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TWENTY-ONE

I DUCKED inside Oziri's hyort.

"Do you mind if I check on Del?oh, hoolies, not this again!" I waved herb smoke from my face. "I thought you said this wasn't necessary."

Oziri was once again seated on furs. The hyort, as before, was closed and stuffy. "It won't be necessary, eventually. It is now."

"You going to give me another bone?"

He tossed a pinch of herb on the coals with an eloquent gesture. "No. This time I want you to walk your own dream."

I squinted against the smoke. "You want me to dream while I'm awake?"

"Not to dream but to recall your dreams. In detail. That is the walk. A man with the art may summon them at any time, may return to them, so he may understand their message."

"And what happens if he doesn't wish to understand anything? If he just wants to go on about his life like everyone else, blessedly ignorant?"

"A man with the art can't ignore such things. There is no blessing in ignorance, only danger."

I eyed him warily. "Where are you going with this?"

Oziri sighed. "You have, I'm sure, been bitten by sandflies."

I blinked, wondering what that had to do with anything. "Anyone who lives in the desert has."

"And you recall the fierce itching that accompanies such bites.

Dryly I said, "Anyone who lives in the desert does."

"And if you were bitten but could not scratch?" Oziri smiled faintly. "It would be hoolies, as you call it."

An understatement. "So?"

"Consider dreams as sandflies, and walking them, understanding them, is the scratching of the itch. One or two sandfly bites, unscratched, are bearable, if annoying, but what of an infestation? Bite upon bite upon bite, until your flesh is swollen on the bones. Without relief. No scratch for the itch."

I grimaced, wanting to scratch simply because of the image he painted. "If you say so; I'm not going to argue with my host. But we haven't established that I have any art."

There wasalmosta scowl on Oziri's face. "Last night we established that indeed you have the art, when you reacted to the bone. Now you must learn to walk the dreams, to recall them at will, so you may understand them." He paused. "And scratch the itch."

"Uh-huh. And the sandflies are supposed to give me messages." I started to laugh, but then without warning something boiled up inside me, an abrupt and painful frustration so desperate, so powerful, it overwhelmed. I wanted to wheel around, tear the doorflap open, stride away from the hyort. I wanted to get Del, throw our belongings into pouches, saddle the horses and go. Just go. Forever. Away.

I wanted to run.

To run.

Oziri's eyes flickered. "I know."

Stunned, ashamed, angry, I guarded neither words nor tone. "You know nothing."

"I know," he repeated.

The anger separated itself from frustration. It was an alien kind of anger, shaped not of rage and therefore comprehensible but of a cold, quiet bitterness. "Do you have any idea," I began softly, with careful clarity, "how many people have told me I have arts? Gifts? Powers? Have you any idea what it is to be told, again and again, that if that art, or that power, is ignored, it could drive me mad? Kill me on the spot? Shorten my lifespan?" I shook my head, hand tightening on my sword as every muscle in my body tensed. "I was nothing. I was a slave. How is it that strangers you, Sahdri, Nihko, otherscan see something I can't feel? How can you tell me I must do this thing, that thing, whatever thing it may be, or the price will be too high to pay?"

He closed his eyes a moment.

"I'm just a man, Oziri! Nothing more. That's all I ever wanted to be, when I was a slave. A man. And free. To go where I want, be what I want. No arts. No gifts. No powers. No end-of-life-as-I-know-it punishment if I don'tif I can't measure up. Messiah? Hah. Mage?I want nothing to do with magic, thank you. And now dream-walker?" I shook my head vehemently. "No. Never. I don't want it. And if that means you want to kill me because I'm not what the Oracle prophesied, so be it. I'll meet anyone in the circle you like. Because that's what I am. Just a man with a little skill, a lot of training . . . and no need at all to contend with arts and gifts and powers, be they Southron, Northern, Skandic, Vashni, or anything else." I shook my head again as tension and anger, now vented, began to bleed away into weary resignation. "This is your art, Oziri, this dream-walking. Not mine."

After a moment he lowered his eyes and gazed into the coals. His fingers twitched, as if he wished to take up herbs and toss them into the fire. But he didn't. He simply sat there, expression oddly vulnerable for a Vashni warrior, and after a moment his mouth twisted as if he were in pain.

Then he met my eyes. "Will you trust me to lead you through?"

The question astounded me. "I just told you"

"Yes. And I understand; your truth is a hard one, even for a priest. I have no intention of killing you; we accept what the Oracle prophesiedwait." He lifted a hand to belay my immediate protest. "A man is welcome to his own beliefs, yes?"

