So much has happened since I last wrote that I feel I should begin another book – or end this one. Perhaps I will do both tonight; that would be fitting.
For a long time I sat beside our little fire, writing and watching the stars rise above the scrub-covered hills through which Hide and I had ridden that day. Jahlee had never really gone, I knew. Oreb had testified to that, and testified to it still, although I cautioned him again and again to keep his voice down lest he wake Hide. Our horses had testified to it as well – the inhumi always frighten horses, I believe; perhaps they smell the blood.
I needed no more proof, but I soon had it. The cold winter wind seemed to carry with it a steaming, fetid wind from Green, as a frigid old man, penurious and hoary with age, might bear in his arms the rotten corpse of a beautiful young woman. My eyes were on my paper, squinting and straining to see each letter I shaped there, for it is no easy business to write by firelight. And it seemed to me that to my left, at or beyond the very edge of vision, a great man-killer of Green stalked, each slow and careful stride that crushed the too-thin ice devouring twenty cubits. When I looked beyond the fire, its light revealed wide, dripping leaves in silhouette; and once a moth with wings wider than the sheets on which I wrote, opalescent wings stamped by some god with a strange device of cross and circle, fluttered toward the flames-only to vanish when I blinked.
Jahlee was waiting for me the moment my eyes closed, more beautiful in her embroidered gown than she had ever been when she went naked in the Red Sun Whorl. "This steaming heat becomes you," I told her. "You were made for Green."
She pretended to pout. "I thought this was going to be a great surprise to you, if it happened at all. You expected it all along."
"My son should have joined you here some time ago. He fell asleep long before I finished writing."
She nodded, her face expressive of nothing.
"Did you seduce him? He would have had more than enough time to resume his clothing and go, I imagine."
"That's none of your business!"
"You did not, or you would boast of it."
"I said it's none of your affair. Hasn't it struck you that he may not have wanted to see you? I told him you'd be along."
"Of course. Particularly if you bit him on the neck at climax, as you bit the neck of the trooper who took us to the fort over the ditch."
"You didn't bite Hide because you were unable to seduce him. That's what you must mean, since-"
"Boy come!" Oreb sailed overhead, again three times his normal size, and absurdly resembling a feathered dwarf with overlong arms.
"If we continue this fight," I told Jahlee, "Hide and I will drive you away, just as we drove you away from our fire beside the frozen marsh. This is Green, and you are a human being here. Remember Rigoglio? The spittle running from his mouth? The empty eyes?"
She did. I saw her shudder.
"I won't pretend to value your life more highly than you do yourself, but I value it. Let us be friends-"
I had wanted to say, Let us be friends again, as we were in Gaon, and in the farmhouse by the battlefield; but she was weeping in my arms, and there seemed no point in continuing.
Hide found us like that, and was well-mannered enough to wait until we separated before speaking. "I found some people, Father. She and I didn't want to talk anymore, so I said I was going to have a look around, and told her to wait here for you."
"I'm not your servant, little boy." Jahlee wiped her nose on her sleeve. "I wanted no more of your company. Your father's twice the man you are."
"I know. Do you want to see them, Father?"
"Yes. Your brother will be among them, I think."
"You don't look very much like-like you used to," Hide blurted. "Not even as much as you did in that other place, with the big river."
I said nothing.
"Me and Oreb will show you, if you want us to."
Half a league brought us out of the jungle and into cleared land where a raised path let us walk with dry feet between wide, flooded fields of rice. The Short Sun glowed behind us like a disk of white-hot iron, sending our shadows, dark ambassadors inhumanly tall, before us. My staff had not come with me; so I made one like it for myself as we walked, watching with amusement as well as interest how its shadow, wan at first, grew thick and black as the staff acquired weight, solidity, and reality.
Blanko, as I have said, is the only walled city I have as yet seen here. Qarya was a walled village; I had seen such villages on Green before, but their walls had been no more than rough palisades of pointed stakes, scarcely more than fences. Qarya's palisade was surrounded by a wide, water-filled ditch; it surmounted a wall of earth faced with brick, and every lofty paling was thicker than a man's body.
"Impressive," I told Hide.
"I'd rather have stone walls like they do in Blanko."
"So would they, I'm sure-and they will have them soon."
Jahlee, clinging to my free arm, looked up quizzically. "What good is all this, when inhumi can fly?"
