Skander: city of exiles, assassins, plotters and panders and whores. City of poets, of lovers, of embassies, liars of every hue.
Skander sits on every man’s horizon. I gazed at it in contempt, where it lay off the starboard rail like a smear of lit charcoal spilled at the sea’s edge; I called for greater effort on the oars. These tideless waters had nothing to offer. Our own work would bring us in, see our task complete and take us home again. Untainted, if we were hard and fast.
Rulf had sent us, standing raucous above the coffin in his high rede-hall. That was a memory for me to cling to, appalling and wonderful: torchlight on silver, shadow on bone. Rulf—Lord of the Seamarch, Kingslayer, the Iron Hand—weeping into his beard, roaring for mead, rejoicing and cursing and lamenting this death above any, that had left him with no enemies worth the name.
The coffin had come by way of many hands and many holds, fetched in at last with a shipload of Rothland horses, breeding mares that had waited out the winter storms in Landrëas. Rulf had a fancy to be Lord of Horses too, to ride and rule inland as he did the coastal waters. It was madness, and so I told him—which might perhaps be a reason why he screamed my name above the coffin.
“Croft is dead,” he said, thrusting a torch into the dark casket to make it evident. “Take ship to Skander, and bring me back the boy.”
This was almost more stupid than his notion of turning sea-harriers into horsemen. I said, “How can you know this is Croft? All I see is bones.” Bones with the meat boiled off them, ingeniously wired together in the figure of a man.
“Bones and hair,” he said, showing me the long plait he had snatched up. It was coarse, blond gone to white: it might have been Croft’s. Or mine, or his own. Any northman’s.
“His name is on the lid,” he said. It was: in silver inlay in a strange corrupt southern reading of our own strong runes, as though it spelled the name out with a lisp.
“Anyone can write on a box and put bones in it.”
“And then ship it two thousand miles? Why would they?”
“To make you believe, of course, that Croft was dead.”
“But he is,” Rulf said simply, wafting his torch again. “He is here.”
“You cannot know that.”
“And yet I do. See his legs?”
I saw what he showed me, as he lowered the torch: how twisted the leg-bones were, how they had been shattered and brutally mis-healed.
“I did that,” he said, as if I hadn’t known it, hadn’t been there. “These are the ways, the places where I had the bones broken and then tied up so they would set so bent he could never stand or walk again. Three months he screamed in the cesspit, before I was sure they were beyond any man’s doctoring.”
I remembered. All summer Croft lay in shit, and made sure that we all lay in the sounds of his pain and loss. I had thought that almost Croft’s victory, rather than Rulf’s.
And then he had been washed and dressed—in a woman’s skirt, because those dreadful legs would never wear trousers again—and set in a skiff with the boy for deckhand and servant, and he had sailed into the sun’s setting on his way to exile and death.
Eventual death. It had been twenty years before his twisted bones came back to us.
I said, “Why do you want the boy back now?”
“Harlan, I have no heir. They tell me it is the gods’ curse on my blood, for what I did to the old king his father. What I took from him. Some of that, at least, I can restore.”
“He will claim the kingship.”
“He is welcome to it, when I’m gone. I can adopt him, train him, make him a better man than Barent ever was.”
“Rulf, you gave him to Croft. He will have been trained already, to despise you and all of yours. Will you make a gift of yourself, to a young man who is right to hate you?”
He shrugged ruefully, confused perhaps by his own sudden penitence. “Harlan. Fetch him back.”
At least the voyage home would let me see what kind of man Croft had made of him. If I judged it needful, I would keep him in chains and be sure at least that Rulf had to make his own mistakes.
We were two months abroad before we sighted Skander, a smudge of smoke in the east as we lost the sun, a sullen glow in the dark to guide us. Any other port on any other water, we would have held off for a daylight tide. Skander has no tides to wait for; and besides, I ached to be swift, in and out.
In, then, slow and steady on the oars, all sail furled. I was a windmaster and we had barely rowed all journey, but these were strange waters and this my own ship beneath me, manned on Rulf’s gold and charged with his mission. I would be twice a fool to take a risk with her.
In fact we could have sailed right to the lamplit wharf and never scraped a rock nor jarred a timber; Skander’s harbor is as deep and clean as legend paints it. We’d know, when it came time to be leaving. A man old enough to have grown wise always keeps it in his head, that he may be leaving swiftly.
