Read an Excerpt
By Larke, Glenda
OrbitCopyright © 2011 Larke, Glenda
All right reserved.
Qanatend Hall, Level Two
Lord Jasper Bloodstone stood at the window of Qanatend’s stormquest room. His eyes were closed, his mind focused, his body tense. He ignored the feel of small amounts of water on the steep slopes of the devastated city below, and scattered across the plains beyond the walls, and concentrated instead on the larger mass he had created.
When he opened his eyes, it was to gaze through the open shutters towards the peaks of the Warthago Range. A distant billow of dark cloud was a blotch on the blue, like the smudge of a god’s thumb.
The strain eased out of his shoulders and his hands uncurled. Silly to tense up like that, but this cloud had been brought a long way from the sea. His toughest stormshift ever. He glanced back at the waterpainting on the table behind him, then again at the scene outside; they were identical. “We did it,” he said. Already someone in the streets below had spotted the cloud. He heard them calling out, drawing attention to it, followed by joyful laughter.
“More you than me.” Terelle came up behind him to massage his shoulders, easing away the knots, the tenderness in her touch a balm to his worries. “Without you, my waterpainting would go horribly wrong, and you know it.”
She sounded tired, and he was reminded how much shuffling up exhausted her. How long would they be able to continue to bring water to the whole Quartern? Two people, supplying everyone? It was impossible! “Why don’t you rest for a bit,” he suggested, indicating the sofa in front of the fireplace at the other end of the room, “while I get this rain where I want it?”
“Mm. I think I will,” she said. She removed the painting from the paint tray, crumpling it in her hands. “Who’s getting the water?”
“Golderrun. It’s one of the far northern dunes.”
He watched as she walked to the other end of the long room to throw the ruin of the painting into the empty fireplace. Using the contents of the tinderbox on the mantelpiece, she set fire to it. The paint curled, then crackled and sputtered, burning with rainbow colours as the resin within caught fire. He wondered if it assaulted her artistic soul to destroy her own creation, even though they’d agreed it was necessary.
“I wish I could just acknowl—” he began.
She silenced him with a gesture. “We’ve said it all before.”
“You have, anyway.”
“I’m a terrible scold.”
People must have confidence in their stormlord, she’d said. Better they don’t know about me, not yet. All true, but to take sole credit for something they did together just felt… rotten.
“Wake me when you’ve finished,” she said, and sank down out of sight on the sofa. She was asleep almost immediately.
Turning to his task of moving the rain-laden cloud, he concentrated on keeping it together on its passage over the dunes. Pebblered first, then Widowcrest, Wrecker, Sand-singer… He worked on, but was interrupted long before the storm reached Golderrun.
Someone knocked at the door with the imperious rapping of a person who did not intend to be denied entry. Jerked away from his focus, he almost lost his hold on the water vapour. Cursing under his breath, he halted the movement of the cloud.
He didn’t need to open the door to know who was on the other side, or to know they were all people of power: Iani Potch, now Highlord of Scarcleft, Ouina, who was Highlord of Breakaway, and two other rainlords, both priests from other Scarpen cities. Finally, worst of all, Basalt. He called himself Lord Gold now, even though the Council of Waterpriests had not yet confirmed him as the Quartern Sunpriest.
Pedeshit, how he loathed that sanctimonious hypocrite. You sun-fried idiot, Jasper. You forgot to bar the door.
Terelle popped up to peer over the back of the sofa. She blinked sleepily at him, eyebrows raised in query. He shook his head at her and indicated she should stay out of sight. Eyes widening, she ducked down.
He steeled himself for what was to come. In theory, as a stormlord and their only potential Cloudmaster, he outranked them all. In practice, they were all wealthy Scarpen nobility who were twice his age—while a few short years ago he’d been Shale Flint, Gibber grubber and waterless settle brat. Their respect for him was patchy.
Lord Gold didn’t wait for him to answer the door but marched in, his priests and the two highlords trailing behind.
“You wanted to see me?” he asked, barely polite. “I’m stormshifting at the moment. Can’t it wait?”
Basalt flushed purple. “No, it cannot!” he roared. “Do you think we can’t sense what you’re doing?”
“You’re all rainlords, so I’m sure you can. But why should my stormshifting bother you?”
“You’re sending water into the Red Quarter.”
Jasper’s mouth went dry. So that was it. “Yes. That’s my duty, as Cloudmaster.”
“You aren’t the Cloudmaster yet, you sandworm!”
“There aren’t exactly any other contenders for the position.”
“And I doubt your piety, even though you call yourself Bloodstone and wear the Martyr’s Stone as if you have a right to it!”
Jasper’s fingers went to the greenstone pendant around his neck. Flecked with red, such stones were said by the pious to be stained with Ash Gridelin’s blood. This one he’d found himself.
His baby sister, Citrine, had clutched it as she died…
“My lords, please,” one of the waterpriests said, his tone placating. “That’s not the issue here.”
Basalt turned his cold stare on the man, who faltered. Iani stepped between the priests to speak, his palsied hand trembling like a sand dancer in a mirage, his lip weeping dribble.
Oh, sandhells, Jasper thought, steeling himself to meet the misery in the man’s eyes.
“Jasper, look around you at what was done to this city,” Iani said, pulling him to the window. “Where are the people? Where are the children? Where’s my Moiqa?” The last question he answered himself, chin quivering. “They nailed her to the gate while she was alive. Did you know that? Her blood is still there, staining the wood. You can see it. Kaneth carried her remains up to the House of the Dead…” His voice trailed away. The tremor in his hand began to shake his body.
He swallowed the bile that rose in his gorge. “Iani, I am truly sorry, but—”
“How can you send those murdering red bastards water? How can you!”
His anguish made Jasper wince.
Lord Ouina took up the argument where Iani left off, her anger roiling behind the glint of her eyes and the contempt of her tone. “They’ll think us weak, you sand-wit. They’ll send their armsmen after us all over again. Their sunblighted army wrecked our tunnels and maintenance shafts, so why not make them thirst? Have you baked your brains too long in the sun? Do you want them to come back again and take whatever we have left? The next time it could be my city that suffers.”
“Not all Reduners are coloured with the same dust,” he protested. “They didn’t all support Sandmaster Davim in the past and they don’t all support Sandmaster Ravard now. Would you have them all thirst, even their children, because some among them are murderers?”
“Yes!” Iani’s dribble spattered them both as he shook an agitated finger. “If they’d been kept busy hunting water before, they would never have had time to attack us. Qanatend would not have fallen, nor Breccia either. Moiqa would still be alive, and Highlord Nealrith and Cloudmaster Granthon.” He dabbed at the spittle running from his permanently sagging lip.
“If I cut their water, they’ll steal more from our cisterns,” Jasper replied. “Then they’ll come and batter at our gates.”
“No they won’t,” Basalt said, “because now we are the victors. We should assert our strength and beat them into the ground, the godless heathens that they are.”
“I thought the problem you had with them was that they had too many gods,” Jasper said mildly and then berated himself. Being facetious might be satisfying, but it was only going to make Basalt hate him all the more. He hurried on. “If I cut their water, it’ll be those who support us who suffer first and most. My lords, please, you’re wasting your time. The moment we think it’s all right for Reduner children to die by our actions because they are Reduner, we lose our own humanity. I won’t do it.”
“Children grow up,” Ouina said. “Reduner children become the Davims and Ravards of this world.”
“It’s because of Ravard, isn’t it?” Basalt glared at Jasper, his anger barely under control. “That’s why you continue to water the dunes. Because he’s your brother. Have your family ties warped your judgement?”
Jasper’s eyebrows shot up, his astonishment genuine. “You’re accusing me of being a traitor?” The surprise was followed by a stab of fear. Basalt was a powerful man, soon perhaps to be even more so. He needed to be careful, yet resolute. Sunblast it, that’s not easy. Basalt was now in full spate like a rush down a drywash. Damn whoever told him Ravard was my brother. He had no idea who it could have been; a number of armsmen could have heard the tail end of his conversation with Mica during the battle for the mother cistern.
“My waterpriests saw you talking to Ravard during the battle,” Basalt said. “Talking! When you should have been killing him. Maybe Lord Kaneth is hand in hand with you on this too—didn’t he let the defeated Reduners ride by the walls of this very city without molesting them? And we know why, don’t we? Lord Ryka persuaded him. Because she was sharing Ravard’s bed!”
His reasoning was so outrageous, Jasper laughed.
“That’s enough!” It was Iani who intervened. “Are you shrivelled, Basalt? If it hadn’t been for Lord Jasper, there wouldn’t have been a victory. If it hadn’t been for Lord Kaneth, Qanatend would still be in Dune Watergatherer’s clutches. Anyway, it was Vara Redmane who forbade the attack on the defeated dunesmen, not Kaneth.”
“What makes you say that? You weren’t even there.” No hint of conciliation tinged Basalt’s tone. “Now turn that storm around, Jasper, and put the rain in the Qanatend catchment area.”
In answer, Jasper started the cloud moving again—towards the north. Basalt and Ouina immediately glanced to the window, outrage on their faces.
“You—you—Gibber upstart! How dare you defy a Sunpriest of the one true faith?” Basalt asked.
Jasper hoped the look he gave the Sunpriest was calm and steady, because it certainly wasn’t how he felt. He wanted to slam his fist into the bastard’s stomach. He wanted to tear off the man’s priestly robes and tell him he wasn’t fit to wear them. And most of all, he wanted to ram the lies about Mica and Ryka down his throat until he choked on them.
I will never back down on this. Never. And I’ll see you in a waterless hell first.
“The storm goes north,” he said. “Now, if you don’t mind…” He gestured towards the door.
Iani took the hint and ushered the waterpriests out. Basalt and Ouina both stood their ground. Iani hesitated, then shrugged, saying as he left, “I hope we don’t all live to regret your decision, Jasper, the way we lived to regret Cloudmaster Granthon’s.” The words were not so much accusatory as genuinely sorrowful.
Which hurts worse than anything Basalt could say. Jasper held the door open and looked pointedly at Basalt and Ouina. “I think we’ve said everything there is to be said, my lords.”
“Well, I haven’t,” Ouina said. “You’re witless, Jasper. You’d do well to look hard at your friends. Kaneth and Ryka have thrown their lot in with the Reduners. She always was a lover of all that was red, and sleeping in Ravard’s tent has tipped her over the edge. Worse, Kaneth has a head injury and thinks he’s some sort of mythical Reduner hero and your friendship with a snuggery girl of dubious origins is not helping you see things from a proper perspective.” With that, she stalked from the room, her back rigid with indignation.
Jasper gaped after her. Ryka and Mica? Where did they get that idea? And Kaneth, crazy? He wasn’t crazy; far from it. They’d spoken at length, several times, since his own Scarpen forces had descended from the Qanatend mother cistern and found Kaneth and Vara already in possession of the city.
Basalt stared at him through narrowed eyes. His hand clutched at the heavy gold sunburst hanging around his neck, symbol of the Quartern Sunpriest. He held it away from him as if it was emanating rays of holiness from its metallic heart towards Jasper. “A warning, Bloodstone. I believe you’ve been influenced by evil ideas from the east, and I will battle to wrest you away from wrongdoing. Your duty is to men and women of the one true faith.” Those words said, he kissed the sunburst and marched from the room, his embroidered robes sweeping the flagstones behind him.
Jasper closed the door with a sigh. “You can sit up now,” he said.
“Am I the evil influence from the east?” Terelle asked. She looked shaken.
“Probably. Don’t take any notice of him.”
“He scares me.”
He flung himself down on the sofa beside her. “He can’t hurt us. He can just make things withering irksome.” But if that’s all, why does he worry the innards out of me? “I don’t understand where this silly idea about Lord Ryka and Ravard comes from, though.”
She didn’t reply.
“It’s so ridiculous.”
“Shale,” she said, and then stopped.
He turned his head to look at her, rejecting all her silence said. “No. I don’t believe it.”
“Kaneth’s men, the ones who were slaves—they talk.”
It can’t be true. Ryka’s a good ten years older than he is. She’s a rainlord. Anyway, he wouldn’t do that. Not Mica.
But Terelle would never say anything unless it was true…
“Shale, she was a slave. Kaneth was too hurt to help her. She stayed for him, and the only way a slave gets to stay alive is to do what they’re told.”
Appalled, the pain more than he could bear, he jumped to his feet and strode to the window, to lean on the sill and drag in the air as if his lungs were starving. This can’t be right. If it is, I don’t want to know it. I don’t want to think of Ryka and—Oh, weeping shit, how could he?
Deep, calming breaths.
“Don’t forget the cloud,” she said.
