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'Another is wisdom, rarer and more costly to earn than skill with a blade. And dearer than either of these is honour, which is a sacred trust, and once lost not easily--'
Something changed in Thasha's face. She snatched her hand away and boxed him in the ribs. The blow made a dull clink. clink.
'Ouch! Damn! What's that blary thing in your coat?'
Isiq looked embarrassed. 'Westfirth brandy,' he said.
'Give me some.'
'Out of the question. Listen, girl, we have just--'
'GIVE ME SOME!'.
He surrendered the little bronze flask. And the Treaty Bride, head to toe the image of a virgin priestess of old, tilted back her head and drank. After the fourth swallow, quite deliberately, she spat brandy in his face.
'Don't even say the word trust trust. You sent me away to a school run by hags. Offered me to your Emperor when he snapped his fingers. You brought me halfway round the world to marry a coffin-worshipping blood-drinking Black Rag--'
'For Rin's sake sake lower your voice!' lower your voice!'
'You denied what I told you about Syrarys.'
Isiq closed his eyes. Syrarys, the beautiful consort who had shared his bed for a decade, had been exposed two days ago as Ott's lover and spy. She had made a deathsmoke addict of him. She would have killed him as soon as Thasha wed.
'You laughed when I said the Shaggat Ness was aboard,' said Thasha, 'and that Arunis planned to use him against us. You've watched everything I warned you about come true - and you still still think I'm a child.' think I'm a child.'
With slow dignity, Isiq dried his face with a sleeve.
'I also watched your mother fall through a rotten balustrade. Four stories, onto marble. She'd been waving to me. She reached out as she fell. She was twenty-six, with child again, although we'd told no one. That child would be twelve, now, Thasha. Your little brother or sister.'
He could tell she was shaken. Thasha knew, of course, how her mother had died, that horrid fall from a theatre balcony. But Isiq had never told her he'd witnessed the accident, or that Clorisuela had been pregnant at the time.
'You're all I have left,' he said. 'I can't watch you die before me as she did.'
Thasha looked up at him, tears glistening in her eyes. 'Don't watch,' she said.
Then she raised her gown and swept away down the path. 'Thasha!' he cried, knowing she would not turn around. He huffed after her, cursing his stiff joints, the throbbing in his head that had only worsened since the removal of Syrarys' poison, the red silk shoes he'd consented to wear.
Silk. It was like going out in one's socks - in women's socks. How was it that no one had laughed?
'Come back here, damn it!'
In a heartbeat she would be gone for ever. There were things yet to say. Humility to recover, love somehow to confess.
'Where are you?'
He would confess, too. Before the Mzithrin prince, that irritating king, the whole distinguished mob. Stand before them and declare that the Shaggat lived, that the wedding was a trap, and Arqual ruled by a beast of an Emperor. I am guilty. She is not. Exempt her from this infamy; let it be me whom you punish. I am guilty. She is not. Exempt her from this infamy; let it be me whom you punish.
But of course he would do no such thing. For beneath his daughter's gown hung the necklace - his late wife's gorgeous silver necklace. Arunis had put a curse on that silver chain, and had sworn to strangle her there on the marriage dais should anyone interfere with the ceremony. He had demonstrated that power yesterday, though Isiq would never have doubted it. This was, after all, a man who had come back from the dead.
He had been hanged. Everyone agreed on that point: Arunis had been hanged, nine days on the gibbet, and his body chopped into pieces and tossed into the sea. Chadfallow had described the execution in detail; he had been there. Yet through some black magic Arunis had cheated death. For twenty years there had been no hint of him, no rumour. Like Sandor Ott, he had astonishing patience. And only when the spymaster was at last ready to deploy the Shaggat, his master weapon - only then did Arunis suddenly return, and strike.
'Do you hear the horn, Thasha? We have five minutes! Come back!' What fools the sorcerer had made of them all. Under their very noses he had left the Chathrand Chathrand in Ormael, rendezvoused with Volpek mercenaries, and raided the sunken in Ormael, rendezvoused with Volpek mercenaries, and raided the sunken Lythra Lythra. With Pazel's forced assistance, he had retrieved an iron statue known as the Red Wolf. The statue itself was no use to him, but within its enchanted metal was the one thing he needed to make his Shaggat invincible: the Nilstone, scorge of all Alifros, a cursed rock from the world of the dead.
