Chapter 1

I won him in a game of dice. I never owned him, though. He owned himself and always would, but I didn't discover that until much later.

It was the mare that caught my attention. Clean limbed, deep-chested, with a delicate head and wide nostrils that longed to eat the wind, she stood tied to a post in the courtyard of the caravanserai, flicking her tail in boredom. Compared to the shaggy pack horses tethered next to her, she looked as out of place as an opal amongst pebbles.

I urged Shar over and slid from the saddle. The mare pricked her ears forward, touched muzzles with Shar and gave a low whinny. When I stroked her neck, admiring her lustrous white coat, she shook her mane, obviously very much aware of her charms, then deigned to breathe into my hand. Not only a beauty, but also delightful manners. Quite unlike my own irascible gelding, who now snaked his head round, showing yellow teeth, when somebody approached from behind.

The man jumped back hastily. "My apologies, lady, I did not want to startle you."

I snorted. "You didn't." As if I'd let anybody creep up on me.

Short and stocky, the man was dressed in a red tunic and loose trousers of the style often seen in these borderlands. At his waist he wore a broad sash embroidered with peonies for luck and fastened with a jade buckle in the shape of intertwined carp.

He let his eyes slide over me, from my dusty boots up my faded trousers to my blouse sewn with beads of turquoise. There they lingered a moment too long; the day had been hot and I had undone the laces.

"Ah, you're Khotai," he said. "The famous horse people."

I shrugged. Though I suppose it was better than what we were usually called, the wolves of the steppe. Not without reason either.

The merchant sidled over to the mare, who ignored him in favour of rubbing noses with Shar. "I see my horse has caught your fancy. She's a beauty, isn't she?"

I knew better than to praise a horse that I might be interested in buying. "I've seen finer." Briefly, I extended my mage senses, establishing that besides the knife carried openly at his belt, the man had another one concealed in his boot and one in a sheath along his upper arm. Not that this worried me overmuch, but it always paid to be prepared.

"Look at those legs, slim as a dancing girl's," the merchant said. "Her carriage is like that of a maiden in the first flush of youth and the lustre of her eyes would put a courtesan to shame." Belatedly it seemed to dawn on him that comparing the horse to a ravishing woman might not have the same effect on me as on his male customers. His voice petered out.

"Hmm." I slid a hand along one of the mare's legs.

"She's fast too," he added. "And just look at her coat: glowing like a pearl. You will not find another like her in these parts."

That at least was true. A quick glance at the horses clustering round the water trough, all that the little caravanserai sheltered, had already shown me that none of them was worth bargaining for. And I needed another horse. The faster the better.

"Hmm," I said again, not giving the man anything. "I suppose she's quite a pretty colour." I took Shar's bridle and began to lead him away. "Now I need to see about my evening meal though."

"My sweet lady, won't you stay?" he exclaimed and took my arm. "You've hardly had a proper look at her yet."

I gave him an icy stare, put my hand on the hilt of the curved dagger at my belt and pointedly looked down at his fingers on my arm. Hastily he let go. "No offence intended, lady."

"None taken," I replied, but with no warmth in my voice.

The man took a step back. Sometimes the Khotai's reputation as ruthless killers was rather useful. It had kept a number of would-be human predators like this one at bay over the course of my journey, though at times I could not help feeling like a toothless dog masquerading as a fierce wolf. Hopefully they would never discover how little I shared my people's relish for bloodshed.

The merchant licked his lips. "My profoundest apologies. Lady, I am Behzad tal Hassar, at your service. Allow me to make amends by offering you some tea and perhaps a small repast."

I hesitated. While I did not like the manner of his invitation one bit, I did want an opportunity to start bargaining for the mare. "You are most kind," I finally answered. "I just need to see to my horse first."

"Oh, please, let my slave do that." Without waiting for an answer, he clapped his hands. "Kiarash, you lazy dog! Come here at once."