Terelle, ever prosaic and practical. He’d forgotten it. Cursing under his breath, he located it again and had to work to pull the teased edges inwards. She watched him, troubled.
He wanted to say loving things, but—convinced they would sound silly on his tongue—didn’t give voice to them. All he managed was a softly spoken, “I don’t know what I will do without you.”
She gave a little nod, as if to tell him she understood, but she looked ill. “It won’t be forever,” she said. “I—excuse me.” She walked to the door, smiling over her shoulder, but her posture was unnaturally stiff. “Be back in a moment.”
He swore again when she was gone, at himself this time. His careless words had made her think about staying with him instead of going back to her great-grandfather. That was all it took to make her sick, all it took to make Russet’s waterpainted magic assert its domination over her. That horrible old man had painted her in Khromatis and the painting was pulling her there before she was older than his depiction of her.
He dropped his head into his hands. When she’d gone, who would help him to stormshift? They—and the whole of the Quartern—were in such a mess, and no matter which way he looked, he couldn’t see a way out.
The moment Terelle stepped outside the room and shut the door, she leaned against the wall with her eyes closed. Pain griped her stomach. She wrapped her arms around her waist and slid down the wall until she was sitting on her heels.
Think about going to Khromatis… Think about going to Russet. You’ll feel better then. You’ll meet him in Samphire as you promised…
She opened her eyes to see Feroze Khorash, the Alabaster saltmaster, looking down at her, his pale eyes concerned. “Are ye all right? Ye’re as pale as my pede.”
She shook her head.
“Russet’s magic making ye ill again?”
She nodded. “I was on my way to the privy.”
He reached down and helped her to her feet. “There’s one just along here, if I remember rightly.” Leaning on him and still clutching her stomach, she made it just in time.
After throwing up, she rejoined Feroze in the passage. He handed her a kerchief and his water skin. “What happened to make ye sick?” he asked.
“I just—just wanted to stay with Jasper so badly. It overwhelmed the feeling I have to get to Khromatis.”
“A war inside ye, eh? Nasty. Terelle, our Alabaster forces will be leaving for Samphire soon. Ye could come with us.”
“No, I can’t. I have to complete enough waterpaintings to last Jasper while I’m gone and I must see the inside of the Breccian stormquest room to do them.”
“Ah. So how long before we see ye in Samphire?”
“A third of a cycle perhaps? No more than half a year, for sure. When I left Russet, he said we had a year to get me to the place where he painted me.” She handed back his kerchief and water skin. “Thank you. I’m better now.”
“Jasper doesn’t know ye get so sick still, does he?”
She shook her head, more vigorously this time. “And he mustn’t. You mustn’t tell him, Feroze, please. He has so many problems already. He already worries quite enough about me.”
“Ye must learn not to be yearning too much for what ye cannot yet have.”
They exchanged rueful smiles.
She watched him walk away, a kind man who held an innate sorrow within. As far as she knew, he had no family, no lover. His life appeared to be governed by his reverence for his God and his loyalty to his land and the Bastion. There must have been much more to him, but she’d never found it. As he vanished around the corner of the passage, she wondered, not for the first time, where she’d seen that same shrewd, amused look in another set of pale eyes rimmed with white lashes. Whose?
She couldn’t remember.
An armsman brought Jasper a note from Terelle a little later, to say that she was helping out down in the kitchens and wouldn’t be back. Without thinking—because thinking would have paralysed him into inaction—he asked the armsman to find Lord Ryka and ask if she had a moment to spare.
When she arrived a little later, his heart dropped queasily. Both of them had come. Ryka and Kaneth. He unbarred the door, bracing himself for an embarrassing, distressing conversation.
What am I to say? Sunblast you, Mica! You have made things so withering hideous for everyone. When he thought of his brother forcing a woman like Ryka into bed, he wanted to be sick.
He waved the two rainlords over towards the chairs at the table but didn’t sit himself. “I got your message this morning about you both wanting to return to the Red Quarter,” he said to Kaneth, postponing the need to bring Mica into the conversation. “The Scarpen needs all the rainlords it can get. Especially Breccia. With Davim dead, his forces defeated and in retreat, why go back to the dunes?”
Ryka sat, but Kaneth leaned against the heavy wooden lectern where the map of the northern dunes was unrolled. He was wearing a sword, and had a dagger thrust into his belt as well. With his scarred head and puckered face, plus his look of tautly curbed tension, he looked every inch a veteran bladesman before a battle. “If you think Ravard considers himself defeated, you’re badly mistaken. Ryka knows what he intends.”
“He’ll fight to the bitter end,” she agreed, looking down at her hands. “And he still has the men to do it. You defeated an army, true, but not all Davim’s drovers were involved. Some of his marauding groups were over in Alabaster and another larger force was in the northern dunes looking for the rebels. They’ll still be itching to prove themselves. The Reduners may coddle their bruises for a while, but the war’s not over.”
“Vara wants to return home, obviously,” Kaneth added. “She wouldn’t let me attack Ravard’s defeated men because she hopes in time they’ll desert to join her. She needs more men, and I have some—ex-slaves with revenge in mind. Better still, I can recruit more. Men of the dunes, Reduners willing to listen to me because they believe I’m Uthardim reincarnated.”
“But you aren’t. And encouraging them to think you are is dishonest.”
“I’ve never encouraged that. In fact I deny it, and have done so ever since I regained my senses.” He gave a lopsided smile accompanied by a careless shrug. “But if they continue to believe it despite my denial, I will use that belief to help them. I’ve never been known for the niceties of my moral philosophy, Jasper.”
Oh, waterless damnation. I’ve lost them both…
“Are you sure you aren’t returning just to exact revenge on Ravard?” he asked. The words almost choked him.
Kaneth exchanged a glance with Ryka. “That’s not my specific aim,” he said after a long pause, “although I wouldn’t mourn him if it happened, and you shouldn’t either. Mica Flint is dead, and what you have in his place—Sandmaster Ravard—is someone else again.”
Jasper felt ill. “You’ll goad him into a personal fight, if nothing else.”
“If I can. The Red Quarter needs a new sandmaster, a dunemaster if you like, to lead all the tribes on all the dunes; someone who regards the Scarpen and its stormlord as an ally, not an enemy. Someone who won’t raid the Alabasters or the Gibber and who doesn’t hanker after the Time of Random Rain. In other words, someone who is not Sandmaster Ravard. I intend to be that person until such time as a suitable Reduner emerges.” He paused, and tilted his head at Jasper in query. “I can’t imagine that you’d object to any of this.”
Jasper’s stomach churned. Everything Kaneth said was true and logical. Mica had to be stopped. Somehow. He switched his attention to Ryka, but was unable, in his embarrassment, to maintain eye contact. “You’re a scholar. You don’t belong on the dunes, surely.” And Watergiver knows, I need your guidance, Lord Ryka.
“Kaneth, Khedrim and I are a family, and I’ll not have us parted again.” Her reply was firm, allowing no hope she would ever change. “We’d like to have your blessing, and your aid, too, once you’re back in Breccia. More pedes would be useful, for example. I’ve made a list.”
He wanted to laugh, more in derision than amusement. Waterless skies, now I know why Taquar thought I couldn’t rule and stormshift too. How can I make decisions about what to do, organise a war, rebuild Breccia, arrange for Qanatend to be evacuated, all at the same time? And now Kaneth wants above all else to kill my brother—and I need to help him do it? There were too many problems, and whatever he did, he was supporting his brother’s defeat and death. Mica, always scared pissless, who’d nonetheless done his best to help him when Pa had turned on him with irrational savagery. He resisted an impulse to sink into the nearest chair and bury his head in his hands in maudlin self-pity.
Instead, he squared his shoulders and took a deep breath. “Leave me your list when you go,” he said. “I’ll see what can be done. But remember, I also have Breccia to consider. What’s left of it. Oh, and Kaneth, why don’t you take Davim’s pede? It was one of those we captured. Burnish—magnificent animal. Can’t hurt you on the dunes to be seen riding Davim’s mount.”
“Thank you,” Kaneth said, obviously pleased. “If it’s any help, we don’t need storms sent to our rebel camp. The water in God’s Pellets is permanent. Take some out, it refills.”
“But I sense no touch of water out there, none!”
“It’s encircled by stone hills and the water is actually inside a cave. I guess all that blocks your senses.”
“Ah. Let’s hope that keeps you safe from Ravard’s water sensitives too, then. When do you want to leave?”
“Tomorrow morning. One other thing: Elmar Waggoner, my Breccian armsman. I’m leaving him with you.”
“You are?” Jasper was startled. In the past, when it came to action, the two men had always been inseparable.
“Elmar is not that fond of the dunes. He’s a good man in a fix, though, and a fine fighter.”
“I remember. My gain, then.” He hesitated, then added, “Bear this in mind: Mica was a victim.”
“Perhaps. But he abrogated all rights to be treated as such the moment he threw in his lot with a man like Davim.”
“What choice did he have? Kaneth, he was fourteen, maybe fifteen years old! He’d have been killed if he’d stood up to the sandmaster.”
“And we’d have been a lot better off if he’d had the guts to do just that. Don’t ask me to pity him, Jasper. Not after what he did to me and mine.”
He turned on his heel and strode out of the room. Jasper suspected it was either that or throw a punch at his stormlord. With a grimace of annoyance, he turned to Ryka, but she forestalled anything he might have said.
“Jasper, the choices Mica made back then don’t count any more. He—Ravard—has choices now, choices which could change his direction. Those are the ones that count, and the ones he will be judged on.”
“The ones he’ll die by?”
“If he makes the wrong choices, yes. Do you doubt it? Haven’t you seen the look in Kaneth’s eyes?”
“Did—did he treat you so very badly? He was once a gentle person. It was the war—” He almost took a step backwards when he saw the look she gave him. Spitting sparks, Terelle would have said. You witless waste of water; where’s your sense? It was the kind of remark Shale might have made, but he wasn’t Shale any more and he should have known better. He did know better.
But oh, it was Mica…
Ryka took a deep breath before she answered. “Did he physically mistreat me? No. In his strange way, he was at times even kind. But he took away both my liberty and my freedom of choice. He used my child to chain me for his personal use. Yes, while he was still a lad he was kidnapped and raped and whipped, forced to slit the throat of his best friend in order to save his own life.”
He stared at her, appalled. “Best friend?”
“Chert, I think he said it was.”
Chert? Oh, weeping shit. Rishan the palmier’s son from Wash Drybone. What the withering spit have you done, Mica? How could you?
Remorseless, she continued. “I know all that, so I can feel compassion. And because I do, Kaneth hates him all the more. I wish I did hate Ravard; it’d make things a lot easier for both of us. Don’t mistake my compassion for lack of resolve, though. If Ravard continues down the same path, I’ll see him dead—by my own hand if need be.”
The look in her eyes was as hard as ironstone. Jasper kept quiet.
“At this point in time, his fate is in his own hands. All he needs to do is approach you with a plan for reconciliation, and his future—and ours—can be different. If he doesn’t, good men will continue to die until one of us wipes him from the face of the dunes. Either way, Kaneth is right. Mica Flint is dead.”
She added, more kindly, “I’m sorry we have to part this way, Jasper. What your brother did has made it impossible for either of us to return to Breccia, to serve you as rainlords. Maybe… maybe, one day. But now things are too raw.”
He nodded dumbly, hearing what she did not say: Every time I look at you, I will see Ravard, and remember what he did to me…
Still she did not leave, and he waited, knowing she had something else to say. Ryka always did.
“How long will you be able to keep up the storms?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Terelle told me yesterday she has to leave for a time to settle a family matter in Khromatis.” She looked at him quizzically. “Of all places.”
He nodded, not making it easy for her.
“I’m beginning to think the most monumental mistake we ever made was not taking you seriously when you spoke of her talents.”
“Yes,” he agreed.
She came up to him, put her hands on his shoulders and kissed him on both cheeks. “Look after her, Jasper. I like her, and I don’t think you should marry Senya Almandine.”
He smiled slightly. “Neither do I. I’m sorry, Ryka. About everything.”
“So am I.” She grimaced, and was gone.
Qanatend City, Level One and Level Three
The windmill above their heads rattled and creaked in the wind, canvas and metal vanes spinning in the hot, dry breeze that swept down the northern slopes of the Warthago and across the Spindlings. Dust stung Terelle’s face then was blown on, towards the Red Quarter. She covered her nose with her palmubra.
