“Most ettins are scaled all over like a lizard or a tortoise, and are often called ‘Deep Ettins’ because of their constant delving, but it is said that some have a smooth furry pelt that allows them to travel swiftly through tunnels other ettins have already excavated. These ‘Tunnel Ettins’ are also said to be blind.”
— from “A Treatise on the Fairy Peoples of Eion and Xand”
“I’M AFRAID I DON’T UNDERSTAND, Golden One.” Pinimmon Vash looked up. He had lowered himself onto his old, aching knees: when the autarch was in one of his unpredictable moods, he had found the conservative approach was safest. “I thought we were bound for . . . I have forgotten the name of the place. Your . . . guest’s little kingdom in the north.”
“Southmarch. And so we are.” Sulepis stretched out a hand to admire the spread of his long fingers, each one tipped in gold as bright as the honey of Nushash’s bees. “But first we are paying a visit to another ruler. May I not pass the time as I wish, Paramount Minister Vash? Surely life is too beautiful to be always hurrying!” The autarch smiled his lazy, crocodilian smile.
“May you . . . of course, Golden One! It goes without saying! Even the stars in the sky pause to know your plans.” Vash squeezed himself a little closer to the f loor, despite the pains sparking in his shins and hips. “We all live only to serve you. I just wished to . . . to know more of what you planned . . . so that we might better accommodate your needs.” He tried to laugh, but instead of a knowing chuckle it came out as a shaky wheeze. “May you! You play a trick on your oldest and most dedicated servant, master! I would die to serve your smallest wish.”
I would like to see that.” Sulepis’ laugh was much more convincing than Vash’s had been. “But not this morning, I think. Arrange boats to go ashore and bearers for the tribute. And tell the antipolemarch he may stand his soldiers down— I will take only the bearers, my carpet servants, and you. Oh, and I think King Olin might find the visit amusing too. Four guards should be enough for him.”
“No soldiers?” Vash realized he was questioning his monarch again, but surely even the autarch was not so mad as to enter a foreign court with only four guards. “I am old, Golden One. Did I mishear you?”
“You did not. Tell Dumin Hauyuz that as long as his men remain on the ship and we remain ready to sail, he may otherwise do as he pleases.”
“For which he will be profoundly grateful, Golden One, I have no doubt.” Vash tried to back out of the cabin without standing up, but he quickly realized he no longer had the f lexibility for it. After he had slid himself far enough backward, he clambered slowly to his feet and backed out of the presence of the inscrutable, incomprehensible living god on earth.
It seemed that the entire population of Gremos Pitra, capital city of Jellon and Jael, had lined up along the steeply rising road between the harbor and the palace to watch the strange procession. It was a small procession, as Sulepis had directed, with the autarch himself leading the way (except during the moments when the carpet slaves dashed in front of him to lay out the next section of cloth- of- gold carpet so that his sacred feet never touched the ground). Vash walked behind him, trying manfully to move onto the next piece of carpet each time before the sweating
slaves snatched up the old one to carry it ahead of the god- king once more. The paramount minister was so terrified that one of the onlookers might do something untoward— what if one of them threw a rock at the autarch?— that his stomach ached.
Olin and his guards came next, walking on ordinary earth as ordinary men should; they were followed by the silent priest Vash had seen on the ship but whose name he did not know. The man had the dark, weathered skin of the deep- desert tribes and was covered with f lamelike tattoos, and though he was not old his eyes were gray with cataracts. He carried a staff that clicked and jingled with the dangling skeletons of a dozen serpents. Everything about the priest made Vash fretful; he had been grateful during the voyage that the man had largely stayed belowdecks.
The snake- priest was followed by several dozen muscular slaves, each one carrying a huge tribute basket on his back— heavy baskets, too, from the frozen, uncomfortable grimaces of the men carrying them.
