“Is that you?” said Esker. “Because that woman coming toward us—well, it’s not that I’m against standing for a lady, but I find you more persuasive at this time.”
Esker felt a jerk upward on his collar and stood. The gun’s hand couldn’t quite follow him all the way up, he noted with satisfaction—though the gun-barrel could, and it rested contently in the hollow where his neck joined his skull.
The Chorister had reached them by this time; she declined to dismount. Over the bandanna, she met Esker’s eyes and spoke with a voice.
The very fact of her possessing a voice was shock enough that Esker almost failed to notice the features of that voice: It was a smooth bass thrum, its tonality pure as song, its cadence musical and not altogether human. A man’s voice, though not like any man’s he had heard before—and uttered, if the stillness of the bandanna was any indication, without movements of the mouth. He reexamined the rider’s shape in the moonlight, wondering whether he had misread her body in the moment’s heat—but it was a woman’s, that was certain, although he allowed that he might not be so sure had he not seen her move.
There was, of course, no possibility of his comprehending the words, not when there was so much to wonder about in this voice, this speaker. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said. “Say it again?”
“Who are you with?” the incongruous voice sang, with no hint of exasperation—though Esker thought he might have read a tinge of that in her posture, in the small motions of her head. “The posse or the outlaws?”
“The posse, ma’am.” He did not contemplate deceit. He had dealt with tribal hetmen and war-leaders before—or, at any rate, seen them dealt with; they were generally intelligent enough to kill anyone they knew they wanted dead, and in those whose disposition was uncertain, they valued square-dealing above all. Which meant they often opened with a question to which they knew the answer. “Have any died?”
“How many of you were there?”
Were. But that could easily be bait. “Forgive me, ma’am, if I haven’t seen my way clear to divulging that information at this time.”
“My man’s bullet hasn’t seen its way clear to your brain-pan either, but things change.”
“Perhaps I can be of use some other way. May I speak about why we are here?”
“Unless you’re a very unusual medicine show looking to rehearse a long way from civilization,” said the Chorister, “I reckon you’re after the Harshef gang or mine.”
“His,” said Esker. “Forgive me again if I admit I haven’t heard of the Chorister’s gang until this encounter. We’re from out of Metu village, west and south of here. We don’t get out here often, ma’am.”
“I see,” said the Chorister. “Sort of like the boys who threw their ball into the neighbor’s yard. Entirely harmless.”
“You can see how dangerous I am,” said Esker, spreading his hands. “A veritable babe in arms—no teeth, no claws, no guile. What gets tricky, though, is if I don’t come back.”
“I know Metu village a little,” said the Chorister. “I’m not altogether certain I and mine could make it a hell of dead flesh and black-burnt houseframes in a single night—but, then, I’m not altogether certain we couldn’t, and it might be fun to try.”
Esker shrugged; he felt the barrel of the gun wobble against the back of his neck. The Chorister’s wingman was getting tired. “I take your meaning—really, I do—but this ain’t merely a Metu affair. We were summoned on a writ from the territory governor.” He let half a breath go by, saw the Chorister’s shoulders rise. “If he finds the posse he bankrolled was wiped out—I mean, we’re being considered for a province, he’s going to have a proper election to win. A couple of half-piastre horse thieves blunder their way into a train robbery, well, that’s a local matter. A posse up and vanishes—who knows? Maybe a bigger posse, maybe Jaidari marshals…”
“All right, son, stop before you say the same thing one more time.” The Chorister pressed her lips together and smacked them once, a sound only a soldier’s ears would hear over the distance. “You know the Drought Rooks, out of Keissi?”
“I’ve heard of them.”
“They run a big souktown. Lots of bad actors operating out of there. No-sudden-flood-will-end-this-drought-of-mercy—very territorial creature, you understand, and not close to moribund. I’m just relating well-known facts here. But you can see what might happen if the territory governor sent someone there after what he’s calling stolen property—”
“—but what someone in the Keissi Souktown might call an asset fairly bought and paid for?”
The Chorister nodded.
“I can’t speak for the Sheriff, ma’am, nor the governor, but I don’t believe the Jaidari government nor any of the provincial authorities seek jurisdictional disputes with the draugen.”
