BREEZE becomes wind. Wind becomes gust. Gust becomes storm: simoom. The sky is heavy with sand, the sun eclipsed, occluded by curtains of it, pale as water, hard as ice. At the edges of the Punja it scours the earth of vegetation; in the Deep Desert, where the tribes take care to protect themselves, it stings but does not strip; to strangers, wholly innocent but thus sweeter victims, it is death. Clothing is torn away. Flesh abraded. Eventually flayed. In the end, long past death, the ivory bones are polished white. And buried, only freed again by yet another fickle, angry simoom, digging up the dead.
White bones in white sand. Fingerbones scattered, the vertebrae, the toes. The skull remains, but lower jaw is lost. Teeth gleam, that once were hidden by lips.
I walk there, find them: pearls of the desert. Out of boredom, I begin to gather them, to arrange them against the flat sand. Not many left. The skull, lacking half its jaw; upper arm, forearm; the ladder of ribs. The knobby-ended thigh. I reassemble the pieces and stare at the puzzle, wondering who and what it might have been, when it wore flesh.
I sit back, studying the forgotten remnants of a living being. Then pick up the curving, fragile short rib. Close my hand upon it.
Over the skull, as I watch, flesh grows. Hollows are filled, angles coated, like moss on a rock. A face stares up at me, though it lacks a lower jaw. Even without eyes, I know her.
"Time runs away," she says. "You must be faster, if you choose to catch it."
Her words are clear despite deformation. "And if I don't?" I ask.
"It is best to be the hunter, not the prey. The prey perishes."
"Unless it escapes."
"But you will not."
Sobering pronouncement, especially from a woman dead a month, a year, a decade. "If I'm to find you," I say, "how about a hint?"
"The answer is in your bones."
I hold up the rib. "Yours are more accessible."
The upper lip, lacking a lower, achieves only half a smile. "Your bones know where to find mine."
I replace the rib in the collection on the sand. "And if I am to sacrifice flesh in order to hear them? To become like you?" I hold up mutilated hands. "Why would I wish to? I have already donated two fingers."
"Count mine," the woman says, who lacks even hands.
I smile wryly. "Point taken."
"The bones know. Listen. Then come and find me."
And the flesh retreats, and the woman says no more.
"The bones know," I echoed.
"What?" Del asked.
I blinked into chilly dawn. "What?"
"What did you mean? The bones know what?"
She sat up, folding back blankets. "The bones you were talking about." Del picked a stray hair out of pale eyelashes. "I hope you aren't referring to the fingerbone necklet Oziri gave you. Because if you are, it means I'm going to have to kill you."
I grunted, scrubbing at an itchy, sleep-creased face. The sun was barely up, peering over the blade of the horizon.
"Find me" she had said once. Or twice. Maybe thrice. "And take up the sword."
"The bones know," I declared, though mostly it was distorted by a tremendous yawn. "Mine, though, not those." Awareness coalesced. "Oh, hoolies, not that thrice-cursed dream again!"
Del crawled out of her bedroll, untangling twisted burnous from around her hips. "If we didn't have so much to do today, I'd tell you to go back to sleep. Maybe next time you woke up you'd make more sense."
I frowned. "What do we have to do today?"
Del laced up sandals. "Rescue Nayyib."
I watched her walk off, hunting privacy. I grumbled a protest, yawned widely again, contemplated going back to sleep. My bones ached.
My eyes flew open. "Bones." I sat up, threw back covers. All I wore was my dhoti, since I'd neglected to grab my burnous back at the bathhouse. That left me with an expanse of flesh tanned a deep coppery-brown, with the fine hairs bleached bronze-gold. I couldn't see any bones. Not naked ones. Just the lines and angles covered by muscle and flesh. I knocked on a kneecap, then inspected an elbow, since they were closer to the surface. "Is there anything any of you have to tell me? Like, how it is I'm supposed to find this woman?" Or whatever she was, buried in the sand.
