On Draft Histories I’ve been releasing never published chapters and scenes for a story that, at the time, I called Crossroads 4 (hereafter C4, the 2010 draft version). This is part of that sequence.
Out on the water, paddling a canoe, they could speak without fear of being overheard. It was a windy day, sloppy water instead of steady swells, and their six man canoe battled an east wind blustering in over the bay. The mainland hulked solidly behind, a somnambulant beast brilliant with late-season greens. Ahead, the barrier islands were far too far away to be seen; Mai marked only water and scraps of cloud skimming low along a horizon still gleaming within the embrace of the morning sun.
“There’s a traitor in Bronze Hall,” said Tesya, in the fourth seat.
“What?” Zubaidit, stroking in the first seat, had the hardest time hearing against the wind.
“There’s a traitor in Bronze Hall!”
“A traitor?” repeated Zubaidit, her words carrying back with the wind. Sweat and sun and spray glistened on her bare back, muscles working as she cut the blade in and out of the water. Out on the bay she often stripped down to just a linen kilt. “Don’t you mean a spy?”
“A traitor to our cause,” shouted Tesya.
“A spy,” said Irhassa, in the second seat, “for the commander.”
The four in the seats ahead of her paused in their stroke and, as one, turned half round to look at Mai, who had until now kept her mouth shut. Mai smiled her market smile, offering much and promising nothing.
Young Berarda, in the third seat, laughed.
Old Irhassa snorted.
Tesya’s grimace made the scars she’d earned in her years as a fawkner in the reeve halls glitter like fireling’s threads drawn taut on her left cheek and down across her jaw to her left shoulder.
Zubaidit had been about to say something, but her attention shifted abruptly away. She shaded her eyes as she stared toward at the east where water met sky, a frown creasing her dark face. A set of choppy waves rocked the canoe so the (ama) skipped twice on the surface, like a quiet warning.
In the last seat, steering, Fohiono said brusquely, “Get your minds back in the boat, sisters. Weather’s coming up. Best we turn back to shore.” She set her hand to her blade, shifting its angle against the curve of the hull as the paddlers cut the water again. The canoe swept a wide half circle, and as it straightened, Zubaidit set a steady pace for land.
With the wind now at their back, Mai answered their unspoken question. “It’s as I said before. Commander Anjihosh has had eight years to settle matters in the north and along the major trade roads to his liking. Now he’ll turn his gaze to those regions of the Hundred that have not bent their heads to his rule.”
“You know him best,” remarked Fohiono, from the stern. “What will he do?”
Mai considered the character and ambitions of the man she had once called husband. “That he has agents here in Salya already, we suspect.”
“Watching you!” cried Berarda with another laugh, this one sharper than the first.
“Yes, he has agents in town watching me.” For she had made her choice and accepted the consequences of leaving him eight years ago. “But I’m not the only reason. Bronze Hall is the only reeve hall that has not acknowledged him as commander of all the reeve halls. That makes them suspect in his eyes. They might be rebellious, or foment disorder. They might urge the councils and guilds of Mar to resist his rule. What makes you so sure there is a traitor in Bronze Hall, Tesya?”
Irhassa called a change, and they each shifted paddles to their opposite side.
“A new reeve flew in three months ago,” Tesya went on. “I’m sure you’ve all seen him.”
“That young one, pretty as a girl? Sure I’ve seen him.” Berarda whistled appreciatively.
“Folk at the hall say he’s the kind who visits the Merciless One’s temple as often as he can,” said Tesya, leaving the statement hanging.
“You know I can’t reveal who enters the temple, nor what is said within the Devourer’s garden,” said Zubaidit, “but I do know who you mean. What makes you think he’s a traitor? Or a spy, as Irhassa would have it?”
They changed over again.
“Him and his story of where he and his eagle come from–don’t hang together, if you take my meaning. Then little things started disappearing from around the hall, only since he arrived. A carry bag. An eating knife. A nice celadon tea cup.”
“That seems clumsy,” said Zubaidit. “And pointless.”
“We’re thinking it was the little things taken to get us thinking we had a petty thief on our hands, for you know boatmen ship in supplies every week. What a newcomer can’t know is that no one is allowed to wander the island at night. No one. The marshal’s very cautious about bringing in new assistants, and he no longer allows debt slaves to work in the reeve hall. And then two days ago the marshal’s courier bag went missing, with letters in it to our eyries. Orders for which reeves were to shift station, which to come home to roost, and which to stay where they were and what routes they were to patrol. Not big things, mind you, but good information if you were wanting to try to trap reeves living out in isolated spaces, or go out and sweet-talk them who might be glad of the company and persuade them to betray their marshal and hall.”
“Orders can be changed, now that you know the ones which have gone missing,” said Zubaidit.
“Neh, it’s worse than that. There are eyries which are well hidden and known only to the old original Bronze Hall reeves. Not even fawkners like me, we came in eight years ago with that group who left Horn Hall after Commander Joss’s death, have been told where those places are. We’re still newcomers, so we’re not trusted with Bronze Hall’s most cherished hideouts. There might be clues enough in some of the written messages that outsiders, like Commander Anjihosh, might be able to track down the special hiding places. Places that have been kept secret for generations. There’s no one else could have done it. The marshal’s cote is locked and guarded at night. Only reeves can come in and out.”
At the change, they paddled one full set in silence: blades cut the water, were pulled back, drawn out and then thrust forward for the next stroke.
“It’s exactly the kind of information Anji will want,” said Mai at last. “He does not like what he cannot control. So he will do what he must to bring Bronze Hall under his command. Even if it means he must kill reeves–reeves who don’t expect to be attacked–and release their eagles to find new reeves, ones he will hope will be more likely to agree to accept his leadership.”
“You think he would kill reeves, just like that?” demanded Berarda. “Just in the hope that their eagles will find new reeves who won’t feel any personal allegiance to Bronze Hall?”
“He killed my uncle after promising me he would protect him,” said Mai. “He killed the man who was commander of the reeve halls before him. So–yes–Anji will do what he believes is necessary to achieve his goal. He believes that what he has done for the Hundred has been for the best, not just for himself and his soldiers who now rule us, but for all the people of the Hundred. He believes it is best for them to be ruled by a strong man with a clear vision and a strong hand.”
“It’s true,” said Zubaidit, “that he saved us.”
“I was there when Copper Hall was burned down and my comrades slaughtered,“ said Tesya. “That was dark day. I admit I was glad when the commander and his army marched past Horn Hall on their way to Nessumara to fight the Star of Life and its cruel army. I cheered their victory, just as everyone else did.”
“I do not think he acted alone,” remarked Fohiono.
“He did not,” agreed Mai. “Many acted. They just acted under his leadership.”
“You had some part in it, I have heard,” the old steerswoman continued.
“Maybe I did. And he might thereafter have made the choice I made. He might have fought, and led, and afterward retired to a quieter life, but he is a Qin, and that is what the Qin do: they conquer that which they desire to possess.”
Waves slapped the hull. The (ama) skimmed the tops of wavelets. The sun glowered in a sky beginning to turn the sulky blue-green that Mai had learned to recognize as the mark of a storm blowing in from the ocean that surged beyond the barrier isles.
“By all accounts, “ said Tesya, “you could have been his consort. You could have ruled beside him.”
Zubaidit flashed a glance back over her shoulder, toward Mai.
“Watch your rhythm!” said Fohiono with more tartness than usual.