The Chorister dismounted, walked over to Esker, and looked up at him. The motion cocked the brim of her slouch up and allowed the moon to shine on the exposed strip of her face; her skin and eyes were as fine and dark, the traces of hair not covered by the slouch as tightly curled, as any Jaidari’s. He stifled an urge to breathe in a huge draught of her scent; belatedly he noticed an erection harder than he’d had in months, his penis leaping of its own will to strain against his drawers when she drew near. “Well, it appears we’ve achieved an understanding. What I’m going to do now is throw your pistol in the river. If you can’t repair it before questions get asked, you dropped it in the river like the fool hick you are. Then my man and I are going to leave. You’re going to stay here as long as you’re meant to, and the Harshef gang isn’t going to come. You’ll run across them in due time, but you won’t find Amam Amen-Enkh’s precious black silver. And when your sheriff starts wondering what you ought to do to get it back, you’re going to remember about the Drought Rooks out of Keissi, and you’re going to say whatever you need to. Notice how no mention of the Chorister’s gang arises in this sequence of events?”
“It hadn’t escaped me, ma’am.”
“If a posse out of Metu comes out here for me, where do I go?”
“Straight to Metu, I reckon,” said Esker, “with torches lit.”
The Chorister moved her staff and sang a syllable, and Esker’s pistol flew in a graceful arc from the ground into the river. The gun-barrel left his neck. He kept his hands up as both Chorister and wingman backed away, and kept his eyes on the Chorister’s horse as she rode.
She waited a good long time before she turned on the path she actually planned to take, but a soldier’s eyes see far under the full moon. The strip mine, he thought; and he thought of Kem, six years ago, bleeding and broken as Qeb and Reshef and Shemet Kotu brought him on a travois to Doc Maget; and of his mother and Inber’s, barring Esker and Inber from coming into the doc’s offices but not the shouts and screams from coming out. And then his mind’s ear could stand it no more, and he turned it instead to the bending of soaked wood, the planing and varnishing of dry, the interference patterns etched by a handful of sand on a vibrating violin; and then, when he could think no more on acoustics, to the strange furious sweetness of a woman speaking in a man’s voice.
Five men convened at the water hole at dawn. Shemet Kotu was missing.
They did not find him at his post down the river, but they did find a series of odd scorching and flower-patterns in the salt that Sheriff Poorem recognized as sign of a runeslinger using ar on the attack. “Immediate cautery,” he said gloomily. “That would explain no blood.” After that, it was not hard to explain a sign so clear that even Esker could find it: a wide streak in the salt, with a few finer streaks of different widths nested, and the occasional clear hoofprint to the side. When they looked where it went, they saw tiny spots circling in the sky, playing on the warp-drafts of a deathbird floating even higher.
The Harshef gang’s camp was not cunningly concealed, or even really concealed at all; they had not intended to remain. Their bodies lay strewn around the base of a batholith with a bit of an overhang on the lee side—just enough to provide shelter from the salt-dust when the winds rose, and shade from the sun. Shemet Kotu’s was there as well. Those not shot showed the scorches of runic lightning and the bruises, breaks, and lesions of force attacks. There was no sign of the black silver, nor of the Weeping Rune’s staff, nor of any horses. There were a few burned half-bits of Keissi Souktown scrip, though, and a number of hoofprints that headed north and east, where soldiers’ eyes could see the towers of the dead city brighten the horizon even from here.
“Well,” said Sheriff Poorem, “that’s a few sacks of black silver we’re not getting back. That’s the problem with stealing, boys—you’ve got to sell to them as buys stolen goods.”
“This sign is all pretty fresh, ain’t it?” said Asseth. “If we go after them now, we can get them while they’re still in Heru, before they cross on into Keissi.”
Sheriff Poorem sighed and stroked his beard. “Son,” he said, “the five of us, go after a gang of killers with at least two runeslingers in it, good or many enough to kill Harshef and the Rune and, what, five more—and at least one scout sneaky enough to take down Shemet? If we’d not found this sign at the river, I’d have cut his loss and taken us home. As it is, we’re all lucky we didn’t walk in on the deed as it was being done. At the moment, we’re up a bunch of dangerous scum killed and safe travel on the Heru City line, and down Shemet Kotu and a bit of black silver. It ain’t the best balance sheet I’ve seen, but considering how easy it would be for all our souls to have gone down on it in red ink, I’m pleased enough to close out the account.” He looked at Asseth, then at Esker, Inber, and Mehur, then sighed. “Look, this all happened real fast. We’re exhausted, and we’ve got to bury Shemet, and I’m sure the horses ain’t up for the trot back home—but it’s not too far to Akmem, and I know a hotel there that’ll stand us room and board against my badge. If you want excitement, there’s probably a card game there.”
