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SIXTEEN

I WENT THROUGH the cantina doorway bellowing for Fouad. It was late afternoon, and only a couple of men had yet wandered in for drinks. By sundown the place would begin to fill up. As I strode across the hard-packed floor to the plank bar, shouting for their host, they watched in mild curiosity. In Julah, in cantinas, pretty much anything was commonplace.

Fouad appeared from the hindmost regions of the cantina smoothing the front of his yellow burnous, as I dumped saddle-pouches on the bar. His eyebrows ran up into graying hair. "You're back."

"Where's Del?"

He blinked. "Isn't she with you?"

"Isn't she with you ?"

"No."

I felt a stab of disquiet. "That kid came here, he said."

"Who, Nayyib?" Fouad nodded. "He did. He wanted the name of a good healer. He planned to take the healer to where you and the bascha were." His dark eyes widened. "Didn't he do it?"

Oh, hoolies. "He showed up," I said, "but there was no healer with him. Only three buffoons hired by Umir the Ruthless." I tapped impatiently on the plank, understanding now that Rafiq and his friends had never allowed Nayyib to find the healer, just made him lead them to me. "I figured he'd bring her here afterwards."

Fouad shook his head. "I haven't seen the bascha since she left with you, and I haven't seen the kid since he left with the sword-dancers."

I was thinking furiously. "Maybe he took her to the healer you recommended. How do I find him?"

"No, Oshet stopped by earlier today for ale. He said he has no new patients." He eyed me, clearly reluctant. "Forgive me, but if she was that badly injured, it's possible"

I cut him off. "She's not dead." Then I swore feelingly, wondering if Nayyib had brought her back to Julah but avoided Fouad's, since his last visit had ended badly. Or maybe Del was sick enough that he'd felt it best to remain at the lean-to and not risk moving her. But it made no sense that he wouldn't take her to the healer Fouad recommended. I had a hunt ahead of me.

"She might be elsewhere in town," he suggested, following my thought. "Maybe with another healer. Do you want me to ask around?"

"If Nayyib's avoiding you, you won't find him."

Fouad scoffed. "This is my town."

"He doesn't strike me as stupid."

"It's difficult to hide with a sick Northern woman."

Very true; unless she was dead, and he was on his own.

I dismissed the thought instantly, annoyed I'd succumbed to it. "Ask around," I said. "The sooner there's an answer the happier I'll be. I'll spend the night at the inn just up the street. If I don't hear anything by morning, I'll head out."

"Stay here," Fouad offered.

"In a cantina?"

He laughed. "You used to stay here all the time."

"Not in an empty bed." I hadn't stayed in a cantina since hooking up with Del. Before then, such places had been frequent lodgings.

"That could be remedied," Fouad asserted. But his humor died away. "One of my girls left to marry, and there is an extra room.

It's small, but it claims a bed, a tiny table. You do own one-third of the place, now."

"Fine. Can you have one of your boys take my horse to the livery? I've got all my belongings off him."

Fouad looked dubious. "No one likes handling the stud."

"I don't have the stud. It's the white gelding tied outdoors." I sighed, running a hand impatiently through hair that was just beginning to regain some of its wave. "Food and drink would be welcome. And a burnous."

"I'll bring a meal out myself."

"No. To the room. I'm going to lay low."

Fouad gestured. "Back through the curtain, down the hallway, last door on the left."

As I picked up the saddlepouches I didn't remind him that I knew the layout from earlier days. I just nodded and went.

The room was indeed small. Smaller, in fact, than I remembered. But it did have the bed to recommend it, plus the tiny table next to it just inside the curtained doorway. I dumped the pouches next to the bed, then unsheathed the sword and leaned it against the bedframe. I shed the harness next. Sure enough, after two days with no burnous, I had paler stripes standing out against the copper-brown of my skin. I looked as though I were wearing the harness even when I wasn't. Leather had rubbed against the slice along my rib, but the annoyance was minimal when weighed against the rest of my body.

My smile was twisted. Nihkolara had said new scars would replace the old ones lifted from me by the mages. It looked as though I was on my way to starting a second collection.

