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THIRTY-SEVEN

I BROKE through Neesha's guard six times in a row. By then he was frustrated and humiliated. He'd wanted very badly to show me he had some grasp of the essentials, when what he felt he'd shown me were weaknesses. Of course, that's what I'd expected; but I'd also anticipated that maybe, just maybe he could do to me what I'd done to Abbu so many years before, if I wasn't careful. And while that no doubt would have pleased Neesha, it might also have gotten me hurt.

So I was careful.

And I am, after all, the legendary Sandtiger, seventh-level sword-dancer out of Alimat . . . besides, if I was to shape a new legend, he needed to understand he had to be better than good.

Sweat ran down his face, bathed his chest. He was quick, graceful, focused. He was also angry with himself. So I told him we were done.

He lowered his sword. "Already?"

"Already." '

"We've barely begun!"

"And we're finished. For now. We'll go again tomorrow." I jerked a thumb over my shoulder. "Go wash off in the stream. Cool down."

He wanted to say more. But he shut his mouth on it, put his sword back in his harness, and stalked past me.

"And kid " I waited until he turned around. "It will be a long ten yearsor seven, or sixif you get this frustrated every time."

His mouth was a grim line. "I wanted to be good." I grinned. "Good doesn't happen overnightor even after four lessons with Abbu Bensir." I bent, grabbed up my own harness, sheathed the jivatma. "Tomorrow. In the meantime, I'm going to track down Del."

"She told me she was going up to the other canyon." I shook my head in resignation. "Seems like Del tells you more than she tells me."

An odd look passed across Neesha's face. Then abruptly he turned on his heel and headed for the stream.

by the time I hiked up around the elbow and through the passageway, the morning chill had faded. The sun now stood above the rim of the canyon walls, slanting blankets of light down the tree-clad mountain slopes. I heard birds calling and the chittering of something in the bushes, probably warning of my coming. The rush and gurgle of water underscored everything.

Del was where I expected her to be, up near the natural pool. At first I almost missed her as she lay on her back in thick meadowgrass. High overhead the eagle circled again against brilliant skies, accompanied by his mate.

I paused long enough to strip my sandals off, tie them together and sling them over a shoulder, then took pleasure in feeling the grass and cool soil under my feet. Remarkably different from Punja sand. My callused feet liked it very much.

I strode along the stream bank. "Catch any fish?"

I saw Del's hands go to her cheeks, wiping them hastily. Then she sat up. Her hair, worn loose, tumbled down her back. She smiled as she saw sandals dangling from my shoulder. Hers were lying near the water, along with her harness and sword.

Good idea. I dropped my sandals, got out of the harness, set it and jivatma in the grass. "All right," I said, "I may be male, but I'm not completely heartless. Tell me why you were crying."

Her eyes widened slightly, and then she laughed self-consciously. "Because it's so beautiful here."

This explanation seemed incongruous. "That's why you're crying?"

"Tiger" She stood up abruptly, grabbed my hand, tugged me along the bank. Her free hand gestured broadly. "Look at it, Tiger! The trees are leafing out, the bushes are setting fruit, there are flowers in the grass, sweet water in plenty"

"And fish that apparently like to be tickled."

In full spate, she disregarded the comment. "and eagles in the sky, game on the slopes, a far more benevolent sun than anywhere else in the Southno searing heat, no Punja, no sword-dancers hunting you . . ." She released my hand and dropped to her knees, plunging fingers into the ground and bringing up clods. "Look at this soil! So much would grow here . . ." She tossed the clumps aside and rose, grabbing my hand again. "Come here." She led me away from the water. "Do you see? There against the canyon walls? We could build a good house. Smaller housesjust rooms, reallycould go across the stream against that canyon wall. And here, here there is room for multiple circles." Her gesture was all encompassing. "As many circles as you need in a school. And Julah isn't far for when we need supplies. Or if you and the students wanted to go in to the cantina for wine-girls and aqivi."

