A full moon shone over Sanctuary, revealing boats in its harbor, dwellings within and without its coiled walls. The city appeared prosperous, but Sanctuary always shone brightest at night. In sunlight, a man standing on the eastern ridge overlooking the city would see that the largest boats tied up along the piers were rotting hulks, that roofs were missing all over town, and the great walls had been breached by neglect in several places.
Sanctuary could have looked worse and had many times during the half century that Molin Torchholder had--however reluctantly--called it home. Gods had fought--and lost--their private wars on Sanctuary's streets, but the city went on, resilient, incorrigible, just possibly eternal. Its citizens repelled catastrophe as readily as they squandered prosperity. Time and time again, Molin had watched fire, storm, plague, invasion, and sheer madness sweep through the city, carrying it to the brink of annihilation, only to ebb away, like the tide shrinking from the hard, black rocks wrapped around its harbor.
And should Molin Torchholder call himself a citizen of Sanctuary?
In the morning years of his ninth decade, no one would deny Molin the right to call himself whatever he wished. He preferred to think of himself as Rankan. Born in the Imperial capital, raised by priests of the war-god, Vashanka, and risen to the heights of their hierarchy before his twenty-fifth birthday, Molin Torchholder had been marked as a man with a glorious future. Then he'd come to Sanctuary, a city on the edge of nowhere, a city so far removed from the Imperial Court of Ranke that an insecure emperor had thoughtit a safe place in which to exile an inconvenient half brother when a sudden attack of conscience stopped the fratricide the Imperial advisors--including the high priests of Vashanka--had suggested.
I'll be here a year, Molin had thought the first time he'd ridden down this road. One insufferable year, then he'd be back in Ranke, accumulating power, wealth, and a legacy for the ages. His god had had other ideas. Molin's god had a taste for blood and chaos and once He'd gotten a taste of Sanctuary's particular squalor, Vashanka couldn't push the plate away.
Vashanka had amused Himself with children, thieves, and the pangs of lust. The war-god of the mightiest empire in the world had made an immortal fool of Himself for years. Spurred by immortal embarrassment, divine powers both great and small had allied to erase Vashanka's name from the white-marble lintel of His own temple--from the temple Molin himself had raised in His honor. Reduced to little more than an itch on the world's behind, the great Vashanka had slunk out of Sanctuary on a night very much like this one more than forty years ago.
Molin hadn't felt his god's departure until the next morning when he'd encountered an indescribable absence during his daily prayers. Vashanka's come to His senses and returned to Ranke; Molin had thought, little realizing that Vashanka had gone not home, but into exile. Worse--the divine powers that had run Vashanka out of Sanctuary had condemned him--him!--to remain within its walls.
From the beginning Molin had loathed everything about Sanctuary: its wretched, soggy climate; the brackish taste of its water; and, especially, its citizens. He swore he could never be reconciled to an unjust fate; then the moon would rise and he'd be drawn to the roof above his palace apartment--or find himself delayed on the East Ridge Road. His thoughts would wander, and Sanctuary would take his soul by surprise, flexing its claws, reminding him of what he tried so hard to forget: This place, and none other, was home.
Footfalls drew Torchholder's attention away from the rooftops of Sanctuary. He turned in time to see his escort, a man scarcely a quarter his age, climb out of the roadside ditch. Atredan Larris Serripines' face was paler than the moon and shiny with sweat but, on the whole, he looked a good deal better than he had when he'd staggered into the grass.
"Better now?" Molin asked pleasantly.
Atredan favored him with a scowl. "So much for Father's Foundation Day Feast."
In another time and place, Lord Serripines' second son might have amounted to something. He had the golden hair and hazel eyes of a true Rankan aristocrat, an amiable personality, and the sense not to get caught when he succumbed to temptation. Lesser men had ruled well in Ranke. But in Sanctuary, a generation after an eastern horde had brought fire, rape, pillage, and death to the Empire's heart, Atredan was doomed to ambition without prospects.
No commemoration of the Imperial Founding, however precisely observed, could change that.
Molin dug into his scrip and found a sprig of mint twisted with other herbs, which he offered to the younger man. "I think you'll find it settles what's left and takes the taste away." When one indulged as the Imperial court in its prime had indulged, one never forgot its remedies and kept them forever close to hand.
Atredan had refused the digestive when Molin had first offered it, but took it gratefully now and chewed hard. Within moments his face had relaxed.
"Gods all be damned, Lord Torchholder, I can't believe any emperor has ever sat through a meal like that! The food. The wine--especially that wine. Anen's mercy, what did my lord father put in it this year?"
Never mind that Anen was the Ilsigi god of vineyards and anathema to the Rankan pantheon, Atredan had a valid argument.
"Honey," Molin replied with an honest sigh. "A comb of Imperial honey, straight from the Imperial hives, the Imperial garden, and the Imperial pantry. The genuine article--or so he told me. Very rare these days."
"Very expensive," Atredan corrected. "Very old, very spoilt, and fit only for swine or my lord father's Foundation Day table."
"That is not for me to say," Molin said diplomatically and--because he was, among many other things, an accomplished diplomat--he made it clear that he would have agreed with the young man, had it been necessary to do so.
Diplomatic nuance was wasted on the Serripines' cadet heir. "Did you actually drink that swill?"
"I'm an old man, Lord Larris, and my palate is as old as the rest of me. Swill or ambrosia, it all tastes the same now--Yet, I am sure the wine we drank in Ranke was not so sweet ... or gluey. And neither did we ferment it ourselves. Truth to tell--we seldom drank Imperial wine, with or without Imperial honey. All the best vintages came by ship from Caronne. They still do, I suppose, but not to Sanctuary. Have a care for your lord father. He was a babe-in-arms when Ranke fell. He dreams of Rankan glory, but he doesn't remember it."
Atredan muttered words too soft and slurred for Molin to catch. The indignities of age! His reputation had been built on his eyes and his ears. Time was when no word or gesture had escaped his senses; that time was gone. It was true that younger men still complimented him and relied on his advice, but they had no idea how much of his edge he'd lost.
