… and every black hair on Esker’s body rose like a mad snake.
The man who had entered was little, by Esker’s standards, perhaps medium by most; he had thin arms and thin legs and a fat gut, all wrapped in a suit of some fine-grained white leather that moved strangely with his steps. By his lightness, he was a Rook, though there was some of Jaidar in his features; his hair was straight and sandy like a Rook’s, long but thinning, pulled back into a tiny tail where his neck joined his skull. Around his neck there was a silver-and-turquoise charm on a white leather thong, though Esker could catch the faint tracery of wires, straight and right-angled, over the veins of the turquoise—which stone was carved into the shape of a whorl and claw. “By the guts of the stars,” he uttered in a high voice, pungent with a Great Playa twang, “if it isn’t the Brothers Epseris, and their greedy fingers in my cookie jar again. Where’s your brother, Teos?”
Teos sang ush; the man in white held up a hand, its fingers contorted into a shape that made Esker’s stomach churn, and whatever would have transpired failed to do so.
“Teos don’t talk no more, Boss,” said Sethos Epseris. “Not since we lost Horos.”
“Oh, he talks,” said the man that Esker could only presume was Boss John Dream. “I can hear every word he gibbers in that poor addled head of his. Which one are you again? I always did mix up the lickspittle and the quiet one.”
“The lickspittle is Sethos,” said Epaphos. “I speak for the Epseris now, John Dream.”
“What an event,” said Boss John Dream in mock wonder, tapping his cheek with a forefinger in rhythm with the words. “And you think if you won’t call me ‘Boss,’ I won’t be boss?”
“Oh,” said Epaphos, “I know it.”
Boss John Dream examined Epaphos with a gimlet eye. “Will miracles never cease,” he said. “Evidence of intelligent life in the Epseris clan. Let this one bud off a couple more and I might commence needing to keep an eye on you. Well, I do enjoy a spell of badinage, but there’s killing to be done.” He turned his eye to Esker. “And what I need to know is, do I need to include you in the proceedings? Don’t play dumb with me, now, soldier; I see you standing like a damned weather-vane in the middle of this common room, which means you weren’t in the Epseris’ sights, and I think you know as well as I do that Epseris kill like dogs drool—that is to say, everydamnwhere, except where they’ve been trained they shouldn’t. What I’m getting at is that if you’re going to cause me trouble, I’m going to paint the remnants of this fine establishment with a thin film of what used to be your insides—but, if you’ll submit to a very small work of binding, just to assure your non-interference, then I’ll be happy to give you a ten-minute head start to fleeing my Souktown and getting back to whatever hick shithole burped you into a world that never wanted you.”
“I’m here on business,” said Esker. “I’ve got deed to a claim in south Jagaag.”
“This is your lucky day, then,” said Boss John Dream. “Instead of getting killed by a higher class of idiot, you get to saunter on back to [[Pigshit Village in scenic Incest Province]] and lament how the boss of Jagaag Souktown stole your claim-deed. With a tale like that, I bet you can have both your sisters in any hole you like. On three, soldier, am I getting shit from you or not? One…”
Through a window’s teeth, Esker saw a flash of motion—hand in a flat plane before a thick-bearded face, the forefinger tilted up—a sundial sign, the army signal for buy some time.
“You’ve called me ‘soldier’ twice now,” said Esker. “The man who had this staff found out what that meant, the hard way.” He twirled the staff once and poked its owner, trying to make the gesture look rougher than it was. “You’re a big sorcerer—all right, I respect that. You can handle a few runeslingers like a sackful of puppies—more than a little entertaining, I have to say, after taking shit from them day after day. But I’m a soldier of the Jaidari army, and I’ve been in charges through runic enfilades that would leave an Epseris brother nothing but ash and naked bones, ush staff or no ush staff. So, Boss John Dream,” and Esker dropped the staff and took a long step toward his swordspear, which lay on the ground in the middle of a puddle of strawberry brandy, “I think you’re bluffing.”
