FOUAD STARED at me. He wore brilliant orange this morning. "Are you sandsick?"
My face got a little warm. "No."
"What in the names of all the gods for ?"
"The horse," I muttered.
In his eyes I saw all manner of thought. Likely none of them had to do with the sanity of one particular sword-dancer. "You want Silk's tassels for your horse."
I stared down fixedly at the saddlepouches on the bar, picking at leather thongs. "Yes."
Amusement was replacing the incredulous note in his voice. "Are you sure this is not for yourself?"
I glared at him. "No, it's not for me!"
He cocked his head thoughtfully, examining me. "I don't know—you might look good with women's tassels hanging from your—"
"—neck," he finished, grinning.
"He has blue eyes," I explained.
Fouad reverted to surprise. "A blue-eyed horse? In the desert?"
"I know! I know! Just get the tassels, Fouad. And if you've got any charcoal and axle grease, I'll take that, too. Mixed."
"Also for your horse?"
This time I leveled my most threatening sandtiger's glare at him, and he flung his hands into the air. "All right! All right. I'll get charcoal and axle grease. Mixed."
I watched him turn away. "What about Silk's tassels?"
"Oh, you can get those yourself!"
"But—" But. He was gone.
Swearing inventive oaths having to do with Fouad's nether parts and the decreasing amount of time he would retain them, I swung the pouches over one shoulder and went back through the curtain. I didn't know which room was Silk's, which was probably intentional on Fouad's part. So at each curtained doorway I had to stop, ease the fabric aside and peer in, hoping I wouldn't awaken anyone. After a late night of entertaining various dusty and lusty males just in from the desert, Fouad's wine-girls wouldn't exactly enjoy me waking them up this early.
Fortune followed me until I found the correct room. As I eased aside the curtain, looking for a string of crimson tassels, I discovered the owner of the tassels in the midst of a morning stretch. She stood in the middle of her little room, nude, arching her back with arms outstretched. A long, luxurious, languorous stretch. When a woman does that with her back, other parts of her body shift forward.
I realized, as my face got warm, that once upon a time I wouldn't have been embarrassed. But somehow that had altered when I hooked up with Del. I guess maybe you don't have to get married for a woman to start changing your perspective about naked women who are not the woman who's doing the changing.
Not a happy thought, I reflected glumly.
Silk's eyes sprang open. I yanked my head back and shut the curtain hastily, then cursed myself for behaving like a green boy who'd never been with a woman.
She had seen me. My face warmed again. "Yes?"
Silk now stood at the doorway, curtain pulled around her body. The long black hair was a tangle spilling over her shoulders. Brows lifted, she waited for me to explain myself.
I floundered my way ahead. "I know this sounds strange . . . but could I buy your tassels?"
Black brows arched higher. "My tassels?" I pointed self-consciously. "Those tassels. The red ones." She glanced back over a naked shoulder, marked tassels, then looked at me. "For her?"
"Her?" It took me a moment, but I got there. "No, not for Del! For my horse." Which I realized, as soon as I said it, didn't sound particularly complimentary. At least Del was a human. I floundered on as quickly as possible. "He's white. And blue-eyed. He needs shielding from the sun."
Silk eyed me a long moment, her expression curiously blank. Then she dropped the curtain and padded naked to the table where the tassels lay. When she turned around again, swinging the tassels on one finger, there was no attempt to cover herself. In fact, she was doing her best to display everything. I cleared my throat, averted my eyes, and busied myself digging through pouches for coins.
She appeared in front of me, offering the tassels. "No charge." I looked up, wished I hadn't. "Why no charge?" "Because I will have my payment over and over again," she explained sweetly, "each time I imagine you telling your Northern bascha that you got these tassels from me. And what I was wearing when you got them." Hoolies. Women!
I muttered thanks through gritted teeth, grabbed the tassels out of her hand, and got myself back to the front room as quickly as possible. Fouad, straight-faced, handed me a small pot of grease mixed with charcoal.
In a purple burnous, carrying a pot of black greasepaint and dangling crimson tassels, I made my way from the cantina with what dignity I could muster.
The white gelding peered at me out of sorrowful—and watery– blue eyes. He was bridled, saddled, and packed. Nothing left to do save for two final touches.
"I'm sorry," I told him, "but I have to do this."
He blinked lids edged with long white lashes. I stuck two fingers into the pot Fouad had given me, made a face denoting disgust, then began to glop on the first black circle.
"I've seen dogs like this," I said. "White dogs with black patches. But they were born that way. They don't have humans painting the patches on."
