jack and the apples

Art first; context later.

Jack was Adam John First the Third,
As hale a lad as you’ve ever heard
Run over the brook on a rotting log
With an apple in his pocket and a loose-skinned dog;

And V was Valentine Eve Vereen,
As sharp a lady as you’ve ever seen
Sew pockets in the chimney of her old top hat
For pencils and books and apples for her cat.

Now Jack and V and Dog and Cat
Had something in common (did you guess at that?) —
For Cat and Dog and V and Jack
Were joined in their love of a red sweet snack.
Yes, Dog and Cat and Jack and V
Loved apples in every variety…

I wrote a story once. It was about stories, and how they can be dangerous, and about a father who is losing his son; and in it I name-checked a fictitious children’s book called JACK AND THE APPLES. The name-check itself is later, but the description comes first:

Kelly and Kieran, Madonna and child, that voice like coffee with cream poured into those words like tiny perfect cups. She always hated her writing, but for once she could forget it was hers, just giving him that voice, those words, that slight simple story built up from symbols so old and commonplace you wouldn’t think anyone could do anything with them any more. Apples, trees, a dog, a girl, a boy. But balanced, like calligraphy, flowing in this stately dance out of a spiral notebook that looked like an elephant’s bung-wipe. Light mother and dark boy, a book, a couch, a lap, the sun before naptime. All mine. Can you imagine that?

… I won’t quote the rest — I’m too proud of that story, even if no one would buy it, you can read it if you like what you saw.

The point is, more or less as soon as the story was done, I started thinking about JACK AND THE APPLES. Now, I’ve written a dissertation in neuroscience; I’ve written dozens of scientific articles and short stories; I’ve written a couple novels in the 50-60K range and a couple in the 160-170K range. Footprint-wise, in comparison, a kid’s book is like… well, a kid’s foot. But I tried a few times and it would never come out. I was trying to write it more or less like a comic, with a descriptive mise-en-scene for the artist and the words, and I just couldn’t get anything that would go where I wanted it to go (or even somewhere else interesting).

But tonight, after a weekend of furious editing on THE EIGHTH KING and somewhat less than furious recovery from a really awful cold, I was lying in bed with Rowan and the words just started coming.

I’m not saying the doggerel above will ever measure up to the impossible bar I set for this book in “Keynote Speech…” But I’m very interested that this is starting to take something approximating shape.

The Book of Yvaine

In the featured image for this post, you’ll see a set of nine “story cubes” — dice with pictures on them. My daughter, Una, chose this set of nine and asked me to tell her a story. Because I cannot write short fiction, this is what came out of it.

Once, in the middle of a very flat field that stretched in all directions as far as the eye could see, there was a house. It was a farmhouse, and a farmer and his wife lived alone there with the animals you would expect: A strong draft horse for plowing, cows for milk and meat, chickens to follow the cows and eat the insects that ate the cow pats, pigs for pork and conversation, sheep for wool and goats for eating the weeds that the sheep wouldn’t eat.

To the north of the house, just out of sight if you looked out through the kitchen window, there was a clear, cold stream in a stone bed; and over the stream there was a bridge built from the stones of the stream. If you walked north from the farmhouse and crossed the bridge, in the distance, you would see the edge of the forest; and at the very edge of the forest, straight north from the bridge, there grew a perfect white flower. The stalk was the height of a child of perhaps seven or eight, and stalk, sepals, petals, pistils, stamens, and pollen were all the same perfect white. But if you leaned and put your eyes directly up to the flower, so that your nose was nearly touching it, you could look into the bower of the petals and see a tiny red flame, burning like a candle. No one on the entire earth knew about this flower except the farmer and his wife — not even their children, who had grown up and left the farm long ago, for although they had seen the flower and marveled at it in their time, their memories of it had faded when their feet no longer trod the soil of the farm.

One day, when the farmer was in the field and his wife was straightening a shoe for the horse, a strange thing happened in the sky to the north of the farm. They had lost count of the rainbows they had seen, to the north and otherwise, crisp arcs of color that embraced the fields with colors as bright as a king’s robes after a storm. But there had been no storm, and this was no ordinary rainbow; from a clear blue sky it had come, and instead of rising from the earth to touch the sky and descending again to take root in the earth, it dipped from the sky to loom over the earth, then rose back up into the sky; and instead of the lively bands of a normal rainbow, its colors were muddy shades of grey that bled unpredictably into one another. When the farmer’s wife saw this ugly presence in the sky, the horseshoe fell unstraightened from her hands, for she — and she alone, not even her husband — knew what an inverted rainbow portended. A normal rainbow comes after a storm, you see; and an inverted rainbow, the farmer’s wife knew, means that a storm is yet to come.

The horseshoe fell from her hands, as we have said, and she stomped down the weed-lined dirt paths to find her husband harvesting the wheat, which he would grind at the little mill on the stream and send half of to the city (the other half he would store in a brace of great glass jars, which would keep it dry and clean for winter baking). She stomped past the pumpkins big as pigs, and the shy onions that would make a hardened general weep, not merely with pain, but with true sorrow, if he cut them (but would spare the eyes of any girl-child’s mother, for the mother of a girl is a friend to pain until the day of her last breath), and the goats eating weeds that would make a dragon’s mouth swell and bleed, and she said “Husband,” (she always called him “Husband”), “harvest what you can so you’re in the cottage within the hour, and lock the door.”

He looked north, where her eyes had wandered, and began to laugh, and had he not looked into his wife’s eyes he would have said these words: “Wife,” (he rarely called her “wife,” but was accustomed to use her given name, Yvaine), “cease your jumping at shadows. That is not the first strangeness we have seen in the sky over the white flower, nor the first you have noted with concern, and no ill has come to the farm yet.” But he did look in her eyes, and the words died on his lips, and he nodded without speaking.

She thanked him, using his name (history has forgotten it), and began the trek back to the farmhouse, where she would collect the needful implements. As she did so, she saw that the strange light of the rainbow had given her a second shadow. The first, small beneath the noonday sun, was a farmer’s wife’s shadow: A shadow of a blouse, a skirt, of boots made to shrug off the mud, of a bosom and a belly that rambled a long, snarled tale of child-bearing and -rearing.

The second, long and etiolated, pointing straight south: A flat-bellied warrior in plate and mail, with a cap helm protecting her head and a sword strapped to her back.

All that would come soon enough, thought the farmer’s wife, Yvaine. First, it was time to get the animals in the barn, and the husband behind the locked cottage door.

Thunder rumbled to the south. She looked as she walked, her boots leaving inch-deep prints in the firm dirt, and after a few seconds came the lightning, swift and far-off and black.

Words 1-28-2015

theClaim-finalWPThe riot of battle done, Esker’s wound reasserted itself as he skulked along an alley of the claim. It was not bleeding too freely—it was a small wound, and his blood scabbed fast—but it was bleeding, and not a little, and who knew what might have been on the damned bullet? [[54]] He paused to notch the fabric of his trousers with the swordspear, then rip a long strip from it. He would look ludicrous, but there was no help for it. He packed the wound on both sides, then bound it.

He dug around in his satchel until he found the list of words that Ruth had given him. The annotations were better than he had remembered, split by places to look for from the streets and places to look for inside. On the streets, the recommendation was to look for a “hospital” or “school of medicine” or “department of life engineering,” probably in that order; inside, the words grew more finely focused, “acoustics” and “throat” and “force” and so on.

When Esker stood to go looking for them, he nearly fell. [[186]]

That was clear enough, then. He stood still until the black withdrew from the edges of his vision, then turned to make his way toward the nearest building, a four-story stone mansion with a crumbling red roof. Something nagged at the periphery of his vision, though. He turned all the way around to see a trail of drops. “The Nine preserve me,” he muttered, and forced himself farther down the path.

After what felt like an hour, he reached the end of it. The trail of drops was still visible in the [[dusk]] light, at least to his soldier’s eyes.

Something else was there too, farther back. He should not have been able to see it, not at that distance, not lurking so still; but it was etched on his eyes nonetheless, the hulking arms with tiny hands at the end, the lipless face with exposed gums and teeth.

He made his legs move faster. The black was returning to the edge of his sight. His limbs felt like lead, grudging things hanging from his torso, listening only at intervals to his mind; his throat tightened with lack of breath. There was no question of distancing himself any farther from the blood trail; he needed to be out of sight now, before he lost consciousness.

By the time he ascended the stair of yet another four-story stone mansion, he needed to lean on the door and drag a few ragged breaths into his lungs before he pushed the hanging door aside. He could smell the [[bloodbinder]], hear it breathing.

The foyer of the mansion was spacious, interrupted about two-thirds of the way back by a desk before the front stairs began. The walls were graven with the ancient script, discolored in rectangular spots where portraits or tapestries might once have hung; there was more recent sign here as well, old squatters’ fires, the scattered broken bones of birds, a cheap knife bent at the middle of the blade. Esker looked at the stairs, thinking to put some distance between himself and the ground, but they loomed like cliffs, his own blood the breakers lashing fruitlessly against them. He remembered the cliffs at Piko, white like these stairs, the water blood-dark except for where it foamed—and his own blood felt as icy as that striving water, though he knew the tides that kept it flowing were far from eternal. My heart is the moon, he said, and envisioned it exsanguinated, bled moon-white. Feeble moon. Weak tide.

Foyers have coatrooms, he thought, or closets; little spaces, hidden from the main thoroughfare. He stumbled off to the right and found a low wooden door opening on a long, narrow space. There were metal braces in the wall, he saw with satisfaction, though the rods and hangers must have been plundered long ago. He got over the door, then back into the very back of the closet. He thought he might turn around, so he could at least see if someone or something came for him. Then again, he thought after trying it, best to conserve strength. There was no point in seeing his killer, not when he was this weak. Not when he couldn’t see anything at all.

#

He awoke in a shabbier coatroom—or, not in it; before it. There was a palpable chill in the air, but not, he thought, from sparse blood—it was the chill of ice-kissed air, the fingers of draft that crept through the warmest house (and this was not the warmest house) and gave stealthy caresses at odd intervals. Esker had a sense that the coatroom was not usually unstaffed, and, further, that it was not at present unstaffed; yet there was no one there, only a sense of a presence. [[819]]

The racks were full of coats, though, and it was a right stroke of luck that they were numbered, for they were all the same: Thick wool coats, nearly ankle-length, in the brick-trimmed cerulean of the Jaidari army.

Esker looked around. The building was an odd patchwork of grey stone and wood—some intact, though unvarnished and none too well treated, and some burnt nearly to flinders, leaving gaping holes. Beyond the holes was a colorless, starless void.

He turned to the lobby, which seemed both vast and cramped. There was no one at the reception desk; but if there had been, he had a clear image of who it would be. One of the Salve Rooks, darker and smaller than the Creditors; plain of face, arms short and strong and well acquainted with the big Jaidari pistol and the stained machete that rested under the desk, within their reach. Flor, her name had been. She had dressed like one of the girls, in thin silk or linen, even though she stood her whole shift in the direct line of the cutting cold that roared in whenever the door opened.

He looked toward that door and saw her as she had been the last time he’d seen her, pinned beneath a scorched beam, her hair and half her face burned away.

From behind her slithered a white worm with John Dream’s face.

Esker reached for his swordspear, but it was nowhere to be found. He crouched back in a defensive stance, ready to fight. But the worm only gave him a needle-fanged smile, looking languorously around the lobby as though memorizing it.

“You have an unusual mind, do you know that?” the worm said. “Understand, I don’t mean to say you’re particularly intelligent, still less all that interesting. As intellects go, you’re more than pedestrian. But you’re hard to find.” It had been slithering for some seconds now and Esker could still not see its end, only coils on coils, leaving slime-trails on everything it touched. “Odd rhythms. It’s much easier to tell when you’re asleep—the distortions of the faster oscillations are much subtler. I’ve never spent much time inside a soldier’s mind, especially a sleeping one.” The worm reached its head out and took a nibble of charred flesh from Flor’s cheek. Pain shot through Esker; the whole scene trembled like an aspic. “You’ll remember her that way from now on. What do you think of that?”

“You’re an abomination,” said Esker. “But you didn’t need me to tell you that.”

“A rich charge, that, from a man with this in his mind,” said the worm. “Chilly here. [[1264]] The Tenoc campaign, I suppose. Don’t work so hard to hide it; I can tell when I hit and when I miss. Do you know why I’m here?”

“We didn’t part on good terms.”

“That’s true. But you can help me, maybe. I know you’re in your claim, for all the good that claim-deed did you. The old university. What have you found?”

“Buildings, dirt, and The Tungsten Kid,” said Esker.

“What buildings? Can you recall the letters on them?”

“I don’t read the old script,” said Esker. “It all looks the same to me.”

“You’re certain?” said the worm. It took another bite of Flor; again the world blurred and shook, again Esker’s body burned with agony. “It would take me a long time to destroy your mind this way. More time than it’s worth, really. Out there in the real world, do you think you’re screaming?” The worm smiled. “Ah, that does scare you. You are in the claim. You’re worried that they’ll find you.” It examined Flor’s corpse again. “This looks like someone would really look if they were crushed under a beam and burned to death. She’s not why you’re here. Your real reason for being here will look much worse than anything real. Why don’t you show me?”

Esker knew what the worm was doing, and for a moment, he felt his efforts against it begin to work; there was only a silhouette of the apparition in the middle of the lobby, barely visible.

The worm grinned and brushed him with a coil. Burning pain shot out from his wound, where it had touched; pain like a thousand barbs, taking residence in his flesh, promising more pain if anyone ever tried to pull them out. The apparition roared into life—the beautiful face that ended at a cooked-meat stump of neck, the burned skeleton.

“Now that,” said the worm, “is properly horrifying. What was her name? Ximena. And you were her… her john?” Its laugh was putrid with scorn. “But not just any john. You were in love. And you did this to her?” It smiled and licked its teeth with a pointed tongue. “Or might as well have. I’ll allow it. What shall I do to her? What can I do to her? You’ve already done quite a rough job there, old son. But she wasn’t always like this—”

—and there she was. Ximena, naked, whole, shivering in the chill. Shorter and lighter-skinned than Hasina, the Salve tattoo coiled about half of her face; [[1799]] Esker remembered tracing the tattoo with a finger as she rode him. Remembered moving his hands down from her plain face, over her rich, familiar curves, now so small and silly in this hideous dream.

“Esquer?” she said, meeting his eyes, then looking fearfully to the worm. His heart thrilled to the voice; sweet heat climbed up his spine. He was rock-hard.

“She’s dead,” Esker made himself say.

“I know,” said the worm. “But I can make her die a new way, in your mind. That skeleton image of yours is awfully dry—what do you think of remembering her half-eaten? I can leave some of the bigger organs dangling…”

“She’s dead,” Esker said again. “You’ve built her out of images in my mind. It doesn’t matter what you do. The only person you can hurt is me.”

The worm took on a thoughtful expression at that. “Sr. Sepherene,” it said, “as far as you’re concerned, the only person anyone can hurt is you. You’d like to think you can share someone’s pain, but all you’re doing is telling yourself a story about it. And maybe that story hurts you, and maybe it doesn’t. Luckily for me, though, I don’t care about Ximena. The only person I want to hurt is you.” There was a white blur; the air misted with slime, filming Esker’s skin; making him retch; the worm’s face was suddenly in his. “I think I’ll have that nose of yours. It won’t come off your real body, of course, but you won’t know the difference.”

It lunged. Esker ducked, stumbled back. It lunged again. Its white coils formed a fence around him, cutting him off from running farther into the house. He looked behind him; the only way that wasn’t blocked by coils was out. The void had been replaced by the same dead streets he had fled from, waking. Ximena was gone. He ran for the door.

The worm burst through it like a ram, scattering stone and charred wood for dozens of feet. It reared up on its endless body, looking at Esker from the height of a hill. Then it broke eye contact, looking around, as if taking the lay of the land.

Then a sound came, loud enough to split apart the earth and sky; and a shaking came, hard enough to jumble up the pieces past any recognition; and a light came, bright enough to sear it all into nothingness.

#

He was in the coat closet again—the empty one, in the mansion in the claim. His tongue felt like leather, his eyelids like sandpaper, his limbs like dead animals. Someone was holding his face, sloshing water over his mouth. Someone was mumbling.

“—answer me, dammit, just say something, anything, answer me, come on, answer me, dammit—“

The pale shadow crouching over him came into focus, if only for a moment. “Ruth,” he said.

“Hello, stranger,” she said. “Finally. Now drink.”

He moved a hand up to the waterskin; his arm still felt like something hanging on a hook in a butcher’s shop, but it did the job. He did not spill too much water on the ground.

“Can you shuffle back?” she said. “Just lean your back against the wall. Sit up.”

He did as she said.

“Dammit, dammit, dammit,” she said. “I can’t stay here. There’s food, some dried meat and bread, you can soften the meat up with water, or there’s a little bit of weak wine—“ she showed him another canteen—“and we’ll do our best to get more drops to you in the hospital. The wine is treated with something that will help keep your wound clean, so don’t be shy about drinking it. Do you remember how to find the hospital?”

“I have your list,” he said.

“I saw it on the way here. The fastest way to get there is to go through the Tungsten Kid’s camp. Don’t.”

He actually managed to cough a laugh at this. “It’s all right. I think he and I are really starting to get along.”

Don’t.

“I know.”

“The hospital. [[2351]] On the roof—we’re going to throw the drop across the claim-edge. That’s where the other ones will be. Don’t leave the claim, or they’ll know when you come back in.”

“You came.”

“No one saw you leave.”

He reached a hand up to her hair, brushed a stray lock. “You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I wanted to make sure I told you before I died.”

She took his hand and moved it away. “I don’t hold the ravings of the mad against them, but you’ve got to get yourself together.”

“How did you find me?”

“The blood.”

“Shit—” He tried to get up, failed, tried again, succeeded. But she blocked his path.

“You’re all right for a bit, I think. When I saw them, they were all gathered up around the Kid’s tent—maybe they’re worried about another attack.”