Boss John Dream smiled from ear to ear, every blindingly white tooth on display. “I love it when soldiers think I’m bluffing.”
Esker knew he wasn’t bluffing. But he knew the attack would come at his mind, not his body; and he knew that standard mental countermeasures could buy him seven seconds against a basic battle-sorcerer and three against a really good one—those figures without any knowledge of the adversary’s personality, which could add one, maybe two, even in the worst case. He filled his mind with one of the labyrinth visualizations, “cocky boss” personality variant, and hoped four seconds of blinding agony would buy Inber time for whatever he needed to do.
In the panoptic view of his mind’s maze, he saw a great white worm squeeze into the vestibule. It had a doughy face, half a snake’s, half Boss John Dream’s.
“Huh,” he heard Boss Dream say, as if from a distance. “Smart.” One second.
He never made it to two. There was a great juddering in the labyrinth of his mind, and when it was over, the walls had been reshaped into one long, straight corridor, nothing but air between him and the mind-worm that was Boss John Dream.
The grinning creature lunged for him, covering the distance like a bullet, and he felt the white coils of muscle and mucus wrap his limbs, felt the rows of needle-teeth sink into his flesh, as though the worm were real. He saw two figures in the background, approaching, calm and leisurely: One drenched and bloated, one a skeleton below the neck, where her flesh ended in a sudden scrawl of ash.
Then in his head’s eye—not his mind’s—there was a flash of white and yellow, and in his head’s ear there was a roar, and instead of teeth and coils he felt a wall of heat crash into him and then dissipate, and Boss John Dream was hurtling into the tavern like a kicked kitten.
His mind was in pieces, but his body knew a deathtrap when it saw one, and he made for the char-edged hole where the tavern doors had been, dimly aware of the Epseris brothers hot on his heels. Then everyone was running, barreling away from the scarab-signed tavern as fast as their legs would move. He and Inber swiftly outpaced the Epseris brothers; like it knew a deathtrap, his body knew it should slow down, but it declined to do so. Not out of fear. For all they were fellow-travelers, these Epseris were not his brothers; not like Inber and Ozier were, not like Ras had been, not like anyone who had fought and died beside him on the high ice.
Inber was shouting his name as they ran. Esker wanted him to stop, to say what he had to say already, but didn’t know how to form the words to tell him. Eventually they came to him, and he said “Spit it out, Inber!” thickly, with the wrong intonation, as though they were his first words in a just-learned language.
“Esker, look up at the viejo.”
He looked up over the low roofs of Souktown to the far-off towers of the ciudad viejo. With a corner of his mind, he noticed that some were decorated with the same patterns of lights in three or four colors: red, white, white. Blue, red, blue, green.
“See the one that looks like stacked blocks, with the two spikes on top?”
“Yellow, green, white,” Esker said, his mouth still uncertain around the words.
Inber paused a moment. “Right. That one. We go there first. Understand? Not south to your claim. To yellow, green, white.”
“Yellow, green, white.”
Inber clapped him on the back. “I’m telling the Epseris. Ozier and Kem are on their way. Be safe, brother.”
And Esker was alone.
He stopped, just for a moment, to fix the image of the building in his mind. Then he looked around Souktown, trying to fix in his mind the notion that its welter of color and language was now a menace, that he could not stay. It seemed wrong, shameful, that this should be; that he should not stay to wrangle with more wizards and runeslingers, to watch Kem dicker with freaks and deviants, to breathe in the fumes of more questionable alcohols from shattered bottles. He sensed, dimly, that the stress on flesh and mind would break both, or perhaps merely grind them into something simpler, less useful. But perhaps that would not be so bad either. It would be difficult, he knew, to find the Art he sought, to make it work, to take it home and present it to his wife. The complexity of the undertaking was unimaginable, in truth. To say nothing of the pain.
Yellow, green, white.
This was how they had done it on the high ice: One maneuver at a time.
