Authors: Will Shetterly,Emma Bull
Yamodas sighed, looked regretfully at his pistol, and thrust it into his belt. "I suppose you have a surpassing skill with that whip."
"I do. I could put your eyes out with it, or break your wrist, or strangle you. But I'd rather extend to you the courtesy you offered me. If you swear to give up your present, ah, commission, effective immediately, and if you follow the instructions I'm about to give you, you'll go free and unharmed."
He looked at her measuringly. "I am an honorable man, and I am under a previous agreement."
"Mmm. I'd hate to have to shame an honorable man in the sight of so dishonorable a slug as your employer sounds. But if you don't cooperate, I'll truss you like a chicken and hang you from the ceiling to greet him when he comes in."
"On the other hand, I have been paid in advance...."
Not long after, there was a harsh knocking at the door of the Tiger's Eye. Yamodas opened it and bowed low to the man who crossed the threshold. The newcomer had the meaty fatness of a wrestler, insufficiently disguised by a saffron-yellow robe and a long blue overvest with a pleated back. He wore an abundance of jewelry—necklaces, pins, bracelets, and earrings—and even sported a gold fillet that bound his red-dyed beard just under his chin.
"Have you killed the Ombayan?" he snapped at Yamodas.
"I have not. I was delayed with the shop owner."
"Hah! The deadly Yamodas, tussling with a shopkeeper?"
"She was rather more than that. I should have been warned."
"We knew nothing about her. If you can't do your own research, you're not worth your price."
"Enough. The Ombayan has had no warning. We will go upstairs now, and you may have your proof firsthand."
The fat man snorted. "'We' will go nowhere. You were hired to take the risks, and you will take them. I will come nowhere near the Ombayan until she is dead. Go up and do what you were hired for, and call me when you're done."
"As you will," Yamodas said, and went to the back of the shop and through the curtain.
From behind that curtain came a muffled thump, as of a door closing, and the fat man's eyes narrowed with suspicion. He hurried toward the back of the shop.
Snake rose up from behind a display case and snapped out with her whip. It coiled around the fat man's neck and bit deep when she pulled it tight.
He grabbed at the whip with both hands, and Snake prepared to resist his pull. It didn't come. Instead, the leather began to writhe and twist under her hands, and the hard, heavy butt end flexed and fastened itself to her forearm with a many-fanged lamprey mouth.
The fat man uncoiled the lash end from his neck, showing an angry wine-red line where it had cut. He whispered to the end he held and tossed it casually toward Snake. It lashed itself around her knees and clung there.
Laughing, he walked toward her. Snake's hands were still clenched together around her animated whip; she swung them like a club at his temple and connected hard. He staggered back against the display case, which tipped over, spilling jewelry and her attacker onto the floor with a crash. Snake grabbed a small bronze fencing shield off the back wall next to her and jumped at him, hoping to bring the edge down on his throat. But before she could reach him, he raised his arms and shouted. A hail of jewelry pelted her face. The shield was wrenched from her hands.
He pulled her up by her hair, which was painful, until she was standing. "You sow!" he screamed at her. "You are the offspring of a goatherd and his favorite nanny!"
"Make up your mind," Snake said through clenched teeth. If she lived through this, she would have to see if Silvertop knew a charm to keep anyone from ever again enchanting her whip. It had let go its grip on her forearm and twined itself around her wrists. She was beginning to lose the feeling in her fingers.
"You have turned my assassin away from his target, and you have marked me—" He jerked her head around, and she could see, in the beautiful silver-framed mirror set with sapphires, his face behind hers. His left cheek was cut open and bleeding, probably from the edge of the display case. "You shall watch yourself die, and know that the Ombayan woman will die next, and you could not protect her!"
He began to chant. Snake cursed at him, struggled, tried to kick and would have bit, had there been anything before her but the silver mirror. She could not break his concentration. He raised his right hand before her face, the little finger delicately extended. The fingertip began to shine like a polished knife. She watched in the mirror as he set the fingertip to her throat and began to draw it across the skin with creeping slowness. A drop of blood welled and trickled down where the finger touched, and the fat man's face behind her, shining with sweat and blood, beamed.