That same old wise man knows it’s good to come in slow and quiet. To seem tamer than you are.
I was old enough, even in my own eyes. I dragged my own long reputation like a twilight shadow at my back, but still: it had been a dreary voyage and the crew had seen every year of my age tell on me as we came. I was tired already, hungry only to go home. They were a pack of wolves at my oars, and I feared loosing them in the city. Any city, but Skander more than any: its reputation was longer, louder, lewder than my own.
I said, “The streets are full of lights. That’s not a welcome, it’s a warning. Stay close to each other, if you won’t stay close to me. Keep away from shadows, keep watch on your bench-mates; keep out of trouble, because there will be no rescue here.”
They had never looked for rescue in their lives. There was pity in their eyes, pity and contempt. Had I really fallen so far from my strength that I saw danger in an effete entrepôt where men and women alike dealt in silks and whispers, in smokes and perfumes and each other?
Even as we sidled up to moor, I thought I would be leaving half those men behind. Dead or enslaved, drunk or bewitched or carried off.
Well, they were free men—for now—and few of them truly my own. So long as I had hands enough, I would be leaving as soon as I had the boy. If necessary I could buy oarsmen at market, although I’d hate to do it. Slaves taint a ship’s heart, and make a mock-man of her captain. I stared down the Skopje’s length and prayed to see enough of those faces back here in a day, two days.
And then my good ship bumped against the wharf, and there were small slim figures waiting for ropes and high shrill voices crying welcome, asking how they could serve us, what we might require. Whatever we might desire. Information, temptation: before one of us so much as set boot ashore, the bargaining had begun.
My own boots were first, as was my right and duty. I leaped over the rail and landed two-footed and emphatic on the wharf.
I don’t rightly know what I was stamping against: a snake’s welcome, a hissing from the shadows? That was surely how I saw the city: as a nest of serpents all knotted together, spies and assassins and traitors in exile from a dozen different lands, poison and sorcery no doubt their weapons of first resort. Cowards and schemers all.
My head is a slow, dull thing. In my own country they call me Harlan the Wily, expressly because I am not. Rulf should never have sent me to Skander. He should have known, not to do that.
A voice hailed me; a woman stepped forward.
Smaller than me, but if she was smaller than the normal run of men, it was not by much. She carried herself with straightforward authority, and I liked that even as I was surprised by it, where I was looking for insinuation and duplicity.
“Are you the master of this vessel?”
“Your name and origin?”
“Harlan, of Sawartsland; emissary of Rulf my king.” I should perhaps not have said that, but I didn’t even carry trade goods to disguise my mission. I have said it: I was not the man for this.
“I am Dzuria, harbormaster here. My people will see to yours, and to your ship’s comfort. You come with me, and tell me of your embassy.”
“I will tell that to the prince of the city. There is a prince, I think?”
Her mouth quirked. “There are many princes in Iskandria, none interested in any tale but their own. Of course you must take your tale to the palace, but the chancellor’s is the ear you want.”
I sighed. “At home, if a man wants the ear of Rulf King, he walks into the rede-hall and bellows for him. I do understand that matters are arranged differently elsewhere.”
She said, “In this city, truly, your best first step towards the chancellor’s ear is through mine.”
It was elegantly done. She cut me out from my crew and penned me alone, as she had intended from the first. My own intent, to use my king’s name here the way I had used my axe and shield elsewhere, a brute swift way to the top—that was neglected early, abandoned swiftly, forgotten soon.
How much help I could truly expect from a harbormaster, I had no way to measure. In my world, harbormasters berthed ships and tallied cargoes, charged for wharfage and warehousing, their heads full of cables and weights and manifests.
They might have comfort in their offices, but not like this. She brought me to a chamber swathed in damask and lamplight, soft cushions and soft-voiced children who fetched sweet juice and fiery spirit, nutmeats and pastries, offers of anything more.
I batted them away with thanks and refusals. They smiled and shrugged, settled in the perfumed shadows in the corners of the room, watched me and their mistress both with a scrupulous, indefatigable care.
“Shouldn’t they be in bed?” I grunted.
“Undoubtedly. Would you care to send them? I wish you joy of the attempt.”
