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Authors: Jo; Clayton

Moongather

BOOK: Moongather
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Moongather

Jo Clayton

AT THE CUSP THEY MEET

“I'm bored.”

Raiki janja looked up from the cards she was shuffling, laying out on the leather in front of her knees, gathering in and reshuffling. In the cruel light of the early morning sun thousands of small wrinkles webbed her face, deeper wrinkles rayed out from eyes made larger and darker by the uneven lines of black painted around them. She sighed and her double dozen gold chains with their pendant coins lifted with the sigh, clanking fitfully. She sat on a huge hide nearly as ancient as she, her small feet tucked neatly under her heavy thighs, her robes billowing about her bulky body. She looked what she was, a minor tribal sorceress—except for her eyes. They were a shadowy, shifting, brownish green like water in a shady tarn, calm and wise and eternal, the only external sign of that which dwelt within her. “No,” she said. “Not bored, just greedy.”

Haloed by the rising sun, Ser Noris stood on the edge of a cliff, his hands clasped behind him, white hieroglyphs against the stiff black of his robe. He turned and walked toward her, his booted feet soundless on the gritty stone. A ruby like a teardrop with a fine gold ring through the tail hung from his left nostril—a relic from a youth so distant he couldn't remember when he first eased the gold ring through his flesh. He wore it still, since the weight of it against his lip was part of him now, though the blood-red gleam of it ill suited the cool austerity of his face. When he smiled at her, the ruby lifted and rolled, glowing at the touch of the rising sun. “No, janja, I need a challenge. I'm ossifying.” He stamped a boot heel against the stone. “Much longer and I'm as responsive as this rock.”

Raiki shuffled the cards, squared the pack. “The penalty of your success, Ser Noris.”

“A very small success, janja.”

“You want too much.” Holding the cards low in her lap, she gazed past him at the valley glowing green and beautiful beyond the edge of the cliff. “That's not for you.”

“Because I'm of the Nearga Nor? I won't be bound by them, janja. I hold the Norim here.” He closed one shapely hand into a fist. “None of them can touch me, singly or in concert. I wield more power than most men dream of, but …” He waved his hand at the valley. “When I stand here, knowing what lies behind that, I know how small a triumph I can boast. I need more room, janja.” He wheeled, bent with liquid ease and took the top card from the deck she held, straightened and stood tapping the card's frayed edge against his thumbnail. “Match me, janja.”

Raiki frowned. “A game? Absurd.”

“Play the game, janja,” He smiled once more, a wide charming smile that warmed his cold face. “Why not?”

She slipped the next card from the deck, held it a moment face down. “I shouldn't warn you, my beautiful wrong-headed Noris, but I've got fond of you a little. Don't do this. The game will destroy you.”

His smile turned wry. “I don't think so. Consider this, janja, even if you're right, what choice have I? I can rot alive or live while I live, however short that be. If you were I, what would you choose?”

“So be it. Play your card, Ser Death.”

“Order, janja. Control, not death.” He placed the card on the hide in front of her knees.

IMAGE:
head and torso of a girl child, green blotches spattered across her fair rosy face. A darker green oval in the center of her forehead just above her nose was half concealed by tumbling red-brown curls. The four-year-old gazed from the card with desperate defiance, her orange-amber eyes opened wide
.

Raiki smiled down at the image, affection and sorrow mixed on her face. “A misborn of the windrunners.” She looked up. “Poor child. Must you?”

Ser Noris waited without speaking, his dark eyes fixed on the card in her hand.

“If you must.” Sighing, Raiki laid her card beside his.

IMAGE:
The misborn grown older. The green blotches had spread and joined until her skin was a light olive green. The darker blotch on her forehead was more cleanly defined, an oval eye-shape between her brows. Her hair was shorter, a cap of soft russet curls. She wore a time-rubbed leather tunic that hugged the meager curves of her slim torso like a second skin. The tip of a bow rose over one shoulder
.

“Think that's clever, Raiki janja?” Ser Noris touched the card with the toe of his boot. “I'll teach the child. After that, try taking the woman.”

Raiki gazed at him sadly. “You don't understand. By your nature, you can't understand. Take your next card.”

IMAGE:
a man in a loose black robe, a silver flame embroidered on the breast. His arms were held out from his sides, elbows bent, palms turned up. A fire burned on the right hand, a scourge was draped over the left
.

Raiki shook her head. “Ah my friend, that's bad. The Sons of the Flame. Tschah! you're calling on the worst in man. I'm afraid I've got no place in that world you're shaping. My stomach couldn't take it. I'd be angry all the time and turn sour as an unripe quince.” She laid her second card down.