Behind him in the mirror she could see the Tiger's Eye, its precious contents glowing like a loving portrait in the lamplight, the front door open on the empty indigo darkness of Park Boulevard. She couldn't scream—probably part of the fat man's chanting. She hoped Thyan would take good care of the shop.
Then from behind them, where the mirror showed empty air, a voice said, "Ahem."
The fat man dropped her and spun to look, and got Koseth's fist in his face, with the rest of Koseth behind it.
Snake's whip suddenly became a whip again, and fell to the floor around her feet. The fat man, his nose bleeding and his face contorted with fury, flung both arms around Koseth and lifted him off the floor.
Snake vaulted over the fallen display case and rammed both her heels into the fat man's kidneys. He went down. Koseth rolled clear and squatted on the floor, clutching his ribs and looking pale.
"Watch him," he gasped. "He's not done yet...."
Koseth was right. The fat man half-rose and gestured fiercely, screaming something. Snake turned and found the silver-and-sapphire mirror flying off the wall at her. She caught it without bending or breaking the fragile silverwork frame, but it continued to press forward, forcing her slowly toward the fat man.
Then at the edge of her vision she saw Koseth stagger to his feet, raise both hands above his head, and begin to whistle. A ball of black smoke formed between his palms. He flung it at the fat man, and it streamed out from his hands like a veil and wrapped around the fat man's head. The fat man cursed and gestured, and the smoke became a veil in truth, made of black gauze which tore easily in his fingers.
All the force went out of the silver-framed mirror. Snake looked from it, inert and shining in her hands, to the fat man, who had begun to chant at Koseth, and felt hot fury begin to rise in her. He couldn't be troubled to defend himself against her? She set the mirror down against the wall, snatched up the broken-off leg, long as her forearm, from the display case, and advanced upon the fat man.
He was chanting steadily at Koseth, who had dropped, white-faced, to his knees. The room smelled of lightning. Snake jabbed the man in the ribs with the leg. "Hey," she said. He turned.
She clubbed him, and he slid gently to the floor.
After a few moments, she heard Koseth clear his throat. "Not a moment too soon. Oh, I hurt. Did you kill him?"
Snake knelt and rolled the fat man over. There was blood in his hair, but he was still breathing. "No. What shall we do with him?"
"Disarm him." Koseth stood up slowly and limped over to Snake. "Help me strip him."
Koseth nodded at the man on the floor. "Something he's wearing or carrying is the vessel of his luck. Do you want him to wake up with his magic to hand?"
They stripped the fat man and piled his clothing and jewelry in a heap in the middle of the shop. Koseth bent over it and began to sing. With one finger, he traced a circle around the pile; when the circle was closed, he straightened up and clapped his hands. With a crack! and a rush of air, the fat man's belongings were gone.
Snake said, "Where—?"
"They're on your roof," said Koseth. ''I'm afraid I didn't have the strength to send them any farther, but that should keep them the necessary three paces away from him."
"My roof." She shook her head. "Come on, let's tie him up."
Once they had, Koseth ventured out into the night and returned with four uncommonly deferential soldiers of the Levar's Guard and a donkey cart. It took all six of them to hoist the unconscious assailant into the cart.
When the soldiers had gone, Snake went back in the shop and dropped into one of the wicker chairs. She looked up, and found Koseth watching her closely.
"No hysterics?" he said.
"The time for that was when he was killing me."
"I find that's exactly when there isn't time for them. I like to have mine later."
Snake laughed weakly. "Let me know when, and I'll join you."
"I would be honored," he said, and bowed.
"Now, make kaf and tell me who you are."
Snake watched him dip water from the jar and set the kettle heating on the hearth brazier. To her surprise, she didn't resent the easy way that he found and used her things—she was content, for now, to sit quietly and be catered to, and Koseth seemed content to cater.
When he at last sat down across the brass table from her he said, "I didn't lie to you, you know. My name is Lir Matean Koseth ola Presec."
She blinked at him in dawning comprehension. "Which means that you're..."
"The Margrave of Trieth," he finished apologetically.