At least she didn’t say take them. Even so, I was not inclined to be generous. I said, “You call yourself the harbormaster; these speak to me more of a slavemaster.”
“Indeed. Do you not take and keep and trade slaves, in Sawartsland?”
“We do, yes; but—”
“Not children, would you say?”
“Oh, children too, but not like this,” scented and silk-clad and complaisant. The youngsters I bought or bred in my own house worked their share, just as my own children had, as my grandchildren did now. And fed from the same plates, ripped the same clothes ragged, rioted as much and were beaten for it side by side; and slept safe in a puppy tumble, free and slave together.
“I am sure not. There are none like these. Don’t let their seductive ways deceive you. Some of our princes-in-exile, yes, they keep children for their bodies, for their beds; but these?” She stretched out a long arm to tug at the artfully tangled hair of one ingratiating imp that I took—not quite certainly—for a girl. “If you took one of these to bed, you would wake up sorry. If you woke at all. They are heartless, entirely without compunction, because that is how I raise them. Their perfumes and fancies are stolen, from any ship careless enough to let them aboard. Once goods are landed they are safe, because then they fall under my regard, but anything on shipboard is fair game. So is the crew.”
“Do I need to warn my men?”
“If a man needs warning against such as these, he should perhaps have stayed at home.”
Indeed; but we had Rulf’s order at our backs, heavy as a blade and just as imperative. Staying home had never been an option.
I said, “Where do you find these dangerous children?”
“In the alleys, on the wharfs, some of them. Most I buy. And sell again, when I can find them places. It’s the only way to keep them from the thiefmasters and the beggar kings. And the palace. Besides,” reaching out again, touching the smooth cheek of an adolescent boy as he refilled her goblet, “how else would I manage my harbor? I can hire men to do the heavy work, but these are my rat-catchers and bead-counters, my watchers and messengers. As you have observed, they never go to bed when they’re supposed to. If you are my friend, you need not worry for your purse or your safety or your ship, while you are here.”
“I hope I am your friend,” I said, with enough urgency to raise smiles in the shadows.
“Good. I hope it too; it means I can be a friend to you. Tell me of your embassy.”
I said, “When my king took the throne twenty years ago, the man he took it from had a son, a boy of fifteen. Rulf sent the boy into exile, sooner than see him as dead as his father.”
“He sent him here, you mean, to Iskandria.”
“Of course. Where else? In company with his father’s warhammer, Croft, the finest fighter and the worst picker of us all, who chose to support the old king when all his friends had turned the other way. Rulf... punished him, but would not kill him. Which was perhaps a mistake. Rulf has spent twenty years being wary of the world and never quite comfortable in his chair. But Croft is dead, and Rulf hopes the boy will come back now to make a son for his side and an heir for his back.”
“Not so much a boy now, if he was fifteen then.”
“They are all boys, when they stay so much younger than we are. You know.” There was grey and white in the dark woven pattern of her hair; she was younger than me, but not so much as it would matter. “If you were here then, you would remember: a boy, tall and slim and flaxen-haired, not yet come into his strength. And a cripple, a big man who would not be walking, who could not leave the boat without help. A small boat, and just the two of them to crew it.”
She said, “Oh, I was here. I have always been here. But a cripple and a boy, in a small boat, this far? That sounds... ambitious.”
“We are good sailors.” Even crippled, even ungrown.
“Even so. There are storms, there are pirates. There is simple bad fortune, and they would seem not to be rich in anything else.”
“Indeed—but we know they did come. At least, we know that Croft did. His bones came back to us.” And someone had to send them, with knowledge and purpose both.
“Yes. If it was the cripple you were seeking, it should be Fenner that you spoke to. A boy, though, a prince in exile—well, we have a city full of those. You will have to go to the palace.”
“Fenner? Who is that?”
“He is—no, he was one of those I saved my children from. A beggar king, for a while. He matters more these days, but he is still cripple-king in this city. He knows all the lame and all the lacking.”
“It’s good, no doubt, that they have a friend with influence,” but Croft was dead, and it was the boy I sought.
“I didn’t say he was their friend. He buys and sells, he deals in flesh as much as he ever did, only from a more exalted position now. We used to call him Fenner the Helpless, because he never needed any help. He would have known your Croft, and where to find him. If you want your boy, though, ask at the palace.”
