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TWENTY-FIVE

JULAH'S public bathhouse was actually a bathtent . In a small courtyard set back from the street, not far from the main well, an enterprising soul years before had strung a cross-hatching of ropes from hooks pounded into the back walls of buildings, hung swathes of gauzy fabric over them to form tiny private "rooms," built three good-sized fires, and hired people to keep big cauldrons filled with heated water. Others filled smaller wooden buckets and hauled the water to the rough-hewn tubs in each "room." It wasn't much, but when you've been in the desert for weeks on end, it was sheer luxury. From time to time sun-baked ropes and fabric had to be replaced, but otherwise it was business as usual.

I paid the price for water and soap, which cost extra, gave the hirelings time to reheat the tepid water in a tub, waved away the attendant who offered to scrub my back, and pulled the draperies closed. There's not a lot of privacy in the bathtent, but since only men used it, it didn't really matter. I stripped down and draped the burnous over the nearest rope, bowing it slightly, then made a small pile out of sandals, dhoti, and harness next to the tub. I risked one foot in the water, hissed a bit, then worked the other one in. The introduction of netherparts required a bit more courage, but once I was down, rump planted against wood, water lapping around my navel, the contrast between cooling air and hot water faded. Sighing, I unsheathed the sword, balanced it across the width of the tub, and felt the knots in my muscles begin to loosen. Bliss.

I was about halfway through my bath when an overeager attendant pulled the curtain back, chattering to his customer, only to blush fiery red when he realized the tub already held a body. He apologized effusively and yanked the curtain closed, but not before the stranger had a good look at me hunched in the tub with one foot stuck up in the air as I scrubbed at toes.

Additional mortified apologies from the attendant were issued through the curtains. Smiling, I assured him that all was well and forgiveneven as I quietly climbed out of the tub, pulled on my dhoti (not easy over wet flesh), knotted sandal thongs together and hung them over a shoulder along with the harness. The sword was in my right hand. I bent over, sloshed my left through the water as if I was only just exiting, then waited.

Sure enough, within moments a sword blade sliced down through the back wall, severing the support rope. A body moved against falling fabric. I heard a blurt of shock, a cursethe former from an attendant, the latter from my attackerand the clang of steel as I trapped the blade with my own and drove it down. Unweighting, twisting, I kicked out with one foot and made contact with the man's body, knocking him backward. He tripped, went down hard. Sheets of gauzy material collapsed upon him, fouling his sword. I bent, locked hands around the tub, upended it, spilling lukewarm water in my assailant's direction. Water on hardpack turns it slick; anything to slow him.

A series of quick slashes with my sword brought down every "room" in my immediate area, entangling customers and attendants alike in steam-dampened curtains and ropes. I heard angry shouting and cries of alarm. Barefoot, damp, half-naked, with harness and sandals flopping against my ribs, I light-footed into the alley, to the street, then raced toward Fouad's, hoping the sword-dancer had no idea where I might be staying.

At the cantina door I paused briefly, caught my breath, examined the customers even as I entered. The first thing I saw was Del seated at a table with a man. She faced the doorway; his back was to me. Short of twisting all the way around on his stool, he wouldn't see me. Del's expression didn't change, but I did note the way she lifted a hand as if to smooth back hair, and saw the quick, subtle gesture with fingers: goaway. Not polite, perhaps, but it got the message across: He wasn't an innocent customer making time with her but a threat, and she was making time with him to control his intentions. I tilted my head toward the back hallway, sending my own message, then soundlessly moved to our room.

By the time Del joined me, I had sandals and harness on and the saddlepouches packed. "We're leaving," I said. "Go back and keep him company so there's no suspicion, then meet me at the livery when you've got a chance to get away. I've got all of our things; I'll have the horses ready."

Del nodded and disappeared. I waited until I was fairly certain she owned his attention again, then made my way to the cantina's back door.

Fouad met me there. "Trouble?"

"The man with Del is a sword-dancer, likely on my trail." "Ah. I wondered why she sat down with him." He offered me an armload of filled botas. "When Del disappears, I'll send Silk out to him with drugged wine. That'll delay him."

I opened the door. "He may have someone riding with him."

He shrugged. "We'll deal with him, too."

I grinned. "Kind of nice having another partner."

Fouad made a sour face and shut the door behind me.