Once the memories might have brought tears to her eyes; they might have formed a lump in her throat. But the wide waters and the fresh, hard winds of coastal Mar had long since scoured the last remnants of regret right out of her. “I could have remained his slave, his conquest, however well I was treated and how beautifully I was dressed. Honestly, my friends, even if I had been offered a palace of my own and all the fine silks and sweets and soaps and tender kisses I could desire, I would rather be out here in this wind paddling with you and with my back screaming and my shoulders like to freeze up. Just a dawn paddle to catch a few fish! I didn’t think you would take us out so far, Fo!”
That got them laughing.
“And you’re the youngest among us,” barked Fo, chuckling. “When the year turns, you’ll be able to count twenty-six years, won’t you? You ought to be ashamed to complain!”
“I am! You can be sure I am bitterly ashamed! But I still hurt!”
And so the conversation fell onto tamer paths as they returned to shore: washing and children and markets and sex and a knotty tangle of clan politics and corruption in a nearby village that had resulted in a pair of murders for profit as well as a trail of bribes and theft and intimidation by well placed council members at length exposed by a courageous farm woman whose disappearance and likely drowning had finally brought down the attention of the commander’s regional judge.
But as Salya’s busy piers hove into view, Mai broke into their discussion of the changes in how the local assizes were run now that commander had assigned regional judges, called Guardians after the ancient and once venerated institution that had generations ago fallen into decay.
“I was thinking, about what we were talking about before,“ she said. “There’s one thing about knowing you have a spy in your midst before he knows you know. If you set your snares properly, you can use him to make the one who set him on you take pause and wonder whether it is worth sending a spy after all, if it causes the spy’s master more trouble than the spy is worth.”
“How might one do that?” demanded Tesya.
“I’ll think about it,” said Mai, and Zubaidit again glanced back at her, eyes narrowed.
“No looking around!” called Fohiono, with a laugh. “Stay in the boat, neh?”
Zubaidit released a hand from her oar and scooped up her vest from the sloshing trickles of water running under their feet. She slid an arm through one arm-hole, flipped the paddle to her other hand, shrugged into the vest and managed to cut right back into the stroking rhythm Irhassa had kept up.
Berarda also paddled topless; the young women born and raised on the shores of Messalia Bay often did, Mai had observed, for it was a custom that had at first shocked her. But Berarda, who as Fohiono’s grand-daughter would inherit a fishing boat and rights to a substantial fishing grounds, was not so quick to pull on her own vest. As they approached Gull Pier with its pilings encrusted with barnacles to the high water mark and its banner-posts topped with beautifully carved gulls at rest, men at work on nearby piers or guiding their own boats or canoes through this end of the crowded waterfront shouted laughing comments at her, to which she replied with insults so bald that the teasing words made Mai’s ears burn even as she could not help but laugh. This was not the kind of town she had grown up in!
“Get your vest on, girl,” said her grandmother without heat, for she had no doubt done the same thing when she was young. “And then take up the catch.”
The catch amounted to a paltry fourteen muhi-fish, just enough to give the women an excuse for going out on the water on a morning when they might have been expected to be preparing for the Ghost Festival. They slipped past Gull Pier to Gull Beach, being raked clean by a pair of boys. As they skimmed in to shore, a number of young men came running to help them carry the canoe up into the canoe shelter where Fohiono’s clan’s canoes rested under a thatched roof above the wrack of the high water line. These were mostly men from Fohiono’s expansive clan, sons, nephews, grandchildren and cousins, but they had plenty of friends idle in this season and happy to flirt with young women like Berarda, Mai, and the formidable Zubaidit, who despite her youth was the hieros of the local temple dedicated to the Devourer and therefore a woman to be both desired and feared.
But Mai said her goodbyes to her crew, leaving the young men to cluster around Berarda, who enjoyed the attention. Zubaidit, talking with Irhassa while ignoring the men, lifted her chin and waggled her hand in the gesture that meant, “I’ll see you later.”
Mai ducked under the roof of the adjoining shelter where stood the eating platform on its stilts. Fohiono’s husband had taken sick last year with the slack disease that had left one side of his face immobile and much of his body weak. He, a waterman since he was old enough to hold a paddle, was fit now only for lounging in a hammock waterside, under the shade of the clan’s shelter, to watch the the bay. Even so, he rarely missed much. Mai crouched beside the old man.
“Well, Uncle, we didn’t have such good luck fishing this morning.”
“Catch. . .fish. . .you. . .need to?”
Ah. So he did know something. “Not yet, Uncle. But I’ll put my mind to it. Tell Fo or Handsome to come by if anyone wants to go out again. I’m ready to put in at any time.” She kissed his leathery cheek as the right side of his mouth quirked up and his one eye crinkled with a smile. A few of the young men were looking after her, and their comical expressions of dismay at seeing him receive the kiss many of them often asked for and never received made him chuckle.
She fetched the cotton taloos she’d left folded atop a crossbeam and wrapped it around her, shucking the linen kilt she wore when out on the water. The short kilt and tight laced vest were the only practical thing to wear out on the bay, but unlike many of the younger women here in Salya, she still could not bring herself to wear it walking around town. She had grown up in a different world, and it was not so easy to leave that world behind even though she had been carried away from her desert oasis home almost ten years ago. Certainly she had been accustomed as a girl to selling produce in the market–nothing exceptional in that!–but to show so much skin, in public! That she could not do!
She grabbed her paddle and her leather bottle, draped a silk shawl to cover her shoulders, and set off for home. The waterside district with its piers and storehouses and food stalls was lively this morning as last-day shoppers made ready for the festival. Folk greeted her as she passed; a few men grinned hopefully, but she knew how to smile to warn them away. A rather young and certainly good-looking stranger–a sailor from out of town, by his gear and his clean-shaven chin–stopped stock still and whistled. Beneath his unlaced open vest and snugly tied sailors’ kilt he had an absolutely stunningly attractive body, all taut planes and wiry muscle. He caught her watching him, and recognized immediately the manner of look she was giving him. A reckless, charming smile flashed on his face as he took a step toward her.
His companion was a woman some years older and similarly fit. She grabbed his elbow and steered him away, down toward the harbor.
Mai heard the woman’s voice. “Kel, that kind is always taken already. Anyway, you know you can’t seduce women when you’re working. . . .”
Then they were too far away to matter. The heat in her cheeks faded, although her pulse was still racing. All of that kind of thing was too far away from her to matter now. Anji had taken care of that.
She reached the Grand Pier and headed inland up the wide avenue locally known as Drunk’s Lane. The town rose in tiers on the hillside beyond; she could see the sprawl of her porch and the bright yellow walls of her compound against the hillside. Usually walking up an avenue lined with inns and drinking houses posed no problem before midday, but since no ship or boat would be caught out on the water during the Ghost Festival, the establishments were crowded with bored sailors stuck waiting for the first fireworks, not due until after nightfall at seventh bell.
On one inn porch busy with men drinking at low tables, voices raised ominously, and a fight broke out with a rolling crash worthy of an unexpected thunderclap. A man slammed against a wooden pillar, the shudder quivering through the whole edifice. That was enough for men already half sauced. Sailors, idle laborers, artisans who had closed their workshops until the dawn of the new year, all swarmed up off the thin pillows they had been sitting on, eager for a bit of excitement. Drunk already! Think of what a mess they would make, which someone else would have to clean up!