I grunted, nodded, sighed. Not the man for this.
“Meantime,” she said, “rest while you can. Palace days start early, and run long.”
One of her watchful children—this one a girl, close enough to a young woman that I’d have been watchful myself if she were mine—took a lamp and led me to another room of cushioned comfort. I ought to have asked where my crew had gone, where I might hope to find them. But I was tired, and ashore, and frankly weary of them; and interested in bed, a lot, and in the girl a little, because her mistress interested me greatly.
“Will Dzuria really sell you to another house?”
The girl gave me a quick smile. “Of course. Soon now, I think. How else would she afford new little children? Being harbormaster does not make her wealthy.”
Which was as good as to say that she was an honest harbormaster, but I had gathered that already. She was probably an honest slavetrader too. I said, “Don’t you mind?”—but the true question was why don’t you mind?
If anything, she seemed amused by my naivety. “This is Xandrian. Here, everyone belongs to someone else. And Dzuria will sell me somewhere I can be happy, to someone who will be happy to have me. Why should I mind?”
I shrugged, and sat on the bed. My boots looked a terrible long way away. I thrust my legs out hopefully, and said, “You mean you trust her.”
“Of course. She has fed me and dressed me, washed me and doctored me, taught me to run with others and to run alone—how could I not trust her?”
She hauled with a will at one boot and then the other. I thanked her heartily and reached for my purse.
“Not in this house,” she said, frowning mightily. “We don’t take money from our friends.”
Then she scudded swiftly out of the room, and it took me a moment too long to realize she had taken my boots with her.
Waking slowly, stiffly in an unaccustomed bed after a long sea-voyage: there was nothing unusual in that.
What was unusual was to find myself alone, and depressingly glad of it. It gave me the chance to move slowly, to groan aloud as I stretched, as every joint ached, as vicious age stabbed me mockingly in one hip and numbed a foot entirely.
I cursed, and stamped until some hint of feeling came back. The stamping only hurt me more, which only made me curse more, which left me all the more embarrassed when I looked around for clothes and found a boy, a small boy squatting in the corner.
I stood quiet, breathing hard, under the grave weight of his stare. I knew what he was seeing—a particolored giant, wind-burned at face and arms and throat, pale elsewhere and seamed with scars—and I understood the fascination.
He said, “My name is Salumehramahin, and I am yours until you no longer need me.” Then he looked me deliberately up and down one more time and added, “You will need me for a long time, I think.”
“Dzuria sent you, I take it?”
His dress was shabby and painfully white; I liked that better than the slippery silks of last night. At least he looked like a servant, not a whore.
“Say your name again?”
“Salumehramahin,” he said, flashing a smile as white as his cottons.
“What do your friends call you?”
“Where do I find breakfast, Ramin?”
“I could bring it to you.”
“No, bring me to it: somewhere between this room and the palace, which is where I have to go now.”
He shook his head ruefully. “You should have been there earlier than this.”
Then he dressed me like himself, in a long loose shirt and baggy trousers, and offered me sandals that he said were the largest he could find in all the warehouses of Skander wharf. He said they would be too small. Which, yes, they were.
I have worn less, in my time. And been led by the hand in stranger, darker places, to worse meals and worse days too, though rarely so frustrating.
I broke my fast—and the boy’s, at my expense, naturally—on flatbreads filled with a hot spice paste, standing on a street corner. Afterwards I washed grease from my face and fingers at the public fountain, thought briefly and enchantingly of the notorious baths of Skander—and set my jaw resolutely against asking the way. I was for the palace, sea-scoured as I was. In and out, as swift as might be.
Ramin led me through winding alleys and shadowed arcades, with never a glimpse of our purpose until suddenly we came out into the light and there it was, four-square in front of us.
They call it a palace—the palace, as though this were the principality of the world—but in truth it is nothing so singular. There isn’t even a wall, to mark it off from the common city. The first building of authority is set openly on a public square; everything else has been added where it might be, behind and to the sides and running away out of sight.
