I WOKE UP not long after dawn to the sound of sword blades. For a moment I was disoriented, aware of unfamiliar smells, light, and the fabric beneath my body. Then I remembered.
Swearing, I crawled out of Umir's so-called guest bed and sat hunched on the edge, scrubbing at creased face. I'd been shaved the day before during my bath, so the stubble was short instead of its usual three or four days' worth of growth.
Swords clashed outside. In the pallor of the morning, I glanced up at the line of airholes cut through mudbrick near the ceiling. Apparently the exterior wall of my room faced Umir's circle off the back of the house. But obviously I was not to be allowed sight of the matches or of the individual who might be given the honor of killing me.
The door latch rattled. The door itself was thrown open. Had I intended to move, I wouldn't have had time to get off the bed. As it was, I just sat there, scowling at my unannounced visitor.
Umir. I stopped scowling and presented him with a blandly noncommital expression of nonaggression.
Then the two large men who'd shadowed me yesterday came into the room, and even as I began to stand up they grabbed my arms arid jerked me onto my feet. So much for Umir's hospitality.
"Already?" I asked.
The two men clamped grips on my wrists and extended my hands. Umir approached. His expression was outraged. "It is true!" he cried, staring at my hands. "I believed Rafiq was exaggerating."
Ah. The infamous missing fingers.
"I shall have to reduce his payment," he declared grimly.
My eyebrows leaped up. "Just how much are two fingers worth compared to an entire person?"
Umir glared at me. "I expected all of you to be delivered. Whole in body. Those were my orders."
I wanted to laugh; the whole topic was unbelievable. "Not that Rafiq and I are friends, Umir, but he didn't do it. This happened a few months ago."
"I heard nothing of it!"
"It didn't happen here." Hoolies, what did it matter?
He swung away, took two steps, swung back. His pale gray eyes were fierce. "Can you still dance?"
I suppressed a smile. "According to the rite of elaii-ali-ma, I am not allowed—"
He cut me off with a shout. "Can you still dance?"
"What, afraid your plan for me as reward will be ruined?"
Umir took one step toward me and swung. I ducked most of the blow, but the flat of his hand still caught me across the rim of my ear. The servants tightened their grips even more as I tried to lunge at Umir, holding me back.
"Try me," I said between my teeth. "Put a sword in these hands and try me—or why not ask Khashi if I can hold a sword?"
Umir's expression was blank. "Khashi?"
"A sword-dancer," I told him. "We had a little contretemps in Julah. Except he's dead now, so he's not here to tell you anything about who won and who lost."
Color began to steal back into his face. "He's dead?"
"You killed him?"
"Was he any good?"
I attempted a shrug made unsuccessful by the grips of the servants. "Apparently not, since I won. But I suspect that depends on your point of view."
Umir bent down and peered closely at my hands. I found the critical examination highly offensive, but there wasn't much I could do about it. So I just gritted my teeth and waited.
"Are they still painful?" he asked curiously, the way one might ask a guest if he wants more wine.
It took effort not to bellow at him, to retain some measure of decorum. "Explain why this matters to you."
Umir seemed surprised as he straightened. "Of course it matters. Your physical well being affects the quality of the entertainment I'll be offering."
I shook my head and began to say something, but Umir abruptly grabbed both my hands and squeezed.
This did not particularly endear my host to me.
After a moment he released them. Umir debated something internally. Then he nodded. "The plans are unchanged." And he turned and strode out of the room.
When I was locked in again, I loosed a lengthy volley of curses in every language I spoke, which was significant after my sojourn at Meteiera, and wished I had numerous breakable items I could hurl at the door and walls as I paced furiously, waiting for the pain to fade.
Of course such actions would merely trigger even more pain in my Umir-abused hands, so it was just as well I didn't have that recourse. And I wasn't about to use the slops jar to vent my frustration, because then I'd have to live with the rather messy results.
Eventually I ran out of curses. The pain diminished. I threw myself onto the bed, hands resting on my chest, and contemplated the blank ceiling overhead, thinking fiercely focused thoughts of such things as sword-dances and sword-dancers, broken oaths, missing fingers, idiots like Umir, absent baschas. And the discipline I'd learned atop the Stone Forest.