Or how tired he had become.
"Come," he urged his escort, "it's time to get me home to my bed."
"You could have stayed at Land's End. My lord father loves nothing better than to have the Lord Torchholder sleeping beneath his roof. A veritable hero and not merely of Sanctuary--as if Sanctuary could nurture a true hero--but of the Empire."
"For all the good my heroics have done me." Molin chuckled. "After two nights beneath your lord father's roof, I've told all the stories of Imperial glory that I can remember. I've drunk his wine and lit his bonfire. The Imperial ancestors have been properly honored, a new Imperial year is safely begun, and I'm ready to go home."
Atredan cocked his head in the moonlight. "You think we are all fools, don't you, Lord Torchholder? My father, the Rankans he shelters at Land's End ... me."
"All men are fools, Lord Larris--you, me, your lord father, and all the men and women beneath his roof. The nature of men is foolishness. Never forget it."
"But the Serripines more than others, because Father believes Ranke will be mighty again, and that will never happen."
"Only a fool says 'never' when speaking of the future."
"There's no future for the dead. There is no future, not for us,not for Ranke. We're like fish in a weir. We sing praises each time it rains, but the fact is, we're trapped, and if the rains don't come, we die. Only sooner, rather than later."
Molin gave Atredan a second look--he'd never before suspected that the young man had a bent for philosophy, and although he generally agreed with Atredan's dreary assessment of Rankan prospects, he offered up a scrap of encouragement: "Sanctuary's a coastal town, my boy. The tide comes in twice a day, no matter the rain. A man may drown, but he'll surely never shrivel."
"My lord father has shriveled. He hasn't set foot in Sanctuary since the Bleeding Hand killed my mother. He lives in his own world at Land's End with his back to the sea, waiting for an army that will never come to take back a city that was never his."
Molin didn't like to talk about the years when the Dyareelan fanatics had ruled Sanctuary. Neither did anyone who'd managed, somehow, to survive. The Serripines had gotten off lightly, retreating behind the walls of their fortresslike estate. But Molin would never say that to a son who'd seen his mother disemboweled, nor to her shattered husband. He temporized instead. "Your lord father feels obligated to comfort those whom the emperor has abandoned."
And, in truth, it wasn't Lord Serripines who made each Land's End visit feel like an early trip to the boneyard. If the sack of Ranke had been the most unexpected event in Molin's lifetime, the transformation of the Sanctuary hillsides from scrubland to fields and meadows should be counted a close second. The Serripines paterfamilias might have his head in the clouds where the Imperial past and future were concerned, but in the present he was a shrewd man who knew what to plant and when and--most important--who would pay the most once the fields were harvested.
Lord Serripines would have preferred to sell his harvest to Ranke--for a profit, of course--but there was no one along the eastern coast who could match the bids made in the resurgent Ilsig Kingdom to the north and west. Lord Serripines practically, but reluctantly, listened to his head, not his heart, and sold his harvest to Ilsigi sea captains, who sold it again to men who no longer paid tribute to the emperors in Ranke. Then, to assuage his guilt, Lord Serripines opened his estate to an ever-growing community of Imperial exiles and freeloaders.
The irony was not lost on Molin. With few exceptions, the elder Vion Larris Serripines was the most successful Rankan to dwell in--or near--Sanctuary in decades. He was also the unhappiest man Molin had ever met--which was a dubious accomplishment all by itself--but worse, to Molin's jaundiced eye, was Lord Serripines' willingness to shelter any noble-blooded Rankan who washed up in Sanctuary's harbor.
Indeed, two nights at Land's End were more than enough. Molin almost pitied young Atredan and his elder brother, Vion, coming of age in their father's bleak shadow.
"You should thank me, Lord Larris." Molin changed his tone and thirty years dropped from his bearing.
"For giving you an excuse to leave before the bonfire was burnt down to ashes. Lord Serripines would never have agreed, and a son must obey his father."
Atredan grimaced. "My lord father doesn't understand--our future, what there is of it, is bound up with Prince Naimun, and tonight the prince will be in need of a friend's ear. Better it were my brother escorting you back to the palace and Naimun's table, but there's no escape for Vion."
Molin couldn't resist a jab at the youth's defenses. "Naimun's table or his upper room at the Inn of Secret Pleasures?"
The young man contrived to keep his pale cheeks from darkening, but his darting eyes gave his secrets away quicker than his tongue. "You are mistaken, Lord Torchholder."
"I think not, and I care not. The Inn's whores are clean enough, but not tonight, Lord Larris. If you have Naimun's ear, tell him to stay at home. There's apt to be trouble, and the Inn's guards won't withstand a visit from the Dragon."
"Pox on Arizak per-Arizak," Atredan said boldly, giving the Dragon his proper name. "Sweet Sabellia's tits--what brings the Dragon and all the rest of the Irrune to Sanctuary today of all days?"
"The Irrune are a gathering people," Molin answered mildly. "They're entirely unlettered. How else are they to communicate amongst themselves if they do not gather?"
"But not in Sanctuary and not in such numbers. I woke upyesterday morning, looked over the wall, and saw the whole damned Irrune nation riding down the road."
"The Irrune come together around their chief. Arizak's their chief, and this year Arizak's in Sanctuary because this year Arizak's leg is rotting and he can't sit his horse. As long as Arizak was out in the hills, the Dragon was confident of his inheritance, but since Arizak's butt has settled on a silk cushion instead of a saddle, the Dragon began to worry. His mother, his uncle, and the rest of the riders are worried, too, so they've followed their favored son here in number to make certain that Chief Arizak doesn't forget who he is, or more importantly, which son he's named to succeed him."
"Prince Naimun doesn't give a fig for the damned Irrune. He wants Sanctuary."
"So does the Dragon, just not in the same way. The Dragon wants the city's wealth, its wine, and its women--" Molin paused for effect. "Well, perhaps the half brothers do each want Sanctuary for the same reason, but Naimun is so much easier to distract."
