengeance was exacted for their Pater Primus’ scheming treachery. The dents and warps in the great black iron doors were mute testimony to that day’s sorry massacre.
Later, I’d fought the twins Iso and Osi, agents of the Saffron Tower, on Blackblood’s front steps. They’d died a death of women. Whatever might have become of their souls afterwards, I could only hope and pray that they writhed in the unshriven torment foretold by their all too peculiar and misogynistic faith.
Staring at the steps, I wondered if their blood still stained the ancient, foot-polished marble. Though the steps were so worn and misused that any of a dozen shadows, stains, and discolorations could have marked the end of those wretched priests.
What was left of all my misadventures in this city besides the broken doors? I believed then that when I sailed away sometime in the few days hence that I would not be coming back. Too many complications here. Too many deaths.
And truthfully, Selistan was the home of my heart. My first memories were there. I harbored ambitions that my last would someday be as well.
I trudged up to the doors. They were tall, almost twice my height, and proportioned strangely to make the entrance seem narrow even to a large person approaching.
So much of religion was about architecture, I mused. Even the meanest godling has a shrine somewhere. The first impulse of followers seems to be to build.
Today I was not a follower, nor a supplicant of this peculiar god of men and their pain. I was Green, come to bid my farewells to one who had touched my life with long, strange fingers. My own fingers, short and narrow and oh-so-dark in this land of the pale-skinned, tugged at the doors to pull them open.
* * *
Within stank of old sacrifice and unwashed linens. A male smell. No woman’s temple ever held such an odor. I looked around the familiar sanctuary. One time I’d descended from the clerestory, and nearly been killed for my trouble. On another visit, I’d entered this place through the tunnels from Below, and nearly been made pregnant for my trouble. Front doors were not so easy for me, it seemed.
Narrow, dark pillars lined the dusty shadowed space like a rank of starveling caryatids. Moth-worn banners depended from the upper reaches, faded bands as bars sinister upon them where the fugitive light of day touched briefly with each passage of the suns. A reservoir of mercury stretched ahead of me in the middle—the Pater Primus’ scrying pool, where I had never seen anything but uneasy, muckled reflections.
Notable in their absence were the god’s priests, who might presumably be found in this house of their holy. I had never seen worshippers here, and Blackblood did not have a flock as such. This temple served other needs than the usual. He favored supplicants over congregants. Every wounded man or dying boy was his. That much was obvious from the lack of benches or kneeling bolsters or, really, anything at all in this hall.
Once again, the architecture of the spirit predominated.
I did not bother to call out. Instead, I walked purposefully toward the deeper shadows at the rear. Beyond was the fane itself, the altar where sacrifices were taken up or turned back into the world. From there the labyrinthine lower levels opened as well. Skinless, whom I counted as a friend of sorts, could likely be found in those depths. And the god himself, whom I had seen in two aspects thus far in my life.
The mercury pond rippled as I passed it. I glanced down only to falter in my pace as I saw for the first time ever a vision there. Flames heaved in a burning sea, and eyeless children cried out as their blank faces beseeched me. My gut lurched in a momentary twist of terror and I ran deeper into the darkness.
What the liquid mirror had shown was too close to my dreams of late for my comfort. I growled a curse under my breath, damning this god back to the titanics who had birthed us all.
Blackblood was mocking me.
Passing through the tripled doorway into the darkness beyond, I came upon a familiar carved screen. It was barely visible, illuminated by the flickering light of a single tallow candle. The throne above and behind the screen stood vacant. The shackles at its arms and pediment lay empty, useless, containing nothing but a slice of deeper shadow. The languid young man I’d seen there before was absent. Who knew what purposes a god was about? Whether being “here” was a concept that held any significance in the face of divine ennui?
“I am arrived,” I told the darkness in my best speaking-to-gods voice. That, I had found, was rather like facing down a large and irritated dog. The divine responded best to a firm intent and despised any appearance of weakness. “I present myself to make my farewells.”
Only the faint whisper of dust falling answered me. I listened for the creak and pop of Skinless, or the footsteps of a languid god returned from whatever space they inhabited.
Nothing. The temple might as well have been a sepulcher.
“I honor what you have done in my life.” Deep breath. “I honor your lost priest Septio.” Another deep breath. “I honor you and what you do.” One last shudder. “But I am leaving Copper Downs. I do not know when or if I shall return.”
The necessary words spoken, I turned to find a man so close behind me that he could have encircled my shoulders with his arms. My short knives were in my hands and touching his abdomen between one moment and the next.
“It would be amusing to see you try,” said Blackblood.
He did not breathe, of course, except when taking in air to speak. I had not heard him behind me, because he had not willed it. Still, one must keep up a good face. “There are worse temperings for my steel than the blood of a god.”
When the god’s smile dawned, I was sorry for my little joke. An acrid scent bit at my nose. I realized my hands were growing quite warm. I looked down to see both my knife blades glowing a dull orange. With a shriek, I dropped them.
“Temper, temper,” said Blackblood. He bent and grasped each by the heated blade. The stench of burned flesh filled the air.
Despite myself, I gasped.
“What is pain to me?” With that, the god handed me my knives once more.
I held the weapons away from my body, wary of the fading heat even through the leather-wrapped handles. “Your purposes are ever mysterious.”
“They should not be.” He shrugged, so human a gesture, then in one step was upon his throne. I cannot describe how he covered the distance of a rod, or spun me about doing it. He just … did.
The manacles there stirred to fasten themselves around his wrists and ankles. With another sly, dangerous smile, Blackblood said, “It makes my priests feel better to see me bound.”
Curiosity overcame my more difficult emotions. “What could men forge that would hold you?”
“Nothing. But even metalworkers have gods.”
That I could well imagine. Smithing had to be one of the oldest magics of all. Metal drawn from deep within the earth carried the might of the deep darknesses and the secrecy of stone with it.
“I thank you for the lesson.” My gut still churned, spinning like a child’s toy. Apparently this day was meant for queasy, no matter what I did.
Blackblood’s eyes flashed. The hair on my arms and neck rose like wires. “Where is my boy-child?” His voice had lost its human timbre and become something much more like what I’d heard from Desire, or the Lily Goddess. Weighty with the power of years and the might of the divine. A blunt instrument for persuasion and intimidation.
Holding in my bladder fiercely tight, I stared him down. “I do not recall you carrying a baby under your heart these past nine months.”
The god leaned forward. Pale light flickered across his fingertips and along his chains. I realized he was nude, and his penis seemed enormous. Growing, even. A sword hardening in his irritation. “Neither do I recall you fathering a son on your own body, like some miraculous temple virgin.” The dancing light reached his eyes and took up a place there like lightning from a distant storm at sea. “I have spoken for the child … Federo.”
With that, he paused and laughed. Dust and small grains of rock rained down upon me from above. The floor quivered beneath my feet as my nose filled with the scent of ash and burnt flesh.
“You have named your boy so?” The god seemed torn between amusement and rage.
It finally dawned upon me that I was in real danger here. Would he let me go? I had captured Blackblood’s attention in a more profound and frightening way than any of our previous encounters. His chains caught my eye again. Blood and tempering indeed.
I pushed past the screen to approach the throne upon its dais of black rock. His swelling cock dangled at my eye level, but I ignored it. The god’s hands were out of reach, but his feet were before me. He was large, larger than human now, but still held that form.
“My child is mine to name and raise as I see fit,” I announced. “You do not hold a prior claim. And he is not yours to take up.”
“You cost me a worthy boy-priest.” Blackblood’s voice boomed loud enough to hurt my ears. “He would have been my Pater Primus someday. You owe me.”
“No.” I stood firm as I could. “I owe you nothing.” I brought the knives up, still too warm for comfort, spreading my arms to drive them swiftly through a link in each chain upon his feet. From there I pushed the tips into the hollow spot of skin just before the great tendon at the back of each ankle.
The god was pinned to his own chains by blades tempered in his own heat and, perhaps, blood. There was very little else on the plate of the world that would possibly hold him back, but his remark about the gods of metalworkers had made me think that blades so treated might serve.
He gasped, not so much from pain as amazement, or so I thought. As he himself had said, what was pain to a pain god?
“Listen,” I told him, my voice a hissing growl. I felt very large in that moment, as if I were greater than myself. “We made no bargain over this. And you cannot simply take my children from me. Your power does not cover me over. But I will make a bargain with you now.”
“What would that bargain be?” Blackblood’s voice was flat and sharp as a murderer’s razor. I also noted he had not moved his feet from where I had pinned them.
“I will not leave my blades in your chains if you will release whatever claims you think to have over me.”
“Do you believe it that simple?” Bemusement now.
“Never so simple,” I answered honestly. “But I bargain with the chips in my hand. I will leave this city, I will take my children with me, and I would have honor between us at our parting.”
Blackblood gave me a long, careful stare. The fires in his eyes died down, and he seemed to shrink a bit. He waved a hand. Some bit of his languor had returned. “Go,” he said. “Your son will come to me in his own time someday. What are years to me? Like pain, they pass unnoticed.”
“What are the years through which you slept?” I asked, challenging him. It was I, after all, who had slain the Duke and released the gods of this city from four centuries of enforced silence.
He did not like that so much. But still his hands twitched, and my knives fell away from his feet. “Take your audacity and go, Green. The tempered blades are my gift to you. May they protect your son until he has need of me.”
“May my son never have need of you at all.” I bowed and turned away. Skinless stood in deeper shadow, his glistening fat and slick muscle gleaming slightly. I nodded to the avatar before striding back out into the sanctuary.
Still no one was there, though I met the new Pater Primus hovering anxiously at the top of the steps outside the bent metal doors.
“What did you do to him?” he asked. His hands slipped across each other’s wrists like birds fighting. This man knew whose deeds had brought him his accession to his current precarious position of power.
I took pity on him. “Nothing. We spoke awhile, and made a bargain.”
“The ground shook beneath my feet.”
Looking around, I saw no toppled walls or panicked horses. “These things happen. At least when you are very lucky.” I tapped his chin with the tip of one blade, still warm and bloody from the god, and wondered what else this day could possibly bring.
* * *
I had other people to see, and passage to buy on a ship, but the morning was fine. A sense of freedom overcame me. Something in the air beckoned—the breeze, the temperature, the angle of the sun; I would not have been able to say precisely what. I could taste potential.
With a purposeful stride, I headed for the Dockmarket. I did not need to buy anything. For that matter, I had brought no money with me. A crowded place full of choices appealed nonetheless.
What I had been struggling against in those days was a sense of commitment. Choices made that neither could nor would be revoked. I was a mother now. My children needed me. That meant I could not take ship upon ship to sail until the seas were a different color and people spoke no language I had ever heard. Nor could I settle into a life as merchant or midwife or tavernkeeper. Not that I exactly wanted to do those things, but I found myself missing a sense of opportunity that I’d never really understood I had felt in the first place.
I knew I would always be a mother. I would always be too close to the gods. I would always be a woman who could kill with a casual hand and counted more ghosts behind her than most people counted friends in their life.
I would always be who I was.
My steps slowed at those thoughts. My heart grew heavier. Was this what it meant to be in the world? Was this how Ilona felt?
Looking about, I realized I was not heading for the Dockmarket, but for the lazaret on Bustle Street. Perhaps that was fair enough. Mother Vajpai had likely returned there after the Naming. Mother Argai would be back by now. Laris, former priestess of Marya and now priestess of Mother Iron, was often at the lazaret as well.