The onlookers crowding along the road watched and whispered in dull astonishment, both at the appearance of the tall southern god- king in his gleaming, golden armor and the almost complete absence of soldiers guarding him. Vash clearly was not the only one to be surprised that the famous enemy of all Eion should walk unarmed through a hostile city.
Pinimmon Vash did not find much chance to pray these days but he prayed now.
Nushash, I follow your heir. All my life I have been told the autarch carries your blood. Now I follow him into terrible danger in a hostile country. I have waited upon three autarchs and have always done my best to serve the Falcon Throne. Please do not let me die here in this backward land! Please do not let the autarch die under my protection!
He blinked dust from his eyes. At least the scotarch Prusus remained upon the ship, protected by Xixian soldiers. Even if the worst happened the ancient laws would be observed; the Falcon Throne would not go unfilled.
But Prusus is a cripple, Vash thought. A drooling lackwit. Still, it was said that some of the previous autarchs, especially those who reigned before the Ninth Year War, had not been much better. Tradition was what mattered. The scotarch would only rule until the council of noble families met and a new autarch was approved. Sulepis had several sons by several mothers. The line would not die.
The paramount minister was startled out of these gloomy thoughts by a stirring in the crowd. The Golden One’s procession had reached the outer gates of Gremos Pitra and a party of armed soldiers stood waiting for them. Vash hurried forward as fast as his aching legs would carry him. The autarch could not speak directly to underlings. Surely things were not as topsy-turvy as that— not yet, in any case.
“I am Niccol Opanour, gate- herald of Gremos Pitra and of his majesty, Hesper, king of Jellon and Jael,” said the leader of the soldiers, a fox- faced man with a short beard and the look of a good gambler. “State your business with King Hesper and his court.”
“Business?” Vash had been carefully schooled by the autarch in what to say. “Surely a great king like Sulepis needs no petty excuse to stop and greet a fellow monarch? We bring your master gifts from the south— a gesture of goodwill. You would not make my monarch stand in the road like a tradesman, would you? You can see we come with no soldiers. We are at Hesper’s mercy.”
Which, as most of the other kings of this northern continent could attest, was as much as to say “hopeless.” Hesper was only merciful for gain, a friend to other rulers only when it suited him, and everyone knew it.
Gate-herald Opanour frowned. “I mean your king no disrespect, but we were not told to expect this. We are not prepared. As it happens, King Hesper is . . . unwell.”
“That is a pity,” said Vash. “However, I feel certain that the gifts we bring him will cheer him somewhat.” He hadn’t spoke the Hierosoline tongue of the north in a long time, and was pleased to discover its subtleties hadn’t entirely escaped him. He beckoned forward one of the sweating bearer slaves, then swept away the top of the man’s basket. “See the generosity of Xis.”
The handful of soldiers leaned forward in their saddles and their eyes grew round as they saw the gold and gems that filled the basket.
“That . . . this is most impressive,” the gate- herald said. “But we must still ask our king for his permission . . .”
The autarch himself suddenly stepped forward, making the carpetslaves scurry to get another length of cloth-of-gold in front of him before his sandaled foot touched bare ground (which would reputedly cause the world itself to totter and collapse). The horses of the Jellonian soldiers shied away as though Sulepis was a kind of creature they had never seen before— as in fact he was, Vash thought: he was beginning to think the world had never seen anything quite like his master.
“Please say one thing to these men of Jellon for us, Paramount Minister,” Sulepis said in Hierosoline. His voice seemed pitched softly, but it carried a long distance. “Remind them that even a benevolent king has limits. We have a warship full of long guns just outside the harbor, and several more will arrive by tonight.” Sulepis smiled at the Jellonians and folded his arms across his breast, his golden armor clinking gently. “We come in peace, yes, but we would hate to see the spark of suspicion start a fire that would be hard to put out.”
It was quickly decided that one of the soldiers should ride back to the palace to inform Hesper and the court that the autarch was coming.