Half a dozen older men were sitting or lounging by the gate; thinking that they might have overheard her, I changed the subject as quickly as I could. "I have never seen you so beautiful, and I owe it to you to tell you that. The sun is very strong here, and I would have said that no woman's face could endure it without revealing some slight imperfections; but yours does."
She smiled at that, her beautiful, even teeth flashing in the brilliant light.
The oldest man there, a man as white-bearded as I, who sat his rough stool as if it were the throne of Gaon, spat. "She's no inhuma, miralaly, and the lad here's no inhumu. But what about you?"
"I am a man, exactly as you are."
"Push back those big sleeves and show your wrists."
I did, giving my staff to Hide and turning my hands this way and that, by no means certain what it was that he wanted to see.
One of the others, gray and lame, pointed to Jahlee. "This your wife?"
"Certainly not," I told him; she whispered in my ear, "You need only ask, Incanto darling."
"The boy's wife?"
"He's my son. His name is Hide, and he is not yet married. My own name is Horn. This woman is a friend, nothing more and nothing less. Her name is Jahlee."
The white-bearded man hawked portentously and spat, clearly a signal for the others to be quiet. "That's an evil name for any woman."
"Then I'll change it," she told him. "What would you like it to be?"
He ignored her. "What do you want here?"
"We've come to see another son of mine, Hide's older brother Sinew." There was a slight stir as I said this. "He lives here, I believe, and if someone will just tell us the way to his house, we'll trouble you no further."
"You're Sinew's father?"
The white-bearded man eyed the circle of onlookers and selected one. He made a gesture of command, and the man he had designated hurried away.
I started to follow him, but a fat man with an oily black beard blocked my path, saying, "Sinew's the rais-man here. You know that?"
I shook my head. "I didn't, but I'm delighted to hear it. Will he come when that man asks him to?"
"He's not going to. He's going to the maliki-woman by the well. That's the women's place. She'll talk to your woman."
Jahlee laughed as though she were at a party. "You had better be nice to me, Incanto, or I'll tell her all sorts of fascinating lies about you, beginning with the time you ate all those mice."
"Better you told the truth about him-" the black-bearded man began.
Hide drew me to one side, whispering, "He won't know you, or I don't think so."
"Then I'll have to prove that I'm who I say I am, as I did when you and I met."
Jahlee touched my arm. "I think this must be the whatever-they-said woman coming. Do you really want me to talk to her?"
"At first, at least."
She was taller than most women and stiffly erect, hatchet faced and hawk-nosed. The white-bearded old man made her a seated bow, to which she replied with a frigid smile and an inclination of her head.
"We saw them coming, Maliki," he said. "They had something big flying right over them. Didn't seem like a inhumu, but big enough for a little one. It didn't like our looks in Qarya, and headed back to the jungle 'fore they come to our gate."
Jahlee curtsied. "That was Incanto's pet bird, Maliki. He lets it fly free and come and go as it wants. It's quite harmless, I promise you."
Maliki surveyed us; something about her iron-gray hair, straight and drawn back so tightly that it resembled a helmet, woke a spark of memory that flickered and died.
She turned to Jahlee. "Is Incanto the young one or the old one?"
"The old one, Maliki."
The lame man muttered, "He's Sinew's pa, he says."
She motioned for him to be silent. "What is the young one's name?"
"It's Hide really," Hide told her, "and my father's name is really Horn."
Maliki did not so much as glance at him. "Are you lying to me, girl? What is your own name?"
"No, Maliki. Cuoio was the name he gave me when we met. I wouldn't lie to you, Maliki."
"You would lie to anyone." Coming nearer, Maliki stroked her hair. "You're very beautiful indeed, and a born troublemaker. I've seen a thousand like you, though most weren't half as good-looking. Where did you sleep last night?"
The question took Jahlee off guard. "Last night? Why, uh…
"Tell me the truth. I'll know if you're lying."
"Bad thing!" Oreb croaked from the shingles of one of the blockhouses flanking the gate. "Bad thing! Thing fly."
Jahlee seized her opportunity. "That's Incanto's bird, Maliki. The one I told you about? It's a talking bird, but what it says doesn't make much sense."
She glanced up at Oreb. "I've never seen one like that. Where did you get him?"
"I didn't, Maliki. He doesn't even like me. He belongs to Incanto."