"It is not a crime, Lord Torchholder, to drink with a prince," Atredan asserted, showing more spine than Molin had expected.
"No, indeed it is not. Nor is it a crime to call Naimun a prince when he is no more than the eldest son of his father's second wife--unless the eldest son of Arizak's first wife is about and your man gets himself killed in a whore's bed."
Atredan had the sense to look embarrassed. "His friends look out for him."
"And that, of course, is why you want to be in Sanctuary to-night--to look out for your friend. So be it. Naimun's weak and biddable and you think that makes him an ideal ruler. You're wrong in more ways than I can count, so be that, too. But think, if you dare, about loyalty--"
"I am loyal, Lord Torchholder." Atredan lowered his voice then raised it as his indignation swelled. "I am loyal to my father, to my brother, to my family, to my emperor--should he come to claim my service--and I'm loyal to Naimun."
"Of course you are, Lord Larris--but to whom is Naimun loyal? And why?"
"Don't play with questions, Lord Torchholder," Atredan bristled. "If you suspect Naimun can't be trusted, say so."
Molin waved the young man's anger aside. "Did I say that? Did I say that Naimun can't be trusted? Did I say he wasn't loyal? What I am saying, Lord Larris, is that while you may, indeed, be Naimun's friend and, no doubt, loyal to him, do not think for one moment that you are the only man--or woman, for that matter--in Sanctuary who's figured out that our Naimun follows flattery. Trust Naimun, if it pleases you, cultivate his love and his loyalty, but be damned wary of your companions within his charmed circle."
Atredan could not have looked more displeased if he'd had a plate of worms set before him and his father's undrinkable wine to wash it down. "Is that what this is about--the great Lord Torchholder dispensing advice on the road to Sanctuary? You're wasting your time, old man. I know everything I need to know about Naimun and the Dragon, their father, and every other Irrune who matters, and I learned it without your help or my lord father's, either."
He'd hoped for a better response, but Molin was too much the diplomat to reveal his disappointments. "Then, forgive an old man who's seen too many men fail because they forgot to watch their backs."
"When Arizak's gone, Naimun will bring Rankan rule to Sanctuary--without the emperor, of course, and without the Dragon. It's all been settled. I'd think you'd be pleased, Lord Torchholder. Isn't that what you had in mind all along?"
"Of course," Molin agreed, and the words weren't utter falsehood.
The laws of Ranke, when wielded by a strong, yet subtle, ruler were worthy of admiration. Molin would like to see Rankan law return to Sanctuary, but Naimun was neither strong enough nor subtle enough to do so. There was a man in the palace whom Molin liked better for the task--a boy, actually: Raith, Naimun's brother and the youngest of Arizak's sons. Raith had it all--the strength and comeliness, the quickness of mind, the flair for leadership and decision. What Raith lacked was experience. He was all of sixteen and needed another four years, three at least, before he could lay claim to the palace.
Damn Arizak for getting drunk and falling off his horse!
"Come," Molin said with unfeigned weariness. "An old manneeds to get moving if he's going to see his own bed before midnight."
Molin set the pace, which was slower than he would have liked--another concession to age. He relied on a staff for all but the shortest walks. The wood was gnarled and blackened and older than Molin. He'd found it in a palace storeroom and had no idea to whom it had once belonged. Probably a prince or priest of the Ilsigi; they rarely went anywhere without some symbol of authority clutched in their hands. Molin had made a few improvements. He'd burnt down the shaft and hidden Sanctuary's Savankh--the scepter with which an Imperial prince-governor ruled an Imperial city--in the tunnel. As an instrument of justice, a Savankh drew the truth out of a man, will he or nil he. The Savankh had transferred its power to the staff, but Molin, like the princes and governors before him, was immune to its sorcerous power.
In competent hands, the blackwood staff was a serviceable weapon, and, despite their years, Molin's hands were competent. He'd gotten his war-name, Torchholder, in part because of a willingness to use whatever object lay closest to hand when he fought. His strength had ebbed a couple decades earlier and his balance was going, too, but his instincts remained sharp, and the Savankh wasn't the only trick hidden beneath the staff's amber finial.
But it was a staff, a plain ordinary staff, that Molin needed as the road widened, and the iron-reinforced Prince's Gate loomed ahead. He'd been thinking with his heart, not his head, when he'd decided to return to Sanctuary. Night travel was harder on the eyes and every other part of a man's body. At the very least, he should have insisted on a pony cart; he'd given up riding not long after his seventy-fifth birthday.
"They're drunk again," Atredan grumbled, and pointed up at the guard-porch atop the gate, where no men could be seen keeping watch.
"Pull the cord anyway."
Atredan reached into shadow and hauled on a thick rope. A bell clanged within the tower. Molin, who remained in moonlight, watched for movement on the roof or any of the tower's barred windows. He saw none.
There were other ways into the city, ways that didn't involve visiting the west gate on the opposite side of the town. A three-foot-wide breach lurked behind rubble a mere thousand paces to the north. Molin would have preferred the gate, for obvious reasons, but he knew the path to the breach and had used it only a few months back to trap a smuggler who'd overreached herself.
Ever the master and merchant of knowledge, Molin would give Atredan the opportunity to lead him to the breach, to see if the younger man knew the path. The youth gave no indication he knew the path--though surely he knew that Sanctuary's walls were not a solid, impenetrable ring. He tugged continuously on the rope, setting up a din within the tower.
At length, a small, firelit opening appeared in the wall.
"'S'locked," the guard said in the coarse Ilsigi dialect that passed for Sanctuary's common language, a dialect almost everyone referred to as Wrigglie.
Molin's native language was the pure, elegant, and nuanced Rankene of the Imperial court at its height. He spoke a handful of other languages as well, but he dreamt, sometimes, in Wrigglie, and suffered a headache every time. Wrigglie was a rapid-flowing speech, punctuated with silences--as though invisible hands had suddenly squeezed the speaker's throat. At its root, it was the language of the Ilsig Kingdom some two hundred years earlier, but it had matured--or rotted--far from that root.