"The Desert Rat," she said, then added quickly, "Sorry, Your Grace."
He laughed. "Well, I am—or was, until I had to take my seat in the Levar's Council. That was when I became involved with a group of councillors who favor alliance with Ombaya."
Snake sat up in her chair. "Are you telling me you're the person Badu was to meet?"
"I beg your pardon? Oh, yes. I am."
"Why, in the names of any of a hundred gods, didn't you just say so?"
"Don't shout. We knew there was opposition to the proposal in the Council. We also suspected that one of those opponents was spying for the Zhir, but we had no way to be sure. I was chosen as the contact since I wasn't yet publicly associated with the pro-alliance group, and was thus least likely to lead the spy to the Ombayan emissary, or to be a target for him myself."
"You haven't answered my question."
"Madame," he said, exasperated, "how were we to know you weren't in the pay of the spy?"
Snake stared at him. "I think I'm insulted."
Koseth—the Margrave of Trieth—shrugged. "Oh, when I realized who you were, I knew you were no spy. But by that time, I had other things to think of."
"Exactly. But I could do nothing except keep a watch on the shop front, and as far as I could tell, all was quiet. Until our fat friend strolled down the street and knocked at your door."
"When you very kindly followed him in and got me off his hook. But why didn't you show up in the mirror?"
"Once, in my misspent youth, I tried to creep up on someone who was standing in front of a mirror. It's made me wary. I cast an illusion, causing the mirror to show everything in the room but me. That's a loophole in your guardian spell, by the way—though you can't enter the house by magic, you can cast illusions back and forth through the doorways."
"I know," Snake said, grinning.
He raised an eyebrow, but went on. "And I needed the element of surprise… I'm no match for the likes of Borlis in a head-to-head duel."
"Borlis?" she hinted.
"Our fat friend is Borlis iv Ronwell, the Count of Seagirt, and a Council member high in the opposition movement."
Snake nodded slowly. "And a Zhir spy," she said.
"Exactly. You smoked out our rat. With my testimony, and yours, if you're willing, the opposition will be discredited, and the alliance proposal will be approved by the Council and sent to the Levar."
The kettle began to rumble on the hearth, and he fetched it back to the table. He poured boiling water over the ground beans, fine as powder, and the thick brown smell of kaf rose into the air between them as it brewed. Then he filled two cups and offered one to her. His hands were large and brown, clean, but calloused and broken-nailed—very much like her own, she realized, after a trading trip.
He looked at her over his cup. "And I suppose that Badu is upstairs."
"Mmhm." He opened his mouth, and she continued quickly, "And if you're going to ask why she didn't come down when she heard the fight, the answer is, 'None of your business.'"
"Oh," he said.
"I suppose she'll want to know why we couldn't have saved her life a little more quietly."
He stretched his legs out before him. "A good question. An insightful question. Why couldn't we?"
"If all I sold was rugs, I'm sure we'd have had no problem," Snake said, eyeing the smashed display case ruefully.
"Would it be at all helpful," he said, studying his cup, "if I were to stay around—to help you explain it all to Badu?"
Snake shot a look at him. She rather thought she recognized that tone of voice. "To leave before then, in fact, would be unforgivable," she said at last.
He smiled. 'Then I'll be courteous and stay." He lifted his cup. 'To a remarkable woman," he said, watching her face.
She smiled. "To a charming rescue."
The porcelain cups chimed like bells.
"The Green Rabbit from S'Rian" by Gene Wolfe
CAPTAIN TEV NOEN took off his gilded dress helmet and scratched his shaven head—not because he was puzzled by the sight of two of his best hands nailing up a placard at the mouth of Rat's Alley, but because it had occurred to him that the placards might be ineffective, and he had not yet decided what to do if they were. He had composed them himself that afternoon, and Ler Oeuni, his first mate, had lettered them with sweeping strokes of the brush.
JOIN THE LEVAR'S NAVY!
IS NOW ACCEPTING RECRUITS!
THREE COPPERS A DAY
PROMPTLY PAID AT EVERY PORT!
