Authors: Jennifer Roberson
Book 5 of the Sword Dancer series
By Jennifer Roberson
SWORD PIERCED FLESH, broke bone. I felt it go in, felt the give, the tension in my wrists as steel cut into body. Heard my own hoarse shout as I denied again that this was what I wanted, what I meant--
--and awoke with an awkward upward lunge that smashed the back of my skull into wood.
One way to stop a dream, I guess: knock it clean out of your head.
Driven flat by the force of the collision, I lay belly-down on the threadbare blanket and scrunched my face against pain and shock, locking teeth together. I couldn't manage a word, just swore a lot in silence inside my rattled skull.
From above, warily, "Tiger?"
I didn't answer. I was too busy gripping the back of my abused skull, trying to keep it whole.
"Are you all right?"
No, I wasn't all right, thank you very much; I'd just come close to splattering my brains all over the tiny cabin we shared aboard a ship I'd learned to hate the day we sailed. But to say I wasn't all right?
I turned my head, carefully, into a slotted streak of brassy sunlight skulking fitfully through creaking boards bleeding dribbles of sticky pitch. "--fine." From between gritted teeth.
Movement overhead. A moment later a wealth of fan-hair barely visible in fog-tendriled morning light spilled over the side of the narrow bunk looming low above me, which was precisely what I'd cracked my head against. (The bunk, that is, not the hair.) Then the face appeared. Upside down.
Del is beautiful from any direction, in any position, wearing any expression. But just now I was in no shape to appreciate that beauty. "Was that your head?"
I undamped my jaws a bit and removed my cheek from the lump of mildewed material that served inadequately as a pillow. It stank of salt and fish and, well, me. "I suppose I could point out that sleeping apart for months on end in bunks barely big enough for a dog makes it hard for a man to, um, demonstrate his admiration and affection--"
"Lust," she put in, stripping away euphemism neatly. "And it's only been two weeks.
Besides, we had the floor." She paused, correcting her terminology. "The deck. Which we've used. Several times. Or have you forgotten already?"
Not to be thwarted by an annoying and convoluted interruption intended solely to sidetrack me into defensiveness, I continued with laborious dignity. "--and therefore I could claim it was something else entirely that smacked the underside of your bed with such force as to make the earth move--"
"Embroidering the legend of the jhihadi, are we?"
"--but considering that I'm always an honest messiah, er, man--"
"When it suits you."
"--I'll admit that, yes, that was my head." I moved my fingers gingerly through wiry hair.
"I think it's still in one piece."
"Well, if it isn't, it matches the rest of you. Age does that to a man." And she withdrew her head--and the hair--so I had nothing to glare at.
"Your fault," I muttered.
She swung down from her bunk over mine. Short, narrow bunks, too small for either of us together or apart; Del is a tall woman. She landed lightly, bracing herself against the ship's uneasy wallowing with a hand on the salt-crusted, battered bunk frame. "My fault?
That you're feeling your age? Really, Tiger--you'd think it was always my idea that we, as you put it, 'demonstrate admiration and affection.' "
"Hoolies," I muttered, "but I'll be glad when we're on land again. Room to move on land."
Del sat down on the edge of my bunk. It wasn't a comfortable position because she had to lean forward and hunch over so she wouldn't bash her head against the underside of her bunk. I rearranged bent legs, allowing her as much room as I could; I wasn't about to sit up and risk my skull again. "Any blood?" she asked matter-of-factly, sounding more like man than woman preparing to blithely dismiss an injury as utterly insignificant unless a limb was chopped off.
Someone once asked me what it meant if Del was ever kind. I answered--seriously--that likely she was sick. Or worried about me, but that wouldn't do to say. For one, I hated fuss; for another, well, Del's kind of worrying doesn't make for comfort. A smack on the butt is more her style of encouragement, much like you'd slap a horse as you sent it out to pasture.
I inspected my skull again with tentative fingers, digging through salt-crusted hair. No blood. Just a knot coming up. And itching. But too far from my heart to kill me.
Then I dismissed head and irony altogether. I reached out and clasped her arm, closing the wrist bones inside my hand. Not a small woman, Del, in substance or height (or in skill and spirit); but then, neither am I a small man. The wrist fit nicely. "I dreamed about you," I said. "And the dance. On Staal-Ysta."
Del went very still. Then, eloquently, she took my hand and carried it to her ribs, where she opened it and flattened the palm against the thin leather of her tunic. "I'm whole,"
she said. "Alive."
I shivered. Felt older still than thirty-eight years. Or possibly thirty-nine. "You don't know what it was like. You were dead, bascha--"
"No. Nearly so. But not dead, Tiger. You stopped the blow in time. Remember?"
I hadn't stopped the blow in time. I managed only to slow it, to keep myself--barely--from shearing her into two pieces.
"I remember being helpless. I remember not wanting to dance with you in the first place, and that cursed magicked sword making me fight you anyway. And I remember cutting you." Beneath my palm I felt the warmth of flesh, the steady beating of her heart.
And the corroded crust of scar tissue mounded permanently in the skin beneath her left breast. "I remember leaving--no, running--because I thought you would die. I was sure of it... and I couldn't bear to see it, to watch it--" I levered myself up on one elbow, reached out, and slid my free hand to the back of her skull, urging her down with me.
"Oh, bascha, you don't know what it felt like, that morning on the cliff as I rode away from the island. From you." But not from guilt and self-recrimination; I was sure she had only hours. While I'd have years to remember, to wish myself dead.
I shifted again as she settled; it was too small, too cramped, for anything more than the knotting of bodies one upon the other. "And then when you found me later, me with that thrice-cursed sword--"
"It's over," she said; and so it was, by nearly two years. "All of it is over. I'm alive and so are you. And neither of us has a sword that is anything but a sword." She paused.