"Is he Sinew's father?"
"Incanto? I think so. He says he is, and he's, well, he's more truthful than I am."
"Most are." Maliki raised an eyebrow. "Do you love him?"
"What about his son Cuoio?"
"He's a hateful, ungrateful, vindictive little boy!" Jahlee seemed ready to spit like a cat.
"But a fair judge of women, I would say. Why are you here?"
"You-" Jahlee's eyes flashed. "I don't have to talk to you!"
"You're mistaken. Here we tie a long rope to a girl's feet and drop her in the well. When we pull her up, we generally find her cooperative. Or dead. If she is neither," Maliki smiled like a crocodile, "we throw her in again."
She turned to me. "You're Incanto? Why were you talking to these men?"
"They wouldn't allow us to proceed, and we hoped that they would show us where my son lives, or send someone to bring him here."
"Your son Sinew?" The eyebrow rose again.
"Your real name is…?"
"Horn, as my son Hide told you."
"You were born in the Long Sun Whorl. Don't deny it. What city?"
"I don't. In Viron."
Maliki nodded, mostly to herself it seemed.
"Sinew isn't here, though we expect him back shortly. His family affairs are his own, and it isn't my job to settle them. Come with me, all of you."
We followed her as meekly as three sheep down a narrow, dust-soft street lined with thatched log houses not greatly different from most of the houses in New Viron, until we came to a small square in which women sat talking in pairs or stood talking in groups.
"That's the well we'll throw your redhead down." Maliki pointed to the coping. "The water's high at this time of year, so it's not much of a drop. We'll probably have to throw her in several times."
Jahlee shook her head. "Incanto won't let you."
"Incanto – who says his name is Horn – has nothing to do with it. Out of common decency I should warn you that this water isn't safe. It's good enough for washing clothes and watering gardens, but we have to boil it before we can drink it, so try not to swallow any more than you can help."
As we started off again, I asked where she was taking us.
"To Sinew's house. Isn't that where you wanted to go?"
"All right, that's where we're going. You can wait for him there. He should be back before dark, but if he isn't, his wife will put you up, probably, if you behave yourself. Do you know her?"
"Slightly. I doubt that she remembers me."
"She's a good swordswoman. When you see her, you'll say she's too fat for it, but she's a good swordswoman just the same. You used to be a good swordsman, or so we heard. I imagine your legs have gone?"
"I've used a sword," I admitted, "though with no great skill. Sinew magnifies my exploits, I'm sure."
"He never talks about you."
She stopped before a log house larger than its neighbors, drew the dagger hanging from her belt, and rapped the door with it.
It was opened by a smiling woman, broader than I recalled her, flanked by two small boys. Maliki said, "We need to come in and talk to you, Bala. Have you got a minute?" I was aware of a slight stench, which I attributed to the boys.
"Yes, yes! Come in! We have fruit. Would you like some wine?"
Maliki shook her head.
I thanked her and said I would be grateful for a glass. Hide and Jahlee nodded, and Oreb croaked "Bird drink?" and hopped after us.
"A little water for my bird, please? If you have some that's safe to drink?"
She looked curiously at Oreb, dropped heavily to her knees, and cocked her head as if she were a bird herself. "You're so big! Promise you won't peck Shauk and Karn?"
Bala looked up at me, her pink face pinker still. "Would he like grapes?"
"All right, they're in the bowl. Is he your bird, sir? Will you give him some? Sit down, please. Everybody please sit down."
She hurried away, and Oreb flew to the back of a big chair of smooth, waxed wood to escape the questing fingers of Shauk and Karn.
Maliki sat in a smaller one, leaving two considerable benches for us. "Two boys. They want a girl, naturally, but she never complains."
I had been studying them, recalling Hoof and Hide when they were much younger. "They're not twins."
"No. Shauk is three and Karn must be two now, if I remember Bala's confinements correctly." Maliki leveled her forefinger at Jahlee. "What is your name? I still have not learned it, and I will have to introduce you to Bala."
"You don't like my name here." She looked to me. "Can I give her another one?"
"Of course, Judastree."
"It's Judastree, Maliki."
"I see. And before you changed it?"
Maliki addressed me. "You name your woman after flowers in the Common Tongue. We use the high speech here for names and a few other things. Maliki is not really my name, for example. You probably thought it was."
