WHEN I came to, my rump was not planted in the dirt. All of me was. Rafiq had one knee on my chest and was scowling into my face. I expected him to apply inventive curses to my aborted attempt to escape, but instead he asked, "What happened to your fingers?
I scowled back. "I got hungry."
Rafiq claimed a good share of Borderer blood and thus was larger than most men in the South. It wasn't an impossibility for him to jerk me to my feet, especially with me wobbly from venom residue and being knocked out. Especially with his two friends on either side of me, waiting to help. He lifted his knee, they grabbed my arms, and he yanked me up by dint of tied wrists. Which hurt. Which he knew.
His expression was odd. "What happened to your fingers?"
I blinked away dizziness, aware of how tightly the others gripped my arms. Surely they didn't believe I could offer much of a fight, after that brief travesty of a protest. "I was kidnapped by bald, blue-headed priest-mages, and they cut them off."
Rafiq accepted the truth no easier than falsehood. He studied my stumps with every evidence of fascination. "This isn't new."
Well, it wasn't that old, either, but I didn't say anything.
He thought about it. "At least I know you didn't lose them in the last couple of days."
I glared at him. "What does it matter?"
He looked at my face, searching for something. "You killed Khashi four days ago."
Actually, I'd lost count. Apparently I'd missed the night before and much of another day. Being poisoned will do that to you. "If you say so."
"You killed Khashi with two missing fingers."
"And easily," Nayyib put in.
Moral support. How nice.
Rafiq's eyes flickered. He looked again at the stumps, thoughts hidden. Then his face cleared. "Well, we'll let Umir decide. It's his business if he wants damaged goods."
"Umir?" I blurted. "Umir the Ruthless? What in hoolies does he want?"
"Me? Umir? What for? He never wanted me before." It was Del he'd wanted, and gotten, even if only briefly.
"He does now." Rafiq smiled. "You've apparently become a collector's item. A seventh-level sword-dancer who's declared elaii-ali-ma. It's never happened before. That makes you unique. And you know how Umir is about things—and people—he considers unique."
I shook my head, slow to grasp the essentials. They were simply too preposterous. "What does he want, to put me on display?"
Rafiq's brows arched. His hair was darker than mine, but not quite black. "You haven't heard about his contest?"
"Umir's holding a contest?"
The Borderer, who knew very well how fast news traveled among the sword-dancer grapevine, stared at me. "Where in hoolies have you been?"
Blandly I replied, "Trying to convince bald, blue-headed priest-mages I didn't want to join them."
"Ah. The same ones who cut off your fingers?"
"The very same."
Rafiq snickered, shaking his head. "You always did have a vivid imagination."
I gifted him with a level stare. "So did Khashi. He believed he could defeat me."
That banished the humor. Rafiq nodded at his friends. I realized abruptly that while I'd been briefly unconscious they had slipped leather nooses over my head, now circling my neck. I was cross-tied like a recalcitrant horse, one man on either side of me holding a long leather leash. And currently tightening it just to demonstrate how well the system worked.
When, having made their point, they loosened the nooses, I asked, "Leashing me like a dog these days, Rafiq?"
"A cat," he answered easily. "A big, dangerous cat. Umir gets what he pays for. Fingers or no fingers, I'm not underestimating you."
"Khashi did," Nayyib said.
Very helpful, he was. And it served to bring the image back, and the knowledge, that a man lacking two fingers might still kill an Alimat-trained fifth-level sword-dancer.
Maybe even Rafiq.
Rafiq looked at me again. Assessed me. "Then Khashi was a fool. You may have broken all your oaths, but that doesn't mean you've forgotten how to kill a man. You always were good at that, Tiger."
I suppose it could be taken as a compliment. But my mind was on other things. "I'm not going anywhere without Del."
The Borderer was blank a moment. "Del?—oh, you mean the Northern bascha I've heard so much about?" Rather abruptly, tension seeped into his body. He glanced around sharply. A subtle signal had his two sword-dancer friends tightening the nooses again. "Where is she?"
Ordinarily this would be the signal for Del to sing out, offering to show them where she was, to describe what she would do to them, and how she would do it. Ordinarily it would be amusing to witness Rafiq's anxiety.
But this time it wasn't, because she wouldn't be doing any of it, and now was no time for prevarication. "In the shelter," I told him. "I'm not leaving without her."
Nayyib, still mounted, flicked a glance at me, then away. "I wanted the healer for her," he told Rafiq, "not for him."
Rafiq looked at me. Then he told his sandtiger-tamers to keep an eye on their charge and strode over to the lean-to.
If going with them got Del to help, it was worth as many leashes as they wished to put on me. It wasn't the best of situations, but some improvement in this one was worth a great deal if it helped Del.
I watched Rafiq duck down inside the shelter. In a moment he came back and glanced at his men. "Put him on his horse. We're leaving."