"We know it's locked, pork-sucker," Atredan countered, demonstrating a grasp of Wrigglie street insults, if not diplomacy. "Open it and let us in."
"'S'locked until sunrise. Come back at sunrise."
"We're here now, and we have affairs at the palace. The palace, do you hear that, pork-sucker? Open the damned gate."
The nameless guard and the cadet heir exchanged insults until Molin hissed, in Rankene, "Flatter him, for mercy's sake, or we'll be standing out here until the sun has indeed risen."
"Flatter him?" Atredan exploded, also in Rankene. "The man is stinking drunk! Flatter him yourself, Lord Torchholder. I don't stoop that low."
"Lord Torch?" the guard inquired. More of Sanctuary's swarthy natives understood Rankene than could--or would--speak it, and,anyway, names remained the same, regardless of language.
Molin stepped into the torchlight beside Atredan. "It is I," he confessed.
"Come with another army, eh?" The guard laughed heartily at his own joke. His breath was sour enough to light a fire at four paces.
Molin Torchholder had never intended to become heroically famous in Sanctuary. He had never intended to save the city from itself, either. But he'd done both when he'd led a hundred mounted Irrune warriors through a conveniently unlocked gate and put an end to the Dyareelan reign of religious terror. In gratitude, every unwashed survivor counted Molin Torchholder among his closest friends.
On occasion, gratitude could be useful. "No army, this time," Molin said with better Ilsigi pronunciation and grammar than the guard had used. "I've been out lighting bonfires at Land's End, and now I just want to sleep in my own bed."
"Bonfires, eh? You could've done your lighting right here, Lord Torch, never mind them folk at Land's End. Them Irrunes, they been lighting fires since they got here yesterday." The guard whistled through absent teeth. "Burggit's done pulled everyone in close, leavin' me here by my lonesome with orders not to budge the gate 'til sunup. 'Git's not taking chances the Dragon'll light something wrong. Only thing worse'n a loose fire is a dead Dragon, eh?" Once again, the guard rewarded his humor with aromatic laughter.
Crude as the analysis was, it was also correct. "Good man, you say you know who I am. If the Dragon's setting Sanctuary ablaze, I need to get to the palace. Unbar the gate for me and my companion."
"'Taint just the Dragon, Lord Torch. All them Irrune been setting fires, same as if they been riding Lord Serripines' tail. 'Git had the name for it, but it's passed clean from my ears."
Silently Molin berated himself for growing old and forgetful. The year he'd spent among the Irrune--the year before he'd led them to Sanctuary's gate--they'd heaped up huge mounds of straw and set them afire, saying their divine ancestor had entered the world through similar flames. Irrunaga's birthday was a movable feast. The bonfires Molin had watched had been lit beneath the firstfull moon after the autumn equinox, a full month before the Rankan Foundation festival--that year.
This year? Molin did the calculations. (Any priest worth his prayers knew the sky calendars as well as he knew the civil ones.) This year, the moon overhead this very night was the first full moon since autumn equinox had passed.
He begrudged the coincidence and the inconvenience, then, with a second thought, reconsidered the coincidence. The Irrune were as raw and rowdy a nation as ever galloped out of the eastern heartland. Their superstitions put Sanctuary's Wrigglie-speaking mongrels to shame, and their language was so primitive that they'd borrowed words left and right to describe their new homeland, yet they looked Rankan; and the Rankan myth said that before there'd been a Rankan Empire or even a Rankan kingdom, there had been a band of horse-riding warriors from the east.
If he'd been a full-blooded Rankan, Molin might have been appalled to think that the likes of Arizak and his kin were distant cousins, but he wasn't full-blooded anything except tired.
"Open the gate, good man," he pled with the guard. "Which are your barracks? I'll see that Burggit knows I'm the one who countered his orders."
The guard resisted. "Them Irrune--The streets ain't safe, Lord Torch, and you--pardon me--ain't no youngster to skip from trouble. No, no--trouble finds you, Lord Torch, and 's'my head will roll twice over for forgettin' my orders and for lettin' trouble find the Lord Torch."
"I have an escort." Molin indicated Atredan, who needed no encouragement to scowl and draw his sword.
The guard made one more protest, then relented. Moments later, to the clank of metal and the scrape of wood, the smaller of the two heavy doors cracked open. Atredan slipped through first. Molin followed.
"Don't forget," the guard called after them. "Tell Burggit 'twas on your orders, Lord Torch, that Leaner Vurben opened the gate. 'Tweren't no thought of Leaner Vurben's, 'twas your orders, Lord Torch." The clatter of the closing gate drowned out anything else Vurben might have said.
"Did you hear that? The brazen cur," Atredan complained."You're not thinking of running this Burggit to ground, are you? Let the man suffer."
"For what? I did countermand his orders. Common men expect protection from their officers."
"That man presumed to give you an order! He gave orders to an Imperial lord. He spoke to you as though you were another Wrigglie pud. He should be made an example of. Forget this Buggit; go to Captain Eraldus--he knows who puts food on his damn plate. He'll take care of that Vurben fellow."
Molin sighed quietly. He was a lord, and he enjoyed his privileges, but he wasn't an aristocrat. "I've found it useful, over the many long years of my life, to keep my word when I can. Oddly enough, if you honor the small things, the big ones are less significant. It took me years to learn that lesson."
"But a common Wrigglie pud! Who cares if you keep your word to him?"
Molin didn't bother to answer. When he'd given the orders to expand Sanctuary's walls, he'd imagined a plaza here between the old wall and the new--a place where visitors could be scrutinized from front and back, and cut down with impunity, when necessary. As with so many of his plans for Sanctuary, the final result bore little resemblance to his original vision. Instead of an empty plaza, there was the Tween, a relatively peaceful quarter populated largely by smugglers and hostlers.
The Tween's main street--such as it was--connected the new gate to the old gate, once called the Gate of Gold, but an empty arch these last fifteen years. Past the arch, the Wideway opened up between Sanctuary's wharves and its warehouses. Midway down the Wideway, the Processional branched north to the unbreached walls of the palace, which had hosted as many rulers as the great god Savankala had had mortal mistresses.