AMPLE FOOD, DRINK, AND CLOTHING, AND GOOD TREATMENT!
SIGN TONIGHT AT THE BIG TREE!
FIVE COPPERS WHEN YOU SIGN!!
PRIZE MONEY COULD MAKE YOU RICH!!!
It was a simple appeal to self-interest, and Noen wondered whether sounding the trumpets of Liavek and Her Magnificence, as most captains did, would not have been better. He thought not. In his experience, recruits did not care about such things.
The hands drove home their final nails with resounding whacks and turned to face their captain, touching their foreheads with all fingers. Automatically, Noen replaced his helmet and returned their salutes. "Good work. Now we'll rejoin Lieutenant Dinnile and see if these have brought anyone yet." Recklessly he added, ''I'll buy you each a tankard, if there's a good hand already."
The sailors grinned and took their positions like proper bodyguards, the woman ahead of him and the man behind him. Noen tried to recall their names; they pulled the first (that was, the rearmost) starboard oar—Syb and Su, of course. Each wore a sharply curved cutlass in a canvas sheath now, although the hammers they carried would be nearly as effective.
He himself was far better armed, with his sword and double-barreled pistol. Not that swords or "villainous saltpetre" should be needed for the drunken sailors of Rat's Alley, or its cutthroats either—Naval officers were notoriously savage fighters and just as notoriously broke.
If they were attacked, it might even be possible to carry the fellow—undamaged, Noen hoped—aboard
. There he would sign on or chase a sack of ballast to the bottom.
"Why, if we were attacked by fifty or so..."
"Sir?" Su looked over her shoulder at him.
"Talking to myself," Noen told her brusquely. "Stupid habit."
There were always the judges. A judge could pardon an offender willing to enlist. And judges did pardon such offenders—for well-connected captains, and for captains who could offer rich gifts in return. Not for Tev Noen, to be sure.
A rat scampered across Noen's boots, and he kicked it. It sailed past Su's head, and in the darkness of Rat's Alley someone swore and spat.
"Good 'un, sir," Syb whispered diplomatically.
Noen had recognized the voice. "Is that you, Dinnile?"
"Yes, sir. Some filthy devil just flung a rat at me, sir."
Inwardly, Noen damned his luck. The story would be all over the ship by morning, and such stories were bad for discipline. Aloud he said, "Officers who leave their posts have to expect such luck, Lieutenant." Or perhaps they were good for discipline after all, or could be made to be. Syb and Su would be the cynosures of the main deck, and he himself shouldn't come off too badly.
"I didn't leave my post, sir." Dinnile's brass breastplate gleamed now in the faint light. He spat again and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "I got 'em."
"Fifty-two rowers, sir. You said not to take no more, remember? No use payin' more than's authorized."
Noen squinted at the dim column that trailed after Dinnile in the dark. "You got fifty-two in a couple of watches?"
"Yes, sir! They come together, sir. They're nomads from the Great Waste." Dinnile halted before his captain and touched his forehead. "There's been a drought there, they say, so it's worse than usual—cattle dyin', and all that. They come to Liavek to keep from starvin', and somebody that saw one of Oeuni's placards sent 'em to us."
Noen nodded. It seemed best to nod in the face of Dinnile's enthusiasm. 'That's a piece of luck."
"For us and them—that's what I told 'em. We'll sail tomorrow with a full complement, sir."
Noen nodded again. "They're strong enough to pull an oar, you think?" Dinnile was not the most brilliant officer in the fleet, but as a judge of what could be extorted with a rope end, he had no peer.
"Give 'em a little food and they'll do fine, sir. They spent their five coppers on ale and apples and such at the Big Tree, sir. And I promised 'em, too, a good feed when we get to the ship."
"Right," Noen told him. Anything to keep them from deserting on the way. "We'll go with you."
Away from the beetling structures of Rat's Alley, there was more light, and Noen counted the recruits as they filed past. Forty-nine, fifty...he held his breath...fifty-one, fifty-two. Then the pair of crewmen he had assigned to help Dinnile. All present and accounted for. It was beyond belief, too good to be true. For a dizzy moment he wondered if it were his birthday—could he have forgotten? No. Dinnile's perhaps. No. Or—of course—one of the nomads'. What better luck could the poor devil have than seeing himself and all his friends fed and safe aboard the
Or what worse?