That gateway building stands high and square, cut of local stone, as stern in its age as it must have been when it was new. Beyond lay a hundred unlikely structures, each one vying with its neighbors to be taller or broader or deeper, brighter or more imposing or more absurd. Some weary exiles built their pavilions to look like home, to teach their children where they came from; others seized the chance to shrug away tradition and build jubilant fantasies, faerie-castles that resembled nothing real in any city anywhere.
Some had built true castles, sullen fortresses that spoke of their fears: assassination, instability, uprising. I thought they should look around and find other things to fear. With five ships and a case of gold, I thought I could take this city entire. Except that I did not want it, and neither would my king. It’s always useful to have somewhere else in the world, a place that sits apart. Somewhere to send those enemies you’d sooner not quite kill.
And the children you dare not live with. Those too.
I looked down at the child who hung so persistently on my arm and tried to shake him off. And failed, of course; he was most earnest, tugging at me, “Come. There is a back way to the kitchens, I know a man there...”
I was sure he did. That was his Skander, and his experience: covert, insinuating, conditional. Not mine. “This is my way, my king’s way,” in through the front door to ask straightforwardly for what I wanted. Looking at me, they would see Rulf at my back, and all his ships behind him; they would not refuse me. In and out.
Little Ramin let go of me then, and put his hands firmly behind his back. “I cannot go in there.”
“Nor should you.”
“Nor should you,” emphatically. “Dzuria said—”
“Dzuria is your mistress, not mine.”
I straightened my shoulders and walked alone, under his diminutive skeptical gaze: up dry and gritty steps, between stout pillars, through an open door.
I was met with obsequious manners, with drinks and courteous conduct into one antechamber after another. Courteous to me, at least: they almost fought each other for the privilege of serving me, those big smooth rounded men. I was surprised that Skanderenes ran so large, until I remembered the native habit of the high-born in the matter of their officials. Cut young, a eunuch boy might grow and grow. This must be the consequence: this heavy, huge unmanning, this fatuous squabbling over the right to be subservient to strangers.
I sat and sweated in close confines, ate and drank what they brought me, demanded attention that did not come. I asked for the prince of the city, and was politely abandoned; I asked for the chancellor and was moved to another room and abandoned again. I wielded Dzuria’s name, and they might never have heard of her.
There were always other supplicants coming and going, seeking an audience, being disappointed. If all day I saw one person being led into the presence, I was not aware of it.
I did wait all day, in ever-fading hopes. And talked to my fellow-hopefuls, though none of them could offer hope. Some had waited weeks, one months. In and out looked like a fool’s dream suddenly. Tomorrow perhaps I’d come back with my blade and whoever I could find among my men, cause a rumpus, see what ruder manners might achieve.
Tonight, there was nothing to do but yield at last to brute implacability: court was closed, audiences were over, neither the prince nor the chancellor would see us now, we should all come back tomorrow...
I headed down towards the harbor and was unsurprised to find Ramin dancing attendance on me before I was halfway there, smugly certain. “You should have come with me, not wasted your time with silly pompous eunuchs.”
I wondered briefly how wise he was, to make such mock. For sure some of those same eunuchs had come to the palace by way of the slave markets; for a boy in need of a future, his mistress might deem that a reasonable road.
Over supper she said, “I’m sorry, I thought you understood. You should have gone with Ramin. The front door is hopeless. Even with the right bribe in the right hands, none of them will be seen to hurry. That might imply that money holds the power, not themselves.”
I growled, and wished again to show them other ways to hold power. A fist gripping a broadsword, a booted foot kicking in a door.
She said, “The palace is divided, half and half. The prince has time and no authority, while the chancellor has authority and no time. Both men train their staff to keep petitioners away, for entirely opposite reasons.”
I grunted. “How is anything brought to happen? Ever?”
“Oh, the city finds its way. All our business passes through the chancellor’s hands; just, not through the front door. Ramin will take you back tomorrow. Be warned, he will probably scold.”
“I don’t doubt it.” If he were mine—but nothing here was mine, except the Skopje. I wanted to step outside, simply to look at her. Wood and tar and canvas, pegs and ropes: I knew her absolutely and trusted her the same, and I could say that about nothing else in Skander. Not my crew, nor my new friends. Nor myself, even, or what I would do tomorrow.
Tonight—what would I do tonight? Drink, and listen to this woman.