Yesterday, in an unnatural calm, the mage had demonstrated his power to kill Thasha with a word. His advantage proved, he had forced the crew to raise the iron forge to the Chathrand Chathrand's topdeck, and to stoke a great fire under the Red Wolf. Bit by bit the Wolf had succumbed to the flames. At last, before their eyes, it had melted to bubbling iron.
There had followed an hallucinatory succession of shocks. The Nilstone, revealed. Captain Rose flying like a madman at Arunis; Sergeant Drellarek clubbing him down. The molten iron spilled, men in agony leaping into the sea. The Shaggat bellowing triumph as he grasped the artefact - and death running like a grey flame up his arm: for the Nilstone (as they all learned presently) killed at a touch any with fear in their hearts.
Finally, strangest of all, that instant silence, like the deafness after cannon-fire, and a brief but ghastly dimming of the sun. When Isiq recovered his senses, he saw Pazel with his hand on the Shaggat - on a stone Shaggat, one withered hand still clutching his prize.
It seemed this dusty tarboy was himself steeped in magic: he had a language gift (the little bastard spoke some twenty tongues; Isiq had heard him; he was a walking Carnival of Nations) as well as three powerful spell-words, Master-Words he called them, each of which could be spoken only once. He had used the first yesterday: a word that turned flesh to stone. And in a burst of genius for which Isiq would thank him forever, Pazel had foreseen that if the mad king died, Arunis would slay Thasha the next instant. Before the Nilstone could kill the Shaggat, Pazel had leaped forward and petrified him. Arunis believed he could reverse the spell - and as long as he dreamed of doing so, he had a reason to let Sandor Ott's game of betrayal go forwards.
But the necklace - every scheme for saving Thasha foundered on that necklace. Arunis would kill her if they talked, if he overheard the least rumour of a conspiracy, passing among the guests. And the necklace tightened of its own accord if any hand sought to remove it. I cannot even sacrifice myself for her. I have the courage. And no cause left to live for, witless servant that I have been. I would humble them ere they slew me, if I could but strike-- I cannot even sacrifice myself for her. I have the courage. And no cause left to live for, witless servant that I have been. I would humble them ere they slew me, if I could but strike-- 'Confound it all!' he thundered. 'Where are you, girl?'
'This way, Daddy.'
He turned a corner and there she was, sipping from his flask again, beside an odd little reflecting pool. No, it was a birdbath. No-- 'Is that . . . a plant plant?'
Thasha pointed to a sign at their feet.
BIRD-EATING BRAMIAN CACTUS DO NOT TOUCH!.
What seems a multicoloured pool is in fact a highly toxic jelly above a vegetal maw. Birds as large as vultures spot this cactus from the air, stoop to drink, and die. Those falling forward pass through the jelly over the course of several weeks and are dissolved. The body of a single desert finch can sustain the cactus for a month.
Isiq put an uncertain hand on her shoulder. 'A strange, cruel world,' he said.
'Yes,' said Thasha, leaning against him, 'it is.'
'They're fighting again,' said Neeps.
Pazel held still, listening. ' "A coffin-worshipping, blood-drinking" - Rin's teeth! She shouldn't say that.'
The two ex-tarboys stood near the garden wall, Hercol and Fiffengurt at their sides. Unlike Thasha they kept their voices low. These rose gardens were smaller than their cactus counterparts, and the wedding entourage quite filled them. The flowers were scarlet, white, yolk-orange; their perfume hung like a sweet steam in the air. Caterers in royal Simjan livery were dashing among them with with trays of clinking glasses. Servants fanned the elder statesmen, who grumbled in their chairs. Beside a fountain in the shape of the Tree of Heaven the king was promising the wilting dignitaries 'a feast for the ages' when the ceremony ended. Pacu Lapadolma, true to her Maid-in-Waiting role, hovered by the gate to the Cactus Gardens.
Fiffengurt trained his good eye on her. 'Perhaps we should confide in Mistress Pacu.'
'No!' snapped Neeps.
'No,' Pazel agreed. 'She's fond of Thasha in her way, but her only real passions are horses and the glory of Arqual. Who knows what she'd do if we told her the plan?'
'The boys are right,' said Hercol. 'The Lapadolmas have fought and bled for the Magad Emperors for two hundred years, and Pacu embraces that history with measureless pride. We must assume, moreover, that Sandor Ott's spies remain active, no matter what has happened to their master.'