Noen asked one of Dinnile's sailors if there had been fifty-two exactly.
"Oh, no, sir. More like to a hundred, sir. The Lieutenant picked out the best, and let them sign."
Let them sign! It was a night to remember.
Ler Oeuni touched her forehead as he came aboard. Noen touched his own and said, "We'll put off for Minnow Island as soon as Dinnile has the new hands at the oars."
"There's a bit of night breeze, sir."
"Under oar, Lieutenant, not under sail." Oeuni was sailing officer (and gunnery officer); Dinnile rowing officer. Ordinarily it would be best to spare the rowers as much as possible, but the new hands had to be taught their job, and the sooner the teaching began, the better—tomorrow they might have to ram a pirate.
Noen mounted to
's long, lightly built quarterdeck and watched Dinnile shoving the new hands to their places, most to forward oars from which they would be able to watch the trained rowers at the aft oars and would be caught up in the rowing rhythm that was almost like a spell. "See that there's at least one experienced hand at each oar, Dinnile."
"Aye, aye, sir." The tone of Dinnile's response managed to imply that the instruction had been unnecessary.
"Do they speak Liavekan?" Noen cursed himself for not having found out sooner.
"Some do, sir. Some don't."
to them. They've got to learn, and quickly."
"Aye, aye, sir."
"Foreigners?" Oeuni ventured to ask.
"Nomads from the Great Waste," Noen told her. She would have to deal with them, after all, as they all would. Eventually, she would have to train them to reef and steer.
''They're subjects of the Empire, then."
Noen shook his head. "They're not Tichenese, if that's what you mean. And whatever they were, they became subjects of Her Magnificence when they signed with us."
Dinnile had pushed the last of the nomads into place. Noen cleared his throat. "Listen to me, you new hands! I'm Tev Noen, your captain. Call me Captain Noen. This is Ler Oeuoi, our first mate. Call her Lieutenant Oeuni. Lieutenant Beddil Dinnile signed you—you should know him already, and the petty officers you'll learn soon enough. You'll be treated firmly on this ship, but you'll be treated fairly. Do your best, and you'll have no cause to worry.
"You've been promised a good dinner tonight, and you're going to get it. There are navy kitchens at the base on Minnow Island, and they'll have hot food for you." It was probably better not to tell them they would not be permitted to leave the ship, that the food would be carried on board. "When I give the order 'out oars,' watch the trained hands and do as they do."
Noen glanced at Oeuni. "You may cast off, Lieutenant."
"Stand by to cast off!" she shouted at the sailors stationed fore and aft. They leaped onto the wharf. ''Cast off!"
A few moments more and
was under way, her oars rising and falling awkwardly, but more or less together, in a beat as slow as the timesman at the kettledrums could make it.
A fresh wind touched Noen's cheek as the dark wharves and warehouses of the waterfront vanished in the night. Little cat's-tongue waves, the hesitant ambassadors of the lions in the Sea of Luck, rocked
as a mother rocks her child.
"Not so bad," Oeuni said.
Noen answered with a guarded nod. How hard were a nomad's hands? Not as hard as a sailor's, certainly. These men would have blisters tomorrow, if the wind failed, and—
On the main deck, Dinnile's rope end rose and fell. There was a shout that sounded like a curse, and the flash of steel. Dinnile's big fist sent someone reeling over the next oar. Something—a knife, surely—clattered to the deck. Noen called, "Tivlo! Bring that to me." Tivlo was the petty officer in charge of the mainmast. "Dinnile! If he's conscious, put him back to work." Attacking an officer was punishable by death, but Noen had no intention of losing a hand this early.
Tivlo handed up the knife, hilt first. Its blade was curved and wickedly double-edged.
"We'll have a shakedown as soon as we tie up," Oeuni said.
Noen nodded. The cresset burning atop the highest tower of Fin Castle was already in plain view. The nomads would need their knives to cut rope and do a thousand other tasks. But they would need nothing more, and there was no telling what else they might have.