From beyond the other horses a man came shuffling over. The merchant aimed a kick his way, which he avoided with surprising nimbleness. "Master?" he asked.

"Water and feed this lady's horse, then groom it. And mind you take proper care of it, or I'll tan your hide."

The man ducked his head. "Yes, master. Nice horse. Pretty horse."

I looked at him dubiously, for his long black hair hung in lanky strands over his face, and his trousers and shirt were threadbare and stained. On his approach a pungent combination of horse manure and unwashed man wafted over. I wasn't sure if I wanted to give Shar into his care.

Behzad seemed to guess my reservations. "Kiarash takes care of all our horses. He's touched in the head, but he knows how to brush a coat until it gleams." He patted the mare's rump. "Just look at my beauty here."

It was the mare's behaviour that decided me: ignoring the merchant, she turned to Kiarash and gently blew against his chest. The slave stood hunched over and had his head lowered submissively, but I saw him reach out a quick hand and stroke her.

"Very well," I said and removed my saddlebags, my bow and quiver of arrows. "Thank you."

Turning to Shar, I told him to behave. I had spoken in Sikhandi to the merchant, as it was the recognised trade speech in these lands, but with the gelding I used my own language. I grinned to myself. Shar could take care of himself anyway, at least he had never stood any nonsense from me.

Whereas I had merely paid a small fee to the master of the caravanserai to spread my blankets beneath one of the arches set into the wall, Behzad had rented a couple of rooms facing the central courtyard.

But when he asked me inside, I shook my head. "It's been a hot day, I would much rather sit out here and enjoy the evening air."

"Of course," Behzad answered with an ingratiating smile.

Poor Kiarash got called away from grooming Shar to spread a carpet just outside the door and fetch cushions, so we could sit and watch the going-ons of the caravanserai. I settled down with my back to the wall. While the merchant did not have a Khotai warrior's trained strength, nevertheless he was burly and thickset, and I had no desire to court trouble. I had plenty of that already! As long as we sat in the courtyard, the guards would enforce the trading peace – what happened inside the rooms was a different matter altogether.

A huge tash tree spread its broad leaves over the courtyard, and with the coming of the night a swarm of ganda finches settled amongst its branches, chirping sleepily. The open plains of the steppe were parched by the summer sun at this time of the year, the grass yellow and sere, but I had noticed how the vegetation had grown more plentiful over the last few days. Located as it was at the foot of the mountains, the caravanserai had its well fed by underground streams, allowing the cultivation of grapes.

Behzad offered me some of these, together with a cup of green tea, which I accepted gratefully: it had been a long, dusty ride. I observed the merchant out of the corner of my eye. He seemed prosperous enough, but while his clothes were of good make, they had seen plenty of wear.

I wondered where he had picked up a horse of the quality of the mare, but knew better than to ask. Here in the borderlands, there was often little difference between bandit and merchant. As long as no irate former owner turned up, I didn't really care.

By and by, more men joined us, Behzad's trading partners who had formed a caravan with him. They eyed me with open curiosity, but politely enough. Several of them had knives hidden about their person, but that was hardly unusual in a place like this.

"You honour us greatly with your company, Lady…" Behzad said, letting his voice trail off suggestively.

"Javaneh," I supplied. The rules of hospitality demanded that I give him my real name, but I did not think it would matter.

He raised an eyebrow. "Javaneh? That's a Sikhandi name."

"Yes." If he wanted an explanation of how I had been given a name in the language of the Khotai's hereditary enemies, he would not get it from me.

He must have realised as much. "A name as beautiful as the lady who owns it," he declared. "And what brings you here?"

"Business."

"Ah. Are you travelling west?"

"Yes, I am." This was no secret, as I had already asked the caravanserai's master about the onward road. There would be no more certain shelter for several days, not until I reached the fort on the Zhubin Pass, the gateway into the Empire of Sikhand. One more reason I needed a second horse.