It took Del a bit longer to arrive at the livery than I expected. Both the stud and the white gelding were tacked out and ready to go as we lingered in the stableyard; I tossed Del the reins to the gelding and swung up onto the stud. "What took you so long?

"He was very curious about your habits."

She wore a fresh, pale burnous and had wound her hair up on top of her head in some kind of arcane knotwork fastened with a carved bone rod. Wisps straggled down her neck most fetchingly. "I doubt it was me he was asking about!"

Del mounted, gathering reins as she hooked her right foot in the stirrup. "Not initially, no. But we got around to you." She paused. "Where are we going?"

"North" But I broke off as the stud sashayed sideways, snorting. I felt the tension in his body, the quivering of muscles. "What's your problem?"

"I think it's my gelding," Del said, amused.

"Whatagain?" But it was possible. Horses could be rather obtuse sometimes. I reaffirmed my control over the stud. "As I was saying, we're going north. We'll get out of town a ways, then find a place to stay the night." I shot her a glance over my shoulder. "Guess you got your wish."

"What wish?"

"To ride out after Nayyib tonight."

Del's smile was swift as she took out the hair rod, tucking it away in a saddlepouch. "Guess I did."

"And I, meanwhileunlike a certain someone I could mention, who spent most of the day unconsciousdid not get to sleep in a real bed."

She brought the gelding up next to the stud as we turned onto the main drag. "Take solace in the knowledge you are repaying a debt."

"Solace isn't as comfortable as a real bed."

Del nodded, tucking now-loose hair under the neckline of her burnous. "I did tell him you were a disagreeable soul. Cranky, even."

"Told who?"

"Ahmahd. The sword-dancer back at the cantina. A very courteous soul, he wasoffered to buy me liquor, dinner, and a bed."

'So long as he wasin the bed." "Well, I suppose he had hopes, yes."

I shook my head, grinning; so predictable. Just like me. 'This way " I turned the stud and led Del through one of the narrower alleys, twisting about like a tangled skein of yarn. When at last we left the last hedge of buildings behind, we were free of the town entirely, striking out northward beneath a star-pocked sky. "I suspect they won't think I'd head back into Umir's domain."

"I suspect Ahmahd won't, since I suggested otherwise." Del brought the gelding up next to me again. "I explained we hadn't seen one another for weeks. That you'd been hauled off to Umir's by Rafiq and his friends, and that was the last I'd seen of you. But before then you'd talked of going to Haziz to take ship back to Skandi. I was hanging around hoping you'd show up but was beginning to worry that you'd gone without me."

I grunted. "I doubt he believed you."

"There was no one left in the cantina who'd seen us together. Fouad had different girls working, and everyone else who'd seen us talking had left. Ahmahd will learn the truth, of course, at some point, but at least it will buy us a little time." A trace of dry amusement laced her tone. "Men tend to believe me, if I wish them to."

Present company included; nice of her not to mention that. "Here." I led her off the road. We rode some distance away, winding through scrubby trees and shrubbery, until I indicated a cluster of vegetation forming a leafy blockade against a rill of windblown sand and soil. It sloped into a slight hollow, good enough for a smidgen of shelter. "No one would believe anyone would camp out here, this close to Julah. This close to real beds." A glance southwards showed the flickering lights of the city, sparking against the dark horizon. "We should be safe. Come dawn, we can head for Umir's domain. And let's hope Nayyib's there, or this is all for nothing."

"He is." Del swung down off of her gelding even as I dismounted. "I asked Ahmahd."

Well, that was something. More than we had known. "Did he say if the kid was being held against his will?"

"That he didn't know. Just that Neesha arrived and had not yet departed when Ahmahd and his friend left."

"So it's likely the kid would have heard about any reward for me."

"It seems so."

"And how do we know Nayyib didn't tell Ahmahd about Fouad's cantina, hoping for a cut without involving himself personally?"

Del flicked me an icy glance.

"All right, fine." I was grinning as I dismounted. "We'll assume he didn't."

"He wouldn't. But if he had, don't you think Ahmahd and his friend would have arrived in Julah sooner?"

"Possibly," I conceded.

"Oh, and I did neglect to mention something Ahmahd said about you."

"About me? In between seducing you?"

"He did not seduce me. He attempted to seduce me."

"Ran out of time, did he?"

"He said," Del began, ignoring me, "that he had seen you dance there at Umir's and was quite impressed by your skills."

"At least he's being honest."

"He said you were better than he expectedespecially for an old man."