And women, a bit like I’d known in the Temple of the Silver Lily back in Kalimpura. Mother Vajpai was training up a cadre of Blades here. Given only a few short months thus far, they were laughable by the standards we held in Selistan, but this was a city where women never fought. Or more to the point, never fought back.
At least, women other than myself.
Small wonder the Interim Council had not known what to make of me. Despite my mood, my lips quirked into a smile I could not contain. Surely Jeschonek and his fellow councilors would be pleased to see the last of me. In my place, I would leave them an entire nest of women growing into their own power.
* * *
By the time I reached the lazaret, my deepening mood had lifted once more. The building itself was an old stronghouse or counting room set in a merchant quarter very much in decline. The architecture hailed from an era when handling money was a high-risk occupation with many pointed contenders. That is to say, the lazaret presented a strong, blank façade with slightly outsloped walls and narrow windows on the two upper floors for archers to shoot down into the street. Granite blocks formed the lower courses, with close-set brick above. The door was recessed to limit access, banded and armored against battering.
Nothing more valuable than the safety of women was stored there today, but that was temptation enough. From time to time, some angry father or husband with a handful of hired bravos would arrive, intent on forcing the door to drag home a bruised and weeping girl-child to her marriage bed. They were never admitted. Mothers anxious for the fate of potential grandchildren might be, if they came alone and soft-spoken.
Within, women looked to themselves and each other. Though I had not been there in almost three months, I knew that Mother Vajpai and Mother Argai had infected the inhabitants of the lazaret with ideas of strength and self-sufficiency. Not to mention more than a few techniques. From the acolytes at the Temple of Endurance I’d heard a rumor that two large girls had been apprenticed to an unusually cooperative swordsmith—that would be a first in the modern history of Copper Downs.
Like everyone else, I tugged the bellpull by the door. A minute or two later—quite a long time to stand in the street waiting—someone within flicked open one of the spyholes. I heard a squeal; then the door opened with a swift creak.
It was Laris, priestess of Mother Iron, who greeted me. She beamed her joy. I’d rescued her from the rubble of Marya’s temple last winter, though I had been unable to save her sister Solis, already crushed to death in the attack on their goddess by the priests Iso and Osi, agents of the Saffron Tower.
“Green! Come in, come in. We’re about to sit down to some roast pigeon, and Failla has brought us some fine white bread from one of the bakeries near the Ivory Quarter.”
Indeed, the warm, rich smell of crisping fat greeted me from within. Potatoes, too, I thought, and someone had found a bit of wild marjoram with which to spice them. “You should have told me before,” I said, laughing. “I’d have come to see to the cooking.”
The most usual fare at the lazaret was the soup pot, which never truly emptied. A woman could always get a bowl and a sympathetic ear from old Neela, who tended it almost ceaselessly. Though the soup might taste strange, and sometimes went down poorly, it was ever warm and filling. If the women of the lazaret had made a dinner to sit down to, they were celebrating.
She replied with a smile, “In a house of women you may be sure there are more cooks than any broth needs.”
“Of course there are.” I doubted any of them had my training. If there was one thing I was good at besides killing people, it was cooking for them. And a cook generally received more compliments on her work than an assassin. “Still, let us go to the kitchen.”
They had, thank the Lily Goddess, not put Neela at the pigeons. That woman could stretch a stone and three onions into supper for a score of diners, but I was unsure if she knew butter from batter in a proper kitchen. Instead, I found a pair of women who were unfamiliar to me basting a tray of birds with something oily and fragrant. There was my wild marjoram. A great bowl of roasted potatoes steamed still in their jackets. Someone had left off chopping cabbage, so rather than interfere before the hot fire, I took up a knife and put my weapons skills to more peaceable uses.
Kitchens have a simple secret: It is a profound comfort to prepare food. Sharing a meal is a sacrament of human existence. In all my readings and travels, I have never heard of a place where people of goodwill would not sit down together over bread and salt, at the very least. Even so mundane a task as chopping cabbage, throwing away the wormy or moldering bits—this stuff seemed to have been salvaged from a feed bin—made me a part of the community of women. In my experience, few men cooked, and fewer men understood the magic inherent in a fire, a pot, and a spoon.
Too bad for them.
I spoke their language, too, when needed: hilt and blade.
Once I had the cabbage chopped down, I swept the mound into a great pottery bowl rather ineptly decorated with blue rabbits and looked to my seasonings. I combined a draggled onion swiftly diced, a quick whip of several egg whites and bit of precious olive oil, a sprinkle of salt, and regret that the lazaret could not afford peppercorns.
When I finally looked up again, the pigeons were gone, the potatoes were on their way out, and only Laris remained, still smiling. “You seemed so peaceful,” she said. “And thank you for not interrupting Sion and Marchess at their work.”
“I do not—,” I began hotly, then stopped. Of course I did. I almost always knew better, and it was so hard to get people to listen. “Never mind,” I added in a smaller voice.
Laris grabbed the slaw I’d made. “I’ll carry the bowl.”
I followed her into the courtyard. I’d been there only once before—the lazaret had never been a haunt of mine. Four tables had been set, and almost two dozen women were gathered, chatting noisily. Laris set the bowl down next to a metal tray of golden, steaming pigeon carcasses, then called for attention in a clear, penetrating voice much different from her usual soft tones.
Spotting Mother Vajpai’s dark face among all the pale Petraean women, I sidled over to her. Where is Mother Argai?
Into the silence she had gathered around herself, Laris began to pray. Matter-of-factly, as if talking to us rather than leading us, but unmistakably prayer. One did not so much believe in gods, after all, as acknowledge them.
“We thank Mother Iron for this hour of peaceful assembly, and the food which graces our table. We thank her for protecting this lazaret, and providing us with our sisters from across the Storm Sea who have offered so much guidance and lavished such care upon our number. We ask her protection for those soon to depart from our shores, and offer our bodies, our minds, and our spirits to her for sacrifice as she sees fit.” Laris brushed a finger from her groin, across her left breast, to end touching her forehead.
I had not seen this gesture before. Most of the women followed it smoothly, though Mother Vajpai did not. The meaning seemed clear enough to me. I was pleased that ritual was settling in around Mother Iron. The transition from the goddess Marya’s death to Mother Iron’s ascension in her place had not been kind to the women of Copper Downs.
Then we sat, while the two cooks passed the food into shallow bowls to share out. The fine bread sat piled on a silver platter that looked to have come from one of the great houses of the Velviere District or the Ivory Quarter, though I could not know whether that had been donation, salvage, or theft. A torn-off chunk came my way. I used it to sop at the pigeon gravy that kept my meat and potatoes warm and savory.
It was a moment of sisterhood and peace like I had not known since the better days at the Temple of the Silver Lily. A welcome gift in that difficult time. I was almost sorry to leave Copper Downs if this was what was growing here. Also, I felt quite pleased at my own role in helping foster these changes in the lazaret.
Beside me, Mother Vajpai touched my arm. “On what errand have you set Mother Argai?”
My heart seemed to seize cold and stiff. “None,” I replied. “She left me some hours ago to return here.”
Mother Vajpai glanced around. No one seemed to be paying us much attention among the smiles and the flying gossip and the pleased attention to the feast. “She has not come back.”
I closed my eyes and sighed. My knives were heavy on my wrists, and my body was not yet fit for a hunt or a chase, let alone any sort of fight at the end. And neither was Mother Vajpai. She would never again be the fighter she was before the bitch Surali had her toes cut off.
“Do you have any notion where she might have stopped off?” I asked. The question was almost certainly hopeless, though perhaps Mother Argai had found a local woman with a taste for the rough and exotic. A bit of shopping was hardly her style.
“She was with you.” I heard the almost-accusation in Mother Vajpai’s voice.
“Not for some time.” I worked at my pigeon, flicking the meat off the bone. There was small purpose in rushing back out into the street underfed.
As I finished it off, eating swiftly as I could with a modicum of decency, Laris rose again. “Green is among us,” she announced, once more using her “praying to Mother Iron” voice. “Though she has not frequented the lazaret much, she brought me here in the worst hour of my need. She brought us Mother Vajpai and Mother Argai.” At those words, Laris paused and looked around, her expression faintly puzzled. “She … she has been a friend to us. And it is she who will soon go, taking our Mothers with her.”
A chorus of groans greeted that statement, along with several mock wails of grief.
Laris nodded to me. “Green, will you speak a moment?”
Rising, I searched for words. I could hardly just announce that Mother Argai was missing and I feared for her life. Suddenly tongue-tied, I reached for something more appropriate. What did I know of inspiring people? I was no leader and never then thought I would be.
“I am p-proud to be a friend to this house and everyone in it,” I said, feeling very cold. “And I am sorry to be leaving without knowing you better. Eat well, and rest safely.”
Stepping over to Laris, I whispered in her ear, “Mother Argai has not come back from the Temple of Endurance, though she left more than two hours ago. Send word swiftly should she come before I return, and especially of her condition.”
Laris nodded, then glanced at Mother Vajpai. I followed her glance and caught my old teaching Mother’s eye. In return I received a curt nod, before she buried her face in her hands.
I had never seen that before. Discomfited, I scuttled away, loosening my knives and praying I could sort this situation without hurting myself too badly.
* * *
Finding someone in a city is decidedly not simple. Finding some who has deliberately hidden—or been hidden—away is terrifically more complex. I could scarcely just roam about calling out Mother Argai’s name.
What I could do was make the reasonable assumption that she’d headed from the Temple of Endurance to Bustle Street by the most direct route. Mother Argai was not fond of Below, and did not know her way about Copper Downs well enough to go casually wandering. I retraced the steps I thought she would have taken, looking for evidence of a struggle along the way.
It would have been useless to ask the Petraeans I met as I walked whether they had seen her. I did call out in Seliu the few times I saw a dark-skinned face, but none of my countrymen knew of a Lily Blade lost or taken on the street. Most of them did not even treat the question seriously.
I could hardly blame them for that. We Blades cultivated our reputation for invincibility with no little care. Still, anyone may be killed by a knife in the back or an arrow from a rooftop, no matter how mighty they are.
The sun was westering, dusk nearly upon the city. I moved as quickly as I could. By starlight, blood looks no different from dirty water, or even oil. A smear on a cobble might be my only clue.
I hunted, swift and careful, all the way up Durand Avenue back to the Temple of Endurance. Nothing. No sign of her, or a struggle. No dropped weapons, no freshly smashed wood, no blood smears. Nothing.
The ever-open gates of Endurance’s home awaited me. They were as devoid of guards as always. Sometimes one or another acolyte might sit there in a chair, to welcome or direct visitors, but Chowdry claimed quite fiercely that Endurance forbade even self-defense. Twice I had met a tulpa at this gate, a ghost or wisp of divinity rising up from Below, but it was not here either on this increasingly chill evening.
Passing within, I realized that my breasts ached. My body knew I was going back to my children. It paid no attention to my intents or purposes. “Soon,” I whispered, but first cast about the packed earth in front of the wooden temple where we’d held the Naming.
Odd bits of button and dropped cloth and incense stubs abounded, along with a few crushed fruits and someone’s sandal now trampled into the dirt. Again, nothing to indicate more.
I stalked through the compound, looking for Chowdry. Ponce was cooking in the tent kitchen, and waved cheerfully to me from the open flap. A crowd of acolytes waited outside, smiling and talking. A few also waved at me.