Outside, in Umir's circle, sword blades rang. I heard voices raised in cheerful insults, vulgar suggestions, the occasional compliment.
I frowned. There was one voice that sounded familiar.
I heard it again. The frown dissipated. I recalled sparring matches in one of Rusali's dusty alleys. With swords and without.
I swung out of bed, pulled it away from the wall, turned it on edge, studied the legs. With care I sat on one, my own legs gathered under me. I bounced slightly, and felt the answering crack. Smiling, I stood up, smashed a foot against the leg, and was pleased to see it break off from the frame in one piece. I was left with approximately three feet of wood. One end was slightly jagged, but that didn't matter. The other end, adzed smooth at the bottom, afforded me a functional grip.
I set the bed upright again, swinging it around so the legless corner was not obvious to the eye of a visitor, and pushed it once again against the wall. Then I stripped out of house-robe to the linen dhoti. Took up the broken bed leg. Closed my hands upon it. Then, courting patience and self-control, I began the practice forms I had first learned twenty-three years before at Alimat.
I had worked up a good sweat when I heard the latch rattle. Hastily I slung the leg under the bed and donned the house-robe again, though I didn't have time to tie the sash. I thought it best not to sit on the bed with only three legs, so I stood in front of it as if I'd just risen. By the time the door opened, I wore a suitably expectant expression. Especially since I wondered if Umir was coming to inspect any other portions of my anatomy.
A woman entered with breakfast. Even as she set the tray on the floor, they locked her in. Rather than seeming startled or dismayed by her predicatment, she merely stepped aside from the tray and made a graceful gesture inviting me to eat.
She was beautiful in the way of the loveliest of Southron women, small in stature and delicately made, with huge dark eyes, expressive face and hands, and dusky skin set off by blue-black hair hanging loose to her waist. She wore luxurious silks of a brilliant blue-green, and gilded sandals. That she was here for my pleasure was obvious; she wore neither headress or veil, and did not affect the extreme modesty of other Southron women. But neither was she overt in any way. Umir's taste in all things ran to elegance and understatement. Rumor claimed the tanzeer did not like to bed women or men, but took his pleasure in acquiring and owning those things he found intriguing and unique. Sometimes this included people. This woman was definitely unique.
Once upon a time I would not have questioned her presence in his house or her role. I would merely have enjoyed her. Traveling with Del had made me aware of certain Southron customs that were not judged acceptable by other cultures. Traveling with Del had also filled a place in my soul I hadn't known existed; I certainly wasn't blind to other women, nor was I gelded or dead, but appreciation now found outlets other than taking attractive women to bed, be it in my mind or in reality.
Thus I gazed upon this lovely Southron woman and asked, "What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?"
Startled out of her poised serenity, she blinked. The faintest of blushes rose in her cheeks. She gestured again, more insistently, to the tray containing breakfast.
"Later," I said. "Umir sent you?"
She nodded, lids lowering long enough to display long dark lashes against her cheeks.
"Were instructions given?"
She moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue. Her voice was low and perfectly modulated. "I am to do what you wish and be what you wish."
"Is being here in Umir's house what you wish?"
The dark brows arched. "But of course. How not? It is better by far than it might be."
That was likely true. But still I heard Del's voice in my head, arguing the point. "Given a choice, would you leave?"
She was clearly baffled by my line of questioning. "My family was well paid. They live in comfort now. But I live in even greater comfort. Why would I wish to leave?"
"And when you are instructed to do what a man wishes, and be what that man wishes, don't you ever ask yourself if it's worth it?"
Unexpectedly, she laughed. "Do you?"
My turn to be baffled. "What?"
"When you hire a woman for the night, do you ever ask yourself if it's worth it?"
I hadn't hired a woman since meeting Del. But even before that, when I'd celebrated victories with women and liquor, or with women and no liquor, it had never once occured to me to ask myself if it was worth it. It was simply what I did. And there were always women who wanted me to do it.
She saw the answer in my face and smiled. "So, you see. We are not so very different."
But I was. Now. Yet there was no possible way to explain it to her. "Thank you for bringing breakfast," I said, "but I'll eat alone."
She was smiling, certain of me. "And afterwards?"
"Afterwards, I will also be alone."
That surprised her. "You don't wish my company?"