"We're heading south ourselves, but I've been that way many times before." Behzad proceeded to advise me on what route to take. I stored away the information, though I did not trust him much. However, he seemed determined to be friendly and chatted away about what wares he traded, boasting of his success.

As the swift southern dusk fell, he offered me rice wine, but I declined, for I wanted a clear mind. Behzad and his friends showed no such restraint, and after the first few cups their eyes traced my neckline rather too often.

It was obvious I was travelling alone, and unattached women were rare in these lands, young ones even more so. However, I had learnt how to deal with that. When I took out my knife, its blade long and deadly sharp, and cleaned it with a soft cloth, they hastily looked away. You did not trifle with Khotai women – not even half-bloods.

Seeing that the slave had finished with the horses, Behzad called him over to build a fire, then sent him off to fetch a selection of dishes from the vendors who had set up their stalls in the courtyard.

Despite my polite protests, he insisted on treating me to the meal. "Please, Lady Javaneh, you'd honour us greatly by breaking your fast with us."

I did have some coin in my saddlebags, could in fact sense the metal calling to me through the canvas that held it, but I had no idea how long the money would have to last, so I accepted gracefully. If he thought to lure me into his bed this way, he would find out otherwise.

Kiarash came back carrying two large bowls of spicy lentil stew, dumplings and rice, then was sent back for more. The food smelt delicious and I thought I saw him swipe some small pasties and hide them away amongst his clothes. The men paid him no attention, only cuffing him every now and again over some clumsiness.

"You have finished grooming the lady's horse?" Behzad asked him. "I'm warning you, I want a proper job, no rushing."

The slave ducked his head. "Proper job, master," he mumbled. "Kiarash promise." The slave collar on his neck had chafed him raw.

Behzad waved him away. "In that case make yourself useful shaking out my bedding and see to it that my privy is clean. Don't just stand around!" As the slave ran to do his bidding, Behzad turned to me. "A complete dimwit. I swear there's nothing in his head except how to shirk work. I don't know why I bother to feed that ungrateful wretch."

Because otherwise he'd have to clean his privy himself? But I just murmured an agreement.

"Still, the Elements reward those who look after the simple in mind," Behzad went on in a self-satisfied voice. "That's why I took him on."

"Took him on?"

One of the other men guffawed. "He sold himself to Behzad for a bowl of rice a day."

"Saw the mare and said he liked horses," another added.

They all laughed at how they had taken advantage of the poor man's simplicity. What kind of life had he led that he would trade his freedom for a full stomach? It was difficult to tell under all the grime covering him, but Kiarash seemed little older than myself. However, while I felt sorry for him, there was nothing I could do to help. I had more than enough worries of my own.

Behzad leant back on his cushions and played with the jade ornament that fastened his sash. "Of course it's not surprising he liked my mare. She's a beauty, isn't she?"

"Quite pretty," I agreed in a bored voice. "Though I'm not sure about her stamina."

He chuckled. "Admit it, Lady Javaneh, she has caught your eye."

I shrugged. "Perhaps." Were we finally settling down to some serious bargaining?

"Ah! Now with anybody else I would have said that I could not possibly part with my beloved horse, not even for all the riches of the Emperor of Sikhand."

"Indeed?" I lifted an eyebrow.

"But I've taken a fancy to you," he added. Something unsavoury glittered in his eyes. "And who wouldn't, faced with your charming company."

The man was full of empty compliments. I said nothing, just kept a polite expression of enquiry on my face.

Behzad spread his hands. "So I'll give you the chance to win her."

"What?"

He smiled. "A beauty for a beauty: flowing white mane and a coat lustrous as a pearl against raven hair and soft ivory skin…"

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the other men exchange grins. "What do you mean?" I asked, mystified.

Behzad took out a leather bag from his sleeve and opened it. "Let's have a little game," he said, spreading a handful of dice on the carpet in front of me. "You win, you get the mare for free."

My mind was still catching up with his extraordinary proposition. "And if I lose?"

"Then you're mine."