No Chowdry, though.
The grounds were not such a large place. I soon found him by the rising columns of the stone temple, arguing with a rotund little man who sported a fringe of white hair surrounding an otherwise bald scalp. The stranger was dressed in a mason’s smock, but that did not fool me—he was obviously used to being heard and obeyed. They both kept pointing at a sheaf of papers that could hardly be readable now that the light had almost failed.
As I approached, I realized they were becoming quite heated over the subject of stone. The stranger’s hand strayed to his belt where a knife might have been found.
“When are you going to ordain more priests from that growing mob of children that follow you?” I snapped.
Chowdry turned, looking sad. The not-mason appeared surprised; then his eyes narrowed as he studied me. With my skin color, I knew I was little more than a shadow to him, but clearly he recognized me nonetheless.
“Green—,” Chowdry began in Seliu, but the stranger cut him off.
“Not that foreign gabble, please. And you must be the girl-hero of Copper Downs.”
My suspicion of this man cemented to an immediate and overwhelming dislike. Though I never saw him again before I left the city for Selistan, at the time I was concerned I was meeting a new and powerful enemy. If I weren’t so tired and worried, I might have knifed him right there.
“Have you seen Mother Argai?” I asked Chowdry in our foreign gabble.
“Not since she came to see you about your weapons practice,” he answered. Then, “No, I tell a lie. She came back to your tent later. With a man I did not know.”
Panic seized me, stabbing my heart. “And you let them in?”
He was quite surprised. “With Mother Argai? What could happen? She is a Lily Blade.”
“We are not immortal!” I shouted in Petraean, then gave the stranger a look that should have shriveled his tongue in his head before sprinting off for my tent.
Behind me, voices were raised, offense being both taken and given. I was already drawing my short knives, and wished I had taken the trouble to stick some sense into the fat fool.
* * *
As I approached my tent, I was out of breath. In no wise was my body ready for racing about and confronting either the good or the bad. Ponce was close behind me, having abandoned the kitchen when he saw me sprinting past. In turn he drew along with him a ragged line of acolytes. These children—though many of them were older than I—numbered both Petraean and Selistani among them.
A Blade handle’s worth, I realized with bitter irony. A handle who were forbidden to raise their hands even in self-defense.
I drew three huge, whooping breaths, then stepped into my tent.
Inside was cold and dark. The brazier had gone out and none of the lamps were lit. Dim light had followed me in, a narrow triangle of it making a path before me across the rucked-up rugs. I could hear breathing. Federo’s gurgling, I thought.
Where was Ilona? Where was Lucia? Mother Argai?
Blades forward, I scanned the room quietly. My effort was wasted when Ponce and several acolytes pushed in around me, one bearing a small lantern.
The stiletto glittered as it came out of the dark for my throat. A gloved hand held it, and the man behind it was wrapped in leather much as I was. Even his face was masked. I barely stepped aside from the thrust, and turned to trip him but lacked both strength and finesse, and staggered away. Ponce shrieked and jumped back, knocking the lantern from the acolyte’s hand.
Flame arced, oil spilled, and I parried another stab from the long, slim weapon. It rang like a glass bell that had been struck. I spun, now careful of my balance and center of gravity. I cannot afford this fight. My body would not sustain the effort.
He came a third time as the wall of the tent caught fire. This time I stepped into the blade, allowing it to slip between my torso and my left arm. That brought both my short knives within reach of my attacker. I planted one in his gut and the other in his neck. They slipped into his body as if he had been made of butter.
What kind of leather was this man armored with?
My attacker staggered back two steps, then flopped onto his butt, so he was sitting on the floor with his legs straight out before him. Even with the covered face, I could see his puzzlement in his eyes. I spent a moment slashing the tendons in both his heels, so he would not surprise me, then turned to the growing orange light behind me.
The tent wall was fully in flames. The rug closest was smoldering.
I grabbed up one of my babies and turned to find Ponce edging back through the flap of the tent. Or had he even left? “Here!” I shouted, and passed him my child. Marya, I realized.
Federo next, into the hands of a familiar-faced acolyte. Now both children were shrieking.
Panic rose within me. Where are Ilona and Lucia? Where is Mother Argai?
I paced around the side of the tent not yet in flames. My bed was lumpier than normal, I realized. A swift sweep of my short knife pulled the blanket aside to reveal Ilona unconscious and twisted into an odd pose. Stepping over her, I slashed at the tent wall. The thick fabric parted easily at the touch of my knife. That, too, seemed peculiar, though in the moment I had no time to think why. I turned again to face the clot of people crowding the flap. Smoke obscured my view, and I was hot. I waved them in past the flames and pointed to the new slit. “Get her out!”
I looked behind the brazier, but no sign of Lucia. Water was already being splashed, but the tent was almost an oven. I grabbed one of the loosely flopping feet of my enemy and dragged him into the evening air.
Hands slapped at me. I realized my leathers had been smoldering. And everything ached. Muscles in my groin were strained, too. I was angry. Very angry.
“Find Lucia,” I told Ponce, who was crowding close with a bowl of water as if I needed to be doused. “And Mother Argai. Find them now.”
Turning to my attacker, I kicked him hard in the ribs. A wet, weak grunt escaped. He would not be much longer in this world without serious attention. Unfortunately for him, the kind of attention I was about to offer him was entirely the wrong sort.
I slit the leather mask, not troubling about how deep the tip of my knife sank. It fell away from his face in a stream of blood.
The man was Selistani. Not only that, his face seemed vaguely familiar. I stared at the beak nose, the dark brows, trying to recall why I knew him.
It dawned on me, to no surprise at all, that this was one of Surali’s men. A Bittern Court agent, or possibly Street Guild.
Very gently I slit one of his nostrils for him. That woke him up with a muffled scream.
Chowdry touched my arm. “Green, no,” he began, but stopped with an expression of abject terror when I met his eyes.
“No one threatens my children,” I growled, then turned back to my victim.
He stared back at me, oddly serene as he mouthed in Seliu, “It does not matter.”
“Not to you, it doesn’t,” I agreed. “Not for very much longer.” I leaned close. “Where are Lucia and Mother Argai?”
He smiled. “That does not matter either.”
“I know whom you serve.” His other nostril opened at the touch of my blade. This time he winced, and that foolish smile was gone from his face. “I know what you want.” I leaned very close. “You will never succeed.”
“It does not matter.”
Sick of his pride and certainty, I stood and dragged my assailant back toward the burning tent. His dead weight was a further strain on my already-abused muscles. But I wanted him to know some real fear before his imminent death claimed him. No one was placing this man on Blackblood’s altar.
Propping the bastard up on his useless feet, I shoved him through the open flap into the roaring flames. Finally he screamed. I left him to his last moments of terror and stalked after my missing women. Later I would wish I had asked smarter questions of this man, but at the time, my anger was satisfied. That had seemed to be enough to me. The music of his anguished dying soothed my ears.
“We’ve found Mother Argai,” gasped Ponce, running toward me.
“Hidden between the tent lining and the outer canvas.”
I winced. “Alive?”
“Yes. A bad blow to the head, and she would have burned to death already if we hadn’t pulled her free.”
“What about Lucia?”
He shook his head, baffled and sad.
“Then bring me my children,” I snapped.
I turned, looking one way then the other. Chowdry watched me from close by. His expression was closed and hard, lit in the dancing flames of the burning tent.
“There are no apologies,” I told him.
Chowdry’s face sagged into a species of regret. “You draw trouble like a mast draws lightning.”
“I am leaving. I have business in Kalimpura.” I nodded over my shoulder. “Which has become all the more urgent now.” Surali’s agent had waited until I was birthed and about because no one watched over me so closely now. Nor my tent.
Ponce came me to with one of my babies in each arm. I took them and clutched them close while I glared at Chowdry. Clearly I could not let my children out of my sight.
“I cannot bless your going,” the priest said reluctantly in Petraean. “Nor can I be pressing you to stay.” He seemed old and helpless now. Night’s darkness hung around him like a shroud.
“You do not have a say,” I told him not unkindly. “But neither do you deserve these assaults on your temple simply because of my presence.” Not so long ago, two girls had died here at the hands of Surali’s troublemakers hunting me. “I will be gone within a day or two. My children will go with me.”
Chowdry gathered a long, deep breath. “I shall send Ponce with you.”
Ponce? I had figured Ilona to accompany me, to assist me in tending the babies. I doubted I could keep her away in any case. Not from crossing the sea in pursuit of her own child. That she had waited this long without taking ship herself after Corinthia Anastasia was something of a miracle.
But Ilona was troubled. Nearly hysterical, grieving her daughter. Ponce could help mind Ilona while she helped mind my children. And perhaps a sea voyage would heal her heart enough for her to see me again, I reflected with a mix of anticipation and guilt.
“I shall take him,” I said, then hastily added, “if he will go. But that is much to ask of a young man.”
“This young man will not need to be asked.” That was Ponce, close by again. He looked as if he meant to be brave. “I am going.”
I turned to him, shifting my babies to my shoulders. It occurred to me I could never fight like this. Should the children have had small leathers of their own?
“Do you know where we are headed?”
“Kalimpura,” he said promptly.
“A city full of women like me, and men like that fool who attacked us. Are you certain you wish to go there?”
“I will follow you anywhere.” His eyes glittered.
“Then hold my children again, and guard them.” I handed him back the babies. Unaccountably but still much in the fashion of babies, they had fallen asleep. “With your life,” I added.
* * *
The fire was dying, defeated by water and the immolation of my tent that had served as its fuel. Ignoring the twisted and charred body of the man I’d killed, I stalked the perimeter of the ashes, marveling that the flames had not spread. Sister Gammage, the closest thing the Temple of Endurance had to a nurse, tended to Mother Argai and Ilona, both of whom were laid out nearby on a quilted blanket. With the tent in embers, lanterns had been brought out.
There was still no sign of Lucia. Ponce had acolytes out all over the tent camp, and looking in the two temple buildings. I stared at the collapsed ruin of the tent, smoldering, shredded canvas draped over the bed and the two chests.
The chests, I thought in horror.
I rushed to a nearby tent, pushed inside—it was vacant—and tore down one of the two poles propping up the central ring. The roof creaked and sagged as I ran out again. The ashes of my own were too hot to stand in, but I leaned as close as I could and shoved the pole through the ruins to the first of the chests. My impromptu probe dragged along the collapsed, burned cloth like a plow through a reluctant field. I did not have the leverage to lift and poke as if I had a giant finger, but I managed to force the pole to the front of the chest.
Despite the danger I quickly stepped into the ashes, working my way up the pole until I did have the leverage to lift the lid. I shoved, ignoring the heat seeping into my feet through my boots. The chest creaked open, burned tent sliding off it. Within were clothes and sacks, smoldering now, probably ruined.
I sagged, relieved, then backed swiftly out of the circle of embers to dance from one foot to the other until they had cooled down.
By the time I was ready to brave the other chest, from the far side of the circle where the edge drew closest to it, a small crowd had formed around me. Someone brought me strips of wet canvas and tied them around my boots. Ponce sat on the blanket with Ilona and Mother Argai, still cradling both babies, but I had many other willing hands to help me prop the tent pole high and push it into the other chest.
That one opened with a wave of smell like roasted pork. Behind me, someone vomited into the ashes. I stepped close on my wrapped shoes and peered within. Her neck had been broken, either to kill her or to fit her into the chest. At least she had not died screaming in the flames. He must have slain her first and hidden the body more carefully to buy time.