'I hope a ton of bricks happened to him,' said Pazel. 'Maybe one of those half-ruined buildings in Ormael.'
'He may have fled Ormael by now,' said Hercol, 'whether or not the Imperial governor has had the courage to order him brought to justice. But his agents are still in place, and they will be watching us. We shall be in danger by land and sea. Yet I cannot forget Ramachni's warning. At some point we must risk confidences again.'
Pazel felt a stab of worry. Ramachni was their their mage, a good wizard in the body of a coal-black mink, who for reasons he would not discuss had taken an interest in Thasha for years. His home was not Alifros but a distant world. Pazel had glimpsed that world once, through a magic portal, the thought of which thrilled and frightened him to this day. mage, a good wizard in the body of a coal-black mink, who for reasons he would not discuss had taken an interest in Thasha for years. His home was not Alifros but a distant world. Pazel had glimpsed that world once, through a magic portal, the thought of which thrilled and frightened him to this day.
But last night Ramachni had left them. The battle with Arunis had taken all his strength, and forced him to crawl back through the portal to his own world, to recuperate. Find new allies Find new allies, he had told them as he left: find them at all costs, or you can't hope to prevail find them at all costs, or you can't hope to prevail. And when would he return? Look for me Look for me, he had said, when a darkness falls beyond today's imagining when a darkness falls beyond today's imagining.
To Pazel that sounded like a very long time. He wondered if the others felt the same vague terror as he did. Without Ramachni's wisdom they were fumbling, blind - lost in the darkness already.
'You took one risk this morning, didn't you?' said Fiffengurt. 'You trusted me.'
Hercol laughed. 'That was not difficult. Pazel, Neeps and Thasha all vouched for you. Agreement among them is too rare a thing to ignore.'
'Yet I'm fond of Arqual myself,' said Fiffengurt. 'Not the Empire, mind you: I mean the old notions we sang about in nursery-days - Arqual, Arqual, just and true, land of hope forever new - Arqual, Arqual, just and true, land of hope forever new - before all this lust for territory and hugeness. They stole that Arqual out from under our noses a long time ago, in my granddad's day, maybe. If it ever existed, that is. By the Blessed Tree, I always thought it before all this lust for territory and hugeness. They stole that Arqual out from under our noses a long time ago, in my granddad's day, maybe. If it ever existed, that is. By the Blessed Tree, I always thought it once once had. But after what I've seen aboard had. But after what I've seen aboard Chathrand Chathrand I don't know what to think.' I don't know what to think.'
Hercol gave a rueful smile. 'It existed,' he said. 'But not in your grandfather's time. Perhaps his his grandfather saw its twilight, as a young man. Such talk must wait, however. We must concentrate on Thasha if we are to save her.' grandfather saw its twilight, as a young man. Such talk must wait, however. We must concentrate on Thasha if we are to save her.'
'I just wish we could tell the admiral,' said Pazel, looking sombrely through the gate.
'Not a chance,' said Fiffengurt. 'Thasha said it herself: old Isiq would never have agreed.'
'Master Hercol,' said a voice behind them.
The friends fell quickly silent. A young man with a bright smile and handsome, chisel-jawed features was standing a few paces away, hands folded. He was dressed smartly, dark vest over white shirt, billowed sleeves held snug at the wrists with cufflinks of polished brass: the uniform of a page or errand-runner for the well-to-do. He gave them a slight, ironic bow.
'What do you want, lad?' said Hercol. 'I don't know you.'
'Not know me?' said the youth, his voice amused. 'Does the leaf forget the tree that made it, or the tree the wooded mountain?'
Hercol froze at the words. Then he slowly turned to face the young man. The youth gave him a barely perceptible nod.
'Keep an eye out for Thasha,' said Hercol to the others. Then he took the young man by the elbow and moved swiftly away through the crowd. Pazel watched them cross a pebble-strewn path, around a trellis of scarlet flowers, and disappear towards a far corner of the garden.
To his surprise, Pazel felt a sudden, irrepressible desire to know what they were up to. Leaving Neeps protesting by the gate, he darted after Hercol and the youth. The rose bushes were tall and thick, and the guests were many, and it was several minutes before he spotted the pair - through the sun-dappled spray of the fountain, as it chanced.