Watch her, too. She had wit both ways, wisdom and humor; I would be happy just to listen. My eyes were still full of palace smoke, which made them sore and restless both at once, and I would be happy to close them and just listen. But then I would doze, I knew. The smoke had gone into my head and was numbing yet. So I kept my eyes open and my mind alert by dint of watching her. Her skin in the lamplight, how the lines were dressed in shadow like a web of softness laid over strength; her hair, that had been tempered and pinned close to her skull, was another heavy fall of shadow now. Her mouth was mobile, lightly mocking. Her eyes were steady, scrutinizing, always honest and so not always kind.
If I’d been younger, I might have made a grand gesture of a grand offer, the courtesy of my body for her night’s delight. She would have laughed me out of the door, I think, even if she had been a younger woman.
But then, if I had been a younger man, I would not have seen the value in her. There are advantages to the slow creep of age; there is recompense. Not everything rots at once.
When there was space, when there was a quiet fallen between us, I said that, or something like it.
Even older men can make fools of themselves. She smiled and told me to go to bed, and did I want a child to light me the way?
Come morning, true to her word, Ramin took me up through the city again. On our way I saw a sprawled heap in a gutter, a groaning sorry mess of a man I thought might have been one of my crew. Another day, I might have stopped—but he was Rulf’s man, not my own. One of the young bloods; let him bleed. If he was bleeding. The dark wet stain he lay in might be wine, or vomit; it might be piss. Truth? I didn’t care.
On another narrow street I saw a shaggy blond head lean out of an upper window. Again, I thought that was one of mine; and wished him well, as a man’s dark arm reached to draw him back inside. I liked the lad; indeed, I’d seduced him myself from his father’s farm, before bad land and bad luck had had the chance to sour him. Left to make my own choices, I chose well, on the whole. Rulf? Not so. He had been a lucky king, but he’d needed that, to offset his disasters.
Sometimes I was astonished that he’d ever won the throne at all, let alone held it for so long. That none of his wars had killed him, and none of his mistakes, and—particularly!—none of his friends.
That Croft had apparently never even tried to kill him, even from exile. Where were the Skanderene assassins? The city was famous for its dealings with death.
Perhaps Croft had had his bones poisoned, his hair soaked with bane. Perhaps Rulf was dying even now as he gloated and lamented over his fallen foe, as I chased about on his stupid, deadly errand here in Skander, here at Ramin’s heel. Here in the chancellor’s back yard, in his house, in his kitchens, where there was heat and sweat and hurry, loud voices, no time.
Ramin snared a servant, greeted him by name, said, “Where is the steward Cephos?”
And would have been answered with a backhand blow, except that I was there. I caught that blow before it landed, a hand’s span from his head; held it the way a cliff might hold a hurled stone, unmoving, undisturbed.
I said, “The steward Cephos?”
“Please, you will, you will find him in the storeroom, down that corridor,” a frantic flicker of his eyes to show me where.
I nodded graciously and released his wrist. Ramin ducked ahead, to where indeed a man was checking sacks.
“Cephos! I have been looking for you!”
That earned him a slap too swift for me to intercept, even if I’d been inclined to.
“Master Cephos to you, little brat. And I have been waiting for you; I had word from your mistress. Yesterday, I think.”
The blow was taken for granted; the unfairness of the rest reduced Ramin to spluttering incoherence. With a shrug, the steward turned to me. “You would be Harlan the Sawartsman?”
“I would. I need to speak to your chancellor.”
“Yes. Come with me.”
He took us through a side-door and into another world: a half-world rather, a hollow between the domestic quarters and the public rooms. Rulf’s rede-hall was a single vast and open space, where you had to work out for yourself who was king and who was carl, who lord, who stable-lad. Here the very shape and structure of the house separated servants from their masters. It was like walking within the skeleton of a great beast; within the walls ran a network of stairs and passages, narrow and awkward and secret as spies. Secret for the light-footed, at least, for the slender and flexible. Ramin was cat-quiet and cat-swift, the steward much the same. I knocked my head on low beams, stumbled over sudden steps, scraped my shoulders against both walls at once.
We passed a dozen doors before at last the steward unlatched one and beckoned us through. I straightened my poor cramped spine with a grunt of relief—and struck my head one more time, on something that swung away from the contact and then back to hit me again.