The palace of Gremos Pitra was perched on a clifftop above the harbor, but in the years of peace the steep, narrow old path leading to it had been rebuilt into a series of wide, gentle switchbacks. Even Vash, old and sore as he was, did not find it too agonizing to climb from the harbor to the palace gates, but he still could not understand why so much time was being spent in such an odd exercise.
The gates swung open as they approached and the full panoply of Hesper’s power appeared, guards on every parapet and a hundred more on either side of the entrance. The autarch walked serenely past them as though they were his own loyal subjects, looking neither to the left nor the right and walking in a measured but not overly slow pace so that the carpet slaves had to scurry to stay ahead of him. The procession crossed a formal courtyard rapidly filling with Jellonian courtiers and servants, those in back standing on tiptoe or trampling the hedges in their determination to get a view of the infamous Mad Autarch of Xis.
Many of the Jellonian troops filed into the great hall behind the parade of basket- hauling slaves, so that the autarch’s party was hemmed in on all sides by armed soldiers wearing ceremonial green tabards bearing the blue rooster and golden rings of Hesper’s Jaelian clan. The king’s tall, canopied chair stood at the far end of the high- ceilinged room, surrounded by dozens of courtiers gaping at the new arrivals, too fascinated even to whisper among themselves. Vash squinted— it was a long room— trying to make out the small figure slumped in the huge covered chair, which looked more like a sack of clothes to be washed than a man. As the herald had suggested the king of Jellon looked old and ill, his skin pale, his eyes blue-ringed and sunken. He was dressed all in white, which had the unfortunate effect of making him appear to be a corpse wrapped in its burial shroud.
Sulepis strode toward him, the carpet slaves hurrying to prepare the way, and then stopped a few yards from the steps leading up to the chair. Vash thought his master might become angry at being forced to stand beneath a less powerful monarch, but if he was, the autarch showed no sign of it. The Jellonian guards fidgeted nervously with their weapons, but their ruler held up a shaking hand.
“So,” Hesper said hoarsely, “the much feared Emperor of the South. You are younger than I supposed, sir. What do you want?”
“I am told you are not well,” Sulepis said in a simple and matter-of-fact tone. “It is kind of you to rouse yourself to meet me.”
“Kind?” Hesper straightened up a little. “You threatened me with your warships if I would not see you. Do not be absurd.” His voice, which should have been forceful, had been robbed by his weakness of all but petulance. Still, Vash could see that he had once been a formidable man.
“Perhaps you are right,” said Sulepis. “Perhaps we should put away our masks. I did not come only to give you gifts— although they are very fine gifts indeed.” He waved his golden fingers toward the slaves, who still held their baskets high on their shoulders, as though the f loor of the throne room were too dirty a place to set such down valuable objects. “But also to tell you that I am displeased with you.”
“Displeased with me?” Hesper shook his head irritably. Vash could not stop looking at the man. The king of Jellon was not even sixty years old—much younger than Pinimmon Vash himself— but looked like he had lived a hundred years or more, and hard years at that. “Am I a child that I should care about such things? I am displeased that you disturb my rest. Say your piece and be gone.”
“You promised me something, Hesper.” The autarch spoke with the stern but loving tone of a disappointed father. “You had something I wanted— something I specifically asked you to acquire for me— but you sold it to someone else instead.”
The courtiers began to murmur. Even without knowing what his master intended, Vash guessed they would have much more to wonder about before too long.
“What are you babbling about?” Hesper demanded, but he had the look of a guilty man caught in a lie.
“But you see,” Sulepis said, “I have obtained it despite you.” He clapped his hands and his guards pushed King Olin forward. The courtiers murmured more loudly, but it was clear most of them did not recognize the ruler of the March Kingdoms.
“What . . . what . . . ?” Hesper stuttered. “What foolishness is this . . . ?”
“I think the one who promises something to me and then does not keep his bargain is the foolish one,” Sulepis said calmly. “I told you I wanted Olin of Southmarch. I gave you gold to show my goodwill. You kept my gold, Hesper, and then you sold Olin to Ludis of Hierosol. That is not the way to make me look kindly on you.”