Ah. Now I knew where she was heading. And it apparently wasn't Alimat, if she had anything to do with it. "This is why you're crying?"

Color stained her face. "Because it's beautiful, yes. Because it offers us everything we could want. Because it gives us a future different from anything we've known, something we can build together, starting over again."

Carefully I noted, "That's what I'd planned to do at Alimat."

"In the sun. In the heat. In the sand. Where, if there's water, it's always warm. Where I have to paint my horse's eyes and hang tassels off his browband so he doesn't go blind."

"Hey, that was your idea! I told you to get another horse, remember?"

"He's got the softest walk I've ever ridden. Probably softer than any you've ridden, you with that stubborn, nasty-tempered, jug-headed demon"

"Now, let's not get personal about my horse!"

"who'd just as soon throw you as carry you a yard"

"All right!" My hand was in the air, silencing her. "We've established that your gelding has a better walk than my horse. Go on."

Del glared. "Because for the first time in more years than I can remember, I can let down all my walls. I thought I had forgotten how. My song is sung, Tiger. I found my brother and lost him again. I avenged my family by killing Ajani. I've proven to you I can dance with all the skill and honor of male sword-dancers"

"With more skill and honor."

"and defeat them as well." She was as fierce in her focus as I had ever heard her. "I have accomplished all that I set out to do, that day along the border when Ajani and his men killed my family, abducted my brother, and raped me. And I have given up a daughter, killed my an-kaidin, bloodedand brokenmy jivatma, and have been exiled forever from my homeland." Her tone was sere as desert sand. "You asked me once what kind of man I dreamed of finding, and I told you I had stopped thinking of that the day Ajani came. I gave up all my dreams, all my hopes, all my humanity to become the weapon needed to kill Ajani. I even made a pact with the gods to keep me from conceiving again, so another child would not delay my plans as Kalle did." Her face was stark with pain. "So I would not have to give yet another child up."

"Del"

"Two things, two things only, existed in my life: finding my brother and finding Ajani. I did both. My song is ended."

"Del"

"And I was crying because this place is so beautiful it hurts my heart and because I know you won't want to stay here because there's Alimat, always Alimat" She broke it off, drew a tight, rasping breath, began again. "And I even understand that because it's your song, your goal, your need, the way making myself into a weapon was mine. I understand it, and I hate it. I hate the sun and the sand and the heat, and the men who refuse to see a woman's true worth is in being something other than a vessel to bear babies and keep houses" Now the tone was angry. "and I hate it that you made yourself an outcast for my sake, breaking all your oaths and sentencing yourself to death by declaring elaii-ali-ma in front of all the others and Abbu Bensir"

I raised a hand. "Del"

Her voice tightened. "and I hate it that you don't want children, because I'm going to have one and you'll want to leave."

Standing there suspended in disbelief, I discovered that once again I lacked the ability to find words, any words at all that began to address the situation in a calm, rational, sensible manner. Or, for that matter, that even approached coherency.

"And I hate it because I want this one to have a mother and a father of its blood" She was running out of breath and intensity. "and to keep it, to keep it, instead of giving it away as I gave away Kalle, to be a mother, a true mother, even though I know you'll want no part of this child or this life."

Empty of everything save sluggish shock and a wish to end a pain I could not begin to comprehendand thus would lessen by any attemptI walked away from her on unsteady legs and stood at the stream's edge, staring into rushing water. Lost myself in the sound, the tumult, the motion that required no words, no decisions, no compromises.

The cantina stool was getting harder all the time.

I squatted, leaned, scooped up and drank water. Sluiced it over my face and through my hair. Considered falling face-first into the stream and drowning myself, just so I never had to find myself yet again so utterly, completely, incoherently stunned.

Too much. All of it, too much. And Del knew it. Expected my reaction. Because I had told her what I'd told everyone: no children for me.

Go? Oh no. I had sworn oaths to Del, though she was unaware. And these I would not break.