For a kid who’d just pined for blood, Asseth seemed awfully happy at the prospect of a card game, Esker thought. It wasn’t until after Kotu was buried and the five survivors were on their way to Akmem that Asseth pulled up beside Esker and said, “You in for Maddy’s?”
“I haven’t a clue what a Maddys is,” said Esker. “But if it can be eaten, drunk, or slept on, I’m for it.”
“Come on,” said Asseth. “Don’t play coy with me, soldier. Maddy’s. In Akmem. I know you came through Akmem on the way here.”
“I came through Akmem sitting on a sack of flour in a metal box, son, in both directions; I don’t know if the train even stopped. I’ve never laid eyes on the place.”
“Really?” said Asseth. “You didn’t go when you were my age?”
“When I was your age, I was freezing my balls off and thumping the odd Rook head in Tenoc.” He’s only four years younger than you, Esker thought. No reason to talk like an old man on a porch, holding court and waiting to die.
“Then you’ll appreciate Maddy’s,” said Asseth, grinning slyly. “It’s a Rook bordello.”
Esker was quiet for a good few steps after that. He could feel Asseth trying to read him—was it a silence of disapproval, of contemplation, of appreciation? Esker wasn’t sure. Wasn’t sure he wanted to be sure. “I didn’t hear much about Metu kids going whorehopping before I left,” he said at last. “Or even hopping the train to Akmem.”
“One of the conductors knows the madam. They run a package deal for flowering manhoods thwarted by penury.”
“Why? Goodness of their hearts?”
“Custom isn’t regular,” said Asseth. “There’s always ciudores going to and from Keissi, but they come in when they come in, and they’re on the clock. If you can wait a bit, and you’re not picky who you get, someone’ll take care of you in a spare half hour.”
“Thank the Eight that you’re not picky.”
“It’s not that I can’t tell a good fuck from a bad fuck,” said Asseth, seeming wounded. “But—well, if ‘bad’ weren’t a sight better than nothing, I wouldn’t be talking to you about it, would I?”
“Plenty of girls in town,” said Esker. “Why do you want to go with Rooks?” He said Rooks with deliberate, false contempt. Either Asseth would be embarrassed, and the conversation would get its long overdue mercy-killing, or he’d give a real answer, which would be infinitely better than hearing this greenhorn kid give a connoisseur’s disquisition on the quality of a bought fuck.
Asseth looked down at his saddle, and Esker’s soldier’s eyes could see the tiny change in color that the blood brought to his face. Esker prepared to spur his horse a bit ahead, to leave the kid to stew in his own shame, but then Asseth’s face swung up with the most earnest look Esker had maybe ever seen. “They talk, you know?” he said, stage-whispering the words.
For a moment it seemed he was about to say more, but the words didn’t come, and silence hung like a weight on Esker’s chest. He felt like spurring the horse and bolting; there was something too questing, too hungry, in those naked eyes, and he feared whatever instinct had given Asseth the impulse to say those words to him—feared what the kid might look to learn. “And that’s the sort of thing you like, is it?” Esker said.
Asseth closed his eyes, and his entire expression fuzzed and wobbled like a child’s, if just for a moment. And in that moment, Esker did spur his horse—not to bolt, just a swift trot, taking him a few steps in front of the kid. He set his back straight in the saddle, flicked his head a fraction to kick the brim of his slouch up from his eyes, which he set on the horizon. He ignored the weight on his chest, which had not lifted. He ignored the bubble in his throat.
The proprietor of the Last Spike—Esker was now too embarrassed to ask his name—seemed so grateful for Esker’s willingness to eat and drink on the premises, rather than risking his precious dishes in the street, that he fed and watered Esker and Hasina gratis. It was an hour before sunset, and the common room was empty save for Fat Mehur Tekerem, who seemed content to sit in his own corner beneath an oil of the Vale, nursing a wide coffee mug that the proprietor periodically refilled from a gin bottle. It made no difference; even an attentive Mehur could not understand their conversation, and Esker surmised that the bartender could not either. He had just finished sketching the abattoir that had been the Harshef gang’s camp when the door opened and a familiar three-step gait hit his ears: Click, step, scrape; click, step, scrape. “Kem,” said Esker. “Kuk preserve your evening.”