“Another attack.” Memories returned. “You shot the Epseris. When you realized you weren’t going to beat the Kid, you shot the Epseris.”

“Regrettable accident.”

“I heard you give the order,” he said. “‘Finish the killers.’ What else could you have meant?”

“I don’t have time for this,” she said, but his hand was around her wrist. She looked up at him, her eyes grave. “Let me go.”

“Did you mean just the Epseris, or did you mean Ozier and Kem and Inber too?”

“If I did mean your friends, which I didn’t, I wouldn’t tell you the truth while you had a hand on me,” she said.

He released her. He saw the blood rush back into the pale band his hand had left around her wrist; he’d gripped harder than he meant to.

Ruth took a deep breath. “I was born to the Pity Rooks outside of Ostn. When there were Pity Rooks outside of Ostn. Thanks to your Epseris brothers, there aren’t any more.”

Pity-the-sorrowing-daughters-and-wives sends his regards, Esker remembered. Ozier had been on that hunt too. Was Ruth not telling him, or did she not know? “I don’t harbor any love for the Epseris,” he said.

“I don’t care. I didn’t do it for you. I have to go.”

“Why?”

Ruth looked up at him, her mouth quirking, though not quite into a smile. “You want me to stay, is that it? Share some tack and jerky with the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?”

He made as expansive a gesture as he could inside the closet. “What’s mine is yours.”

“Here’s the difference between foreigners and Rooks,” said Ruth. “Foreigners offer to share food they’ve been given and pretend that it’s a favor. Rooks don’t take back what they’ve given, because they gave it for a reason; and they aren’t flattered by offers to tarry, because the best way for a foreigner to trap a Rook is to convince her to slow down and relax. When a Rook chooses to help you, you’ll get actual help, like food and medicine. Or you’ll get good information, like this: I can’t stay in the claim, or in the viejo, because I’ll fucking die. The air in these places is poisoned. If you hang around it, you’ll die soon or you’ll die later, but you’ll die badly. I’ve already been in here an hour longer than I should have.” She pointed to a patch on her shirt; it was almost entirely black, with hints of grey and white showing around the edges, as though it had been pressed into an ink pad. [[2955]] “This was white when I entered the viejo. I’m leaving.”

She took a step back, then turned. Esker carefully centered his weight directly over his heels, placed his fingertips on the wall to steady himself. “I’ve been in here for days without leaving,” he said. “What’s going to happen to me?”

Ruth turned around. There was real regret in her face, he thought, but beneath it there was something hard. “I don’t know,” she said. “Are you a father?”

Esker shook his head.

“Don’t become one,” she said.

“You weren’t ever going to tell me,” he said. “You don’t tell anyone. You just let people come and scratch for grubs in your cities and spend their money in your stores. What kind of life is that?”

“You don’t listen when I talk,” said Ruth. “Every time I see you, Esker Sepherene, I say ‘Hello, stranger.’ What exactly is it you think you mean when I say that?”

Esker had no answer. Ruth shrugged, turned, and left the closet.

He stood a moment, breathing, thinking.

“Shit!” Ruth cried from the lobby. Esker lurched to the front of the closet to see her hurtling past, pursued by a roil of flame. For a crystalline moment he was nearly offended: Why hadn’t she told him to get out? But, of course, that would have told the enemy that someone was there. A considerate little gesture, really. Maybe. Esker grabbed his swordspear and lazily clotheslined the runeslinger running down the hallway after Ruth. The hit didn’t do much damage, but it did put him on the ground, and even a wounded soldier could put a blade into the base of a downed man’s skull without much effort. He felt the slight chill of a ket attack roll over him; irritated, he threw the swordspear. It missed wildly, clanging against the stone of the hallway. The remaining ’slinger swore and ran.

Esker looked down at the dead runeslinger. “I’m afraid I can’t stay,” he said. He collected the food and drink that Ruth had brought him, then left the building by a back entrance into a yard that might once have held a garden; now it was dirt and dust and a few flower boxes on a fence. He got his bearings, then trudged away from the Tungsten Kid’s camp, hoping that a bit more distance might give him some safety. The prospects seemed rather slim, but he could not think of better.

#

After several blocks’ worth of stalking, waiting, and backtracking, Esker began to conceive of the claim as a band of relatively low danger in between a ring of elevated danger, on the claim-edge where patrols waited, and a center of maximal danger, where the Tungsten Kid resided and his followers concentrated. In a healthier state, he thought, it might be amusing to proceed along the claim-edge, murdering patrols where he found them. Then he thought that, in a healthier state, he wouldn’t think of things in terms of maximizing kills. In any case, he could only rely on his soldier’s protection for so long; his flesh yielded to steel and bullets like any ordinary man’s, and the Tungsten Kid would twig to that soon if he hadn’t already. Best to send the message that he wouldn’t bother anyone who didn’t bother him. It wasn’t a message the Kid was likely to hear, but it was a better survival prospect than declaring war.

Staying in that band of reduced danger, and waiting long and patiently for the streets to clear whenever he saw so much as one of the Tungsten Kid’s gang, Esker whiled away a not altogether unpleasant day picking his way to the claim on the other side of the camp. Soon he saw the ancient script for the hospital, and he dutifully found his way inside and climbed up to the roof. It was a large roof, but he checked the whole thing and double-checked the part closest to the claim-edge, and there was nothing.

At this point sleep was plucking at his sleeve again, as it did when his body was knitting itself back up. [[3646]] He left the roof and made himself find a little room several doors down a small, crooked hallway rather than falling asleep in the main corridor.

No sooner had his eyes closed than the white worm waited for him.

He dodged its lunge, then darted down the hall, taking every turn he could. After a few, he slowed down, listening. He didn’t lay eyes on it, but it felt close; he could hear the sucking of its slime-trail on the floor.

Voices outside Esker’s hiding place woke him. He refused to wait as they closed in; two slashes of the swordspear connected, leaving two of the three men in confusion, and the last one missed his shot. Esker hurtled down the hall in a wake of blood and oaths; when all opposition was out of sight, he wiped the swordspear to make sure it would not leave a trail of another man’s blood, as his wound had done of his own. He ran on, not knowing where to go or what he might do when he got there. Eventually he found a dead end at a bank of huge doors with no handles, nearly flush with the wall. One pair was wedged open, barely wide enough to let his body through. It opened on a dark, square hole—but there was a ladder running down one side, and the barest sliver of light at the bottom. He went down as far as he could go, until he reached a panel that was not quite flush with the wall—perhaps the top of a box of some kind, constructed to be almost exactly the size of the shaft. There was a panel in it. He imagined he could kick it in, or through it, and perhaps he would be on the ground floor of the hospital.

Instead, he waited there a very long time. Only when sleep threatened him again, in the quiet dark, did he move. The panel did, indeed, put him in a box, brushed metal studded with a panel of round buttons. The doors were closed, but with the swordspear as lever, he forced them open and found himself in the hospital again. There were still voices there, roving a bit near stairwells, but he had no wish to go up. He searched until he found an office with a window and none of the Tungsten Kid’s men outside; then he broke the glass and fled.

He wondered how long they would surround the hospital—how long it would be safe to look for the food drop. He wondered when he would sleep again. He wondered when his body would succumb to the poisoned air. He wondered, and he walked.

#

By the next sleep, it was a game. Within the band of reduced danger, he had put some distance between himself and the hospital, and found himself a room on the second story of a building with several identical rooms, each with a green slate board on one wall. Again, the worm waited in his dream; again it attacked, and again he evaded it. But now, as soon as he had evaded it, he did his best to wake, and managed to shake himself out of the dream on purpose.

Words 1-26-2015

theClaim-finalWPAzmera Berta, off balance at the tense interaction between the Amen-Enkhs, swiftly and awkwardly adorned Hasina with his token, a silver barrette subtly styled in the shape of a violin’s bow. That left Ozier.

The giant’s hand plunged into a pocket big enough to hide a loaf of bread, and emerged dripping, or so it appeared, with tears of bronze.

On each teardrop shape, Esker could discern a rune, one of two; hair-fine rectilinear patterns could also be seen, though likely only by a soldier’s eyes, and only from up close. Ozier brought his other hand up and the tangle of tears somehow became a chain, draped over the his hands with an aperture easily wide enough to admit her head. She did not have to tilt her head for him to adorn her, and so, after a moment to present the gift, he did.

Immediately a hum of sorts filled the tent—not a steady tone but an evolving harmony, moving apprehensively through a progression of tense chords like darting eyes. Fluid steel-grey stars the size of knucklebones sprang into being around Hasina’s head and shoulders, reflecting the soft light under the tent, moving like blowflies. As her eyes widened in comprehension, the stars lost their sharp geometry and gained colors, gold and green, and the sound slowed into a series of contemplative glissandi.

“The draugen Pity-the-sorrowing-daughters-and-wives sends his regards,” Ozier said, not shouting but nonetheless, Esker could tell, loud enough to be heard at the very rear of the tent, and made rich by glamer.

The hum grew tense again; the stars dulled in color and sharpened in shape. “Fear not, dear bride,” Ozier said, the glamer no less dense in his voice. “I would not disburse his hoard if there were any possibility that he might pursue it. Alas for him, he is permanently indisposed.”

The grey stars turned into red motes, the hum into a steady questioning chord.

“But I’ve interrupted your wedding too much already,” said Ozier. “Please, proceed with the ceremony; we can talk more at the festivities.” With that, he sketched a deep bow, accentuated with the slouch in his hand, and withdrew to his seat, where he had left the alder limb and the woman who, Esker was becoming surer by the minute, must be the Chorister.

“And glad we all are to see Ozier Amen-Enkh back among us,” said the chorister, “though he might have chosen a better venue to announce his return. Interruptions or no, though, the time has come for the final adornment and the adjournment of these happy proceedings. Esker?”

From his own pocket, Esker took a fine silver chain, then looped it around Hasina’s neck. He failed and failed to connect the tiny clasp, his hands shaking—this was an informal ritual of every Jaidari wedding he’d attended, he reminded himself, the groom’s nervous fumbling—and he could see the stars around her head and shoulders go round, pulsing gently in shades of red and yellow, while the hum began to sound like laughter. But he closed his eyes and forced his hands to move slowly, and ultimately the clasp’s hook went through its loop, and when he stepped back, Hasina was marked as his wife.

He did not hear anything else the chorister said, only held her hands in his and kept his mouth firmly bent into a smile.

#

After the ceremony, the tent quickly transformed into a space for eating and dancing, and there was much of both—though Esker sat out much of the latter, having been absent at the age when he would have learned the traditional forms. Hasina, for her part, was pleased enough to dance with all comers, and her joy could be seen in the lights around her head and shoulders and heard in the hum that surrounded her. Esker was seated before the remnants of his dinner, absorbed in watching her dance with Reshef the grocer—but not so absorbed that his soldier’s eyes failed to notice Ozier moving up behind him.

“Been a while,” he said as Ozier sat down in Hasina’s seat.

“Not so long,” said Ozier, “in the scheme.”

They were silent for a bit. “I suppose you want me to ask you a question,” said Esker. “How you heard about the wedding, what it was like to slay a draugen, why you’ve brought the Chorister with you. Something like that?”

“So you recognized her,” Ozier chuckled. “Well, I suppose that explains how you heard. She keeps an eye on Metu ever since she met you. Hasn’t come around here to leave the place nothing but corpses and burnt timber, though, has she?”

“I suppose you persuaded her to do differently.”

“I couldn’t persuade her to put her left boot on before her right, if she felt she had a reason not to. But she spared Metu for just the reason I told you. She was bluffing. I suppose she’s enough strength to do for the town, at least if she caught it without us and Inber around, but no posse poking around her territory is enough to justify the enmity unto death of the Jaidari marshals, which is what she’d get for firing Metu.”

Esker nodded. “That’s good to hear. Anything else you want to tell me?”

“Anything you want to know.”

Esker gave Ozier a cool, measured look. “Fuck that, brother. You ran away, you came back. I don’t know the why of anything you do; you haven’t given me a place to start. And I’m not disposed to be a pretext for you to tell your big damn story—if you have a big damn story to tell, you can just tell it, and we’ll decide whether we want to keep listening. So why don’t you just say what you’re trying to get me to get you to say?”

“I think you’re going to be good at marriage,” Ozier said. “You’re starting to get that ring of authority. All right, you want to know what I want to tell you? I ran with the Chorister’s gang and learned the rudiments of slinging the [[ket]] rune, which is [[lightning]], since I know you don’t know. While I did that, I started a joint-venture with the Epseris gang, and we all bundled up and raided the lair of Pity-the-sorrowing-daughters-and-wives under the ice in Ostn. In consequence of which success, I’ve got a store of eld Art that makes me fuck-you rich, a tiny fraction of which I’ve gifted your wife on the occasion of your nuptials. I figure, you’re such a damn clod with women, you need all the help you can get.” He paused a moment, weighing his next words. “Clod actually is what I’d call an understatement, only I’m trying to take this marriage of yours at face value. You really want to go with a woman?”

Esker closed his eyes and sank his head into one hand. “I don’t know, Ozier,” he said. “What does your friend Madeleine tell you?”

“Well, this is what I don’t get. She says the girls like my friend Mehur well enough—she knows exactly what happens when he comes, since they seem to run their mouth off about the whole proceedings whenever he visits. You want to know what that makes me think?”

“No,” said Esker, “only it beats guessing.”

“I think you’re trying to trick yourself into thinking women are men. I think that’s why you didn’t go to the clean girls two stops up the line—”

“Forget it, Ozier,” said Esker. “I was wrong. I wish you’d kept me guessing.”

“This is a real thing, then?” said Ozier. “You’re marrying this girl out of pure love and sex? You plan on plying your husband’s privilege, perhaps more often than you need to whelp?”

“I plan on not taking any more questions on the reality of my marriage,” said Esker. “The Eight and the whole of Metu village saw me take my wife. Three hours into the marriage, that’s all you need to know.”

#

There was more talk, and more dancing, and more wine, and at last, footsore and throatsore and more than a little unsteady on their feet, they fumbled with the key to the little house behind the sheriff’s office until it slipped in at last with a satisfying rasp. The motes around Hasina were gold and fluid, clustered in pairs and triads, every so often merging, splitting, de- and recoupling. The hum of the eld Art chain was expectant, impatient.

And then they were in the doorways. The house was small, a common room with a few chairs, a table and a stove, and a single bedroom beyond it, where both of them stumbled like pebbles rolling down a hill. It was dark, but the streetlight outside cast a dim light on the bed, scattered with wildflowers and sage, which filled the room with a sweet and earthy scent. [[5129]] He looked toward the bed, then toward her, uncertain; but she moved inside his arms, all the gracelessness of drink burned away, and her hands found the gaps in his clothing as swiftly as if she’d spotted and memorized them long before.

In the light, watching her hands flit through the forms of words, it was easy to forget the silence; in the dark, her hands otherwise occupied, it stifled him like a soaked blanket—even as more of his skin was touched by the open air, or by Hasina’s, his hands moving automatically to undress her, to communicate that all was well, to buy time. She was intent, which lent her movements the smoothness of confidence, but it was clear enough that this was not something she had done often or at all; there was a level of strangeness she would tolerate. But, inexperienced or not, she would have seen a steer and a bull, or a dog and a bitch; she would know he could not complete the act unless he were hard. And he was not. She was too small, too smooth, to be Ras, too sweet-smelling and soft-limbed to be one of Madeleine’s girls, and when she drew his head down and put her mouth awkwardly on his, his tongue reached for hers and found nothing.

She pulled her head back and looked at him with what his soldier’s eyes told him was concern. She was naked, now, but for Esker’s gift and Ozier’s; the shapes about her head were orchid-like, rose streaked with red or vice versa, the chord emanating from the chain exultant. Her moon-painted body was as perfect as only the reductions of art can be—flaws in proportion and blemishes of complexion hidden by the light and dark. As beautiful as a statue, as erotic as silent stone.

He lunged for her mouth and picked her up, grinding lips and penis against her as he bore her to the bed, hoping to kindle with velocity what he could not with contemplation, to make true lust from feigned. The stimulation made him half-erect, but the weight of her silence soon crushed even that half-response. He thought of what she might say, but he had no voice for her. She would not use the words of a Rook whore, nor the manner of speech; she could certainly not take Ras’ voice. He even tried the Chorister’s unnatural voice, but to no avail.

When she pulled away from him next, he saw that the pink-and-red orchids had turned to leaf-like shapes, green and blue. In their light, she signed. Too much to drink?

“I fear so,” Esker said.

In the morning, then, Hasina signed. Or tomorrow night. No need to exhaust ourselves now. We have our whole lives together, after all.

“Of course,” said Esker, a knot of something hard and black forming in his stomach.

#

Esker heard the thump on the door that night but paid it no mind. In the morning, though, the door was strangely heavy when he opened it. He went outside to see what had happened. Sunk into the door at about his stomach’s height was his old swordspear, runes winking at him from the blade and haft.

Words 1-23-2015

theClaim-finalWP

To quell it, he answered the easier question. “Your man Taho,” he said. “He killed her father.”

“Shame you didn’t just ask for him,” said the Tungsten Kid. “I might have thrown him in. Not sure he’s worth the food he eats, to be honest; he can’t fight much, and he wouldn’t know eld Art from a painting of his own asshole. I think I might enjoy seeing him killed by a little girl.” His face grew mournful. “Oh, Sepherene, we were nearly there. I don’t plan on ever seeing you where you’re about to go; but if I do meet you in the west, some years from now, I hope I hear that you’ve repented of letting women make you lie for them.”

The Tungsten Kid sang tem. The tent went wild with light; and, from within the light, a jet of fire reached out to cover Esker.

He had never been attacked with tem out on the high ice; the Salve Rooks used the light rune to distract and misdirect, but there were not many sorcerers among them with enough juice to blind. He felt faintly cheated that it affected him. But it did not much matter; he did not need to see. As soon as he felt the gentle warmth of his shirt falling to flinders against his skin, he took two swift steps forward to the Tungsten Kid, wrenched the staff out of his hands, and swept it up like a sword in a two-handed arc.