She was just passing the gate, and a pair stumbled out, tussling, onto the street so abruptly that she raised her paddle instinctively to fend them off as she took a step back. One’s fist connected with another’s nose, and blood spattered down his face. The injured man grabbed the other man by the shoulders and began to swing him around; her heart raced as she staggered farther back, sure they were about to slam into her. A baton swept down from behind her and, with a swift pair of whacks, commanded the attention of the belligerent men.
“Heya!” But they separated and backed up, looking surly and with hands fisted. Ready to try something. Then they saw her, and the one wiped at his bleeding nose.
The innkeeper was shouting furiously as his help started to knock heads together.
“My thanks, ver,” said Mai, but she did not wait. She strode onward, wanting suddenly to enjoy the peaceable quiet of her lovely home where she could, today at this time, expect a measure of blessed solitude.
He hurried up alongside her. “You took no hurt, verea?”
He was a reeve. That reeve. Young and pretty enough to look at twice, and with an intangible quality of melancholy or dreaminess that made you look yet again. Not nearly as sexually interesting as the sailor, but a dangerous man for all that, although in every other way he seemed merely to be a reeve with a reeve’s training and posture, sure of his authority and knowing how to use it. Even if he was leaving behind an altercation now spilling onto additional porches, in order to pursue a woman.
She feigned a limp. “No, nothing.”
“You are hurt!”
If this were the man Tesya had as good as accused, Mai had him in her grasp now.
She bit her lower lip as if wincing in pain. “No, it’s nothing, truly.”
“If it pleases you, verea, I will just walk you up to your home, to make sure you do not falter. Can I carry the paddle for you, verea?”
Shouts, laughter, and the blaring whistles blown by the harbor milita floated up after them. “Neh, I can manage. You’re newly come to Bronze Hall, are you not? I fear I don’t know your name. I’m Mai.”
“Mayit,” he agreed. “I’ve heard of you.” Then he blushed furiously and stammered something too thickly accented for her to understand.
“You’re not from the south,” she said encouragingly. “Where did you train?”
“Horn Hall,” he said, and now that she knew what to listen for she heard the way he struggled to form his words so that indescribably thick accent did not crawl out. “I was born and raised in the north, a long way from all other places. No one has ever been there. I mean, excepting that those villagers who live way up there do live there. Then I was jessed, and I was found by–”
He broke off and pinched his lips closed over the words he’d been about to say next. The ones he did not want her to know.
“Were you transferred to Bronze Hall?” she asked with her best coaxing smile.
He frowned, a fleeting expression quickly controlled. “The story of how I came here has many twists and turns.”
They climbed stairs to the residential terraces where she made her home. “You never told me your name,” she said.
“Bardinen. My eagle’s Sisit.” He glanced skyward, a habitual motion she had become accustomed to seeing in the reeves she counted as friends. He shook his head slightly, apparently not seeing his particular raptor, although at least three eagles were circling, on patrol or possibly on the hunt.
“For your kindness, ver, surely you’ll take the midday meal with us before you go back to your duties?”
“Oh. Eh.” He was shy, for a young man about the same age as she was. It was an appealing trait, she decided, watching him sidelong as he matched his stride to hers, or perhaps after eight years she was really just that desperate and therefore that susceptible.
She asked him how he liked Bronze Hall, and piece by piece coaxed out opinions so bland–the food was good but that twice spicy barsh was an odd thing to eat in the morning; the winds were chancy; the ocean’s roar sometimes kept him awake at nights–that the answers made her suspect he was hiding something.
As she walked down her own quiet street her neighbors greeted her. Old Master Pinuntas winked leeringly at the sight of her walking along with a good-looking young man; behind him, his hirelings and slaves decorated the compound’s lintels and railings with festival ribbons. Mistress Firuliya was out with her girls decorating the porch with wire baskets filled with sweet rice balls and adoring the delicate potted trees with garish festival hats in bright red for the upcoming year. The woman looked the reeve up and down in a way that made him half trip on a step and again stammer into that incomprehensible northern speech, while her girls giggled.
“Here we are,” she said, too loudly.
She waved gaily at the red capped fellow loitering at the corner–Anji’s little joke, that red cap–and he lifted a hand to acknowledge her, as this one always did. The others weren’t as polite.
She led Bardinen up onto the spacious porch, with its spectacular view of the waterside and the bay sparkling in the sun. From this height you could see the weather coming in with its blustery haze: an unseasonable storm would trouble the first night of the festival. What would the Hundred priests make of that? Would they consider it a bad omen for the coming year? Or would an out of season storm mean something different to them? A harbinger of the strength of events that would come to pass? Some unexpected visitor blown in from afar?
Maybe it was just a storm.
She had some time before it struck.
She rattled the bell and made a fuss about taking off her shoes by the mats, gestured that he should sit on one of the soft quilted pillows by the tea table, pulled the hairsticks out so the wild wind and water mess of her hair tumbled down. The ends reached to her lower back. He looked away, cheeks darkening.
“Oh dear,” she said, with a glance down the street to where this red capped man had the courtesy to be watching directly, not like the others, “it seems no one is home.” But she knew perfectly well that no one would be at home. Keshad was at the warehouse doing the final accounting before he sealed the books and the doors for the year, and Miravia was at the market with half the rest of the town doing the last shopping. She’d have taken the girls with her, or more likely left them to run around the corner to spend the morning with Priya while Miravia did the shopping for both households. Mai had already given her hirelings the day off to return to their families; she wasn’t like Pinuntas, who kept his hirelings working until the sun’s lower rim scraped the western horizon, so late that those who lived a long walk out in one of the hamlets beyond town would miss the first feast, the only real meal you got during the Ghost Days.
“Please, Reeve Bardinen, sit down. I’ll bring tea.”
She smiled at him, thinking very hard of sex. He sat abruptly, felled like an ox that has just taken a blow to the head. The door slid easily, and she left it open behind her so he could see in to the sparsely furnished front room with its low table for doing business and seating pillows stacked neatly to one side on the matted floor. She never entertained visitors there; her porch was her front room. That was the way it had to be.
She nodded at him and went inside, leaving the door half open behind her, feeling his gaze follow her as she slid aside the door that led to a narrow covered plank walkway running alongside one of the inner courtyards to the separate room that housed the kitchen.
Edi was sweeping in preparation for the last bout of cooking while a big-bellied pot simmered, cooking down the four chickens whose meat and broth would anchor tonight’s feast. He looked up and smiled as well as he could with his scarred face. Besides Keshad, he was the only male who lived at the house, safe, surely, because of his youth and his disfigurement.
“Go on,” she said as she ladled water from the barrel into the kettle and set it over the flames. “I’m just making tea. Where is your mother?”
“Garden,” he said, the word difficult to understand unless you knew how to listen for the consonants. He’d not spoken at all when he and his mother had come to them four years ago; he’d been too ashamed. “Choosing vegetables for the slip-fry.”
She nodded and went past him along the side walkway that wrapped the house to the long garden in the back, with its scent-drenched muzz and virile proudhorn and a tidy vegetable garden in obedient rows framed by fruit and nut trees. Tayit stood when she saw Mai, her apron sagging under tiny green tomatoes, white radish, pale cabbage, and bold red peppers.
“I was just worrying about Miravia,” said Mai. “I should have gone with her to the market, her so close to her time.”
“You said you had business down harborside, Mistress,” said Tayit in her soft voice. “Afterward, I told Miravia I would go.”
