After three days on half rations, no one had the energy to rejoice when the walls of Corathy crept into view. They had been chasing the mountains so long that it seemed impossible that they were finally walking a switchbacked path into the Wind's Eye Pass, and they went like half-lucid dreamers waiting to wake.
Kastor found himself a little resentful at arriving -- this should have been the end of his job, and instead it was the beginning of Mikah's ill-defined quest. All he wanted was to get paid and sleep for a week. Mikah had refused to tell them how long they might stay here.
The guards at the gate saluted Tanner. She hesitated half a moment before returning the salute, as if unsure she still had the right.
"What brings you here, Sergeant?" one asked her. "Any way we can assist you?"
"Thank you, Private, but no. Just a little escort duty. Have you folks heard anything about the trouble in Merallis?"
"What? What's happened to Merallis?"
Tanner shook her head. "I'll bring you boys up to speed later, if I get a chance. For now, just plan to bivouac half a century of horse sometime in the next week. They might head south instead, but you may as well be ready."
"Uh -- yes, ma'am. Thanks for the warning."
Corathy was a town which existed to serve the convent, and the pilgrims who came to visit the library. There seemed to be no working poor. Kastor saw prosperous merchants, wealthy patrons, and dozens of suspiciously healthy-looking beggars. It had been late autumn when he'd last been here; he'd seen few beggars then. Perhaps they came as pilgrims, and begged to earn their way home.
He noticed that Mikah was staring intently at each beggar they passed. The Mara seemed to be looking for something. Kastor didn't bother asking what. He hadn't spoken a word to Mikah since Magda had pried an explanation out of him. Mikah's teasing had tapered off to nearly nothing, since it wasn't getting a reaction. Kastor told himself his silence was because there was nothing to talk about, but he knew that there was shame in it as well. He shouldn't have gone off like that, shown such hostility, in front of Magda and Tanner. They didn't know his reasons for hating Mikah, and they didn't need to know. He wasn't even sure he did, anymore; hate had come to seem a rather strong word for it.
His anger had faded a little, worn away by enforced proximity. Watching Mikah be Mikah day after day was beginning to seem normal. He didn't want to be relieved about that, but he was.
They walked a broad central avenue between houses built of local stone. The town was less than a mile from end to end. There was no wall on the far side; just a pair of ceremonial gateposts at the base of a steep bulge of mountainside. The road was cut into this rock face in shallow steps.
Climbing to the convent took a little more than two hours. The way was lined with little shrines in alcoves, each with a bench for weary pilgrims and a stone tablet with the name of whichever dignitary had donated it. Some shrines, like the one to Temirya the Midwife, were half buried under offerings of flowers and food. Others, like that of Ehu of the Silences, held only a few long-wilted stems. Magda bobbed a little bow to each statue or symbol as they passed. She stopped for a longer prayer at the shrine of Telar, Protector of the Dead, which was freshly decorated from a recent funeral. Tanner paused at the shrine of the Warrior Twins to drop a coin in the box; the offering for the Twins was a penny to pay for oil in the ever-burning lamp.
Kastor ignored them all. These were not his gods.
At last the road finished its steep climb and began a gradual descent around the mountain's flank. By degrees, the valley opened before them, greening with the highlands' belated spring.
"Ooooh. Hey, that's nice." This was Tanner, gaping at the view like a hayseed in the big city.
Sheep grazed on lush hillsides. Terraced fields were misted with new growth, tended by women in blue and white. Where neither sheep nor fields used the land, in the steepest and rockiest places, wildflowers spread like splashes of paint, yellow and purple and white. The Crane River, a narrow creek barely worthy of the being called a river here at its source, foamed over rocks at the valley's bottom. Above all this pastoral prettiness soared the convent and Library, five stories of gray granite with an eight-story tower at one end. Its gate was wide open; no one guarded it. They left horse and mule at the stable outside. Kastor shouldered the trunk of books. It still smelled like demon blood.
They entered the high-arched gate and found themselves in a courtyard garden centered on a reflecting pool. Potted evergreens fifty and a hundred years old were set asymetrically around aesthetically chosen boulders and banks of alpine rock-garden. Nuns, novices, and scholars of both sexes sat on benches around the courtyard, reading or writing or quietly debating in the clear mountain sunshine.
After a few moments, a lanky woman in the simple brown tunic and trousers of a warrior-nun came to meet them. "Welcome. I'm Sister Lea. Please let me show you to our guest quarters."
Magda gave Sister Lea a grateful smile. "Yes, thank you. And then, could you tell Sister Chime the Librarian that her old student Magda has arrived?"
"Certainly." The warrior-nun led them along one side of the courtyard, into a pillared arcade that looked over a steep cliff to the valley below. It stretched nearly the whole length of the building, stopping at the outthrust wall of the tower that held the Library. It was set up, Kastor guessed, so that guests could visit the Library without passing through the convent proper. Small, high windows punctuated the wall.
Halfway along, Sister Lea stopped and indicated a door carved with flowering vines. "This leads to the women's guesthouse. Would you gentlemen please wait here?"
"Oh --" Magda hesitated. "My books. Can Kastor bring them?"
"I'm sorry, but men are really not allowed into the women's portion. If you'll help, madam --" this was to Tanner -- "I think we can carry the box."
"Let me have a crack at it." Tanner backed up to Kastor and helped him shove the trunk onto her shoulder. She elbowed him in the nose in the process, but they got it settled to her satisfaction. "Whuf. Hope it's not far."