The Kid went down, but the light remained. Esker swung the staff down like a mallet where he thought the Kid’s head was, but he did not connect.

He felt the touch of the runic simples: fire, cold, lightning, force. The guards in red and black must have stepped in. They would cotton onto the problem soon, and then knives or guns would come out, and it would be over. He darted in the general direction of the door and smashed into a body, which toppled at the impact. Then he was out in the mid-morning light, which looked like deep dusk to his exhausted eyes, and the bullets began flying. He heard a voice roar “Kill that runner!” but his luck, it seemed, held; the gang was not as big as it seemed, spread out over the dirt park as it was, and there were lots of ways to run.

He took the chase to the same street where Mayet and her traveling companions had run out the night before—forcing himself to go slow, make sure the Kid’s gang didn’t lose him and give up on the chase. That had its risks, of course, and risk took its due; he felt a lance of fire hit his right side, staggered and fell, but he made the fall into a roll and pushed his body back up into the run before it knew to scream. When the pain hit, it hit into a stride whose rhythm had already been restored, and he could move through it.

He was approaching the claim-edge. He caught the gleam of rifles from the higher windows, a few doors down; he saw the shadows of figures with staves in the alleyways. Something sailed through the air above him, to land behind him, and he heard the air expand with a fwump and felt the heat of a furnace—no runic fire, this, his skin knew—rising behind him like a snake. He used the distraction of the flame to dodge inside what had been a restaurant of some kind, a small bare storefront and then a gnarl of machines, some evidently ovens or cabinets, some more obscure. He turned, verified that he was not pursued, and watched the proceedings through the window.

What he did not see for himself, his mind filled in. When Inber’s fire blocked the road behind, the Epseris brothers and Ozier were to have emerged ahead. They were outnumbered between two and three to one, Esker guessed, and the Tungsten Kid’s gang would surely not hesitate to attempt a punch-through—knowing, as they must, that the roadblock was a set-up; knowing, as they must, that some secret knife was about to fall from some sleeve into some waiting hand. The gang had run the numbers no slower than Esker, and bullets and simples poured forth. Teos Epseris had ush for that, though he could not hold it for long; but bolstering it was a Rook runeslinger skulking in the dusty hole just to his side, whose gaping shelves named it a library of some kind. The second note of ush must surely be lost in the cacophony, Esker surmised—though, then, his soldier’s ears could hear it, and who was to say there were not soldiers among the Tungsten kid’s gang?

Now came the reports of rifles from above, where Teos’ role became clear: He was not there to defend himself and his brothers against the attacks of the Tungsten Kid’s gang, he was a second roadblock, pinching the gang in for easier shooting. A runeslinger’s head burst into mist before Esker’s eyes; a rifleman seemed to leap from the street, glowing from within, his limbs twisting in wrong directions with bone-grinding noises. A new note of ush came from the gang, then two; Esker began to hear the spang of bullets leaping from up-directed shields. No more Tungsten men fell. “Lift us, Teos!” he heard Epaphos cry, and he saw tongues of fire and lightning join the bullets in raining on the Tungsten gang’s shields; but the two ush ’slingers were strong, or well-coordinated, or whatever it was that made an ush rune fail to give, and all the Tungsten men stood. Esker could not feel the fire begin to die behind them, but he could see their eyes cast back and knew the roadblock could not last long.

In the moment, he must certainly have picked Ruth’s voice out of the roar of chaos, but in his memory, later, it would hang in perfect isolation, like a single raindrop suspended on a spider’s web.

“We’re done here,” she called, just barely audible even to his soldier’s ears. “Finish the killers and get out.”

Three shots barked out from above. One spanged from a shield of force, but not over the Tungsten gang—rather, behind the claim-edge, behind the ush shield maintained by Teos and the Rook. One was followed by a roar of pain. One made a spock in flesh, and that was all. Two men howled in deep ragged voices, and there was a great soft heavy noise like the dropping of a mattress.

The Tungsten gang’s eyes swung forward, and a hail of lead and a hungry cloud of fire and frost boiled toward Ozier and the Epseris. The gang charged forward as one, no longer harried by fire from above, and disappeared from Esker’s view.

The silence in the street was unreal. He made himself leave hiding, made himself walk out into it and look. The battle had been taken elsewhere; he could see the flashes, hear the screams and impacts, from a nearby street. He looked at the bodies of Tungsten men, each deformed in unsound ways that tortured the eye; and at the body of Sethos Epseris. He lay face down, the crown of his head facing Esker, showing him the wound. He knew he should follow Ozier and the living Epseris, bring reinforcements from the rear, but he examined Sethos instead. The bullet had entered the crown of his head from directly above; it had exited the base of his skull. Esker could see it buried in the ground right near the body. The shot had come from above.

The flashes and noise had dissipated. Esker looked over toward where they had come from, calculating, estimating. He swallowed what felt like a mouse. Then he turned his back on the red-red-yellow-achrom line, the border of two territories of his existence, and walked deeper into the claim.

CHAPTER 6

Small villages on the salt are not known for their grandiose displays of fellow-feeling; but it had been a hard year, made no easier by the loss of Ras Melaku, and perhaps there was something about the couple that aroused the villagers’ affections—for, though they were physically rather mismatched, the gangling, darker-skinned Esker an almost ogreish presence next to the compact Hasina, they shared a certain elusive quality, an inscrutability, that lent a certain rightness to the union.

With the engagement came certain freedoms. Mme Twilight was much more indulgent of Esker’s presence near her boarding house, though curfew was applied no less strictly, only more courteously. They could touch one another in public, though they rarely did—nor in private either; to Esker, it seemed like tempting fate. And there were positive privileges as well, at least for Esker. [[144]] Sheriff Poorem had long since become a familiar shadow on the Sepherene house’s doorstep, half welcomed and half dreaded—for neither Qeb nor Iseret had quite reconciled their sedate, steady lives to the wild swings of leisure and deadly work that formed the rhythm of Esker’s days. In respect for them, Poorem had begun relating to Esker any information he heard from passersby, whether they be the odd Jaidari marshal, new migrants headed to the Amen-Enkh plantation, or passengers bearing business from the Heru City line; it wasn’t a perfect system, but it gave them a few days’ warning of a coming manhunt more often than not. Which meant that Sheriff Poorem’s unforeshadowed presence at breakfast still came as something of a surprise, and not a wholly welcome one.

“Sheriff,” said Qeb, motioning to the table as he always did. “There’s food and coffee if you’d care for it. What ill plagues the salt this day?”

Qeb always offered food and drink to Poorem, and Poorem always declined, but that day he sat. “I’ll take coffee, Sra. Sepherene, and thank you,” he said to Iseret. “I’m delinquent in congratulating you on your good news, Señor. I can’t say I know the girl in question, but she’s a beauty, and I’m confident in your son’s good judgment.”

“Iseret and I are both overjoyed to welcome Hasina to our family,” said Qeb, “and we appreciate the sentiment.” Iseret set a steaming mug of coffee before the sheriff. “Is there something else we can do for you?”

“Well, I’m here for Esker, as usual,” said the sheriff. “Though not as usual, I suppose. Son, you’re aware that the need for law has grown a bit since you grew up here, are you not?”

“I am,” said Esker.

“Young men are wandrous things, you know, especially them as’ve seen the world. And Metu village ain’t—I mean, you’ve seen more of Jaidar in the Rook ruins out on the ice than you see in Metu. I know that. That’s why your friend Ozier can’t keep still, or so I reckon. But a man takes a wife, that says something to me. That speaks of a solidity, a loyalty. I ain’t trying to be cryptic, son, I just want you to understand what I’m about to say. All right?”

“I think so,” said Esker, “but I’ll tell you when it’s said.”

“A lot of law, we need out on the salt these years. I know it, you know it, and the territory authority knows it. And everyone’s getting fed up with these requisitions for posses. We need a few good police up and down the line, that we can rely on whenever we call them. I’ve spoken to the territory authority about it, and they tell me: Look, these kids—their word, son, not mine—these kids who come back from the ice, they’re beautiful fighters, but they ain’t had time to get right with their own history, and they can’t be relied on until they do. You’ve seen that yourself. Too many of the men we bring back are your colleagues gone sour, I know you know it better than me.”

Esker nodded.

“But the authority also says: If you can show us a man is solid, we’ll pay him and thank you for it. Because, like I say, we need police we can rely on when we call them.” He took a sip of his coffee, then a breath. “So what I’m saying, son, is that if you’re as solid as I think you are, there’s a salary and a house waiting for you as my deputy.”

It was hardly a surprise, after the rambling lead-up, but when the ask came, Esker felt his parents’ emotions double in intensity. Qeb fairly crackled with relief and pride, it seemed; but Iseret, who had been tense as though she’d been waiting for an ambush she knew was coming, now nearly slumped, as though she’d been hit in the heart.

“It ain’t the safest work,” said the sheriff, “nor does it pay the best, but the pay comes regular and a man with your advantages is safer than most. And, well, it’s conceivable that I won’t wear the star forever. In which case, I’d be pleased to turn it over to an experienced and trusted colleague.”

There was, of course, no hope of turning it down; nor did he. I will talk to Ma about it when the wedding is done, he told himself. When everyone has had a chance to settle down into the new way of things.

#

The salary began before the wedding, but the duties did not; Poorem excused Esker from the one posse that went to ferret out a pair of horse-thieves hiding in the strip mine. Esker nearly insisted, but on hearing of the strip mine, thought against it; the prospect of antagonizing the Chorister’s gang once more, nearly married, was too worrying for him to countenance—though he allowed, in his head, that he would have to confront the problem at some point, and likely on the sooner side.

He had not thought on the Chorister for some time, and it seemed strange that he had not; for she seemed like a formidable presence, the likes of which would draw the baleful attentions of the territory authority. Perhaps she was behind some of the crime he’d seen and pursued, but managed to conceal her association? Or perhaps she simply chose her victims well, erasing them completely from the salt. Or—and, he allowed, it might be the most likely—perhaps she was simply a woman with a solitary friend and a strange voice, roaming the salt and the mine for her own purposes, without any mind for marauding at all.

Preparations for the wedding mounted. Qeb put a hand to his specialty, writing verses of the Music on banners and streamers and flags; Iseret, for her part, marshaled the powers of the wives of Metu, and the Sepherene kitchen was intermittently overwhelmed by cooks and cooking, all of which then disappeared, only to return a day or two later. [[1167]] Kem and Inber were not much seen, each begging off drinks evening after evening. Esker assumed Kem was at work on some bit of oratory, and Inber on some project knowable only to Inber’s particular, involuted mind.

He and Hasina did not talk as much as they once had. They were busy, of course, and that busyness demanded both their individual and collective attention, but more and more, the time they spent together passed in a kind of bright, calm silence. At first, he broke it often, wondering what had made her smile, or simply making some comment to show he was interested in talking; but the interruptions never seemed quite as welcome as he hoped, and she smiled more when he let the silence rest.

Esker visited Akmem only once, to see the tailor.

#

The wedding moved from milestone to milestone slow and stately as a waltz. The night before, the men of the village came to the Sepherene house and played the festival songs, and Kem shaved Esker’s face, the closest their lips had come since they were very young. Up so close, there was no mistaking the pain on Kem’s face, but he could not ask about it—not in the roistering crowd. The festivities in Mme Twilight’s lasted much later; Iseret did not return until nearly dawn.

In the morning were the legalities. Qeb, Iseret, Esker, Hasina, and her paternal grandmother met, each with their lawyers, to finalize the contract between families (drawn up, in this case, by one of Kem’s hated competitors in Marsamat, due to a conflict of interest). Although Qeb and Esker understood women’s speech, Hasina had asked them to allow the lawyers to translate in any case, to which they (somewhat in puzzlement) assented. Hasina’s grandmother was austerely magnificent, a slim, wrinkled matron with white hair bright against the blackest skin Esker had ever seen, dressed in an iron-grey dress with hoopskirt and corset threaded through with bone, and a flat-brimmed hat and parasol to match. She made a point (through the lawyers) of emphasizing the equal division of assets in case of divorce where Esker was at fault, and the full transfer of assets in case of his death, throwing steely gazes about like darts—but Esker could see the shame and apprehension in her face. Hasina had told her that her own checkered lineage remained a secret; her mother had died in childbirth, her father had fled the responsibility. Qeb and Iseret knew the truth, but Hasina had worried about what her grandmother would think of them, if she knew they knew. What desperation must they labor under? she had said, her hands moving with the exaggerated rhythm of quotation. What secrets must they be hiding? Esker looked at Hasina’s grandmother and tried to seem reassuring, kind—but he did not know how.

After the contracts, Esker and Hasina came to visit the climate sorcerer to determine her allocation. Old Psammis Harkhem greeted them gravely in the runehouse—he rarely left it, these days, and it was widely put about that he would retire within a year, leaving the weather-tending to a younger and more vital soul. He offered them cold tea and dry crackers, then took Hasina’s pulse and temperature, calculated ratios of the lengths of various body parts, and collected a drop of her blood, which he dropped in a liquid where it turned into two plumes, a rising yellow one and a sinking blue one. To their surprise, he repeated this last measurement with Esker. When he asked why, he gave them a piercing look.

“We adjust your allocation because children tax the ka,” he said. “The child is a mix of mother and father, and draws ka according to a combination of their dispositions.”

With that, he turned back to the two paired plumes, muttering to himself, consulting tables, and marking dates off on a calendar. “Your ba is greedy,” he said to Esker. “I use softer words for most men, but you’ve served and you’re the law, and I know you want it straight. Your ba is greedy and hers is thirsty, and together that means the child will draw off a stiff tax. I’ve reduced her allocation in proportion, but you understand what that means—it will build up in her quickly, son. Fog the mind, then poison the blood. Wait two weeks; after that, you want to get a child on her in three months. I’ve marked a few days where your ba or hers will be at a low ebb; conceive then if you can.” He waved the calendar at Esker. “If nothing happens in three months, send her to me and we’ll drain off the excess. When you’re done having children, send her one more time and we’ll adjust her allocation back up.”

With that, he turned away. When they lingered, unsure as to what came next, he turned around, mock-irritable, and said “What are you waiting for? Go marry her.”

#

The ceremony itself was nothing out of the ordinary, save that the town gathered in their best clothes under a great tent in the square rather than in the shrine, and that Hasina’s grandmother and a few of Qeb and Iseret’s relatives were in attendance. Four cousins and five game children played out the Overture, [[2087]] which Kem narrated to the young woman next to him, not nearly as quietly as he thought (or represented that he thought):

“That one scattering the dirt behind him is Tem—he’s just decided to bestir himself from the mound that he was sitting on and create himself some company. See how he spits through the hollow of his hand—that gesture is symbolic—it looks like he’s gripping a stick or a rod, right? That’s evocative of the adult version of the story, creation as self-gratification… From that little outburst we get Shu and Tefenet, air and moisture… and there they are, the boy in white and the girl in blue…. Now, gods are always allowed to bed their sisters, so they have a little hug, and here comes Gebeb, the earth, the boy with snakes wound around his arms, and Newet, the sky, the girl in black with a pot on her head… they have a longer hug… do you know, I once asked the chorister how it was that, if Gebeb and Newet were copulating, she was above him? They don’t teach you about the female superior position at that age… or ever, I suppose. Ha, watch them spin! They almost fell! Finally Shu pulls them apart, and all that vigorous action begets Usir, in green; Set, the one with the fake head that looks like a donkey with a stork’s beak; Iset, with the throne on her head; and Nebthet, with the house and basket. They won’t get into the bit about Set chopping up Usir and feeding his member to the catfish today, I think…”

That done, the homily began, with the usual warmed-over hermeneutics of the Overture—“From air, which we may think of as speech, a world can be created… but not from air alone, for that speech must have a, er, moist… substance… in which to ferment and grow. And the world created thereby, well, one must—or, rather, the couple must, the union must—must take care to keep its parts well, er, organized… that is, to make space for new life, the couple cannot spend every moment cleaved—cloven—to one another, but rather find a balance between closeness and, er… distance.” [[2432]]

It was no font of inspiration, to be sure, but Esker remained focused on the chorister all the same—wherefore, until a coming sneeze caused him to cast his eyes down and to the side, he missed the entrance of Ozier Amen-Enkh.

If not for Ozier’s size, Esker’s eyes would have passed right over him, soldier’s sharpness or no; the giant was dressed caballero fashion, with a wide-brimmed slouch in one hand and a half-worked alder limb leaning on the opposite shoulder. He saw Esker see him, and a great red-and-white grin split his huge, ugly face. By instinct, Esker scanned the crowd for Ozier’s parents—but his mother was not there, and Amam Amen-Enkh was on the other side of the tent, several rows in front of Ozier, uncognizant of his son’s return.

“Without silence,” said the chorister, “there can be no sound; a chord of all notes is not harmony but cacophony. Family and friends, neighbors and strangers, we have assembled here to join sound and silence according to the principles that govern the music of the spheres, that these souls may take a proper place in the brickwork of the heavens. Their families and their church have agreed that their union respects these principles. Is there anyone here who would gainsay them?”

By tradition, the chorister here allowed a long hush, even an uncomfortable one. It was done differently in the Tintamarre, Esker had heard; the window for dissent was short, with approval assumed, rather than tested. But weddings in the Tacet let the silence stretch until even the closest friends of the couple were tempted to voice even the smallest misgivings, simply as something to hear.