"I am the maliki-woman, the village judge. Your son Sinew is the rais-man, our general if we had a proper horde, if he really is your son. He leads our war band in battle."
"He was always an excellent fighter. I'm sorry he's not here."
"So am I. I would turn this whole matter over to him if he were, but he is out hunting."
Bala, carrying in a tray with glasses and a carafe of wine, overheard this last and looked slightly startled.
"Sinew was always very fond of hunting," I said, "and very good at it. He kept us supplied with meat on Lizard."
Bala put down her tray and pushed a lock of pale hair away from her perspiring face. "You knew him there? He talks about it sometimes, mostly about his mother."
Jahlee said, "Incanto's his father," and Bala stared.
"More precisely, I am his father's ghost," I told her. "We're all three ghosts, in a way-ghosts or dreams. All four, including Oreb."
Maliki snapped her fingers. "That's it! Oreb. I have been going crazy trying to think of it. Have you got me yet, Calde? I know you tried."
I shook my head. "I've no right to that tide."
"No? I intend to call you that anyway, since I can't remember the other one." The corners of her lips lifted by the width of a hair. "Who am I?"
I shook my head.
"I have aged, I know. So have you. It has been nearly twenty-five years."
"Long time!" Oreb spoke to Bala, as well as I could judge.
Maliki did, too. "Sinew's father died here, I believe?"
"We think he must have."
Hide cleared his throat. "Can I talk? I'm Sinew's brother. I really am."
Maliki said, "If the Calde's bird can, so can you."
"So I'm your brother-in-law." He rose and offered Bala his hand. "That makes you my sister-in-law, and these are my nephews." He laughed. "I've never been a uncle before."
She accepted it, and smiled warmly.
"We're not really here, we're really back on Blue. Only we wanted to see how Sinew was, Father and I did, so we came. And Jahlee came with us because she likes this better. And Oreb."
"Horn or Incanto or Silk or whatever his name really is, is your husband's father to the goddess, I suppose," Maliki told Bala. "His father in the sight of Mainframe, or some such claptrap. I just thought of his other title. Patera? Have I got that?" She looked at me quizzically.
"I've no right to that one either, but yes, you do."
"It means father in their own high speech, which they've practically forgotten. Patera, like papa."
Bala sat down. Her smaller son tried to climb into her lap at once, and she lifted him there. After a moment she said, "I wish Sinew were here."
"So do I," Maliki told her, "but I doubt that it would help much."
"And I'm sorry about the smell. Sinew doesn't want me to go down there and clean up, but I'm going to if he won't do it as soon as he comes back. I'll do it now if you'll stand by for me."
Maliki shook her head. "If I had the time I would, but men should do men's work."
"I'll do it," Hide told her. "You can stand by for me if you want to, I guess. What is it?"
"Prisoners." Maliki's face, always severe, was savage. "We got them in the last big fight, and they're chained in the cellar. Six, Bala?"
Bala shook her head. "Five. One died."
"One of the men. He'd been shot." She put her hand to her own thick waist. "Sinew brought him upstairs, at the end. He was too weak to do anything, but I tried to keep the boys away from him just the same."
"He's dead 'cause he tried to burn our house," Shauk announced and vigorously nodded his own confirmation.
Oreb muttered, "Poor man."
I said, "I take it that the villages here are warring with one another? It isn't greatly different on Blue. Town fights town."
"Where is your lander?" Maliki inquired with studied carelessness.
"We have none. I was going to ask you-I do ask both of you now-if there isn't a lander near here."
Bala nodded. "The one Sinew's father tried to repair. It won't fly."
Hide said, "I guess you need somebody to clean up after the prisoners? That's what the smell is? I could get started right now."
Oreb applauded him with flapping wings. "Good boy!"
"You had better leave that slug gun up here," Maliki told him. "Give it to me."
He looked from me to her. "I'll leave it with Father."
"This is my village!"
I took the slug gun Hide handed me and passed it to her. "So it is. You'll return this to Hide, I'm sure, when he has done a man's work."
She nodded, laying the slug gun across her thighs and eyeing Shauk and Karn warily.
Bala said, "I'll show you. Let me get my sword." She and Hide hurried away.
"You came in a lander," Maliki told Jahlee and me. "Most likely today. I knew it as soon as I saw the girl's hair. I want to know where it is."