They shut hands on my arms again, started to turn me. "Wait," I said sharply. "We've got to make arrangements for Del. A litter—"
"We're leaving her."
"You can't do that!"
"I can." He nodded at his men. "Do it."
The gelding had been saddled. They shoved me toward him. I planted my feet, not that it did me much good. My feet weren't cooperating, and neither were Rafiq's friends. Rafiq himself turned away to his own mount, gathering reins.
"Wait," I said again. "If you want me to come peaceably—"
Rafiq cut me off. "I don't care if you come peaceably or not. The woman's too much trouble. She'll be dead by tomorrow." He swung up onto his palomino. "Get on your horse, Tiger. If you don't, you can walk all the way to Umir's place at whatever pace our horses set. Of course if you fall, we'll simply drag you."
Rafiq and I had never been friends. But cordial rivals, yes, in the brotherhood of the trade. Now, clearly, cordiality was banished, and rivalry had been transmuted to something far more deadly.
The two men made it clear I could mount Del's gelding under my own power, or they'd choke me out and sling me over the saddle. There was no way I could win this battle. It was foolish even to try. But this was Del we were discussing.
I was running out of options. Beyond Rafiq, Nayyib sat his horse wearing a curiously blank expression. I shot him a hard stare but couldn't catch his eye. Then I turned, grabbed white mane and stuck a foot in the stirrup, pulled myself up. Kicking the gelding into unexpected motion in a bid to escape would not succeed; Rafiq's leather leashes would jerk me out of the saddle and likely strangle me before I landed.
But leaving Del behind . . . that I couldn't do. I'd made a promise. If I tempted death, so be it. I wouldn't leave her alone if it cost me my life.
Without a word Nayyib abruptly turned his horse toward the shelter and rode away from us. He dismounted, looped his rein loosely around one of the roof branches, glanced back at me over a shoulder. No longer did he avoid my gaze, but seemed to be courting it. His jaw was set like stone.
Rafiq glanced back. "Aren't you coming? I thought you wanted to see some real sword-dances."
Nayyib lifted that stubborn jaw. He continued to stare at me. "I'm staying with the woman."
I released a breath I hadn't realized I was holding. Maybe he hadn't betrayed us. Or maybe he'd had a change of heart. I wanted no part of leaving, but at least Del would have someone with her.
The two men were mounted, one on each side of the gelding. I felt the pressure of the slip-knots on either side of my neck. A change in pace by any of our mounts, be it a side-step, a spook, a stumble, and I'd be in a world of hurt. The reins were mine to hold, but they did me no good.
Rafiq laughed, calling to Nayyib. "Well, you can catch up to us tomorrow—after you bury her."
"I don't think so," I said lightly. "In fact, I'm pretty damn certain of it. It'll be you who gets buried, and if I don't do it, she will."
Rafiq looked at me. He was neither laughing nor smiling now. "You have no idea what you're going to face. You broke every oath we hold sacred, Tiger. What Alimat was founded on. What do you expect? We were all children there, who were taught to be-
come men. There is a cost for such betrayal, and now you will pay it."
"In blood, I suppose."
His eyes were cold as ice. "One of us will have the honor of cutting you into small pieces. I would like it, Tiger—I would like it very much—if that honor were mine."
I opened my mouth to answer, but Rafiq's friends suggested I not respond by employing the simple expedient of tightening their leashes. I subsided.
Bascha, I said inwardly, please don't die on me yet. I need you to rescue me.
If she could, she would.
If she couldn't, I wasn't sure I cared if Rafiq—or anyone else– cut me to pieces.
As the horses moved out, as mine was chivvied along, I shut my eyes. Everything in me rebelled.
But then I glanced over my shoulder. Nayyib had turned. Was ducking into the shelter. She wouldn't be alone.
I will try, he had said, to make certain she doesn't die.
"Do better than try," I muttered.
When Rafiq asked me what I had said, I held my silence. After a moment he shook his head and kicked his horse into a trot. Mine, and theirs, went with him.
About the time I began to doze off in the saddle for the fifth or sixth time, Rafiq woke me with a comment and a question. "Your horse looks ridiculous. What made you do that to him?"
I sighed, shifted in the saddle, swore inwardly; it is not comfortable riding with your wrists tied in front of you and leashes around your neck. Especially when your body wants to slump forward over the horse's neck, and your neck has nooses around it. 'Bald, blue-headed priest-mages."
He had dropped back to ride near me. Now he eyed me askance. "Sticking to that story, are we?"
Well, except for the gelding's adornments, it was the truth.
But I countered with a question of my own. "What exactly is this contest Umir's holding?"
"He wants to see who's the best sword-dancer."
"We already did that in Iskandar a couple of years ago." I recalled it very clearly. Del had killed the Northern borjuni Ajani there, satisfying her vow to avenge the death of her family.
