PROLOGUE: BLOOD ON A LINED PALM
There was, on paper, a passenger car on the train from Heru City to the village of Metu at the end of the line; but the bean-counters at the Ministry of Rail had calculated the cost in black silver of carrying an empty passenger car and, knowing it, had discreetly invested in a small yard at [[minor stop]], the last place most passengers who could afford the fare would care to go. Wherefore, at [[minor stop]], the lost boys moved without complaint to the same cargo cars in which they had ridden out on their deployment, six years prior, and passed their final miles back to civilian life in amongst the sacks of flour and screws and Tanta lemons that the [[rail-hands]] would disgorge in exchange for Metu’s good black silver.
The lost boys were three—a giant, a beanpole, and a bearded Chanter built like a stone hut. They sat in a triangle that looked like half a square, the shape you get when one point is missing. They did not speak except to say good-bye to the fellow soldiers who left the train at the other boondock stops out on the alkali flats. Their tongues were heavy with the news of their new loss, their guts queasy with the thought of how it would be taken, and in the dark it was easy not to speak.
There were no windows in the cargo cars, no conductors to call out the stops, and the lost boys did not know the Heru City Line well enough to count down to Metu—the ride out had been their first and only. The train would stop, the doors would let the blinding sun burst in, the [[rail-hands]] would come in and move some goods, the door would close; or the train would stop and the lost boys would sit in unbroken darkness until it jerked into motion again.
And then the train stopped, the sun sprang into the lost boys’ eyes and rattled there like fresh-cracked gravel, and the voice of the sergeant-major called out like a cock-crow: “Now disembark our honored fighting men!” And, as they had been taught to do, the lost boys picked up their weapons, stumbled carefully toward the light, and prepared to pick their way down the battered, red-upholstered wooden stair that the [[rail-hands]] had dragged beneath the doors.
“Ozier Amen-Enkh, rank of first lieutenant, approach!”
Ozier, the giant, ducked to clear the doorframe and vanished into the sunlight.
Esker, the beanpole, peered out into the bright day, forcing his eyes to accommodate the light. The Metu depot was much as he remembered it—the great bins of black silver with the Amen-Enkh sigil scorched into the wood, Reshef the grocer and a pack of youths standing ready to receive goods in their empty carts, the little children staring at the train with not-yet-tarnished awe, the older ones grudgingly giving it the attention due a rare visit of high civilization to this tiny town. He scanned the crowd for the faces he knew. Inber’s light-skinned mother, standing apart from the crowd, leapt out before his own family; Ozier’s father stood out as well, his mass finely caparisoned in a bespoke three-piece suit. Esker’s heart leapt to find his own father and mother, Qeb and Iseret, who met his eyes and waved, the years melting not quite completely from their faces. Next to them was Kem Menkara, leaning on a cane; he raised his free hand in mock salute.
Ras’ mother was there as well, at the front of the crowd, her face full of hope. Esker saw Inber’s eyes go to her, saw him cover his mouth in his palm and sink his thick fingers into his thicket of beard. “Shit, Esker,” he said, “look at Ma Sennu.”
“I see her.”
“They haven’t told her. How could they not tell her?”
“How could they tell her?” said Esker. “How could anything from the front get here faster than us?”
“The major could have told her,” said Inber. “Before the ceremonies. Give her a chance to leave and grieve in private. Instead he leaves the job to us?”
“The major doesn’t know her,” said Esker.
“Neither do we,” said Inber. “Not any more.”
“Inber Beneshet!” called the major. “Rank of specialist! Approach!”
Inber looked at Esker, his face full of pain, and stepped into the sunlight.
Ozier and Amam Amen-Enkh were embracing. Esker saw Atai Beneshet’s eyes widen as the day’s light told her news of her son: His new-broad shoulders, his new-deep chest, his face newly a mirror of his father’s, bearded, with side-strands in the Chanter style curling down past the hinge of his jaw. Esker watched Ma Sennu. She must have known Ras had made first lieutenant before he died. Would she understand what it meant, that he had not come before Inber and himself? He looked to Reshef, who had served—Esker had forgotten the campaign; it had not mattered to him at sixteen—and saw the realization flicker across his face. He whispered to one of the youths behind the carts and began, gently, to shoulder his way to the front of the crowd. Kem saw the move, read it with eyes as quick as Esker remembered, then turned to Esker, his face a question.