After perhaps a minute, some kind of sound began to scratch at Esker’s ears. Neither Hasina nor the chorister seemed to notice. Esker’s eyes moved immediately to Ozier. Now the sound was louder, some kind of metronomic syllable whose contours suggested a voice, but not a human one—inhumanly pure, smooth, uniform. Ozier’s eyes were fixed on Esker, but he saw the giant’s arm move to jostle the woman by his side—a woman of medium height and unremarkable build, perhaps even on the generous side for a woman of the salt; short-haired, broad-nosed and plain of feature. But her hands were scratched, grooved and hard, Esker saw, and although her worn dress was nearly as modest as Ozier’s gear, her neck was adorned with a silver-etched crystal on a tin mount, tied to a plain leather thong. Ozier jostled her once more, and the sound mounted with the contact, until all gathered noticed it: ha ha ha, like clockwork. And just as the crowd began to rustle and mumble and the chorister began to gird his loins to reprimand the still anonymous, still unseen speaker, the voice rose again, filling the tent with words made stinging by its purity:

Every voiceless throat in this tent could gainsay them and you wouldn’t hear a whisper!

The silence thereafter was absolute.

Into it, the chorister cleared his throat, shrugging on an aspect of command that seemed well-fitted but little-worn. “An interesting point in the abstract, but is it an actual objection?”

Esker could feel every pair of shoulders in the tent brace for the impact. Ozier’s hand was resting heavily on the shoulder of the woman standing next to him.

In control again, the chorister let the silence stretch.

Esker saw Hasina look up at him. She gave him a small smile; he returned it, although the expression felt tight, constricted.

The silence continued, and the urge to speak grew deeper. I’m not interested in women, it said.

“But you’ll take Rooks,” he replied to himself, silently.

I’m not interested in Jaidari women.

“You almost split your pants when the Chorister cold-cocked you.”

She’s an outlaw. She’s not really a Jaidari woman.

“Stop it,” he said. “What you mean is that you’re not interested in women who can’t speak. But you can’t say that, because everything you have depends on being interested in women who can’t speak. That’s why you’re here, and it’s why you’re not going to ruin it at the last second with some lie about how you don’t like women.”

But everyone would believe it. Even she would. Why else would she have said that about not passing being “a boon you can return—”

“I thought as much,” the chorister said with a benevolent smile. “Then we haven’t much longer to go. And now, the happy question: Before this man adorns this woman with the mark of their joining, is there anyone else who wishes to witness their union with a token?”

[[X]] stood. Qeb, Iseret, and Hasina’s grandmother would give the traditional tokens from the parents of the married man and woman, a gold bangle for the right wrist and a silver for the left; Esker had anticipated this. A couple of distant cousins had also told him they would present tokens—a pair of turquoise earrings; a broken piece of eld Art, silver wire over green metal, mounted on a chain—and they stood too, deferring to the parents. Amam Amen-Enkh stood too, as he did at every wedding in Metu, to offer an enameled black-and-silver brooch to the bride; this had not been rehearsed, as the family’s offers had, but it was expected nonetheless. Azmera Berta stood, and Esker could tell from Hasina’s sharp breath that she had not expected him to to do so.

Only when the queue was formed and settled did Ozier move to join it.

Hasina looked up at Esker, worry in her eyes. Esker shrugged, not knowing what else he could do.

Qeb and Iseret placed the gold bangle on Hasina’s right wrist, her grandmother the silver on her left. She had left her ears bare for the earrings, bowed her head for the Art pendant, and looked up at Amam Amen-Enkh with an expression that was clearly, Esker saw with a slight sinking of his gut, one of amusement. “As thanks for all that the wives of Metu do for the House of Amen-Enkh,” he said as he always did, placing a hand on Hasina’s arm—and, though Esker had always caught the faintest splash of the man’s charisma at the other weddings he had attended, it was another thing again to be caught in its path, even for a glancing hit. He could see Amam Amen-Enkh’s hand tighten around Hasina’s bicep, just enough to keep her from taking a reeling step back. He gave Esker a nod, then gave both of them a smug smile, then turned to see his hulking son behind him.

Their eyes met instantly, and Esker could nearly feel their glamers clash.

Words 1-14-2015

theClaim-finalWP

They drew up, at last, to the edge of the mine, a few hundred feet from one of the wide earth ramps that had admitted the great stone-wains to and from the depths. Hasina sat and dangled her feet from the edge, kicking her legs out once. Esker hesitated a moment. Hasina looked back with a raised eyebrow; Esker sat and joined her.

“The recruiters for the Tenoc campaign spent most of their time in the cities,” said Esker, “and then on the big farms down [[south]] in the Tintamarre, where there were hands to spare. We didn’t expect to see them in Metu, only then we heard news from Sage Rock, and we did. It was the five of us who were of age and not married, so it wasn’t any surprise, what was going to happen; the only question was when.

“They started here, of course. They started at the end of the line and worked their way back to the city, so they wouldn’t have to take the recruits from farther up the line down and back. So one day they came just like Ozier and Inber and I—”

He saw Hasina’s fingers flicker, but didn’t catch their sense. He turned to her with the question in his eyes and, before he could ask it, she said Tune.

“Not you too,” he said.

It’s what he wants to be called.

“Like Ozier and Tune and I came, then, with the lemons and the grain. No special stair, though, and no ceremony. But they had a list of names, and an order to hold the train in the yard and depart at dawn.

“We’d all said we’d go to the mine that night, if we could, for a last look before we left for the high ice. But Ozier’s family didn’t think much of his associations, and they kept him; and Inber’s family had prayers and ceremonies that he said he was going to skip out on, but he didn’t. And R—” He nearly choked again. “Ras and I,” he forced himself to say, “we didn’t know any of that, though I don’t say we would have done anything different if we did. And we went a bit early, by a different ramp, and found a cave with a little offshoot that only we knew, and we stayed there a while. The plan was always to join a bit late, and we did. But Kem had been there for hours. Alone.

“And he was—I’m sorry, Hasina, I’m telling it all out of order. I forget what you don’t know. He was terrified. You know him enough to know—he’s got a quick mind and it’s going all the damn time, and he knew enough to be scared of Rooks and runes and ice and war when the rest of us…” He shrugged. “I don’t say we thought it was an adventure, but perhaps I don’t say we didn’t. He was scared, and his mind was going, and he was out on the salt on what he thought was the last night of his life, and his friends had said they’d be there and they weren’t.

“He was the sure-footedest thing you ever saw, Hasina, wet or dry, night or day. He’d have died eighteen times over if he weren’t. But Ras and I found him right down there—” He pointed to the rocks below, colored pastel like the clouds at sunset in the rising light. “—bled white, with that game leg snapped and hanging like a loose tooth.

“There are still remnant carts and wheelbarrows down there from the mining days—all sizes, a few nearly whole, and we knew where they all were. I think that saved him. We loaded him in one—probably ruined the leg doing that—then I pushed him up this ramp—” He indicated it. “—and Ras ran his lungs out back to town. I was maybe a quarter of the way back when Pa and Reshef and Shemet Kotu and the Menkaras met me with Reshef’s floatwagon. It was all out of my hands after that.” He shook his head and let a long breath out. “Ras, Ozier, Inber and I all left in the morning, no sleep. All we knew was that Kem was breathing well, and that we’d been told—we weren’t allowed to see. The next any of us saw him was the first time we saw you, at our discharge.” He chuckled and turned to Hasina. “Is it all right if I admit I didn’t notice you in the crowd?”

I wasn’t there, said Hasina. I lost a brother, a suitor, and two cousins in Tenoc. Before the flood, all of them.

“A suitor,” said Esker.

Hasina locked his eyes with hers. Are you sorry for my loss? she said.

Esker made himself not look away. “That’s a complicated question,” he said.

Well, she said, with a small, satisfied smile. That’s progress.

“It is at that,” Esker said, wondering.

They sat a long time, unspeaking, feeling the sun grow harsh and heavy on their skin. We can’t stay out here much longer, Hasina said. And I leave to visit my grandmother on the noon train.

“Well,” said Esker. “I do thank you for accompanying me. Where are you traveling?”

This mine was dug by the Dahshur Venture Corporation, said Hasina, spitting the words hard enough to crack her knuckles. I understand why you don’t know. Ask me why I do.

Esker blinked. “Why do you?”

Hasina looked down into the mine. The Dahshur Venture Corporation and its business partners are the ones who pushed the Rooks of the Heru flats back to Keissi Souktown, she said. That’s probably before your grandparents were born. I say “pushed”—you’re a soldier, you know what it is to push an enemy. Especially one who’s lived for millennia on the position you’re trying to take. Things happen that you’d rather not think about. Especially to women. My great-grandmother was one. She got out with her life, had my grandfather in Keissi Souktown at fifteen. He grew up with a bad grudge against Jaidari and got his own back, or so he felt, against a settler girl. That was my grandmother. My mother could pass, and she passed all the way through her wedding with my father, who was new in town. He learned the history a bit after I was born. That was the end of my mother. Her gaze returned to Esker. I can pass, too. And mostly I do. But not with you, not any more. Is that a boon you can return, Esker Sepherene? If it is, I’d have it from you. Today and tomorrow, and the rest of the tomorrows.

Esker gripped the edge of the mine with his palms, feeling the salt grit and the precipice’s ragged edge dig into his fingers, and looked down.

Hasina cleared her throat to summon his eyes; after a long moment, he turned. Another complicated question, she said. Why?

“I feel as though I might fly free of this cliff-edge,” said Esker, “and as though then, a few feet out, my flight might cease.”

Have I misread your hopes, then? Hasina asked. If that is what it is, you need only say it. It will not be the first time I have been wrong about a man’s mind—or a woman’s.

“Your reading was not groundless, of course,” said Esker. “The opposite. And your revelation puts no dint on my heart. But I had hoped—” He closed his eyes and bent his head back, stretching out his spine; the sun beat on his eyelids. “Nothing that redounds to my good character. I had hoped to take some weeks or months more in the childish comfort of affection without obligation. To improve my own position in the world, perhaps, to make the obligation more easily accepted.” He opened his eyes and turned his body full to her, one leg still hanging off the cliff, one curled up on the flat ground under him. “I am done mourning the deaths of those hopes. If you have not yet come to regret your offer—and if you have, you may withdraw it—then I accept.”

She turned her body to face him as he had her; her face was grave but gently joyous. In that case, she said, will you join me on a noon train?

CHAPTER 5

Esker took up his swordspear and burst out of the columned building, heedless of any Tungsten Kid. Mayet had not gone far; his soldier’s eyes caught her running across what perhaps had once been a green around the building, toward the streets where the ciudores had run across the Kid’s claim-edge, dragging Ozier’s staff across the ground in one hand.

She disappeared into the ruined buildings as he watched, but he had her position and he covered the ground as lightly as a deer. By the time she noticed his pursuit, he was too close for her to outrun. Her face was ragged with rage and exhaustion; she turned to throw the staff at him, but her grip slipped from sweat and all she did was tip it over so it fell in his direction. He seized it in the same hand as his shortspear, catching hold of her collar with the other. He lifted her and hauled her into the shadow of a ruined storefront as easily as he might move a kitten. He released her gently; when she tried to dodge around him for the door, he blocked her with the haft of his swordspear, then seized her collar again and pulled her slowly but surely back in.

“What on earth do you expect to do with this?” he asked, waving Ozier’s staff. “You can’t sing.”

I gave a fair shake at talking to you, Sr. Sepherene, said the girl, but you and your comrades seem to prefer squabbling to action.

“That’s fair enough,” said Esker. “I’ll cop to that. If I sit, will you sit? And not run?”

Mayet looked up at him a long stretch, then took three steps back and dropped to the floor. Esker did the same, laying the staff and swordspear across his lap.

“Please,” said Esker. “Explain to me the use you thought to find in stealing that staff. Perhaps we can find another way.”

It took her a few moments to compose an answer. It’s a powerful object, she said at last. I can find some use for it, even if I can’t sing.

“It ain’t,” Esker said gently, “but in the hands of Ozier Amen-Enkh. My large friend. As he let me understand it, the staff ain’t any use until it’s shaped to fit with a man’s—some kind of field, he said, I forget the word. The staff, the man, and the rune all interact in very particular ways. Even someone else who knows the same rune can’t use it with the wrong staff.”

A sign of my good faith, then, said Mayet. I’ve just taken Ozier’s power away from him. The enemy of your enemy is your friend, is she not?

“Well, now that you know how a runeslinger’s staff works, you can try that angle if you like,” said Esker. “But—I don’t know the Tungsten Kid any better than I know you, but I don’t imagine he cares to feed friends who ain’t of immediate use. The vieja’s a barren place, and food’s dear in Souktown. I’m not sure how that’s going to get you what you want.”

How do you know what I want? Mayet said. It was all you could do to let me talk of making common cause before you and your green-eyed friend got to locking horns.

“I’ve thought on this long,” said Esker, “and I don’t hold you responsible for it up to now, of course; but I don’t believe I wish to hear any Epseris named my friend.”

In answer to your question, the girl said with some asperity, my father’s killer runs with the Tungsten Kid. His name is Taho Cheneres, and I aim to see him dead. He killed my father for a pittance to cover his gambling losses, then fled into Abedju to escape the authorities in Qarna. I haven’t anything against the Kid himself—not, you understand, that I hold with lawbreakers, but one must pick one’s battles.

“Mayet,” said Esker, “I’m powerfully sorry for your loss. My father yet lives, and for all I’m caught in this hell of a ruin I can’t imagine leaving it to find him dead—nor do I surmise I could rest knowing his murderer yet breathed. But it ain’t a way into common cause with us. I need Tungsten off my claim. Maybe I could see my way clear to killing his gang root and branch, but those three men who came after you and your companions had Epaphos Epseris on the run. Epaphos is a man whose deficits are legion, but if nothing else, he and his have the spine for fighting. I take his demurral seriously.”

Your Epaphos is smarter than Henpecked Rammes Kesi and the Bull of Law, said Mayet. They imagined that a frontal assault would serve. The Bull was a Jaidari marshal and prided himself on the long-range shot, and Kesi thought himself a fine handler of ush—not without justice, I admit. Esker contained a laugh at the girl’s fine serious diction. He could almost forget that she had lost a father, then used that very diction to coerce a Jaidari marshal and a runeslinger into going to their deaths for her revenge. The plan was for Kesi to draw their fire while the Bull picked them off, starting with the Tungsten Kid. But the Kid’s body-men protected him from the long shot, and it didn’t take long for Kesi’s shield to buckle. Her face grew somber. As soon as I saw him run for us, I made the Bull get out of the building. I thought Kesi would lead them to us. Perhaps I saved myself, but perhaps I killed the Bull. The thought still haunts me.

“Still?” said Esker. “They’re not a day dead, little one; best brace for the long haul.”

Mayet did not say it with her hands, but her glare said Fuck your “little one” more clearly than words could. I had a better plan, she said, but men are fond of guns and runes. Will you hear it?

“Srta. el-Ras, I will hear any plan better than my own—which is to say, any at all.”

Esker thought he caught a shadow flickering in the edges of his vision. He turned to look, but he found nothing. There was a brief rhythmic whispering, or so he thought, like walking or breathing—but it was subtle, even to his soldier’s ears. Perhaps it was nothing. He turned back to Mayet. Is everything all right? she asked.

I thought I heard something, he said, switching to handtalk. This ruin is full of foul things and quiet hunters.

Really? said Mayet. It seemed empty of anything but greedy men to me.

Another flicker caught at his vision; he jerked around again, his swordspear now firmly in his grip.  “Stay here,” he said, and crept out the door, as quietly as he could.

There was nothing in the street, nor in the buildings across it—but he sensed a presence, warm and breathing, as solid as his own bones. He tilted his head up.

A gleaming white worm dangled from the frame of the awning, its face that of Boss John Dream, its mouth full of fangs.

He hurled a hoarse cry from his throat and threw himself flat to the ground, swordspear thrust out vertically to spit the creature if it dropped, his skin practically screaming at the thought of that slime-filmed mass contacting it again.

But there was no worm—only a Rook in leather and black feathers, a rifle raised but pointed elsewhere, crouched on the awning frame as though it were as wide and solid as the earth. “Hello, stranger,” she said. “What’s this about a plan?”

#

“Mayet,” Esker said, “this is Ruth of the Creditor Rooks. I met her on a bridge. Ruth, this is Mayet el-Ras [[of Hawara village in Qarna prefecture]]. I met her on the run from the Tungsten Kid.”

“Is she one of your cut women?” asked Ruth.

Esker recoiled in disgust. “Not even the Chanters do that any more.”

“Then she can speak?”

Esker blinked. “I’m sorry. I didn’t understand. Yes, she is Hushed. She understands us, but she can’t speak but with her hands.”

“You’ll translate, then.”

“You don’t—?” Esker shook his head. “Of course you don’t. Why would you?”

“Oh, I do,” said Ruth. “Speaking without the voice is useful when one wishes to talk without being heard. But we have our own fingerspeech, and I have never found a cut woman with much of interest to say.”

“And Joser hearkened back to the lessons of Pitakh and listened for the counsel of the gods; but, not comprehending it, he took no heed.”

“Well, now you’ve found one who’ll quote the Music at a Rook, much good may it do her,” said Esker. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”

“I heard about the Tungsten Kid jumping your claim.”

“You live in the damned city, and your master circles it for prey of a night,” said Esker. “I’d have thought it was common knowledge already.”

“I don’t live in this ruin,” said Ruth. “I live in Souktown and the outlying salt, and I don’t make demands of draugen. What’s your cut woman here got for a plan?”

If I hear the words “your” or “cut” one more time, I shall have to terminate this progressively more unpleasant association. Mayet spoke with her hands directed at Esker, but her gaze was squarely on Ruth. Esker translated.

“All right,” said Ruth, looking at Mayet. “Fair’s fair. Now talk.”

Instead of attacking the Tungsten Kid’s gang, said Mayet, with Esker translating as she spoke, we sell me to him. Or rather, offer me as a gift. In exchange for your lives, for privileges in the claim, whatever you like. Cheneres will want me—I saw the way he looked at me when he worked for my father. I’ll take my own chance to kill him.

“Two things wrong with that,” said Ruth. “First, they’re going to tie you up like an animal, and if you think they’re ever going to let you go, let me be the first to break the bad news. These men are accustomed to fucking friends, horses, and corpses.” Mayet winced a fraction at the oath. “They don’t want to pretend you’re in love with them, and a little bit of rope on your wrists and ankles isn’t going to spoil their fun—the opposite, most likely. Second, even if it goes according to plan, it doesn’t get us what we want, and we’re all risking getting gunned down in the transaction.”

