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THIRTY-FIVE

No.

No.

Of course not!

Of course not.

Not possible.

He had come to tell me something else entirely. Something to do with Del.

Hadn't he?

Not possible.

"It's true," he said, when I did not respond.

Because I couldn't. I could not make a sound. I wasn't even certain I was breathing. I had prepared myself to hear something entirely different. This was . . . this was wholly alien, like an unknown language that sounds familiar but you can't make out the words.

"It's true," he repeated.

I was numb all over. The hairs stirred on the back of my neck. It took everything I had to force halting words past a throat tight with shock. "You said your father has a horse farm."

"He does. That is, the man who raised me does. He married my mother when I was a boy. He is my father in all waysexcept blood and bone. He raised me. You made me."

My chest constricted. I felt the banging of my heart against ribcage. I didn't know how much of that had to do with his words and how much with my hatred of small, enclosed places. Breath rasped noisily through my throat.

"It's true," Nayyib said.

Couldn't be.

Wasn't.

Couldn't be.

My voice came out sounding very hoarse. "I don't have any children."

"That you know of. Del said."

Del had said a great deal.

My bones felt oddly hollow. "Why should I believe you?"

He released a long, resigned breath, as if I had finally said something he'd anticipated. "You were seventeen. Newly freed from the Salset. You wanted to be a sword-dancer. You stopped at a tiny village on the way to Alimat and spent the night with the headman's daughter."

I went on the offensive. "Not to brag, but I've spent the night with a lot of women over the years."

"She was, you told her, your first as a free man. And you intended to take a namea true nameto mark that freedom."

"So? A lot of women know my name."

"You told her Sula had named you, when you lay sick from the sandtiger poison."

Only Del knew that. And Sula, who was dead.

Seventeen then, barely. Forty now.

Twenty-three years.

Del was twenty-three. So was Nayyib. He'd said so; she had. Not a kid, she'd said. Not a boy.

I had said I was old enough to be her father. And thus his.

"And you told Del this?"

"Del and I talked about many things when she was ill."

My voice sounded rusty. "There's one way to find out if this is the truth."

Startlement edged his voice. "You still don't believe me?"

I wanted to ask, Why should I? "Go out into the light."

"But"

"Go out into the light."

Nayyib went out into the light. I followed him. Both of us blinked against the sun. Samiel, forgotten in my hand, flashed blindingly brilliant.

The kid eyed the sword. He marked the runes edging the blood channel, the satiny steel. Then he looked at me. Lifted his head with a slight aggressive tilt. Anger was in his eyes.

I stared right into them. "Is there a mark on you? A birthing mark?"

A muscle leaped in his jaw.

"Show me."

He stood very still before me, clad in only a dhoti and sandals. Stubble was turning into beard, just as my own was. I saw nothing of me in his face, nor anything of the woman he claimed was his mother. But it had been twenty'three years. It was true I had slept with many over the years, and most of them I couldn't remember.

That woman, I did. Sula had been my first, followed by others in the Salset; I was a slave; I did what I was told. But only one woman had been my first as a free man. A headman's daughter in a tiny village on my way to Alimat.

"Show me."

Abruptly he hooked thumbs into the top of his dhoti and jerked it down, displaying his lower abdomen, the thin line of dark hair vertically bisecting paler flesh. And the small, purplish mark the Stessoi called keraka, the god's caress. I'd seen it on Herakleio; Del had seen it on me.

I nodded once.

Nayyib pulled his dhoti back up. The anger simmered.

He wanted something. Acknowledgment. Confirmation. But I was empty of all emotions save overpowering disbelief, despite the presence of the keraka. Nothing in my life had ever prepared me for this. I had never even imagined it.

He stood waiting, every fiber in his body tensed with increasing anger. I had not responded to his announcement, had given him no clue to what I was thinking.

Inane, incongruous laughter bubbled up. I blurted the first thing that came into my head. "What did you expect?" I asked. "That I would fall at your feet and praise the gods?"

His eyes flickered. Those liquid, melting, honey-brown eyes, set beneath mobile eyebrows. "I don't know what I expected."

"Oh, I think maybe you do."

He met the challenge. "All right. I dared to hope, once or twice, that you might be pleased."

I was completely, tactlessly honest with him. "I'm not certain that's possible at this particular moment."

It shocked him. Shook him. Then he put on a mask, hiding his feelings. "Now what?"

"Now you go back to Mehmet's little village."

"What about you?"

"Oh, I'm going to go sit in the dark for a while and think about things."

He opened his mouth. Then shut it. No doubt there were all manner of things he wish to say, of questions he wished to ask, but he had the sense to realize now was not after all the best of times to say or ask any of them.

He turned to go.

Went.

I walked unsteadily back into darkness, gripping my jivatma.

When I came down from what remained of Beit al'Shahar, Del was waiting. She sat beside the stream on the far side, watching idly as I made my way across the stepping stones. By the time I got there, arms outstretched for balance, she was standing.