"Not far at all," Sister Lea assured them. The women went through the door.
Kastor stood rubbing his nose. He stared out over the valley.
"Well, that's your job done," Mikah said brightly. "Now would be the time to run from me, if you're going to. You could leap right over that railing and tumble down the hillside. Ride away on the river like a paper boat."
Kastor turned to look at him blankly.
"Or you could throw me over the railing, that might satisfy whatever sense of injury you're nursing."
"I haven't been paid," Kastor said.
"Ah. Then I suppose you're stuck with me, my brittleness."
"Why? Your logic doesn't follow."
"Did I have logic? I didn't mean to."
Kastor returned his gaze to the view. He was aware of Mikah staring at him; it made him self-conscious.
Sister Lea returned. "Sirs, please come with me." She led them farther along the arcade, to a door carved in intricate geometric patterns. As she opened it, she said, "The only women allowed in the men's quarters are sisters of my Order. If you wish to visit with your companions, please do so in the common areas -- the courtyard, library, or dining hall."
They walked along a lamplit hall with a row of doors along one side. Down at the far end, a man with a monk's green robe and shaved head paused in the act of entering one of these doors, gave them a brief inquisitory stare, then went into his room.
"What do you do with married couples?" Kastor asked.
That brought out the first hint of personality Sister Lea had shown: a dimpled smile that made her look like a mischevious child. "We've found that being kept apart for a small time makes them appreciate each other that much more."
Mikah's eyes widened as if this were deep wisdom. "Ah!"
"May I assume you gentlemen don't mind sharing a room?"
"Not in the least," Mikah said, while Kastor gritted his teeth.
She opened a door, waving them into a cell with two narrow cots in it. There was a small cabinet beneath a window that admitted cool air. Other than that, it was bare, uninviting stone. "We would like you to leave your weapons in your room," she said, "excepting a small knife for eating. The men's bath is at the end near where we came in, and the hypocaust works from five in the morning until noon. The water will be lukewarm just now, but you're welcome to bathe if you like. I see you don't have any baggage. We have clothing for visitors to borrow, if you want to change."
"Oh, yes, please," Kastor said vehemently.
"Then I'll be back with that shortly. Please make yourselves comfortable." She smiled politely and left them there.
Mikah immediately opened the cabinet, looked under the bed, sniffed the blanket on one of the cots. Kastor turned his back. He set his satchel on top of the cabinet, then began the slow process of divesting himself of arms and armor. The whole time he was taking off his leathers, he felt Mikah's eyes burning into his spine, but when he gave in and turned around he found that Mikah wasn't even looking. The Mara was standing on one of the cots, looking out the window. He hadn't taken his boots off.
"That bed's yours," Kastor said.
"How do you know?"
"Well, I'm not sleeping in your muddy footprints."
Sister Lea came back with a bundle of cloth in her arms. She let Kastor take it from her. "Is there any other way I can help?"
"Yeah -- how do we communicate with the others? I mean, if they're not allowed in here --?" Kastor frowned at his own clumsy phrasing -- he was distracted by Mikah grabbing at the clothing. He let the Mara have it. "What I mean is, I was hired to escort Sister Magda here, and I gather Sister Chime is in charge of paying my fee. They'll want to summon me."
"I or another of my Order will gladly carry a message. Do you read? Then they can send a note, as well."
Kastor thanked her and let her go. He watched, for a few moments, the comical process of Mikah holding up to himself the two shirts and two pairs of trousers in turn, looking for a combination that suited him. He wasn't going to find one. One pair of trousers was charcoal gray, the other black, and the shirts were oatmeal-colored and dun-green, respectively. They were not meant to look fancy. Eventually Kastor ended his dithering by grabbing the green shirt and black pants and stalking off toward the bath.
Despite Sister Lea's warning, the bath was still steaming. He smiled for the first time in days, anticipating a relaxing soak. The bath room was nice -- nothing ornate, just slate tiles on the floor and white plastered walls, but clean and spacious. The bath itself looked big enough to accomodate a dozen men without tangling elbows. It was empty.
He glanced back at the door. Please all the gods, he prayed, let Mikah not suddenly decide that he smells.
There was a pump and drain in one corner. Kastor took the hint and rinsed off the worst of the road dirt with cold water before getting into the bath. It felt hot after the chill water from the pump, but rapidly cooled until he was not quite comfortable sitting still. It was like swimming in a lake in summer. He busied himself with scrubbing to keep from getting chilled.
Rubbing his hands over his face, he wished he'd shaved before getting in the bath. His race wasn't known for being hairy, but so many days on the road would make anyone scruffy. He'd heard that there were charms to keep one's beard from growing; maybe someday he'd learn one. He took a deep breath and let himself slip under the water, scratching luxuriously at his scalp.
When he came up for air, it was just in time to get a full frontal view of Mikah standing at the edge of the bath. The next moment, the Mara took a flying leap and landed in the water with a tremendous splash.
Kastor watched him come up and spit water. His eyes felt three sizes too large for his head. He blinked carefully.
"What's got you so shocked, my shambles? Nothing's changed since your last eyeful. At least, not that I've noticed."
Forming the words carefully, Kastor said, "You are not supposed to belly-flop in a public bath."
"No one told me. Well, now I know. You're so informative. And proper."