Esker thought about how he would make sadness and loss show on his face. He could not think how to do it, and gave up; Kem would know soon enough. But perhaps he had succeeded by accident, for a stricken look came over Kem, and he leaned over to whisper to Esker’s father.
“Esker Sepherene!” called the major. “Rank of private first class! Approach!”
Esker stooped to clear the cargo doors, much as Ozier had, and stepped down the stair into the sun.
Framed by the doors, the crowd assembled at the depot had seemed huge—it was clearly the majority of the village, the outlying homesteads, and even the migrant workers from the Amen-Enkh plantation—but the full breadth of the horizon made the scene a miniature, villagers and village alike dwarfed by the alkali flats, by the searing sky, and even by the train itself. Even by him, Esker realized as he set foot for the first time on the [[salt-flaked]] sand; he had been tall at sixteen, when he left, but still his bones had lengthened, his muscles thickened. The swordspear in his hand felt ugly here as it had not on the high ice in Tenoc. Who here would he kill, or think of killing? It seemed to squirm in his hand, sensing his discomfort with its purpose.
Esker turned to face the major, a full head and a half shorter. They had met briefly at Heru City Station, where they had rehearsed the bones of the brief ceremony of discharge; he was a Sun City man with a strong Vale accent, who’d known Ozier a bit from their operations against the insurgent mountain tribes outside Tenoc. He’d be headed back to Sun City for his own honorable discharge after this, and Esker could see the itch to get it over in his eyes.
“Private Sepherene, you’ve served with honor on the Tenoc Campaign in the Army of Jaidar, first in the garrison at Port Piko and then in peacekeeping operations in Tenoc itself, where you and your comrades-in-arms showed towering bravery in the face of monstrous destruction and profane sorcery.”
Esker heard a choking sob from the crowd. He stiffened the muscles in his neck and made himself stare at the major like a snake at a rat.
“You’ve helped secure a vital resource for your nation, and you’ve earned a life of peace, or as much peace as man can have in life. Please present your issue.”
Esker held his swordspear out in front of him, blade to the sky. Then he spread his hands out on the haft, turned it parallel to the ground, and it flat in his palms. He bowed his head and closed his eyes.
A gasp went up from the crowd; and, rather than feeling the swordspear lifted from his offering hands, he felt someone jerk down on the blade. Unthinking, fluid, he grasped the haft again and sank down, bracing his legs to pull the weapon away.
Ma Sennu faced him, the blade in both hands. Her face shone with tears; they filled the lines of her features with silver, gleaming in the sun. But she was not crying now. Her face was a mask of rage. Blood was running from her hands down to her forearms, slowly soaking her sleeves.
Her arms were outstretched; the blade in her hands was pointed directly at her chest. She was a tiny woman, as little as the Salve Rooks in Tenoc but bird-boned as Ras had been. Esker’s mind rehearsed move and countermove, unconscious of the insanity of the scenario: Pull the blade from her palms, carving the wounds deeper, then reverse course into a thrust? Or lose speed but gain surprise, arcing the blade around to slash at her head or shoulder? Or use his size and strength and push directly forward, ending it instantly?
Reshef the grocer’s hands were on her shoulders. “Come on, Sennu,” he whispered. “You’re hurting yourself. And you’re scaring young Esker here, who thinks you’ll kill him if he drops the blade.” He shot a prompting glance at Esker. Esker blinked twice, shook his head, then set the haft of the weapon on the ground, trying not to deepen the cuts on Ma Sennu’s palms.
“Ma Sennu,” Esker said. “It’s so good to see you. I’m so sorry about Ras. You know how we loved him. I’ll tell you everything you want to know, whenever you want. Please, just let go the blade.”