“Lay her out as soon as it is safe to do so,” I said roughly. “And the dead man. I will light the candles and pray for them both.” Each of them was owed that respect from me, albeit for different reasons. I turned to walk away from the tents into the darkness around the stone temple’s construction.
It was time to breathe some clean air.
* * *
I sat on a granite block and stared upward into the night. Only the stars looked down upon me—the moon had not yet arrived in the eastern sky.
Certain mystes aver that the world is a plate, wide as a man can walk in a lifetime and long as the cosmos itself. I had no reason to doubt this, nor any reason to believe this, but I had always wondered what role the stars played. Surely they were more than mere piercings in the curtain of night?
Right then I felt as cold and distant and small as any of the stars in this evening’s sky. I had hurt a man, very badly, then made sure his death was as painful as possible. I would do so again between any one heartbeat and next to keep my children safe. But they never would be safe enough.
So long as I moved freely through this world, my enemies would follow.
Perhaps I would be better off behind walls and surrounded by guards. Had I so long ago taken the place originally intended for me as the Duke’s consort, I would have been thusly secured. Like a pearl wedged inside an oyster, requiring a knife the size of an army to extract me.
Alone, any one man could pursue me. Anyone on a rooftop could kill me before I knew I was being attacked. I was a danger to everyone around me.
Most especially my children.
Anyone who sought their lives would be doing so to punish me. No inheritance of land or money or great title rode on the shoulders of little Federo and tiny Marya. The only treasure they carried was my own blood.
What was I to do?
In the darkness, I wept a little while. I had lost Lucia, my sly and willing bathing partner and sometime lover. Who yet knew how much hurt had been done to Ilona or Mother Argai?
My would-be assassin had kept them alive with an intent to torment me if he could. By now everyone knew the people of this temple would raise neither fist nor weapon against an invader. By what power did Endurance protect his own?
By my power, of course.
I began to laugh, mirthless and bitter. “When I go across the sea,” I said into the darkness, “who will take care of these little problems for you?” Chowdry had once been a pirate, and had quite possibly in the course of his sailing days slit more throats than I ever would, but he was settled in now as the priest. The man took the will of his pacifistic ox god seriously.
Someone else would have to be the god’s knife. Not I. Not any longer.
I sighed, stood, and walked back to the tents. I was long overdue to feed my babies, for all that it was night. Then I would check on my wounded. Then as promised, I would lay out the dead, painting them both with the red and the white, and setting the candles around their silent heads for both sin and virtue. Finally, I would sew that day’s bell onto my silk and think on the meaning of all this.
Then on the morrow I would go find a bedamned ship and arrange to leave this terrible, cold city. But first in the morning I would find whoever had been sheltering my attacker in the months since Surali’s departure. Whoever that was would be very, very sorry before I was done with them.
* * *
When the day returned, I was so stiff, I could barely move. Last night’s troubles had vastly overtaxed me. We had sent Ilona and Mother Argai both to the Bustle Street Lazaret late that evening, so I had no one to help me with my children either. Their crying had awoken me.
Groggy, I wondered whose tent I slept in. I pulled Federo to my breast first and felt the strangely comforting bite of his gummy mouth against my nipple. It was somewhere between joy and pain, but not in the rough way that most of the Blades played at their sex. Something more maternal, more primal.
Once he had suckled his fill, I lifted Marya to my other nipple. I whispered apologies to her for making her wait. It was never too early to explain the ways of men to a young woman, for her own protection. Brothers were men as well.
The children fed and burped, I dressed myself. Truly I wished for a deep, hot bath, but the day awaited. Vengeance and transportation were my agenda for the morning. With luck, I could handle both and be back before dinner.
I looked outside the tent, ready to shout for Ponce, only to find him dozing seated on the ground just by the flap. He awoke at my touch on his shoulder. “Will you mind the babies while I run a few errands in preparing to depart?”
The smile I got in return was almost too devoted. “I am yours,” he said.
“Be my children’s.” I handed both of them to him. “You run the kitchen, I don’t need to tell you where to find the goat’s milk. How are Ilona and Mother Argai?”
He frowned as he hefted the babies. “There has been no word from the lazaret this morning, which I suppose is a good thing.”
“I shall see to them later,” I said, resolving to visit the two while about the city today. Swaggering a little, I left him. I kept my proud step until I’d passed out of the gate, then nearly collapsed against the wall. I could not do this.
What choice did I have?
It was time to go see my countrymen. Someone among them would likely know where Surali’s agents had been sheltering. Besides, then I could bid farewell to the Tavernkeep, in whose establishment so many of my fellow Selistani sheltered and drank away their meager laborer’s wages.
Obols and taels never went as far as one needed them to.
* * *
The Tavernkeep’s place was a nameless bar in the Brewery District, down an alley and through a door with no sign. When my old teacher the Dancing Mistress had first taken me there, it had been quiet, almost haunted, with few patrons besides the scattering of pardines who came down out of their distant hilltops and montane forests for whatever business called their kind among humans.
Long ago, that business had been slaughter. In time, wars had settled affairs between humans and pardines. Then the late Duke of Copper Downs had stolen one of the hearts of their magic in the form of the gems called the Eyes of the Hills. His power had been released by my killing of him only to settle into Federo in the form of the violent god Choybalsan. In turn, I had then killed Federo, and seated the power into the ox-god Endurance, before finally arranging the return of the stolen but now-quiescent gems to the pardines.
My relationship with these people was complicated.
Now their one retreat within Copper Downs had been taken over in large measure by Selistani immigrants and refugees. The Tavernkeep and his conspecifics had borne this with remarkably good grace, and surely for more than the sake of a busy till.
I slipped down the alley, too tired and worn to take to the roofs and not trusting myself besides on the high paths. Below would be no better in my current condition. Frankly, if some assassin with a crossbow were waiting for me high up, she could have me.
Though it was early for a bar, the Tavernkeep was behind his counter taking inventory of a rack of bottles on the back wall. Tall, rangy, furred with pointed ears and a long whisking tail, he looked like nothing so much as a great cat up on two legs. This was a dangerous confusion—pardines were far more powerful and capricious than any house pet. I’d had inklings of their might, and did not care to see more.
Otherwise the room was quiet—the perpetual dice games played by my countrymen waiting for work, word, or wages had not yet resumed for the day. Many of them were stretched by the faint remains of the fire, wrapped in cloaks or thin blankets. The large round tables with the pardines’ traditional stone bowls were scattered across the room, interspersed with smaller, human-scale furniture that seemed to have multiplied every time I visited this place.
“Green!” The Tavernkeep seemed delighted to see me. “It has been some time. Have you littered successfully?”
That took me a moment to unravel. “Yes,” I said. “I have borne twins, a boy Federo and a girl Marya.”
“Fine human names, I am certain.” He laid out a stoneware bowl and poured me some of the clear and deadly pardine bournewater. “Welcome.”
“Thank you.” I took a sip. As always, the drink was clear as morning air, deadly as last weekend’s sin. “You are too kind.”
“One honors what has come before.”
“Indeed.” I turned to look at my sleeping countrymen. Our voices were provoking a few of them to stir. Facing the Tavernkeep once more, I smiled. “Shortly I shall leave Copper Downs. I may not be back for some years. Or possibly ever.” Some prophecies were simple enough to make.
“Across the sea again.” He frowned at a twisted bottle of something clear and violently red. “The Dancing Mistress did not care for your foreign city.”
“Kalimpura is not foreign to those who live there.”
“All cities are foreign,” he replied with the fervent conviction of the mountain-born.
I raised my bowl to him and carefully took another sip. One of my few regrets of the path of my life since those days has been that I shall quite possibly never taste bournewater again. “In any event, I have come to bid you farewell, and ask certain needed questions of my fellow southerners before I depart.”
With a wide sweep of his arm, the Tavernkeep gave me freedom of the room. “They are yours.”
“Sadly, yes.” I smiled.
“Would you like some dhal when you are done?”
I cocked an eye at him. “You cook Selistani now?” His kitchen had cooked Selistani for a year or more, but always with human hirelings. Chowdry, specifically, at least until the business of the Temple of Endurance had grown to engulf his days.
“One learns,” he said modestly, followed by a spitting word that had to be the pardine tongue, though I had quite rarely heard that language spoken.
“One does,” I said, taking careful note of the sounds of his people. “As I am a brave woman, I shall try your dhal.”
Leaving my bowl behind, and eschewing the din of pot and spoon this time, I went to wake those at their slumbers and ask them certain questions.
* * *
I spent an instructive time speaking quietly to sleepy men.
These were my people. Not just in the sense of sharing a birthplace or a skin color. Or even, to a degree, a language—I would never be quite as fluent in Seliu as I was in Petraean, though I had shaken the Stone Coast accent that was in my voice when I first relearned my native tongue. Rather, it was this group that had stood frightened in the snowy streets of the Velviere District to oppose Surali and her thugs not with fist or stave or sword, but simply by their presence.
These men—some of them, at any rate—had stared down crossbows and swords for me. And they’d done it under Mother Argai’s leadership. In doing so, they had taught me that violence did not always have to be met with more violence.
This was a new idea for me in those days.
I explained that Mother Argai had been hurt and almost killed by an attacker intent on harming me and my children. That another young woman had been killed and my tent burned. They were solemn and sorrowful until I mentioned this was Surali’s doing. The muttering that arose from that was more than satisfactory.
I knew that Surali’s Bittern Court must have a few informers, and perhaps even an active agent or two, among these men. That was too easy an opportunity to pass up. How active was a different question. As well as how loyal.
“Even in defeat, retreated from this place, that woman seeks to strike me down. Others, innocents, have again died in my stead by her orders.” I squatted low, bringing my face down closer to these men, most of whom were still lying in their blankets as we spoke. “You know that she does not stand for what you wish in life. If any of you were truly her creatures, you would not have troubled to cross the sea to this cold place.”
It was the same argument I had used on them before. Selistan was not a society that encouraged people to rise above the station of their birth.
“Every one of you had the bravery to come here. Every one of you works hard now, or seeks to. Most of you will bring families over in time when you have saved enough taels and obols. Surali and her kind do not care for you. Do not care about you. She does not want choice. And so she attacks me, who shows all of you what you might be and who you might become.”
Not exactly a true accounting of Surali’s motives as I understood them, but not so far from the reality, either. And this casting of her intent would make sense to my countrymen.
Several of them glanced at one of their number. He was skinny, with a large mustache, and seemed to be preoccupied with scratching under his sleeping robe.
That would be my man, then. I continued to play to my audience.
“Someone in this city has hidden a dangerous agent of the Bittern Court away. The man who tried to kill my babies was dressed in leather head to toe.”
“So are you,” observed a member of my still awakening audience.
“Well, yes, but that’s different. I’m a Lily Blade. Besides, this would-be killer’s face was covered, too. Except for the eyes.” It had been a strange costume.
“Who is he?” asked the agent, paying closer attention now. “What did he tell you?”
“Mostly he screamed.” I let an edged smile tug at my mouth. “People tend to do that when they are dying in pain.”
A number of the men winced, including the agent. I stood and stepped over to him. “I know that people sometimes make mistakes,” I said gently. “Mistakes can be forgiven.” I bent down, my knees creaking and my abdominal muscles complaining as I did so. “But sheltering this killer? That will not be forgiven.” With one finger I tapped his sweating forehead. “That will be punished.”