And then I thought, I'll be dead in twelve years.

I would never see the child as an adult, like Neesha. Another good-looking, smart kid with a head on his shouldersor a girl with all the glorious beauty and strength of her mother.

But twelve years, ten years, were better than none.

It seemed, after all, there was no decision to make. No reluctance to forcibly sublimate. There was merely comprehension and a little fear.

Then I remembered the dream. Me, alone, as everyone I knewand some I didn'twalked away from me. That is what my life could be like. Me, refusing to accept responsibility for my own actions. Even for my children. And deserted because of it.

I'd survived hoolies all alone among the Salset. I wouldn't couldn'tdo it again.

I pressed myself up from the ground and went to Del. I cradled her jaw, smoothed back her hair, kissed her on the forehead, then took her into my arms.

Her body was stiff, her voice tight and bitter. "And here I was prodding Neesha to tell you his secret, when I've been keeping my own."

Into her ear I said, "I think I'd have figured it out one of these days even if you never said anything."

She pulled back. Walked away from me. Stood staring at something I couldn't see and probably never would. Her tone was oddly detached. "Don't worry, I don't expect you to stay."

It hurt. Badly. But I had done it to her. Had done it to myself.

She turned. The angles of her cheekbones were sharp as glass. Her eyes were ice. "I will not force a man to stay who has no wish to. I have been alone in much of what I've done since my family died; I can be alone in this."

I drew in a shaking breath that filled my head with light. "Well, it's not an entirely new idea, this being a father. I've had all of, oh, about a day to adjust to the idea of Neesha being mine."

Her tone was scathing. "Neesha is not a child."

"But it's a start. I mean, you're not going to drop this kid tonight or tomorrow." I paused. "When is it due?"

"Around six months from now."

I shrugged off-handedly, keeping it light. It was what she was accustomed to. "I figure if I can get used to having Neesha around, I can get used to a baby."

Del was not in the mood to be amused. "Babies are considerably more trouble than a twenty-three year-old man."

"Bascha " I wanted to go to her, to take her into my arms once again. But I had learned to read her over the years, and that was not what she wished me to do. So I stayed where I was and told her the truth. "I knew when I stepped out of Sabra's circle and declared elaii-ali-ma that the life I'd known was over. I knew when Sahdri chopped off my fingers that the life I'd known was over. There on that island, with you lying next to me in the sand, I decided to build a school and become a shodo. Whether it's here or at Alimat isn't important; what matters is that I'd already made the decision to stick in one spot. Knowing there's to be a baby doesn't alter that." I paused. "Though I confess I'm not exactly sure how this has happened, since you made that pact with the gods. But then, I don't have much to do with godsexcept when I curseso what do I know?"

Her mouth compressed. "It happened because my song is over. Being gods, they knew it."

"Your song isn't over."

"That part of it is. I vowed to find my brother and kill Ajani." Her tone chilled. "Apparently they decided the pact no longer applied."

"Then make a new song. You're a sword-singer, after all."

Pain warped her words. "A sword-singer without a jivatma."

"Well, I've got one of those. And a terrible voice, as you've pointed outyou can sing for me."

It did not set her at ease. "This is not a casual decision, Tiger. This is a song that lasts a lifetime. Kalle I gave up. At the time it was all I could see, were I to achieve the goal I set myself, the goal that allowed me to survive. It wasn't a wrong choice; it was the only choice. But I am older now. I am different now. I have killed and will undoubtedly kill again; I know I will dance again. That is what I am; no child changes that."

"No," I agreed.

"But this time, I wish to preserve life. I have no goals beyond that, no song to sing, save I wish to make a new beginning with a new life." She said her walls had come down. I could hear in her voice the attempt to rebuild them, should it be necessary. "I will ask no man to do what he cannot do."

"Then don't ask me. Just tell me what you need. Nowor after the baby's born. If Alric can do it, I can."

One pale brow arched. "Do you really believe so?"