For all they supposedly knew the answer, my bones remained stubbornly silent. Muttering, I pulled on my own sandals, cross-gartered them up my calves, then got up and limped off to make my own morning donation even as Del returned from hers.
"Don't take long," she called. "I want to get started."
Not something a man wants to hear first thing in the morning when he's only barely awake. "It'll take as long as it takes," I muttered, scowling at the sunrise.
Del had everything packed and the horses loaded by the time I returned, reins in her hands; and no, I had not taken that long. She was clearly impatient to get going.
"Hold your horses," I said, wondering if she'd get the joke.
She didn't. "According to you, we could reach Umir's today if we leave early enough."
"And we will reach Umir's today, even if we leave after we eat."
"We can eat on the way." She had packed my things, leaving behind only my harness, sword, and knife. Ready to go.
I wasn't. I picked up the knife, went over to a spike-fronded plant, cut off a flat, wide, thorn-tipped leaf. "You weren't in this much of a hurry last night."
"Last night we couldn't do anything but sleep. This morning we can . . . Tiger, what are you doing?"
Methodically I trimmed the sharp tip from the leaf, then carefully slipped the knife blade into the plump edge and slit the leaf from top to bottom, peeling them apart. I now had two halves, turgid with pale green sap. I turned over one half of the leaf and began to smear the greasy sap over my shoulder. Once worked into skin, it was colorless.
"If you want to save time," I interrupted, "you might cut off some leaves and give me a hand."
"What is it, and why are you doing that?"
"Alia oil," I explained. "The same stuff you put on your gelding's pink skin, remember? It protects it from sunburn."
Del, who had only seen alia oil mixed with a paste in cork– or wax-stoppered pots, not in its pure form, was surprised. "Oh. But why are you putting it on?"
"Because I'm fresh out of burnouses, and the last time I made this trek to Umir's, I arrived with at least one layer of skin peeling off. I'd just as soon skip the experience this time." I dropped the depleted half of leaf, began to work with the other. "Gee, bascha, I can think of a lot of women who'd just love to spread oil all over me. Have you grown immune to my charms? I did bathe yesterday." I reconsidered. "Well, half of me got bathed. I'll let you do the clean half. And you might want to put some on your face, even with the hood."
Del shook herself out of her reverie and bent to cut off leaves. I watched her. Clearly the body was present, but the thoughts were not.
"Have you grown immune to my charms?"
With great concentration she slit the leaf open, frowning. "What?"
"You're not listening to a word I say, are you?"
She flicked a glance at me, then walked around behind me and slapped the leaf sap-down on my back. "I want to get going. We can talk on the way." Strong fingers began to rub oil into my skin.
She wanted to eat on the way, talk on the way. I suppose I was lucky she hadn't insisted I piss on the way. "Fine," I said tersely.
After that we worked in silence, which seemed to suit Del. Me, I just got grumpy. It's a sad thing when a dead woman's bones are more talkative than a living woman's mouth.
I insisted we stop briefly at the big oasis at which Alric and I had spent the night. Del clearly wanted to continue, but she'd learned that in the desert one never passes up the chance to refill botas and rest the horses.
She did, however, protest as I pulled up at the outskirts of the oasis, taking time to mark the other travelers present. "What are we waiting for?"
"Oh, I don't know—maybe checking to see if any sword-dancers are here," I remarked pointedly. "We ride straight in without looking and I could end up dead in very short order, and then where would your precious Neesha be?"
Del was annoyed, but she shut her mouth on further protest.
"There's a spring about halfway in. Follow the main path. Keep your eyes open. I'll take the perimeter, then come in from the other side. All right?"
She nodded, giving the gelding a touch of her heels. Sighing, I reined the stud aside and began to reconnointer as I rode the perimeter of the big oasis.