All these men knew who I was. Every one of them knew my reputation. Just so this fellow, who shook a bit. I popped one of my short knives out of the right sleeve of my leathers and slapped the blade lightly against my left hand. “If you happen to know of someone who might have given this man shelter, I would be pleased to hear of it. I might even forget where I heard it, should what I find bear fruit. Because I will harvest a reckoning for the threat to my children.”
“I am a poor man,” he gasped.
“We are all poor.” The circling point of my short knife had seized his vision.
“I-I am p-poor. Sometimes there is a bit of extra money.”
“Sometimes there is.” I let the point approach his nose, until he grew cross-eyed. “Sometimes there is forgiveness after confession, too.” Speaking brightly, I added, “Which would you rather have just this moment? Forgiveness, or a bit of extra money?”
His gaze fixed on the tip of my blade. “F-forgiveness, Mother Green.”
Leaning even closer, I growled in his ear, “Then give me a reason to forgive you, fool.”
His words flowed now. “A-a man, one of these whitebellies, in-in-in a uniform. I always m-met him by the great red house on Montane Street. S-sometimes they are needing things written or read back to them in Seliu. I knew they kept one of us inside.”
May all these pale bastards be broken on the Wheel! The great red house on Montane Street would have to be the seat of the Reformed Council. Originally a mansion, it had long served as a bank until Lampet and his little band of plotters had set up a second government to compete with the Interim Council that had ruled the city since the fall of the Duke.
Though I’d already abandoned the politics of Copper Downs, they had apparently not abandoned me.
It made sense. Especially given how Surali had worked through the Prince of the City’s embassy to manipulate the local government here, when they had been in town.
I slapped my short knife against my palm again. Councilor Lampet and I were due to have a little chat quite soon. “You may keep your life,” I said generously to the spy. “But I might suggest new employment.”
“Th-thank you, Mother.” He scuttled back on hands and knees, leaving a warm puddle behind.
I was pleased that I had not killed him. Perhaps I was growing more mature after all. With a nod to my fascinated countrymen watching in riveted silence, I went back to the bar for my dhal.
* * *
As I was preparing to leave, one of the men came up to the bar to speak quietly with me.
“Ghuji, is it?” I said, dredging a name from memory. I signaled the Tavernkeep for a second bowl of dhal. Likely a small enough payment for whatever he had to tell me.
Ghuji nodded, then stared at his feet. I glanced down just in case he was wearing interesting shoes. Horny, callused nails on grubby toes greeted me.
A peasant, as I would have been, had I been allowed to remain in the country of my birth. That was a bit surprising. Most of the Selistani in Copper Downs were either sailors who’d jumped ship or laborers who’d come looking for a different kind of work. Selistani with any decent amount of money had no reason to emigrate, while the peasants and urban beggars had no resources with which to attempt an exodus.
“Are you from the east?” I let a bit of a Bhopuri accent slip into my Seliu. In Kalimpura, this would have marked me as a hick, but I’d picked up a sufficient handful of regional accents to make a pretense when needed. Sometimes being a hick was useful. People tended to ignore you, for example.
As, I suspected, people ignored Ghuji.
He looked up at me and smiled grimly. “A village in the Sister of Morning Mountains.”
That would be the northeast coast of Bhopura. I’d never been there, though I’d glimpsed the peaks from aboard ship when passing Cape Purna.
“A long way from there to here,” I said, though his part of Selistan was physically closest to the Stone Coast.
“Longer when there is no path home. My village was burned.”
I waited to see if he would say more, or perhaps wanted me to ask, but Ghuji’s gaunt smile faded. Now he held my eye.
“What can I do for you here and now?” I asked, taking care with my words. His reason for speaking to me was less clear.
“The man Paavati was telling you of?”
“Yes…” Well, at least we were on topic.
“When you saw him, his face was covered with leather.”
A statement, not a question. Interesting. “Yes. I could see only his eyes.”
“Men like him burned my village. Everyone was being slain. Even the chickens and goats.” He paused for a deep, shuddering breath. “They spared me only because they did not realize I had been working down inside our well, repairing the brick courses. I was staying in shadow for hours until the screaming had long stopped and the crackle of flame had died. When I climbed out, I saw them rooting through the ashes of our little temple.”
I was both fascinated and appalled. “For what?”
He shrugged. “Our small portion of silver? Our idols? I do not know.” Then he leaned close and said something that would stay with me a very long time. “But these men, they are in Kalimpura as well. From there, I think. The beggars know them as the Quiet Men. When their faces are uncovered, they pass as do you and I. When their faces are covered, they kill.”
Like Blades, but with far less discretion. I had never heard of this sect or order. Oh, would Mother Vajpai want to know of this.
Assuming she did not already.
I took a stab at the circumstances here in Copper Downs. “This Quiet Man sheltered in the Red House on Montane Street?” The Red House was what the Reformed Council’s quarters were called around town, in a fit of particularly poverty-stricken imagination.
Another shrug. “I do not know. But he has not been among us here since the Prince of the City departed.”
I pushed the steaming bowl of dhal in front of him. My purse was empty, I had no money to pay this Ghuji, but I could feed him. The Tavernkeep and I had our own understandings.
“My thanks,” I said. “But please, a question: Why are you telling me of this now?”
A third and clearly final shrug. “No one will act against the Quiet Men. No one will admit they exist. But you slew one of them. Perhaps knowing what I could tell you will help you slay more.”
“He died in a fire that he himself had set,” I told Ghuji on impulse. “I made certain of it.”
Something flickered in the man’s eyes as his shoulders sagged. “Be careful,” he said, then turned away, though not without taking his bowl of dhal with him.
I watched him thoughtfully a few moments before releasing my attention. There was a red house to visit on Montane Street. One last time I turned to the Tavernkeep. “It has been a pleasure to know you.”
“May your soulpath be broad and rich.”
With those words between us, I left, headed for the neighborhood of the old Ducal Palace.
* * *
Though it was still yet morning, I was already exhausted. I also buzzed with excitement. After spending months being pregnant, and even just a week tending to my babies, it was good to be out in the world. With a purpose, at that.
I did not propose to take on a building full of guards. The Reformed Council had Lampet’s lads, the Conciliar Guard regiment raised by the councilor I trusted least out of any of that lot. The only reason Lampet was not running the city right now was that he had another plan. That, and I had forsworn politics in this place.
It did occur to me that setting fire to the building might be a solution to my problems. A bit messy, but it would smoke out any more Quiet Men or other agents of Surali’s who might be lurking there.
Though I had to admit, the clerks and maids and guards who doubtless filled the place were not at fault. Somehow, it didn’t seem right to kill them just to get at Lampet and one or two men he might still be sheltering.
I snorted. Motherhood was making me soft.
Lampet had sought harm to my children. I had no doubt it was he who had struck whatever deal with Surali. Anyone who worked to support the councilor was part of the problem. The clerks and maids could go hang if they couldn’t see what it was they served.
Still, that did not mean they deserved to die.
By the time I reached Montane Street, I had talked myself out of killing everyone in the place by fire. The next most likely plan seemed to be to broach the front door. That had obvious drawbacks, starting with overenthusiastic or underinformed guards.
Finally I slipped into an alley to look over the back of the Red House. I didn’t want to be seen approaching, so I started several blocks up, mugging an innocent clothesline inside someone’s courtyard for a shapeless gray cloak to cover my leathers.
No point in announcing myself prematurely if I was not going straight into the visitors’ entrance.
* * *
Back in my days of training within the Pomegranate Court, I’d spend quite a bit of time reviewing architecture with Mistress Celine. This was for several reasons, not the least of which was that I was expected to become a mistress of a great house, and a wise mistress knew exactly how everything in her domain worked. Chatelaines and majordomos were all to the good, but a family or household could be robbed into penury without proper oversight.
So I was quite familiar with kitchen deliveries, laundry entrances, gardening sheds, carriage houses, even smithies and carpentry shops, as ways in and out of stately homes whose owners thought only of the forecourt, or possibly the mudroom through which one visited one’s dogs and horses.
A laundry never truly closed down, not in a large enough place, and certainly the kitchen did not either. Someone had to bake the breads overnight, and keep the stockpots bubbling and the spits turning.
I watched from inside a quiet set of horse stalls across the alley. A neighbor’s back extents, unmonitored at the moment in the apparently long-term absence of horses. Having no great affection for those beasts myself, I could understand why even the wealthy might forgo them.
The Red House had active stables. Grooms raced about polishing a high-wheeled carriage to an especially wicked shade of black. I’d have bet a gold obol the interior was red velvet, and that the conveyance was for Councilor Lampet’s particular use.
Likewise the kitchen, where in the space of thirty minutes, three different carters made deliveries, along with a dairyman with some particularly difficult wheels of cheese.
Other servants were about as well. These were not the temporary, loyalless hirelings such as Surali had populating her rented mansion during the recent unpleasantness. No, I knew this type. The senior staff would be very proud and jealous of their positions. The understaff would watch one another for any slight or error that might make the difference in advancement. I could kill, or possibly even bluff, my way in, but I could not walk among them as if I were another servant without the alarm being raised.
However, I could arrive on a cart.…
I retreated up the alley to await the next worthwhile delivery
* * *
Less than an hour later, I returned to the back of the Red House clucking at a pair of mules who drew a cart loaded with cabbages and root vegetables.
“You ain’t Marsby,” said a redheaded boy in a clean but threadbare tunic who came out to meet me. He sounded cheerful about that.
“Marsby’s been took sick.” If by sick I meant “tied up in a wood box with his own stockings in his mouth,” that was even a true statement.
I hadn’t hurt him.
“You’re foreign,” the boy announced. As if this were a notable discovery.
“I’ve noticed that, yes.” I jumped down off the driver’s bench and patted one mule on the flank. Like horses, but slower and meaner, I understood them to be. So far they had not argued and had played their part. But then, I figured the mules knew their way with or without me.
The boy fed each of them half an apple as I dropped the gate on the cart and tugged out a crate of rutabagas. “I don’t know where to take this,” I told him.
He grudgingly took hold of a crate of cabbages. “Marsby carries ’em two at a time.”
“I ain’t Marsby.” I was beginning to wonder how often this lad received a good kicking, and if he knew how richly he deserved such treatment. Now that I was here, I wanted to be inside and about my business before someone of wit noticed me.
The idiot boy led me up three steps to a stone porch, and into the pantry beyond. I set my crate on a table, where an exasperated woman was counting out an inventory of herbs. She glared at me, then went back to her work.
Outside, my little friend had grabbed another crate of cabbage, but stopped to whisper to the mules. That was fine with me. I pushed around him with a crate of potatoes, walked right past the herb counter, and strode into the kitchen.
Such a place. In other circumstances, I would have liked to cook there. A central fire with a massive spit fit for a whole game carcass. Three bread ovens, each with their own firebox. An oil stove and a woodstove. A huge butchering counter. A cold room, judging by one overbuilt door. Copper pans hanging above like the rain falling from an explosion in an armory.
Cook’s boys and assistants pushed everywhere, through steam and smoke and the smell of some fish meeting its end in a fry of olive oil, lemons, and capers. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, then shoved my crate into the hands of a passing scullery maid. “Here, these are in the wrong place,” I said in my best, and very genuine, quality-accented Petraean.