Both the Wideway and the Processional were lit by public lanterns--an Irrune innovation that spoke well of Nadalya, Arizak's second wife, who'd initiated it. There were torches, too, stowed in old barrels here in the Tween and at other intersections. It was said, though not in their hearing, that the Irrune feared the shadows and sounds of Sanctuary at night. Neither the torches nor the lanterns were necessary on a full-moon night, but, as Molin had learned,people took note of the small ways in which their rulers kept faith with them.
Molin took a stride in the Wideway direction. An unexpected shiver shook his spine, and he stopped. As a boy he'd been taught to equate such moments with his god's presence. The prayer of welcome and acceptance came reflexively to his tongue and waited for his mouth to open, but Molin swallowed instead. There was still a god bearing Vashanka's name and attributes somewhere, maybe within the Rankan Empire, maybe sulking somewhere in Sanctuary--immortals faded, but they never quite died. Molin Torchholder dutifully dedicated his rituals and daily prayers to his hidden god; but when a cold finger touched him, the erstwhile priest looked in a different direction.
The gods alone--all the Rankan gods, not just Vashanka--knew how Molin's life might have gone if his priestly teachers had guessed the nature of the talent he'd inherited from his temple-slave mother. Most likely, he'd have had no life at all. Indeed, Molin, in his role as a Rankan priest, would never have allowed himself to be born if he'd had the opportunity to take his mother's measure.
Of all the sorceries known to the world, witchcraft was the darkest, the most mysterious, and the one favored by the Empire's northern enemies. Officially, witchcraft did not exist in the Empire. There was prayer, which directly invoked divine power, and there was magic, which--according to priests, if not magicians--used spells for indirect invocations to the same gods. Witches, in the Rankan scheme, were witless mages who'd surrendered their souls to gods so foul and evil that mortal tongues could not pronounce their names.
Rankan priests, especially the warrior-priests of Vashanka's hierarchy, were adept at piercing a witch's deception. The fate of a witch in the bowels of a Rankan temple was necessarily bleak: interrogation by torture and punitive mutilation, followed, inevitably, by a gruesome execution. In light of that fate, it was not surprising that a northern witch usually chose suicide over capture. But Molin's mentors in Vashanka's hierarchy had failed to detect the taint of witchcraft in a nubile, northern slave and, having failed to detect her heresy, taught her to dance. At a decennial Commemoration of the Ten-Slaying wherein Vashanka had freed his divine father, Savankala,from his siblings' treachery, they'd given her to Vashanka's lucky, wealthy avatar for a night of feasting, music, and ritual rape.
Molin had never met the woman who birthed him. She'd died, he'd been told, moments before his birth, taken up in his divine father's arms. He'd known that for the lie that it was before he'd turned six, but he'd never worried about his bony face, his black hair, or his pale skin--so unlike the golden features of the Rankan aristocracy, so similar to Ranke's enemies. Molin had never wondered at all until he found himself in Sanctuary and face-to-face with powers that Vashanka would not--or could not--vanquish.
Molin won the battle against those powers one dark Sanctuary night. He lost both his god and his faith after the victory, but the talent for witchcraft lingered. He denied it publicly, of course, and there was no north-witch mentor to whom he could turn for training. But he practiced diligently, exploring his limits and gradually expanding them, so that when the great nerves in his body shivered he understood that witchcraft had given him a message.
Gripping his blackwood staff, Molin spun right, toward the Tween's tangled streets.
"The Wideway's safer," Atredan insisted.
"The wharves are never safer after sundown, and neither is the Processional, if the Dragon's men are celebrating." Molin was confident, but not entirely honest. Witchcraft--his witchcraft--did not deal in precise premonitions. He'd felt danger when he'd looked down the Wideway, no more, no less. The rest was his own logic, his own decision. "We'll take the Stairs."
"The Stairs will take us up into the Hill. I'd sooner swim the sewers of Sanctuary than get lost in the Hill!"
"Nonsense. Once we've climbed the Stairs, we'll be at the end of Old Pyrtanis Street, nowhere near the Hill. From there it's an easy walk along the Promise to the Gods' Gate behind the palace. You're not afraid of a few whores or empty temples, are you Lord Larris? See me to the Gods' Gate, Lord Larris, and I'll show you a way through the kitchens to your prince's door and the fastest way between the palace and the Street of Red Lanterns ... We never could have the whores traipsing up the Processional you know--Or has your brother already shown you the postern trap?"
Molin asked his last question with the sweetness of a cat about to pounce. It was unlikely that elder-brother Vion Serripines knew about the trap, ten times unlikely that Vion had told Atredan, and ten times again unlikely that Atredan could resist a gift his brother had never received.
"I've heard about that passage," Atredan lied unconvincingly. "Not from Vion. Vion doesn't know. Vion wouldn't go anywhere where the hem of his robe might get dirty. Vion's no better than our lord father."
Molin led the way without commenting on the young man's assessment of his kinfolk. Every time he took the Stairs, it seemed they were both steeper and less even. He was breathing hard when they cleared the wall and entered into the old city.
Pyrtanis Street was paved with tidy cobblestones, recalling the day when its part of the city had been home to its most prestigious artisans--jewelers, goldsmiths, and their ilk--and not a few of its aristocrats. The shape-shifting mage, Enas Yorl, had dwelt on Pyrtanis Street as well. The jewelers and aristocrats had fled Sanctuary at the first sign of trouble; their fine houses were among the first to burn when plague had threatened the town. Some said the shape-shifter never left, that he still haunted the town, but any man could claim to be Enas Yorl; the man never showed the same face twice to the world.
What was plain for any eye to see on Pyrtanis Street was that the corner where Yorl's basilisk-guarded mansion had once stood was empty, even of weeds--as if the stones were simply elsewhere, like their owner, and might reappear at any moment.