Of the six of them up there on the roof of Qanatend’s waterhall, only Messenjer, the Alabaster mine manager, ignored the battering with unmoving stoicism. Jasper ducked his head as if he could escape the worst of it. Ouina, using words more appropriate to a pede driver than a highlord, swore as wind-blown hair whipped into her eyes. Iani was constantly brushing away the sand that stuck to his dribble-wet chin. Feroze had lifted an arm so that his loose white sleeve sheltered his face.
Squinting against the battering dust, Terelle looked up. She’d never seen a windmill until they’d arrived in Qanatend. In the other parts of the Scarpen and the Gibber, winds were unpredictable things, rare, hardly more than playful gusts soon gone, although sometimes they could be mischievous and destructive enough to be called spindevils.
“I don’t understand how a wind can shift water,” she remarked to Feroze. “I must ask someone to show me the workings.”
“I wish we could use the wind in Samphire,” he said.
“What do you use?” She hadn’t thought to ask when she was in Samphire.
“You’ll be finding out soon won’t you?” Ouina asked. “I hear you are leaving for the White Quarter.”
“But the Alabasters leave tomorrow. You’re going back to Breccia first?”
“Yes.” And I’ll bet Lord Gold asked you to find that out.
“The fewer people Breccia has to feed, the better.”
“I suppose that means we won’t be seeing you in Breccia for quite some time, then, Lord Ouina?” she asked sweetly. “That is thoughtful of you.”
Behind Ouina’s back, Feroze waggled a chiding finger, but his eyes twinkled. He waved his hand at the line of pedes now leaving the city to wend its way northwards. “There go Kaneth and Vara now.”
They all lined up along the rooftop rampart to watch. In the late afternoon sun, the shadows of the caravanners were stretched thin, their skeletal shapes painting dark lines on the landscape. No one needed to ask why they’d chosen to leave in the evening; they all knew there was nowhere to hide out on the Spindlings in the daylight.
Those at the head of the column—Kaneth, Ryka and Vara Redmane—reached the top of the small ridge just to the north of the walls before the last of the followers were out of the northern gates. Ryka was sharing Kaneth’s mount, her baby in her arms. Vara drove her own packpede. At the crest they all turned to raise their hands in farewell. Those under the windmill waved back, the pedes moved on, and Vara and the rainlords disappeared from sight.
“Kaneth and Ryka should never be going with that shrivelled old crone,” Ouina muttered. “Let alone taking a baby who could be a rainlord, or even a stormlord. We have to build ourselves up into strength. How are we going to do that if rainlords like them spend their time in the Red Quarter?”
Jasper cleared his throat and said politely, “We still have rainlords.”
“Breccia doesn’t.” Ouina made it sound like a personal triumph for her as the highlord of a city which did possess rainlords. “But never mind, I understand Lord Gold is offering you waterpriest rainlords.”
Terelle resisted a desire to roll her eyes. I don’t like her. She has a mean heart.
“I still think you ought to be leaving with us tomorrow,” Iani said to Jasper. “It may not be safe here.”
“I have fifty men with me and I’m not staying long. I have more stormbringing to do here before I go south,” he added vaguely. Terelle, who tended to flush whenever she deviated from the truth, marvelled at the brazen way he could lie when he put his mind to it.
As they dispersed from the rooftop, Jasper detained Iani with a hand to his arm and she heard him say, “I’m sorry we have to abandon Moiqa’s city. I know it seems like a betrayal of her, and all who died here.”
“Yes,” Iani agreed, his voice grim.
“One day we’ll be back, I promise.”
Iani gave a terse nod.
“On your way home to Scarcleft, look in on Taquar, will you?”
“I intend to.”
“Be careful, Iani. Never underestimate him.”
Iani gave a thin-lipped, twisted smile. It wasn’t pleasant, and Terelle looked away with a shiver. Around them, the dust-laden air swirled; above, the windmill rattled.
Out on the Spindlings, the light began to fade.
Later that night, Jasper left Terelle sleeping and made his way out of Qanatend Hall onto Level Two. He stood for a moment in the middle of the paved street and roamed with his senses. There was no one to be seen, no one to be felt outside the buildings. After dark, Qanatend died. Few citizens remained to keep the streets alive. Even though he’d brought only the uninjured Scarpermen and Alabasters with him, most were still too exhausted to celebrate their victory over the Reduner forces. Of the usual haunts a bladesman might have sought at a time like this—a snuggery, a bar with good amber on tap, a bath house with hot water—none survived. Not any more. Not in Qanatend.
Descending to Level Three, he walked the main street seeking two men—his guardsman, Dibble Hornblend, and Elmar Waggoner, Kaneth’s armsman—sensing the air for a hint of their water. His senses brought him ultimately to what had once been a luxurious villa and he peered at the gate, broken and hanging half off its hinges. A name had been carved into the bab wood. He ran his hand over it, reading it with his fingers: Peridot. A rainlord family named, as many were, after a gemstone, all of them gone, slaughtered when the city fell. He touched the gouges in the wood where gems had been prised out. War didn’t only devastate people, it destroyed all that was beautiful.
Inside what remained of the villa men slept and moaned in their sleep, their dreams scarred by war, their peace tempered by grief.
Elmar Waggoner… He suspected there was a story to be told about why Elmar and Kaneth had separated, but he wasn’t about to puzzle over it. What was the saying? Don’t look for cracks in the jar when someone gifts you water. He liked Elmar and trusted him; he’d seen him fight, too. That was all he needed to know.
He slipped through the broken gateway and started across the outer courtyard. The feel of water on the move alerted him; he looked that way and saw a shadow detaching itself from the darkness under the porch.
“Elmar,” he said as he heard a sword scraping out of a scabbard. “No need for that, though I’m glad to see you’re as alert as ever.”
“Shale?” The name jerked out of the armsman in astonishment and for a moment Jasper was transported back to another city, to another fight, on the day they had met, before Shale Flint had become a stormlord who called himself Jasper Bloodstone.
“Oh—my apologies. Lord Jasper. Cloudmaster.”
“Technically not Cloudmaster yet. Not until the Rainlord Council decides I am. Come, can we go inside? It’s withering cold out here.”
“Oh. Of course.” Elmar hurriedly went to open the main door. The lock was broken and the hinges damaged; it scraped across the tiled floor. “But m’lord, you really oughtn’t be wandering about like this without a guard, specially not at night.”
“I am a stormlord. Outside of a battle, I have little need of guards.” Not a boast, just fact.
Inside, Elmar led the way to the room he had appropriated, where he fumbled with his flint to light a tiny oil lamp on a table. “Is there something wrong then, m’lord? I mean, I could easily have come to see you.”
“I’d rather no one knew what I was up to and I’d appreciate it if you told no one of this visit, except my driver, Dibble Hornblend. I need the two of you. You can tell him about it in the morning. Do you know him?”
“We’ve met.” The wick caught and lamplight flickered. Jasper looked around, but its meagre glow showed only devastation. Broken furniture, cracked tiles, slashed carpets, wooden cupboards scarred with knife cuts, a pile of broken pottery shards swept into a corner. At some time past, flames had licked their way up a tapestry. The tattered, charred remains, hanging like an exhumed shroud, still smelled of smoke.
“Even their cat didn’t survive,” Elmar said, seeing him taking it all in. “Those withering dunesmen ate the wilted thing. I found its remains in the fireplace. A cat.”
Jasper sat down at the table, careful not to disturb the pile of board-books propping up a chair with a missing leg. “I heard it was the same after the fall of Breccia. I suppose, to be fair to Reduners, cats aren’t pets on the dunes. It breaks Terelle’s heart. She rescued some kittens downlevel and brought them to the kitchen in Qanatend Hall.” He smiled, recalling her attempts to carry six clawing bundles of fur wrapped in her cloak. “But now, to tell you what I want. I’m going to visit Dune Watergatherer, in secret, to talk to Sandmaster Ravard. I need a guide, an experienced armsman, who speaks their tongue better than I do, just in case it’s needed. You, in fact. And I need Dibble to guard Terelle, who goes with us. And you may as well know this too: Ravard is my brother.”
Speechless, Elmar sat down with a thump on the only other chair in the room.
Jasper explained. When he had finished, and as he had expected, the armsman dug out every reason he could think of to back up his assertion that going to Dune Watergatherer was an appallingly bad idea.
Jasper heard him out patiently. “Elmar,” he said gently, “I am aware that the dune is in the heart of the Red Quarter and we have to cross a lot of other dunes to get there. I’m also aware that Reduners are dangerous, Ravard is an accomplished bladesman and a water sensitive, they guard their encampments, I’ve no right to risk Terelle’s life and, um, what else did you mention? Oh, that my brother will turn down any offer of conciliation. You could be right about that too—but I have to try. Not only because he’s my brother, but because a lot more people will die if we don’t bring this foolish war to an end.”
“Then maybe you’ll think about the withering, sun-blighted stupidity of risking our only stormlord in something so weepingly sand-brained. If you’ll forgive the plain speaking, m’lord.”
“I’m not defenceless. Neither am I witless. And everything you’ve said, Terelle has also said to me, a lot less politely, too, if you can believe that. It was she who made me promise to ask you along, because you’ve been there. Kaneth says you don’t like the dunes and don’t want to return. I’m hoping you can curb your dislike long enough to venture there again.”
Elmar tensed at the mention of Kaneth’s name, then shrugged. “Yes, of course. M’lord, we could all end up dead, easy as falling off a pede. We’ll stand out on the dunes like shooting stars in the sky.” He rubbed at his forearm, still stained red by the dust of the dunes. “None of you are red, for a start. None of us have braided hair. You don’t speak their natter and my knowledge of it is not too good.
“And don’t think you can dodge the tribesmen that easy either. These folk don’t hang around in their encampments, you know. They’re out there on the dunes: hunting, looking for plants and roots, herding their pedes from place to place, stuff like that. We could bump into a mob of chalamen, all armed to the teeth, long before we got near Watergatherer.”
“I can understand quite a bit of Reduner. Mica and I used to earn tokens serving the dunes caravanners when they came to our settle when we were lads. But most of all you should have faith in my water abilities, Elmar. You do your part, and I’ll get you there alive and undetected.”
“There are bleeding few places to hide out there. And taking a woman along? Terelle’s not like Ryka, a rainlord who knows how to handle a sword.”
“Believe me, I don’t bring her lightly. Unfortunately, she is necessary and I can’t tell you why.” I wish I could, though. However, hearing the malice in Lord Gold’s voice had convinced him that he and Terelle had made the right decision. To Lord Gold and people like Highlord Ouina, magic that wasn’t bestowed by the Sunlord faith was a canker on the face of the earth. To tell them that their stormlord was aided by Watergiver magic from Khromatis would be like asking them to trust a spindevil. The fewer people who knew, the better.
“What about settling for a more experienced armsman, rather than Dibble? He’s a bumbler—trips over his knees, he does.”
Jasper smiled, remembering the battle at the Qanatend mother cistern, when Dibble had saved his life several times. “Not when it counts,” he said. “And he’s my choice.”
Elmar subsided into silence, considering. When he spoke again, he was resigned. “When do you want to leave?”
“Tomorrow night. Tell me, how long will it take to get there?”
“Depends on who we bump into on the way.” He pondered the question further. “And how many times we bump into them. Ten days if we’re lucky and have good mounts. More likely double.”
“I leave the preparations in your hands. We take two pedes and we’ll leave after dark, without anyone knowing which way we’re going.”
Even by the light of the guttering lamp, he caught the appalled look on Elmar’s face.
“No one?” he asked. “You’re not telling anyone where we are going?”
“No. Almost everyone leaves tomorrow anyway. The fifty or so men remaining will be under instructions to await my return, that’s all.”
Now Elmar looked horrified as the full import dawned on him: he and Dibble were to be completely responsible for the safety of the Quartern’s only Cloudmaster on a trip across a hostile quarter to visit a man who wanted him dead. Jasper nodded sympathetically.
“Well, I’ll be pissing waterless,” the armsman said.
Only if I die, Jasper thought.
Scarpen to Red Quarter
Qanatend to Dune Watergatherer
Terelle had never been in the Red Quarter before. They travelled by night and slept by day, always tucked away in a dune vale as far distant as they could be from any encampment. On their first day on the dunes, Elmar was as tense and watchful as a pebblemouse away from its burrow until Jasper, exasperated by the armsman’s extravagant precautions, told him to trust the extent of his stormlord powers.
They were sharing their morning meal and he handed a piece of damper to Dibble as he spoke. “I’m not Kaneth or Ryka,” he said. “I can tell if someone’s coming our way much further off than they can. If I know the person, I can even identify them at a distance.”