"If we had, I'd tell you. We arrived today, you're quite correct about that; but not in a lander. We are not real-not really present in the way you are-exactly as my son told you."
She shook her head. "I would have thought that boy would tell the truth."
"I've heard him try to lie, and he's a very bad liar, just as I am. Jahlee's far better, as you divined at once."
"Bad thing! God say!"
A frosty smile crossed Maliki's face. "Your bird doesn't trust her."
"No," I said. "I do, but he doesn't."
Jahlee grinned at me, leaning back against the rough wall of logs, beautiful enough to rend a thousand hearts.
"I liked you, Calde," Maliki said. "We all did. General Saba used to say you were the slickest character she ever met, man or woman, and it was a blessing from the goddess that you were so good, because you would have made a terrible enemy. There, I've given you a fine clue. It should help."
I shook my head. "By telling me you were a Trivigaunti? I knew it almost as soon as we met, and confirmation is of no value. As for my supposed cleverness, it doesn't exist, as you should be able to see for yourself. You no more know who I am than I know who you are. The only difference is that I'm aware of my ignorance. You think I'm Calde Silk, which I find so flattering that I have difficulty denying it. You're quite wrong, nonetheless."
Jahlee asked, "If we sleep here, will we wake up in the morning? Wake up here, I mean?"
"I don't know. I doubt it."
"Then I'm not going to go to sleep. You and Hide will have to keep me awake. I'll keep you awake, too." There was mockery as well as sensuality in her eyes.
I said, "I'd like to find out more about the situation here. Sinew's prisoners attacked this village, clearly. Where did they come from?"
She pointed. "The old city. It's full of them."
"I doubt it. It wasn't even full of inhumi when some mercenaries cleared it for me, though there were more than we liked. They will be far fewer now. Sinew's prisoners are or were their slaves?"
"Yes. We call them inhumans."
"Those men at the gate were afraid we were inhumans. Is that correct? They wanted to see my wrists; they were looking for the marks of shackles, I suppose."
"Right. I knew you were not as soon as I saw the girl's hair. No woman here has hair that well cared for. Did you notice Bala's?"
"I thought it clean and neatly arranged. So is your own."
"Thank you. But if I were to take it down, even you would see the difference."
Jahlee bowed, her long sorrel hair falling over her face.
I said, "I'm surprised the inhumi dare let their slaves have arms."
"I am, too," Jahlee told us, straightening up.
Maliki said, "They take precautions, I feel sure."
"No doubt. Jahlee, you've been here before. May I say that?"
"You just did."
"So I did. May I assume this wasn't done-I mean the arming of the slaves-when you were here?"
She nodded. "There weren't so many humans here then, I think."
"And how long ago was that?"
"I don't know."
She spoke to Maliki, "I was just a little girl when they put me on the lander."
"A lucky girl," Maliki replied.
"Oh, I don't know. I'd stay here if I could."
"But you are only a dream. I know. I hope you can manage without my sympathy."
"That's wrong, what the Rajan and Cuoio have been saying." Jahlee leaned forward, as sincere as I have ever seen her. "This is the real us. They talk like we're really back on Blue, but that's just the thing you bury. We're here."
"I believe the last part, girl."
I had been considering the village, Maliki's judgeship of it, and my son's part in it; and I asked, "Are most of you from Trivigaunte? You must be, since you employ its high speech for names and titles. Shauk and Karn must be Trivigaunti names-they're certainly not names I was familiar with in Viron. Bala is probably a Trivigaunti name as well."
Maliki nodded. "About two-thirds of us are, and the rest are from all over. Your son from Viron, for example."
"He's never seen the city; he was born on Blue. Still, I understand what you mean-he's of Vironese culture."
"Right. When I first got to Viron, I knew it was going to seem very foreign, but I was surprised at how foreign it was just the same. So many things we took for granted at home nobody had heard of there. Now Sinew seems familiar. I mean besides being a friend, which he is. I spent a few months in Viron once and got to know a few of you. The other foreigners here in Qarya are from cities I never heard of at home."
Jahlee sighed. "It must be a big whorl, the Long Sun Whorl, Do you think it's too far for us, Rajan?"
"I doubt that it's nearly as far as the place we visited with the Duko." I turned back to Maliki. "I want to ask you about your lander and the people who came with you from Trivigaunte; but first, I'd like to mention that Patera Quetzal was from this whorl. I know that now. Do you remember Patera Quetzal? He was our Prolocutor."