The whisper of a step sounded beyond the privacy curtain. I caught up the sword and leveled it just as the fabric was pulled aside. Silk, Fouad's wine-girl, bearing a tray and carrying a burnous draped over one arm, stopped dead.

I gestured her in, smiling ruefully. "We're beginning to make this a habit."

This time she wasn't swathed in cloth or trying to hide her face as she bore me a warning. She wore filmy gold-dyed gauze and a sash-belt of crimson tassels riding low on her hips that accentuated her Southron coloring and lush body. She accepted my invitation, set the tray on the table, then put the burnous on the bed. Fouad is a man who likes color; the gauze was a deep bluish-purple. Bright red in Skandi, now purple here. Whatever happened to subtlety?

Silk was gazing at me, black wings of hair hanging loosely beside her face.

"Thank you," I said feelingly, and set down the sword again. Fouad had, of course, included aqivi along with food. For just a moment, though, I thought longingly of Umir's excellent meals.

"You are alone?" Silk asked.

I nodded, realizing Fouad probably had said nothing of the circumstances. I sat down on the edge of the bed and dove into mutton stew in a bowl carved of hard brown bread.

"Will you be wanting company tonight?"

It stopped me cold. I looked at her over the spoonful of stew halfway through my mouth.

"Ah," she said, and the single word contained a multitude of emotions.

"Wait," I said as she turned to go. "Silk . . ." But I wasn't sure what I'd meant to say.

Her smile was sad. "It's the Northern bascha."

I nodded.

Her mouth twisted faintly. "All those years we used to say you would never settle on one woman. But inwardly we all dreamed it might be one of us." She gestured with one square hand. "Oh, I knowit wouldn't be with a wine-girl. But even women like us have dreams, Tiger."

I felt vastly uncomfortable. "I don't know what to say."

"Then say nothing. Know only that you wereand always will bespecial to me."

I groped for comforting words. I'd never been very good at them. "There will be someone for you, Silk. Didn't Fouad say one of the girls just left to get married?"

She nodded solemnly. "But she was much younger than I, and not so coarse."

The best answer was suddenly a simple matter of speaking the truth. "If you were coarse," I told her, "I would never have shared your bed."

After a moment, she said, "Thank you for that."

"I meant it."

She nodded and turned to go.

"Silk!" I stabbed the spoon back into stew and stood up. It took a single pace for me to reach the doorway, and the woman.

She wouldn't look at me. I cupped her jaw, lifted her face, brushed away the tears with my thumbs. Then I bent and kissed her gently.

No passion. No promise. She knew what it was. She knew what it meant. But still she twined arms around my neck and clung. My hands rested lightly on her hips. She smelled, as always, of wine and ale, and the faint undertang of the musky scent she wore.

Silk broke the kiss even as I did. She raised her hands to my face, fingers scraping against stubble. She traced out the sandtiger scars. "Be careful," she whispered, and the curtain billowed behind her as she left.

No message came with news of Del's whereabouts in Julah or that anyone had sighted Nayyib. Since I wasn't sitting out front watching the world go by with liquor at my elbow, for a long while I paced the tiny room, fighting back a growing feeling of impatience coupled with desperation. Finally my body explained that it was tired even if my mind was not. I sat down on the bed for a while, spine propped against the adobe wall with my legs stretched out, and tried to invent logical reasons for Del's absence.

It was entirely possible that she was still at the lean-to. Except that it had been twelve days or more since Rafiq and his friends had hauled me off to Umir's, and she ought to have recovered enough to be moved to Julah. Even if the stud hadn't returned, the kid had a horse. He could easily have fashioned a litter using the limbs and canvas from the lean-to and brought her to a healer.

They just kept going around and around in my head, all the possibilities. And the thoughts I didn't want to think. I finally scooted down to lie on the bed, staring blankly at the wood-and-mud ceiling. Alric's questions kept sifting to the forefront of my mind no matter how much I tried to ignore them. I cursed myself for it, cursed Alric, cursed Nayyib, cursed Rafiq, Umir, Musa, and the sandtiger who had attacked her.