“Third,” said Esker, “you’re rather unlikely to come out of it alive.”

“I figured that was her affair,” said Ruth. “But it’s true,” she said to Mayet, “if you care.”

Well, Mayet said irritably, what else do you propose? I’ll be pleased enough to help shoot them all down, if someone will lend me a weapon. Perhaps the Creditor Rooks can spare a pistol, if they cannot spare their time?

“What do you mean,” said Ruth, “can’t spare our time?”

The tribe of you live in Souktown, do you not? And a draugen to boot. You can’t mean to suggest that the Tungsten Kid could win against you bullet for bullet.

“There’s sparing our time, and sparing our blood, and then there’s sparing our stomachs,” said Ruth. “You know the difference between the first two, and don’t try to shame me for admitting it. As to the latter—we could beat the Tungsten Kid,” she said. “Esker gets what he wants, which is what we want, but we have to live with the consequences. Someone’s going to survive that fight. Maybe it’s the Kid, maybe it’s the cook, but someone will. And then the Creditor Rooks get a reputation for killing claim-workers. Claim-workers dry up; Souktown dries up; the Creditor Rooks have to start hunting rats in the desert and finding eld Art on our own instead of recruiting you foreigners to do it.”

You’re the ones who want Esker to have the claim, said Mayet. Everything has a price. In any case, I hardly think your correction of a claim-jump would erode your reputation. Surely would-be claim-workers with less wherewithal to defend themselves would appreciate your effort.

“Maybe. But we don’t need Esker to have this claim as much as we need everyone else to have their own claim. You’re talking about putting our necks on the chopping block and trusting the axe not to fall. I won’t do it.”

“Then what will you do?” said Esker. “What is this claim worth to you?”

“Anything we can do from the shadows,” said Ruth. “Anything that we can deny, I’ll do.”

Silence reigned for long minutes in the deserted boutique. At last Mayet looked to Esker and flickered her fingers.

“What did she say?” asked Ruth.

Esker looked searchingly at Mayet. “She said ‘I know.’”

#

Esker approached the claim-edge—red, red, yellow, achrom, the no-color color of the achrom nagging at his eyes. He was unarmed, his hands spread wide. It didn’t take long for two men to materialize out of the dawn shadows, one holding a rifle longer than he’d ever seen, the other with a staff with a rune he recognized as shai. “Who goes?”

“The holder of the claim-deed,” said Esker. “I’m unarmed.”

“Got it on you?”

Esker laughed. “No. Can I talk to the Tungsten Kid?”

The two men looked at one another. “Busy man. You waste his time, he won’t appreciate it.”

“Sure he will. He’s the kind of man likes having someone to torture to death, isn’t he? And no better excuse than the wasting of time.”

“All right,” said the man with the shai staff. “But you won’t appreciate it.”

“If it comes to that, I’ll do my best. May I see him?”

“If we went to Claims, and we asked them who’s got the deed, they’d say you?”

“They might say Ras Melaku,” said Esker, “who bequeathed it me not long ago. Otherwise, it’d be me.”

“Ah,” said the man with the staff. “So you didn’t update the entry at Claims? Why is that?”

“I’ll tell your master, if he asks me.”

Soon enough, each of them had Esker by the elbow.

They walked him through a series of buildings more eclectic than those he’d seen previously, save for the huge towers to the north. There was a rhombus frame full of broken glass panes, which must have gleamed like a jewel in the sun when it was whole; a red brick building that played at being a fortress, with towers and crenellations plainly without function; a concrete slab with no other distinguishing features. The Tungsten Kid’s gang was camped out in a bare dirt park, much like the one around the columned building that Esker and the ciudores had gone to ground in. The Kid’s pavilion could be seen a mile off—it was bright yellow with orange trim, not unlike his slouch, and the two ’slingers in black and red stood outside. They didn’t bat an eye at Esker when his escorts said “Here to see the Kid,” though one of them followed his eyes closely with his own, which glowed like embers even in the breaking day.

The Kid was crouched before a small, light desk, studying a book. His slouch was off, but he wore the same bright colors as he had the day before; a standing sconce illuminated the room with flameless light. He looked up as the three men entered. “What’s this thing?”

“Came to us,” said the man with the shai staff. “Wanted to see you. Says he holds the claim-deed.”

“Didn’t give him the chance to run first?”

“Did. Apprised him of the risks. He wants to see you anyway.”

The Kid shrugged. “His funeral. Sit,” he said to Esker. “Binra, Taho—you can go. If I need you to bury this sonofabitch alive or something, I’ll let you know.”

Esker sat. The Tungsten Kid examined him. “All right, talk,” he said.

“I own the claim you’re squatting on,” said Esker.

“Not from where I’m standing,” said the Kid. “That all?”

“No,” said Esker. “I don’t want it. I’m willing to let you have it. But I need one thing.”

“I repeat, son,” said the Kid, “I have it. I’m working it now. If you come after it, I’ll kill you. If you sic the Claims Administration on me, I’ll kill them and then you. If you try to sic John Dream on me, he’ll kill you. These are the three basic paradigms you can apply to any attempts to exercise your so-called rights. Here, let’s practice. Try to take me out on the sly? I’ll kill you. Sic the Rooks on me? I’ll kill them and then you. Sic the draugen on me? He’ll kill you. This works because you are powerless and have no worthwhile friends, in evidence of which I present this encounter, which wouldn’t be happening if you had any damn leverage at all.”

The Kid had said all this while leafing through the thick, ravaged book—an item made to decay, Esker noticed, with glued pages and a crumbling paper cover. “What are you reading?” Esker asked.

This, for the first time, seemed to draw the Kid’s attention. “General relativity,” he said. “The Sharshild metric. What the fuck are you reading?”

“Furir’s solution for the heat equation in a metal plate,” said Esker. “I don’t think I’m as far along in my book as you are in yours.”

That gave the Kid pause for a moment or two. “Well,” he said, standing and stretching. “I can see why you’re so stuck on this claim of yours, at least. What I still don’t see is why I should indulge you.”

“I’m with six men,” said Esker. “Two veterans, four runeslingers.” True, if you double-counted Ozier. “I don’t say we’d beat you. The opposite, I know it. But we’d die with a couple of necks in our teeth. We wouldn’t kill you, nor likely your right- and left-hand men, so you might come back to me and say ‘Esker Sepherene, this forbearance you offer is a mighty little thing.’ And it is. But all I’m asking for is a little thing. I can describe it to you. If I can find two, I want two; if one, then one. If I find a trove, you can have the rest, and you can have anything else I give you. I want a week to look for it, and then I’ll go. Peacefully. What do you say?”

“Not killing you’s been more entertaining than killing you, so far, anyway,” said the Kid. “But I feel a lot more skittish about putting up seven men inside my camp than I do about fighting them trying to come in. That’s a big vulnerability you’re asking me to tolerate, what with four of them runeslingers, and none too kindly disposed toward me.” Burning eyes searched Esker’s from beneath the yellow slouch, and he felt the touch of the same sort of noötic puissance he’d felt from Boss John Dream. A three-rune staff and a sorcerer, he thought, seemingly from far away. What kind of snake am I locked in with, here?

“Yes, Epaphos Epseris mentioned some little disagreement from your past,” said Esker. “You don’t need to let him in. Sethos nor Teos either, nor my friends from our little village in Heru. Just me.” He paused, trying to make it seem natural, as though he’d merely overlooked something. “Well, me and my little wife. We go everywhere together.”

“Your wife?”

“We’re just married. You’ll recognize her; she ran with a couple of men you killed. Thank you for that, by the way.” The Kid shrugged, as though irritated. “Perhaps you know how it is with young love, though? One can’t bear separation. And one’s friends sometimes grow jealous.”

“What is it you’re after?”

It felt like sweat had sprung out on Esker’s brow, although he was sure it hadn’t. “Pardon me?”

“What sort of eld Art are you after?” said the Kid. “Describe it.”

“Ah,” said Esker in relief. “I see. The ones I’ve seen are little quartzes or other colorless crystals—I don’t know if that’s important. One side is smooth and slightly concave, the other is usually rough. There are patterns of ush runes etched in tiny lines along the concave side, and the rough side has different runes. I don’t know what they’re called, and I can’t draw one for you, sad to say. They’re usually on chains or chokers or something, worn around the neck. Have you seen one?” Esker’s heart leapt for no reason at all; it had not occurred to him until now that the search could be over as they spoke.

“Haven’t,” said the Kid. “What’s it for?”

“People who’ve lost the power of speech,” said Esker. “A brother of mine is mute—his mind is perfect, but he can’t use it to control his throat and mouth to speak. This thing solves that problem. Shaped force fields in the throat and mouth. Responds to the mind of the speaker, converges on a solution for the shape and elasticity of the chamber that best approximates the voice they want—”

The Tungsten Kid began to laugh—a harsh thing, like acid in ditchwater.

“You very nearly had me there, Sepherene,” he said. “Oh, well, I suppose the game’s up now. But, in the way of a gift of a few more seconds’ breath—would you tell me what you’d have said, if I asked you explain why a man ‘married’ to a girl too young to bleed is looking for a bit of Art to help a woman speak?” He searched Esker’s eyes once again. “Or, perhaps the way to put it is this. Why does a man who says he’s only interested in finding a solitary piece of eld Art want to sneak a particular little girl into my camp?”

Somehow, through the racing of his heart, the dryness of his mouth, the sweat of his palms and the certainty that he was going to die, the urge to confess hit Esker like a hammer to the chest.

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theClaim-finalWP

It was not until they could see the strip mine’s blotchy shadow begin to creep down from the horizon that Esker began to speak, still staring straight ahead.

“The five of us would take food and water and come out here for a whole day,” he said. “Not when it was too hot—we knew better—but when Kem had just got a hiding, or when Ozier’s pa was getting too serious about The Future of the Amen-Enkh Name, or when Inber had some Chanter holy day he didn’t want to celebrate. He’s serious about that, now, but he didn’t use to be—you wouldn’t have known him from a Singer but for his lightness, and we were out in the sun so much he burned as black as anyone, almost. When we were little, we hid and played tag and Marshals and Gods-in-the-Vale. And then we got older and we had contests to climb up the steepest slope, or we’d run races, or we’d sight a cave and see who could reach it and get back fastest—we had an old watch that Ozier had stolen from somewhere in the plantation, so we could time each other. Kem always won—anything to do with speed, he won, whether it was climbing or running or reciting the Music backward. Or we’d go after the rain and look at what was growing in the pools before they dried up; or sometimes we’d find little rivers and lakes and play in those. And then we got a little older than that, and sometimes we’d pair off and—” He found himself choking on the words. He hadn’t expected to; he’d been thinking about how he’d say these things to Hasina for some time. But they weren’t said to women. They weren’t said at all. The words he’d chosen seemed simultaneously to reveal too much and to distort what the experiences had been like. Panicked, Esker retreated to cliché. “Do what boys do.”

He wanted to forge on, to forget he had said anything, but he forced himself to look back at Hasina—to see if she had a reply. She looked at him in contemplation. Do you want to know what the girls at Mme Twilight’s have to say about you and “what boys do,” Esker Sepherene?

“That depends,” he said. “Do you believe it?”

She shrugged. Not especially.

“Then I don’t care what they have to say.”

They walked without speaking for a bit. Pairing off seems awkward with five, Hasina said, smiling.

“We didn’t do it that often. When we did, it would only be one pair at a time, and the rest of us would do something else. I could tell that Kem and Inber and Ozier didn’t enjoy it all that much.”

But you did.

“Not with them.”

Hasina didn’t ask With who, then?—but Esker knew she knew.

They were drawing up on the strip mine, now. Esker began to see the familiar striations of the earth, the geometry of the excavations—a meandering shape he had once thought natural, like the shapes water hewed in stone, but now seemed cancerous. “They thought there was black silver here, a while back,” he said. “They found wild blackroots growing. That was before they knew how blackroot worked. It has capillaries that go hundreds, thousands of feet deep. A little field of blackroot could be concentrating the black silver from a huge amount of soil. But they thought it was different—like they were tapping into a vein of it or something. So they went looking for the vein.” He shrugged. “Wasn’t one. But it took a while for them to understand that.”

Hasina tugged on his sleeve. Who’s “them”? she asked.

Esker shook his head. “Some company,” he said. “Some name. I’m sure my pa told me once.”

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theClaim-finalWP

“Know in your bones you will,” said Esker. “The Nine, Epseris, what have you got against the damned girl?”

“She’s nothing to me,” said Epaphos, “but if I must die, I’d rather be killed by you. That’s the Tungsten Kid out there. There might be a few runes stupid enough to use achrom in their colors, but ain’t no rune that stupid has the juice to put a tem rune on bullets, and ain’t no cave-wizard stupid enough to get a reputation for doing it.”

Tem is light,” said Ozier. “The Tungsten Kid has a reputation for killing runeslingers who learn it. He wants to be the only rune with the power of light and dark.”

Kem looked at Ozier, his eyes narrowed in inquisition. “Speaking as a person who’s known the Epseris brothers for what feels like a lifetime and Fat Mehur Tekerem for an actual one, that is the silliest damn thing I ever heard.”

“He read in a book somewhere that light is the key to time,” said Sethos Epseris. “Wants to be immortal, don’t want competition. It should perhaps go without saying that he’s crazier than a cross-eyed stoat.”

“I don’t believe for a second you’ve so much as laid eyes on a cross-eyed stoat,” muttered Kem.

“How do you know all this about what he do and don’t believe?” said Inber.

“He killed our brother Horos,” said Epaphos. “He’s the kind who likes to make speeches while he’s killin’. You’d like him, cripple,” he said to Kem.

“Oratory or no oratory, anyone who kills an Epseris, I’m ready to like,” said Kem.

That undammed a gout of ugly speech from Epaphos Epseris, repaid with interest by Kem, neither evidently concerned with the terror of a runeslinger who might or might not be disposed to hunt them down. Esker felt a tug on his sleeve and looked down at the girl. The stare he got back was stern, though there was a tremor yet behind it. She held out her left hand flat, then used her right forefinger to trace a scribble on it, one eyebrow going up in expectation.

Esker squatted down to get to her eye level. She was taller than he’d realized; he straightened his back to get their gazes at the same height. Kem has pen and paper, he said with his hands, indicating Kem with a motion of his head. But you can talk to me if you like.

My name is Mayet el-Ras, the girl said. I am unmarried; you may address me as señorita. Might I have your name, please?

Esker Sepherene.

Pleased to meet you, Sr. Sepherene. She offered her hand.

Esker blinked twice, then thought to smile, then thought better of it. He extended his hand to grasp Mayet’s. She gripped his hard, the tendons in her neck showing for a brief moment; he returned the pressure pound for pound. The pleasure is all mine, Srta. el-Ras, Esker said when they disengaged.

Kem and Epaphos were still going at it; Sethos and Ozier watched, hands on staves, ready to intervene. Inber was watching Esker with some interest; so, he realized after a moment, was Teos.

I’ll be direct, Sr. Sepherene, said Mayet. Does the rest of your group share the opinion of your crippled man there as it concerns the Tungsten Kid? I guess from our flight and present position that they do not, and if I am correct in that surmise, I’d like to propose that we make common cause against him, as I find myself newly in want of allies in my own cause.

“What in green Usir’s catfish-eaten cock is going on here?” said Epaphos. Esker turned into the full force of his venom-green stare.

“Srta. Mayet el-Ras proposes an alliance against the Tungsten Kid,” Esker said coolly. “What do you say, Epaphos—do you think we can contribute to her cause?”

“Her cause ought to be getting out of here as fast as possible,” said Epaphos. “Not unlike our own. I’ll help you jump some other fool’s claim if you want, Sepherene, but I’m not going against the Kid.”

Esker’s fingers flashed at Mayet. Her eyes moved from his to Epaphos’; a small snort was audible.

“What did you tell her?” Epaphos snarled.

“I told her that Epaphos Epseris prefers easy kills,” said Esker. “Just by way of explanation. She don’t know you too well yet.”

“Your explanation can drown in a latrine. Tell her I lost a brother to that rabid cur and I ain’t about to lose more,” said Epaphos. “Four of us didn’t stop him then, and three won’t now.”

“She ain’t a damned infant,” Esker said over Mayet’s reply. “She can understand you.”

“That so? Well, what did she say?”

“She said that she lost a father to one of this Tungsten Kid’s men, and he was a powerful hand with a gun or knife—much better than her. But that only makes the loss keener and the need for vengeance more urgent.” Esker held Epaphos’ eyes for a breath, then two. “Said the little girl.”

“You don’t think I’ve lived this long by taking bait from amateurs like yourself, do you, Sepherene?” said Epaphos. “I don’t care what a little girl thinks of me, and that goes double when she’s fixing to die before she can tell anyone about it. The Tungsten Kid wasn’t part of the deal. I’ll jump any claim you like. If you want this one, you can go back to the office in Souktown and fill out a damned form.”

“The claim was part of the deal,” said Esker, “and no stipulations about what or whom the Epseris would and would not kill to clear it. Now, maybe you don’t care what a little girl thinks of you, or who she tells, but I know you care what the Chorister thinks.”

“Not as much as I care about my hide,” said Epaphos. “And my brothers’.”

“This isn’t getting anywhere,” said Ozier. “We’ve lost the Kid for now, that’s clear, otherwise he’d have been on us like a swarm of locusts with all the hollering that’s been going on. We’re strung out on walking and running. Let’s turn in and discuss it in the morning.”

The weight of his glamer was on the words; Esker felt it plucking at the strings of his mind. But, whether it was the glamer tricking him or just showing him what was in his mind, he no longer had the strength or fire for bickering with Epaphos Epseris. They would sort out the matter on fresh minds and full bellies. By his eyes, Epaphos felt the same grudging relief at being absolved of arguing.