IMAGE:
a short pudgy man, surplus flesh veiling the strong, elegant bone structure of his face and body. He looked lazy, sensual, intelligent and arrogant, a man who had everything he wanted without having to ask for it, who was saved from decay by an exuberant enjoyment of life, who yet was so indolent he didn't bother to probe deeply into the things that excited his wonder or prodded his curiosity. A man with much promise, little of it realized
.

“Hern of Oras. A flawed weapon, janja.”

“Perhaps.” She gathered in the cards. “Flaws can be useful.” Struggling to her feet, she moved past him to the cliff's edge where she stood gazing down into the Biserica valley. “Ser Noris, my Noris, too many people are going to die from this game of yours.”

He crossed to stand behind her. “They die every day in that chaos you call life, janja. What's the difference?” He squeezed her shoulder lightly, an affectionate gesture odd for one of his training—a training which should have killed the capacity for affection in him. That it had not, that he had contrived to ignore the more restricting requirements of the Neärgate and flourish in spite of this, was some slight measure of how far behind he had left his colleagues and how high his ambition could leap.

Raiki patted his hand. “Take care, my Noris. If you discover the answer to that question, I'll have won the game.”

THE WOMAN: I

Lightning whited out the street. Slowing her stumbling run, Serroi clapped small square hands over her eyes.
That was close
. The eye-spot on her brow throbbed
danger, danger, danger
, giving her a headache, telling her what she didn't need to know. Behind her the shouts of the guards were growing louder; over the scraping of her own boots she could hear the thuds of their feet. She bumped against a wall, pulled her hands down the corners of her wide mouth twitching into a momentary smile at the absurdity of trying to run self-blinded. As she rounded a bend in the twisting street, the lightning flashed again, showing her Tayyan stumbling heavily over the body of a drunk stretched limp against the wall.

The lanky meie got to her feet, wincing as she tried putting her foot down. Serroi stopped beside her. With a last worried glance behind her, she knelt beside the injured leg. “Bad?”

Tayyan shook her head, her short blonde hair shifting about her long face. “Don't think so.” She brushed the pale shag out of her eyes. “How close do you think?”

“Couple turns behind us, but closing.” Serroi felt the injured ankle, ignoring Tayyan's gasp of pain. “I don't think anything's broken. Can you walk?”

Tayyan lifted her head, squinted as lightning cracked the darkness again, grimaced as a hoarse yell sounded to be swallowed almost immediately by a thunder crash. “I'd better, hadn't I.” Her short laugh was harsh, strained. She pushed away from the wall and limped a few steps, sweat beading her forehead, teeth clamped on her lower lip.

“Lean on me.” Serroi slid her arm around her shieldmate's waist. “All right?”

Tayyan chuckled, an easier, more natural sound this time. “Fine, little one.” She ruffled Serroi's tangled curls, then pressed her hand down on her shoulder, resting enough of her weight on the small woman to enable her to swing along at a fast walk.

Every glare that shattered the stifling blackness of the stormy night showed storehouses sharing sidewalls on each side of the winding street, blank stone faces two stories high locking them into the way that was looking more and more like a trap.
A vinat run to the slaughter
, Serroi thought.
Maiden grant we find a sideway soon. Or we have to fight
.

The street twisted again, an abrupt, almost right-angled bend. The two women staggered around the bend and stopped, dismayed, as the lightning showed them a solid stone wall blocking the passage—a warehouse, its massive iron-bound doors the only break into two stories of rough-cut stone. Serroi looked up at Tayyan, touched the coil of rope on her weaponbelt. “You're the climber. What's the best way?”

Tayyan urged her forward, hobbling with her halfway to the end. Then she halted, gave Serroi's shoulder a little push. “The warehouse. You climb, I'll keep them off your neck.” She limped to one side of the street, her eyes fixed on the corner they'd just turned.

“But … Tayyan!”

The taller woman glanced back, grimaced. “Get a move on, will you? You're going to have to haul me up as it is.”

Serroi stared down at shaking hands until they steadied, then she ran over the cobbles until she stood before the double doors. She unclipped the line from her weaponbelt, snapped on the small folding grapnel, began swinging the weighted rope in widening circles. She let it go. The rope went streaming upward, butted playfully at an overhanging beam, then fell back to clatter on the cobbles. Serroi's breath whined in her throat as she pulled in the grapnel and swung it again, around and around until it hissed through the heavy air. When she let it go this time, she heard the grapnel clunk solidly home and saw the rope jerking like a thing alive in front of her. She drew her hand across her sweaty forehead, straightened her shoulders and turned.

BOOK: Moongather
8.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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