What would I do if I were alone in the world again?

More than two years before when I had left Staal-Ysta, believing Del would die from the travesty I had made of her abdomen with my newly keyed jivatma, I had focused on the task of tracking down the hounds of hoolies and their master, to save the village of Ysaa-den. It had given me purpose. It had given me the chance to think about something other than Del, for fractions of moments.

There was, now, nothing else to think about.

I scrubbed at my stubbled face, stretching it out of shape. Then growled long and hard into my hands, needing to bleed off the tension. Finally I took the sword from beside the bed, set it on the bed between me and the wall, and closed my eyes. I did not expect to sleep. But my body had other ideas.

I dreamed of Del, which was much improvement over the skeleton in the desert and the sword I was supposed to "take up." I dreamed of Del in all her many guises, sparing no truths of her temperament. She could be cold and hard, faceted like Punja crystal, capable of killing at a moment's notice. She could be sharp-tongued and short-tempered, and there were times her words wounded. But she could also be a soft touch when it came to baby animals and human children, ruthlessly fierce in her tenderness; and, despite a poor beginning among borjuni, passionate in bed. She was woman enough to drive me mad on occasion, because women did that to men; but she also took my breath away with the power of her pride and strength of will.

Silk had said it for me as much as to me: I had never believed it likely I would settle on one woman. Unlike Alric, I wasn't made for a wife and children. I wanted no ties. Nearly two decades as a Salset chula had taught me never to be owned by anyone again; and what was a husband but a man owned by his wife?

Even Alric admitted Lena forbade him things. Who needs that?

And then Delilah arrived in my life, as driven as I to prove herself, if for different reasons, and having no more interest in putting down roots than I did. Except for an enforced stay on Skandi and then time spent on the island off Haziz to regain fitness, we had never stopped moving.

A sudden thought occurred: Now I was proposing to rebuild Alimat and take on students. Which would require me to stay put.

No wonder everyone thought I was sandsick!

I roused from sleep long enough to mutter something mostly incoherent about old men growing soft, then slid down again into the abyss.

Where the bones and the sword waited.

This time the skekton wears flesh, and a face. It is Del, gazing at me out of empty sockets. A hand reaches, gestures. There, she seems to say, though her mouth does not move. There. Take up the sword.

It lies just out of her reach, as if flung down or lost in battle. It is more than a sword, I see, but jivatma, fashioned in the North of Northern rites. Yet it isn't Boreal. Isn't Del's sword.

It is mine. Samiel.

"There," she says, "take up the sword."

Sand drifts. Obscures the body. Carries flesh away. Bones remain. It isn't Del anymore but the other woman.

"Find me," she says. "Find " , ;

"me," I finished, and realized I was awake.

The sword lay beside me, where I had placed it. Not Samiel, just the sword I'd bought in Haziz. It bore no runes, no Northern magic. Was nothing more than steel, with a leather-wrapped hilt.

In the darkness, I lifted the sword. Closed one hand around it. Felt again the pressure of four fingers.

Four, not three.

I closed my other hand around it, resting the pommel against my abdomen so that the blade bisected air. And again, four fingers.

After a moment I set the sword down beside me and inspected my hands. Felt two stumps where little fingers had lived.

Find me, she had said. Take up the sword.

Find who? What sword?

"What in hoolies do you want?" I said. "And what am I supposed to do about it? If you want me to do something, you've got to give me more to go on!"

Of course, then I felt utterly absurd for talking aloud to a dream. But I was getting more than a little tired of obscurity. I've always been a vivid dreamer, but this was new. And already old.

I considered the situation. I had fully intended to go to the fallen chimney formation to search for Samiel. Del and I were on our way there when the sandtiger had attacked. So if I was heading there anyhow, why would the dreams seem to be commanding me this way and that, like a recalcitrant child? And what did the dead woman have to do with any of it? There had been no one but Del and me in the chimney when Chosa Dei met Shaka Obre for the final time. We'd escaped. No one had been killed. What did my jivatma have to do with the skeleton?