There was no fire for the night, and little camp-making to do on the columned porch of the great building they had taken for their home; the transition from explosive dissent to peaceable slumber was nothing more than lying down and covering up. Esker gave Mayet his blanket . The marble was chilly, but no colder than the high ice, nor the mountain air that sat above it. Sleep came to Esker quickly, between one breath and the next.

CHAPTER 4

Ozier’s disappearance started as a rumor in the Last Spike; Fat Mehur Tekerem, voluble from another night’s drinking on his posse-man’s windfall, observed to young Peshet Chatha that he hadn’t seen the young master around in several days, and that was the end of any secrecy that the Amen-Enkh family might have been attempting. The foremen of the plantation took to drinking in shifts at the Last Spike, some spending a bit more freely than they were accustomed to, all chilling any conversation on the topic of Ozier Amen-Enkh’s whereabouts by means of silence and cold iron stares. Of course, there were men enough in Metu village who did not answer to an Amen-Enkh foreman, and these men freely ignored the barriers around the subject; but the men they looked to for intelligence did answer to Amen-Enkh foremen, rendering the conversations both one-sided and repetitious.

Esker, Kem, and Inber did meet once to discuss it, but little came of the meeting. Kem guessed that Ozier had gone to Heru City for a vacation from the work of learning how to manage the plantation. “He’s years behind, after all,” he said. “Any good patriarch would have been grooming his heir continuously since he was old enough to talk.”

“What would you know about it?” Esker asked, genuinely interested in the answer.

“City’s not where he’d go,” said Inber, before Kem could answer. “He loved the ice. Always got orders to come back to Tenoc and use his glamer on the population, always found ways to get back out into the wide open. He’s out on the salt if he’s anywhere.”

“Do we know he’s anywhere?” said Kem.

Inber shrugged. “He ain’t all that easy to kill. And he’s the size of a house—it’d take a week to dig a grave for him, and you’d see it from a mile off. Or else the vultures would build a damn city on his bones.”

Kem laughed in appreciation. Esker figured the joking was just Inber’s way of distracting himself from the same worries Kem and Esker shared.

#

The demand for posse work grew quickly, more than Esker had ever seen it do when he had been a child. Rather little of the work came from Sheriff Poorem, though. Much more of it was from towns up the line, more populous than Metu and more divided on the Hushing question, where new men were pouring in—not family men either, and not settled bachelors, but young unlettered men who arrived flush with cash, which they gladly spent on the things young men spend cash on, and then engaged in desperate behavior when they were in want of the sort of work they could do. “They stimulate the economy greatly,” Kem said over dinner at the Sepherene household, “for when they fail to find work, they perpetrate criminalities, which forces the aggrieved parties to spend money on repair and moves the territorial authority to recruit posses and deputies to capture them. Why, a sufficiently altruistic malcontent can create a week’s employment for ten or a dozen of his friends!”

“It is an ugly business,” said Qeb. “I think it may even backfire on the Ropemakers—they have abandoned these men, after all. At an age where they should be mastering a trade, to uproot their lives in the hopes of influencing some election—”

“All great causes ask for sacrifice,” said Kem. “Do they not? And all victorious causes get it. A full census will strengthen our case for prefectural status, and a good infusion of right-thinking men will make sure the vote on the Hushing question comes out right.”

Iseret stood and began to clear the dishes; Esker briefly rested a hand on her bicep. Qeb raised an eyebrow at Kem. “I suppose I’ll grant that latter point,” he said, “if only by tautology. But how much criminality and waste is that vote worth to a Ropemaker? I mean, to one in Qarna, where these right-thinking young souls all seem to come from, I suppose it hardly seems a cost—”

“You know I was joking about the economy, Señor,” said Kem. “But these are growing pains. These men will find their place.”

“How?” said Qeb. “The Ropemakers of Qarna are happy to send us men who offer nothing and ask for everything, but they seem content to keep their women. Sage Rock has had to house some of these men in the desert outside their climate perimeter; if the sexes were balanced, they could expand—”

“Sage Rock had no women to begin with!” said Kem. “It’s a mine-town; men go there to work the mines, not to raise families.”

“Now they go there to raise the Ropemakers’ numbers,” said Qeb, “and die of the desert heat when they pick a bad day for siesta. And there were enough women there to maintain a sufficient perimeter until now. But the Ropemakers send men there because the fifth district is closely contested.”

“The Nine, Señor,” said Kem, “it does no good to send them where our margins are high, does it?”

Qeb pressed his lips together. Esker sighed through his nose and rose to help with the dishes as the two scribes resumed. I’m sorry, Mother, he said before his hands were occupied.

There was a long pause while Iseret finished scrubbing. You can’t think this is new, she said after she handed him a chipped, red-enameled dish. He and Qeb do this all the time.

It must be getting worse, he said when the dish was dry. Even here, I’m always seeing men I don’t know. At least the Amen-Enkh seems to find work for them.

Iseret didn’t reply; they worked for a few dishes, not talking. Esker listened closely to the conversation between Qeb and Kem; at last he spoke again. Pa’s objections are always tactical.

He could hear Iseret’s breathing accelerate and go shallow—just a hair, nothing evident except to his soldier’s ears. I don’t know what you mean.

Yes you do. He lets Kem say “we” and “us” all the time, he lets him talk about the Hushing question like he agrees on the answer. Everything he doesn’t like about the Ropemakers is about how they’re behaving, not what they’re trying to do.

Is he wrong? Iseret asked.

Of course not, he couldn’t be righter. But—look, you don’t criticize the enemy’s tactics. There’s no point. Why complain that someone’s doing a bad thing badly?

This isn’t war, said Iseret. Our lives are more than just the vote. If Heru comes right on the Hushing question, not a woman will speak after the vote who didn’t before. But if some Ropemaker hooligan kills us in our sleep for the family jewels, we’ll spend our last instants wishing “the enemy” had done their bad thing well instead of badly.

The conversation at the table had moved on to a mutual lamentation of the cut-rate contract-drafters up the line at Akmem and Marsamat—many of them operations opened by new Ropemaker partisans. Apparently Qeb and Kem had found something they could agree on. Esker and Iseret continued working side by side with soap and bucket, silent.

#

Esker’s life settled into an irregular but nonetheless soothing rhythm. Every so often he would be called to help apprehend some malcontent who’d done murder, stolen a lot, or wrecked a building; these tended to be small posses, three or four at most, and sometimes as far as four or five stops up the Heru City line. He slowly began to realize that he’d developed a reputation for the work. It was not always, but reasonably often, that one or two or all of his fellow posse-men had the swift surety of motion, the ever-ready tension in the back and thighs, that Esker had come to associate with military men.

A few of their targets had the same features. It was those men who gave them longer chases, who sometimes escaped; who, when cornered, invariably leapt in a killing rage at the most dangerous target they could find, which was sometimes Esker and sometimes not. Esker sometimes wondered, of a night, how such men could be animated by such fury, yet barely even look at the men they were attacking. It took him a long time to realize that their rage was not aimed at the posse—that they succeeded in their final murders when their own cooling corpses lay unmoving on the salt.

Between these outings, there were long, peaceable stretches in Metu. Azmera the luthier patiently explained the features of wood that made good sound: Elasticity, pliability, thickness. He showed Esker how the quality of sound changed as the wood was planed and varnished. He contrasted strings of gut and metal and some kind of material someone had brought him from one of the ciudades viejas; metal was most sonorous and most durable, but the right gut strings had a richness that was hard to equal. Esker’s questions about the mechanisms of these effects grew harder and harder for the luthier to answer, and eventually he gave Esker the address of a mathematician at the Hikuptah in Heru City. Esker disappeared for three days, putting all his questions into an immense letter. When he explained his absence to Hasina, on the porch before Azmera arrived for the morning’s work, she smiled. Where does the curiosity come from? she asked. Azmera’s invited you to try your hand at luthiery. But you never do.

Esker thought a while before he could reply. It seems like magic, he said at last, that a silent thing like wood can be given a voice.

Most people don’t want to study magic, said Hasina. They want to do magic.

I’ve seen magic done, Esker said. I lost my best friend to it. I want no part of magic.

More and more, they accompanied one another to eat and drink after the day’s work was done. The proprietor of the Last Spike ultimately decided that he couldn’t afford not to charge his regulars, but there was always a small something extra, a bottle of wine or a bit of fruit from the ice-pit. When the conversation spilled over dinner and imperiled Hasina’s curfew, they would walk to Mme Twilight’s and speak on the porch until the Madame—always a bit stubbly in the evenings—opened the third-floor window and threatened Esker with dismemberment unless he let her girl get some sleep. They spoke of the high ice at Tenoc, of the conservatory in Heru City, of childhoods in Efdu and Metu. At one point, Hasina stopped Esker in a description of a game of tag out on the salt and said How did Kem play? With his leg?

Pick a day, Esker said. When you have an early morning free. Maybe a day when you’d visit Efdu. Meet me at my parents’ and I’ll show you.

“Unhand my tenant, Esker Sepherene,” Mme Twilight hollered from the window, “or I’ll sink my fist so far down your throat you’ll find my fingerprints on your shit.”

“Sir, yes sir!” Mme Twilight had served in the territorial garrison for years until the Rooks were quelled into their souktowns; Esker had learned this as a child, when Reshef the grocer boxed his ears for making fun. “Sir, permission to commence unhanding operations, sir?”

“Granted ten minutes ago, private! Move!”

Esker raised an eyebrow. Hasina smiled a strange smile, half-satisfied, half-expectant. They parted, neither certain whether something else should have been done.

#

No posse-man ever thought that manhunting for cash was a safe job, but the first death of one (or second, after Shemet Kotu) came in shocking fashion. The targets in question had earned some notoriety, having followed up a few too many lethalities in a bar-brawl by killing the sheriff and deputy of Marsamat, three stops up the line from Metu; the leader was also trained in the use of the shai rune and had, if apparently inadvertently, burned down much of the town (a fact that would cause Kem some rejoicing later, as the offices of his new and unwelcome competition were among the structures afflicted). Sheriff Poorem and Sheriff Aaheru of Akmem took joint control of the posse, an eleven-man group including Inber and several other Tenoc veterans neither he nor Esker knew. Marsamat’s version of Shemet Kotu was an undersized man named Pahos, half-Rook by his shade and features, and with his help the group had set up a two-part maneuver—“flush and rush,” Aaheru named it—to lure them out of the hillside barrow where they hunkered and take them from behind.

All proceeded like a fine machine, each part impelling the next just so far and no farther, until a knot of black and white horses crested a ridge in the middle of the posse’s charge. Ar and ket boiled from birch-and-ebony staves, mixing into a globular cloud of hail, frost, and lightning that engulfed the posse just as they made contact with the shai ’slinger and his little gang. The military men of the posse shrugged off the runic simples as their bodies had been trained to do, but their civilian colleagues were not so lucky—nor were any of the horses. Esker was thrown and lost his senses for minutes; Inber’s gloves froze to his mount’s reins, and the spooked creature took him miles away before he could bring it under control again. The men in the black and white staves swiftly dismounted and were about to commence executing the fallen until Sheriff Poorem managed to rasp “Stop! Posse!” through frost-ravaged lungs. The marshals—for Jaidari marshals they were—saw their error at once, and stopped; but the damage had been done; the tracker Pahos lay at the center of a lightning-strike’s black flower, and two of the posse civilians were sufficiently frozen and ice-blasted that not even application of the captured shai staff could save them.

None of the dead were Metu men, but Metu formed its own opinions all the same. “Fucking federales,” was Kem’s view, and it was echoed at many a table at the Last Spike. “We’ve taken care of our own every damn time since all this started, and we were about to do it again. Shaijaidar is trying to undercut [[Ludim’s]] bid for [[prefect]], and damn the lives of the Heru men who’ve done the work until now.”

“It’s a message,” said Fat Mehur Tekerem to Esker as he loaded black silver onto a Heru City train. “They don’t want us solving our own problems, and they don’t mind killing those who try. I’m glad you came out of it, Esker, you and the Chanter boy too.”

“It’s properly a federal matter,” said Qeb, over breakfast. “There’ll be more men like this, killing and then fleeing to the salt. This is what the Ropemakers are sending here—fighters without any other use. If we don’t start accepting help from Shaijaidar, there’ll be more of these deaths, and not at the marshals’ hands.”

There must be ways to coordinate, said Hasina when she saw the bruise on Esker’s temple. Can’t the marshals talk to the territorial authority and figure out who’s doing what before they charge in?

“The territory authority won’t talk to the marshals,” said Azmera. “They cite prefectural rights of independence from federal involvement in local matters. Of course, all these ‘local matters’ involve recent transplants from Qarna, and the territory isn’t a prefecture yet—”

Esker asked Inber what he thought.

“Posse work ain’t worth the cash,” he said, “is what I think.”

“Easy for you to say,” said Esker. “You’ve got steady work.” Inber had secured a position as a chemist at the Amen-Enkh plantation, supervising and optimizing various aspects of the purification of the blackroot plants.

“What, and you can’t get it? The Heru City line is scared to the horizon and back about getting robbed again, and you seen what they call guards; you could put any one of them out of work for the asking. And Amam Amen-Enkh ain’t any too sanguine either with all this going on; he’d love a proper soldier manning his fences. You don’t need posse work.” Inber shrugged and took a sip of wine. “At least, you don’t need it for money.”

“Oh, wise Chanter elder?” said Esker. “Then what do I need it for?”

“D’you want me to answer that?”

Esker’s face went blank. “Now I do.”

“All right. Don’t kill me.”

“Don’t make me.”

“You need it because something happened out there, that first time, when Shemet died, and you want it to happen again,” said Inber. “Don’t know any more than that, but I see you try to get out alone, and I see how you hate it when you ain’t out and ain’t alone, especially at night.”

Esker quirked his mouth. “Maybe you’re right.”

He was preparing to talk fast around the question of what that “something” might be, but Inber said, “And there’s another reason.”

“What’s that?”

Inber looked around—left, right—then spoke in a voice that was low, but trying not to sound like a whisper. “You need to visit Maddy’s.”

Esker felt himself snarl, made himself calm. “A man’s pursuits on his own time are his own business,” he said.

“Didn’t say they weren’t,” said Inber. “I ain’t the one shaming you for it, Esker.” He looked into Esker’s eyes a second before saying the rest. “And I ain’t going to tell Hasina.”

“That’s generous of you.”

“Generous, you say?” said Inber. “I wasn’t intending on being generous. I mean, I like you and all, but as you say, a man’s business is his own. I don’t imagine Hasina would care one way or the other. Right?”

Esker took a deep breath through his nose, then let it out. “Inber—” he said.

“Tune, please.”

“We’re discharged, dammit, why do you keep insisting on that damn name?”

Inber twirled a finger around one of the curls of hair that hung down past his jawbone, then pulled. “It was a gift from you Singers to me. Seems mean to spurn it.”

“I had nothing—” Esker shook his head. “Forget it. What I had to say is, thank you. It ain’t going to be an issue for much longer.”

Inber looked him in the eyes for a long time. “You say so,” he said, and drained his glass.

#

The months wore on like this. The mathematician sent three thick, incomprehensible texts to Esker; he applied himself to a page a night, then half a page, then an equation, and even that was too ambitious. Still, he began to understand the notion that a sound could be described as a superimposition of regular waves at varying frequencies and amplitudes, and modified by materials that affected those frequencies and amplitudes. It was better than nothing, and what his mind learned, it kept. More posses were formed, more men died by Esker’s side—one or two more by the hands of Jaidari marshals, but many despite their best efforts; Qeb’s predictions about the puissance of the local outlawry were coming true.

And then, one morning just after sunrise, Hasina knocked at Esker’s window.

He tried to skulk out soundlessly, but Iseret was nearly awake in any case, and she found him and Hasina in the kitchen, chatting with their hands and packing food. To her raised eyebrow, he replied only, I was going to take Hasina to the mine. Iseret’s face grew solemn; she made sure they both had coffee to bring along.

The mine was outside the climate perimeter, but the walk was not too oppressive with the sun barely up, and Hasina had dressed well for the occasion.

Words 1-9-2015

theClaim-finalWP

There was no edge to Souktown that Esker could discern, only a slow decay; the crumbling foundations were less and less overbuilt, the lights weaker and less dense, the bright polyglot signs fading more and more into the ruined indecipherable glyphs of the ancients. With the dark came quiet, but not a calm quiet. Coiled was the word, he thought. He slowed to a walk, not because his legs or lungs were failing, but because his breathing was too loud. He would hear Boss John Dream or his men from a distance, of that he was sure enough. He had been lucky on the high ice, never been engaged one-on-one by a psionic—oh, he had been scratched by broadband offensives, limbic bombs and ictal fields and the like, but never directly confronted an opposing imago in a shared reality. What little he had been taught about mind-on-mind combat, he had used against Dream, for what little good it had done. But he remembered enough of his instruction to know that such engagements led to cross-contamination of personality when both combatants survived. He could feel the shape of Dream in the phantom bite-marks on his shoulder, the persistent sense of filth where the mind-worm’s coils had wrapped.

He reached a crossing where the path ahead was decorated by a line of pebbles, each glowing with a different color: White, yellow, blue, white, yellow, blue. He walked up to the edge of the claim and stood for a moment, contemplating whether he ought to cross the line of lights. After several seconds, a gun barked; a few stone chips flew off the corner of a building, rather farther from Esker than a proper warning shot ought to have been. Nonetheless, he raised his hands and turned left, walking away from the crossing and the claim-edge. Two more streets to his right were so demarcated; the next was empty, and he turned, continuing toward yellow, green, white.

Esker sensed things moving in the dark around him, caught flashes of shambling silhouettes in windows and alleyways. He walked past another claim-edge, this one red, red, violet, green. Out of instinct, he looked into the claim to see if he could lay eye on another ciudor. He saw a Jaidari man prone on the black street—upper body visible, legs concealed in an alley, battered slouch laying shapeless a foot or so from his head. As he watched, the body jerked and disappeared into the alley, leaving the slouch orphaned. Wet noises began as he backed away from the claim-edge.