Vash was beginning to feel truly frightened. Hesper might be old and ill, and Sulepis might have warships outside the harbor, but at the moment the Xixians were surrounded by armed enemies and the harbor was a mile away. Why was Sulepis provoking a confrontation? Had he taken the idea of his own godhood too seriously? Did he honestly think that the Jellonians would not dare to touch him, let alone hack him to pieces where he stood? Perhaps the autarch believed that these northerners were like his own people, bred with a hundred generations of reverence for their god-king.
“Well, King Olin?” Sulepis certainly appeared as comfortable as if he stood in his own throne room surrounded by worshipful subjects and his own Leopard guards. “Have you nothing to say to your betrayer now that you stand before him at last? This is the man who took you from your family and sold you like the merest beast.” Olin looked from Sulepis to Hesper, then cast his eyes down again. “I have nothing to say. I am a prisoner. I am not here of my own will.”
Hesper tried to stand but could not, and subsided gasping into the huge chair. He pointed at the autarch. “Do you think to humiliate me in front of my own subjects? You may rule a million blacks, but here in Jellon you are nothing but a fool dressed like a golden peacock. You pushed yourself upon me. You are no guest and I owe you no safety.” He tried to say something else, but a long spasm of coughing prevented him. When he could again speak, his voice rasped like a loose cart wheel. “I do not know whether to ransom you or simply do away with you.”
“All will proceed as heaven plans it,” the autarch said, smiling. “Olin, are you certain you have nothing else to say? I have given you a chance to confront your enemy.”
Vash was feeling a terrible pressure in his bladder and his heart was beating so fast he feared he would swoon in front of all these foreigners.
“Hesper has done me wrong,” said Olin, “but it is you who brought me here like one of your tribute baskets— something to show off your wealth and power. I will not play your game, Sulepis.”
“Enough,” said Hesper, and coughed again. “I . . . I have . . .”
“It is too bad you do not understand all I am doing for you, Olin,” said the autarch. “Lifting you from an ignoble fate to the most heroic end there could be. And this as well . . .” He turned back toward the throne. “Hesper, you have been ill a long time, I think— almost a year, I would guess. It began when you passed Olin to Ludis Drakava, did it not?”
Hesper’s eyes bulged with pain and frustration as he tried to stop coughing. A little spray of red decorated his white robes. One of his servants stepped forward with a cup but Hesper waved him off. “Ill, yes,” Hesper said at last in a breathy whisper. “And deserted in my need by that whore I had smiled upon and lifted up from nothing. Betrayed me, she did— left me for that cur Enander!” He paused then and looked around, as confused as though he had just woken up. A moment later he blinked and wiped red spittle from his chin. “It matters not,” he said. “But I will live long enough to see you sent screaming down to hell, Xandian.”
“You still do not understand, do you?” Sulepis smiled. “You are dying, Hesper, because you have been poisoned— I reached out all the way from Xand to accomplish it.” He grinned, which only made him look more predatory. “You see, it is worse than you thought. Not only did Ananka leave you, she took my gold and poured death into your cup before she went.” The autarch ignored the gasps and cries of the Jellonian courtiers as he turned from the wheezing, pop-eyed king of Jellon back to Olin. “Now you see how you have been avenged,” he told his prisoner. “And King Hesper learns the price of betraying a living god.”
Hesper recovered enough breath to f lail his hand toward Sulepis and shout, “Guards!” but even as the first of the soldiers stepped forward— more hesitantly than Vash would have expected for men facing unarmed slaves— the autarch raised his hand high and they all stopped as though Sulepis were their king instead of blood-drooling Hesper.