I did not see anyone lying in wait for me, but that didn't mean no one who might challenge me was absent. I aimed the stud down the center path leading toward the spring and remained mounted. Being ahorse gives a man an advantage, usually. Being atop the stud gives me a huge advantage always, as he doesn't take kindly to assailants rushing up at him, even if his rider is the target.
Of course, I didn't know any sword-dancers stupid enough to do such a thing. We—they—aren't assassins, though we will take on death-dances depending on circumstances; the goal is the rit-ual and the challenge, not out and out murder.
Then again, there were no guarantees all sword-dancers would adhere to that unspoken custom. Me killing Musa in a dance had proven to all witnesses that out and out murder might in fact be easier. Of course, supposedly Umir wanted me alive, but I suspected there'd be a few sword-dancers willing to forgo the reward simply for the pleasure of killing me.
I rode down the path, poised for attack. There was a scattering of wagons here and there, with unhitched dray animals resting quietly in such shade as palm trees offer; half-dressed children running around, heedless of the heat—why is it we notice it more when we're adults?—and burnous-clad men and women visiting in small groups, exchanging tales of their travels, describing plans for when they arrived at their destinations. Someone was playing a reed pipe; the thin, wailing melody cut the air. No fires, as there had been the evening Alric and I stayed, merely fire rings with quiet coals hoarded against the evening meal.
As I rode up, Del was at the spring watering the gelding. He had lost his brilliant red tassels at the Vashni encampment, where someone had presented Del with a browband of dangling leather thongs, ornamented with blue beads. He still looked rather silly, especially with the black paint around his eyes, but not as ridiculous as he had wearing Silk's crimson tassels.
She had watered herself as well as her horse and had braided her hair into a single thick plait. To tie it off she'd robbed the gelding of one thong; blue beads clacked quietly against each other when she moved her head. They matched her eyes.
"All right," I said in answer to her expression, "so we didn't run into any trouble. But we might have." I dropped off the stud and let him nose his way in past the gelding, urging him aside with an absent nipping motion of his mouth.
Del handed me a dripping gourd ladle. "I didn't say anything."
I drank, swallowing heavily, not caring when water splashed down my bare torso to dampen my dhoti. I now wore a gritty layer of fine dust sticking to the alia oil from head to toe. So much for the half a bath in Julah.
"You didn't have to." I handed the gourd back. "I can read your expression: Hurry up; let's go; stop wasting time. And don't try to tell me none of those comments passed through your mind. I know better."
Del did not attempt it, though clearly she was irritated. "You said Umir's place wasn't far from here."
"We'll make it well before sundown."
"Then hand me your empty botas," she said, "and I can fill them." Because, I knew, it would speed things up.
Shaking my head, I unhooked and handed her two flaccid botas. The others I unloaded and dipped down via tie-ropes into the water, soaking the rough sacking that formed an outer casing for the leather. While wet it helped cool the water, but it wouldn't stay that way for long beneath the sun. And since I doubted Umir would be much interested in replenishing our supplies, and Nayyib might have none as we departed, we needed to conserve.
"You're filthy," Del commented, sounding somewhat conciliatory—if you want to call being told you're dirty a peace offering. "You could wash off here, cool down a little."
"It'll strip off too much of the oil." I stood, botas dripping, and began to tie them back onto the stud's saddle. "And I doubt you'd allow me the time to go bargain for a burnous."
"If the oil is working . . ." Wisely, she let it trail off.
I took the refilled botas from her, tied them on. "Let's go, basha. We're burning daylight."
I suspect she knew I was not pleased. But she didn't ask why or suggest I shouldn't be; she simply mounted the gelding and allowed me to take the lead as we rode out of the oasis.
* * *
Umir's place wasn't far, and we did arrive well before sundown. There were no gates, merely an arched opening in the white-painted walls, and I pulled up in front. "Whatever happens," I said, "you've got my back."
"What are you planning to do?"
"Ride up to his front door and ask for Nayyib." I set the stud into a walk.
"Tiger, be serious."
"I am being serious. Sometimes the only way to get what you want is to ride up to the front door and ask."