She snarled, then threw the bloodstained blade down, the gesture spattering the ground with twin red crescents—which the [[alkali sands]] drank greedily, leaching them of color until they might have been raindrops or rust spots. She spoke with gestures blurred and coarsened by her wounds.
There was silence.
“What did she say, son?” the major prompted.
Esker looked at Ma Sennu and spoke with his own hands. Shall I tell them?
She curled her lip. Tell them, she said. Tell everybody.
“‘They took my son,’” said Esker, “‘and left me not a scrap of remembrance. This is mine, bought by the blood I bled in birthing him.’ Ma,” he said to Ma Sennu, “he drowned, there was a flood. His uniform and his weapon were lost with his body—”
“It’s all right, private,” said the major. “No need to make excuses for us. What’s her name?”
“Sennu Melaku,” said Esker.
“Mme Melaku,” said the major, “the private here has just surrendered his issue to the Army of Jaidar from which it came. You can see that it’s a finely crafted piece—rune-graven on haft and blade both, wrought of Vale glyphwood and Logssor steel. A job of work for us to replace, you surely understand.” He held her eyes for a long moment. “If it will serve as a remembrance of your son’s service, it’s yours.”
Ma Sennu snatched it up from the ground, nearly fumbling it in blood-slick hands. She could not speak, of course; then, Esker thought, what else could she possibly say? Doc Maget put his arms around her shoulders—he had not been in the crowd, Esker realized; someone must have fetched him—and pulled her gently to the side. She resisted for a moment, then allowed herself to be ushered away.
Esker looked at the people of Metu, his old home. The people of Metu looked back at him, and at the blood on the ground.
“Good people of Metu,” said the major, “I’m so sorry for the loss of Lieutenant Melaku. Your army thanks you for your sacrifice.” He spoke well, Esker realized—he led men, he had to be able to improvise, inspire, defuse, persuade—but he was ashamed, afraid. He wanted, more than anything, to leave. And he could, and would, and did—back to his seat in the engine car, while the [[rail-hands]] discreetly replaced the red-upholstered stair with a ramp, and began unloading flour and screws and Tanta lemons. And the silence of the ceremony was broken, and Kem and Qeb and Iseret made their way toward him, their happiness brittle but still bright, and he watched the blade of the weapon that had been his recede above the crowd, bobbling in Ma Sennu’s unsteady hands.
“Pardon me, Esker,” said a man in Amen-Enkh livery, and Esker realized it was Fat Mehur Tekerem, dried out of drink and loose-skinned and strong from heavy labor. His face and the whites of his eyes seemed to be tinged with grey. “‘Fraid we need to clear the way—got a cargo to load, you know.” Esker could see him remember the strange, painful moment that had just passed, see him work to craft some comment on it. “Bad business, that, with Ma Sennu. And Ras, Nu speed him to the Vale. Good to have you back, son.”
Esker murmured some reply that seemed to please Mehur and stepped out of the way. The Amen-Enkh men began queueing up the bales of black silver. Esker peered into the train, into the space that had held flour and screws and Tanta lemons and three lost boys, into the space that would take black silver back to Heru City and from there all over Jaidar. He was not surprised to yearn for that space; what could be strange about the appeal of the cool dark, the rumble of the train, friends at one’s side, a weapon in one’s hand? He was not surprised—but he felt the sun above him, the sky around him, the souls behind him, and he was afraid.
He could hear Kem’s cane scraping on the ground. He took a deep draught of breath into shaking lungs and rehearsed the muscle-motions of a smile before he turned.
The ciudores drew up on the bridge as the sun set to their left, painting the flat desert with muddy dark. Where the dark smeared the ciudad viejo beyond the bridge, lights sprang on: Steady points of wood-flame and tungsten and sodium and rune-light, to be sure, but also comets of all colors, gunpowder and eld-Art and runic simples, flashing thirsty through the hunkering dark to find homes in yielding flesh. The lead ciudor laughed as the press of gun- and runefire thickened. “Much bloodlust in the viejo tonight,” he said. “More lucre for eager souls with steady hands, say I. How do you like that claim-deed now, Sepherene?”