“As if anything I, or you, would have said could have made the slightest difference once she had decided to go, so think no more on it. Aui! But now I’ve got to serve tea to a reeve, so I’m wondering if you would go after her. Help her carry things up? She’ll not refuse if you’re down there. You can say you need–oh, anything–something we’re lacking for our feast. I had a sudden craving for durian, maybe.“
Tayit snickered, knowing perfectly well that Mai had never managed to develop a liking for the fruit because of its appalling smell.
“I’ll take this into the kitchen.” She held the apron closed as Tayit untied it, then carried it back to the kitchen, set it down on the big table, and followed Tayit out onto the front porch. The woman gave Bardinen a startled look, then a polite nod and a swift, skittish smile, and descended the stairs to the street. The red-capped man watched her walk away down into town.
Mai settled on a pillow at arm’s length from the reeve. “Last minute festival shopping. You know how that is.”
“I suppose so,” he said, wiping a hand with charming awkwardness over his tightly cropped black hair. “”But where I grew up, we had no market. We grew and raised everything. I never saw a market until I came south.”
“Is that so?” Mai said, and though she had deliberately set herself to charm him, she did not need to feign astonishment. “You must have grown up in a very out of the way sort of place, truly.”
“We had no hirelings, that’s for sure,” he said as Tayit vanished around a corner with a final glance back over her shoulder with an expression that too closely resembled a smirk. “I don’t miss it much, I guess. But the weather was a cursed sight better there. Not so hot as it always is here.”
Tayit’s look had made Mai self-conscious, and she struggled for a moment, grabbing for whatever words came to hand. “Hot? You think it’s hot here?”
“In Mar? I should think so, all muggy like the hot breath of a sea monster in your face all the time.”
She laughed. “That’s a fine way to phrase it. Is that from one of the tales?”
His blush crept up his cheeks as if her laughter was suggestive. “No. Just a way of speaking, I guess.”
“Tell me more about where you grew up,” she said. A limpid gaze turned on him, the slight cant of her body toward him, brought him alive as water kisses seedlings in a desert garden and brings their passion into bloom.
He told her about where he grew up, and she listened, as she had learned to do in her childhood home which lay so far from the Hundred that now at times its dusty confines and rigid customs seemed like only a bad dream. But that life had made her what she was; she saw no reason to scorn it. Nor did Bardinen complain of his own humble upbringing. Aware now that he had grown up in an isolated backwater whose rustic simplicity seemed something of a joke to the other reeves, he spoke easily and affectionately of those childhood years even though it was clear he had been a superfluous son treated with a mild affection and casual disregard. Becoming a reeve had been a more magnificent destiny than any other end he might have hoped for. He had seen terrible things, the massacre of an entire reeve hall, but he had weathered it and kept on.
Really, what else could you do but keep on?
It’s what she had done.
A door snapped open inside the house, and slightly dragging footsteps announced Edi’s approach with the tea. He came out onto the porch and set the tray on the tea table as Bardinen’s eyes widened and his lips tightened.
“Edi, did Miravia take the girls with her or send them down to Priya?”
He gestured up the street, unwilling to speak in front of a stranger.
“Can you go fetch them? They need to help prepare dinner.” At his look of horror, she laughed. “I know. I know. But they’re not really that bad, are they?”
“Are,” Edi mumbled.
“Maybe Arasit is,” she acknowledged with a sigh. “But your mother is already gone down to the market to help Miravia carry up the shopping. So there’s no one else, with the rest gone home for the festival. Just go over. You can wait there until they finish whatever Priya has them doing. No hurry.”
His glance flickered toward the reeve, who rose abruptly.
“I’m called Bardinen,” said the reeve, straight to his face. “And you?”
“Edi,” he said with a sudden lopsided smile that stretched his scars. He paused, as if wondering what else he could say to an admired reeve who deigned to speak to him, but then grabbed his cane from beside the door and clumped down the steps.
Bardinen watched him go.
So did the red capped man, who knew perfectly well how many people lived in the house and that Mai was now alone in the compound. It was his duty to know such things.
With trembling hands, Mai poured tea.
The reeve turned back to her. “What in the hells happened to that poor lad? Blessed Taru! He looks like he fell head first into a fire after having half his face cut up.”
“That’s about it,” she said, not looking up from the stream of tea as it splashed into a cup. “His father tried to kill him. Thought another man had sired him.”
He whistled sharply, and the red capped man looked around, although the reeve was looking at her, not at the man lounging so still and silent in the shadows that it was easy to forget he was there because you had gotten used to a constant presence watching who came and went from your house. “That’s a cursed wrong-headed thing to do. If he had a dispute, surely it was with his wife, or with the other man, not with the blameless child.”
“It would seem so, would it not? Tea?” She handed him the cup in both hands. His skin brushed hers as he took it with a hopeful smile.
They both sipped in silence. The brew was hot and sharp, fitting for the season. It made her eyes sting. No use waiting. She knew what she had to do. There was more than one way to flush out a spy, to hit Anji back in a way that would spoil his triumph.
She rose as he watched her over the rim of his cup. “Come in and help me prepare a bit of a meal,” she said.
Slowly, he set down the cup. She had not even finished hers; a shimmer of heat still spun from its surface. She went to the door. Poised on the threshold, she paused and glanced over her shoulder at him. He rose with a quick, shy smile. Like any man born and bred in the Hundred, he saw nothing odd in entering a house with a woman, even one he was flirting with.
“Eh, truly,” he said, an older accent wakening in his voice, “my aunties used to make me chop the vegetables. Said it were best when done by a man.”
Then his flush darkened his skin again, as if he had meant to say something he ought not.
As if the words had two meanings, as they often did in the Hundred.
He would go inside with her, all alone into the compound, and they would chop vegetables in the kitchen–that was all–and the others would return, and maybe he would take the feast with them and return to the reeve hall. And at some time in the next few months, he would die an unfortunate and mysterious death. Because Anji would order it. He would not be able to help himself, being what he was. He’d have to kill the spy he’d sent to steal Bronze Hall’s secrets, for the crime of having been alone with the woman Anji still considered his wife.
That would teach Anji, wouldn’t it?
And what if Tesya was wrong about Bardinen?
A wave of disgust swamped her, its taste bitter. How could she even think of luring this man into a situation he could not understand and was not in any way responsible for? Maybe he was Anji’s willing and eager agent. Maybe he was just obeying orders. Obviously, even if that were true, he had not been warned what would happen to men known to have been alone with her. So even if he were Anji’s agent, Anji considered him expendable. No one could look at Bardinen and not see that women might find him attractive. Anji might even have sent him to test Mai, without warning the poor reeve.
Eiya! Down these paths branched a maze of possible threats, promises, motives, and outcomes. All she knew for sure was that important documents had been stolen from Bronze Hall.
She stepped back onto the porch, slammed the door shut, and turned to the young reeve. “A thousand pardons, Reeve Bardinen. I entirely forgot that I promised to go over to my neighbor’s–”
Breaking off, she strode forward, grabbed the cup, and drained the tea. The liquid burned on her tongue, making her eyes water. She set it down so hard on the table that he jumped.
“Why are you here?” she demanded, keeping her voice low. “Why have you come to Bronze Hall?”
“I-I beg your pardon, verea?” He took a step away from her, as if just now wondering if she might be demented. “Did I offend you in some way? I had no intention–”
“Why are you here? Why did you come to Bronze Hall? Surely you know some documents have gone missing. And that you, the only newcomer to the hall, are the chief suspect? That it’s assumed you’re working for the commander?”