Nothing in Sanctuary went to waste. One season's rubble was next year's construction, and if the new hard-laboring residents were less exalted than their predecessors, they were also less likely to abandon their homes at the first hint of trouble. Whatever havoc the Dragon and his cronies might be raising in other parts of Sanctuary, they had sense enough to stay off Pyrtanis Street.
"We could do with a torch or lantern," Atredan said when they'd come far enough to see the emptiness of the Promise of Heaven and the dark wall of the palace beyond it.
"Nonsense, the way is clear, and moon's brighter than any torch."
Atredan balked. "This place is haunted. We should go the other way, Lord Torchholder."
"The Hand's been gone for ten long years," Molin countered. "Nothing passes here now except a few whores on their way home to the Hill. You're not afraid of a few whores?"
"The gods remember. The gods marked this place."
Atredan was young--not yet twenty--and born outside the city walls at Land's End. He could have few personal memories of the Bloody Hand of Dyareela doing its awful work on the Promise, nor of Arizak leading his warriors against them in a battle that left the last of the old temples in ruins. When the last of the bodies had been collected it had been Arizak, the Irrune chieftain, who'd decreed that while he ruled Sanctuary, no god or goddess would be worshiped within its walls.
Those who'd dwelt within the walls and survived the madness had accepted Arizak's decree. They'd been silently grateful to turn their backs on the place where so many had died for so little reason. But the exiles of Land's End--who'd been conspicuous that day by their absence--they mourned the loss of the Rankan temples they had not visited in years. They nurtured that mourning--that sense that fate had conspired against their beloved Empire--in their children.
"The gods--All the gods, Ilsigi and Rankan alike and every other god ever worshiped here, do not care about an empty piece of earth, Lord Larris."
"But, Vashanka--!" the young man protested. "Surely--"
"Surely if Vashanka had cared, Vashanka would have done something, but He left this mess for men to clean. Come, Lord Larris. If we'd walked rather than talked, we'd be halfway across by now."
Molin slipped his free arm beneath Atredan's elbow to nudge him forward. A rooster in one of the yards nearby chose that moment to mistake the moon for the rising sun. The sudden sound surprised them both, and another man--to judge by the moonlit silhouette--out on the empty Promise who darted into the ruins that had once enshrined Thousand-Eyed Ils of the Ilsigi, another god who'd done nothing for Sanctuary when it could have used divine help.
"Let's take the other way, Lord Torchholder," Atredan pled, no longer hiding his fear.
When he'd been a young man--or even a middle-aged one--Molin would have pursued the straggler into Ils's temple. He had no quarrel with some Ils-worshiper who preferred chiseled stone to the pile of bricks outside the wall, but once the Hand had driven Ils's priests out of His temple, they'd chosen His marble hall as the site for an altar to their bloodthirsty goddess.
Molin had worked beside a score of priests representing almost as many gods to destroy that altar, that abomination. He'd take no chance that some misbegotten soul could undo his work--
Tomorrow, Molin chastened himself. Tomorrow, and with a handful of men walking ahead of him. Tonight he would sate himself with the view from the weedy steps.
"The other way, Lord Torchholder. My lord father charged me with your safety--"
Molin led the way, one hand gripping his staff, one eye stuck on the Temple of Ils.
Were those flame-shadows flickering on the walls?
So intense was Molin's interest in the distant temple that he heard nothing, saw nothing move in the nearer shadows until a man with daggers in his hands blocked the street some five paces ahead of him and Atredan.
"Prepare to die, Torchholder," the stranger snarled with a man's voice, and flung the metal in his hands.
Molin pressed his staff against the ground and called upon his mother's accursed power. He swayed left, then right as his witchblood quickened. One knife missed completely; the other tangled in his cloak and rang down against the cobblestones. Molin swung the staff into a two-handed grip across his chest and sought his attacker's face in the moonlight. What he found disturbed him to the core of his old bones--the man concealed his features beneath tightly wrapped, dark cloth which was almost certainly silk, almost certainly dyed bloodred, almost certainly worn by a worshiper of the Bloody Mother, Dyareela.
Nonetheless, Molin replied with confidence: "It will take a better man than you to lay me in my grave."
Witchcraft demanded tribute in exchange for its gifts, and Torchholder could not guess what price he would pay for drawing down to the depth of his talent, but for now and the next little while, he was the man he'd been--quick, strong, and cunning. The would-be assassin had not expected a fight from an old man; even less had he expected one from a man in his prime, but he stood his ground and drew another, longer, dagger from his belt. That was more than could be said for Atredan Larris Serripines, who shrieked like a maiden and ran for the Stairs.
The long dagger flew toward the youth; Molin let it pass and closed with the Dyareelan. Old man or young, witch or priest, he'd never been one to waste time defending a coward's back.
That much the stranger expected and, with yet another knife in his hand, tried to get inside the Molin's defense. Molin struck fast with the staff's amber finial, clouting his attacker on the left thigh. It wasn't the blow he'd hoped it would be--no bones cracked or broke. Molin struck again, as close to the same place as he could--witchcraft had restored his vigor, but it couldn't replace the practice he'd missed over the last many years. The stranger cried out in pain. He curved over his leg like a reed in the wind, but backed away from a killing blow.
"Prayer will not save you, Torchholder. You tore her children from her breast. You fed them poison and let them die. You wasted their blood! Wasted blood! She has thirsted all this time for yours--" The Dyareelan had proved that he knew whom he was attacking.
Molin's heart skipped a beat. He clamped his lips together, which the stranger mistook for a prayer.
"Your puny god cannot hear you. Dyareela has chosen my hands to take your blood."
They were mad--that was the first thing a man had to realize about the priests who served the goddess of discord, destruction, and chaos. Only madmen could believe that the world needed to be reborn in blood. Madmen or children. Children, in their innocent ignorance, could be taught to believe anything, and the teaching, if it got hold of their souls, could not be undone.
Molin feinted at the stranger's battered thigh, leading him in a sun-wise dance until moonlight fell on his silk-shrouded face. Morbidcuriosity drew Molin's attention to the man's hands. They were as dark as his face from wrist to fingertips. In sunlight they would have been bright crimson.