It took effort to accede, but I dipped my head in a stiff nod.

"We have hosted the woman, the Oracle's sister; and the young man who brought her here. And now we have hosted you. I ask that the jhihadi repay us by allowing me to lead him through this dream-walk."

The ice of anger was gone; its bluntness remained. "But it doesn't mean anything. Not to me."

"Then you lose nothing but a portion of time, while I " Oziri smiled ruefully. "Well, it means a great deal to me. I risk losing a portion of my reputation. The Vashni hold priests to be incapable of mistakes."

I couldn't help but mock. "Will they kill you for it and boil the flesh off your bones?"

"No."

I shrugged with deliberate exaggeration. "Then it's not so much of a risk after all, is it?"

"They will boil the flesh off my bones without giving me the mercy of death beforehand."

It banished all derision, all protests, precisely as he intended. It's hard to ridicule that kind of imagery when you know it isn't falsehood.

I still wanted to walk away. But his time cost more than mine.

Finally I nodded. "Then let's get it done. What do you want me to do?"

"Be seated. Be at ease. Trust me to lead you through."

I grunted dubiously. "I can't promise either of the last two."

"Then achieve the first." Oziri paused. "And lay down your sword. It is hard for me to trust a man with a blade in his hand when he is the Sandtiger."

Once I would have been flattered. Now I just wanted to get it over with. I seated myself on the other side of the fire and set down the sword not far from my knee.

"Breathe," Oziri suggested. "I believe we have established you have that art."

I shot him a disgruntled look. He threw more herbs on the coals. I gritted my teeth and tried not to cough.

"Find your stillness."

That particular recommendation was really beginning to grate on me. I watched suspiciously as he cupped both hands and wafted smoke at me. Another pinch of herbs went on the fire. "All right," I muttered, and drew in a deep breath. "Now what?"

"What did you dream last night?"

Oddly enough, I couldn't remember. I'd slept very well after Del and I had made love, and no recollection tickled my memory. Maybe, after the dream-walking lesson, I was all dreamed out. "I'm not sure I did."

Oziri, saying nothing, took a generous amount of herbs from two bowls. He dumped them on the coals. A cloud of pungent smoke wreathed the air between us, then drifted unerringly into my face. It was nothing so much as a challenge to prove him wrong. To allow my childish obstinance to sentence him to death.

But I really couldn't remember that I'd dreamed. "Wait" I began, then broke into a paroxysm of coughing, which succeeded in drawing even more smoke into my lungs. The world coalesced into a tiny pinpoint of existence, then burst into a vast array of fragmented awareness. I felt parts of my body, my mind breaking apart, spinning away. "Wait "

Oziri laughed. "The gods are not gentle to unbelievers, especially those who repudiate their gifts."

I could barely see, could barely hang onto my senses. "You told me to trust you."

His eyes were like a dagger. His words opened my vitals. "I said I would see you safely through. I did not say it would be a painless journey."

I reached toward the sword. Then memory stirred. Stopped me.

Oziri was right: I had dreamed last night.

"I remember," I blurted, startled. "I"

remember.

And then forgot everything, including my name.

* * *

Del's face, when she dancesor even when she sparswears one of two expressions: fierce determination or an oddly relaxed focus. The former comes from a true challenge, to prove herself and win; the latter from the knowledge that she will win, so the point is to refine her skill. Opponents and enemies have witnessed both. So have I.

But this time, for the first time, I saw fear.

We were yet again in the common area of the Vashni encampment, pretending a portion of it was a circle. After two more hard engagements Del stumbled back, regained her footing and balance, blocked my blow. Steel clashed. She was breathing hard. "Let's stop."

I repeated the series of maneuvers, pushing her harder. Waiting for her body to fail.

She blocked me again and again, frowning. "Stop."

I tried a new angle. Blades met, scraped, screeched.

Her teeth were bared in a brief rictus of sheer effort. The exhaustion was obvious, and oddly exhilarating. "stop"

Over the locked blades I looked into her widening eyes. I shook my head, on the verge of laughing joyously. "You can't win by quitting."

This time there was no determination. No relaxation. Not even fear. Just astonishment.

"Come on," I jeered. "We haven't even begun."

Something flickered in her eyes. Then her mouth went flat and hard.

Laughing, I expected her to renew the match. Instead, Del pushed forward briefly, released her sword entirely, threw both splayed hands into the air and took three strides backward as the blade fell. The expression now was anger.

It wasn't surrender. She didn't yield. It wascessation. And it left me standing in the middle of a circle I'd drawn in the Vashni common, clutching my sword while hers lay at my feet.