His mouth opened, worked, and shut again. He flushed terribly. He glanced toward the man on the street who was, Mai knew, too far away to hear her words.
“I heard something at the hall–but no one said what exactly was missing, only that it was important–They think I stole them?” He covered his eyes with a hand, shook his head as if with impatience, and lowered the hand to stare at her helplessly. “No, of course they would blame me, the only new reeve among them. Kesta warned me this might happen.”
“Kesta? She warned you what might happen?”
“She and Peddonon and others had to transfer to Bronze Hall after the war. The commander would never have trusted them, knowing they had been close companions to Commander Joss. But I was a novice reeve, needing training. They left me behind as their agent within Horn Hall. All these years . . . but now that I’ve finally left there, no one will trust me here.”
His words fell like so many leaves scattered by a gusting wind: hard to grasp hold of. “Are you saying you have been Peddonon and Kesta’s agent in Horn Hall all this time?”
He looked her straight in the eye, as guileless as the unclouded sun. “Yes.”
“But then why . . . ?” She trailed off. His gaze did not leave her face.
After a moment, he said, very softly, “you’re the one, aren’t you? I didn’t realize.”
“I’m what one?”
“There was a joke among the reeves at Horn Hall that ‘nothing escapes the commander.’ Then the rejoinder was, ‘except one.’ So if anyone ever made some comment like, ‘everyone knows that,’ or ‘everyone does that,’ then someone would always respond, ‘except one.’ But it’s you, isn’t it?”
Heat flamed up her cheeks so fast that he looked away.
“My apologies,” he muttered. “I should never have spoken of it.”
“Best you go,” she said more curtly than she intended. “Send Marshal Peddonon to me, if you will. Tell him I wish to see him as soon as he can trouble himself to get here.”
Bardinen glanced up at the sky. The sun blazed at zenith, clouds parting around it as if afraid to veil its fierce disk. “My apologies, verea,” he repeated.
“Neh, neh, do not say so. It was nothing. But I need to speak to the marshal right away. Do you understand?”
He rose and sketched the gesture used in the tales to say ‘goodbye and fare well.’ “I’ll go at once.”
“If you go up this street to its end and through the gate there,” she added, “you’ll find the hill top has a perch built out in the open. Your eagle can land and launch from there.”
“My thanks,” he murmured, still so embarrassed that he could not meet her gaze as he took his leave.
She watched him go with a sigh and then, without a betraying glance toward the red-capped observer, went back into the house. She prepared vegetables, chopping out her anger and annoyance and, truth be told, her fear. What if Anji changed his mind and decided not to leave her alone? It might well be true that she had made it clear (six) years ago that she wanted nothing to do with the man he had become, but he could still make a prisoner of her if he wished. The only thing stopping him was his pride.
Once a year a spray of plum blossoms was delivered to her door by a cadre of Black Wolves, his elite riders. Once a year, she refused to accept the flowers, and the riders left bearing the message implicit in her refusal. That was the only communication between them. She kept hoping he would give up, but so far he had not.
She had built a fine life as far away from him in the Hundred he ruled as she could manage. In the region of Mar, in the port town of Salya, she had family, a flourishing business, friends, and a network of interlacing community in which she was deeply involved and, she thought, respected. She had a daughter to raise. She had allies, whatever that meant, but it meant something when part of your life involved a rearguard action fighting to own yourself.
“Mai! You look like you’re slaughtering that innocent brinjal. You must be thinking of Anji.”
Miravia lumbered in, belly leading, and bent forward to give Mai a kiss on the cheek before she swung the basket she was carrying onto the table. Tayit followed with a basket balanced on each hip.
Mai set down the knife, seeing the spray of brinjal flesh in splinters across the wooden cutting board. “Oh.”
“Yes,” agreed Miravia. “Let me do that.”
“You should sit down after tramping all over town.”
“I can’t. I feel very restless.”
Mai glanced at Miravia’s huge belly. “Do you think–?”
“Perhaps. It’s exactly how I felt with the other two.”
Mai handed her the knife. “It wouldn’t be like this if all ties had been severed. I would simply have moved on. But even though I’m long since ready to leave all that behind me, I am constantly reminded that I can’t. That I can never truly have a normal life.”
Miravia smiled ruefully as she lined up scrubbed radish and began chopping, but she made no reply. Her hair was bound back in a scarf, and her cheeks were round and moist with sweat from the excursion. She began to tell Mai about the gossip she’d heard in the market, and who she’d spoken with, and what news there was of ships and sheep and merchants from out of town come to sell exotic wares for a season in Salya in the hopes of earning enough to buy Mar-ish spices and delicacies to take back to their home cities and towns.
Mai let the words flow past. What manner of person was she that she had even for an instant entertained the notion of inviting Bardinen inside with the full expectation that this unexceptional act would get him killed? Was she really at war with Anji?
The girls came running in, towing big Edi and little Raida. Arasit’s shrieks filled the kitchen area before steady Eiko pulled her away to go set up the dining room for the feast, Raida following the big girls as always. Edi went out to haul in fuel and water and extend the awning so they could leave the dining room doors open on the sunside. Miravia chattered on; Keshad returned carrying the accounts books, which he sealed into the chest hidden beneath the floor. Then he helped, too, supervising the girls as they put up the decorations on the porch and in the dining room. In the routine of daily life, she kept her hands busy and slowly the churning mire of her thoughts stilled.
Late in the afternoon, when she had gone into the garden to harvest fresh shoots for the slip-fry, boots thumped on the walkway and Marshal Peddonon smiled at her as he trotted down the steps and strode across the walled garden to her where she knelt by the raised bed of (herb). She rose and kissed him on either cheek, holding her dirty hands away from his leathers. He was big for a reeve, tall and thickly-built without being fleshy.
“I came as you called,” he said, dropping down beside her as she crouched to resume the harvest.
“You’ll feast with us?”
“Indeed I will, and gladly. I’ll fly back to the hall tomorrow. What is it, Mai?” He bent to look into her face. “What troubles you?”
“You never told me about Bardinen,” she said, and winced, hearing how accusatory her words sounded.
“No,” he said without the least sign of taking offense. “Kesta and I were the only ones who knew. We figured the fewer who knew, the better.”
“This morning, Tesya accused him of betrayal. She thinks he’s the one who stole that pouch of orders. Why would she think so? Or why would she want others to think so?”
He rocked back to balance on his heels. “An interesting question, now that you pose it that way.”
“Are we at war with Anji, Peddo?”
“Is it war if one side cannot possibly gain a victory? I think that is not war. We hold onto what autonomy he allows us.”
“That’s it, isn’t it! That’s what claws at me so. I have so much, really, and yet this fence confines me and I let myself dwell in anger.”
“I don’t believe we would be better off losing our anger. We must keep our eyes open. What did Tesya say about Bardinen?”
“Nothing but what I’ve already said. That there is a traitor in Bronze Hall, and that he was the only newcomer so therefore surely the chief suspect. Do you think he could be? That he would have turned on you?”
“Become Anji’s servant, while pretending to stand with us? It’s possible. But he’s fed us a great deal of useful information over the years, at great risk to himself. I trust him, and so does Kesta. He’s a bit old fashioned, our Bardinen, from the upcountry north where the old ways are the only ones anyone knows. This business of an outlander riding in and declaring himself commander over all the Hundred is not a thing a young man like Bardinen takes lightly. Nor is he infatuated with the idea of being part of Commander Anji’s army, or his reorganized reeve halls, or his spies.”