"It didn't end quite the way anyone expected," Rafiq said.
That was an understatement. All hoolies had broken loose, and Del and I had left town as quickly as possible. "So Umir's decided to start putting on exhibitions? Isn't that a little odd for him?"
"He wants to find out so he can hire the best."
"The best for what?"
"Protecting his business interests. Full-time employment with one of the richest men in the South until retirement. Not bad work, if you can get it."
It was not unusual for a sword-dancer to hire on with one employer for a term of service, but it had always been situational. I'd never heard of a permanent employment. "And you want it."
"I want it, and I intend to get it."
"And these two friends of yours are just along for the ride?"
Rafiq laughed. "Oh, no. Ozmin and Mahmood will take their chances, too. But they know I'm better than they are."
"Sometimes," Ozmin said, from my left.
"Usually I just take pity on you and let you think you're better," said Mahmood from my right.
I ignored them and addressed my comments to Rafiq. "What does it have to do with me? I'm not a sword-dancer. I can't play with the big boys anymore."
"Oh, he's making an exception for you. Or maybe that should be we are. Not in the way you expect, maybe, but it ought to be worth it regardless."
"And what is that?"
"Well, reward, really. You." He grinned. "You're not a stupid man, Tiger, and you know the South very well—as was proven by your disappearance. Everyone wants you. But it might take years for any of us to track you down in order to kill you. This way, you're right there at hand. An extra prize for the last sword-dancer standing: the chance to kill the Sandtiger in a dance to the death. Umir put out the word months ago, but you'd disappeared."
"You found me easily enough." Not that it made me happy.
Rafiq shrugged. "That was luck. I was at Fouad's waiting to meet up with Ozmin and Mahmood when your young friend came in asking about a healer. I had no idea where you were, or even that you were back from wherever it was you disappeared to." He grinned. "Probably you should have stayed there."
So, maybe Nayyib hadn't sold us out. Maybe he'd had no real choice about leading them back to us.
Or maybe he had.
Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Frowning, I guided the gelding over a rocky patch, hoping he wouldn't stumble and strangle me by accident. But he was a rather comfortable ride, despite the circumstances. Del hadn't exaggerated. If I were on the stud, I'd have been choked ten times over by now.
Which reminded me that he was still missing. And now likely to stay that way; Nayyib wouldn't know to go looking for him, and Del was too sick to suggest it.
To take my mind off that, I looked at Rafiq. "And Umir, I suppose, will reward you for bringing me in."
"Handsomely. And this way if I don't win the contest, I still benefit from it." He laughed as he saw my dubious expression. "I'm not stupid, Tiger; there's always a chance something might prevent me from winning. I could trip at the wrong time. Get a blister on my thumb. Lose a finger." He glanced pointedly at my hands. "All the other losers will just be losers. I'll walk away with Umir's coin in my purse, and the honor of bringing in the Sand-tiger to face punishment."
"We will walk away," Ozmin clarified.
Mahmood nodded. "We're splitting it, remember? Otherwise you could have taken him on by yourself. And we all know who'd have won that contest."
Maybe not, in my current condition. I contemplated leather knots glumly. I'd known returning to the South was a risk. Being challenged by Khashi in Julah was merely the first of many I expected to face. But that was one by one. Umir's scheme likely would get me killed. At Alimat we'd held many such contests to test our skills against one another, because competition brought out the best. It focused the mind, honed the talent. By the time the two finalists met, regardless of cuts, bruises, and slashes, they were prepared for anything.
Whoever came out of Umir's contest the winner would be very, very good, and very, very hungry for his—dessert.
"Doesn't sound like there's much in it for me," I said lightly.
Rafiq affected surprise. "But of course there is! You'll have the honor of dying in front of men you trained with, sparred with, danced with, even drank with. Men you respect, and who respect—respected—you. Who will never forget you and will speak your name to others. How better for a sword-dancer to die? It's our kind's immortality." Then his expression hardened. "Oh, but I was forgetting. You have no honor. You aren't a sword-dancer. You're just a man whom no one will remember, whose name is never spoken. A man who never lived, and thus can have no immortality." Rafiq added with elaborate scorn, "A man such as you might just as well have been born a slave."
The verbal blade went home, as he had intended. My origins weren't a secret. They'd been part of the legend: a Salset slave had, against all odds, risen to become a seventh-level, Alimat-trained sword-dancer, favored by the shodo. When you're a legend, origins don't matter except as seasoning for the story.
Now, of course, I wasn't a legend. And Rafiq wanted a reaction. Maybe he wanted me to choke myself trying to reach him. But I merely grinned at him. "So much for honor. I don't think there is much in killing a former chula."
His face darkened. After a moment he kicked his horse into a trot and went ahead again.
While I, meanwhile, blessed the bald, blue-headed priest-mages for forcing me to rededicate myself to one of the teachings of my shodo.
It was its own kind of magic.