He stared at the swordspear in his hand. He had not remembered to pick it up. Was that one of its runes? Some subtle magic of reminding?
The night was too chilly to stay still. He saluted Souktown with his weapon, as he had been trained to salute a victorious enemy before surrender, then began loping with great ground-eating strides into the viejo.
After the tearful reunion, after the banquet, after days renewing old acquaintances and occasionally making new ones, absorbing the news of the village and seeing, whether by coincidence or design, almost none of Ozier and Inber (who was now insisting that he be called “Tune”) at all, there came a day when Esker had nothing to do. On that day, he rose, greeted his mother Iseret with the usual Good evening (he had mixed up the signs for “morning” and “evening” as a child, and the wrong greeting had survived his learning of the correct sign), then fetched eight eggs from the henhouse and cracked two of them into a bowl of tomato sauce, to which he helped himself from the pot that was already simmering on the stove. He picked up the small baton hanging by the stove and heated the bowl for himself until the eggs had poached in the sauce, then poured himself a cup of coffee from the other pot. By this time, his father Qeb had risen and Kem had arrived at the house. Iseret served the same dish of shakshuka to them, reserving two eggs for herself, and they discussed the day’s work over breakfast. The government had issued new quality standards for black silver, which necessitated new assurances from the Amen-Enkh plantation and its employees, which meant a huge amount of work drawing up new documents—but there was a great deal to be done on an illumination commissioned by one of Qeb’s Heru City clients, and a number of migrants from Qarna to the east needed work permits before they could begin work in Metu, or anywhere in Heru Territory. Kem insisted that he could handle the permits while Qeb concentrated on the illumination; Qeb allowed that Kem was skilled enough to do it, then began confabulating reasons that it could not be done anyway. This was a pattern with Esker’s father, of course—Esker, at eleven, had had to watch the henhouse like a hawk for damage, then repair it perfectly without permission, before Qeb trusted him to do it on his own—and he listened to the familiar back-and-forth with a dwindling but still warm affection. There was something else there too, though, a crawling feeling in his throat and the backs of his upper arms; this sensation had been rising for days, now, and he had not seen fit to look it straight on and examine what it was.
Likewise, he declined to do so now. Instead, he stooped to leave the house, then walked the quarter-mile to Metu and wandered through the streets until he heard the sound that had been nagging at him since his return—the high, wistful sound of a violin.
His wandering was merely to pass the time; he knew where the sound came from. Across from the post office stood Old Pa Urshu’s house, which had been vacant when he was deployed. The same pair of rocking chairs flanked the same little round table on the same shaded porch, but a sign now hung over that porch: AZMERA BERTA, LUTHIER. Esker stood outside the porch for longer than was strictly proper, listening. It was the same tune, being played over and over again, with small variations in the pitch and quality of the sounds; Esker guessed the luthier was tuning an instrument. He walked two doors down to the Last Spike, Metu’s superior drinking establishment, and asked if he could take a glass of tea out for a bit. The server (a new man, whose name Esker had not learned) gave him the tea for free and the glass on loan, and Esker returned to the luthier’s porch and sat in one of the chairs.
The tuning continued for a while, then stopped. Then music began on a different violin, but this was proper music, designed to please a listener, not to expose weaknesses in an instrument. It was a serious melody, perhaps even a bit fussy, played well even through the difficult parts—but not playfully.
A young woman arrived, tall and straight-backed, her hair long and pulled back into a loose ponytail. Her frock was bright blue and green, not colors Esker remembered as typical Metu dress; he wondered if they were talked about. It seemed like the sort of thing talked about in small towns, but the impression seemed read from a reference guide, not formed from his own experience. He said Good evening with his hands as she entered the luthiery. If anything about the greeting surprised her, it did not show, and she said Good evening smoothly back, barely interrupting her opening of the door.