He smiled at Terelle then, his look as sensual as a touch. She knew he was thinking of her, of the way he could sense her from the other side of the Quartern. The wonder of that skimmed shivers down her spine; he sensed only her so far away, no one else.
“Don’t worry,” he said, waving a piece of damper at Elmar before popping it into his mouth, “I’ll get you all to Dune Watergatherer in one piece. Where I’m going to need you most is in the sandmaster’s tent.”
Sneaking into Ravard’s tent in the middle of an encampment? The thought of it scared her into a state of panic. “Why are we doing this?” she’d asked when he had first told her of his intention. “I don’t understand. You told me you already spoke to Ravard—Mica—about this when you were at the mother cistern. You begged him then to reconsider—”
“Things are different now,” he’d replied stubbornly.
“Davim’s dead. Watergatherer was defeated. Mica is Sandmaster of the whole dune. He will be more inclined to listen to reason.”
She was not so sure, and from the look on Elmar’s face, and the way he and Dibble exchanged a glance, she didn’t think they were either. Finishing her damper, she said, “I’m going to do my waterpainting.”
“Waterpainting?” Elmar asked. “You’re going to be bleeding painting out here? Do we need our pretty portraits painted? M’lord, just what the pickled pede are you two dryheads up to?”
Dibble, still unused to Elmar’s lack of deference to his superiors, winced and put a hand to his eyes.
Jasper just looked amused. “Elmar, are you going to grizzle all the way to Dune Watergatherer and back?” he asked.
“Probably,” Elmar said, scowling. “You’re both sandcrazy. You need me to bring some sanity to the party.” There was a brief silence. Then he added, politely, “My lord.”
Terelle hid a laugh.
“You’d better get used to it,” Jasper said, his tone mild. “Terelle paints wherever we go. Why is none of your business.”
Elmar snorted. “Of course not, m’lord.”
“Don’t you go all peevish on me, either. I think I’d prefer your swearing.”
“Ah. Yes. So would I, m’lord.”
Gradually, as the days passed, they became a team. Jasper trained with Elmar and Dibble every evening around sunset, before they moved off. During the day, they all shared the camp chores and the sentry duty. On the third day a meddle of pedes, under the care of several boys, approached the camp while grazing. Elmar suspected they were attracted by the presence of strange pedes, and told Jasper they would not change direction of their own accord. “M’lord, you’ll have to work out some way of spooking them,” he said.
“If I scare them, what’s to say they won’t run this way and flatten our camp?”
“They’ll head for home if they can’t see an attack from a particular direction.”
“I hope you’re sure of that.” He homed in on the largest beast with his water-senses, and started to pull the water from the animal’s gut through its cloaca. The pede panicked as its digestive tract spasmed, then thundered away, followed by the rest of the meddle.
“So?” Elmar asked. They couldn’t see the pedes from where they were, but they could hear the shouts of the young meddle herders.
“You were right.”
Elmar grinned at him.
It wasn’t the only near-disaster they had. Several times at night they had to ride out of their way to avoid drovers and hunters or grazing tribal pede meddles. Several times they hunkered down and waited until people had passed. Elmar had been so sure something would go wrong that Terelle thought he must be in a pleasant haze of surprise when they arrived on Dune Watergatherer without ever having been seen by a Reduner.
They reached the dune at dawn and hid in a shadowed sand vale about five miles to the east of a large encampment, which Jasper said was Ravard’s. They were still too far away for him to be aware of his brother’s water, but he knew exactly how many waterholes the dune had, and his maps told him which one belonged to Ravard’s camp, so he had no doubt he had brought them to the right place.
That was the easy part, she thought. And the easy part was over.
At sunset that day, Elmar walked to the top of the dune overlooking their makeshift camp. Jasper could tell him any number of times that there was no one else around, but every evening he checked for himself.
Reckon I got too used to Kaneth’s unreliable water-powers all those years, he thought. There’s no changing that now.
The fiery ball of the sun slid along the horizon as if it was reluctant to take the final plunge over the edge. The shadows along the lip of the dune had the rich colour of freshly spilled blood. On the plains between the Watergatherer and the Sloweater, the blaze of the last sunshine alternated with dark streaks of shadow from bushes and the occasional scrubby trees.
“I never guessed the Red Quarter would be so beautiful.”
He started, but it was only Terelle, arriving to stand beside him. He thought of the day he’d first met her and Jasper, in Scarcleft. She had been, what, eighteen? Not beautiful, but serene. Calm. And then the day had exploded into bloody violence. Elmar had not seen her again until she arrived in Qanatend. She still possessed that cool exterior, but now he knew it concealed a sharp mind and an even sharper eye.
She said, “I thought it would be ugly, but it’s not. In fact, I think it’s the loveliest of all the quarters. The Scarpen is too rough. The Gibber is too flat. Alabaster is too… white. But this—” She gestured. “The way the sand folds and pleats and ripples. All those glorious flowers that bloom in a day and are gone by night. The creepers that hug the ground like snakes. The wind patterns in the sand, the play of light and dark. Look, see the crest of the dune there? It’s so sharp, you would swear it’d been cut with a sword.”
He looked where she was pointing, surprised. He saw nothing beautiful in any of it. It was Reduner territory, a harsh, garish place with no softness, just like the men who inhabited it. “It’s time I was waking Lord Jasper,” he said.
“Give him a moment longer. He needs his sleep. Especially tonight.”
“Why did you come? He’s worrying himself sick about you, not knowing if you’ll be safer with him, or better off with Dibble. If you weren’t here, he could concentrate on what he wants to do.”
Her clear gaze did not waver. “Neither of us had any choice. Just trust me when I say it was unavoidable. And you shouldn’t make him feel worse about it than he already does.”
“You aren’t afraid, are you?” He stared at her in surprise, suddenly knowing it to be true.
“Not for myself. My future is not one that includes dying yet a while.” She glanced away from him towards the camp, and the look on her face told him more about her feelings for Jasper than words could have done. “But let me give you this before it gets too dark to see it.” She held out her hand and he saw that she was holding one of her rolled-up paintings. “A gift.”
He took it from her, astonished. After unrolling it, he held it up so the sun’s dying rays illuminated the paint. His heart gripped, quickening his breathing.
She was silent, waiting for him to speak.
It was a long time before he could get the words out. “How did you know?”
“I’m a snuggery girl,” she said. “Trained to see how people feel about one another.”
He touched the face she had painted. “It’s so real,” he whispered. “So very real.” Then he let it roll up again and his voice hardened. “Does it amuse you to see a tough-skinned bladesman love where he shouldn’t? Do you giggle about it with your friends?” He shoved the painting back at her, pushing it against her chest. When she didn’t take it, her passive resistance fuelled his anger further and he let the portrait fall to the sand.
She looked hurt. “I find nothing stupidly amusing in loving someone. I thought you might wish to have his likeness, that’s all. It was—it was the only way I knew to say thank you for being here. For being prepared to look after Jasper tonight even though I know you think what he’s doing is crazy. You’re risking your life for him.”
He shouted at her then, knowing all the while that it was the wrong thing to do. Knowing he was wrong. “You sun-fried female! I have to keep him alive. We all have to keep the stormlord alive. Without him, we die!”
Upset, she whirled away and ran down the dune towards the camp. He stood there, watching. When she disappeared under the shade of the canvas, his shoulders slumped. He stooped to pick up the portrait. Unrolled it again. And there was Kaneth, so alive and real, not the way he was now, damaged and scarred, but the way he had been: handsome, younger, carefree, on the day Terelle had first met them both.
And he wondered why the waterless hells he loved a man who could never love him back.
She felt such a fool.
Stupid, sand-brained sand-tick of a woman! You should have known not to poke your nose into other people’s business. Now you’ve just made him angry when he needs to be calm and focused.
She wanted to kick herself. Instead she went to wake Shale. Jasper. Remembering to appear cheerful, as if this might not be the last day of his life.
Elmar is right; what you are about to do is stupid and irresponsible. You’re the stormlord. You shouldn’t have a private life that means more to you than your safety—because the whole Quartern depends on you being alive.
It wasn’t fair. It never would be fair. But he was slowly accepting that—and so must she. If the rest of her life meant painting him stormbringing every day, then that was what she would have to do.
Pain cramped her gut, doubling her over. Wilted damn, she had to be more careful with her thoughts.
Think of Samphire and Russet instead.
Slowly, the pain passed and she straightened.
Jasper smiled at her when he woke, and touched her arm in passing when he rose. A small gesture, but she read the love there. Was it too late to persuade him to turn back? She opened her mouth to speak, but he shook his head at her.
“Not now,” he said.
“Everyone is irreplaceable.”
“But only you are essential to us all.”
“Mica won’t hurt me. Not when we are face to face, in his tent. He’s my brother. We loved one another. In the heat of battle, everything was different. All I need to do is meet him not as an enemy bladesman, but as the only family he has remaining.”
He sounded so convinced, so adamant, she knew she had no chance of shaking his belief. But she went cold all over nonetheless. He is wrong. I know it. He is so wrong. Not wanting him to see her fear, she stood with her back to him while he readied himself. No, not fear—her terror. It means too much to him. Memory of an older brother who had once loved him, memory of a time when the only person who stood between him and a miserable, unloved wretchedness was Mica Flint.
Ryka and Kaneth are right. Mica is dead. Abuse killed him and left a different man in his place. Her own certainty soaked through her, as potent as the fear it engendered; a certainty reinforced by a talk she’d had with Ryka before she’d left. Ryka slept with him, night after night. She knows him in a way Jasper never can, and she didn’t think he’d ever give up his plans for the Red Quarter. She turned around.
“Don’t go,” she said. “Don’t go.” She was shaking with her knowledge of impending disaster. Listen to me, please.
But he was already striding out from under the canvas shelter, unaware of her increased agitation. “I’ll be fine,” he said over his shoulder.
He accepted a plate of food from Dibble and made a joke about the armsman’s cooking. Elmar was stowing his bedroll. They all wore Reduner clothes salvaged from the ruins of Qanatend, but Elmar was the only one of them who really looked the part. His red stain was natural, the result of his time as a slave on the dunes; Terelle had made a stain from her paints for everyone else and it tended to streak.
“Are you clear on what to do?” Jasper asked Dibble.
“Ride like hell for Dune Scarmaker with Lady Terelle. It’ll take us about three days. Wait at the waterhole there for you and Elmar. We’ll know the place because you’ll plant a cloud over the top of it on the third day. There’ll be no one there because it’s been deserted ever since Davim killed the men of the tribe.” Vara Redmane’s tribe.
Sure that Russet’s waterpaintings of her future meant nothing too terrible was going to happen to her until she’d reached Khromatis, Terelle wasn’t nervous, but poor Dibble was already worrying himself sick about her safety. She was tempted to paint the three of them safe, greeting another dawn, but waterpainting was double-bladed magic; it could cut the wrong way. Remember the earthquake that killed the innocent…
Quickly she turned away to pack her things. When she was ready, Jasper took her aside to speak to her. “If there’s no cloud and no sky message, then you’ll know something has gone wrong and it’ll be up to you to find your own way back.”
She stared at him, unsettled and miserable. “Shale—will you do something for me while you’re talking to Mica?”
“What?” he asked, his tone neutral.
“Remember that he was young and confused and vulnerable when he was taken. Who knows how Davim played on that? Talking to Ravard may not be enough to bring the old Mica back. Can you remember that—for me? I want you alive tomorrow. You have to live, and not just for me.”
She tried not to hear the misery in his reply. “I know. In a set of scales, Mica’s life and mine are not equal. That’s not fair to him, but it’s true and I will remember it, I promise. You’re right: no matter what, I have to leave his camp alive and free. You have my promise I won’t make any assumptions. And I know for sure that Elmar won’t either.”
He walked with her to Dibble’s pede, where he squeezed her hand, brushed her forehead with his lips, whispered words of love in her ear, and helped her up. He said to the armsman, “I am relying on you to take care of her.”
She mounted, cursing her purloined pantaloons. They were several sizes too large.
Jasper drew rein in a dip between two folds of the dune. Mounted behind him, Elmar leaned forward to hear his whisper. “We’re about a mile out from the encampment. There’s a sentry directly in front of us, about half a mile away, but he is walking to the right. I think this is a good place to leave the pede. I don’t want the camp animals to smell it and get restless.”
Elmar slid down and started to hobble the antennae. “Shall we leave it loaded?”
“Definitely. I suspect we’ll be leaving in a hurry. We’ll leave our cloaks, too.”
“Can you sense your brother?”