“But wait!” the autarch cried and then began to laugh, a sound so strange and unexpected that even the armored soldiers f linched. “You still have not seen the gifts I bring!” Sulepis f licked his fingers. The bearers lifted their baskets high above their heads and dashed them on the f loor. Gold and jewels spilled out onto the tiles, but not only treasure: from each broken basket a cloud of black wasps rose like a moaning whirlwind, each wasp as big as a man’s thumb; a moment later, even as the screams began, hundreds of poisonous hood snakes crawled out of the ruined baskets as well. The snakes immediately slithered off in all directions, striking at anything that moved including many of the helpless bearer slaves. Already the great hall was a chaos of shrieking courtiers and servants struggling to escape. Many held their hands over their faces to defend against the wasps only to stumble into a tangle of serpents and fall screaming to the f loor, where they thrashed helplessly until the creatures’ venom silenced them at last.
Vash was too astounded to do anything but stare at the horror around him, but wasps were snapping past him like sling stones and the first of the angry snakes had almost reached the place where he cringed by the autarch’s side.
“A’lat!” called Sulepis.
The dark- skinned priest stepped forward and raised his rattling serpent- staff, then rapped it on the f loor and shouted something Vash could not make out. A moment later the air around the priest seemed to grow as shimmery as a heat-mirage, then the strange blur stretched out and swallowed up the autarch and Vash and Olin Eddon and the guards as well.
It was like being covered by fog: Vash could still see the jerking, staggering shapes of courtiers and soldiers but the had become remote and hard to make out, like shadow puppets held too far from the screen. Still, the priest’s spell, if that was what it was, had done nothing to diminish the sounds in the great hall, which only became worse as the gurgles and groans of the dying began to supplant the screams of the living still struggling to escape.
“A’lat,” said the autarch, “I believe some smoke would add to the scene and make our exit even more impressive.” He spoke as calmly as if he were deciding what kind of trees should be planted in the gardens of the Orchard Palace. “Vash, it will be rather confusing when we go out—please remind the carpet slaves that they must pay close attention.”
Vash could only watch, slack- jawed with amazement, as the dark priest A’lat lifted a round object the size of a small cannonball and rubbed it with his hands while singing a few quiet words until the ball began to billow persimmon-colored smoke. The priest rolled it across the f loor toward the doorway leading out of the great hall, then the autarch and his carpet slaves stepped after it.
The door to the courtyard was open and the garden itself was littered with bodies, some moaning and twitching, some silent. Some of the courtiers had even gone so far as to climb trees to escape the hood snakes, and could be seen clinging to branches with one hand while they tried to swat away angry wasps with the other, but their screams and the corpses lying at the base of some of the trees with shiny black insects still walking on their faces told a tale of futility, even through the blur of the priest’s spell. The magical fog seemed cover the autarch wherever he went, like the royal awning slaves held over him on particularly hot days. The Jellonian guards still trying to reach the throne room and protect their own monarch rushed past the little procession as though they could not see it.
Vash had seen hood snakes before, although never in such numbers, but he had never seen anything like the huge wasps, creatures that seemed to have no other desire than to sting anything that moved and keep stinging it until motion ceased. Even in the midst of such madness and death he could not help wondering where they came from.
When they reached the gate, Sulepis told the priest, “More smoke, I think. It will serve to distract the multitude.” The autarch then waited calmly as his guards winched open the massive portcullis and unbolted the outer door. A’lat rubbed another of his smoke- fruits into life and held it in his hand as he led Sulepis and the hustling carpet bearers out through the palace gate. The people who had lined the road before had lost all order and were now blocking the autarch’s passage.
A’lat ignited a second smoke ball and held one high in each hand. The Jellonians shrank back, crying out in fear and amazement. Sulepis raised his hands.
“The great god of fire has destroyed your wicked king!” he shouted and some in the crowd cried out, while others fell into murmuring, confused talk. “He has sent doom down on Hesper from heaven itself— stinging insects, fierce serpents, lions, and dragons! Run! Run and you may yet be saved!”