“I like it no worse than I did when I received it, Epaphos,” said Esker. “All the bloodlust in Jaidar will plant no Art in the claim, nor remove it either.”
“Well, I like it better,” said Epaphos Epseris, “for our seven-way split was enticement enough; but even a generous reckoning puts the split at five before we leave the claim. Unless you have learned to throw that ox-goad of yours, or the cripple his cane.”
“The cripple is here to sweeten deals and draw up contracts,” said Kem, audibly out of breath from the effort of keeping up with the other ciudores. “The Epseris brothers are here to brutalize the opposition. But it is all the same to me; learn to read and write, and I’ll learn to work that staff of yours.”
Epaphos turned to Kem. He was not a large man, nor a broad, and the only thing striking in his physiognomy was a beard that would shame a Chanter; but he bore a runeslinger’s staff, seven feet from its bone-shod foot to the skull-sized gnarl at the top and helixed with the runes ar and ket, and his eyes glowed with a dim green foxfire beneath the brim of his slouch, an effect that never failed to freeze the water in Esker’s spine. “Lay a hand on my staff, cripple. I invite you.”
“Now, Epaphos, surely you’ll at least take me to the theater first—”
“Enough,” rumbled the voice of Ozier Amen-Enkh, deep as an earthquake. “Epaphos, keep your prognoses to yourself. Kem, by the Eight and Nine, wean yourself of this need to bait the Epseris; I cannot keep all three of them off your neck forever, and it wearies me to try.”
“There is a more urgent matter to attend in any case,” said Sethos Epseris; he was near twin to Epaphos, but cleaner-cut and slimmer, with eyes that glowed blue instead of green. “We ought to veer from that bridge before we come in sight of its sentries.”
“Veer?” said Ozier. “A convenient notion, Sethos, I concede it—but you forget what the bridge is there to do. How do you reckon we get over that cañon?”
“Teos sings ush well enough,” said Epaphos, pointing to the third Epseris brother—this one thicker and shorter than him, with a beard built more of absent-mindedness than any special purpose. “He can create a platform of it and slow our descent. I have seen it done. It will not be so hard to take us down into the cañon.”
“If only down were our sole obstacle,” said Ozier.
“Teos can get us up,” said Epaphos. “One at a time, if need be, with a bit of rest between.”
“You’ve seen that done?”
“I’ve seen him toss a bull Rook about like a starved kitten with nothing but that staff and ush,” said Epaphos. “Ush don’t care about gravity.” As if in answer, Teos sang ush—the only syllable Esker had ever heard him utter—and lifted Epaphos into the air until his feet were level with Ozier’s eyes, then let him down again, light as a feather.
Ozier folded his arms across his chest, and Esker saw the light dim just a fraction in Epaphos’ eyes. “Let me sort this through,” the giant said. “You propose we avoid the sentries on the bridge, on grounds that you think them dangerous—these sentries, just so I’m clear, being the guards to the Souktown of Jagaag, a place built to make its bones on the fantasies of useful idiots like ourselves. As an alternative, you suggest a dodgy, untried sorcerous approach, on which the smart money is that either we kill ourselves on the descent when Teos falters under the weight of seven ciudores and their gear; or that we find ourselves unable to ascend the other side and are forced to navigate the bed of the cañon, perhaps all the way to the playa, easy prey for any opportunist on either side; or that, against all odds, Teos successfully sends us all to up the other side, where we are sequentially captured by a border guard employed especially for the purpose of intercepting travelers disinclined to submit themselves to the scrutiny of the sentries at the bridge. And the quality of the suggestion makes me wonder, Epaphos: What, precisely, do you fear from the sentries of Souktown? It must be their reputation, for you have assured me that you have never spent time here.”
“Well,” said Epaphos, “no time of consequence.”
Ozier stood in stony silence.