I arched my brows. "Afraid, bascha?"

She was sucking air audibly. The single braid had loosened itself, strands straggling around her face. She was ice and sunlight, and much too tough to melt. "What," she panted, "is wrong with you?"

"You asked me to spar with you."

She managed one word. "Spar."

I shrugged. "You've always preferred a challenge to mere practice. Let's not waste our time."

Hands went to her hips and rested there as her breathing slowed. "That wasn't sparring. That was anger, Tiger."

I shook my head. "I'm not angry."

"Angry," she declared. "And bitter."

"You're imagining things." I bent, picked up her sword. "Let's go again."

Del shook her head with slow deliberation.

"Afraid, bascha?" I smiled, tossed the blade. "Catch."

She made no attempt to do so. She merely stepped back and let it fall into the sand. Sunlight flashed.

"That," I said severely, "is no way to treat a good blade."

Winter descended. "Nor is your behavior any way to treat me."

"Oh, come on, Del! This is how it is. You work your body, work your mind, challenge everything about yourself, until the weakness is gone. It isn't easy, no, but it's the best way. I've spent months doing itcan't you at least invest a few days?"

Del bent, retrieved her sword, turned on her heel and walked away.

"Hey. Hey!" In several long strides I reached her. Reached for her. "Don't turn your back on me"

Del spun. I saw the blade flash even as my own came up. They met at neck level. My blade was against steel. Hers was against my throat.

She tilted her head slightly in an odd, slow, sideways movement almost like a cat preparing to leap. But there was no leap. She stood her ground. "Angry," she said very softly. "Bitter. And vicious."

I blurted a laugh of incredulity. "Vicious!"

"And afraid."

Laughter stopped. "I'm not"

"What did he do to you?"

"No one has"

Her low voice nonetheless overrode my own. "What did he do to you?"

I smiled. "You really don't like to lose, do you?"

She made no reply. Just stared. Examined. Evaluated. I saw a series of expressions in her eyes and face, but none I could name. They came and went too quickly: the faintest of ripples in her flesh, a shifting in her eyes. Nearly nonexistent.

Delilah asked, "What did he say to you to make you so afraid?"

I denied her an answer. I took a step backward, breaking contact with her blade, and lowered my own. "Go," I told her. "We're done for the day. If you aren't willing to do what it takes, I don't want to bother."

A multitude of replies crowded her eyes. She made none of them.

I watched her walk away. The anger, the bitterness drained away. I felt oddly empty.

Empty. And afraid.

"Stop it," she said. "Stop it, Tiger!"

I said nothing. Did nothing. The voice was very distant. I could ignore it. Did.

"Tigoh, hoolies," she muttered, and then a hand cracked me hard across the face.

She is a strong woman, and the blow was heartfelt. I came back to awareness abruptly, catching her wrist. Realized I sat in the hyort we shared. I blinked at her, shocked. "What was that for?"

"To bring you back."

"Bring me back from where?"

"From the dream."

"I was dreaming?"

"Not now," she said. "You were awake. Butaway. As if you returned to something you'd already experienced." She indicated her head. "Inside."

I felt disoriented. Detached. "I don't understand."

She knelt next to me. Desperation edged her tone. "You have to stop this. This dream-walking."

I frowned, baffled. "Why?"

Del pulled her wrist out of my hand. "Because it's changing you."

"Changing me! How?" I noticed then that it was nearing sundown. I couldn't remember where the day had gone. "I don't understand what you're saying."

"Five days ago you went to Oziri's tent after we sparred, and since then you've beendifferent."

I frowned. "I know you think I'm angry, but I'm not."

"I didn't say you were angry. I said you were different."

"And bitter, you said. Vicious, even. Just because you can't match me in the circle."

Lines creased her brow. "What are you talking about?"

"The match earlier today. You were losing. You got angry. You quit on me, Del. You threw down your sword and walked away."

Astonishment was manifest. "I have never walked away from a match in my life!"

"Earlier today," I insisted. How could she have forgotten?

Del recoiled. Pale brows knit together. I saw surprise and worry. "But we didn't. . ." She changed direction. "Was that your dream?"

"It wasn't a dream, bascha."

She shook her head slowly, as if trying to work out a multitude of thoughts. "There was no match earlier." Almost absently, she added, "Something's wrong. Something inside you."

I found it preposterous. "Del"

She overrode me. "We haven't sparred since that first time, Tiger. Five days ago. That's the only time we've sparred. Five days ago. Two days after you got here."