Even as the Jellonians stared, some drawing away but some starting forward in anger and distrust, the first swarm of wasps issued from the open gate of the palace, f lew past the autarch and his party as if they were not even there, and fell upon the nearest of the people in the road like a cloud of death. The screeching of these victims set many of the others running, and a moment later a dozen huge snakes wriggled out of the gate into the sunlight and the crowd dissolved into mindless terror just as the courtiers inside had done. The autarch’s party walked down the road toward the harbor, the carpet slaves scuttling back and forth to keep the golden path always stretching before their master.
“Lions and dragons?” Vash looked around worriedly.
“The tale of what happened here will grow in the telling,” the autarch said. “I merely add a few details to make the eventual history richer.”
Olin Eddon had the bloodless look of a man living a nightmare, and staggered a little as he walked. His guards moved closer to help keep him upright.
“Is Hesper dead?” Vash asked.
“Ah, I hope it is not so.” Sulepis shook his head. “I would like to think he will pass his last month or so before the poison kills him dwelling on what it means to cheat me and knowing that I will come back at my leisure and devour his little country like a sweetmeat.” He paused and turned to gaze back at Gremos Pitra, an expression of great serenity on his long face. “After this, the people of Jellon will crawl to me on the day I return. They will beg to become slaves of Xis.”
“Not everyone in the north will beg to become slaves,” Olin said darkly.
“You may find that many would rather die than bend their knees to you.”
“That too can be arranged,” the autarch told him. “Now come, all of you— step lively. It has been a busy morning and your god-king is hungry.”
Qinnitan was still reeling when the nameless man dragged her out into the sunlight and began to lead her across the docks. Poor Pigeon limped beside them, his hand dripping blood through the makeshift bandage, his little face emptied by the shock of what had happened.
How could it be? How could all she had suffered and survived have given them only that few moments of freedom Were the gods utterly evil?
Spare us, great Nushash, she prayed. I was a priestess in your sacred Hive. I have only tried to do what was right. Heavenly bees, protect us!
But there were no bees, only smoke and f lecks of burning sail wafting on the wind. The ship that had brought them here was all but gone, only a bit of its burning forecastle still above water, the mast long since burned black and collapsed. Hundreds of people crowded the waterfront, shouting bits of the story to each other, staring as survivors were pulled from the water by men in small boats.
Some of them were innocent sailors, she thought suddenly, like the men on Dorza’s ship. Some of them might have been good men. Dead because of me . . .
It did no good to think about it— no good to think about anything. She was being taken to an unimaginable punishment at the hands of the autarch and her only hope of escape had proved futile. Even if she were to dive into the water, this nameless, relentless killer would only dive in and pull her back out again. Perhaps if she swallowed as much water as she could . . .
But that would leave Pigeon alone, she realized. This monster would give him to the autarch to be tortured . . . killed. . .
Suddenly a horrifying pain stabbed at Qinnitan’s arm. She shrieked and staggered a step or two, then fell to her knees. For a moment she thought her captor had grabbed her elbow and broken it, but he was on the other side, holding the other arm. He tried to yank her back upright, but her limbs were as limp and boneless as wet string.
Blackness swam before her eyes and she hung her head, thinking she might vomit. The pain in her arm was growing fiercer, as if a sliver of the burning ship had been driven into her like a nail into soft wood, as if the joint in her arm were being carved with a sharp knife.
“Gods! Stop this!” she cried, or thought she did, but she was tumbling down into blackness and could not be certain of anything any more. Shadows moved around her, eyeless things murmuring words she could barely hear.
“Tears . . .” whispered one.
“Spittle . . .” said another.
“Blood . . .” quavered a third in a voice so low she could scarcely make it out.
Her arm burned as if the bone had become a white- hot poker. The darkness swung around her in a wild dance, and for a moment she saw the face of the red- haired boy . . . Barrick! . . . but he clearly did not see her, although she tried to call to him. Something covered him and kept her from him— a frozen waterfall, a cup of glass— and her words could not travel to him. Ice. Solid shadow. Separation . . .