She thought of the men with red caps who kept watch outside her compound. Then she smiled ruefully and tilted her head to rest on Peddonon’s strong shoulder. “I must learn to stop feeling sorry for myself.”
“Do you feel sorry for yourself, Mai?” he asked, surprised. “I would never have said so.”
“I do. I have so much, my family and my friends, my business, this fine town, the respect of the locals. I have everything, really. Everything, except the one thing Anji has chosen to deny me. A man’s love.”
Peddonon chuckled. “I cannot tell you that is a small thing. For myself, I’d suffer mightily without the hope of a man’s love.”
She smiled into his brown arm, cool despite the time he had spent flying here under the sun’s glare. “Then I wish I were fashioned more like you. Zubaidit visits me, and that is all very fine and pleasurable, but it seems I am not fashioned in such a way that it contents me.” She sighed and rocked away from him, resumed picking shoots into the shallow basket set on the earth. “It’s the old dreams that plague me most, the story I told myself of how the tale would have a fine, romantic ending. I knew the tales were a sort of falsehood–surely I saw the evidence for that every day in the home in which I grew up!–but I wanted to believe so badly. The bold captain! The shy fruit-seller he plucks out of the market! I thought with Anji that my tale was one of those rare few that would have a happy ending. So after all, it’s really myself I betrayed, isn’t it, by insisting on something that could not be true?”
“I don’t think so, Mai. I think he betrayed all of us, and you and Joss most of all. He stole your son, and stole Joss’s life. As for the rest of us, he brought us peace, at a cost. But peace nevertheless. He’s a fair man in his own way. That he is also a tyrant simply makes the situation more complicated.”
“And now that I think about it more clearly, Anji would never agree to send a good looking man like that to spy on me.”
“True enough. He hated Joss.”
“No. He liked Joss. But he was convinced Joss would seduce me, just because Joss was so handsome. Anji is not a handsome man, not in that way. It’s his weakness, I think, that he craves beauty because he believes he lacks it in himself. And because he believes he lacks it in himself, he believes he cannot truly hold onto that which is beautiful, not without a chain to leash it. Just like the Hundred, which is a land of great beauty.”
Peddonon watched her closely as she spoke. His was an observant gaze, and a steady temper without extremes of rage or despondency. “Are we chained? Is peace and order nothing more than a cage?”
“I can’t answer for the other people of the Hundred. I made my choice already.”
“And lost your child.”
That pain would never ease, as sharp as a well-honed blade. “The boy had already been taken from me. I see now I could never have gotten him back.” Then she shook her head. “I think of my beautiful little Atani every day, but he calls another woman ‘mother’ and I have to believe that she cherishes him or I would not be able to sleep at night. But consider this. Anji might send a young man like Bardinen here to confuse us, to confound us, even to test me–if Anji thinks I still need testing after all these years of his spies watching my every move. What if Tesya is right? If Bardinen is the only newcomer who might be placed to act as Anji’s spy? Why now? And why operate by sending in a spy so openly, one everyone will think might not be trustworthy? A good spy does not immediately act to bring notice on himself.”
“Unless the opportunity to steal the pouch was too tempting. Or the act was meant to divert suspicion from someone else.”
“Why does Bardinen say he came to Bronze Hall?”
“We agreed beforehand that when he’d had enough, he would simply come to us.”
“And he’d had enough?”
Peddonon laughed softly. “I think there was a woman involved. It’s a long time to live a lie. We’ll miss having an ear in Horn Hall, and perhaps it makes me a poor marshal, but I could not force him to stay any longer with him so miserable.”
“But if you planted a spy in Horn Hall, then surely Anji might have done so as well. It’s exactly the sort of thing he would think of, isn’t it? If I were Anji, I would have been foresighted enough to place a sleeping spy or two in the group who left Horn Hall seven years ago.”
Peddonon rose and paced around her restlessly as he considered her words, his steps crunching on the dry earth. “In the heat of that time, those who were angry or distrustful of the changes the commander meant to bring to the reeves came with us. We made our intentions plain.”
“That we needed time to think, and that we were going to Bronze Hall to think. Of the sixty three reeves, fawkners, and assistants who left Horn Hall, Argent Hall, and Gold Hall after Anji became commander, half returned later to their old halls. I don’t begrudge them the choice. They had clan elsewhere, usually, family they missed and were cut off from. Marshal Odash had already sorted through his reeves; those who did not like his supervision as marshal were given leave to depart. I hear about thirty went to Iron Hall in Arro, the only place he would agree to send them. But the rest stayed. Bronze Hall’s always been isolated, way out here in the southeast. Mar has always had its own ways, its own songs, its own food.“ He laughed. “Aui! I’m still not used to the way they make barsh here!”
She scooted over to a parallel row and began stripping [herb] for a garnish.
He went on. “And Bronze Hall, too, has its own peculiar responsibilities. The Turian Sea we must patrol, with foreigner pirates and Sirniakan ships stalking the outer islands. Some reeves find the isolation and distances too cruel to endure.“ He turned and halted, facing her, shading his eyes against the setting sun. “It makes sense, although the commander would have had to act very quickly indeed to recruit and insert a spy into the group of us who came down here. We left pretty quickly after Joss’s . . . death.”
“His murder,” said Mai, surprised to hear how angry she sounded. “Call it what it was.”
He shrugged, his pain at losing his comrade visible in the deep lines at his eyes. “Eiya! Yet he’s still here to plague us, in a manner of speaking, having become a Guardian and all.”
“Which creates its own danger,” she said, and he nodded but did not reply. She took in a deep breath and rose with the basket resting in the curve of her arm. “What about Pil? He’s Qin. He might have remained loyal to his captain.”
She thought the question might anger him, but he smiled in a way that made her heart twist, to think that once she had smiled in that way when speaking of Anji. “I’m not likely to think so, am I? But ask anyone else. He no longer has a place among the Qin. He’s made his home with us, just as you have, Mai.”
“An accurate thrust!” she said, although her heart eased. She liked Pil. “People might suspect him. And yet . . . yet Tesya did not name him. She was quick to name Bardinen. It does make sense, him arriving, and the pouch being stolen. But what if his arrival gave the real culprit the excuse to act?”
“Yours is a more devious mind than I had ever suspected. Odash, before me, was very careful, and as he lay dying he warned me to be the same. He was a bit annoying with his ‘hold to the old ways’ but I admit that his ‘old ways’ are what kept Bronze Hall from being immediately absorbed into the new hall structure imposed by Commander Anji. That, of course, and your presence here in Mar.”
“Yes.” Mai felt her lips twist as the memory of her months as Anji’s wife floated before her. Those days had been sweet because she had been so ignorant and so young. “I suppose that’s right. I still have power, of a kind, over him, because he still desires to possess me even after seven years. But he is not a man who chooses to reveal his weaknesses, so he holds me, and Mar because I live here, at arm’s length. I suppose that sounds terribly vain, but I fear it is true.”
“One thing you are not, Mai, is vain.”
“Thank you, dearest. That is, no doubt, why I own the finest collection of silks in Salya and likely all of Mar. Not liking to risk my complexion being seen contrasted with second-quality silk.”
She shook her head as her smile faded. “I think you should ask Tesya why she suspects Bardinen. She’s one of those who came from Horn Hall, isn’t she?”