Kastor looked away. He really wanted to leave now, but he wasn't certain he could keep his back turned the whole time. He sank a little deeper into the water, until it came up to his chin.
"Is there anything else I should know, my ettiquette expert? What else am I not allowed to do here?"
"You think it's funny. Pretending you don't know how to keep from offending people. Well, you're not funny. Or do you really expect me to believe that something as old as you hasn't figured out the rules by now?"
"You forgot what? Whether it's a joke?"
"Is there soap?"
"By the pump. The water's cold."
"Oh, never mind. I'm not dirty."
"Then why are you here?"
"To see you blush and hunch down in the water, of course. I've made a bet with myself on how long it will take you to calm down enough to be able to stand up."
The rush of anger was instant, and it solved the problem. Kastor climbed out of the bath and began to towel himself roughly, no longer concerned with what Mikah saw. He got dressed and went to storm out.
At the door, though, without meaning to, he turned and looked back.
Mikah was no longer paying him any attention. The Mara had undone his braid and was swishing his head back and forth, trailed by a comet tail of creamy gold. The curve of his body as he bent backwards, the shape of his stretched throat, the motion of his arms as he reached back to unknot a tangle, printed onto Kastor's eye like the afterimage of a lightning bolt.
He calmed himself by cleaning his armor. The smell of leather and oil was an old familiar one, a smell of home. If there had been smoke and horse involved as well, he was sure the tension in his shoulders would have gone entirely; then he would have been able to deal with whatever nonsense Mikah chose to perpetrate. He finished with his armor and began on his weapons. Except for his skinning knife, they didn't need it. The throwing knives were new, still wearing the coat of oil the smith had given them; he hadn't used them. His swords had never, despite years of serious use, needed sharpening or polishing or any kind of maintenance. Still, he cleaned and oiled them all. He shaved, combed his hair, trimmed his ragged fingernails. He looked around for other things to do. He considered the contents of his satchel: leather-needle and cord for mending armor, a wad of grubby bandaging, half a dozen broken grease-pencils, the battered book he never wrote in anymore. None of them looked likely to distract him from the lurking press of memory. He polished his boots.
Mikah still hadn't returned when he finished. He was annoyed at himself for waiting. He rearranged his belt so that it only carried his skinning knife -- a bit large for politeness, but the throwing knives would be useless at table -- and went looking for a way to wash and mend his dirty clothes.
He wandered up and down the arcade with his arms full of reeking black linen, feeling like an idiot. Eventually he encountered an elderly monk, who directed him to a passage which led toward the dining hall and other common areas. There he found a magnificently obese nun who stole his dirty clothes away from him and told him to go relax. So he tried to go relax. He went to the courtyard and sat on a bench. For a quarter hour or so he watched clouds passing in the reflecting pool and listened to the murmur of scholarly voices around him. He thought that maybe, if he were here alone, beholden to no one, he might have been able to write in the book again. Eventually he grew restless and went exploring.
He found another garden, the kitchen, the dining hall, several small shrines, the great chapel, an accidental back door which let out onto a midden yard, and a couple of places where he wasn't allowed to go and was politely but firmly shooed out. He gave up and went to the library.
It had been his plan to avoid the place. The lure of so many books was compelling, and he knew that if he went and started reading something and wasn't given time to finish, he'd be mad about it for days. He told himself he wouldn't start anything, just wander, breathe in the smell of words.
Immediately upon stepping inside, he forgot his resolution. He had been here once before, and had been to the Rule, which was bigger, though not entirely devoted to books. He should have remembered how such a place affected him. He paused to smell the air, to take in the panorama of thousands upon thousands of books from floor to ceiling, a broad stairway leading to another floor of the same, and the knowlege that there were six more above that one -- and then he began scanning the titles on the spines.
There were others in the library, making a constant murmur and flow of movement, but he barely noticed them. His hunger faded away; he was no longer waiting for dinner time. He found a book of outrageous explorers' tales, illustrated with grotesque woodcuts of sea monsters and invented people. He didn't hear the first three times Magda called his name.
He jumped when she touched his shoulder. She was looking at him with an indulgent smile.
"Sometime," she said, "you must stay here when you'll have more time to explore the stacks."
He took that as a hint that he didn't have the time now. With a sigh of deep regret, he put the book away.
"Sister Chime would like to see you. Not just about your fee. I told her everything. She also looked at the books I brought. She was especially interested in the one that disturbed you so much. Will you come?"
She went on talking as she led him through the library. "I could have gotten better clothes for you, if I'd thought of it. Would you like me to?"
"I can buy something in Corathy when I get paid."
"Oh, yes, I suppose if we're to go with Mikah we'll need more than a change of clothes and a hairbrush."
"So... that sounds as if you've decided."
"You'll have to hear what Sister Chime has to say."
"Where's Tanner? What does she think about all this?"
"Jennet's with Mikah. They had an errand in Corathy."
So he could have stayed in his room. Well, it didn't matter now. "She seems to be taking this all in stride. You'd think she'd be mad. Being separated from her unit, dragged off on this errand without a word of explanation --"
"She's enjoying herself," Magda said with a small smile. "Can't you tell?"
"Well, that's because you're too angry to see beyond yourself. I think you're the only one who truly doesn't want to come. I find I'm rather excited at the prospect, myself. And of course I want to help, if it means preventing more tragedies like what happened to the people of Merallis. Did you have somewhere you particularly wanted to go, after you'd finished with me?"