Now. Boreal, Del's jivatma, she had broken to free me from ensorcellment. My own sword, the one I myself had forged, folded, blooded, and named on the icy island called Staal-Ysta, lay buried beneath tons of fallen rock. We were nothing but people again: the sword-singer from the North, and the sword-dancer from the South.
I flinched as she put her hand to the scar I bore in my own flesh, as gnarled and angry as hers over ribs now healed. She'd nearly killed me in that same circle. But it wasn't her touch that provoked the visceral response. The truth of it was, I wasn't even a sword-dancer any more, not a proper one. The Sandtiger was now borjuni, a "sword without a name." And no more proud--and proudly defended--title won in apprenticeship and mastery through the system that ruled the ritualized combat of the South, the oaths and honor codes of men who danced with swords within the circle and settled the wars of the tanzeers, princes of the Punja, the South's merciless desert.
Deserted at birth, then taken in as a slave; freed of that by oaths sworn to the man, the shodo, who taught me how to fight, to dance according to the codes; and now deserted by others who swore the same oaths and thus had to kill me, because I'd broken those codes.
Yet despite the price it had been easy to break them, because it was for Delilah. For her oaths and honor.
And so in the South, my homeland, I was prey to be hunted by any sword-dancer alive, to be killed without honor outside of the circle because I wasn't part of it any more. In the North, Del's homeland, I was a man who had turned his back on the glory of Staal-Ysta, the Place of Swords, and the sword-singers who danced in the circle with enchanted blades.
But here, now, with her, I was just me. Sometimes, that's enough.
WE LEFT the North because Del agreed to go, if only because I forced her hand by winning a dance in the circle according to Northern rites. But I'd forced their hands, too, those blond and bitter people who'd sooner see Delilah dead even by deception because of broken oaths; once healed, once reunited, once free of Staal-Ysta and Dragon Mountain with its demon-made hounds of hoolies, we had eventually headed South--where within a year I'd broken the oaths I'd sworn to my people.
Now both of us were nameless, homeless, lacking songs and honor, abandoning our pasts in the search for a new present, but one linked uncannily to a past older than either of us knew: a baby's begetting, a boy's birth. The woman who had whelped me there on the Punja's crystal sands, and the man who had sired me far away in foreign lands.
Skandi. Or so we thought. So Del thought, and declared; I was less certain. She said it was only because I was a self-made man and didn't want to know the truth of my presence in the world, for fear I was lesser or greater than what I'd become.
Me, I said little enough about it. Mild curiosity and the dictates of the moment--the need to retreat, rethink, escape--had been diluted beneath the uncertainties of sailing, of odd, misplaced regrets, and something akin to confusion. Even homesickness. Except it was all very complicated, that. Because the South maybe wasn't my home at all. My birthplace, yes. That much I knew. Southron-born, Southron-reared. But not, we now believed, Southron-begotten. Which is one of the reasons we were on this thrice-cursed boat, sailing to a place where I could have been conceived.
Someone might have told me, once. Sula. A woman of the tribes, of the Salset, who'd done more than any to make me a man in all the ways one can be. While the rest of the Salset ridiculed me as a chula, a slave, as an over-tall, long-limbed, big-boned boy awkward in body, in mind, wholly ignorant of grace, Sula had valued me. In her bed, to start with. Later, in her heart.
Mother. Sister. Lover. Wife. Yet neither bound by blood, rites, or ritual beyond the one we made at night, when I was allowed to sleep somewhere other than on a filthy, odorous goatskin flung down upon Punja sand. But Sula was dead of a demon in her breast, and there was no one to tell me now.
We left, too, because I was, well, a messiah. Or so some people believed. Others, of course, didn't buy any of it. People are funny that way. Some believe because of faith, needing no evidence; others have faith only in evidence--and I had not, apparently, offered any of worth.
At least, not the kind they believed in. After all, turning the sand to grass--or so the legendary prophecy went--was not the kind of imagery that really grabs a man, especially Southroners. It was a little too, I don't know, pastoral for them, who suckled sand with their mother's milk.
Whether I was the messiah, called jhihadi, and whether I had turned the sand to grass (or at least begun the process), was open to debate. Both were possible, I'd decided in a fit of self-aggrandizement fostered by too much aqivi and too little of, well, Del's admiration and affection one night beneath the moon, if one took the magic out of it and depended on a literal faith.
That's always a problem, dealing with religion. People take imagery literally. Or when the truth is presented as something unutterably tedious--such as digging canals and ditches to channel water from places with it to places without it--no one wants to listen.
It's not flowery enough. Not magical enough.
Hoolies, but I hate magic. Even when I work it myself.
Having established once again that my bunk was not a particularly promising location for assignations of admiration and affection--I nearly smacked my head again, while Del cracked an elbow hard enough to provoke a string of hissed and dramatic invective (in uplander, which saved my tender ears)--we eventually wandered up onto the deck to greet the morning with something less than enthusiasm, and to placate discontented bellies with the sailor's bounty the crew called hardtack. Hard it was; anyone lacking teeth would starve to death. Fortunately neither Del nor I did, so we managed to gag it down with a few swallows of tepid water (Del) or a belly-burning liquor called rhuum (me). Then we stood at the rail and stared in morosely thoughtful silence at the wind-rumpled water, wondering when (or if) we'd ever see land again. It had been two days since we'd left behind a string of small islands where we'd stopped long enough to take on fresh water and fruit.
"Maybe it's not a real place," I observed, only half-serious, which, as usual with Del, provoked a literal response.
"What--Skandi? Of course it's a real place. Or they wouldn't have taken us on as passengers."
I slanted her a glance. Del couldn't possibly be any part of serious. "Are you any part of serious?"