I needed badly to knock down the nascent walls. "Well, maybe only until the first time it spits up on me."

Her mouth twitched in a faint smile. "You missed all that with Neesha."

I feigned wide-eyed hope. "I don't suppose you could arrange for it to be born as a twenty-three-year-old?"

"Twenty-three-year-olds spit up. You spit up. That's what happens when you drink too much."

"As you found out."

Del sighed. The tension began to seep out of her shoulders. "As I found out."

"Look, bascha, what I said yesterday was the truth. I've never claimed to be a perfect man, and I won't ever claim to be a perfect father. And getting hit over the head with a cantina stool two days in a row is more than a little tough to take in! But if you'll give me the chance to do itand forgive my lapsesI'll never say anything rude about how big you look when you're about ready to drop the kid."

"You don't drop a baby, Tiger; it isn't a foal. You have a baby. And you will too make rude comments."

"Well, all right, yes, I probably will. Some things I just can't change." I glanced around. "But I guess I can change where I'd planned to start a sword-dancing school. This place is beautiful.

Alimat had its shodo and became a legend. This is Beit al'Shahar, and we can found a new one."

She hadn't yet relaxed. "A child is not a stray kitten, or a puppy with a broken leg, or even an orphan sandtiger cub. A child is for life. Make no promises you cannot keep."

"As I made to my shodo?"

From that, she flinched. "I didn't mean it so."

"Then let me make this promise: I will try."

She lifted her chin. "Are you certain?"

"Hoolies, no! But I don't know that I'd be any more certain if we were at Alimat just now." I smiled crookedly. "I never really planned to become a teacher. I never thought beyond dancing. I expected to die in the circle, to meet an honorable death. But that song for me is ended just as yours is for you. It's time I began another."

Her eyes searched my own. "Can you do that?"

I lifted my hands. Displayed them. "I knew I would have to that day atop the spire in ioSkandi. A child played no role in that decision."

"It does now."

Softly I said, "Give me a chance, bascha."

She closed her eyes a moment, as if praying. Then she opened them. "No wine-girls for you when you go into town."

I sucked in a dramatically stricken breath. Then, "Aqivi? At the very least?"

She considered it. "If you'll have Neesha tie you on the stud when you're too drunk to ride, and bring you home safely."

"If we're tying me on horses when I'm too drunk to ride, can I borrow your gelding?"

"Hah. I knew you liked his walk."

"And I'm thinking I'll invite Alric to pack up Lena and the girlsand maybe a boy, nowand come down here to live. I'll send Neesha to Rusali to ask. Lena could tend the baby while you're tending sword-dancers."

She didn't say anything for several moments. Then she took the steps necessary to put herself into my arms.

I cradled her head against my shoulder. "Are you crying again?"

"No."

"You are, too."

"Maybe a little."

"What's your excuse this time?"

She drew her head back and looked me in the eyes. "Not excuse. Truth: I may have stopped dreaming about the kind of man I wanted long ago, but I found him anyway."

I grinned. "You're just trying to sweet-talk me into your bed."

She took my hand, drew it down to her belly. "I think this baby proves you've already been there."

I laughed. "Well, yes."

Her hand, without excess fanfare, shifted from her belly to mine. And slipped lower, sliding suggestively between dhoti and skin. Which quivered.

"Uh, bascha . . ."

Her other hand was working at the tie-strings. "Hmmm?"

"What if Neesha comes?"

"Neesha knows better."

"What if Mehmet comes, or some of his people?"

"Then they'll all simply discover that their beloved jhihadi is also a man."

Self-control was on the verge of departing. "What about the baby?"

Del laughed. "The baby won't mind. The baby won't even notice."

I caught the hem of her tunic, slipped it up above her hips. "Are you sure?"

Her smile was glorious. "I'm sure."

"Well, if you're sure you're sure . . ."

Her mouth was against mine. "Shutup, Tiger."

Tiger shut up.


THIRTY-SIX | Sword Sworn | EPILOGUE