I gritted my teeth, verging on frustration. "Earlier today," I repeated. "We had an argument in the circle, as we sparred. You quit on me."

Del sat back, putting distance between us. Astonishment had faded. Now she stared. Examined me. Evaluated. Comprehension crept into her eyes. "Tiger we need to leave this place. We need to go."

"Oziri says"

"I don't care what Oziri says!" She lowered her voice with a glance at the open doorflap. "We have to leave. Tomorrow, first thing."

"You're not ready to leave, bascha. You need to rest."

"You need to get away from here," she countered. "And I've rested enough. Trust me."

Oziri had said that. Trust me. "There are still things I have to do," I explained. "Things I need to learn. Oziri says"

Del pronounced an expletive concerning Oziri that nearly made my ears roll up. With crisp efficiency she began to gather up her belongings. "We're going. Tomorrow."

"I'm not done learning what I need to know. I realize it's difficult for you to understand, but there are things about me that aredifferent. Things"

"Yes! Different! Wrong. That's my whole point." Del stopped packing. She moved close, sat on her heels, reached up to trap my head in her hands. The heels cradled my temples. "Listen to me, Tiger. To me, not to the things Oziri has put in your head. Or to what you believe happened." Her eyes caught my own and held them. "You're right: I don't understand this dream-walking. But what I do know is that it's changing you. You spend most of each day inside your own head. You don't hear anything I say. You answer no questions. You don't even acknowledge I'm present. It's as though your body's here, but your mind is somewhere else. And what you've just told me, this conviction we sparred earlier todayyou're confusing reality with what's in your mind. With the dreams. You have to stop."

"I have to learn how to control it, bascha."

Del leaned forward. Our foreheads met. Her skin was smooth, cool. "Let it go," she murmured. "Let it go, Tiger. It's Vashni magic."

"It's just another tool"

"Magic," she repeated, "and you know how you hate magic."

"If I don't learn to control it, it will control me."

She released my head, ran one supple, callused hand through my hair, almost as if I were a muddled child in need of soothing. "It's controlling you now, Tiger. Every time you go inside yourself."

"It's just stillness," I told her. "It's like ioSkandic discipline. What happened to me atop the spire, in the Stone Forest " I shrugged. "Well, you know."

Del's hands fell away. "I don't know what happened to you atop the spire," she said. "You've never told me."

My brows lifted. "You were there with me."

"No."

"Del, you were. I saw you. I dreamed you, and you came." And put the jivatma scar back into my abdomen, after Sahdri had lifted it.

The color ran out of her face. "No, Tiger. I was never in Meteiera. I never saw the Stone Forest. I stayed in Skandi until Prima Rhannet's ship sailed." Something flinched in her eyes. "We all thought you were dead."

"You were there, Del. I remember it clearly." So very clearly. I was naked. Alone. Bereft of everything I'd known of myself, whelped again atop the rock. Until she came. "You were there."

Del shook her head.

"You're forgetting things," I told her, beginning to worry. "What happened in Meteiera a few weeks ago, and the sparring match earlier today. Maybe if you talked with Oziri"

"No." Her tone was certainty followed by puzzlement. "Tiger, we left Skandi months ago. Not weeks. And we sparred five days ago. Not since. Certainly not this morning."

I opened my mouth to refute the claim, but she sealed it closed with cool fingers.

"Listen to me." Her eyes searched mine. "Trust me."

I had trusted this woman with my life more times than I could count. I was troubled that she could be so terribly confused, but I nodded. I owed her that much.

"I need to go," she said. "I need to leave. Will you come with me:

"Why do you need to leave? You're safe here. You're the Oracle's sister. They'd never harm you."

"I need to leave," she repeated. "I promised Neesha we'd meet him."

It took me a moment to remember the kid. Then I frowned. "You don't owe him anything."

Her voice hardened. "I owe him my life, Tiger. And so do you."

"Maybe so, but"

"It's time for me to leave," she said. "Will you come with me?"

"Del"

"Please, Tiger. I need you."

The desire to refuse, to insist she stay with me, was strong. I felt its tug, its power. Leaned into it a moment, tempted. I owed a debt to the Vashni for tending her, and Oziri had much to teach me. But I owed a greater debt to the kid for keeping her alive so she could be tended.

She'd said she needed me. That was very unlike Del. Something serious was wrong with her.

With her. Not with me.

I nodded. "All right, bascha. We'll go."

Del averted her head abruptly and returned to packing. But not before I saw profound relief and the sheen of tears in her eyes.


TWENTY | Sword Sworn | TWENTY-TWO