The gelding dipped his head briefly and snorted.
"I don't blame you," I agreed. "I'd protest, too. You look like a buffoon." I moved to the second eye. "It's not your fault. I don't mean to offend you. But you must admit this is not exactly how a self-respecting horse is supposed to look."
He extended his nose and whuffled noisily.
I filled in the last bit of white hair, stoppered the little pot and stuck it in one of the pouches. I wiped off as much of the gunk from my fingers as I could on burlap grain sacking, then heaved a huge sigh and picked up the tassels. "It gets worse," I informed the gelding.
I had considered trading him in for a darker horse, but I decided against it for two reasons. First, he had truly smooth gaits and Del, wounded, might need them; second, he was Del's pick for a mount. I'd learned from experience not to discard any number of items she'd selected for whatever reason, even if I considered them worthless, because she always eventually found a use for them. (Or said she would.) Even if it meant packing them along for months at a time, taking up space. In her own way, Del was as much a collector of unique things as Umir, except she at least didn't collect humans.
Unless you count the men who lose all control of their brains at first sight of her. We'd probably have a goodly collection trailing along after us, annoying the hoolies out of me, if I didn't run them off.
So I kept the gelding. Who stood very still and obliging as I looped the string of tassels from ear to ear, tucking the ends under the browband of the headstall.
I stepped back and appraised him. Now he had two black patches around blue eyes and an ear-to-ear loop of brilliant red tassels dangling down his face. I gazed at him a long moment perched somewhat painfully between outright laughter and stoic resignation, then with great sympathy patted his nose. "Don't worry—we're leaving town the back way."
It was still early as we rode out of Julah, and I was certain that by taking the shorter route through Vashi territory I could cut a fair amount of time off the journey. If all went well, I would see Del before sundown. So I looked for and finally found the almost nonexistent wagon ruts cutting off from the main road into town, reflected I'd better make speed now while the footing was decent, and asked the gelding to once again resume the walk-trot-lope routine. Tassels swung and bobbled.
Del and I had been in no hurry before. Now I was. By asking more of the gelding when the footing was decent and letting him drop into a ground-eating long-walk at other times, in good time I located the spot where Oziri and his three warriors had appeared. Here the footing was rocky, and I couldn't in good conscience ask the gelding to do more than walk at a slower pace. I'd watered him twice already, and myself, but still felt the warmth of the sun. Within a matter of weeks it would be high summer.
I bypassed the detour to the clearing where Del and I had gotten drunk on Vashni liquor, and found the dry streambed. I dropped down into it, following the left bank. Eventually I came across the leather bag I'd dropped off the stud in an effort to evade the rank stench of spoiling sandtiger meat. The bag had been chewed and clawed open. Someone—or several someones—had enjoyed a good meal.
I exited there, trading sand for stone drifts, broken rock, and hardpan. Riding in, we hadn't concerned ourselves with marking our route. Now I depended only on my recollection of those things I'd considered landmarks, such as a tree with a twisted limb or a spill of rocks forming a shape that caught my eye. During that ride I'd been studying wagon ruts, but the land rose steadily toward the massive rock formations thrusting upward in the dis-
tance, and so long as I headed in that general direction, I knew I'd find the plateau.
I followed my inner sense of direction with a pervasive sense of increasing urgency. As Umir's prisoner, I'd been helpless; and I'd learned years before that when I could do nothing, it was best for mind and body to wait until opportunity presented itself. Now I was free, and the only thing keeping me from finding Del was the time it took me to reach her. I wanted to shorten that as much as was humanly possible.
As the route began to slope up toward the plateau, I asked the gelding's forbearance and put him into a long-trot; farther on, as the trail steepened to wind up to the tree-edged top, I gave him his head and asked for a lope. Hindquarters rounded as he dug into the incline, grunting with the effort.
I leaned toward his neck, shifting weight forward. "Not so far," I murmured. "Just a little farther." But I wasn't certain if it was the gelding I encouraged or myself.
As he topped out with one gigantic bunching leap over the lip of the plateau, I reined in, kicked free of my right stirrup and dropped off even as the gelding slowed. I released the reins and ran toward the lean-to.
In sand and loose pebbles, I skidded to a halt by the lean-to. It was empty. No blankets, no supplies, no tack. Just the crude shelter and sandy floor.
Foreboding replaced urgency. I lifted my voice to a shout that rang in the rocks. "Hey, Nayyib! It's me—Tiger! Where are you?"