This time I didn’t even try to hold the oath back to a mutter. At my side, the steward flinched; behind me, Ramin giggled; ahead, someone laughed aloud.
I reached up to snare the rope-hung obstacle, a bar of polished wood like a ladder’s rung or a child’s swing. Just one of many; for a moment I thought we’d been brought into a spider’s lair, the room was festooned with so many ropes and bars. A spider with a sailor’s ken, knowing knots and bindings and how to rig a space so that no two ropes should tangle.
Beneath that web, two men: one standing, one lying on a couch under a coverlet of cloth-of-gold. Both pale, shaven-headed. I took them for eunuchs, one more layer of officialdom to be circumvented.
It was the older of the two, the man lying down, who had laughed. He was grinning still. Glowering at him, wondering if he was sick or indisposed, I saw how the coverlet lay flat where his legs ought to have been; his body ended abruptly, just a little below the hips.
Now I understood the ropes and rungs. He was broad-chested, vigorous despite his age, despite his pallor; no doubt he could pull himself around this webwork as handily as any sailor aloft. Handier, without his legs’ weight or the need for footing.
And he was grinning at me yet, waiting for something; and―
I was the king’s windmaster; the breeze comes at my calling. A gale, when I shout. I had learned long since not to shout withindoors, even in a hall. Even in Rulf’s great rede-hall. In that close space, that day—well, I shouted.
I broke the room.
Those hollow walls splintered like bird-bones, shattered like windowglass. Ropes snapped and tangled, spars flew like straws. Ramin was blown clear across the room; I never saw what happened to Cephos.
Croft lay in the ruin of his couch, clinging to his companion, laughing and laughing.
Soon, in another room, that first passion spent:
“They call me Fenner nowadays,” he said, “hereabouts. Or simply Chancellor.”
We used to call him Fenner the Helpless, because he never needed any help. I had never been the right man for this mission. Rulf had subtler thinkers he might have sent, souls as suspicious as his own. Blunt and trusting are poor qualifications for an ambassador, especially to a city as insidious as Skander.
“You seem... shorter than you were,” I breathed, still barely trusting my own voice. Rulf and I were friends as two cats are friends, always sidelong in the corner of each other’s eye; Croft and I had been friends as two bulls are friends, always head to head. I couldn’t measure my danger here, or his own.
“Come, sit,” he wheezed, hoarse from laughing, hauling himself upright on this other couch. “Drink with me. The people here make little stronger than bread beer—but I have all the palace as my plaything, which means half the world, and the better half. Our guests learn to be open-handed. I’ve a honey brandy from the Brach that would be worth the journey to Brachia on its own account, rowing against tide and current all the way.”
Unexpected, abbreviated, very far from safe, he was still Croft. Of course I would drink with him. He wanted to talk, to tell me how clever he’d been, and how sly. We’d had the same conversation over and over, since we were boys together.
I sat the other end of the couch, where there would have been room even if he hadn’t shifted, that space where his legs were missing.
“We thought you were dead.”
“You were meant to.”
The second man had carried Croft in here, as casually as one carries a child. Now he fetched us bowls of glass filled with a clear dense liquor, fire on the tongue and fire to the heart. And took none for himself but settled wordlessly on the floor against the couch’s arm, where Croft could reach out and stroke his smooth oiled scalp, tug lightly at his ear. Servant and lover, then—or I was meant to think so.
Croft had shaved his own head, and his beard too. That was my excuse for taking so long to know him. We look for what we expect to see, and make easy judgments: clothes, hair. Legs.
I said, “How does a crippled beggar, even a beggar king, rise to be chancellor in Skander?”
He snorted. That was not the question I wanted to ask. Even so, he graced it with an answer. “Painstakingly. A doctor fled here because his lord had died under his knife. I took the same chance, and lived. A man may shrug a burden off and get by the better after. You might learn that, if you chose. I traded legs for influence; the city’s prince was curious to watch the cutting and the healing after, and so I reached the palace. That prince is dead now, but I am here yet.”
“Your bones are in Sawartsland, in Rulf’s lap. Named and known.” Unmistakable, or so Rulf thought. “Did you have your doctor keep your legs in pickle, till you needed them?”
