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?
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.”
“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.