Then I heard a snort and turned, but it was only Del's gelding. He'd begun wandering over to the nearest tree, seeking grass. He found it in the shade and began to graze, tangled vegetation caught in the corners of his bitted mouth.
No one answered my calls. All I heard was the clank of bit shanks as the gelding ripped grass out of the ground and chewed noisily, the high, piercing cry of a hawk in the cloudless sky, and the faint, distant chittering of ground vermin, scolding one another.
Sweat ran down my temples. I closed my eyes, feeling the initial clench of panic in my belly. After a moment I banished it. I needed focus now, not emotion. Emotion makes you miss things.
With deliberation, I set about doing what Del had originally hired me to do years before: track someone. Only this time it was Delilah I sought, not her brother.
My examination of the campsite established there was no blood in the shelter or anywhere in the vicinity of the bluff's flat crown. There was no grave that I could find, in sand, under trees, under rocks; and the fire ring hadn't been used in days. Hoof prints crisscrossed one another, and all were old, nearly gone; likely from Nayyib's horse and the mounts Rafiq and his friends rode, not to mention Del's gelding and the stud. Breezes had scuffed the prints, and the tracks of insects and animals, but where there was soil, the impressions remained. There were piles of horse manure in several places, which could mean one of two things: two or more horses had stayed here long enough to leave deposits; or one horse had been moved from tree to tree for the grazing. The manure wasn't fresh; beyond that I couldn't tell. In the dry heat of the desert, horse droppings degraded quickly. I even found the sandtiger's skeleton, bones picked clean and scattered by scavengers. The skull was missing.
Consolation: with no grave anywhere in the area, it was unlikely Del had died here. And it made no sense for Nayyib to pack the body anywhere. In the desert, the dead were buried pretty much where they fell. This didn't mean Del was alive—she could have died along the way—but at least she wasn't dead here.
The campsite felt very empty. I shivered, squatted, inspected another hoofprint, then picked up a rock and bounced it in my hand, looking around yet again to see if I had missed anything obvious. "Bascha," I murmured, "where are you?"
The gelding shook his head, rattling bit shanks, then recommenced grazing. I mentally kicked myself out of my reverie and went to tend him. My next plan was to see if I could find tracks leading away from the area, and though I wanted to do it as soon as possible, dealing with the gelding came first. You don't dare lose your mount to neglect in the desert. A man afoot is a dead man.
Once the gelding was haltered, unsaddled, cooled, and watered, I began a careful inspection of the edges of the campsite. It did not appear that Nayyib had constructed a litter for Del, because the shelter was whole and I found no signs of poles being dragged through the dust. It was possible she had recovered enough to ride, either in the saddle with him behind, or vice versa; it was also possible the stud had returned at some point. But the only prints I found coming and going were those Del and I had made riding up the bluff, those made by Nayyib, Rafiq, and the others, and the tracks leading away as Rafiq took me to Umir's.
Which left one answer.
I stopped looking at soil and the edges of the plateau. I looked instead at the tumbled carpet of porous smokerock, quartz, and shale spreading out from the huge boulders like a river of stone. I squatted, searching for the tiniest detail that might tell a story. And there I found one: chips knocked off of rock, showing raw, unweathered stone; the hollowed bedding where rocks had been seated until hooves knocked them loose; the tiny trails left by insects and others fleeing the heat of the sun when their cover was stripped away.
It was impossible to judge how many horses, or if one was being ridden double, because the stones and their crevices held too many secrets. But a horse had certainly gone this way.
So I played the game. If I were Nayyib, left with an injured woman, I'd want to get her to help as soon as possible. But going back to Julah the way I'd come could be dangerous; who knew how many sword-dancers were out looking for the Sandtiger? And it was no secret he traveled with a Northern woman; they'd recognize her immediately, assume she knew where their quarry had gone, and question her regardless of her health. So I—Nayyib– Would head for Julah another way, attempting to leave no tracks.
I would take to the rocks and, since I now had safe passage thanks to the fingerbone necklet, cut through Vashni territory. I'd already done it once on the way to Julah, going for the healer. It was tougher footing for the horse and thus tougher on Del, but safer in the long run.
I went back to the gelding, grained him, watered him. Then collected bedding and saddlepouches. "We're staying the night," I told him. "We'll lose the light soon enough. First thing tomorrow morning, we're going hunting."
I dumped pouches at the shelter, then knelt down to spread my blanket. "Fat's going into the fire," I muttered. "My fat's going into the fire."
Because if anyone had seen Nayyib and Del on their way to Julah, likely it was Vashni. And I didn't have safe passage.