"It's just because you're angry with Mikah, then."
"Mostly, yeah," he admitted.
"I'm sure you have a good reason, Kastor, but it seems a bit academic now."
He couldn't argue with her.
She led him to a door at the back of the second floor, which stood partly open to an incredible clutter of paper litter. The mess only grew more impressive when she pushed the door wide. There was only a narrow alley left clear between shelves and tables piled high with leaning stacks of paper, damaged books, pots of glue, rolls of leather, pens, ink, dust and spiders. It looked like it hadn't been cleaned in a century. At the far end, near the room's one dirty window, a middle-aged woman sat at a desk, watching their entrance.
Sister Chime's dark blue robes were edged with the library's green, rather than the white that trimmed Magda's. She wore no veil; her short gray hair was held out of her eyes with unadorned clips. Her thin face was made for smiling, lined with it, crinkly around the eyes, wide-lipped. On one fine-boned hand she wore a heavy signet ring, her only concession to her high birth. Kastor gave her a cordial nod, pleased to renew their acquaintance; she'd been good company when he'd guarded her to Wizards' Rule last autumn.
"Kastor the Kyri," she greeted him. "I owe you thanks for your protection of my student. I gather it entailed some unusual risk to yourself."
He shrugged. "Bad luck. We ran into the middle of something."
"Ah, well, I'm afraid it may have had something to do with Magda after all. Rather, with the books she brought me. Sit anywhere, by the way. I apologize for the mess."
Looking around, Kastor realized that some of the book-laden surfaces were chairs. He set a stack on the floor and sat. Magda did the same.
Sister Chime took something from the desk, a package in dark cloth. When she unwrapped it, he recognized it with a thrill of anxiety: the blue-and-gold book in the strange script. "Magda said you seemed to recognize this language, and that it alarmed you. I was surprised to hear that. This dialect of Angelic is very, very rare. I would guess that there are not a dozen books written in it. Not in all the world. I would love to hear where else you saw it."
He shook his head. "Another book. An evil book. I'd rather not go into detail."
"But you must. It's very important. If you fear the tale would in some way indict you, I promise you I'll tell no one. But you don't strike me as the type to go delving into darkness voluntarily."
"First impressions," he said with a crooked smile.
"My considered judgement," she retorted.
"Fair enough." He put his chin in his hand, wondering how to tell the story so as to give her what she wanted without giving anything he couldn't spare. "I wasn't always a law-abiding citizen, Sister. I used to steal. I was unfortunately fairly good at it. I was hired to steal a book from a private home -- a private palace, actually. The owner was insanely wealthy. He had the book standing alone on a pedestal in the middle of his library, surrounded by all kinds of trip-wards and chained spirits. I'd been warned to expect that, so I was prepared, and I dealt with it. What I didn't expect was the book itself. It was evil. Just touching it nearly made me throw up. I've seen a fair bit of weird stuff in my life, but an inanimate object that could hate... well, I did what I'd been hired to do, handed it over to my buyer and washed my hands. But I still have nightmares about that thing."
"Did you open the book?"
"No. I only saw the cover. But I'd recognize that script anywhere. I see it in my dreams."
Magda touched the back of his hand with her fingertips. "It was Mikah, wasn't it? Who hired you to steal the book. That's why you're so angry at him."
He looked at her curiously, wondering how she'd deduced that. "Mikah hired me to steal the book."
"But that's not why you're angry?"
"It's academic, as you said."
Sister Chime cleared her throat. "So. There was an evil book, perhaps something on demonology -- that would explain the sense of malice. And we have this set of memoirs, which is not charmed or charged in any way, and yet which attracts a strange sort of attention."
"Memoirs?" Kastor frowned. "I thought it was a spellbook."
"It does rather look like one, doesn't it? In fact, it's a set of short accounts by different authors. Each one relating the circumstances of his creation. All, as far as I can tell, Mara."
Kastor felt his eyes go huge. "Are you serious?"
"Quite. It's difficult to decipher; their method of organizing their thoughts is slapdash at best, in most cases incomprehensible. I can't make a bit of sense out of these diagrams. Perhaps if I spent a year or two working on nothing but this book, I could begin to translate it. Another decade might give me some understanding of the thaumaturgical content. It doesn't help that each account, nearly each page, is in a different style, and many of the authors seem grudging or reluctant to put pen to paper. As if they were bullied into it. Who could bully fifty Mara into writing the stories of their births?"
Kastor shook his head blankly. "I didn't know there were fifty Mara in the whole world." Then something from the legends that had always intrigued him came up in his mind. "So are any of them women? Or do they say anything about where the Mara women hide?"
"I'm not certain. I've only had a few hours to browse it. You can't tell anything from their names; they have names like 'orange-red' and 'sad spotted dog' and 'box'. They sound much better in Angelic, of course."
Magda leaned forward. "What does the name Mikah mean? What does Stiaan mean?"
"Mikah means 'stubborn'," Chime said, which made Kastor laugh. "Stiaan means 'salt.' What was the other one, the one you met on the road?"
"Nevbelis," Kastor supplied.
"'Blue-green.' Color names are quite common in this book."
"Ah." Kastor couldn't help grinning. "So that's why Mikah was so sarcastic about Nevbelis's name. Stiaan just named him after the color of his eyes. But, look, you said something about attracting unusual attention. You think Nevbelis was after the book?"