After that, the quiet of Jagaag viejo no longer felt like the absence of sound. It felt full of sound—of noises that were low, deliberately muffled, or far away.

A figure stepped from an alley a block down. With the moon behind it, he could not see its face; but he could see the line of cooked flesh where its neck ended, see the moon shine through the burnt ribs below. He knew whose face he would see there. The figure took a step toward him, and another.

“Hello, stranger,” it said. “How do you like my voice?”

He looked again. There was no neck-stump ending in pebbled black meat, no rib cage slicing the moonlight up like paper. The voice was not Ximena’s; it spoke with the near-native accent of the Jaidari Rooks, not the thick late-learned accent of the Rooks in Tenoc. It—she—wore leather under the black feather cloak; her skin was light, of course, her hair the shades of sand, and her limbs moved in patterns he had seen before, high on a web of steel.

“It’s a serious question,” she said as she approached. “I need to know if you can handle talking to a woman. Most of you foreigners get really jammed up about it, but I’ve been told you might be a different beast.”

“You’re the woman from the bridge,” he said.

“Ruth,” she said. “You’re Esker Sepherene. You’ve got a claim in the viejo. You’re looking for something rather specific, are you not?”

“I’m just here for the money,” said Esker. “Lots of money in eld Art. All the boys back on the farm say so.”

Ruth pinned him with her stare. “I’m not here to help some foreigner make money,” she said. “You say what you need to say to keep your dogs and your friends happy. With me, you tell the truth.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m going to help you.”

“Why?”

“You’re asking the wrong question. Do not kill me.” Ruth reached a hand into her black feather cloak; Esker’s grip tightened around the haft of his swordspear. She produced a crumpled piece of paper, which she unfolded, smoothed on her leg, and handed to Esker. “Can you read it?”

The markings were dim in the moonlight, but clear enough to his soldier’s eyes. It was two columns of words, one in the ancient script, one in Jaidari. The Jaidari words read:

Acoustics

Music

Sound

Voice

Throat

Engineering

Force

Physics…

… and so on. Esker looked at Ruth. “You’ve got my attention.”

“Lucky me. Those words will help you start looking, once you get into the claim.” She brushed a lock of hair back from her face, and Esker was suddenly aware of her exact proximity, of the faint scent of sand and leather floating from her on the breeze from the playa, of the fact that she was not, and had never been, the flesh-headed skeleton he had thought he had seen in the moonlight. The same hot, sweet surge he had felt on the bridge returned with a vengeance—burning up his spine, clouding his eyes. “‘Lots of money in eld Art.’ Is that the line you gave your friends?”

Esker nodded.

“Too dumb to know that going ciudor is an idiot’s game, then.” Esker shook his head, but Ruth spoke before he could. “Or they’ve got some other reason to be here, I don’t care. But it’s not your reason. You’re going to have to face down that lie before you leave this city. Maybe that means you kill all your friends, maybe it means you run away, maybe it means you all get fucked up on jimsonweed and hug while you confess. It doesn’t make a difference to me. But I need you to understand that, if you back down from your reason for being here, every ounce of the Creditor Rooks’ wrath is going to come down on you like the hammer of God, you take my meaning?”

“‘God’ has a big hammer, then?” Esker asked.

Ruth stared at him solemnly.

“Just checking.”

“Don’t tell your friends about me,” said Ruth.

“You remind me of a woman who once threatened me at gunpoint,” Esker said.

“Can’t imagine what we have in common,” said Ruth, “if she didn’t pull the trigger. I mean it, Esker Sepherene. I don’t truckle with men who kill Rooks and mutilate women. If you want to talk, get by yourself for two or three hours and stay in one place. I’ll come then.”

“You’re about to disappear soundlessly into the night, then?”

Ruth raised an eyebrow. “For a foreigner, you’re pretty quick on your feet. But I’ll just walk back, if that’s all right with you.”

“I couldn’t be more pleased.”

She walked up to Esker and then past him, the same sand-and-leather scent taking on a note of sweat as she approached. He turned to watch her go. She pulled up the cloak’s hood as she passed, and the black feathers faded into the dark.

#

The dawntide was worst—the flame over the horizon like a burning bordello, refracted into nauseous vapors by the fumes wafting up from the playa; the black sky curdling into an evil blue like the lips of the frozen drowned. The changing of the sky was a time of transition in the viejo as well, with swarms of what looked like fleshy birds funneling through broken windows to what Esker could only presume were their nests, with rumblings of stirring hulks in mercifully still-shadowed alleys. Esker lingered a moment to watch one of these things wake, a thing a bit bigger than man-size covered in reeking scraps of some sort of soft material. It had no lips, and its eyes were the size of Esker’s spread hands, and pure wet black. It appraised him with no particular fear or interest. Its forelimbs were grossly asymmetric, covered in fine black fur, its hands fat like a baby’s. He fought the urge to approach it, to prod it and see if it was real. He heard scrabbling and thumping along the rooftops for blocks after he left—or thought he did. When the sun finally burst over the ragged roofs of the viejo, he found himself unable to walk for a moment, as though transfixed by the gaze of an enormous eye.

The buildings grew taller as the day bloomed. The yellow, green, and white lights of the landmark grew difficult to see, then impossible, like stars in a sunny sky; Esker tried to keep the geometry of the building in his mind, but more and more often his view would be blocked, and he would experience a moment of panic—or more than a moment—before he found it again. At last, though, he emerged onto a great black gravel road—much like the one they had arrived on, but less traveled, the road-stuff broken into larger chunks—and the base of the stacked-block tower greeted him. Ozier and Kem were there with the mule and the dry goods. They had no water, but Ozier had convinced the yellow-green-white ciudores to share a bit in exchange for some of the jerk and lard. It was a big camp, run by a fat Chanter named Riel who was paler than he should be, and missing some fingers and toes. Everyone in it looked sick, grey and green around the edges. Two were rather mildly wounded—Esker had seen men hurt worse every day, and many had lived—but they looked like men on their deathbeds.

“The king of the tower don’t like us,” explained Riel over tea, resting in the courtyard of the tower in the midday heat. “Claims administration deeded him everything above Floor 80 and passage through the rest, but there’s a lot of locked doors and things he ain’t got through above maybe Floor 30, and he don’t want us getting there first. He likes booby traps. Hei and Tabu got hit by some kind of spear thing, just tore-out beams with knives strapped to ’em and something smeared on the knives. They’re just the ones who ain’t dead yet. You see the stelae out in camp?” Esker had seen them—four by his count, two with the black serpent of Kauket scratched in and two with green Usir, the Chanters’ death-god. “My business partner, two hands, and my wife. I got a haul, though,” he said, forcing cheer to his grey face. “Going to be hard to move everything I found, and no partner to split it with!”

Ozier and Kem caught up with Esker after the tea. They had had a head start on Esker and gone through the yellow-blue-white claim, where Esker had been fired on; they thought they had heard a shot, but they had been most of the way through the claim by then, and neither felt nor saw any bullets strike nearby. Riel had been for killing them at first, but Ozier’s staff and his generosity with the dry goods had quickly won his men over. “He’s got no haul, though,” said Ozier in a low voice. “I saw a couple of his hands unloading. He’s got crates and crates full of junk—scrap metal, circuit boards, glass, a lot of that fake ceramic that’s on everything in these buildings. He adds to it so his men won’t mutiny. Then he can’t get rid of it, or he’ll give the game away. At some point they’re going to force him to let them take it to Souktown and sell it—they’ll have to, to keep eating. Once that happens?” He shrugged. “Unless he finds something real, I think the king of the tower will have his basement back.”

“What is this ‘king’ business?” Esker asked.

Ozier shrugged. “Hard to know. I haven’t seen him. I’ve heard about this sort of thing—very hard to breed if you’ve lived in a viejo for long, but if the child does live, sometimes it’s hellish hardy or has some other quality. A big enough population, you get enough such children that they can breed together. They like the height of the towers for some reason—like staying up there. Whoever’s big enough to beat the rest up gets to be king or queen.”

“They’re men, then?” said Esker.

“I don’t know,” said Ozier. “For all I know, it’s a story Riel made up, and he’s the one who cut those poor men in the infirmary. All I know’s we’re not staying for dinner. If Inber and the damn Epseris can’t find their way here by sunset, we’re heading to the claim without them.”

In the afternoon, they slept in brief shifts, each spelling the others in case Riel or his men turned sour. Just as the dinner bell was ringing, Inber and the Epseris shambled through the battered flywheel door. “Lost sight of the tower,” Inber explained. “Had to go by dead reckoning. Epaphos isn’t as good as it as he thought.” That drew nothing but a growl from Epaphos; after a day of walking, the Epseris looked as though they’d been chained to a train and dragged a mile. It was clear no one was going anywhere, and with seven men and three staves, it was unimaginable that Riel would give them any trouble now; but Ozier pushed Epaphos to press on. Esker’s love for the Epseris had grown none since the events at the Elated Scarab, but he grew queasy at the harangue, the giant’s glamer hammering the green-eyed runeslinger at quarter-strength the while. Ozier could spare the night—and would, Esker knew, in the end—but he wanted to give the Epseris a grim time of it first. Eventually Inber went to the mess, and Kem and Esker went to take some air around the tower’s base.

[[Here’s where we put the convo from Chapter 1.]]

They slept through the night and much of the day. As sunset approached, the seven men consulted the map once more, and set out southward to the claim.

#

The ciudores swung out toward the playa and onto the great black gravel road that traveled east-west down its edge. It was a calculated gamble: The route would cost them hours and leave them exposed to the creatures rumored to live in the playa, but it provided far fewer opportunities for ambush. (None of the other ciudores had seen as much evidence of life in Jagaag as Esker had; their worries were of other ciudores, not of any other strange things that might dwell in the viejo.) Two deathbirds hung serenely in the sky, far out on the playa. In the cooling dusk, with the sun setting behind them, the way ahead was rather clear and the walking swift.

The map took them south of the playa a couple of hours after dusk. They gathered close together in the narrower streets, Esker, Kem, and Inber in the middle with two runeslingers in the front and back of the group. As they moved away from the edge of the playa and toward the claim, Esker began comparing the glyphs on the street signs (when there were street signs) with the ones listed in the claim-deed as demarcating the northern edge. Ozier called “Lights in the street!” before he found it.

“Lights?” said Epaphos. “Not a claim-edge?”

“A claim-edge,” said Ozier.

“Ha!” said Epaphos. “You’ve been jumped, Sepherene! How does that feel?”

“I wouldn’t dream of speaking for Esker,” said Kem, “but, for myself, it’s the first time I feel really good about having you around.”

“You’ll feel better before this is through,” said Epaphos. “Even you can’t grim me now, cripple; we stand before high fun in her evening gown and nothing underneath, and the overture’s just beginning.”

“What color is that?” said Esker, studying the claim-edge.

“What color is what?” said Epaphos.

“Look at it. Red, red, yellow… and then some other color. Not grey, not white. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that color. How can there be a color I’ve never seen?”

The Epseris had stopped. “Red, red, yellow, achrom?” said Epaphos, squinting. “I can barely… shit. Amen-Enkh, look at those lights for me. Is there anything in them?”

“In them?”

“The other claim-edges—those were all charmed stones, bought in Souktown or from some penny-ante hedge-mage no one trusts with real work. What’s this made of?”

Ozier squinted, then took a step closer. Epaphos’ fist closed around his bicep. “Don’t get closer. Just tell me what you can from here.”

“I can barely make out the colors. How am I supposed—”

“Bullets,” said Inber. “They’re bullets.”

“We need to get out of here,” said Epaphos. “Draw back to the playa along the route we’ve gone, it’s safest.”

“What’s wrong?”

“We can hunker down somewhere and talk about it, but not in sight of that claim-edge. I know those colors and they ain’t the welcome wagon. Come on!”

“All right—” Ozier began, and then it was as though the sun had rolled into the street.

All seven men stumbled back, flash-blind. Esker saw three figures running in the unnatural brilliance, which made their shadows razor-sharp and painted every coil of every hair with a glowing white edge: An older man, a younger, and a tall, slim girl. The former was armed with a pistol, the latter with a rifle, and the third not at all.

A tongue of lightning arced out from the street where they came, adding to the searing light of the eldritch day. It struck the younger man at the rifle-tip. The after-image of his bones lingered on Esker’s eyelids long after he fell. Shots rang out, too many to count, and perfect-petaled red flowers burst from the flesh of the older man, who met Esker’s eyes a moment before he, too, tumbled into the street.

But the girl had veered away from the street-mouth, deer-fleet and long-legged, and Esker could see the panic in her eyes break as she sprinted for them.

“Shit,” said Epaphos, and leveled his staff at her. She didn’t seem to notice. Ozier jerked the staff-tip down just as Epaphos’ own arc of lightning leapt forth, dissipating harmlessly into the ground. Epaphos snarled and tried to wrench the staff free, but Ozier’s hand could not be dislodged.

“We’re not killing children today,” Ozier said, his face a mask of fury.

“She’s dead anyway,” Epaphos said, “that’s the Kid hisself—”

A runeslinger all in orange and yellow stepped from the street-mouth, flanked by two gunners in red and black. The brilliance seemed to be concentrated around him, but through it Esker could make out the runes of his staff—the helix was tripled, the shai and ar runes he’d already seen and a third, whose name he did not know, that he’d seen the day previous, on the stones of the claim-edge where he’d almost been almost shot. The girl flung herself, panting, past Ozier and into Esker’s chest; he hugged her by reflex, dropping the swordspear. “It’s all right,” he said.

She looked up at him, and the look in her eyes said I don’t believe you.

“Go!” Epaphos roared, and flame and lightning billowed forth from the three staves.

The roar and crackle of the runic simples was devastating. Esker turned and lifted the girl with him, trusting in his soldier’s speed and strength as he never had before, but his skin practically popped and sizzled with the sounds.

Then, through the din and confusion, Teos sang ush louder than he had ever sung before.

There was a thump, almost the sound of a fire-dousing. Over it, Epaphos and Sethos shouted, and Esker heard two shouts. Teos sang again, and suddenly the otherworldly brilliance was gone as though a wall had slammed down on the street. Esker couldn’t help but stop and look back. As wide and the street and as tall was a wall of perfect blackness, from which even the Epseris brothers were now running with all the speed their legs could muster.

Inber was in the lead; he took them down a cross-street, then up several blocks toward the playa, then down another cross-street, then across the great black gravel road to the edge of the playa itself. They crossed several train tracks and found themselves in a park full of open dirt, dominated by a columned monstrosity that sat across the expanse like a sleeping dog. Inber ducked behind the columns, Esker and the girl right behind him. Eventually the mule wandered in. Last, by long minutes, were the Epseris, Kem, and Ozier, the latter of whom supported a pale and shaking Teos Epseris with an arm around his upper back.

“No fire,” said Epaphos. “Two people watching, both lines of approach, at all times. If we get cornered here, I’m surrendering the girl if I have to kill you all to do it.”

Words 1-8-2015

theClaim-finalWP“Rise for the Chorister,” said the gun.

“Is that you?” said Esker. “Because that woman coming toward us—well, it’s not that I’m against standing for a lady, but I find you more persuasive at this time.”

Esker felt a jerk upward on his collar and stood. The gun’s hand couldn’t quite follow him all the way up, he noted with satisfaction—though the gun-barrel could, and it rested contently in the hollow where his neck joined his skull.

The Chorister had reached them by this time; she declined to dismount. Over the bandanna, she met Esker’s eyes and spoke with a voice.

The very fact of her possessing a voice was shock enough that Esker almost failed to notice the features of that voice: It was a smooth bass thrum, its tonality pure as song, its cadence musical and not altogether human. A man’s voice, though not like any man’s he had heard before—and uttered, if the stillness of the bandanna was any indication, without movements of the mouth. He reexamined the rider’s shape in the moonlight, wondering whether he had misread her body in the moment’s heat—but it was a woman’s, that was certain, although he allowed that he might not be so sure had he not seen her move.

There was, of course, no possibility of his comprehending the words, not when there was so much to wonder about in this voice, this speaker. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said. “Say it again?”

“Who are you with?” the incongruous voice sang, with no hint of exasperation—though Esker thought he might have read a tinge of that in her posture, in the small motions of her head. “The posse or the outlaws?”

“The posse, ma’am.” He did not contemplate deceit. He had dealt with tribal hetmen and war-leaders before—or, at any rate, seen them dealt with; they were generally intelligent enough to kill anyone they knew they wanted dead, and in those whose disposition was uncertain, they valued square-dealing above all. Which meant they often opened with a question to which they knew the answer. “Have any died?”

“How many of you were there?”

Were. But that could easily be bait. “Forgive me, ma’am, if I haven’t seen my way clear to divulging that information at this time.”

“My man’s bullet hasn’t seen its way clear to your brain-pan either, but things change.”

“Perhaps I can be of use some other way. May I speak about why we are here?”

“Unless you’re a very unusual medicine show looking to rehearse a long way from civilization,” said the Chorister, “I reckon you’re after the Harshef gang or mine.”

“His,” said Esker. “Forgive me again if I admit I haven’t heard of the Chorister’s gang until this encounter. We’re from out of Metu village, west and south of here. We don’t get out here often, ma’am.”

“I see,” said the Chorister. “Sort of like the boys who threw their ball into the neighbor’s yard. Entirely harmless.”

“You can see how dangerous I am,” said Esker, spreading his hands. “A veritable babe in arms—no teeth, no claws, no guile. What gets tricky, though, is if I don’t come back.”

“I know Metu village a little,” said the Chorister. “I’m not altogether certain I and mine could make it a hell of dead flesh and black-burnt houseframes in a single night—but, then, I’m not altogether certain we couldn’t, and it might be fun to try.”