"Umir may set some sword-dancers on you!"
"Or not." I rode under the archway and into the paved courtyard with its tiled fountain. "Do you want the kid or not?"
Del kept her mouth shut. She held the gelding a few steps behind the stud, undoubtedly examining every visible nook and cranny in Umir's walled gardens. I suspected she had unsheathed and now held the sword across her saddlebow. That belief was confirmed when I caught a metallic flash of light thrown against the white-painted walls.
I halted the stud beside the fountain, marking how much room there was for him to pivot and take off if given the order. Del knew better than to crowd him, so there was no chance of a collision. I reached down to the pouch behind my right leg and undid the thong, flipping back the flap.
"Umir!" I shouted, as the stud rang a shod hoof off courtyard pavers. "Umir the Ruthless!"
As expected, it was a servant who came out to see what the ruckus was all about.
I greeted him politely. "Now, go fetch your master. Tell him we have business to transact, he and I."
The servant opened his mouth to refuse—I looked about as disreputable now as I did when Rafiq and friends had brought me in—then thought better of it. He departed.
After making us wait just long enough to notice, Umir put in an appearance. He wore a costly gold-striped robe, gem-weighted belt, soft kidskin house slippers. His expression was austere. "I do not conduct business out here in the heat and dust." His eyes assessed my condition, found it lacking. "I am a man of refinement."
Cheerfully, I told him what he could do with his refinement. "You have someone here, Umir. A young man, name of Nayyib. In fact, you're very likely guesting him in the same room I occupied. Have you replaced the bedframe, yet, or is it still missing a leg?"
"I have no guests at present," Umir retorted. "All of the sword-dancers have left to look for you."
"Well, too bad for you I decided to come here on my own. Makes them all look kind of bad, doesn't it? Especially after I outdanced Musa." I flicked a glance past him, toward the depths of the house. "We've come for Nayyib. Have someone saddle his horse while someone else escorts him out here."
"Why should I do any such thing, Sandtiger?"
"Because you want your book back."
His eyes sharpened. "You have it? With you?"
I reached into the pouch, closed my hand on the cover, and dragged it out.
The tanzeer took a hungry step forward. "Give it to me!"
I smiled. "Nayyib first."
Umir turned and snapped out an order to an invisible servant. Then he swung back. "Let me have it."
I rested the fat book atop the saddle pommel. "Not until the kid is brought out here and is mounted on his horse."
"You don't have any idea what that book is!" Umir said. "Don't be a fool—let me have it!"
"No wonder you don't conduct business out here," I observed. "The sun boils yours brains."
"The boy is being brought!"
"Fine. Once he's mounted and on his way, you'll get your book back."
A white indentation circling Umir's mouth appeared on his face. Pale eyes were icy with anger. "Do you expect this to lift the reward I've placed on you?"
"As I understand it, the reward was for my return—alive. Well, here I am. How about you pay up?"
"Pay you the reward?"
"Call it a delicious irony," I suggested. I traced with two fingers the scuffs in the leather binding. "The Book of Udre-Natha." I turned back the cover, began to riffle pages. "Interesting."
"Don't touch it!" Umir cried. "You'll soil the pages!"
I pinned down a page with a forefinger. "What do you suppose this says?"
"Don't read it!" He glared up at me. "Not that you could. I doubt you can read your own language."
"Just a big, dumb sword-dancer, am I?" I shrugged. "Ah, well. We can't all be born tanzeers."
"Chula," he spat.
I continued turning pages. "Hmmm . . . what do you suppose this means?"
Umir couldn't control himself. "Stop it! Stop it!" Hands reached out. "Give it to me!"
I looked beyond him as I saw movement in the doorway. Nayyib, escorted by Umir's servant, exited the house. His near-black hair was sticking up all over his head as if he'd been rousted from a nap. In fact, his eyes looked a little bleary, too. Had Umir drugged him?