"The demon was," said Magda. "You were -- preoccupied, so you didn't notice. It was reaching for the trunk of books when you attacked it. Its eyes were fixed on the trunk. It didn't even see you."
"And you're sure it was this book?"
"It seems likely," Chime said. "The rest are rare, but ordinary. Mostly histories and poetry from foreign lands. Only this one could possibly interest a demon or a demonologist. Or a Mara."
Kastor shook his head sharply, then shoved away the hair that fell into his face. "Sister, who knows what a Mara wants? They're all mad. If Nevbelis was after the books, maybe his favorite poem was in there. You can't know."
"Nevertheless it's a plausible working theory. Of the small fraction of this that I've been able to read, one part in particular seems relevant. Let me find it." She turned pages patiently, then began to read, haltingly, in fits and starts. "Though I was new and angry, they showed me my demon. This is your twin, they told me. It filled me with destruction. They would not let me attack it. It was set free. I was angry until they set me free as well. Then I was still filled with destruction, but it took me too much time to find the demon. I could not tell one from another. So I killed what I could find, and then I forgot." Thoughtfully, she added, "The word hastu is written with the glyph for intent rather than occurrence; it might be dialect, or perhaps I should read it as 'put it out of my mind' rather than 'forgot' -- it's a troublesome script."
"Twin?" Kastor echoed the part that had caught in his mind. "Does that mean Mara are demon-kin?"
"I don't believe so, no. Not in the sense of being demonic themselves. I think that this Stiaan, whom Mikah called his brother, is Mara, not demonic. But I also think that demonology figures prominently in the origin of the race. That could explain why that evil book you described was of interest to Mikah."
"And this one? He doesn't seem to have noticed it. What could he be after?"
Magda shifted in her seat, seeming excited by the debate. "Did you notice, Kastor -- those bandits, the ones you killed just before Garwater. Did you notice that they were unusually well-armed? Don't bandits usually have clubs and knives? And they seemed awfully well-fed."
"Yes, I noticed that. I'm surprised you did."
"I'm naive, not stupid. I don't know what they wanted, but maybe they were after the book too."
"Now you're stretching."
"In any case," Chime interrupted, "it seems that something very important is occurring. Some coming together of great forces. As Mara go, this Mikah seems much more concerned with the wellbeing of mortals than any of his race have been before. In all the legends in which Mara figure, I can't recall any instance of a Mara lifting a finger to aid a mortal companion, but Mikah apparently rushed to your rescue." She glanced at Magda. "What did he say -- that he'd 'leapt two hundred miles' --? He must have teleported, and even if it cost him little in terms of power, by its very nature that spell is terribly dangerous." Her attention returned to Kastor. "As for hiring you to steal an evil book, we can't know his intentions for the book, but it's unusual that he hired you, rather than tricking or manipulating you into it, or simply striding in to grab it for himself, destroying anyone who got in his way."
"I don't know why, but I doubt it was scruples."
"But he paid the promised fee?"
"He paid," Kastor said darkly. Then, because he could see the curiosity his tone had inspired, he hastened to direct attention back to the subject at hand. "So you're saying Mikah is -- what, more human? -- than whoever he opposes. And for that we should throw in with him."
"It seems the better course. And think of what we can learn! The race of Mara is a great blank in history. There's so much we don't know about them. They simply put in appearances in the occasional legend, barely distinguishable from gods or demons, and the fact that unlike those entities they're entirely material seems to be completely unexplored. We don't know how they live, what they want, whether they're truly immortal or simply very long-lived. Aside from the occasional spurious tale of the lost city of Mara women -- which are clearly prurient fabrication -- we have no idea how they reproduce. Just finding out how Mikah can have a brother would add a great deal to the sum of the world's knowlege. I was astonished to hear that Mikah eats."
"Like a pig," said Kastor.
"And one thing he mentioned, the power he forbade the rogue Mara to use -- this is something we've never heard of. What was it called?"
He said, "I don't remember, it was unpronounceable, it sounded like an egg in a frying pan."
"Try to find out, Magda. Find out anything and everything you can. As for you, Kastor, I can't give you orders. I can't justify using the convent's funds to hire you. But it seems you've little choice but to accompany Magda on this quest, as Mikah has set his eye on you especially."
Kastor felt a sour expression growing on his face. He tried to get rid of it, but it came back. "I don't know why. Yeah, he's got some use for me, but damned if I know what it is. I'm a fighter. What does he need a fighter for? He can just wave his hand and bam."
"You have magic swords," Magda ventured.
"They don't have any special powers. They just stay sharp. They cut Nevbelis, true, but not very well. What, you think he wants me to kill his brother?"
Magda shrugged helplessly.
Sister Chime leaned over to look into his face, touching his hand where it lay on his knee. There was a twinkle in her eye. "Come now, young barbarian. You can't tell me you're not curious. Aren't your people rovers? Don't you call yourselves 'the fearless ones'? Don't you have glory to gather, to secure your place in the fields of heaven?"
"Canagh na Ddheru is closed to me, Sister," he said sharply, and stood to go.
"Wait. I have your fee for you. Somewhere around here." Chime poked around her desk, peering under papers and behind inkwells until she found a small bag. She handed him the clanking pouch. "Thank you for guarding Sister Magda so well. I hope I haven't made you so angry that you won't come visit me again sometime."
