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.
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. [] 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.”
“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. [] 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, [] 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.” []
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.