“You suspect Tesya? She’s a solid fawkner.”
“I suspect no one. I just wonder why she was so quick to accuse him.”
“It’s not unreasonable.”
“Anji would never do anything so obvious as send Bardinen here and have him steal a pouch right away. However, if I were Anji, and I got word that a young reeve had abruptly fled my command, I would do my best to discredit him. Tesya accusing him plants a seed of suspicion, does it not? And if her answers don’t quite sound right to you, then send her to one of those distant patrol eyries on a distant island in the Turian Sea for a year’s station duty. There she’ll hear only what news you choose to send her via the reeves, and as a fawkner she’ll have little means to get news to the commander’s palace, if she is his spy. Send Bardinen with her, and tell him to wait some months and then afterward hint to her that he obeys the commander’s wishes, and see if she will betray herself to him. If you get nothing, then you’ve lost nothing.”
The bell rang from the kitchen.
In silence, his broad face creased with a frown, the marshal followed her inside.
The afternoon drained away the tail of the year of the Silver Snake. Priya and O’eki and their adopted son Ikash and his wife and children walked down from their house for the last meal.
Together, they made the proper offerings, sang the customary songs, and ate their feast in the prescribed order, finishing with the sweet pudding just as the night bells rang down the end of the day, and the end of the year, across the town. The three-day candles were lit in their ceramic holders and set one in each room and two on the porch to mark the entry. All the doors were left open so that wandering ghosts could exit as easily as they could enter. The girls, tucked into bed, made silly jokes about ghosts and giggled a lot. Keshad, Peddonon, and O’eki got into a long and involved discussion about the nature of ghosts, and whether Guardians were ghosts or dying spirits given life by the land, as they cleared and washed the dishes with Edi helping. The women sat on the porch, sipping the fermented petal wine that was only drunk during the Ghost Days. The town fell into a hush so dead that every least sound seemed heightened: the splash of wash water being thrown over stones; an unidentifiable thump, heard once and not repeated, like a body falling heavily onto a floor; many streets over the clapping sticks of the fire watch on its nightly patrol; a cough.
“I hope the baby doesn’t come during the ghost days,” whispered Miravia, stroking her belly nervously. She grimaced, and for a moment her gaze seemed to shift inward and far away. Then she came back and offered them, in the dim candle-light, a rueful smile.
Priya said, “your womb is tightening? How often?”
“Just now and then,” said Miravia. “I suppose I should never have walked down into the market today.”
“The child will come when it will come,” said Priya more gently. “Best you rest now. Come inside.” She rose with Tayit’s help and at the door the three women turned. “Mai, are you coming?”
“I’ll sit the first watch,” said Mai. “I’m not tired yet.”
She sat in the gloom beyond the reach of the candlelight and watched the empty street. Strangely, the red cap was not visible in the accustomed place. A woman might walk right down off the porch and into the ghostly city and go anywhere, really, but no one moved about at night during the Ghost Days except for the fire watch, walking in pairs during these ill-omened nights and attended by picked ordinands of Kotaru specially blessed and trained to cast off ghostly assaults. On these nights, after the end of the old year and before the priests of Sapanasu rang in the new, ghosts walked freely at night, and you were only safe if you remained within the boundaries of your own compound sealed by offerings and prayers and with the doors left open so no ghosts got trapped inside. Mai did not worship the Hundred’s gods, but she accepted their pre-eminence and followed the customs of her adopted home. So she sat on a pillow on the porch and sipped petal wine and listened as the wind sighed over the town and the bay.
“Mai?” Peddonon stepped out from inside the house, then yawned, stifling it behind an open hand.
“I’m well enough. You sleep now and take the late watch.”
He bent to kiss her in a brotherly way and went back inside.
She sat as the silence drifted down around her like settling dust. Peace kissed her, as on wings. These quiet nights held a special place in her heart now, an interval suspended out of time in which she might allow her cares and worries and aggravations to sleep. With the markets closed for the duration and all regular work ceased, with the streets abandoned at night and traffic during the day limited to pilgrimages to the temples and altars in and around town, the world seemed a simpler place. She closed her eyes and tasted the faint waxy lavender scent of the three-day candles on her tongue. The bones of the house creaked softly. The world breathed quietly, and if she made herself very very still in the midst of it all she thought she could hear the pulse of the land’s bright heart, a thread of blue-white light that tangled with her own being.
She startled back to awareness. “You’re meant to be in your bed, Arasit.”
“Couldn’t sleep,” said the girl with her mouth turned down and one foot scraping on the planks as though sweeping them. She had Anji’s features more than Mai’s, a plain girl with brilliantly intense eyes, and that absolutely stubborn intransigence was Anji’s as well although he had learned to hide it while playing at being the most reasonable and pragmatic of men. “I want to see a ghost. I’ve never seen a ghost yet, even though I peek every time. I don’t think there are ghosts.”
Mai sighed and beckoned, and the girl sank down and snuggled into the curve of her mother’s arm. “Oh, there are ghosts. Your Uncle Shai could see and hear them. So could your father. Well, he could see them, anyway, but not hear them.”
“I can’t see or hear ghosts. And I’ve never met my father or Uncle Shai, so how do I know they even exist? They might be pretend people you made up. I think my father ran away because he didn’t want me. Because I’m a brat. I wish I had a father like other girls do.”
Arasit was still young enough that Mai knew how to stroke her scalp so as to reassure and relax her. “I tell you what, little one. You close your eyes until I count to ten, but if you open them before I’m done, I have to start over. Then afterward, I’ll tell you a story.”
The girl considered as she stared at the burning candles as if the flames hid answers.
“One. Two . . . Three . . . . .”
By “four” the girl was asleep, and once her breathing had slowed and evened out, Mai shifted to lower her onto the pillow, all curled up like a flower in bud, waiting for the dawn to open. She despaired of her sometimes. Arasit was a brat, full of wild outbursts usually calmed only by Eiko, who was her constant companion and as steady as Arasit was difficult. But it was more than that. The girl wore a strangeness about her. If a thunderstorm boomed down over town the girl would rush outdoors and refuse to come in. Once in the midst of a frightening crash of lightning and thunder she had climbed up onto the roof and Keshad, raging and cursing, had had to clamber up and actually wrestle her down, not an easy task even if she was only seven for she had kicked and screamed the entire time. She adored Priya, though, and would spent entire days there patiently helping with [whatever small craft business Priya has]. But she and Eiko were old enough to attend the children’s school that all children here attended, and Mai would soon have to let her go although she feared the child would become so disruptive that–
A noise broke into her thoughts and scattered them into the wind. Her heart lugged, and sweat flushed on her brow, and then she realized she was hearing the unhurried clop of horse’s hooves. More than one.
Did ghosts truly ride? Did they pass through the streets of villages and towns and drag unwilling victims into their saddles and away into one the hells? Certainly she had heard plenty of tales of ghostly vengeance taken for an old grievance, of insubstantial Night Riders who abducted young people bold and foolish enough to chance the darkness of the Ghost Days or who left dangerous and precious gifts that might bring prosperity or disaster.
She shivered despite herself. But, in truth, the clip clop sounded like perfectly ordinary hooves, driven to earth by a creature with weight and substance. She rose, stepping in front of Arasit’s sleeping form as the shadowy figures of three riders came into view down the street. Anger scalded her, succeeded by fear for her child and, if she were honest, a little for herself. She knew those silhouettes instantly. She recognized the distinctive armor and stocky horses of the Qin as if they were the familiar profiles of kin, and perhaps in some way they were, for she had ridden with the Qin for two years and grown up in a town ruled by their army. She had been married off to a prince of the Qin, even if she had thought at the time that he was merely an ordinary captain, and she had borne to him two children. Once, she had believed she loved him.