How? Molin demanded of himself. How had a Bloody Hand priest kept himself hidden for ten years? And, How had a Bloody Hand learned about the poison?
Arizak knew, and his brother, Zarzakhan, the Irrune's high shaman. The three of them had agreed that there was only one sure way to solve the problem they'd found living inside the liberated palace: sevenscore children, stolen from the streets and fed on blood and terror until their very souls had withered. That fateful day of Sanctuary's liberation--before word of the Hand's collapse spread through the streets--Molin, Arizak, and the shaman had examined each child in the light of prayer, witchcraft, and human cunning. No more than one in five had shown a spark of conscience; those they sent aside to be reunited with whatever remained of their families. For the rest, for the young, dead-eyed killers who preferred their meat raw, Molin and Zarzakhan had--with Arizak's express permission--prepared a deadly feast: horse carcasses larded with poison and left where hungry hands could reach them.
By midnight, all the children were retching. By dawn the problem had been solved. Molin and the shaman buried the bare-bone carcasses, replacing them with the corpses of red-handed priests. Then they'd set the carnage alight and sent an ignorant Irrune warrior to awaken Arizak. With his armor hastily buckled around him, Arizak proclaimed to the newly liberated Sanctuary that for its final atrocity the Bloody Hand had sacrificed their captive children.
No one who'd seen what the Hand could do doubted the Irrune chief's declaration.
Back on the Promise of Heaven, the Dyareelan lunged. Molin dodged and pivoted his staff. The amber finial made glancing contact with the attacker's chin. He reeled backward, grunting each time his right leg took his weight, but caught his balance before he fell.
"She is with me," the Dyareelan decided with a crazed laugh. "Strangle spoke the truth! She gives me strength. My hands--My hands!--will take your blood!"
Molin put a stop to the wild laughter, landing several blows inquick succession on the Dyareelan's neck and along his weapon arm. The last blow cracked the attacker's knuckles, loosening his grip on the knife. It clattered to the cobblestones. When the Dyareelan tried to retrieve the knife with his off-weapon hand, Molin pivoted his staff a second time. This time the amber knob struck true, shattering the stranger's jaw. He dropped to his knees, too stunned to scream or defend himself. Molin stepped in for the kill--a vicious thrust with the knob that drove the Dyareelan's nose into his brain and left him lying still on the stones.
Molin had no time to savor his victory; he barely had time to get the staff planted between two stones before his witchcraft-fueled vigor ebbed. His joints ached, his muscles burnt, and it took all his will to keep himself upright. When the worst had passed and he'd reopened his eyes, Molin saw not only the man he'd killed, but the awkward heap where Atredan Serripines had fallen.
Slowly, painfully, and knowing what he would find, Molin made his way to the young man's side. Kneeling, he felt for a pulse; there was none. After closing Atredan's eyes, Molin withdrew the fatal dagger and studied it in the moonlight. To his mild surprise it was an Imperial dagger bearing--unless he was very much mistaken--the crest of Theron the Usurper carved into its hilt. Thirty years had passed since such knives had been common in Sanctuary and, notwithstanding Theron's failings as emperor--he'd established the dubious and ongoing custom of usurpation rather than political compromise as the means of Imperial governance--a man who owned one of the Usurper's steel knives wasn't apt to part with it willingly.
Which said what--if anything--about the red-handed assassin?
Still hobbling, Molin returned to the corpse he'd created. He loosened the knotted silk. The lifeless face confirmed his worst suspicions: beardless, browless, and bald, with lips as dark as the silk; equally dark patterns swirled like serpents across his cheeks. Though it was hard to be certain between the tattoos and the moonlight, Molin judged the Dyareelan to be a man in his midthirties, too young to have received the knife direct from Theron.
He'd gotten it from someone else. An accomplice?
Molin shivered at the thought. No one in Sanctuary had offered a word of protest when Arizak banned Dyareela's cult and sentenced Her red-handed minions to one of the many traditional Irrune executions:tied hand and foot to the tails of four horses. Molin accepted that there were those in the town who secretly worshiped the outlaw goddess--She spoke to a need, as old and dark as night itself--but no man dared walk the city's streets with bloodstained hands, and another generation might pass before gloves were fashionable.
Perhaps he'd mistaken paint for tattoos?
Molin took the Dyareelan's lifeless hand, spat on its wrist, and rubbed the border where light flesh met dark. The line remained sharp, his own fingers unstained. The stains were permanent and, recalling the assassin's words and accent, he'd been no stranger to Sanctuary. Muttering curses as if they were prayers, Molin let the hand drop and searched for other clues.
Arizak won't like the sound of this; and Lord Serripines--Molin shook his head, imagining the Rankan patriarch's reaction to losing his second son and losing him, after all these years, to the Bloody Hand. He tore into the stranger's clothing, even pulled off his worn but serviceable boots. Aside from his tattoos and the silk, there was nothing--nothing at all--to distinguish the assassin from other men--no additional weapons, no jewelry, no luck charms, not even a sprinkling of the blackened metal bits that passed for money in the poorer quarters of Sanctuary.
The absence of identity was uncanny and, for a moment, Molin regretted that final blow. But, with or without witchcraft, he was an old man, and he couldn't afford generosity; besides, the Hand didn't respond well to interrogation. They broke quickly enough ... and succumbed to the madness inherent in their creed.
Wearily, Molin wrapped his fingers around the staff. He felt the weight of all his years climbing to his feet. In part, that was the aftermath of witchcraft, but not all. If the Bloody Hand of Dyareela were back in Sanctuary, then he'd failed when it had mattered most, and every sacrifice he'd ever made for this gods-forsaken city had come to naught.
Something. There must be something, some loose end I can trace to its source. If it's not in his clothes, then where? The other stranger, the silhouette running into Ils's ruined temple? The rooster's crowing--a bird or a signal? Had he been betrayed--by the Serripines? Atredan hadn'twanted to come this way. Could that have been pretense? Was the youth that good an actor?