Contrasting with my dark skin, I knew it confused her, but that was the point. Confusion and continued motion: those were my weapons right now.
And being here, I was glad I had not simply blocked the doors and fired the house.
With that thought, I grabbed up a jelly pan and strode confidently toward the doors that led into the main house.
A hand grasped at me. Someone nearly had their wrist broken for their trouble, but I stifled the impulse and turned.
This was Cook. Not a cook, or even the cook. Just Cook. The tyrant of the kitchen, and in a great house, the only servant over whom the chatelaine or majordomo had no real power. She was red-faced with stringy hair and piercing gray eyes. Unlike most cooks, she was also quite thin. Her dress was dark blue in a cut a respectable grocer’s wife might have worn. This in contrast to the simple striped smocks of the maids and undercooks. I noted the skin of her fingers was peeling. She shook slightly as she grasped me.
“You do not belong.”
“No.” I tried for honesty first. More persuasive methods were still readily available, and I was close to the door, in any case. “I am here on urgent purpose for the councilor, and preferred not to be announced through the front.”
Her eyes narrowed, but she did not immediately reject my explanation. I was right in guessing that Lampet was the sort to have skulks and sneaks coming in at all hours. “Don’t your sort usually present themselves to Master Roberti at the little gate?”
“I don’t know any Master Roberti,” I replied. “I report elsewhere.”
Cook’s glare did not change. “There is no Master Roberti. Good that you did not lie. Go on, then, but give me back my jelly pan.”
I handed it to her, pulled up the hood on my stolen robe, and slipped into the hallway beyond. Just as well I had not fought in the kitchen. The world needed more cooks and fewer assassins.
* * *
Beyond was a reasonably conventional layout. The Red House was a turreted folly of the sort popular in the last century of the Duke’s reign, and so did not have the sweeping, pillared front hall of so many older homes and buildings of its class. Rather, a long, full-height corridor joined the back to the front with staircases rising from each side to internal balconies on the second and third storey. There would be a ballroom nearby, a parlor, and a formal dining room. Bedrooms upstairs, with possibly another set of parlors and studios on the second floor.
All of it offices now, of course. Though this hall was empty of clerks and their files—nothing like the chaos at the Textile Bourse, where the Interim Council carried on the messy business of the city.
Realizing that I did not see bureaucrats at their work here, I understood that the Reformed Council wanted to rule, but were not so much interested in governing. While I could sympathize with that view as a matter of principle, as a practical matter, it seemed a terrible way to run a city.
Lampet would be up there, I was certain of it. He wasn’t the sort to have an easily accessible office on the ground floor. One would have to walk a distance through halls to reach him. Then wait a while.
Lacking my misappropriated jelly pan, I swept a Hanchu vase of dried roses thin and crackling as paper off a delicate Siengurae period side table and trotted up the nearest stairs. One of the best ways to be invisible in a busy place was to carry something and look certain of yourself. The people upstairs would not be jealous of their positions, and so to them a servant was just mobile furniture. All the better for remaining unnoticed.
So long as I didn’t run into any senior maids up there.
* * *
I walked at a servant’s pace—swift without hurrying—past the stairs toward the far end of the hall on the second storey. It seemed wiser to scout all the doors before I started opening them and blundering into people. At the corresponding T-intersection on the east end of the house, I turned and saw two of Lampet’s lads in their Conciliar Guard uniforms. Big lumps, as they all seemed to be.
He was the kind of leader who distrusted intelligence in his underlings. I could work with that.
“Fresh flowers for m’lord,” I muttered as I approached the door with my chin tucked down. Fresh my ass—these were dry as Mother Iron’s twat, but you work with what you have.
One of the guards huffed elaborately, then deigned to open the door.
I whispered a shy thank-you and stepped through.
* * *
Lampet’s office had been a solarium once. Angled glass formed much of the ceiling and outer wall, while light flooded across the green and white tiled floor. Unlike the rest of the house, which was paneled in classically dark wood, this room had been finished in something blond and very fine-grained. A set of green leather wingback chairs was drawn up by a fireplace that had obviously seen much use in the recent winter. A large, very clean desk stood under the window, a bar nearby displaying a generous selection of wines and liquors.
Councilor Lampet sat behind it dressed as if for a court appearance and picking at his fingernails with a letter opener—no, I realized, a stiletto much like the one the Quiet Man had tried to use against me. A killer’s weapon rather than the broad, honest blades of a fighter such as I carried. This man had always struck me as resembling a ferret. The stiletto was his fangs. Beyond that, Lampet’s pale, perfectly oiled hair and pointed face did nothing to dispel that impression.
I shuffled toward the fireplace to put down my flowers on one of the side tables by the chairs there. As I leaned forward, Lampet spoke.
“I hardly expected you to come here, young lady.”
His voice held all the vicious oiliness I’d come to associate with the man. He knew; he’d probably known since I’d arrived with Marsby’s cart. No one in the house had tipped me. They all did serve this man, body and soul.
I should have set fire in the first place and the maids be damned. For Cook, I would reserve a special place on her own roasting spit as the flames raced through her kitchen.
There was nothing for it but to face him with whatever momentum I had left. That was my fighting style, after all—to just keep hitting until everyone was down.
So I turned, palming my short knives. He wouldn’t be fooled for more than a second or two, but the long knife in its thigh scabbard was too much in this moment. “I come and go where I please,” I told him, striding toward the desk.
To my right, the door clicked open. The two guards stepped in. When I glanced at them, they now seemed quite a bit more intelligent and alert than they had out in the hallway.
“You will stop where you are,” Lampet said mildly.
I hadn’t gotten this far in life by listening to scum like him, so I stepped right up to the edge of the desk. “Or wh—?”
My question was interrupted by a meaty hand on my shoulder. I twisted away from the grip only to run into a swinging fist with my left temple.
At least it didn’t hold a blade, I thought as I staggered backwards. One of my short knives rattled on the floor until a booted foot stamped down on it. The guard with his hand now on my right arm twisted it back until my shoulder and elbow began to pop.
He was about to dislocate my joints. Then I would be under his control, nearly incapacitated by pain and dead at Lampet’s next whim.
Short knife fully in my own fist, I turned with the twist, allowing my arm to be torn from its socket in return for putting a blade in the big man’s neck from an unexpected direction. It slid in like he was made of butter. I didn’t bother to swallow my scream of unnerving pain as blood sprayed in a fountaining jet from the slashed artery. He convulsed, releasing my arm, which hung useless now.
I was already moving, spinning rapidly into the other goon who was drawing a sword of his own. In that moment, I knew I would win, because only a fool brings a sword to a knife fight. We were too damned close for the reach of his blade.
He wasn’t a total fool, however. The second guard ducked my erratic swing at his neck and got the sword between us as a shield of sorts. I slammed into his chest, tried to hug him as if we were lovers, and slipped my knife up under the back of his ring-mailed jerkin to find one of his kidneys.
The blade went in easily, but the bastard was tougher than I gave him credit for. He didn’t drop screaming. Instead, he hugged me back with his free hand, putting pressure on my dislocated shoulder. I nearly blacked out from the pain, and my knees gave way. Only my opponent’s grip kept me standing.
Lampet’s stiletto appeared before my eyes, the tip waving in a tiny circle between my face and the chest of the panting guard. At least he was in agony, too. While focusing on the weapon in front of me, I stirred my short knife inside the guard’s body.
“Sir…,” he grunted, then released me as we both collapsed. I found myself on the floor with my legs trapped beneath two hundred pounds of armored thug.
And I had lost my remaining short knife.
I concentrated on not losing consciousness as well.
The councilor stood over me now, still gripping his weapon. He looked excited—face flushed, panting, that narrow blade trembling in his hands. “You need some more scars, Mistress Green,” he whispered. “I shall give you many before we are done with each other.”
My free hand, the one not immobilized by the agonizing fire in my shoulder, slapped at the floor around me. The other short knife was here somewhere, the first one I’d dropped.
Lampet leaned down and slid the tip of the stiletto inside one of my nostrils. Oh, by the gods, I had done just this to his man. He flicked the blade up in a spray of blood and shot of exquisite agony.
My hand found something rigid. My blade? I tugged at it.
The damned sword. I did not have the leverage to lift the weapon. So I dragged it toward me, careless of the scrape upon the floor.
Lampet studied the blood on his knife. “You bleed just like everyone else.” His thin smile was terrifying. “I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but people in this city say you’re a demon from the fiery hells of the south.”
“Not all of them,” I gasped. Keep him talking, keep myself awake and aware, pull that stupid, heavy, useless sword a little closer.
“All the ones that count.”
“Do you even know any women?” I asked, then was promptly horrified at my own words. Why was I twitting this man who was working at killing me slowly? He might decide to kill me quickly.
And where are the rest of his guards? Lampet had an entire regiment at his disposal, at least in theory.
“Does it matter? You won’t see them anymore.”
He leaned close again, focusing on me. My mind raced. Was this man crazy? Cruel? Obsessed?
Not that it mattered. What he was, was standing over me with a weapon.
I noticed my grip on the sword was firm. That was good.
What was I planning to do with it? I’d had a purpose when I first grabbed it.
Something pained my nose again. A shape swam above me. Big. Threatening. Holding power over me. All I had was one arm and one sword and one chance.
He began to lean over a third time, and I shoved the overlong blade into his mouth before he came too close for me to use it.
What sort of idiot brings a sword to a knife fight, anyway?
* * *
I awoke, choking and sputtering. Blood filled my mouth. After a moment of panic, I realized it was not my blood. That created another moment of panic.
Amazingly, my head cleared, probably due to the agonizing pain from my left shoulder.
Seconds, seconds. Lampet lay next to me, heels drumming against the floor. His cheek was torn wide open. Blood poured out of his open mouth as if it were a wellspring of the stuff. A sword—no, the sword—was on the floor between us.
Time to get moving. Oh, by all the gods, I hurt.
I rolled sideways as far as I could, forcing my shoulder back where it belonged. That sensation caused my vision to fade into darkness, but I clung to consciousness. After a few deep, ragged breaths, I felt a bit more in possession of myself.
With the sword, I levered and cut my way out from under the fallen guard.
By the time I was on my feet, I looked as if I’d been through a slaughterhouse from the wrong end forward. I found one of my short knives, though bending to pick it up was a brutal experience. I slashed all three throats before me, just to make sure. I didn’t want anyone jumping up and surprising me before I could recover a bit more.
None of them bled much, so I’d probably done it right the first time.
To get out of here was another project. I’d killed my best hostage, but, well, he was still here. I dropped to my knees and sawed awhile at Lampet’s neck with the borrowed sword. This kind of work was the ruin of a good blade, no better than using it for cooking. After a while it occurred to me to use my short knife, which had kept such a wonderful edge just lately. I quickly had a piece of Lampet the size of a decent pork roast, and the oily bastard hadn’t had a damned thing to say to me while I was doing it.
“Sorry about the hair,” I whispered into one of his cold ears.
The liquor cabinet beckoned me. I did not so much want a drink as I wanted to make a fire. The office would be so much more cheerful with a bit of warming. I propped Lampet up on top of a wine bottle, using the slender neck to support his head from within his own ragged throat.
“Thank you for stocking so much of the distilled drinks,” I told him. “Unlike wine, some of that will burn.”
He stared back at me, but still didn’t have much to say.