Now, with a long in-drawn breath to steady herself, she walked to the steps and waited for the riders to halt on the street below, as they must, for surely there could be no one else in Salya that three Qin riders had come at night to seek. The second rider dismounted stiffly, burdened by the thick weight ringing his torso, and approached. He halted at the base of the steps so she could identify his face.
“Chief Tuvi!” Heedless of the strictures of the Ghost Days, she descended the steps in a rush and, without thinking, caught the chief by the shoulders and kissed each weathered cheek. He mewled with a faint noise of discomfort. Startled, she stepped back to see his familiar and much loved smile as he looked her over.
“You look well, Mistress. I am pleased to see you healthy and blooming.” His voice sounded perfectly normal, just as she remembered it, not mewling at all.
She glanced past him at the two soldiers, still mounted, but they were not men she knew. “Tuvi, you and your men must come inside. We have a stable, mattresses for visitors, something to drink–”
“I cannot stay, Mistress.” He watched her with the intent gaze she remembered; he was Anji’s most trusted retainer, the man to whom Anji had given the duty of protecting his wife, back when Mai was his wife. “I have been sent by the commander.”
“Tuvi.” She hesitated, not wanting her words to him, a man she respected and felt affection for, to be abrupt or angry.
“Not that,” he said with a slight shake of head. “No, Mistress. Not that. This.”
He unwrapped what she had at first imagined was a belly grown large from too much eating and drinking in the palace of the Hundred’s new ruler but which instead was a bundle to be unswaddled and held out before her. The candles gave off just enough light that she could discern the thing he had been carrying against his body as he rode.
It was an infant child, likely not yet a month old, boasting a head of coal-black hair.
“Merciful One, cast your blessings upon the innocent,” she murmured reflexively.
“Will you take him?” Tuvi asked.
“Take him?” The anger poured out in a rush. “What, does Anji mean to offer a trade? This infant for Atani? Or is this his way of trying to bind me to him by–”
“Mistress,” he said in that way he had of cutting her off without raising his voice or showing the least sign of irritation. “That is not what this is.”
She closed her mouth over the rest of her furious words. With a curt gesture, she signaled that she would listen to what he had to say.
He nodded to acknowledge what she had offered. “There was another boy child born before this one, a few years ago, but the commander’s mother got to him first and had him killed–”
She sucked in air as if she’d been punched in the stomach.
“–so that he could not threaten Atanihosh’s place as the commander’s heir. So that Atanihosh’s existence would never be threatened by any desire the Lady Zayrah might conceive to elevate a son of her own womb over one born to another woman. This baby, this one, would have met the same fate, but the commander got to the infant first. We Qin do not like to kill healthy children. It is so wasteful.”
“The commander’s mother is Qin, too,” she said tartly, the old rage simmering. And yet the baby was so small and helpless against a ruthless old woman’s machinations.
He nodded again. “The noble lady lived for many years in the women’s quarters of the palace of the Sirniakan emperor. She tasted their ways, and in the end, that became the dish she cooked for herself. Mai, the commander had to decide quickly, who he could trust to raise the boy kindly and with affection. Who he could trust to never attempt to bring the child into conflict with Atanihosh. So he thought of you.”
“Of me,” she echoed bitterly. “He thinks of me too much, Tuvi.”
He inclined his head, his expression utterly without emotion. “In this matter, the captain will never change.”
“What if I agree to take the baby only in exchange for Anji letting go of me? Letting go of my life?”
“I was given no orders other than to bring the baby, Mistress. I cannot bargain. You must either accept the burden, or reject it. All else remains as it was.”
She was by now trembling. Anji knew her too well. At that instant, the baby stirred. A dark infant gaze fixed on her and the little thing smacked delicate rosebud lips, thinking of inchoate hungers.
“Give him to me,” she whispered hoarsely, extending her arms. “What is his name?”
Gently, he settled the infant in her arms. “He has no name. To give him a name would acknowledge his life, and he is dead to the palace. He must remain dead. Do you understand? In the palace, he is dead. The child you hold has no mother but you.”
She had already taken him into her heart; so quickly he had captured her. In her arms, he bided restfully, his gaze on her face. She caught Tuvi’s gaze and held it. “Please tell me, Tuvi-lo. Please. How is Atani? Is he taken care of? Is he healthy? Is he happy? Does he have companions?”
He sighed, as if the words pained him. “He is cherished, Mistress, by all who know him. He is a good boy, an obedient boy, a bit timid, but he is close in age to the oldest of his sisters, whom he adores, and she has courage enough for both. He is very gentle with the little girls, his younger sisters, and they think he is the sun in their sky. He is intelligent, like his father, and he studies hard to master all that he should at the palace school, where there are boys his own age who treat him with the respect he deserves. The Lady Zayrah treats him as her own. She loves him, if that is what concerns you.”
“And does Atani love her?” she asked, the words hoarse on her lips as she closed her eyes against the knife of grief that stabbed her. She’d thought the wound healed, but it would never heal.
“He does, Mistress.”
For a moment, she could not speak. At last, she opened her eyes and said, even more raggedly, “that is well, then. That is well.”
“We must be gone long before the dawn, so none suspect where the child came from. We’ve been giving him sheep’s milk.”
“Miravia will give birth in a day or two. She’s always had plenty of milk. She can nurse him with his cousin.”
He nodded and, to her surprise, touched her on one arm, an astonishing display from the tough old soldier. “Be well, Mistress. Do not think I have forgotten you.”
“I know where your duty lies.”
She wanted to ask if the women of the palace treated him well, if they had found a proper wife for him, to replace the one he had been forced to leave behind in the Qin homeland so many years ago because he had followed his duty, which meant he had followed his captain. But she thought the question would be cruel, for what if they had not? What if they cared nothing for Chief Tuvi except as a soldier; what if they never thought of him except as a weapon serving the commander?
He smiled, as if she had spoken with her expression. “There is a man in Toskala named Nekkar, one of the Herald’s priests, a good and thoughtful man. I went to him, and told him I was looking for a wife and what manner of woman I hoped to share a tent–a house–with. So he took on the task. He found a good woman, a widow, an older woman, and we deal together very well, she and I. I thought you would want to know, Mistress.”
With tears on her cheeks, she kissed and embraced him, and she let him go. He mounted, and the riders vanished into the darkness. The fall of hooves on stone faded under the distant shush of the incoming tide swallowing the tidal flats which soon became the only sound in the sleeping town except for Arasit’s slow breathing. She stood, rocking the wakeful baby in her arms, and she wept as ghosts slipped noiselessly past her on the dying winds of the old year and the birthing winds of the new.
Startled, she turned.
Peddonon emerged from the interior, rubbing his face as he woke up. “In my dreams I thought I heard the sound of hooves. It woke me, so I came out to take my share of the–Mai! Come up off the street! Don’t you know the Night Riders steal beautiful women and men where they can catch them out of doors?”
He stepped around Arasit sleeping on the pillow as Mai mounted the steps. But as she approached him, he took a step away from her, staring.
“What is that?”
“It’s a baby,” she said. “The Night Riders brought me a baby. Just like in the tales.”