Molin was returning to Atredan's corpse when a bolt of memory scattered his thoughts--"Strangle spoke the truth."
Strangle. A red-handed priest calling himself Strangle. Or herself.
Dyareela was a goddess with unusual attributes and appetites and, though every image Molin had seen portrayed Dyareela as a woman with crimson lips and breasts, it was said that She was hermaphrodite beneath Her skirts. The Irrune had found muralpainted rooms in the liberated palace that Molin could not recall without breaking into a cold sweat. It had taken more than sermons or knives to turn boys and girls into remorseless killers.
By the time the Irrune finished cleansing both the palace and the defiled temples, they'd killed or captured more than three hundred red-handed veterans of Dyareela's cult. The people of Sanctuary had cornered forty or fifty more. No one could say for certain; the tattooed bodies had been in pieces when the Irrune collected them. A few more Dyareelans had turned up in alleys and sewers--suicides, mostly--but the last four years had gone by without so much as a red-handed rumor, and Molin had begun to relax.
Never as long as he lived--which didn't allow much time.
Molin knelt uncomfortably beside the red-handed corpse. He pressed his staff across its chest. He'd pay--surely he would pay a high price for indulging in witchcraft twice before the setting of the moon, but it would be worth it, if he could lure Strangle into the light.
The theory was simple--slip into another mind, ransack its memories for a particular face, a particular name; then call that person and wait for him--or her--to appear. In the north, among his mother's people, witchblooded children learned the trick early, but Molin Torchholder had come into his talent late and without a mentor. The theory was all he knew, and a dead man's mind was a bleak midnight sinking toward oblivion.
Once, Molin thought he'd captured the prize--a gaunt face, scared and malefic; stained hands with mutilated fingers. It was accountedan honor among the Bloody Hands to lop off a knuckle or two in the goddess's honor. He whispered the name--Strangle--and felt a tug, as if from the far end of a long, slack, rope.
Satisfaction proved Molin's undoing. One heartbeat he was the fisherman hauling in his catch; the next he was the fish. The fish got lucky. It threw the hook and swam free.
Molin awoke with his forehead resting against the dead man's chest. He was chilled to the bone and stiff to the point of paralysis. Tears trickled from his eyes as he straightened his neck--
The moon had set. The street was dark, but in the east, the stars had begun to fade. He'd been kneeling on the stones for the better part of the night. It was a miracle--a sign, perhaps, that Vashanka had not completely forgotten His old priest--that he had survived the night.
Then Molin tried to stand. Something was wrong with his hands. He could feel the staff against his palms but his fingers would not grip it strongly enough to lever him up. He attempted to straighten his spine and the pain of a lifetime lanced through his right hip. Moaning softly, Molin collapsed. When he'd found the strength to try again, the sky was bright enough for shadows.
Molin reached for his staff and stopped short. His hands ... his hands were not his hands. Yes, he was an old man with blotched, crinkled skin, but the hands that moved, grudgingly, according to his will were bone and gristle wrapped in parchment.
The price, Molin thought in horror. Witchcraft always extracted a price, and foolish, clumsy witchcraft exacted the highest price of all. His heart raced, or it tried. He had been old, now he was decrepit, too, and the least effort left him panting and dizzy. With exquisite slowness, Molin wrapped first one hand, then the other around the staff. He had visions of his bones crumbling when he tried to stand, but he foresaw worse if he couldn't drag himself off the streets.
The hip pain was not as severe as it had been before dawn. Molin could stand but knew, even as he balanced on the cobblestones, that he could not walk. The long, black wool robe he'd worn to the Foundation feast was stiff and sticky with blood. His blood, Molin thought incredulously and at the same time remembered the stranger throwing a knife that had tangled in his cloak. It hadnicked him; and he hadn't noticed. No doubt it had been slick with poison--the Hand was especially fond of paralytic poisons; and he hadn't noticed. He'd plunged into witchcraft, not noticing that he bore an open wound.
Molin had killed himself. It was as simple as that. A man who'd prided himself on his cleverness had slain himself with carelessness. The only thing Molin felt more keenly than the pain in his hip was shame. He hid his face behind a frail hand while with his mind's eye he beheld all his unfinished intrigues.
Not now, Molin complained to fate, which was never known to answer prayers. Not with Arizak crippled and his family divided. Not with the Hand loose in Sanctuary again. I've got work to do; I can't die now, not without an heir ...
Vashanka was not a chaste god, nor did He expect His priests to live a celibate life. Molin had been married once, long ago. He'd sired children then and later, but none had lived more than a handful of years. Something to do with the witchblood, he suspected. He'd had other opportunities to choose an heir; and he'd rejected them all. Intrigue was Molin's life. Without intrigue he'd have no life, so he'd never surrendered, nor even shared his web of secrets.
Shame weighed on Molin's shoulders. His chin sank to his breastbone. His hand fell to his side. He stared, seeing nothing but failure and his feet until he blinked and saw himself.
If there were rules to witchcraft--predictable consequences to repeated actions--Molin Torchholder had never learned them. He certainly couldn't account for what lay on the cobblestone--a corpse wearing his face, the face he'd worn yesterday at Land's End--save for the shattered jaw and devastated nose. Its hands were his, too, gnarled and mottled with age, but unmarked by blood-colored tattoos.
When the street awakened, as it surely would now that the eastern sky was gold and crimson, they'd find two corpses on the street--a youth with Rankan features, wealthy clothes, and a single wound; and Arizak's longtime advisor, brutally beaten and stripped to his loincloth. Arizak would be outraged, Lord Serripines of Land's End, too. Lord Serripines would insist that Arizak search the city inside out for the murderer; and Arizak would comply ... and proclaim a hero's funeral. The Irrune chief had promised asmuch many, many times, and he was a man of his word.
What would Strangle make of that? Would he come to see the pyre, hiding his telltale hands? Could a decrepit and crippled old man sniff out the villain and expose him before his ruined body failed completely?
The man who had been Molin Torchholder had to try. It was better to be dead on the streets of Sanctuary than hobble before Arizak to admit his carelessness and his failures.