I sat up, planting my feet on the floor. Out of sorts, I scrubbed at mussed hair. I was bone-tired still, since sleep had brought me no rest. Finally I lighted the candle on the table, then bent down to dig through saddlepouches. I found Umir's book and propped it on my lap as close to candlelight as possible.

It was a plain, leather-bound book. No inset gemstones, gold or silver scrollwork, no burned-in knotwork designs that might set it apart from other books. I knew it was expensive; all books are expensive and owned only by the wealthy. But it didn't look particularly special. The hinges and latch were made of tarnished copper, and time-darkened gut threaded the pages onto the spine. I wondered briefly if it was locked against me, but the latch opened easily enough. I turned back the cover and saw the first page: fine sheepskin vellum, scraped to a clean, level sheet. The first letter on the page was bigger than the rest, much more ornate, painted in remarkable colors. The print itself was plain black ink.

I squinted at it in poor light. Before Meteiera, I hadn't been able to read anything other than maps, since mostly those were made up of symbols denoting roads, mountains, water, rather than words. Words I'd never been able to sort out in my head, but I'd never really tried. Del could read, so I'd relied on her on the few occasions it mattered. Mostly, it didn't. Then in ioSkandi, atop the spires, something had happened. Something had changed me. Not only could I read, but I comprehended languages I'd never before learned. I'd always had a few to handyou just learn phrases over timebut now I knew them all. Fluently.

I could read Umir's book.

Something deep in my belly fluttered. It wasn't quite fear, nor was it excitement, nor, happily, was it nausea. Then I realized it was the first blossoming of anticipation.

The Book of Udre-Natha was, supposedly, a grimoire containing spells, incantations, summonings, and other magical oddments. Umir had fancied himself a practitioner of the arcane arts, and indeed I'd seen him do a few tricks. But I had spent most of my life denying magic existed, so I'd paid little enough attention to such things. In time, I'd rather uneasily come to the conclusion that it did indeed exist, and some could even summon and manipulate it to almost any degreeas apparently I had managed to do once or twice. But I didn't like to think about it.

Certainly not in connection with me.

I carefully turned the pages, noting colorful first letters throughout, and diagrams, drawings, even maps. The handwriting changed frequently, which suggested more than one man had written it. Though I could read the words, they spoke of many things unknown to me. It was a comprehension of parts without understanding the whole.

Then, paging through, I came across a brief scribbled note saying something about some kinds of inborn magic coming to life late, residing unknown in the body and mind. That a man might live most of his life ignorant of his power until something kindled it. Then, suddenly beset by magic like a blind man given sight, he could react in one of several different ways. All of them seemed to entail some kind of danger to himself or to others.

One line in particular caught my eye. Magic must be used, it said, as a boil must be lanced, lest it poison mind and body.

Very familiar words. Sahdri had said something similar, as had Nihko.

I wondered, then, if my unwillingness to use whatever power I supposedly had was causing the dreams. If I had locked my magic away somehow, was it now seeping out around the edges? Would it burst free unexpectedly one day, threatening me and others?

Sahdri had said Skandic mages went mad from the magic, and that was why they exiled themselves to ioSkandi. That the discipline and devotions learned there in Meteiera could control the worst of the power when coupled with judicious use of it. But it was a finite period of control, because eventually every priest-mage merged with the gods. Of course, their idea of merging was actually self-murder, since they leaped off the spires. So I guess they really did go mad.

I'd never thought of magic as a disease before, but the book sure made it sound that way.

I read another line. Magic manifests itself in uncounted ways no one may predict, depending on the individual. But it is known that overuse of the power may kill the man, and denial of it after manifestation may also kill him.

Oh, joy. Either way I could die.

Ten years, Nihko had told me I had left. Possibly twelve. Not exactly what I call fair compensation for having magic in your blood.

Sighing, I closed the book, fastened it, set it on the table. Blew the candle out. Went back to bed.

This time I didn't dream.


FIFTEEN | Sword Sworn | SEVENTEEN