Opening the blessed things one-handed was difficult but not impossible. Glass breaks, after all. I went through them as best I could, sniffing to see how high the proof was if I didn’t recognize the contents by scent or the shape of the bottle.
What would burn, I poured out on Lampet’s desk. Why the man didn’t have the decency to keep drapes I could set alight, I did not know. No books, either. What kind of mind kept an office with no books in it?
Eventually I had a decent puddle dripping across the finished cherrywood and down into the drawers. “Stay here,” I told Lampet, then staggered to the fireplace, where there were lucifer matches among the tools.
That set a nice pale flame going on the desk. It was the best I could do just then.
“Are you being ready to go?” I realized I was speaking Seliu, which Lampet didn’t understand. So I apologized in Petraean. “I’m sorry, I don’t meant to be rude.”
With my good hand, I managed to wedge his hair into the fingers of my bad hand. His dead weight at the end of my arm was a screaming horror, but I very much needed to carry a weapon that I could have some hope of using. Threatening people with a dead councilor didn’t seem very helpful.
“And we are off.” Short knife in my grip, it was difficult to open the door, but I didn’t want to put anything down for fear I would not be able to pick it up once more. The office was already filling with smoke, so I turned around and went to the glass wall of the solarium instead. Fewer guards that way, too.
I smashed the butt of my short knife into one of the big windows. The glass starred, then shattered outward. Some halfway decent kicks cleared the framing until the hole was big enough for me to step through. I looked down at a small garden about a rod below me.
“You think I can make the drop?” I asked the councilor.
A surprised yard boy looked up at me. So I jumped down upon him.
Lampet’s servants deserved no mercy, either.
* * *
A few blocks away, I turned to see a column of smoke rising behind me. It wasn’t much, and they’d surely have the flames out soon, but I promised myself that if I had time before I sailed to Kalimpura, I’d go back and do a proper job of burning out the Red House and everyone in it. Even the accursed maids. And especially Cook.
For now, all I could do was keep walking. It did amaze me how many people found business elsewhere at my approach. I kept up a running chatter with Lampet, whose conversation seemed much improved over my previous experiences of him.
Under the old Duke, a bloody woman carrying a severed head would probably have been stopped in the street. These days, well, the world wasn’t quite the same.
Which was fine with me.
By the time I reached the Textile Bourse on Lyme Street, I was singing both halves of a duet with Lampet and being followed by a crowd of small boys. No one was guarding the entrance there anymore, and they still hadn’t fixed the place up properly from the last time I’d damaged it.
Well, the last two times.
I banged through the front door, shouting about the sorry state of affairs in Copper Downs, and swung Lampet around to give him a good look at the mob of clerks and their assistants who had all glanced up at my entrance. They did not make me feel welcome.
“Nast,” I said, dredging names up from a memory that had grown unaccountably fuzzy. “Or Jeschonek. Now.”
Somehow my short knife was still in my good hand. I wondered where my other one had gotten to—I was sure to miss it soon. More than two dozen pairs of eyes watched the tip waver as I pointed toward the black and white marble stairs. My friend smelled funny, I realized, though it was far too soon for him to have begun to rot in earnest.
“In chambers, Lady Green,” someone finally said in a choked voice.
“Brilliant.” I lurched into motion, slipped briefly on some blood that had pooled on the floor. “And get someone to clean this place up. You people are pigs.”
* * *
They were no happier to see me upstairs, but someone must have rung a bell or suchlike, because the upper hall with its senior clerks and Important People was mostly cleared when I reached the top landing. Mr. Nast, chief clerk of the Interim Council and a dreadfully thin man with a mind as narrow as a ruler and sharp as one of my knives, stood at the far end before the door decorated with stained glass images illustrating the wonders of felt.
“You have never placed your faith in appointments.” His voice was freighted with disapproval as I staggered down the hall toward him.
Lampet was becoming heavy, but he was my passport into the meeting I planned to have next. “I brought my own councilor,” I said brightly.
“So you did. Councilor Jeschonek and Councilor Staggs are meeting now over the disposition of the gate tax.” He took a long glance at my little friend dangling in my hand, then: “I don’t suppose you’d be prepared to wait.”
By now I was nose to nose with the man. Nast was one of the few people in Copper Downs for whom I had any true respect, but at the moment he was just being ridiculous. “Do I look like I am prepared to wait?” I pulled my short knife away from his face with a muttered apology. “Besides, this city doesn’t even have gates.”
Nast sighed theatrically, opened the door, and announced me. “The Lady Green, to see Councilor Jeschonek.”
“I thought—” Rising from his chair with a look of irritation on his face, Jeschonek interrupted himself on seeing me. He was as big and blond as ever, still looking the part of a man who’d worked the docks all his life before entering the rougher trade of politics.
Lampet’s head landed on the table with a meaty thump. “I have once more resolved the governance of this city in your favor,” I said. “Councilor Lampet was uncooperative.” Carefully I tucked my short knife way, with a curious glace at Councilor Staggs, who’d risen to his feet along with Jeschonek. I’d never heard of him before. He had a mixed complexion and almond eyes, as if his grandmother had been Hanchu, and he was dressed like any prosperous merchant of this city might be—dark woolen pants, bloused pale silk shirt with a maroon-edged ruffle, and a cutaway clawhammer coat in a similar maroon. Somewhere nearby would be a tall furred hat; I was just certain of it.
“You look like a steward,” I told him.
Staggs opened his mouth to reply, but Jeschonek urgently waved him to silence. Then: “You may have done us a great service here, Green.” He eyed Lampet, who stared back blankly. “Though as usual, I must wonder at the cost.”
“Oh, the Red House is not finished paying.” My vision was beginning to cloud, darkness creeping in, and my left arm had transitioned from flaring pain to an alarming dullness. “I owe them another visit before I depart this city.”
“I would take it as a great favor if you would refrain from setting fire to or otherwise destroying any more of our city’s historic buildings.”
Offhand, I couldn’t recall the last time I’d destroyed a historic building, but I took his point. Oddly, my thinking was becoming more clear even as the pain and horror of the past hour were overtaking my consciousness.
“Now I must make my leave,” I said shortly. “With luck, I shall never return to Copper Downs.” Simply remaining standing seemed to be an increasingly great trial.
“Let us all hope for luck.” Jeschonek stepped close, braced my arm, then to both our surprise, I am certain, drew me into a tight hug. “You are the bravest, strangest woman I ever knew,” he whispered in my ear. “Now leave these shores before someone finally succeeds in killing you.”
“You’re lucky I already put my knife away,” I whispered back as he released me.
I received the first genuine smile I’d seen on Jeschonek in the time since the whole Federo mess had started. He took my words for what I’d intended, and I realized there was another man here I respected as much as Mr. Nast.
Nodding at Councilor Staggs, I stumbled back into the hall. I left Councilor Lampet with his fellows. Though I would miss my little talks with the bastard. At the last, he had become a great listener. Much better than he had been in life, I was certain of it.
Nast had two decently sized young fellows set to prop me up. “Chives and Innerny will escort you where you need to go, Lady Green.” He showed me a thick folder tied with twine. “Your repatriation bonds, and papers for passage aboard the kettle ship Prince Enero. She sails tomorrow for Lost Port and then Kalimpura.”
“How did you know to book me passage?” I asked through a deepening sense of haze.
“I have booked you passage on every departing ship these past four months. Please believe me that it has been very much worth the effort. Good-bye, young lady. I wish you well.”
From him, I believed that.
We stumbled down the stars, my decently sized young fellows and I. “Bustle Street,” I murmured. They seemed to take my meaning.
The lower floor clapped for me as I left. I was glad to note a boy with a mop cleaning the mess by the door.
* * *
When we reached the Bustle Street Lazaret, I was reciting ancient doggerel from the Portfolio Indicus. Summoning the last of my otherwise-vanished strength, I banged on the well-used armored door, shouting, “Drinks for me and my men, by the nether hells, or I’ll have the place down around your ears.”
I was standing only by virtue of Chives and Cream, or whatever their names were.
In retrospect, I might have chosen a calmer approach. Still, the small, barred viewing port opened and a crossbow pointed out, to be replaced almost immediately by a concerned face. “Green?”
“None other, and her brothers,” I announced.
Cream, or maybe Chives, leaned close. “With the Interim Council’s compliments, ma’am, and we’re very much hoping you can take care of her. She’s been hurt bad, and has gone out of her head.”
The door swung open and I was snatched within. “You’re all over blood,” a voice exclaimed. “Is it hers?” another voice asked anxiously. Someone shouted for hot water and a filled bath.
I cried for strong drink until they gave it to me. In the bath my breasts leaked milk and I cried for my babies until someone fetched them, along with Ponce and a small knot of acolytes. Nursing my children, I cried for sleep until they left me alone in crisp sheets with my pains and my family.
Lastly, I cried for Lampet, though I could not even now say why, all these years later.
* * *
I awoke some hours later. My body was a giant bruise. Federo and Marya slept, blessedly. There was something that badly needed doing, but I had lost track of it. So I fell asleep again, instead.
Morning brought Euphronia, the scarred fat woman who minded the door and kept the business affairs of the lazaret. With her she had Ilona carrying a bowl of gruel, along with a plate featuring a slice of rough, dark bread and an old horse apple. Not that the babies wanted that, but she’d procured goat’s milk as well for them, in a sugar tit.
Sitting up hurt like fire. My nose itched abominably. Still, I was so pleased to see Ilona. My heart skipped a bit, and I could not wait for her to offer me the food so I could breathe in her scent.
I allowed her to place a spoon in my mouth over and over. It would be a while before my left arm worked properly, and my right was busy holding Marya. Besides, it felt good to have her tending me closely.
“We stitched your nostrils last night,” Ilona told me.
“They hurt,” I complained. I was embarrassed at the petulance in my voice.
Euphronia gave me a strange look. “A lot more than that should hurt, judging by your bruises. And you had enough blood on you to make corpses of several others.”
“Only one or two,” I said, feeling sullen. No one ever believed in what I did. “Or maybe three,” I added in a burst of honesty. Then, to make up for it: “I fell while visiting a friend.”
Ilona snorted. “And the fire at the Red House was a coincidence.”
Memory flashed into being in a flood of embarrassed triumph. She knew me too well, and besides, we’d shared the same hardheaded education in political and social realities back at the Factor’s house. “Those bastards arranged the attack on you at the Temple of Endurance.”
“Ah,” she said. “What did you do about it, precisely?”
“I had an edgy conversation with Councilor Lampet of the Reformed Council.” I giggled. “I suspect they do not have a quorum anymore. And I turned Lampet over to the Interim Council.”
What had happened to my promise to stay out of the politics of the city?
Well, the politics of the city had not stayed out of me, for one thing.
Another memory stirred. “There is a folder. Where is it?”
Ilona pointed at a sheaf of documents on a small table beside my bed. “This?”
“Please,” I said. “Read it. I believe that I have passage on a ship to Kalimpura. We will need more, for you and Ponce and the babies, as well as Mothers Vajpai and Argai.” Guilty, I recalled Ilona’s own circumstances. “How are the two of you?”
“My head aches,” Ilona said simply. “And Mother Argai is still ill with whatever drug or poison was used on her.”
“He was a Quiet Man.” I knew only what Ghuji had told me, which was little enough, but if they used poisons, they were even more dangerous and despicable than I had realized.
“And you dealt with him.” Her voice was soft, but her face pained. “I thank you for my life, Green.”