Then the world wheeled back into place around her, the cry of seagulls and the shouts of people on every side snapping into place like the last piece of a wooden puzzle. The hard, gray planks of the dock were beneath her hands and knees. Somebody was pulling her roughly to her feet, but she was not ready and almost fell again; only the strength of that powerful, iron-hard arm held her upright. The pain in her own arm was fading but she was still breathless with its memory.
“What are you playing at?” her captor, the nameless man, shook her hard. He looked around as though someone might notice, but no one on he dock was near enough to hear, even if they would have cared. We must look like a father with two willful children, she thought. Behaving badly.
Something struck her then— not more pain, but a realization: if shecontinued to walk this path there was no hope. She could feel it, feel things closing in, possibilities withering, so that only death stood at the end of the road— death and something more, something worse. It’s waiting, she realized, although she did not know what it was. Something hungry, that was all she knew for certain, and it was waiting for her in the darkness at the end of her journey.
Qinnitan regained her balance and waited until the man took his hand off her to grab at Pigeon, then she turned and ran as fast her unsteady legs would carry her, straight toward the edge of the dock, not slowing even at a shout from her captor. The planks were wet and she almost slipped and tumbled into the water, but managed to stop herself by grabbing at a post. She held onto it, swaying, then raised her hand as the man began to walk toward her, dragging Pigeon behind him.
“No!” she said with as much strength as she could muster, the word a harsh croak in her sea- roughened throat. “No. If you take another step before you hear me out, I’ll throw myself in. I’ll swim for the bottom and drink in so much ocean I’ll be dead before you reach me.”
He paused, the look of rage on his unexceptional face changing to something else, something colder and more calculating.
“I know I can’t get away from you,” she said. “Let the boy go and I’ll do what you want. Try to bring him along and I’ll kill myself and you can take my body to the autarch instead.”
“I make no bargains,” said the nameless man.
“Pigeon, run away!” Qinnitan shouted. “Go on, run. He won’t come after you. Run far away and hide.”
The boy only stared at her, the shock of his injuries changing into something much more heartbreaking. The man still held his wrist. Pigeon shook his head.
“Go!” she said. “Otherwise he’ll only keep hurting you to make me do what he wants. Run away!”
The nameless man looked from the boy to her. He bent and picked up a piece of coarse rope that lay in haphazard exhausted snake. “Tie one end around your waist and I will let the boy go.” He f lipped a coil of the rope toward her.
“Pigeon, move back,” she said as she bent to pick it up, but the boy only stared at her, his face full of helpless misery. “Move back!” She turned to the man. “When he is at the edge of the dock by those steps, I’ll tie it around my waist. I swear as an acolyte of the Hives of Nushash.”
The man actually laughed, a harsh rasp of amusement. Something was different about him, she realized for the first time— something odd, as though he had lost a bit of his stony outer armor. He was still terrifying, though.
The man nodded. “Go ahead, then.” He called over his shoulder to Pigeon. “Run, child. Once I see that rope tied, if you are still on the dock I will cut off the rest of your fingers.”
Pigeon shook his head again, violently, but Qinnitan thought it was less in negation than in desperation. “Go away!” she shouted. A few people at the other end of the dock turned, their attention finally distracted from the fire in the harbor. “I cannot live with your suffering, Pigeon. Please— it’s the best thing you can do for me. Go!”
The boy hesitated half a dozen heartbeats longer, then burst into tears and turned and ran away across the broad dock, his bare feet banging on the planks. Qinnitan considered throwing herself into the cold green water again, but whether it was the horror of nearly drowning earlier or the feeling that she had somehow changed what lay before her, if only a little, she tied the rope around her waist and then let herself be pulled toward the nameless man. Pigeon, she was relieved to see, was no longer in sight.
The only person left in this world who loved me, she thought. Gone now.
Qinnitan let the man lead her off like an animal going to holy sacrifice, away from the sparking chaos of the harbor and back into the shadowed alleys that ran between the narrow buildings clustered beside the docks of Agamid.