“And Kauket yours,” said Kem. “Likewise, Srta… ?”
“Hasina Baioumy,” said Esker. “Hasina, this is my old friend Kem Menkara. Maybe you know each other? She boards at Mme Twilight’s.”
“I board at Mme Menkara’s,” said Kem, “and she harbors an unreasoning prejudice against the boarders at Mme Twilight’s. Jealous of their poise and beauty, I don’t doubt. Or perhaps they pay rent in money; for my part, I pay mine in fine conversation.” Hasina smiled politely. “Esker,” said Kem. “Do you know, in all the years I’ve known you, this is the first time you’ve stood your round?”
“First time I’ve been old enough to buy instead of beg, you mean,” said Esker. “Anyway, what round? I haven’t bought you anything.”
“That’s about to change,” said Kem. “Barkeep! A bottle of your finest honey-wine, and five glasses.”
Hasina’s fingers flickered. “Four,” said Esker. Hasina pushed her chair out and smiled again at Kem.
“No!” Kem said. “I need at least five minutes to charm a woman properly. It’s the cost of doing things right. Please stay.”
Hasina’s fingers flashed again; Esker laughed, but did not translate. Kem looked at him, then her. “Care to enlighten me?” he said.
Hasina’s curtsy and smile were each as tight as the other; she spoke a few last words to Esker and withdrew. Esker watched her go, then turned to Kem and saw his face. “It was a joke in poor taste, Kem. She can be prickly if you get her back up. You’d like her.”
“I was hoping to like her,” said Kem. “Planning, even. I had all my thoughts in place for liking her, like gears in a watch. How did I get her back up?”
Esker’s eyes narrowed faintly. “She can’t be seen drinking with two strange men, Kem. Mme Twilight doesn’t ask where you came from, but she always wants to know where you are. That’s the deal you cut, one for the other.”
“And where does Srta. Baioumy ‘come from’?”
“Efdu village, three stops up the line. Almost as boring as here. She said the girls say that your charm works faster than five minutes, but other parts of you work even faster.”
“Proving that Mme Twilight doesn’t know everything her girls do,” said Kem. The honey-wine arrived with four tumblers; at the last moment, Esker asked for a fifth. As if on cue, Inber and Ozier entered the Last Spike together. The fifth glasss came just as Esker got the bottle open. “Well timed,” said Esker. “The lieutenant ought to pour.”
“We’ve an extra glass,” said Kem.
“We have the right number of glasses,” said Inber. “But we’re down one man.”
“The Eight,” said Kem, “fuck me for forgetting.”
There was a silence, then, as Ozier poured five glasses and the four men drank. “We’ll give Ras his drink when we leave,” the giant said. “No need to waste it on the good man’s floorboards. Esker, my father’s disappointed in you. You didn’t get his silver back and you didn’t kill the thieves.”
“If your father wants to argue jurisdiction with No-sudden-shower-will-end-this-drought-of-mercy, I’ll gladly pay to watch.”
“My father’s not convinced that Keissi Souktown has anything to do with it,” said Ozier. “First, if these people want black silver and have enough juice to exterminate the Harshef gang, why not just rob the train themselves? Second, what earthly use is there for black silver in a souktown?”
“Some of them are run by wizards,” said Kem.
“Jagaag and Menehet are rumored to be run by wizards,” said Ozier. “But they’d need a forge or a lab to do anything with it. Third, anyway, why would Harshef and the Rune accept a deal in Keissi scrip? If they were going to go to Keissi to use it, why wouldn’t they just do the deal there instead of out on the salt?”
“Well,” said Inber, “if I wanted to kill my business partners instead of paying them, I’d sooner do it out on the salt than in my backyard.”
“Think what you like,” said Ozier. “We’ll find out soon enough. My father can’t get the Sheriff to budge, so he’s sending me and a few men out to see if we can’t scare up a third party who might have been involved in the massacre.”
The water in Esker’s spine suddenly went very, very cold.