It was clear enough what truly troubled her. “We are leaving soon to reclaim your daughter.”
Ilona glanced down at the papers. “On this afternoon’s tide!” she exclaimed. “Two cabins aboard Prince Enero.”
I tried to sit up, but my left arm simply would not take my weight. Then the agony from even making that effort overcame me completely.
When my words came back to me, everyone was already in motion. I tried to give some instructions, but no one seemed to want them. Even my suggestion about securing a third cabin was already under discussion before I had managed to make it.
Finally I simply lay back and let them arrange these next steps. Clearly, I could not do everything today. For a while I worried about Marya’s silk, and mine which I had not sewn last night either, but I realized Ilona would not forget those.
My only real regret was not paying another call on the Red House before my departure. I did not regret failing to give Councilor Lampet funerary rites, though I did find myself promising to pay my respects to the shades of his guards.
* * *
They took me down to the docks around midday in the back of an ice wagon that had been pressed into service. The bed was covered with a canvas top, and filled with damp straw, clumps of sawdust, and thick, wet blankets. Ilona and Mother Vajpai came along. My babies did not.
“Where are the children?” I asked, suppressing a flash of panic that Marya and Federo had not been brought down with me. They’d been taken away not half an hour before, “to be changed.”
“Ponce took the babies,” Ilona said with a glance at Mother Vajpai, who nodded. “With the training handle.”
Interesting. “Are we in this much danger?”
Mother Vajpai snorted. “Someone killed a councilor of this city yesterday. There are groups of very angry armed men about searching for the culprit.”
“… and all three of our Lily Blades are disabled,” I said, finishing the thought. Mother Vajpai would probably never be a fully effective fighter again, Mother Argai was reportedly quite ill, and I could not move my left arm, nor overcome a headache that made my skull feel far too large and far too soft.
“Even the Interim Council’s thugs cannot do much once we are aboard,” Ilona added. “Prince Enero is a Sunward kettle ship. They have much better weapons than anyone in Copper Downs.”
Which was true. I was aware of the rumors of firearms and lightning jars and bombs-of-fire. Michael Curry carried such a weapon, small enough to be held in his hand, when I had slain him aboard Crow Wing. The Stone Coast had only the most primitive and useless guns, as much a danger to their wielder as anyone. Very few here found reason to trifle with purchasing a better quality from afar. Likewise Selistan, where even matters of violence tended to be resolved very personally, and ideally with considerable finesse.
Politics did not benefit from blowing up palaces. Well, except in the case of the Red House.
So I sat back and listened to our progress, trying to gain a sense of the route the drover took by gauging the surrounding noises and odors, and heeding the changing echoes of the cobbles, pavers, and bricks that had become so familiar beneath my feet.
* * *
At the docks, Prince Enero was moored alongside the Gramonde Wharf. That was a bit interesting in its own right, as Gramonde handled very little cargo, instead servicing the quiet ships of the wealthy, as well as courier packets and other vessels whose masters desired limited attention from those on shore. As a side benefit of that, Gramonde also enjoyed far less of the fish-guts-and-tide-wrack reek that characterized so much of any working waterfront.
Did the Harbormaster play a role in this? Paulus Jessup had been cagey about the politics of the city since the fall of the Duke some four years past. Or perhaps the ship’s captain simply liked paying higher mooring fees and demurrage.
The ice wagon clattered slowly away from where we’d been dropped off. The women around me gathered baggage and checked papers while I took my last look at Copper Downs. It was nice to be free of my own responsibilities for once.
I found to my own surprise that I was sorry to be leaving. Even from there I could spot many familiar landmarks. The sense of direction in my head supplied more hidden from view by the folds of land or the sides of warehouses. The last remaining section of the ancient wall, now marking the boundary of the Ivory Quarter well within the city’s current extents. To the east, the Dockmarket edging down to the water. A string of familiar taverns. The ridge to the north where the Duke’s old palace stood, not to mention the Red House.
The Temple Quarter was far away, as was the Velviere District and the Temple of Endurance there. I had not bidden a proper farewell to the ox god, but I knew he would understand. Most of my good-byes had been rushed or omitted. This city did not want to let me go.
“We must board, Green,” said Mother Vajpai gently in Seliu. Her hand lay upon my good right arm. My left arm we had bound up for this trip across town, judging the constraint less painful and dangerous than the possibility of me being jarred along the way, or catching myself against the gate of the wagon or a stray rope while boarding.
“Not yet.” I had one more departure to observe. “I’ll want a candle, some matches, and, well, some wine or flowers.”
“There is no one to woo here.”
Humor? Now? I shot Mother Vajpai a hard look. “If you will not help me in this, give me an obol or two and let me sort it for myself. I’ll be perhaps thirty minutes.”
Mother Vajpai appealed to Ilona, saying in her passable Petraean, “She wants a candle and a flower.”
Ilona shrugged, casting me a rueful smile. “This is Green.” She called over Wencilla, one of our escorts from the Bustle Street Lazaret’s developing handle—a promising girl of strong frame unlikely to marry well, as she lacked both family and beauty. “Please fetch Mother Green a candle and a flower.”
“And lucifer matches,” I said. “Wine if you cannot find a few blossoms.”
Wencilla nodded and trotted off. A chandler would carry what I needed, but only if I wished a box of candles or a cask of wine. She might have better luck with a decently stocked tavern.
This was not my problem, either.
I sat down on a pitted iron bollard and watched Ponce pass my children and their bags back and forth with another young woman from the lazaret while they readied for the ship. I would need to feed the babies soon, I knew from my own aches, but not out here on the Gramonde Wharf.
Where the bags had come from, I did not know. All our belongings had burned with the tent. The mysterious, collaborative economy of women had produced them, no doubt, through the lazaret and its many friends both high and low in this city. I had never really been a part of that connection, having not been raised with an open kitchen door out of which to pass gossip or just the hours.
Still, I respected the connection. It was the same sisterhood, after all, in its deepest form, that stood behind first Marya-the-late-goddess, and then Mother Iron who followed her. It was my great hope that Marya-my-infant-daughter would take her place among that world someday.
For my children, I realized, I prized ordinariness above all things. This city had been captor and prison and fighting pit for me. Kalimpura would with any luck at all simply be home for them.
My thoughts darkened in that vein until Wencilla returned with two fat beeswax candles only a little burned down; a box of lucifer matches; a pair of small, early roses; and a half-empty bottle of wine. All of it was in a string bag a woman could carry one-handed.
“I judged speed more important than the finest quality,” she said by way of apology.
“You judged correctly,” I replied in my kindest voice. Her basic common sense cheered me somewhat. “I will return,” I told her, as well as Mother Vajpai, who hovered nearby.
A watergate opened from Below near the Gramonde Wharf, but I did not just then have the ability to make the climb down to it. Not with my left arm so thoroughly useless. I knew of a grating on Montrose Street, the road that ran a block inland parallel to these docks, but again, I did not think I could lift my way into it. I glanced at Wencilla. “Will you come with me part of the way?”
Prince Enero’s kettle whistle shrieked a long blast, follow by two short. She would be sailing within the hour. There was not much time.
We walked swiftly as I could but in silence. I pretended at a peace I did not yet, or perhaps would never, feel. Montrose Street was lined with go-downs and the offices of small traders and freight brokers and the like, along with the sorts of businesses that catered in turn to them and their clients. There were far more horses tied up here than were in similar places in Kalimpura, where most people managed their affairs on foot. Quite a few carts, too, but I realized I saw the mounts of both couriers and men of substance.
The grating was in a little stretch of ragged grass, just behind a statue of Lord Shallot slaying the Great Worm. The statue itself was covered with bird droppings and painted scrawls, and not been attended to for far more years than I had been alive.
That was fine with me.
“Can you please open the grate?” I asked Wencilla.
She studied the metal. “There is a lock.”
Surprised, I looked. Someone had indeed brazed a hasp to the metalwork and placed a new lock. A rush of frustrated anger reddened my vision. I did not know who might have done that or why, and in this moment I silently cursed them.
I set down my string bag and drew my remaining short knife to see if I could flick at either the hasp or the lock’s loop. It was a dreadful thing to do to a good blade, but time was short and getting shorter.
To my shock, the hasp cut loose under a light pressure from my short knife. Pulling it back to study the shiny, fresh-sliced metal, I recalled that the god Blackblood’s own blood had stained my pair of blades.
And they had cut all too well since then. Frighteningly so. If I had not been so hurried and distracted, I would have seen it already for myself.
Thoughtfully, I slid the point into a gap in the grate. With a bit of effort, I cut one of the cross bars in two.
This. I’d had two weapons like this, and in my stupor after the fight there had left one of them behind at the Red House. I hoped Councilor Lampet appreciated the mighty grave gift I never intended to send with him from this world.
With luck, someone had simply put it away, or dropped it in the smith’s scrap bin. I hated to think of this knife’s mate loose in Copper Downs. I hated even more to think of it not in my hands.
I sat back while Wencilla opened the grate. Fortunate, that she was strong and large enough to heft the dead weight of the rusted metal. One-handed and slow, I managed to descend the ladder. At my request, she came partway down with the string bag, then scuttled back up once I’d claimed my burden. The stinking darkness of Below required a certain familiarity before one could be remotely comfortable within it.
A few steps away from the dim light of the grate’s shaft, I squatted down and began my ritual. At least this bit of tunnel was not a flowing sewer. Small blessings were where you found them.
I set out my candles, closed my eyes against the flare of the match, then lit the tapers. Fire Below was generally a very bad idea for several quite sensible reasons, but I needed to do this. I placed the flowers before the candles, scattered a few drops of wine, and put the bottle between them. Finally I pricked my finger—for I was afraid to slit my palm with this god-struck blade, lest it rip my hand all the way through unintended—and bled a few drops with the wine.
Libation, among the oldest ceremonies; candles for honor and prayer; and flowers for the women who were protected by Desire and Her daughters.
“Mother Iron,” I said aloud. “You hear me, I am certain.” Such prayers were never wrong, because an inattentive god would know no different, while one who was present would be pleased by the flattery. “I am leaving this place. Leaving you behind, along with all the others who have touched me, or whom I have touched.” I squeezed a few more drops of blood. “Grant whatever protection is yours for the passage ahead, both to me and those who travel with me. Let Laris and the women of the lazaret serve you as best they can, and watch over them and all women here. And finally, I thank you.”
I added a scattering of tears to the offering, then rose on creaking knees with my balance upset to walk back to the ladder.
Before I mounted the slimed metal rungs, I looked back. One of the candles had gone out already. The other guttered in a gust of hot, metal-scented air that reached me like an oven door had been slammed open.
She was close by, then, my tulpa-turned-goddess. I wished her well against the Saffron Tower should they send more agents after the defeated Iso and Osi, and began to climb. Beneath my feet, a great, muscled hand stripped of its flesh touched the lowest rung, visible in the light from above.
So Skinless had been watching over me as well. And through him, the god Blackblood.
I looked down and said, “Farewell, friend. May you find whatever it is you desire most from your god.”
Once above, Wencilla replaced the grate and we hurried back to the ship before she cast off without us. My babies needed me, and I desperately wanted more time to rest, and a cabin to rest in. Kalimpura was two or three weeks’ voyage distant, depending on weather and the seas. I had no illusions that I would be fully prepared for my return there, no matter how long the voyage took.
Copyright © 2013 by Joseph E. Lake, Jr.