Oeuni had lined the new hands up and hoisted lanterns at the ends of the main yard when Syb came to the quarterdeck, touching his forehead. "What is it?" Noen asked.
"About Su and me, sir."
"You promised us a tankard each, sir, if there was a hand signed."
"So I did." Noen bent over the quarterdeck rail. "Would you as soon have the money?"
"No, sir. Perhaps, sir..." The words trailed away. Hands were forbidden the quarterdeck, except upon order. Noen said, "Come up."
"Thank you, sir!" Syb mounted the steps. "I thought it might be better to speak more private-like, sir. Su and me—well, her folks and mine live here on the island."
Noen shook his head. "I can't let you go ashore. We'll be sailing at dawn, and perhaps before dawn."
Noen knew he should cut the man off, but there was something in his face that forbade it. "Yes?" he asked.
"Let us go just for this watch, sir. If we're not back when it's over, you can put us both in the irons. It's not to drink or nothing like that, sir."
"What is it for?"
"They're fisherfolk, sir. It's not no easy life, sir, and now we've got our pay, and…"
"I see," Noen said.
"A prosperous fishing village, sir. That's what they call it, those that don't live there. It means they've generally got enough to eat, if they fancy fish, and maybe enough to mend the boat or buy the twine to make a new net. But it's a terrible hard life, sir."
Noen began, "If I gave you leave, I'd have to give it to others who have just as good a—"
He was interrupted by a touch at his elbow. It was Dinnile, now officer of the watch. "A sojer, sir. Got a letter for you."
When Noen had carried the note to the binnacle light, he announced, "I'm going ashore, and I'll want bodyguards. Syb, you and Su did well enough last time. Dinnile, see that they're issued cutlasses."
"For goin' ashore on Minnow Island, sir?" Dinnile was utterly bewildered.
"You're right," Noen told him. "Their sheath knives should be enough, and there's no time to waste."
Fin Castle rose from a rocky headland at the easternmost tip of the island, where its great guns commanded the principal entrance to the harbor. Noen dismissed his "bodyguards" at the castle. "I'm going in to see Admiral Tinthe. I don't know how long I'll be, but when I come out, I expect to find you waiting here for me. Understand?"
They muttered their aye-ayes, touched their foreheads, and hurried away.
Noen needed no guide to direct him to the admiral's chambers. High in the keep and facing south, they permitted Uean Tinthe to scan the Sea of Luck. As Noen climbed stair after weary stair, he wondered how often the old man did so, and when he would decide the price of his view was too high.
Noen's knock brought a gruff invitation. He ducked from habit as he entered, conditioned by
's low cabin. Admiral Tinthe was in his favorite spot by the window; beside him sat a distinguished-looking woman of middle age.
"Captain Noen, Serkosh," the admiral said, returning Noen's salute. "Noen, Serkosh the Younger."
Noen bowed. "A great pleasure, Lady."
She nodded stiffly.
"Told you to be ready at sunup," Tinthe continued.
"You're undermanned like the rest. I can send you a scant half dozen."
has a full complement now, sir," Noen said.
For an instant, the admiral studied him. "Sailors?"
Admiral Tinthe turned to the woman beside him and winked. She smiled; he had been a handsome man once, and traces of it still remained in his scarred old face. "Recruiting practices," he told her. "Best left to the young ones. Best not to know too much."
"All signed in due form, sir," Noen told him. Inwardly, he blessed his foresight in inspecting Dinnile's roster book.
"Good. Sail you will. Course south and a point east. That's the best of them, and your crew's earned it for you."
Noen forbore asking what made it the best. "Pirates, sir?"
The admiral shook his head. "You'd better hear the story. Know what you're up against. Tell him about the green rabbit, Serkosh."
The woman said, "Perhaps you might ask him to sit, first."
When Noen was settled in a chair, she continued, "I am a jeweler, Captain. I own the Crystal Gull—possibly you've seen us? We're situated near the Levar's Park. The next time you've need of a gaud for some young woman, perhaps you'll stop in."