Elmar swapped his scimitar for his sword, slipped a dagger into his cloth belt, secreted a smaller blade in his tunic pocket and took up his pede prod. One end of it was iron-tipped and sharp; the other end was weighted. Jasper lit a lantern and then closed the shutters. Designed to filter in enough air to keep the wick alight yet block the light, it was standard city guard issue. It meant they could walk in the dark, but if they needed light in a hurry they could get it by flipping the shutters open.
Elmar stared at him, squinting to see better in the starlight. “You aren’t wearing your sword,” he said.
“I can’t go to talk peace with my brother while openly wearing a blade. I do have a dagger hidden but I have a far more effective weapon. There is always water at hand.” He turned and started to walk up the side of the dune that skirted the dip.
“From now on, over the top of each crest, we’ll crawl, not walk,” Elmar warned. “Against the slope no one will see us, but against the skyline, we block the stars. Enough to alert a good guard.”
“Right. And Elmar, I don’t want a trail of bodies. We sneak in and out, unseen.”
“You going to talk to Ravard unseen as well, m’lord?”
Jasper gritted his teeth. When Elmar larded his conversation with “m’lord,” it meant he was about to raise objections. Usually a lot of them. “Mica and I will either come to some sort of agreement, in which case we walk out of there openly, or we’ll leave him tied up. Or take him with us and dump him away from the camp so he has to walk back before he can rouse an alarm.”
“That easy, you reckon, m’lord?”
“I have my methods. And my weapon to achieve it.”
Elmar nodded dubiously. “I heard the tales, back in Qanatend. They say you did a bleeding good job with water during the battle. But forgive me for a bit of blunt speaking, Lord Jasper, if I say you’d be better off leaving his corpse behind. That might be a more certain route to peace, if you get my meaning.”
“I can’t kill my brother.”
“No, but I can. Do it happily, in fact. I owe the blighted bastard that much.”
Jasper went cold. Had he made yet another mistake? “Armsman, you are in the employ of Breccia and your stormlord. Last I heard, that meant unquestioning obedience and loyalty. You will not kill the sandmaster without explicit instructions from me.”
“Begging your pardon, m’lord, but given the choice between him running you through with a sword and him with my dagger in his guts, I reckon I’ll choose the latter. No bleeding question. And I won’t ask you first.”
“I suppose that’s fair enough. But I don’t want you killing him out of revenge.”
Elmar gave an exaggerated sigh. “Can’t see why not. Frankly, you don’t know the salted bastard. Not like me and Kaneth and Lord Ryka.”
“You have your orders.”
“You understand them?”
“Yes, m’lord. He’s safe enough unless he threatens you.”
“Right. Now let’s get going.” Jasper rubbed his arms to warm himself up as they climbed the slope. He felt tight with anger all over. Trouble was, he was no longer sure who had angered him so: Elmar, Mica—or himself.
When they topped the rise, Elmar added, “This does look familiar. But then, the sandblasted dunes all look alike in the dark. In the sunlight too, if it comes to that. Shall we find a tent and knock on the door?” His teeth gleamed in the starlight.
“Sarcastic bastard, aren’t you?” Jasper paused, tasting the air with his water-sense. “He’s here. I have a hint of his water.”
“That’s simple then, isn’t it? All we have to do is get through the guards without them being aware of it, hope there’s no one getting up to water the plants or sneak into his girlfriend’s bedroom, then tip-toe up to Ravard’s tent and get inside without waking him. Then, of course, we wake him up.”
“Is his tent likely to be guarded?”
“They never did that before. Now, who knows? Maybe things have changed now they realise slaves can be a danger. But then, Ravard never did like slaves. The slaves in his camp were Davim’s, not his.”
“Really? I didn’t know that.” The thought was comforting. “What about Ryka?”
“Except for Lord Ryka.”
Sandblast you, Elmar. He tried not to think about that, and looked up at the stars instead to judge the time. “How long after sundown do they usually turn in?”
“When the fires die down. Maybe a run or two of a sandglass. They’ll mostly be asleep by now, I reckon.”
They moved on, without talking. Dodging the guards was easy enough when he could feel their water; it just took patience. About half the run of a sandglass later they were lying just under the lip of a sand hill, peering over the top to look down on the encampment. The sweet herbal smell of burning pede dung lingered on in the air, but the communal campfire had been dampened down. A shape nearby indicated someone had fallen asleep, well wrapped. When Jasper reached out with his senses, he discerned an entwined couple.
When some moving water attracted his attention, he shifted his awareness in that direction. Two men, walking together. He located them, but it was impossible in the dark to see who they were or what they were doing. His water-senses did better: men, not women. And their walking was no idle stroll. They were purposeful. Guards, then?
For a long time, he didn’t move. One part of his mind continued to track the two men, but he shifted focus again, this time to the tents, studying each until he knew how many people they contained; who was restless, who was not; where the water jars were, and which jars were most accessible. A scorpion crawled within inches of his hand; he sensed that too, but paid no attention. Elmar grunted and flicked it away.
He widened the circle of his senses again, touching the pedes hitched on five separate tether lines scattered around the encampment.
Another widening out and he was back at the outer sentry posts. The guards were good, alternating their pacing with quiet listening and watching, not following the same routes or any regular path or direction. Unpredictable, and giving every appearance of being alert. If it hadn’t been for his water-senses, there would have been little chance of penetrating their lines without them knowing. And those two men inside the camp? More sentries, he was sure of it now. They were making a circuit, looking at every tent, checking the perimeter and the shadowed areas.
He switched his attention once more, this time seeking out the waterhole down on the plains. Sentries around there too. Gently, he pulled a skein of clean water out of the pool at the bottom of the rocky gully. He teased it to the lip of the gully, skimming it up the rock walls as it came. Pausing it there, he waited to see if the guards reacted. All was quiet.
Not water sensitives, then. He was in luck. He eased the skein a hand span or so above the ground, well away from the guards, towards the encampment. Beside him, oblivious to what he was doing, Elmar studied the layout of the tents.
Jasper whispered, “Mica is in the largest. He’s alone.”
Elmar nodded. He was impatient, but he was also an experienced armsman, used to long runs of the sandglass spent waiting, and his silent, mild fidgeting probably would not have been noticeable to the water-blind.
Refusing to be hurried, Jasper separated the water into two portions. Most he shaped into a thin sheet which he thrust high into the sky. Someone might see and be mystified by the distortion of the stars if they looked up, but he doubted anyone would guess the cause. The rest, about the size of a sleeping pallet, he secreted behind the largest tent. The two guards had just checked the area and moved on.
He whispered, “Let’s go. And remember—we are not here to kill anyone.”
“Right. We’re just here for a friendly chat, like.”
Jasper forbore to reply.
They reached the back of Ravard’s tent without being seen, or sensed. Jasper paused to take several deep calming breaths. Behind the tent was an outhouse, then the valley slope with his water hovering nearby, but mostly his senses were overwhelmed with the feel of Mica’s water. Worse, his longing for contact was a physical ache in his chest. What he wouldn’t give to touch his brother again, in friendship. To hug him. Sunblast, it was hard to believe in the validity of Terelle’s warning when he remembered a Mica who had been neither brave nor callous…
Beside him Elmar was taut and watchful, his dagger already drawn. He gave a nod, and Elmar inserted the point of his blade into the tent wall and began a vertical cut. The jute canvas was thick and tough; the noise was deafening. Wincing, Jasper gripped Elmar’s arm to stop him.
Elmar stepped back and Jasper applied a small ball of water to the cut and then forced it, drop by drop, into the weave, gradually extending the dampness into a line until it reached the point where the wall disappeared into the windblown sand at his feet. When he’d finished, he stepped back and gestured to Elmar to continue. This time, the cut was completed in silence.
Nothing else had changed. His water-senses told him his brother was prone and unmoving, probably asleep, somewhere towards the front. Silence all around, not a sound to indicate anyone had seen or heard their foray into the encampment.
Gently, he pulled the slit canvas apart and slipped inside. Elmar followed, sword in one hand, dagger in the other, the wrist loop of his pede prod stuck through his belt so that the prod swung at his side, easily accessible. Jasper held the cut open a little longer to bring inside all the water hovering near the outhouse. Elmar grinned at him.
Salted damn, he loves this, Jasper thought. The fear, the anticipation, the fight—he feeds on it. And then, wryly, I wish I could.
The room they entered was small. The carpeting was firm under their weight. Jute, he guessed. Scarpen goat-wool rugs were softer. Carefully he unshuttered one side of the lantern to allow a sliver of light to escape, and followed its beam with his gaze. A bedroom with bedroll, quilts, an empty dayjar, a washstand and a wooden chest; nothing remarkable, nothing to fear—yet sweat rolled down the sides of his face, to peter away into the dryness of the air.
Silently he pushed through the door flap on his right, and found himself in the main hall of the tent, where visitors were received. The tent flap to the outside was laced shut. Woven wall hangings and carpets brightened the interior with vibrant colour and intricate pattern. More wooden chests, the kind the Scarpen imported across the Giving Sea from the Other Side, too many of them for the size of the room, and so very… Breccian.
His heart skipped a beat. Stolen, he thought. Oh, sandhells, Mica. Why?
A large water jar squatted in one corner, tall enough for the lid to be level with his waist and too fat for a man’s arms to encircle. Three-quarters full. Good, a weapon for him, if he needed it. He crossed the room and eased the lid back to expose the water, just in case.
He glanced at the other door in the room, closed by a canvas rolled down from the top. Behind that, his brother slept. Hesitating for no good reason, he stood irresolute and heard Terelle’s warning in his head once more. He put the lantern down on a chest and wiped clammy hands down his trouser legs. Then he gave a nod, picked up the lantern and, with exaggerated care, Elmar moved to lift the canvas door for him to enter the bedroom beyond.
As he stepped in, more sweat beaded on his face and trickled down. Irritated, he tried to vaporise it, but it was too salty and in the end he had to wipe it away so it didn’t sting his eyes. His old failing hadn’t left him—he could only move clean water.
He let the narrow beam of lantern light traverse the room, to fall on the sleeping form. His brother, naked, lay on his side half-covered by a quilt, his breathing deep and even. Mica. In spite of the beaded hair spilling over the cushions, Jasper couldn’t think of this man as Ravard. His water was Mica’s, still tinged with the lad he had been when the two of them had run through the bab groves together.
The bed was some kind of stuffed quilt-like pallet, laid directly on the carpeting. He forced himself to look away, to scan the room for weapons. There they were, lying on top of a large knee-high wooden chest next to the bed: a scimitar, a sword, a dagger—and a cage of ziggers.
Mica and ziggers. His stomach heaved.
On the other side of the room another similar oblong wooden chest, a washstand with basin and ewer and towel, and some clothes and sandals carelessly discarded on the floor at its foot.
Behind him Elmar—looking meaningfully at the zigger cage—was still holding the door flap open for him to drag in the hovering block of water. Carefully he did so, placing it just under the roof of the tent, a slab hanging right over the sleeping man and his weapons.
Elmar sidled across the room to push aside yet another closed door. He looked through, then signalled that the two rooms beyond were empty. Jasper, who already knew that, reached across his sleeping brother to pick up the blades one by one. He gave them to Elmar, who disposed of them by stealthily shoving them into the connecting room and pushing them out of sight.
Elmar returned to stand by Mica’s head, the point of his drawn sword almost touching the sleeping man. Jasper put the lantern down on the box, careful to ensure the light did not shine on Mica’s face.
Elmar pointed to the ziggers. They were stirring in the cage, waking up in the light, then buzzing, excited. Their wing cases clicked and vibrated.
Loathsome things, Jasper thought, quelling a shudder. We are prey to them. Neither he nor Elmar was wearing the perfume that told the beetles otherwise. Mica would be, but even someone slathered in the right aroma was not mad enough to release them in a closed-in area where they could easily become confused and attack the wrong person. Still, he portioned off part of the water, preparing to drown the little bastards. Then he hesitated. They were no danger in their cage, and killing Mica’s ziggers might not be the best way to start an amicable conversation.
Elmar glared at him. In that split second when his concentration slipped, the Reduner warrior in Mica—doubtless directed by his water-sense—plunged into action. In one violent movement, he twisted and yanked Elmar by the ankles with both hands. Elmar crashed backwards. Mica let go and rolled out from under the quilt to grab for his weapons. His hand groped along the top of the chest in vain.
Jasper grabbed the lantern away from his reach and unshuttered all four sides. Light filled the room. The ziggers beat against the cage bars in a frenzy. A sickly smell filled the tent as they signalled their agitation. Jasper hated them so much he nearly gagged on the smell, but resisted his urge to kill them.
“Mica,” he said, his voice harsh with a welter of emotion, “we’re not here to hurt you. Otherwise you’d be dead by now. It’s me, Shale.”