When she was gone from the porch, the music stopped. There began a more complex sequence of sounds: The luthier would say something, and then there would be a long pause, presumably the young woman’s reply. Esker tried to time the silences, to see whether she was signing or writing, but he could not tell. Every so often, there would be the noise of wood being cut, or creaking under pressure, or panting as it was sanded or barking as it split. Still more occasionally, there would be snatches of music, usually followed by some comment on the quality of the sound from the luthier.
When the sun was high, Esker bought lunch at the Last Spike—or tried to buy it; again, the proprietor would not take his money. It was chicken and rice, not as competently spiced as Iseret’s, but the portion of chicken was generous. Then he took another glass of tea—for this one, the proprietor did take Esker’s money—and returned to the luthier’s.
Afternoon was for lessons, it seemed. The first was Zesmehent Haankhef, whom Esker had simply known as “the Haankhef baby” when he left; to her he said Good afternoon, and she shied behind her mother’s leg, though smiling. Then there was a mother and a boy, well-dressed, who came on the train. When Esker said Good afternoon to them, the boy was intrigued, but the mother gave him a look of profound cold. Inside, he could hear the luthier answer what must have been a question written on a note: “I’ve no idea who he is, ma’am, nor how he came to learn sign, but he sounds a friendly fellow; why not ask?” This seemed to end the conversation. The boy played better than Zesmehent, but not much better, and he did not laugh at his mistakes.
The third lesson was Inber’s sister, Hana, who smiled and waved at Esker and nearly spoke—until he signed Good afternoon to her, whereupon she remembered where she was and walked in with her lips pursed tight, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. He could hear her speak to the luthier, though quite quietly—only a soldier sitting on the porch would hear. The playing began, and then the luthier stepped outside and joined Esker in the other chair.
“The girl’s question has been on my mind as well, sir,” he said. “Why is Esker on my porch?”
“Shade,” said Esker. “Music.”
“One of those you can find anywhere.”
Esker took a sip of tea. “Spoken like a man who hasn’t spent much time out on the salt.”
“You see the sign there,” said the luthier. “If it said AZMERA BERTA, DESERT EXPLORER, I reckon you’d be sitting on another porch. Are you paying court to my apprentice?”
Esker blinked. “No, sir.”
“Why not? She’s beautiful.”
“You may have her, then,” said Esker, “with my blessing.”
Azmera snorted. “I’m a bachelor,” he said. “Hard thing to be in this town, but I’m old; the serpent doesn’t hanker for shelter the way it once did. Why are you on my porch?”
“I want your apprentice’s job.”
“You can’t have it, it belongs to my apprentice. She has clever hands and she’s good at teaching children. You have the hands of a butcher and you look like something a Rook would paint on his tent to scare off landsharks.”
Esker nodded. “All right,” he said. “I want a chair in a corner, then.”
“I don’t have a spare.”
“I’ll bring one.”
“Chair or corner.”
“I’ll stand wherever you put me.”
“My ceilings are too low for you.”
“And my floor’s too weak. You’ll probably fall through.”
“That solves the ceiling problem, then.”
Azmera barked a laugh. “They do teach you military types to think on your feet, don’t they?”
“Well, we don’t have much time to sit. Didn’t,” Esker added after a moment.
Azmera looked at Esker for a while, considering. “I wasn’t for the war in Tenoc,” he said. “There’s eld Art still to be had here, there’s black silver. They sank a ship or two of ours, all right, but how can you blame them? They thought we were there to do exactly what it turns out we were there to do, if only they’d give us an excuse to do it.”
“It’s a poor citizen who doesn’t have an opinion about his country’s politics,” said Esker.
Azmera nodded. “What are you expecting to learn from me?”
Esker mulled over his response for a bit. “Just let me watch,” he said at last. “If I find I can learn what I want to learn, maybe I’ll tell you what it is.”