Hercol was standing beside a pair of tall, fair women, wearing sky-blue gowns and circlets of silver in their hair. They were twin duchesses from Hercol's country; he had pointed them out to the tarboys just an hour before. The three were chatting quietly, sipping cups of hyacinth nectar. The Simjan youth was nowhere to be seen.
Pazel felt rather a fool - Hercol was making pleasantries, like everyone else. But when the sisters took their leave Hercol did not start back to the gate. Instead he turned very casually to face the juniper bushes. Pazel followed his gaze. And to his great surprise, he saw a face.
The junipers, he realised now, were arranged to hide a section of the iron fence around the gardens. The gaps were few and narrow. But framed in the largest, just beyond the fence, were the head and shoulders of an old but striking woman. She was tall and stern, grey eyes under a grey mane of hair, a face not so much wrinkled as creased with long thought. A royal face, Pazel thought, for he had been looking at royalty all morning; and yet there was something about this face that was like no other he had ever seen.
Her eyes met the Tholjassan's. Hercol kept very still, but it was like the stillness of a hunting hound tensed to spring. Then the woman drew a hood over her face and turned away. Pazel saw a pair of large, hard-faced men beside her, gripping her arms in the manner of body-guards. An instant later she was gone.
'What in the Pits?' muttered Pazel.
A hand touched his elbow. It was Neeps, looking rather flustered. 'Where've you been?' he demanded. 'Thasha will be here any minute, and Pacu's throwing a first-class fit.'
'You won't believe what I just saw.'
'Try me,' said Neeps.
Before Pazel could say more, a voice cried shrilly: 'Here she comes now! Boys! Boys!'
Neeps sighed. 'Come on, before she calls out the marines.'
They hurried back to the gate. The fact that they were Thasha's best friends did not matter a fig to Pacu Lapadolma. To her they were just tarboys, born to serve their betters, and nothing short of marrying royalty themselves could change that.
She snapped her fingers at them. 'Get in position! You' - she pointed at Pazel - 'must straighten your coat, and your hat, and keep your hair out of sight if possible. And there is a rose petal stuck to your shoe.'
Pazel raked uselessly at his hair. They had already thought of a dozen choice insults for the general's daughter. Neeps for his part was only awaiting the end of the crisis to deliver them.
'Do you have the Blessing-Band?'
Pazel tapped his vest pocket, where the silk ribbon lay coiled. 'Nothing's happened to it since the last time you asked.'
The young woman might have snapped a retort had Thasha not appeared just then at the gate.
'Darling!' said Pacu, seizing her arm.
Thasha firmly detached the hand. 'The last person who called me 'darling' was poisoning my father, Pacu.'
'What a dreadful comparison, you heartless thing! Syrarys never meant the word, and I love you like a sister. But you're simply gorgeous, Thasha Isiq! Yes, a sister, that's the exact sensation in my heart!'
'You're an only child.'
Pacu rescued an orchid that was sliding free of Thasha's love-knot. She gave an inquisitive sniff, and her eyes widened. 'Have you put on some new perfume? Or is it your father's cologne?'
'Never mind that,' said Thasha quickly. 'Be an angel, Pacu. Fetch me a glass of water.'
When she had gone Thasha turned and looked at the tarboys. 'Darlings!' she said.
'Thasha,' said Pazel. 'You're swaying.'
'You'd be swaying too if you tipped left and right.'
Neeps' jaw dropped. 'Lord Rin,' he whispered. 'She's drunk.'
Pazel leaned closer, sniffing. 'Brandy! Oh Thasha, that was a bad idea.'
'Yes,' she said. 'It took me about half a minute to realise that. But I'm all right.'
Hercol returned, with Mr Fiffengurt at his side. 'The girl's been drinking,' Neeps informed them. 'Eat something, Thasha. Anything. Rose petals. Grass. Make yourself sick before--'
'Neeps,' said Pazel. 'She's not exactly falling down.'
'Ha!' said Thasha. 'Not yet.'
'Don't joke about that, that,' hissed Fiffengurt. 'You shouldn't have drunk a blary thing! Foolish, foolish, mistress!'
'That it certainly was,' said Hercol. 'More than any of us, you need your wits about you. But we must make the best of it now. Perhaps the drink will steady you for the ordeal to come. Hello, Admiral.'
Eberzam Isiq had arrived at the gate, quite winded. He waved at Thasha in distress. 'She has - I objected fiercely - but the fact is--'