“What the—I’ll be pissing waterless! Shale,” Mica said, but his gaze was locked not on Jasper but on Elmar, who scrambled to his feet, wincing, his sword firmly in hand. “How the pickled pede did y’get in here?”
Groping for something coherent to say, his mind curiously blank, it took Jasper a moment to reply. “We need to talk.”
The room was suddenly still, all three of them poised and watchful. Then Mica sat up slowly and moved to lean back against the wooden chest, knees drawn up, untroubled by his nakedness. The move was arrogant in its assurance, the smile he gave unperturbed.
Elmar jammed Mica’s knees down with his foot and kicked his ankles apart. “Don’t you move again.”
Mica gave a crooked smile at Jasper. “I think he’s looking for an excuse t’kill me. He didn’t come out of our last fight too well, if I remember correct.”
“Neither did you, you stinking—”
“He has his orders,” Jasper interrupted. Mica tensed in a way that awakened old memories for him. He used to do that when Pa scared us.
“So what do y’want, little brother?”
And effortlessly, without planning it, Jasper slipped back into the Gibber accent of his childhood. “I want an end t’this war. I want the Quartern t’be at peace agin. I can supply you with water. In time, reckon I can give you all y’want—more than the dunes had under Cloudmaster Granthon.”
“And in return?”
“In return, you continue t’sell us pedes, normal trade resumes, and you stop your incursions into the White and Gibber Quarters.”
Mica snorted. “Resumes? Incursions? Fancy words from a Gibber grubber once no more important than a sand-tick on a pede’s arse. D’y’reckon you can upend a sandglass and everything’ll go back the way it was? Y’know what we Reduners and Gibber washfolk learned under Cloudmaster Granthon, Shale? We learned if water is short, drovers and Gibber grubbers get the worst of it. And when we trade with th’Basters, we get the worst of that, too. Ask your fancy salted friends.”
“The Red and Gibber Quarters didn’t get the worst of it. Everyone’s water was cut. Everyone suffered. Mica, Davim has snuffed it. You don’t have t’follow his sand-brained dreams no more.”
“Nightmares, more like,” Elmar interrupted. His sword point was never far from Mica’s neck.
Jasper shot a warning look his way, but said in agreement, “Nightmares. If you return to a Time of Random Rain, settlefolk and drovers’ll be the ones snuffing it. Littl’uns. Your way of life would have t’change. You’d have t’wander the dunes. And you’ll have t’fight us agin, if you continue t’raid other quarters. If you force your plans on other dunes, then you’ll have t’fight Vara Redmane and… Uthardim. Why would you ever want t’do that?”
“Davim died for that dream, and it’s worth fighting for. Our independence. Our true culture. Free of the likes of that lying Scarperman pretending t’be a Reduner hero from our past. Or his whoring rainlord bitch.”
The sneering hatred in his tone was disconcerting, but the insult to Ryka, after what Ravard himself had done to her, was as painful as a physical blow. Jasper swallowed his fierce resentment. His hands were shaking, so he placed the lamp back down on the top of the chest, hoping Mica wouldn’t notice his angry trembling. “Your culture?” he asked.
“Yes, mine! On the dunes we take in anyone prepared t’kneel to the sandmaster’s law. My law, now. Everyone equal, sharing what we got. We don’t care about the colour a man was born with, nor what natter he spoke when he was a lad. We’re all red here. We speak the language of the dunes. And we’ll fight t’get the freedom t’go where we please, when we please—the way drovers once did. The way we should’ve done in the Gibber, ’stead of being gormless dryheads, taking handouts from the bleeding palmier. When he felt like giving us something.”
Jasper tried to keep his face impassive, but his heart was furious in its beating. How can Mica sound like this? Mica, so bitter and hateful. Wilted damn, he has a sword at his throat and he’s not even sweating. Yet he never had the courage to stand up to Pa. Mica was always scared witless! Where did my brother go?
And then, a harsh acknowledgement of the truth: he’d heard the real voice of the new Mica back at the battle for the Qanatend mother cistern.
Withering spit. I was sand-witted to come here. Elmar and I could die because of it… His insides churned sickly.
“Look at the way we grew up, Shale. The Scarpen kept us thirsty, always in bondage t’them and their weeping law. Born waterless, ’cause Pa was landless and always slurped. Whose law was that? The Scarpen’s! No way out for us if we’d stayed in the Gibber. We had t’steal t’stay alive. Remember that? The withering rainlords keeping us poor and thirsty, while they sat in their pretty buildings and forgot what it is t’feel the earth underfoot. Water-wasters and street grubbers all, never knowing the land.”
Suddenly his tone perceptibly softened. “What did they know about feeling the way the wind clicks your beads as you ride the dunes? Did they ever scent the wildflowers in bloom? Or take pleasure in the hunt, in pitting wits against the cunning of the animal?”
Jasper started to reply, but Mica cut him short. “And you went and licked their arses for the water you drink. Where was your pride? Now you’re a water-waster with the best of them.”
“You think the stormlords had it easy t’bring water to the whole Quartern?” Jasper asked, livid. “A handful of men and women? Then only one—poor sick Granthon? And now, just me?”
“Listen t’yourself, Shale! You’re telling me we’re doomed if we rely on a stormlord. You die tomorrow, no one gets watered. You get sick, or fall off your pede, we all die. You reckon we ought t’risk that? Better we roam the dunes following random rain, like we used to, back when we ruled. Better we get used t’that way of life, never depending on no Cloudmaster, who’ll put other people ’fore us. Here, everyone has rights to water. We don’t have waterless babes on the dunes.”
“No? That’s exactly what you’ll get if you continue Davim’s mad scheme t’return to a Time of Random Rain! You baked your brains in the sun so long you can’t see that?”
“We’ll drink or thirst together. But I reckon we got a better chance looking after ourselves.”
Jasper heard what he didn’t say and shuddered inwardly. He can’t afford to let me live. While I steal the clouds forming along the coast, there’ll never be enough random rain to support the tribes. He has to kill me and any other stormlord that comes along…
And he knows it.
“Why don’t we talk about this—”
“Get out of here, Shale. Leave us be. We’ll take our chances. The only way we got anything t’talk about is if you promise t’let the Red Quarter go our own way. Out from under your bleeding stormlord magic. Free t’do what we want.”
“I’d do that, if every dune agreed and if you stayed within your borders, except for your trade caravans. What in all the Sweepings happened to you that you could think it right to attack a city? To kill and rape and maim and steal? To take slaves?” His gaze locked onto his brother’s, begging him to say what he wanted to hear.
Instead, Mica smiled. “There speaks the stormlord again, eh? Didn’t take you long.” As he spoke he rested both elbows on the top of the box behind him, naked and unconcerned, head tilted and flung back, still a picture of arrogant relaxation. “You know the only way you’ll get to live, lil’ brother? If you stop stealing the natural clouds along the coast, and we start to get natural rain.”
Grief-laden, Jasper swallowed back bile. “You can’t win, Mica. You really can’t.”
“Shale, you remember how we went bathing in the pools after that huge rush came down the wash? D’you r’member how good it was?” And even before he finished speaking, he moved. Two simultaneous strokes with his arms, one on the right to sweep the oil lamp at Elmar, the other on the left to knock the zigger cage flying.
Jasper hadn’t anticipated it. Elmar had. He lunged in attack at the same moment as the lamp sailed towards him. Flames flared up in his face and burning fuel splashed onto his clothing. Mica dived at Jasper to escape being skewered, knocking him flat as he crashed into his knees. Jasper glimpsed Elmar’s sword blade missing his brother’s neck by the breadth of a finger. Out of the corner of his vision he saw the lamp roll on into the next bedroom, dribbling burning oil as it went. He and Mica rolled away from each other. Elmar was on fire, beating at his burning clothing, his sword dropped and forgotten in his fear. The ziggers screamed.
Jasper dumped the slab of water on them all without a second thought.
Elmar sagged against the tent wall, gasping, his hair and skin singed, his clothing charred. His armsman’s instincts reasserted themselves. He crouched, his gaze sweeping the bedroom, his hand groping to pick up his sword. In this room the fire was out, but flames flickered in the room behind him.
That was all Jasper noticed before his brother punched him brutally hard in the stomach. He doubled over, appalling pain spasming through his gut and expelling the air from his lungs. Helpless, he lay on the floor, watching, yet unable to move. The smell of burned hair and ziggers was strong in his nostrils. He saw Mica whirling around, looking for a weapon. And he still heard ziggers.
Disoriented, he sensed water falling above him and panicked because he didn’t understand. A confused moment later he realised it was not inside the tent. He had lost his hold on the block of water far above in the sky and it was plummeting down, spilling as it came. Halting it by sheer force of will, he was left weakened and his pain increased. Gasping, helpless, he rocked to and fro, clutching his stomach.
Concentrate, dammit. Override the pain. He tried to pull water from the family jar in the next room, but his power was childlike, faint and wobbly. The water slopped and streamed away. He rested, took deep breaths.
Where had the zigger cage gone? Was it broken? He tried to see, but couldn’t move more than his head. Concentrate. Get air into your lungs. Get that water here. He groaned as cramp radiated down his legs. Sunblast, how could one blow do so much damage?
He saw Elmar move towards Mica. A swordsman’s stance. Good, maybe he wasn’t badly burned. The tent walls were moving. No, not the walls. The light on them. Dancing? Flames in the next room. Pedeshit, the carpet on fire. Smouldering smell of burning fibres. And still the sound of enraged ziggers shrieking their savage fury. He managed to edge himself up on one elbow as Mica and Elmar circled each other. An unequal fight. Elmar had the blade; Mica had nothing. Elmar lunged, Mica ducked and dodged away, as graceful as a dancer.
Jasper tried to speak. Then he saw the zigger cage. It had bounced off the wooden chest on the far side of the room and was now stuck upside-down between the top of the chest and the tent pole that stabilised the centre of the canvas wall. It wasn’t broken. Relief washed over him. How long had it been since Mica first made his move? It felt like an age, but he suspected hardly any time at all had passed. The pain was beginning to fade. He dragged more water up out of the water jar in the reception room and brought it as far as the door, but had trouble applying enough force to push the hanging canvas out of the way to bring it inside. Blighted eyes, why was he so wilted weak?
And all the while he watched, captive audience to a deadly fight.
Mica scooped up a wet cushion from the bed and hurled it at Elmar, then followed it with another and another. Elmar ducked and wove, but the fourth one caught him a glancing blow on the cheek, the impact splattering water into his eyes. He jerked his head as if it also pained his burned skin.
Taking advantage of Elmar’s distraction, Mica flung open the lid of the second chest. Something cracked, but he didn’t notice. In one fluid move he’d plucked up a pede prod from inside and turned. He spun the prod in his hand and let go. The weighted knob cracked Elmar on the temple and he dropped without a murmur. Mica dived back into the chest and drew out a sword.
Jasper dragged himself to his feet, still unable to stand straight. Taking a deep breath, he started coughing. Smoke. Smoke in the air. He groped for his knife with one hand and waved his other at the zigger cage, trying to draw Mica’s attention. The cage had been squeezed between the chest lid and the tent pole, splintering several of the bars when the chest had been opened. “’Ware,” he gasped.
With one last effort he pulled the water through the door and across the room, dumping it all on the cage where the ziggers were already crawling free.
Please let the shrivelled little bastards drown…
But one flew up before the water hit, slicing the air with its shrill keening. The tent was smoky and Jasper couldn’t see where it went.
Mica smiled. The tip of his sword danced in the air. “That’s all yours, brother. Can you kill it before it strikes you?”
“I can’t pull water out of them,” he said, panting as if he’d been running. “Not my skill.” A desperate ploy for compassion, for aid, for some indication of a brother’s concern. He didn’t rely on it; he groped with his senses to gather fallen water into a ball before it soaked into the carpet. And caught sight of the adjoining room where the flames now licked the canvas ceiling. More smoke choked the air, acrid with the carpet dyes. It caught in his throat.
He began to move slowly towards Elmar. Very slowly. He knew sudden movement would make him a target for the zigger. He hovered the water ball, unsure whether it was destined for the zigger or his brother. “I’m going to take Elmar and leave,” he said quietly. “I suggest you pay attention to your tent. Once it really catches fire, you’ll have no time to get out of here. The ceiling in there is beginning to char.”
He searched for the zigger, but it had fallen silent, and in the flickering light and the drifting smoke it could have been anywhere.