For the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, Esker went to the luthier’s and watched and listened. When the luthier or his apprentice—Hasina—practiced the violin, he simply sat back in the chair he had borrowed from the Last Spike, closed his eyes, and let the music come. When Hasina was teaching and the luthier was away or asleep, or stringing or tuning, Esker watched the lessons attentively, occasionally coming to Hasina’s rescue when she wanted to speak and demonstrate a hand position at the same time, or reframing an explanation in a way he thought a child might better understand. (He was usually wrong, but not always.) But for at least an hour every day, the luthier would be working on constructing the body of a violin, and to this Esker attended with every ounce of a military man’s determination, watching with his body utterly still as Azmera shaped and planed the bouts, adjusted the bridge, scattered sand on the backplate and examined the patterns it made when a string was bowed.
The day after that, early in the morning, Sheriff Poorem came knocking at the luthier’s door.
“Young M. Sepherene,” he said. “I’ve requisitioned a good sum of cash from the territory governor to form a posse. What do you say?”
The men in question were two, Phannes Harshef and the Weeping Rune, both wanted men outside Heru City for a string of petty banditries and the odd murder. The Weeping Rune was said to enter theft or battle full of tears for his victims, not that his sympathy had any evident inhibiting effect on his predations; that left Harshef as the brains of the pair, and indeed, it was not clear that he’d ever personally harmed or robbed anyone, at least as witnessed by anyone alive. They had traded on their reputation to put together a gang and rob a Heru City-bound train of as much Amen-Enkh black silver as they could carry. This, it turned out, was not much; they had no idea how heavy the stuff was until they had hands on it, and their horses could not run with much more than a sackful each. But their success, however modest, would breed a reputation, and that could lead to a next hit that did some real damage. So, anyway, reasoned Sheriff Poorem of Metu, and the office of the territory governor agreed. Esker and Inber were in the posse; Ozier had been asked, or so it was said, but had declined. Fat Mehur Tekerem was in it as well, as was Asseth the coryphe’s son, who had been twelve when Esker left, and Shemet Kotu, who helped load and unload the trains.
Kotu was said to be a quarter Rook and known to spend his time in the desert when he could; it was he who found sign of horses walking slower than they should. That took a day, and it was a long one—especially out on the salt, away from the at least partial mercy of Metu’s climate sorcerer—and Esker saw the presence of sign as no great victory, in context of the huge expanse of ground that still remained to cover. But actually, from there, it came down to a small handful of places to look. The Harshef gang needed water; the sources of water in the area were known. If one man could simply spy them where they watered, the rest could gather there later to make the arrest (if “arrest” it could be called; there was no expectation that both sides would survive the encounter).
Esker and Inber had a quiet conversation with Kotu and Sheriff Poorem, where it was agreed that Esker and Kotu would be allowed to stalk the outlaws alone, while Inber would work with Mehur and Sheriff Poorem would accompany the coryphe’s son. Asseth and the Sheriff took the watering hole—the least likely spot, close as it was to the rail and several homesteads—and the remaining men spread up and down the wrong side of the river, then hunkered down to wait.
The moon was large that night, the river narrow; Esker counted that unlucky, as it meant the river provided no protection and the moon no cover. Day faded into night; he sweated and ached and starved a bit, though not enough to cause any real discomfort. He had been on watches both more enervating and more dangerous than this. It did not seem like much time had passed before his ears pricked up: A single horse was approaching the river.
Instantly his hand was on the pistol he had been loaned by the Sheriff. In his excitement, it was several seconds before he examined the horse and rider. The former was of good quality, its tack well-made but hard-used. The latter wore a bandanna across his face and carried a staff whose rune Esker could not make out. It was not until that rider dismounted that he realized it was a woman; and, by the time he realized what that could mean—by the time he noticed that the horse bore no water-sack or barrel, only a skin enough to slake a single thirst for half a day—a cold gun-barrel was pressed into the back of his neck.
He raised his hands immediately. He would have pitted his own speed against a civilian’s any day, but these bandits were often ex-military, and the margins were slim. Whoever held the gun made a mallard call, and the woman across the water mounted up again and rode across the river to where Esker and his captor crouched.