“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?
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.
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.”
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.
“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.