"I'm not angry at you, Sister. I'm just an ill-tempered brute, is all." He gave her a sheepish grin. "By the way, what time's dinner around here?"
* * *
"Come along, my soldier, don't dawdle."
"Coming," said Jennet around a mouthful of pastry. She tossed a pair of pennies at the pie-man and jogged to catch up with Mikah. He glanced back at her with an amused look. His hand snaked out and snatched one of the nut pies she'd bought.
She swallowed. "Hey! I only got three. You could've said you wanted some."
"You could've offered."
"You could've paid."
"You could've done a happy little dance about the availiability of pies."
She snickered, and made an attempt to join in. "You could've lit off a firework in the shape of -- of an empty stomach."
"Do they look much different from a full one?"
"Never noticed." She finished off the second pie before he could steal it from her. "Tell you what, you give me an advance on my pay, and you can steal off my plate to your heart's content."
Mikah pressed fingers to his lips, musing. "An advance on your pay. What would that look like, I wonder? Very strange, for certain."
"Oh, yeah, heart's desire, whatever. I'm just saying, coin comes in handy sometimes. My purse is near empty."
"Have you pennies for beggars?"
"I'm damn near a beggar myself."
"Give me a penny."
Jennet sighed. She handed over a penny. "What are we looking for, exactly?"
"Not what, but who. A beggar."
"Then you're in the right place, mate." She gestured to include the pilgrims in various states of disrepair who lined the square they were crossing. Some had proper alms bowls. Some had tin cups. Some held out cupped hands. "So what are we going to do with a beggar?"
"He'll come with us."
She sniffed. "Pick a clean one, then."
"We can wash him." Mikah made a sudden detour to peer under the hood of what turned out to be a young woman with one eye. She smiled hopefully at him and held out her hands, but he walked away from her without giving her his penny. The woman's hope turned to anger. She made a grab after him.
"Can you describe this beggar?" said Jennet, and the one-eyed woman instantly stopped reaching after the hem of Mikah's cloak. She'd probably come to the conclusion that they were hunting a thief or something. Jennet made a mental note to get some civilian clothes.
"Male, red-haired. I'm afraid the visual element of my predictions is blurry. As for the salient point, you're not equipped to detect it."
"What is it, magic?"
"The opposite, my dear dragoon."
"I'm not a dragoon. I'm an engineer."
He waved a hand dismissively. "Alliterative effect."
"Oh." She dug into her purse, feeling the sad clink of coins too lonely to jingle properly. But she was sure she could get some money out of him somehow, and she was still hungry. As they passed another street vendor, she spent another three pennies on a bag of dried apples dusted with sugar. This transaction was a little faster than the last, and she didn't have to run much to catch up.
Munching happily, she strolled along beside her strange employer, taking in the sights. Corathy was a pretty town. She liked the blue slate roofs, and the way every single house had the same lace curtains, as if one industrious granny had provisioned everyone at once. This would be a nice place to live, raise children. She'd resigned herself a long time ago to seeing that sort of thing from the outside, but that didn't mean she couldn't enjoy the fact that it was going on. She liked to see families. Couples courting. Grandparents watching grandchildren. She saw, in one window, three little sisters bent over a book, their flaxen heads close together while the eldest traced out the words with her finger. Jennet smiled at them, though they didn't look up.
"How pleasant it is to walk with you, my warrior," Mikah said suddenly, stealing a dried apple. "You provide sweetmeats and sweet smiles, and ask only the relevant questions."
"You're still stinging from Kastor chewing you out, huh? He'll get over it."
"I'm sure he will, the moment I'm out of his sight. Unfortunately for harmony, my presence seems to inflate his grudge. It's a shame, because other than that I quite like the fellow."
"Yeah, me too. Not to mention he's damn fine-looking. I've nothing to complain about, travelling with a couple of handsome lads like you two. Even if you do bicker like squirrels."
"Bicker?" Mikah put on a look of injured innocence. "Do I bicker?"
"You tease him. You go poking a dog with a stick, you don't get to bitch if you get bit."
"Ah, but I so enjoy doing it. He's so sensitive. It's a great deal of fun."
"What did you do to him, anyway?"
"What makes you think he was the wronged party?"
"He's been acting like a jilted woman. You guys used to be a couple, I bet."
"My enjoyment of your company is waning."
Jennet shrugged. "Well, it's your business." She offered the bag. "Want another apple?"
"Lovely." Mikah shoved a handful in his mouth. Then, while he was still chewing, he suddenly whipped his head around and dashed off down the street.
With an indulgent groan, Jennet chased after him. She had to run hard just to keep him in sight; his legs were longer, and he was lighter. Just when she thought she was about to lose him, he skidded to a halt in front of a rag-bundled form slumped in a doorway.
Jennet caught up and stood beside him, looking at the beggar. At least, she assumed it was a beggar. It might have been a carpet, or a sack of potatoes. The figure was completely swaddled in rags, and it wasn't moving. "So," she said. "Did you do your magic finding thing? Or --"
"Ssh." With a mischevious smile, he stood a penny carefully in his palm. He whispered to it; it began to spin. Slowly, he extended his hand closer to the beggar. Jennet leaned forward too, trying to see what he was up to. The penny spun itself to a blurry sphere, dancing across Mikah's palm. He pushed it closer, closer...
Suddenly, it shot out of his hand with such force that it chipped the stone of the doorway, banging back and forth in the alcove with a deafening noise.