Mica swung his sword to follow him as he moved. “I can’t let you do that,” he said. “If he’s not dead already I’ll make sure he is. He owes me a dent t’my pride, and tonight he settles it. And as for you—I’ll give you a chance, Shale. If you can make it out that door without a zigger in your ear, you can go. Outside you’ll just have t’hope you can escape my men. I doubt you’ll get far. But you leave this fellow behind.”
In that moment Jasper truly saw Ravard. Not Mica, but a ruthless Reduner sandmaster standing proud and unbending—and he thought in despair he could look forever and never find Mica in there again. He brought down the ball of water and fitted it across the man’s nose and mouth, welding it to him with his power and his sense of water. He didn’t even have to look to keep the ball in place.
Mica—no, Ravard—pushed at it, but his fingers moved through it without budging it in the least. His puzzled expression quickly turned to anxiety and then desperation. He opened his mouth and the water moved in. He choked, dropped his sword and tried in vain to splash the water away.
Pushing past him, Jasper bent over Elmar, panic giving way to relief: the armsman was still breathing. He grabbed him under the arms and began to drag him on his back towards the door, horribly aware the fire in the next room could explode into a conflagration at any time.
At the doorway, he hesitated. Kill my brother, or not? It was so easy to murder a man, and so difficult to decide to do it.
The naked Reduner dropped to his knees, eyes bulging as he began to die.
And that was when the zigger dived, screaming, straight for a horrified eye.
A tiny sliver of time, the length of the zigger’s dive, the duration of its shrieking attack. That was all it took for Jasper to realise perfume meant nothing when it had been washed away.
He didn’t think. Pulling the water away from Ravard’s nose and mouth, he moulded it to shoot at the zigger, but he was too slow, too late.
Ravard, kneeling on the carpet, clutched at his eye, screaming, the kind of screams you heard on a battlefield. Jasper dropped Elmar and leaped to his brother’s side, his hand reaching for his dagger. He knew if he hesitated he would never do it, so he grabbed Ravard’s covering hand away and poked the tip of the blade into the damaged eye. It sliced through the zigger into the iris. In one sure cut, he killed the zigger before it could plunge deeper into the tissues. Ravard’s remaining eye blazed into his own, his front teeth bit deep through his lower lip, his fingernails dug into Jasper’s forearms leaving bloody marks. He no longer made a sound, as if he had gone beyond horror and agony into shock.
With one deft twist of the blade, Jasper dug out the beetle. His brother whimpered then, an animal-like sound that seared his soul. Sobbing, Jasper dropped the dagger, still with the zigger skewered on its point. Then he reached into Ravard’s eye with his forefinger and thumb and ripped the eyeball out of its socket. Still attached, it hung on Ravard’s cheek, raw and blood-covered, dripping zigger acid. Grasping it, Jasper slashed it free with the knife. He opened his hand and it fell onto the floor, a bloodied mess. His stomach heaved. Wiping his palm down his trousers to rid himself of the feel, he used the ball of water to rinse any remaining acid out of the eye socket and from Ravard’s cheek. Then he pulled himself free and washed his own hand.
And Ravard knelt there, rocking to and fro and keening, his single good eye staring at him, relentless in its hate. Blood poured down his face.
Outside, someone was shouting to wake the camp, doubtless in answer to Ravard’s previous screams. And at that moment, the tent roof in the next room burst into gouts of flame, sucking air from the bedroom. Jasper hauled Elmar into a sitting position and crouched so he could drape his unconscious body across his shoulders. He staggered upright and headed for the reception room. The shouts outside grew louder and more urgent. He dragged more water from the family jar and flung it behind and ahead of him, wetting the tent walls and roof in an attempt to slow the progress of the flames.
Just before he stepped into the room at the rear, he looked back. Ravard was on his feet in the reception room, blood still streaming down his face, coughing in the smoke, stumbling blindly towards the front door. Golden snakes of fire slithered up the tent walls. Someone was slashing the ties on the door flap from the outside.
Jasper ran, choking, leaving his brother behind. Gasping for air, staggering under his burden, he squeezed through the slit in the back wall. As he stepped outside into the cool of the night air, the whole tent exploded as a whoosh of flame burst through the roof.
He drew in a shuddering breath of clean air and stumbled away into the dark. Elmar was still unconscious. Above, the water from the waterhole hovered. He left it there. Behind him, the tent was aflame. He headed for the nearest pede line, not trying to hide. Men and women were running in all directions, yelling for water or grabbing up blankets to smother any cinders as a night wind gusted sparks in unpredictable eddies. Others were striking their tents to diminish the chances of them catching fire. No one took any notice of Jasper. In the confusion, he was just another Reduner, helping an injured tribesman.
There was no one at the pede lines. He bypassed the first two tethered animals to reach Mica’s mount, the beast the two of them had saved from the rush in the drywash so long ago, the same one that had in turn saved his life when Mica first tried to kill him during the battle. He had no trouble remembering its water. The beast clicked a greeting, and ran its antennae along his body in delighted recognition. He hauled on its tether to bring it down into a crouch. Half dragging, half pushing, he manoeuvred Elmar up onto its back, draping him stomach-down across one of the segments. The wounded man muttered and groaned. Fortunately, the sound was lost in the pandemonium around them. The whole camp was awake now. Jasper wondered if Ravard was coherent enough to have told his men a stormlord was in the camp. He thought it probable; what he didn’t know was what orders he would give.
Ravard, not Mica. Remember it.
Oh, spitless hells. His eyeball on the floor.
Don’t think about it, you sandworm.
Normally a driver would have untied the tether from the mouth ring; Jasper unhitched it from the picket line. There was no saddle and, worse, no reins. But he had a prod! He’d almost forgotten; Elmar had taken one as a weapon. It would be inadequate to guide the animal, but it was better than nothing. He unhooked it from Elmar’s belt. At the head of the pede, he yanked on the mouth ring to persuade it back onto its feet, then urged it forward. When the beast was moving, he grabbed a mounting handle and pulled himself up onto the first segment.
“Elmar, can you hear me? Wake up! You’ve got to hold on.”
Elmar swore richly, but his words were slurred.
“Hold on.” He took Elmar’s hand and placed it on one of the side mounting handles. “Grip that. We’re heading out of here.”
“What the… bleeding shit… happened? My head feels… hit by a hammer.”
“Withering mallet… banging my skull. And that bastard… set fire to me!”
“Quieten down, will you? I need to get us out of here before someone thinks to release every damn zigger they’ve got.”
“Told you… this was a bad idea… you withering louse of an upleveller.” As this was punctuated by a series of groans, Jasper didn’t take Elmar’s lack of respect to heart. He urged the pede up the slope of the valley that sheltered the encampment. Once they reached the crest, he began to move the water in the sky after them. If the Reduners did want to risk their ziggers, well, he’d drown the whole lot of the flying horrors.
“We’re being followed.”
Elmar, battling his pain and aching head, did not reply.
Jasper had never felt so besieged. Just moments after leaving the camp and already people were on their tail. Problems, danger, distress, guilt, responsibility—he wanted to sink under it all. Just disappear. Pretend it had never happened. Send himself back to yesterday and start all over again.
But he couldn’t. Elmar depended on him. Terelle would be waiting for him on Dune Scarmaker. He was the Cloudmaster and the whole Quartern looked to him for life-giving water. He wanted to scream: I never asked for this! Instead, he was left with a playful pede under him and a mob of infuriated tribesmen rampaging in pursuit, armed to the teeth and bent on revenge for the affront to their pride and the injury to their sandmaster.
Sunblast the pede. It was so happy to see him, it kept stroking him with its feelers. All he wanted was for the blighted animal to run fast in the right direction, but without a pair of reins, how was he going to achieve that? All his stupid fault too, just because he wanted to make a point to his older brother. Wanted to say: I am the one that rescued this pede from the rush down Drybone Wash. It should have been mine from the beginning. Stupid, stupid grubber that he was. He ought to have chosen an elderly staid hack that would have got them back to their own pede with a minimum of fuss.
“Elmar, don’t pass out on me again. You have to hang on.” He’d heard somewhere that you shouldn’t let someone with a head injury and unfocused vision go to sleep, because he might never wake up. In Elmar’s case, he’d be bound to fall off the pede.
He jabbed the pede again, and finally it rose into fast mode and raced across the dunes, its mouthparts angled into a prow at the front to push the low bushes aside, its feelers tucked along its sides to lessen the wind resistance. Jasper breathed a sigh of relief and began to calm.
More in control now, he used his senses to note that the chaotic confusion behind them was being straightened out. It had become an organised search on pedeback. He felt the mounted men heading out in all directions, most of them to the south—but not all. Five pedes were heading east lengthways along the dune, towards him.
He had to head back to where he’d left their own pede and all their gear. They couldn’t leave those things behind; already Elmar was shaking with cold, a reaction to his injuries. Guiding the pede with his makeshift rein was difficult; he was constantly having to correct its path. Their pursuers were gaining.
Blighted eyes, we’re in trouble. How the withering spit do I guide the beast with one flimsy line attached to a single mouth ring?
The answer was, he couldn’t. There had to be another way. There had to be, because otherwise they were going to be caught.
Think. A scattering of useless ideas flittered through his head. Use fear to keep the beast from straying? What would it be scared of? A spindevil wind. Fire. Pain. Noise. Nothing useful suggested itself. He lacked the ability to conjure up a spindevil and he could hardly start a fire on the back of a pede. He could shape water, though. Something the animal wouldn’t understand and would therefore fear. A ghost pede…
He pulled the water in the sky closer to make it more easily manageable. Splitting it in two, he moulded the halves into two huge pedes made of water and placed one on either side of his mount, each matching their speed a few paces away. Feet he didn’t bother with, but he did fashion two feelers, solid-looking things that whipped this way and that. In the dark, the water-pedes partially obscured the scenery beyond and the ground under them. Their sides rippled in the wind of their movement so that they took on eerie life. Interested, the stolen pede swung its head one way and then the other to take a look. To Jasper’s dismay, it wasn’t perturbed, but reached out with a feeler in curiosity and stroked one of the ghost beasts.
Damn, Jasper thought. A pede depended more on smell and feel than on its poor eyesight, and all this one sensed was harmless water.
“What the spitless damn… are you doing?” Elmar asked. His voice was thin and weak, but at least he was coherent. And, by the sound of it, battling the pain of his burns and what must have been a colossal headache. “Did you really want to make withering playmates for the blighted animal?”
Playmate. Of course. Jasper increased the speed of the two ghosts so they started to draw ahead. The real pede gave an excited clatter of its mouthparts and doubled its pace to catch up. Elmar groaned as the speed doubled the roughness of their ride.
Jasper breathed again and thought of Mica. One-eyed Mica.
When he’d plucked out his eye, his brother had not made a sound. That was all Ravard.
His brother was really and truly dead.
They rode at a breakneck speed into the hollow where they had left their pede. Jasper hauled on his single rein, yanking the beast’s head around so that it was forced to a halt. He jumped to the ground while they were still moving and roused their own sleepy animal.
At Jasper’s direction, Elmar dismounted and climbed unsteadily onto the rear saddle of their own pede. “I’m going to drive you,” Jasper told him. “I’m relying on you to hold on.” He attached the lead from Ravard’s pede to the rear saddle handle of their own, then handed Elmar his cloak. “Try to keep warm. If you fall off it’s going to cost us time we don’t have, so it’s important you tell me if you’re having trouble staying upright. That’s an order, El. You understand?”
He mounted and turned to hand Elmar his water skin. “I’m sorry about this.”
“I was right… wasn’t I?”
“Indeed.” And that’s the unhappy truth. Well, I’ve learned my lesson, and you’re paying for it. He gripped Elmar briefly by the shoulder, then settled into the driver’s saddle and picked up the reins. They had a long way to go before they could feel anywhere near safe. But first he had one more thing to do.
He took the water he had used for the ghost pedes, merged the two, then pushed it through the air, faster and faster, just at the height of a man mounted on a pede. It was the work of moments to clear the saddles of the unsuspecting riders looking for them and to spook the five mounts into a panicked scattering.
That would slow them down.
Unfortunately there was a whole tribe out there, scouring the desert to the south, and he was far too tired to carry another drop of water with him unless it was stoppered tight inside a drink skin.
For Terelle and Dibble, travelling at night by starlight was not hard, even without a water sensitive with them. They had two occupied dunes to cross, Slow Eater and Ravenbreak, so they travelled only at night, hunkering down in dune valleys during the daylight hours. They arrived on the Scarmaker at dawn on the third night and rested until the sun was up and they could see Jasper’s cloud. By mid-morning they had found the waterhole. The water, the colour of emeralds, was easily accessible, and fruiting bab palms provided shade and fresh food.