“And then attach them to some other body, and hope they looked to fit? I might have done.” He sounded pleased with me for suggesting anything so wily, so unlike myself. “But no: I bought a man at market and had my doctor break and bind his legs, just as Rulf had done with me. Then I kept him alive until I needed him.”
For years, that meant: years and years, in pain he knew too well. And then killed him, boiled his bones, wired them neatly together and sent them to us. I might have said anything, nothing; it would make no difference now. I said, “What for, old friend? Is there some way of vengeance here, that I can’t see?”
He laughed. “Oh, I have had my revenge on Rulf, although he doesn’t know it. He has no child, does he?”
“None—though not for want of trying.”
“Of course. He’d want a dynasty. He’ll never have one. I sent him a woman long ago, a hedge-witch to poison his seed. No sons for Rulf King, however hard he tries.”
It would never have been hard to put a woman in Rulf’s bed, even from this distance. I wondered which woman and whether he had kept her, whether she worked her spells yet or one time had served for all time, a curse-bane lurking at the root. He had tried witches of his own, I knew, but Croft’s must have been the stronger. No surprise, if he found her here in Skander.
He went on, “In the end, I knew he’d want Toland back. Adopted by the new king, sired by the old: that speaks of dynasty, what better? And what better way to push him into it than sending him my bones, letting him think me dead and the boy adrift? I knew you’d be the one to come, the king’s windmaster. Perhaps you’re right, perhaps this is still vengeance after all. I have stolen his posterity, and now I steal his friend.”
Croft seemed content to smile and wait—not for the first time—for me to catch up with his meaning. I looked at the younger man, and back through time to when he had been younger yet; and spoke to him for the first time, said, “Well, then. If Croft has gone from crippled exile to beggar king to chancellor, what are you now?”
He echoed his master’s smile and said, “I am the chancellor’s legs. As you have seen.”
Which was to say that he was more than that, much more; but he would never be Rulf’s son and never king in Sawartsland. I wondered if Croft had taken other measures to be sure of it, besides stealing the boy’s heart and keeping him close all these years. I had taken him for a eunuch at first sight; I might not have been wrong.
It didn’t matter, and I wouldn’t ask. Not here, not now. I said to Croft, “I have the Skopje here, and I can find a crew, buy a crew if need be. I can go home, with this news or any. I don’t see how you have stolen me from Rulf.”
“A man can shrug a burden off,” he said again. “And should do, where it has no value. My legs, your loyalty. The ship’s your own; so should your life be. What do you have to go back for? Grown children and a bitter king, neither in need of you. A draughty longhouse cold all winter long, an ice-needle in your bones, and too many people always at your ear. They’ve had the best of you already; enough, now. More than enough. Stay here, and keep what’s left.”
“You’re saying this was a trap for me? Not for Rulf at all?”
“Rulf would never come, you know that. A king without an heir, without children to marry off to build alliances? He hardly dare leave his hall. You, though: of course he would send you, and of course you would come. And once you were here—well. Harlan, stay. Find a new crew, sail new waters. Learn a city, the way you learned the sea. Woo the harbormaster.”
I startled. Perhaps I glowered.
He laughed. “What, did you think that she imagines all those children to be her own?”
Ramin crouched once more in his corner of choice, quiet and still, shrugging off his bruises. Who owns whom is always a question; in his mind, I thought, perhaps he owned me. Or perhaps he had traded me, or given me away.
In my own mind—well, I could see a small house, a quiet house. A great and welcome change from what I’d left, all that bustle and labor and noise. A boy to run errands and make a nuisance of himself, a girl who would know where my boots were; I shouldn’t need more of a household. A house not too far from the harbor, certainly. Convenient for the Skopje, for a new life on and off the water; convenient for friends to visit, back and forth. Or to stay, either way. The harbormaster, if she eventually would; my blond farm lad in the meantime...
I said, “Why, whyever would you want that?” Apart from causing Rulf a deal of worry and frustration, which was no more than bread beer against the fiery spirit of what Croft had done already to trouble Rulf.
Sometimes, theft is an act of simple honesty. Everyone belongs to someone else, elsewhere as in Skander; but he said, “I miss more than the sea, and my legs. I have my legs,” tweaking Toland’s ear, simply to see him smile. He said, “I miss my friends. One friend,” and so he stole me from my king.