It was undoubtedly an insult, but I tried to soften it. "I choose my own companions."
A wave of color rose in her face. "Umir believed I would please you."
"What would please me, and Umir knows this, is to be given my freedom."
She studied me a moment longer, as if expecting me to change my mind. When I said nothing else, merely waited quietly, she finally accepted it for the truth. She turned at once to the door, rapped on it sharply, and slipped out without a backward glance when the guard opened it.
I listened to the latch being locked behind her. Then I walked to the nearest wall, turned, slid down with my back planted against it. Once upon a time . . .
But I regretted no part of my decision.
I sighed, thumped my head against the wall, shut my eyes. I could hear Umir's sword-dancers. But all I could think about was Del as I had last seen her, left to the ministrations of a stranger while I was here, waiting to meet a man who would do his best to kill me.
Nine days, or eight. I should have asked Umir.
Bascha, where are you? Still in the lean-to, or didNayyib get you to Julah?
This was not how I had envisioned it. For several years I'd seen Del and me dying together, fighting any number of enemies. I had never envisioned us as old people, but as we were now. Certainly I had never considered Del might die of sandtiger wounds or poison, and me sentenced to die in a circle I was no longer allowed to enter.
Never in a thousand thousand years had I ever expected to declare elaii-ali-ma. Despite my time as a chula among the Salset, I considered myself truly born the day Alimat's shodo had accepted me for instruction. The day I had taken my name. The day I had defeated Abbu Bensir in an impromptu practice match with wooden swords.
That image, unexpectedly, was abruptly clear and immediate. I had been seventeen, or as close as I could reckon my age. Abbu was a good ten or more years older, the acknowledged sword-dancer of sword-dancers. He wasn't taking lessons anymore; he had made his living hiring out for years. But he had come back to Alimat to visit the shodo. Where he had heard of a tall, gangly kid who promised, with proper instruction, to be as good—or better—one day.
I smiled crookedly. Abbu had intended to laugh at me, albeit quietly, noting all of my bad habits for the benefit of others. And when he had tossed the wooden sparring blade to me, he had anticipated demonstrating to all the other wide-eyed students how my height and gangliness would hurt me in a circle.
Instead, my greater reach and speed, despite my awkwardness, had landed a blow to his throat. To this day he spoke in a husky rasp.
I had eventually grown into my gangliness, adding flesh and muscle. Strength had been trained, quickness refined. I was unlike Abbu or any other Southroner, and I could not apply all of the lessons to my particular body. Instead, the shodo had adapted to me by developing other forms. In a matter of a few years, more quickly than any prior student—including Abbu—I had attained the seventh level.
Then, and only then, had I departed Alimat to make my own way.
The way that brought me here so many years later.
I got up and stripped off the robe, tossed it on the bed, and knelt to retrieve the broken leg. Once again I opened myself to the power that wasn't magic but that might allow me to live. The rites and rituals of honing the body, controlling the reflexes, taught me by the shodo; and the discipline of honing the mind, controlling that power, trained into me by the blue-headed priest-mages of ioSkandi.
The woman was long-limbed and agile, winding her legs around mine in comfortable abandon. She wore no clothes and had teased me out of my own. The initial passion was spent; now we lay very close, almost as one. Smiling, I twined my fingers into the silk of her hair, wrapping each: thumb, forefinger, next finger, next, and eventually the little finger. I felt the binding, tested it, tugged, then let the hair side through. Fair hair, nearly white; and skin lightly gilded from the blaze of the sun. I ran hands across that skin, stroked it with fingers —
–and sat bolt upright on the pallet I'd pulled from the three-legged bed and put on the floor.
I could see nothing in the night but raised my hands regardless. I counted, tucking fingers down as I named them off in my head.
Right hand: Thumb. Four fingers.
Left: Thumb. Four fingers.
And again, and again. The woman was gone—Del was gone– but the fingers remained. I could feel them.
I stayed awake the rest of the night, arguing with myself.
When dawn finally crept slowly into the room, segmented by air-holes, I was able to see truth at last.
Thumb. Three fingers. And a stub.
I lay down again, making fists of my hands. With two thumbs and six fingers.
Thinking: No Del, either.
Dreams, I decided bitterly, conjured pain as well as pleasure.