I began untacking the stud. "He did not. You're saying that."

"Ahmahd said it." Del's expression was blandly serene. "Right before he asked me what a woman my age was doing with a man your age."

I scowled at the stud, undoing thongs and buckles, and changed the subject. "I don't suppose this friend of Ahmahd's felt in need of a bath."

"As a matter of fact, Ahmahd said he did go to the bathhouse. Why?"

"Because that's where I was when someone decided to interrupt my soak by taking off my head. Fortunately, I was ready. Last I saw of him, he was wrestling with curtains." I deposited the saddle on end, plus the tied-on saddlepouches, then peeled blankets off the stud's back. They were only slightly damp; we hadn't ridden long enough for the horses to work up a true sweat. "Did your friend Ahmahd happen to mention how many others might be tracking us?"

"Oh, I'm not being tracked," Del said, precise as always. "At least, not as prey. For information, yes. But it's you they want to kill."

"Comforting," I muttered, kneeling to hobble the stud.

"I'm assuming a goodly number are hoping to find you," Del added. "Though they won't kill you out of hand, Ahmahd said. Apparently Umir's far less concerned that you dishonored the circle and your vows than he is in recovering the book, despite what the sword-dancers want. The orders are explicit: you are not to be killed until the book is back in his hands, in case you've hidden it somewhere. Then they can do whatever they like with you."

"Comforting," I repeated. Although it was, a little; easier for me to defend myself if they didn't want to kill me. Not that all of them would accept Umir's terms. "Well, at least we know Ahmahd and his friend won't be following us immediatelyFouad was going to take care of that." The stud was hobbled, haltered, and watered; he'd already eaten at the livery. I took myself to my pile of gear and unrolled my bedding after grooming the soil beneath it, getting rid of rocks. Aggrievedly I said, "Here I am, being hunted by the gods know how many sword-dancers . . . and you want us to ride right into Umir's domain, maybe even into his very house, just to make sure the kid's all right."

Del knelt as she unrolled her own bedding. "Yes."

Nothing more. I shook my head, unstoppered a bota. "I sure hope this Nayyib is worth it."

"He is."

I watched her a moment, noting the slight stiffness in her movements, the pensive frown marring her face. She was defensive about the kid, as if there were more to him than she let on.

She glanced up, caught me staring at her. "What?"

I shook my head and began to unlace my sandals.

"Tiger"

"I'm tired." And I was. "Let's get as good a night's sleep as we can, then head out at first light."

Her bedroll overlapped my own. Del took off her own sandals, her burnous, and set both beside her bedding along with harness and sword. She crawled beneath blankets. Bathed in the light of the moon, pale hair glowed. "Are you all right?"

I started to answer her flippantly, then reconsidered. Perched on one elbow, I leaned forward and kissed her lightly on the brow. "I'm fine, bascha."

With the abrupt change of mood I'd come to recognize over the years as purely female, she said, "If you truly don't wish to go to Umir's, we don't have to. Perhaps we could find another way."

I didn't wish to go to Umir's. But Del wanted it very badly, and I didn't really have a good enough reason to refuse. I did owe the kid. "We'll go, bascha. I said so." I pulled the blanket up to my chin. "Now, let's get some sleep."

After a moment of silence, "Tiger?"

"Hmm?"

"Did every sword-dancer at Umir's wish to kill you? Weren't some of them your friends?"

Beneath my blanket, I shrugged. "Friends. Rivals. Enemies. That was the way of Alimat. And there's the matter of elaii-ali-ma . . I was as sworn to execute an outcast as they are; that was understood from the beginning. But nonot everyone wished to kill me. One man didn't." I smiled, remembering. "Alric. In fact, he helped me escape."

Her tone was sharp as she hitched herself up on an elbow. "Alric was there? And you didn't tell me?"

"We've been a little busy, bascha."

"But if he helped you, isn't he an outcast now?"

"Alric was never an in cast. He's a Northerner. He didn't make any friends by helping me, and he probably lost someor allof those who were there, but he didn't break any Southron vows. And it's only Alimat where the codes were so binding." I shrugged. "It was the shodo's way of fashioning true men out of worthless meat."

"A very rigorous binding."

"Are the Northern vows made on Staal-Ysta any less binding?"

No, they were not. Del's silence made that clear.

She changed the subject. "Did Alric say how Lena and the girls are?"