She smiled, lifting her voice over the rushing of the water. "You look as if someone hit you over the head with a cantina stool."

Since she had seen me be the victim of that very occurence, she knew what she was talking about. "Someone did."

She looked more closely. "Are you all right?"

"For someone who's been hit over the head with a cantina stool." I was still trying to reconcile emotions. "I just can't make my brain understand it. It heard the words, even understands them, but refuses to acknowledge that they apply to me. I mean, I know he told me the truth"

"Do you?"

I looked at her. "Yes."

"Do you?"

I released a long breath. "Yes."

"But you didn't feel inclined to fall at his feet and praise the gods."

I winced. "He told you."

"I believe he got hit with the same cantina stool."

"Hoolies, Del, I didn't mean it to come out like that. But he wanted me to say I was pleased, and how could I? I'm too confused to be pleased!"

"Are you displeased?"

"No! I'm too confused to be anything." I stared at her pleadingly. "Don't you understand? It's not something I ever contemplated. Not once."

Her chin lifted. "Nor ever wanted?"

I flung out a hand. "Look at what happened to me! I was born as my mother lay dying in the middle of the Punja. I survived only because the Salset came alongand they made me a slave! Salset slaves don't have children. They may sire some, or bear some, but they aren't allowed to keep them. Then for twenty-three years I've been a sword-dancer, never sticking anywhere. It's no kind of life for a woman" I saw the flicker in her eyes but didn't retreat. "who wants to have her man nearby, and a family. I can't be that kind of a man for that kind of a woman. So I never thought about it, until that foolish foreign kid with the axes went around telling everyone he was mine, knowing full well he wasn't."

"Neesha isn't that foolish foreign kid. He is your son."

"I know. I know." I shook my head. "I just can't think, bascha. There's too much in my head. I need time to work through all of it."

"Why? You don't have to raise him. He's a grown man. All you have to do is acknowledge him."

That stung. "I didn't say he wasn't my son!"

"But you told him you weren't pleased."

"Because I wasn't! I wasn't anything. Hoolies, I was lucky I could find the words to say anything at all."

Del smiled faintly. "The Sandtigerspeechless. Truly a miracle."

I had to make her understand. "There is nothing, nothing in this world that could have stunned me more than what that kid told me. I don't know how else I could have reacted under the circumstances. I did the best I could. Maybe it wasn't enough, maybe it wasn't what he wanted, but it was all I had in me right then." I shook my head, still lacking words. "I've never claimed to be a perfect man, and I sure as hoolies wouldn't claim to be a perfect father. Especially when I didn't know I was a father at all."

I must have made some headway; her tone was kinder. "I did warn him not to have expectations."

"Well, I think he did!"

"Hopes, perhaps. How could he not? He has known since childhood you were his father. He's heard all the stories of the legendary Sandtiger. He has wanted to find you for all of those years. But he was afraid."

"Afraid?"

"That you would disbelieve."

"I did not tell him I disbelieved him."

"Nor did you welcome him." She put up a hand to halt more protestations. "It took him a very long time to find the courage to search for you. And even more to look into your eyes and tell you."

"He didn't 'tell' me. He yelled it at me."

"Sometimes yelling at you is the only way to get anything through your head. But that's not the point." Her eyes were sad. "He swore me to secrecy. I was not to say anything to you at all. It was his task."

"But you did threaten to tell me if he didn't get to it today."

Del nodded. "Because I knew what you were thinking."

"You did?"

"You were becoming more and more certain something was growing between Neesha and me."

"Ah, Del " I planted my rump on the cool earth of the stream bank, rubbing hands through my hair. "He's twenty-three. He's a good-looking, smart kid with a head on his shoulders who's got his whole life ahead of him. What woman wouldn't be attracted?"

Del sat down next to me, left leg touching mine. "A woman who is content with what she has."

I didn't prevaricate. "Why?"

She leaned against me, put her head on my shoulder. "I can't define it. I just know it. Better than I know anything in this world."

I stared hard at the rushing stream, trying not to weep. "I don't deserve you."

"Probably not."

After a moment I smiled. "That time we talked about children wanting to know who they are, who their blood parents arethat was because of Neesha."

"That was part of it, yes."

"And as it turned out, I was searching for my mother. I just didn't know it at the time."

"But you knew how important it was that you find her."

"Yes."

Del nodded against my shoulder. "It was the same for Neesha."

I watched the water run. "You were so protective of him, so obsessed with his welfare. Always claiming we owed him a debt, insisting we rescue him from Umir. Because he was my son."

"And I like him, Tiger. There is that as well."

I sighed, nodded. "He's a good kid. I like him, too."

She lifted her head from my shoulder and leaned in to kiss my cheek. "Go tell him that."

I stared into water for a moment longer. Then pressed myself up from the earth, reaching down for Del. She rose as I pulled, and I wrapped her up in my arms. "Thank you, bascha."

After a moment she leaned away. Her smile was luminous. "He's out with the horses. They're picketed near the corral."


THIRTY-FOUR | Sword Sworn | THIRTY-SIX