“When one has been a runeslinger for a good handful of years,” said Epaphos, “there is only the rare Souktown where one has not spent a few days or a week. Any purveyor of fine libations near a prospect-city is inevitably in want of a strong staff or three to protect the merchandise and ease the minds of customers, and most pay from the top shelf for the service. But we were not here for any length of time, nor did we learn the town too well, nor put down any sort of roots. I hardly imagined that some fly-by-night mercenary engagement would spark the interest of Ozier Amen-Enkh.”
There was contempt in Epaphos’ utterance of Ozier’s famous surname, but if the giant noticed, he ignored it. “Neither would I,” Ozier said, “but, Epaphos—there is a bridge down the road, and unless my ears deceive me, the Epseris will not cross it.”
“We left on poor terms,” said Sethos. “We had a disagreement with a local celebrity.”
“What celebrity?” said Ozier. “Truthfully.”
“The mayor,” said Sethos. “Boss John Dream.”
“What dispute?” said Ozier. “Truthfully.”
And this time the word truthfully was different—richer, weightier, full of hooks and sweetness; Esker, not even the glamour’s target, felt his own confessions bubble in his throat. Kem croaked, choking back syllables; Inber made a long, voiced, shapeless noise; Teos hummed loud and high. For his part, Epaphos set his jaw like a bulldog; even in the dusk, Esker could see sweat spring from his brow. “You said you would not use that trick on us,” said Epaphos in a strained voice.
“That was before you lied to me,” said Ozier. “Or at least before you got caught like a damned boy stealing white lightning from the still outside of town. You’d better get that truth off your chest, Epaphos; the glamour of House Amen-Enkh doesn’t suffer dissent gently.” He said Amen-Enkh with the same twist Epaphos had put on it not a minute earlier.
“Our brother stole one of his whores,” said Epaphos. Esker could practically feel the relieved rush of air from the runeslinger’s lungs.
“You said you lost Horos to the Tungsten Kid,” said Ozier.
“We did,” said Sethos, who seemed anxious to unburden his own soul. “We left the Jagaag Souktown before Dream could catch us.”
Ozier closed his eyes and let a long breath out of his nose. He was not working the glamour now, at least as far as Esker knew, and yet the sigh had the same effect as the words, or similar—he felt his heart race and his gut twist with the anxiety of Ozier’s disappointment, even though he had not been its target.
“We enter Souktown by the bridge,” said Ozier. “We provision immediately; we do not stay the night. We bypass the claims authority; if we find the claim jumped, I will double back with Kem and Esker and appeal while the Epseris stay in the viejo. It will take this Boss Dream’s men some time to recognize you three, especially with Esker, Kem, and Inber, who are not known ciudores or runeslingers—”
“Please call me Tune,” said Inber quietly.
“I don’t care what your name is,” said Ozier. “I just need you and everyone else in this benighted pack of layabouts to keep your voices low and your heads down while we get what we need in Souktown. And especially while we cross that bridge.”
“Teos can take us down the cañon,” said Epaphos sullenly.
“Teos can take the Epseris down the cañon,” said Ozier, “and forfeit the claim.”
It is not your claim to give and take, Esker thought; but he did not say it. It seemed a childish objection in the moment.
“Forfeit the deed?” said Epaphos. “Well, that would be a shame—but then, who’s to say we might not come upon it again? Perhaps with its owners in no state to make use of it? Does that not strike you as possible, Teos?”
Teos shrugged and twirled his staff.
“What Epaphos means—” Sethos began, but Ozier cut him off. “Epaphos’ meaning is evident,” he said. “If he is sincere in it, I suggest he come for what he wants and save himself the trouble of finding us again. I have often longed to see Teos use ush in a fair fight. But if not, I suggest he begin moving his feet in the direction of the bridge, and keep his damned slouch down over his eyes.”
Epaphos raised his staff over his head, parallel to the plane of his body; it took Esker a moment to realize that the motion was a stretch. The runeslinger gave a tight little laugh.