“I mean, it makes sense,” Ozier went on. “We don’t really know who killed the Harshef gang. If it was someone out there, all they had to do was get a little bit of Keissi scrip and scatter it around. Everyone thinks the black silver is gone under a draugen’s wing, when in reality it’s out there on the salt in some half-bright greedhead’s hands the whole time.”
“Of course,” said Esker, taking care to keep his voice quite measured, “in this scenario, whoever’s got the silver has, by hypothesis, enough juice to exterminate the Harshef gang.”
Ozier smiled like nine sharp slivers of high Tenoc ice. “You were there when the flood happened,” he said. “You can’t possibly believe I’d be afraid of a rune or two, not now.”
“I believe every man can find it in his heart to fear anything he chooses,” said Esker. “What can I say? I’m an optimist.”
It was a weak joke, but it got the laugh it needed; Kem immediately launched into a disquisition on his precisely cultivated fear of heights, and the talk moved on from there.
Dark had fully fallen before the four friends left; each had stood his round, and no drop of spirits remained at the table. When Ozier stood to go, Esker offered to accompany him, and the two veered out the door and up toward the Amen-Enkh plantation.
When they had cleared the perimeter of town and reached the road, Ozier cleared his throat. “Esker, I hate to do this, but I just want to be clear—this isn’t like when we were kids. Right?”
Esker laughed. “I hadn’t even thought of it. No, this isn’t a proposition.”
“All right.” Ozier pushed a short breath out through his nose, not quite a sigh. “Sorry. I just—I think we all thought you’d end up a bachelor. And without Ras—I mean, I don’t think I realized just how much I… associated the two of you. So I’m a touch unclear on… where you stand.”
“I don’t plan or aspire to fuck you, Kem, or Inber, now or ever,” said Esker. He had thought he felt annoyed, but in the voicing of the sentiment he heard anger and, in hearing, felt it. “Clear?”
“As glass,” said Ozier, putting his hands out in a soothing motion. “I’m sorry. Let’s enjoy the walk.”
“I actually have something else to tell you,” said Esker. “When I was waiting for the Harshef gang to water their horses, I said nothing happened that night. But there was a third party out there. Their leader’s called the Chorister. We talked, I persuaded them to spare me if I didn’t tell anyone about what happened. They saw the use in not killing every man of us. But they know your father’s name. They said if a Metu posse comes out there for them, they’ll come here for us.”
Ozier had been nodding along, paying quite serious attention, but at the final line he smiled. “Esker,” he said, “this is a little, backward, boring village, but it’s a key asset of the territory and of Jaidar. There’s a reason the Heru City line ends here. If this Chorister survives our little expedition, he’ll be signing his death warrant if he attacks Metu—assuming he has enough men at all, which isn’t even slightly clear, since you only laid eyes on two. You understand?” Ozier put a hand on Esker’s shoulder. “He threatened you because he realized he’d stuck his foot in it, capturing a posse-man from the territory government, and he wanted to be able to let you go but keep you quiet.”
They had drawn up on the plantation. Absorbed in the conversation, Esker hadn’t even noticed the mounting smell, reminiscent of rotting vegetables and blood; he stared at the hulking silhouette of the complex, spiked with silos and squat with processing plants and assembly lines. Four guards with runed staves, one a double, watched them silently from the gate in the high fence. Esker had often made this walk with Ozier, but he had never been allowed inside the gate. “Need a walk home?” said Ozier. “One of the sentries will be happy to escort you.”
“I made the walk all right when I was ten,” said Esker, “I’ll be fine now. Thanks.”
The two men clasped hands and then clasped shoulders. Ozier turned to enter the gate, which opened at his motion; then he turned his head back to look at Esker over his shoulder. “I almost forgot,” he said. “My friend Madeleine asked me to thank my tall, handsome neighbor for his generous gratuity. I didn’t know who she could possibly be talking about. She said his name was Mehur. And I don’t know anyone who fits both the name and the description.”
“Me neither,” said Esker. “Good night.”
As he turned to leave, his soldier’s eyes caught the smirks on the sentries’ faces. They knew who Madeleine was, they knew who he was, and they knew exactly what Ozier had been talking about. It was a classic Amen-Enkh move, to forget that one’s own employees had eyes and ears and mouths. He waited until he was well into the desert between the plantation and the Sepherene household to curse the sky.