"Fine. Lena's expecting again." I made an indeterminate sound of derision. "You know, you'd think three daughters would be enough!"

Del settled down again. "Some men insist on sons, and their poor wives keep having babies until they get one. Even if it kills them."

"You've met Lena. You know she loves children. She likely wants a dozen."

"Well, yes," Del conceded.

"And it's Alric who'll have to support them. See, bascha? There are always two sides. The woman has them, which, mind you, I don't suggest is easy or without risk, but the man pays for them. That, too, isn't easy or without risk."

"Maybe."

"Fools," I muttered, trying to get comfortable against hard ground, "both of them."

"If it's what they want, then they aren't truly foolish."

"It's one thing if you're a farmer, bascha. Or a tradesman. But a sword-dancer? If something happens to Alricand he's not exactly in a safe line of workLena's stuck with raising the children on her own." I shrugged. "Though she'd probably marry again as soon as possible."

"You mean, once she found a man to provide for her and the girls?"

"Well . . . yes." I was wary of where the conversation might be heading; you never know, with Del. "I mean, it is what many women do."

"It is what most women do," she said curtly. "They have no other choice."

Not being up for the verbal sword-dance, I kept my mouth shut.

"Or they could do what I did, and give their child away." After that comment, I wasn't going to sleep any time soon. I contemplated holding my silence in case that was what Del preferred, but I just couldn't let it go. "You mean Kalle."

"Of course I mean Kalle." Del sighed, staring up at the stars. "She has a good home. Better parents than I could ever beor you."

The defense was automatic. "I might be a superb father, for all you knowI just don't particularly care to find out."

"You can't be a superb father if you have no children," Del declared. Then amended it almost immediately. "That is, if you know you have children and don't stay around to raise them. Otherwise you're not a father at all. Just the means for making them."

Did the same apply to a woman? I decided not to bring it up for fear it was a sore spot; pointed debate is one thing, but engaging in it to hurt someone is another thing altogether. I wondered how often Del's daughter crossed her mind. She never spoke about her. "You miss her, don't you?"

Del turned over, putting her back to me. "I don't even know her, Tiger."

"I mean, you miss what you might have had."

"I made my choice before Kalle was even born. There was nothing to miss."

And yet Del had once insisted on going North to see Kalle against my preferences, though I didn't know the girl existed then; she had been driven to see her daughter six years after her birth, as if it were some kind of geas. The journey had tested us both in many different ways, had taught us about strength of will, determination, the power of the binding between us; had nearly ended in both our deaths. Kalle was around eight now, I thought. Old enough to understand her mother had given her up in a quest to execute the men who'd robbed Del of a family. And Kalle as well.

"Maybe someday," I said, purposely not mentioning that Del, by breaking her vows, was exiled from the North and thus from her daughter.

"What?"

"Maybe someday you'll see her again."

The tone was frigid. "And how would that come to be, do you think?"

"If Kalle came looking for you."

Del's single burst of throttled laughter was bitter. "Oh yes, they would let her come searching for a woman who has no honor, a woman exiled from her homeland. And why would Kalle wish to? She has a mother and father."

"But they aren't her blood."

She was silent a moment, then turned over to face me. Her eyes, black in the glow of the moon, were steady. "Do you believe that matters? Blood? To children whose true mother and father have disavowed them?"

"You didn't disavow Kalle."

"They will have told her I did."

I scratched at the stubble I hadn't gotten the chance to shave. "I think blood matters, yes. I think a child might wish to search for her mother. Hoolies, I went all the way to Skandi, didn't I?"

"And repudiated your family."

"The metri wanted nothing to do with the son of a disobedient daughter who dishonored her exalted Family by daring to sleep with a man well below her class."

"Your mother left Skandi to be with the man she loved, below her class or no. Do you really believe she'd have disavowed you if she was willing to go that far?"

"Doesn't matter," I dismissed. "I ended up a chula with the Salset anyway. And how in hoolies did we get onto this subject? We were talking about Kalle."

"You say it matters to children that they know their own blood."

"I believe that, yes."

"Does it matter to men or women that they know their own children?"

"You're the one who dragged me all the way into the ice and snow so you could see Kalle again, bascha! I would say yes to that as well, based on your example."

Del did not answer. When I realized she didn't mean to, I shut my eyes and, when I could slow my thoughts, gave myself over to sleep.


TWENTY-FOUR | Sword Sworn | TWENTY-SIX