The beggar started up with a cry, thrashing. Jennet got an impression of huge, bloodshot eyes and a patchy red beard before the beggar backed himself up small in the corner with his rags clutched so closely that only one eye was showing. His whole body was trembling. Jennet clucked her tongue disapprovingly.
"Mikah, that was mean."
"I didn't do it."
"What are you talking about?"
"He did." Mikah went to one knee in front of the beggar, transformed in an instant from prankster to ministering angel. "Are you all right there, lad? I didn't think it would go off like that. I just thought it would stop spinning. Here, it's fallen into your shroudings." Mikah picked the coin from the beggar's shoulder and held it out. "There you go. Take it, it's all right."
The one visible eye glared, but a frail hand shot out and snatched the penny. A thin, rasping voice came out of the wrappings. "I know what you are."
"Of course you do, Lucien Farach. I know what you are too, and I've a use for it. Would you like to be useful?"
The beggar twitched his rags so that both eyes were visible, still strained wide with suspicion. They were, Jennet saw with idle pleasure, an odd sort of jade color, like glacial silt in a mountain lake. Pretty. "Useful," the beggar echoed. His eyes rolled to Jennet. "King's business."
"No. My own. She really ought to be out of uniform -- I hired her away from her regiment."
"No, no treason. Nothing to strain your loyalties, my lad, however little they've been reciprocated. Introduce yourself, my soldier."
Obediently, Jannet squatted on her heels and offered a hand. "Jennet Tanner. Sergeant, Fifth Royal Engineers -- though not in that capacity right now, no worries."
"Engineers." This time the echo had a bit of interest in it. A thin, filthy hand crept out of the rags, briefly clasped hers, and vanished again. "Lucien Farach. World's worst wizard."
"More alliteration for you, Mikah," Jennet grinned. "Well, come on, lad. Can't be comfortable where you are. Let's get you cleaned up. Get some real clothes on you. Apple?" She held out the bag. He snatched it. She sighed. "Sure, fine, take the whole thing. Mikah, we're missing dinner up at the convent. We'll never get back in time. How about I take the new recruit to get dressed, and you order us something at that tavern we passed in the square?"
"Was there a tavern?"
"Had a black sheep on the sign. I think it was called the Lamb and Spindle."
"Fine, fine. A feast. You enjoy giving your employer orders, don't you?"
A prolonged sniffle from the beggar got their attention. "I don't recall," he said carefully, "agreeing to come with you."
Jennet grinned. "Got any better prospects?"
He considered this for a while, shook his head. He made a long production out of standing up. "Clothes and a meal, you said."
Mikah patted Jennet on the shoulder. "I should've taken you first. You would've persuaded Kastor and Magda far better than I did. The Lamb and Spindle, you say? Mutton is so greasy. I wonder if they have cider." He hurried away, lost in the consideration of food.
Jennet beckoned to the beggar. "Where can you get clothes ready-made around here? I've been in Corathy a couple times before, but I never went shopping. Lucien, was it? We'll have to have you shaved as well."
His nervous hand clutched his head. "Shaved?"
"Your face, lad. Because that beard -- no."
He dared a kind of smile, showing teeth that would have been more at home in a nobleman's mouth. He had clearly not been a beggar long. "Guess there's no point trying to look like a wizard."
"In my experience, there's no point trying to look like anything. Trying always makes you do it wrong. You only look right when you look like what you are."
"A philosopher. A philosopher with a sword."
"You think that's funny, wait 'til you meet Kastor. Berserker poet."
"Not that he writes, mind you. Just everything that comes out of his mouth is some kind of nasty ballad. Especially when he gets to yelling at Mikah. Brilliant."
Lucien tugged her sleeve. "This way. Rag shop."
"You don't want rags. Rags, you've got."
He rolled his eyes. "That's what they call it. You can get whole clothes there."
"Oh. Huh. One thing about the army, they pick out your clothes for you. Speaking of which, though, it's about time I got out of scarlets. Everybody thinks I'm going to arrest them."
She stopped at a knife stall on the way and bought him a razor. As she paid for it, counting her change ruefully, she was distracted by a set of kitchen knives. She ran her fingers over their wooden handles, imagining a housewife humming as she chopped carrots.
"Very fine, those," the knife seller assured her. "They'll keep an edge for years before they'll need sharpening. Take good care of them and you'll be handing them down to your grandchildren."
"I'm afraid that means I can't afford them," she said with a rueful smile. "Good business, mate."
"And a fine day to you, madam." The man gave her an odd look as she handed the new razor over to Lucien, but he still gave her a cheery wave.
The owner of the rag shop was less friendly. Lucien went in first, but turned right around and very nearly came out again as the owner began screeching at him. Jennet caught his shoulder -- hiding a wince at how thin it felt under the rags -- and turned him to face forward. She pushed in behind him, wrinkling her nose at the smell of mildew and sweat that haunted the tiny, cluttered shop. The owner, a pinch-faced woman extravagantly draped with the pick of her wares, shut up mid-curse.
"Show us the whole clothes," Jennet said. "Stuff with no holes or stains."
"Uh -- yes, here, they're here on this table. Don't touch that!" she added in a shriek as Lucien reached for something. "You've got fleas, I can see the fleas jumping off you!"
Lucien sighed and shook his head. He turned to Jennet. "I don't have fleas," he said solemnly.