Esker shrugged; he felt the barrel of the gun wobble against the back of his neck. The Chorister’s wingman was getting tired. “I take your meaning—really, I do—but this ain’t merely a Metu affair. We were summoned on a writ from the territory governor.” He let half a breath go by, saw the Chorister’s shoulders rise. “If he finds the posse he bankrolled was wiped out—I mean, we’re being considered for a province, he’s going to have a proper election to win. A couple of half-piastre horse thieves blunder their way into a train robbery, well, that’s a local matter. A posse up and vanishes—who knows? Maybe a bigger posse, maybe Jaidari marshals…”

“All right, son, stop before you say the same thing one more time.” The Chorister pressed her lips together and smacked them once, a sound only a soldier’s ears would hear over the distance. “You know the Drought Rooks, out of Keissi?”

“I’ve heard of them.”

“They run a big souktown. Lots of bad actors operating out of there. No-sudden-flood-will-end-this-drought-of-mercy—very territorial creature, you understand, and not close to moribund. I’m just relating well-known facts here. But you can see what might happen if the territory governor sent someone there after what he’s calling stolen property—”

“—but what someone in the Keissi Souktown might call an asset fairly bought and paid for?”

The Chorister nodded.

“I can’t speak for the Sheriff, ma’am, nor the governor, but I don’t believe the Jaidari government nor any of the provincial authorities seek jurisdictional disputes with the draugen.”

The Chorister dismounted, walked over to Esker, and looked up at him. The motion cocked the brim of her slouch up and allowed the moon to shine on the exposed strip of her face; her skin and eyes were as fine and dark, the traces of hair not covered by the slouch as tightly curled, as any Jaidari’s. He stifled an urge to breathe in a huge draught of her scent; belatedly he noticed an erection harder than he’d had in months, his penis leaping of its own will to strain against his drawers when she drew near. “Well, it appears we’ve achieved an understanding. What I’m going to do now is throw your pistol in the river. If you can’t repair it before questions get asked, you dropped it in the river like the fool hick you are. Then my man and I are going to leave. You’re going to stay here as long as you’re meant to, and the Harshef gang isn’t going to come. You’ll run across them in due time, but you won’t find Amam Amen-Enkh’s precious black silver. And when your sheriff starts wondering what you ought to do to get it back, you’re going to remember about the Drought Rooks out of Keissi, and you’re going to say whatever you need to. Notice how no mention of the Chorister’s gang arises in this sequence of events?”

“It hadn’t escaped me, ma’am.”

“If a posse out of Metu comes out here for me, where do I go?”

“Straight to Metu, I reckon,” said Esker, “with torches lit.”

The Chorister moved her staff and sang a syllable, and Esker’s pistol flew in a graceful arc from the ground into the river. The gun-barrel left his neck. He kept his hands up as both Chorister and wingman backed away, and kept his eyes on the Chorister’s horse as she rode.

She waited a good long time before she turned on the path she actually planned to take, but a soldier’s eyes see far under the full moon. The strip mine, he thought; and he thought of Kem, six years ago, bleeding and broken as Qeb and Reshef and Shemet Kotu brought him on a travois to Doc Maget; and of his mother and Inber’s, barring Esker and Inber from coming into the doc’s offices but not the shouts and screams from coming out. And then his mind’s ear could stand it no more, and he turned it instead to the bending of soaked wood, the planing and varnishing of dry, the interference patterns etched by a handful of sand on a vibrating violin; and then, when he could think no more on acoustics, to the strange furious sweetness of a woman speaking in a man’s voice.

#

Five men convened at the water hole at dawn. Shemet Kotu was missing.

They did not find him at his post down the river, but they did find a series of odd scorching and flower-patterns in the salt that Sheriff Poorem recognized as sign of a runeslinger using ar on the attack. “Immediate cautery,” he said gloomily. “That would explain no blood.” After that, it was not hard to explain a sign so clear that even Esker could find it: a wide streak in the salt, with a few finer streaks of different widths nested, and the occasional clear hoofprint to the side. When they looked where it went, they saw tiny spots circling in the sky, playing on the warp-drafts of a deathbird floating even higher.

The Harshef gang’s camp was not cunningly concealed, or even really concealed at all; they had not intended to remain. Their bodies lay strewn around the base of a batholith with a bit of an overhang on the lee side—just enough to provide shelter from the salt-dust when the winds rose, and shade from the sun. Shemet Kotu’s was there as well. Those not shot showed the scorches of runic lightning and the bruises, breaks, and lesions of force attacks. There was no sign of the black silver, nor of the Weeping Rune’s staff, nor of any horses. There were a few burned half-bits of Keissi Souktown scrip, though, and a number of hoofprints that headed north and east, where soldiers’ eyes could see the towers of the dead city brighten the horizon even from here.

“Well,” said Sheriff Poorem, “that’s a few sacks of black silver we’re not getting back. That’s the problem with stealing, boys—you’ve got to sell to them as buys stolen goods.”

“This sign is all pretty fresh, ain’t it?” said Asseth. “If we go after them now, we can get them while they’re still in Heru, before they cross on into Keissi.”

Sheriff Poorem sighed and stroked his beard. “Son,” he said, “the five of us, go after a gang of killers with at least two runeslingers in it, good or many enough to kill Harshef and the Rune and, what, five more—and at least one scout sneaky enough to take down Shemet? If we’d not found this sign at the river, I’d have cut his loss and taken us home. As it is, we’re all lucky we didn’t walk in on the deed as it was being done. At the moment, we’re up a bunch of dangerous scum killed and safe travel on the Heru City line, and down Shemet Kotu and a bit of black silver. It ain’t the best balance sheet I’ve seen, but considering how easy it would be for all our souls to have gone down on it in red ink, I’m pleased enough to close out the account.” He looked at Asseth, then at Esker, Inber, and Mehur, then sighed. “Look, this all happened real fast. We’re exhausted, and we’ve got to bury Shemet, and I’m sure the horses ain’t up for the trot back home—but it’s not too far to Akmem, and I know a hotel there that’ll stand us room and board against my badge. If you want excitement, there’s probably a card game there.”

For a kid who’d just pined for blood, Asseth seemed awfully happy at the prospect of a card game, Esker thought. It wasn’t until after Kotu was buried and the five survivors were on their way to Akmem that Asseth pulled up beside Esker and said, “You in for Maddy’s?”

“I haven’t a clue what a Maddys is,” said Esker. “But if it can be eaten, drunk, or slept on, I’m for it.”

“Come on,” said Asseth. “Don’t play coy with me, soldier. Maddy’s. In Akmem. I know you came through Akmem on the way here.”

“I came through Akmem sitting on a sack of flour in a metal box, son, in both directions; I don’t know if the train even stopped. I’ve never laid eyes on the place.”

“Really?” said Asseth. “You didn’t go when you were my age?”

“When I was your age, I was freezing my balls off and thumping the odd Rook head in Tenoc.” He’s only four years younger than you, Esker thought. No reason to talk like an old man on a porch, holding court and waiting to die.

“Then you’ll appreciate Maddy’s,” said Asseth, grinning slyly. “It’s a Rook bordello.”

Esker was quiet for a good few steps after that. He could feel Asseth trying to read him—was it a silence of disapproval, of contemplation, of appreciation? Esker wasn’t sure. Wasn’t sure he wanted to be sure. “I didn’t hear much about Metu kids going whorehopping before I left,” he said at last. “Or even hopping the train to Akmem.”

“One of the conductors knows the madam. They run a package deal for flowering manhoods thwarted by penury.”

“Why? Goodness of their hearts?”

“Custom isn’t regular,” said Asseth. “There’s always ciudores going to and from Keissi, but they come in when they come in, and they’re on the clock. If you can wait a bit, and you’re not picky who you get, someone’ll take care of you in a spare half hour.”

“Thank the Eight that you’re not picky.”

“It’s not that I can’t tell a good fuck from a bad fuck,” said Asseth, seeming wounded. “But—well, if ‘bad’ weren’t a sight better than nothing, I wouldn’t be talking to you about it, would I?”

“Plenty of girls in town,” said Esker. “Why do you want to go with Rooks?” He said Rooks with deliberate, false contempt. Either Asseth would be embarrassed, and the conversation would get its long overdue mercy-killing, or he’d give a real answer, which would be infinitely better than hearing this greenhorn kid give a connoisseur’s disquisition on the quality of a bought fuck.

Asseth looked down at his saddle, and Esker’s soldier’s eyes could see the tiny change in color that the blood brought to his face. Esker prepared to spur his horse a bit ahead, to leave the kid to stew in his own shame, but then Asseth’s face swung up with the most earnest look Esker had maybe ever seen. “They talk, you know?” he said, stage-whispering the words.

For a moment it seemed he was about to say more, but the words didn’t come, and silence hung like a weight on Esker’s chest. He felt like spurring the horse and bolting; there was something too questing, too hungry, in those naked eyes, and he feared whatever instinct had given Asseth the impulse to say those words to him—feared what the kid might look to learn. “And that’s the sort of thing you like, is it?” Esker said.

Asseth closed his eyes, and his entire expression fuzzed and wobbled like a child’s, if just for a moment. And in that moment, Esker did spur his horse—not to bolt, just a swift trot, taking him a few steps in front of the kid. He set his back straight in the saddle, flicked his head a fraction to kick the brim of his slouch up from his eyes, which he set on the horizon. He ignored the weight on his chest, which had not lifted. He ignored the bubble in his throat.

#

The proprietor of the Last Spike—Esker was now too embarrassed to ask his name—seemed so grateful for Esker’s willingness to eat and drink on the premises, rather than risking his precious dishes in the street, that he fed and watered Esker and Hasina gratis. It was an hour before sunset, and the common room was empty save for Fat Mehur Tekerem, who seemed content to sit in his own corner beneath an oil of the Vale, nursing a wide coffee mug that the proprietor periodically refilled from a gin bottle. It made no difference; even an attentive Mehur could not understand their conversation, and Esker surmised that the bartender could not either. He had just finished sketching the abattoir that had been the Harshef gang’s camp when the door opened and a familiar three-step gait hit his ears: Click, step, scrape; click, step, scrape. “Kem,” said Esker. “Kuk preserve your evening.”

“And Kauket yours,” said Kem. “Likewise, Srta… ?”

“Hasina Baioumy,” said Esker. “Hasina, this is my old friend Kem Menkara. Maybe you know each other? She boards at Mme Twilight’s.”

“I board at Mme Menkara’s,” said Kem, “and she harbors an unreasoning prejudice against the boarders at Mme Twilight’s. Jealous of their poise and beauty, I don’t doubt. Or perhaps they pay rent in money; for my part, I pay mine in fine conversation.” Hasina smiled politely. “Esker,” said Kem. “Do you know, in all the years I’ve known you, this is the first time you’ve stood your round?”

“First time I’ve been old enough to buy instead of beg, you mean,” said Esker. “Anyway, what round? I haven’t bought you anything.”

“That’s about to change,” said Kem. “Barkeep! A bottle of your finest honey-wine, and five glasses.”

Hasina’s fingers flickered. “Four,” said Esker. Hasina pushed her chair out and smiled again at Kem.

“No!” Kem said. “I need at least five minutes to charm a woman properly. It’s the cost of doing things right. Please stay.”

Hasina’s fingers flashed again; Esker laughed, but did not translate. Kem looked at him, then her. “Care to enlighten me?” he said.

Hasina’s curtsy and smile were each as tight as the other; she spoke a few last words to Esker and withdrew. Esker watched her go, then turned to Kem and saw his face. “It was a joke in poor taste, Kem. She can be prickly if you get her back up. You’d like her.”

“I was hoping to like her,” said Kem. “Planning, even. I had all my thoughts in place for liking her, like gears in a watch. How did I get her back up?”

Esker’s eyes narrowed faintly. “She can’t be seen drinking with two strange men, Kem. Mme Twilight doesn’t ask where you came from, but she always wants to know where you are. That’s the deal you cut, one for the other.”

“And where does Srta. Baioumy ‘come from’?”

“Efdu village, three stops up the line. Almost as boring as here. She said the girls say that your charm works faster than five minutes, but other parts of you work even faster.”

“Proving that Mme Twilight doesn’t know everything her girls do,” said Kem. The honey-wine arrived with four tumblers; at the last moment, Esker asked for a fifth. As if on cue, Inber and Ozier entered the Last Spike together. The fifth glasss came just as Esker got the bottle open. “Well timed,” said Esker. “The lieutenant ought to pour.”

“We’ve an extra glass,” said Kem.

“We have the right number of glasses,” said Inber. “But we’re down one man.”

“The Eight,” said Kem, “fuck me for forgetting.”

There was a silence, then, as Ozier poured five glasses and the four men drank. “We’ll give Ras his drink when we leave,” the giant said. “No need to waste it on the good man’s floorboards. Esker, my father’s disappointed in you. You didn’t get his silver back and you didn’t kill the thieves.”

“If your father wants to argue jurisdiction with No-sudden-shower-will-end-this-drought-of-mercy, I’ll gladly pay to watch.”

“My father’s not convinced that Keissi Souktown has anything to do with it,” said Ozier. “First, if these people want black silver and have enough juice to exterminate the Harshef gang, why not just rob the train themselves? Second, what earthly use is there for black silver in a souktown?”

“Some of them are run by wizards,” said Kem.

“Jagaag and Menehet are rumored to be run by wizards,” said Ozier. “But they’d need a forge or a lab to do anything with it. Third, anyway, why would Harshef and the Rune accept a deal in Keissi scrip? If they were going to go to Keissi to use it, why wouldn’t they just do the deal there instead of out on the salt?”

“Well,” said Inber, “if I wanted to kill my business partners instead of paying them, I’d sooner do it out on the salt than in my backyard.”

“Think what you like,” said Ozier. “We’ll find out soon enough. My father can’t get the Sheriff to budge, so he’s sending me and a few men out to see if we can’t scare up a third party who might have been involved in the massacre.”

The water in Esker’s spine suddenly went very, very cold.

“I mean, it makes sense,” Ozier went on. “We don’t really know who killed the Harshef gang. If it was someone out there, all they had to do was get a little bit of Keissi scrip and scatter it around. Everyone thinks the black silver is gone under a draugen’s wing, when in reality it’s out there on the salt in some half-bright greedhead’s hands the whole time.”

“Of course,” said Esker, taking care to keep his voice quite measured, “in this scenario, whoever’s got the silver has, by hypothesis, enough juice to exterminate the Harshef gang.”

Ozier smiled like nine sharp slivers of high Tenoc ice. “You were there when the flood happened,” he said. “You can’t possibly believe I’d be afraid of a rune or two, not now.”

“I believe every man can find it in his heart to fear anything he chooses,” said Esker. “What can I say? I’m an optimist.”

It was a weak joke, but it got the laugh it needed; Kem immediately launched into a disquisition on his precisely cultivated fear of heights, and the talk moved on from there.

Dark had fully fallen before the four friends left; each had stood his round, and no drop of spirits remained at the table. When Ozier stood to go, Esker offered to accompany him, and the two veered out the door and up toward the Amen-Enkh plantation.

When they had cleared the perimeter of town and reached the road, Ozier cleared his throat. “Esker, I hate to do this, but I just want to be clear—this isn’t like when we were kids. Right?”

Esker laughed. “I hadn’t even thought of it. No, this isn’t a proposition.”

“All right.” Ozier pushed a short breath out through his nose, not quite a sigh. “Sorry. I just—I think we all thought you’d end up a bachelor. And without Ras—I mean, I don’t think I realized just how much I… associated the two of you. So I’m a touch unclear on… where you stand.”

“I don’t plan or aspire to fuck you, Kem, or Inber, now or ever,” said Esker. He had thought he felt annoyed, but in the voicing of the sentiment he heard anger and, in hearing, felt it. “Clear?”

“As glass,” said Ozier, putting his hands out in a soothing motion. “I’m sorry. Let’s enjoy the walk.”

“I actually have something else to tell you,” said Esker. “When I was waiting for the Harshef gang to water their horses, I said nothing happened that night. But there was a third party out there. Their leader’s called the Chorister. We talked, I persuaded them to spare me if I didn’t tell anyone about what happened. They saw the use in not killing every man of us. But they know your father’s name. They said if a Metu posse comes out there for them, they’ll come here for us.”

Ozier had been nodding along, paying quite serious attention, but at the final line he smiled. “Esker,” he said, “this is a little, backward, boring village, but it’s a key asset of the territory and of Jaidar. There’s a reason the Heru City line ends here. If this Chorister survives our little expedition, he’ll be signing his death warrant if he attacks Metu—assuming he has enough men at all, which isn’t even slightly clear, since you only laid eyes on two. You understand?” Ozier put a hand on Esker’s shoulder. “He threatened you because he realized he’d stuck his foot in it, capturing a posse-man from the territory government, and he wanted to be able to let you go but keep you quiet.”

They had drawn up on the plantation. Absorbed in the conversation, Esker hadn’t even noticed the mounting smell, reminiscent of rotting vegetables and blood; he stared at the hulking silhouette of the complex, spiked with silos and squat with processing plants and assembly lines. Four guards with runed staves, one a double, watched them silently from the gate in the high fence. Esker had often made this walk with Ozier, but he had never been allowed inside the gate. “Need a walk home?” said Ozier. “One of the sentries will be happy to escort you.”

“I made the walk all right when I was ten,” said Esker, “I’ll be fine now. Thanks.”

The two men clasped hands and then clasped shoulders. Ozier turned to enter the gate, which opened at his motion; then he turned his head back to look at Esker over his shoulder. “I almost forgot,” he said. “My friend Madeleine asked me to thank my tall, handsome neighbor for his generous gratuity. I didn’t know who she could possibly be talking about. She said his name was Mehur. And I don’t know anyone who fits both the name and the description.”

“Me neither,” said Esker. “Good night.”

As he turned to leave, his soldier’s eyes caught the smirks on the sentries’ faces. They knew who Madeleine was, they knew who he was, and they knew exactly what Ozier had been talking about. It was a classic Amen-Enkh move, to forget that one’s own employees had eyes and ears and mouths. He waited until he was well into the desert between the plantation and the Sepherene household to curse the sky.