I looked at the tanzeer. "Horse."
"Coming," he retorted.
And so it was, as another servant led the bay around from the stable block. Bridled and saddled, saddlepouches and botas tied on, ready to go.
I glanced at Nayyib. He was in a sad way, blinking woozily out at the sun-washed courtyard. Umir's little joke, to drug the boy. And neither Del nor I could chance giving him a hand, or we'd endanger the entire rescue. "You," I began, "have caused me no small amount of trouble. How about you get up on your horse and head out of here? Now."
Nayyib nodded vaguely, scrubbing vigorously at his stubbled face. But didn't move.
I pointed. "That horse right there."
"Neesha," Del said, still waiting behind me. The tone was a complex combination of relief, concern, and command. And something I couldn't identify.
Umir glared at me. "The book."
"When the boy is mounted and heading out of here."
Nayyib finally bestirred himself to walk haphazardly to his horse and stick a foot in the stirrup. With great effort he pulled himself up. I heard the sound of a burnous seam ripping as he fell into the saddle. I wondered if I'd have any teeth left by the time we exited the courtyard. Already my jaw ached from clenching it.
"Go," Del told him, as Nayyib lifted reins.
The stud, taking a closer look at the bay, suddenly filled the courtyard with a ringing neigh. I winced.
Del's voice again: "Neesha. Go."
"You too, bascha." I heard retreating hoofs clopping agains the pavers. Then I smiled down at Umir. "Your book."
I thought he might send a servant to take it from me. But Umir came himself, lower lip caught in white teeth as he reached up for it.
"I've locked it closed," I told him, "for safety." I handed over the book. "It may take you a few weeks or years, but eventually you'll figure out how to open it."
Eyes wide with alarm, Umir attempted to undo the latch holding the book closed. "No—no —"
"A little insurance," I remarked, "in case you felt like trying a spell on me when I wasn't looking."
He hugged the book to his chest, staring up at me. "But—how did you do this? It requires a spell to lock it!"
"Let's just say I picked up a few things while visiting an island paradise." I tossed him a jaunty wave as I backed the stud toward the opening in the wall. "Happy reading, Umir."
Outside the walls, I found Del and Nayyib waiting. I motioned them to ride on as I headed past them.
Del's face was white. "I can't believe you did that."
"What—give him the book? Why not? It worked, didn't it? Nayyib-Neesha is now our guest instead of Umir's." I glanced at the boy. "Are you drugged? Did Umir drug you?"
Owl-eyed, he shook his head.
Suspicion stirred. "Drunk?"
His tone was excessively grave. "I believe so, yes."
I swore deeply and decisively.
Del was still stuck on the book. "I thought you said it contains magic spells."
"It contains a number of things, including magic spells. It's a pretty amazing book, actually."
"And you gave it to Umir?"
"Well, I'd read it already." I grinned at her. "What did you think I was doing all day when you were asleep in bed?"
Del was stunned. "You read that whole book in an afternoon?"
"Just a little trick I picked up in Skandi." I took a hard look at Nayyib. "Are you sober enough to stay on your horse?"
"I believe so, yes."
"Do you know where the oasis is from here?"
"I believe so, yes."
"That's where we're going."
Nayyib nodded amiably. "All right." Then a hiccup emerged, attended by a modest belch.
I planted the flat of my palm against my brow. "Gods save me from a sandsick woman and a drunk boy!"
Del scowled at me. "I am not sandsick, and he's not a boy."
"But he's drunk."
Nayyib offered, "I believe so, yes."
"Oh, hoolies," I groaned. "Maybe I should take my sword to him. Or go on ahead and let him find his own way to the oasis. I only might have been killed in there getting him free, and it turns out he's drunk. Drunk!"
"Neesha," Del said gently, "I would be quiet now."
"All right." He gifted her with a luminous smile and a worshipful stare from those melting, honey-brown eyes. "You're so beautiful."
"Oh, hoolies," Del muttered.