"Good for you. Here, pick something out. Sooner you get out of that mess, the sooner we can go eat. Do you have shoes? No shoes. All right. Hey, weasel woman, show us some shoes."
The owner sniffed so hard her nostrils drew in. "Just because you're wearing a red tunic, madam, doesn't mean you can insult law-abiding --"
Jennet tapped her fingers on her sword hilt. "Stifle it. I don't have time. Get the shoes."
"Shoes. Very well." Sulking, the woman produced a sad array of shoes and boots.
Lucien held each shoe to the sole of his bare foot, checking for size. The only whole pair that fit was a set of tastelessly tooled and embroidered yellow riding boots. He took green trousers, a white shirt, a blue vest, and a red coat. He was going to look like a clown.
Jennet found a brown shirt that looked pretty much clean and about the right size. She showed it to the owner and tucked it in her belt; she'd change later.
"You got a back room? Get the boy some water too." Jennet asked. "A mirror and some soap would be choice."
"Let's see your coin."
"You'll get paid. You're lucky I'm an honest woman, because your attitude is making me want to cheat you."
Another sniff, and the woman let Lucien into her private quarters. Jennet could hear her haranguing him for several minutes, threatening what she would do if she found anything missing. She didn't come back. Jennet supposed she was keeping an eagle eye on him. She hoped the woman was letting him at least close the door to whatever room he was changing in.
After ten minutes or so, the owner's voice started up again, and she shooed Lucien back into Jennet's presence.
Jennet opened her mouth and shut it again. She couldn't think of anything to say. The boy was adorable, just adorable. Older than she'd thought, too, though still probably younger than she was. He'd shaved off that sad attempt at a beard, and brushed his red hair out in flaming waves around his shoulders. His colorful clothing didn't look half as ridiculous as she'd thought it would; cleaned up, his face had the delicate coloration of a prince or a priest, and that made all the difference. He stood differently, as well. Still hesitant, but it looked like shyness now, instead of the scrabbling roachlike nervousness of a beggar.
Eventually she said, "Good. You look fine, kid."
"Yes. Could I persuade you not to call me 'kid' or 'the boy'?"
"Oh. Sure. Well, come on." She dropped the last of her money on the nearest table. As they left, the owner scrambled to pick up the coins and count them.
"Wait, you!" the woman screeched. "The charge is five talims! There's only three and six here!"
"You want a silver and a half for wear and tear on your soap?" Jennet turned back with a bland look. "You want to overcharge people, woman, you shouldn't post the prices on the wall. Now go take a throat tonic before someone thinks you're being murdered."
As they left, Lucien snickered. "You're all right," he said.
"Damn straight." She hooked her thumbs in her belt and began to whistle. She was feeling just fine. So far this adventure was turning out to be a breeze. It didn't much matter that she was broke now. More money would turn up somehow.
The tavern's name was the Lamb and Wheel, she discovered. She'd known it was some kind of spinning equipment. Inside, Mikah was the calm center of a whirling bustle of servants. His fine clothes weren't quite enough to produce that kind of activity; he must've flashed some gold around. He lifted a steaming cup to greet them, grinning.
"Come, my fine soldier, feast with me! Ah, wizardling, you look almost human. Whatever posessed you to buy yellow boots, though? Yellow boots are a very sad thing on a man."
"They fit," Lucien explained. He sat down at the groaning table, hands hovering, clearly unsure he was allowed to partake. A servant shoved a finger bowl under his hands and offered him a hot towel.
Lucien's face lit in wondering joy. He rinsed his fingers in the bowl, wiped them with the towel, sat back so that the servant could take the washing things away. He took a tiny, tarnished knife from somewhere in his vest and poised it over a roast, looking to Mikah for permission to dig in. When Mikah nodded, he carved a neat slice, taking it back to his plate, and began to eat with a somewhat comical delicacy.
Jennet, as she copied him, wondered how he could be familiar enough with the ettiquette of a nobleman's table to perform the finger-bowl routine so smoothly. She herself had been roughly instructed in the business by her commander, so that she wouldn't embarrass him when they dined with a general, a few years back. She was beginning to get the impression that Lucien was highborn. However bad a wizard he was, he shouldn't have been begging. There was a story there. Well, there was always a story.
"Thanks," she said to Mikah as she took a warm loaf out of a basket heaped with them. "Throw some of your wealth my way, will you? Getting Lucien kitted cleaned me out."
"Ah, and there will be no unexpected apples until your purse is refilled. Very well, but spend slowly henceforth. It's a bit of trouble to get at my hoard." He set a short stack of gold beside her plate.
Jennet gave a chuckle of happy surprise at the color of his coin. "Spend it slowly, eh? As I've no need for a racehorse or a suit of jousting armor, I'd have some trouble spending it fast." She dropped the five gold estas into her purse, smiling at the fat clank they made.
Lucien was watching this interplay with wide eyes. He continued eating as he stared in awe. He had, she noted, lovely table manners. He didn't wolf his food or overload his plate. He took small, careful bites, and wiped his chin often. But he ate steadily and with a will. Even when he noticed her watching, he went on eating. Maybe he didn't think he'd get a decent meal ever again. Not, she reflected, that he was necessarily wrong. Mikah hadn't said anything about where they were going next, but a soldier's practiced pessimism told her to expect a long trip on marching rations.
With that thought, she sliced a drumstick off a handy goose and tucked in.