No one was there. Terelle knew the story: Sandmaster Davim had slaughtered the men of the tribe who lived nearby and enslaved the women. The only one who had escaped that fate had been Vara Redmane.
The place was fine; it was the waiting that was tough, the waiting and wondering if Jasper and Elmar were dead or injured or taken prisoner. Then, just two sandruns after they’d arrived, they saw dust out on the plains to the north, but even half the run of a sandglass later all they could discern were two myriapedes in the lead, while a mile or two behind, five or six pedes followed at speed.
“Something’s gone wrong,” Terelle said. “That can’t be them in front. They don’t have two pedes.”
Dibble didn’t waste time speculating. At the first sign of the dust, he’d started saddling their mount, and he had it all packed and ready to leave long before they could recognise the drivers. “I think we’d better go, Terelle,” he told her.
She stared at him, heart fluttering in panic. “What if it is them?”
“What if it’s not? There’s nowhere to hide around the waterhole. What if it is them and those others are Watergatherer warriors bent on killing them—and us?”
She nodded in reluctant agreement and mounted behind him. He turned the pede towards the foot of the steep north face of Dune Scarmaker, which began about half a mile away. It rose in a precipitous slope without vegetation or tracks, a red wave rearing above the plain like a drywash bore wave about to thunder down on them. From that angle it looked an impossible ride. She feared they’d have to dismount and walk.
Dibble looked back at the waterhole and his eyes widened. She turned and saw water being sucked up, spinning out of the waterhole into a twisting pillar.
“Shale,” she said.
“Lord Jasper,” Dibble said at the same moment.
“I don’t think we should wait anyway,” she said, suddenly even more anxious. “They are in a tremendous hurry.”
He prodded the pede hard in answer, and it moved off at a smooth run. “We’ll wait at the top. His instructions were for me to look after you and that’s just what I’m going to do. Don’t worry,” he added with irritating cheerfulness. “There’s a heap of water there in the waterhole still, and what a stormlord can do with water is withering marvellous.”
He tried to guide the pede straight up the dune. The animal balked and for a moment they battled, driver and mount. When they slid backwards as much as they advanced, Dibble gave up and let the pede decide how to tackle the slope. It began to zigzag at an angle.
Terelle took little notice. Her heart was pounding in fear, not for herself, but for Jasper. She kept staring back at the scene as it unfolded below. The racing pedes looked as small as millipedes; the dust was a mere scuff on the landscape. They were too far away to make out who it was in the lead. To her dismay, she could now see that the first group of pursuing Reduners were not the only ones; further back was an even larger number, a mixed group of myriapedes and packpedes with multiple riders.
Oh, Shale, she thought in dismay. How your brother must hate you.
The waterhole ahead had blazed in Jasper’s senses all the way from Dune Ravenbreak, like the distant flaming of a caravansary beacon. He knew its shape, its depth, its amount even before he reached ahead and hauled out what he needed. No subtlety, he just yanked. And it came.
He turned in the saddle to look at Elmar, still seated immediately behind him. Elmar’s face was ashen; even in this dry heat, his skin glistened with sweat. “I’m fine,” he said.
A lie, my friend.
Such rotten luck. They had evaded their pursuers soon after leaving Ravard’s encampment. They’d hidden out on Dune Sloweater during the day, and then crossed undetected to the other side of Ravenbreak in one intense overnight ride. Unfortunately, with the dawn, things had gone wrong. They’d been spotted by a local hunting tribal party, who—noting they were unbeaded—had proved unfriendly. Not wanting to lead the Reduners to Terelle, they’d taken a circuitous route south and finally shaken them off. They’d then risked riding across the plains to Scarmaker during the day, only to be spied by Ravard’s men while they were out in the open, just a sandrun short of the waterhole.
Grimly, Jasper rolled the water he’d collected into a long cylinder, hollow in the centre, about as wide in diameter as a pede was high, and long enough to block those following him if he placed it across their path. After pulling it into place behind him, he hovered it ten or twenty paces across his trail, above the ground.
He gave a quick glance to the dune, still half a mile away. He could see a pede nearing the crest and felt Terelle’s water there.
“Ziggers!” Elmar warned.
Jasper heard them too. A flock of them, by the intensity of their screaming, still distant and already audible. Fear ran shivers of cold sweat down his spine.
A man’s eye on a knife blade. An eye socket ripped and bleeding. And for what?
Vile, horrible things.
They reached the edge of the waterhole at full speed. Elmar loosed the second pede to take care of itself and Jasper brought the mount they were riding at the time—the one he had stolen from Ravard—to a clattering halt. He leapt down, guided it into a circle and yelled, “Get down and into the centre!” He linked the reins from the mouth rings to the rear mounting handle, pulling them tight so that the pede’s head rested against its rear in its normal sleeping position, with himself and Elmar inside the circle of its body. The beast shuttered its eyes, and hunkered down on its softer belly, adopting the posture that was its defence against ziggers.
“Blighted eyes,” Elmar muttered, “I really wish you could kill the rainlord way.” He flung his cloak over himself and huddled low, face buried in his lap, hand over his ears.
“So do I.” Jasper knelt, but remained uncovered; his senses were with the water he had dragged from the hole, with the riders, with the ziggers, those speeding horrors, now well ahead of those who had released them. He dropped the roll of water until it almost touched the earth, then trundled it forward towards riders and ziggers, faster and faster, a giant spool rolling across the plains.
A few of the ziggers flew into it, and drowned as their wings were ripped away. Most simply flew higher over the top. He felt them coming. How many? Forty? Fifty? Hurriedly, he pulled more water out of the waterhole and formed it into a round slab big enough to place across the curled body of the pede, like a lid for a pot.
The next few moments were a chaotic hell within his head. The sense of water on the move bombarded him from all directions. The roll of water. Men on pedes. Some close, some still so distant. Fifty tiny bodies flying this way and that, visible in the air above them although distorted through the water, disappointed to find the soft, tasty human prey out of reach. Some crept into the crevices between the pede segments and pierced the thick skin with their pointed mouthparts to drink the blood. The pede clattered its segments in mild irritation. Other ziggers, frustrated by skin that was too thick for them to eat their way through, continued to seek a passage to their preferred human victims. Keeping track of them all, just in case, was like trying to keep an eye on individual ants after kicking over their nest. At least none headed up the dune towards Terelle and Dibble.
The roll of water was racing now, almost out of his control. Every now and then it skipped along the earth, collecting dust and grit, but it had its own momentum. All he had to do was keep it together.
Some of the Reduners faltered, slowing their mounts. One of their number yelled something, but he was too far away for Jasper to hear the actual words. He hoped it was encouragement. He hoped they’d think there was no reason they couldn’t take a deep breath and splash their way through it on their pedes. After all, it was only water… People often underestimated the power of water, especially if they weren’t Gibber grubbers who’d watched the rampage of a rush down a drywash.
In his head he pictured what he could feel unfolding. Reduner pedes churning full speed at the water. Then, at the last possible moment, every pede balking. They screeched their fear; he could hear them as they plunged and reared, careening sideways into one another as the water smashed into their faces, travelling fast. The force made it hard for the riders to stay in the saddle. Men fell and were trampled. Panicked animals scattered.
Further away, though, more were coming. He could feel them. Damn you, Ravard. Why couldn’t you just let it be?
Oh, Mica. Mica.
He turned his attention to the ziggers, detaching pieces from the water over their heads to hurl at them. He chased them with water, damaged their wings, drowned them. Until every one was dead. He let the water fall, soaking himself and Elmar, unable in his exhaustion to return it to the waterhole.
Slowly he got to his feet, his sudden frailty sending him to the panniers for something to eat. “The ziggers are all dead,” he told Elmar. “And we’ve got to get going before the next wave of men hits us.”
Elmar stood unsteadily, then dragged himself back onto the pede, his soggy cloak around his shoulders. “I wish I could be of more help,” he said. “It’s this damned dizziness. The headaches I can put up with.” He held up his cloak, heavy with water. “Why the bleeding hells did you drop the water on top of us?”
Jasper went to untie the reins. “I doubt you’ll be much good until you can rest instead of riding long hours in the sun. You’ve managed well, Elmar. And no, I’m not drying your cloak for you.” He glanced around for the second pede, only to find it already plodding its way up the dune after its stablemate. He patted Ravard’s pede. “This fellow did well, too. Does it have a name, do you know?”
“Ravard called it Chert.”
Chert. Blighted eyes.
To remember his friend? Or to show the world he didn’t care?
He had no idea. He did not know this man, this Ravard. But then he wasn’t sure he knew himself any longer, either. He’d taken the pede on the cusp of his anger as a petty revenge, a boy’s silliness when he thought about it, yet he couldn’t regret it. It was so withering satisfying to own that pede, to have shown Ravard he was not to be underestimated.
“Chert it is,” he said.
He turned the beast towards the slope of the dune, eating as they went so he’d have enough strength to deal with what was to come.
When they were halfway up the wall of sand, he stopped a moment to look back. None of the first group of pursuers was following. They didn’t have much choice; most of their pedes were scattered and riderless, heading north in their panic. The second group had arrived on the patch of wet land. Some were helping the injured; others were taking extra men on their pedes—and were turning towards the dune. Jasper sighed. They were going to follow. As he prodded his pede upwards once more, he wearily pulled more water out of the waterhole. The twist of it trailed them up the slope, droplets dripping on the sand to betray his fatigue.
Terelle and Dibble were waiting for them on the crest, their mount grazing in the dip behind them, joined now by its stablemate. Terelle’s gaze sought Jasper’s, her eyes anxious, as if she could sense the depth of his anguish.
“What happened to you?” Dibble asked Elmar, horrified when he saw the state the armsman was in. “What happened to your eyebrows? The front of your hair’s all frizzled!”
“Charred by a flame. It’ll grow back.”
“You were burned?”
“Just… singed. It’s sore, but no more than that. I also got clobbered on the head.”
“He’s been groggy and ill ever since,” Jasper added as he slid off the pede. “You drive this animal, Dibble, so you can look after him. Terelle, you go with them. I’ll catch up with you shortly. I have to deal with this other lot behind us.” He smiled at her as he handed the reins to Dibble.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“Tired, that’s all.”
“Is Mica among them?”
He shook his head. “No. And you were right, Terelle. He’s not Mica, not any more.”
“I’ll take Elmar,” she said. “Dibble will stay with you.”
Without a word, Dibble gave her the reins.
“Don’t either of you listen to a word I say?” Jasper asked him, exasperated. “I am supposed to be your Cloudmaster.”
“Then act like it,” Terelle snapped. “You’re more important than any single person in the Quartern. Dibble will stay in case you need help.”
“I am quite capable of—”
“Perhaps. And perhaps you’ll need help,” she added, mounting in front of Elmar. The look she gave him was calm and steady—and utterly determined. “I’ll ride on slowly.”
He watched her go, wondering if the way he felt about her was as obvious as he thought it must be. “Remind me never to argue with her once she’s made up her mind,” he said to Dibble when they were out of earshot.
“What are you going to do?”
“I am going to kill men,” he said.
Them or us. He needed to sleep; the pedes needed time to eat and rest—and they still had a long way to go. The thought made him sick, but it didn’t alter his intention by as much as one drop of water.
Lying flat on the sand, he peeped over the edge of the slope. The first pedes were already zigzagging their way upwards, sand sliding under their feet.
He waited patiently until they were three-quarters of the way up. Then he made another tube of water and rolled it downwards. They saw it coming, hauled their mounts to a standstill and tried to hold them steady and calm. Each driver instructed his pede to mantle its eyes, and obediently, they did.
More prepared this time, they might have succeeded in halting the panic if the only weapon coming their way was water, but it wasn’t. As the roll descended, Jasper—in his fatigue—allowed it to roll over the sand. It collected more and more grains on the outside. He began to find it difficult to hold together, and water leaked from it in streams. The flow destabilised the slope, which started to slip.
For a moment Jasper watched. The sand-slide started as a small patch eating back into the slope. It widened, grains tumbling into the slide until a thundering wave of sand followed the water. The dune screamed. Water, then sand, hit the men and pedes. Jasper was no longer watching. He was running to join Dibble, vaulting onto his pede and shouting for them to go.
But he couldn’t run from what he felt inside his head.
The water that was men and animals jumbled together, bodies contorted, breaking, somersaulting, plunging, suffocating—and dying. The water alive one moment and struggling to go on living… and then life winking out, leaving only something that was still water, but insensate.
One by one they died, and Jasper lived every death.
Excerpted from Stormlord's Exile by Larke, Glenda Copyright © 2011 by Larke, Glenda. Excerpted by permission.
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