"For years I've wondered how he reached the Long Sun Whorl. We were told that no landers had left before we got to Mainframe. Were you with us on the airship when we went to Mainframe?"
Smiling, Maliki shook her head.
"That eliminates one of my guesses. I thought you might have been the lieutenant who was in charge of us while we were prisoners."
Still smiling, she said, "I'm older than you think, Calde."
"Old enough, and wise enough, to tell me how Patera Quetzal reached the Long Sun Whorl from Green?"
She pursed her lips. "Before anybody got here? You're saying he was an inhumu."
"That explains a great deal. I never thought of that back then. In fact, I had never heard of them."
"Neither had I, but I think the inhumi must have been one of the sources for our devil legends. If that's correct, he didn't come to the Long Sun Whorl alone."
"They can fly through the emptiness between Green and Blue. Did you know that, Calde?"
I nodded again.
"Then they could have flown to the Long Sun Whorl the same way."
Jahlee said, "It's too far."
Maliki made a little sound of contempt. "You lived here as a child, so you're an expert."
"No, I'm not. But I know a few simple things and that's one. You asked about this once in Gaon, Rajan, and I told you I didn't know."
I said, "I remember."
"And I don't. But I do know this. He didn't fly like the inhumi fly to Blue and back. It can't be done, because no inhumu can do without air for that long. Are you sure no landers left before the time you were talking about?"
I shook my head. "On the contrary. That information was surely incorrect, though I think it was given us then in good faith."
"Then that's the answer, and why ask us? The landers go down full and come back empty, if people let them."
Maliki's smile grew bitter. "That was my mistake, you see, Calde."
"Call me Horn, please."
She ignored it. "We knew that. The men who went on board had no idea, but our goddess had told the Rani. So I went with them, and the generalissimo and I thought I could report back in a year or two. I went as her spy, if you want to put it like that. But I have done my level best for this colony, and the reason I came originally is no great secret anymore."
"I think I'm beginning to understand. You said
Sinew was your general here, the rais-man.
Trivigaunte would never have accepted a male general. Was Bala born there, by the way?"
"With all that yellow hair? Certainly not. Her father was, but her mother was one of the women our men picked up here."
"What I am about to say is apt to sound conceited, and I hate to sound conceited." There was no hint of humor in Maliki's voice or face. "But a good many landers have landed here, and the colonists in most of them have not done anything like as well. Their men fight the inhumi and their inhumans, and die, and their women scatter. Most die, too, in the jungle. But a few get into other colonies, and that was how it was with Bala's mother. We accepted any women we could get in those days."
"Your lander couldn't return?"
"It could and it did, without me. I should have set a guard on it, but I didn't think it was necessary. Not that we had anyone to spare, anyhow."
"I have an idea," Jahlee said suddenly. "You'll both think it's silly-"
She was interrupted by Bala, who told me, "Your son did everything, Horn. He really is Sinew's brother. I knew it as soon as he started working and began talking to them. He's wonderful, just like my husband." Hide, coming in behind her, flushed and stared at his boots.
I thanked her, and Jahlee said, "He gets it from you, and that's what you ought to do, too. Talk to them. You want to find out how somebody got up to the Long Sun Whorl from here, and they might know. That was my idea, Rajan."
"A good one, I believe. May I go into your cellar to speak with them, Bala?"
"I must come with you," Maliki told me. "In the absence of Sinew, I must. Bala ought to come too."
Jahlee said, "And me. It was my idea."
Hide coughed, glanced at Bala, and muttered, "It's not very nice down there, Father. I mean we did everything we could, emptied their pots and washed them, but…"
"I understand. In Blanko I had some people chained to the wall in a dry sewer. They've been freed by this time, I hope."
"There's one I sort of think you ought to talk to."
"The leader?" I asked; and Bala, "The big one?"
Hide shook his head. "The woman."
Maliki smiled. "Ah!"
"And it might help if we brought her up here. Instead of everybody going down there. She's real weak, she couldn't do anything, and there's five of us. I don't think she can hardly walk."
"I'm sure you're right. She's more likely to talk freely when the others can't hear her. Would that be-I won't say agreeable. Permissible, Bala?" I sipped my wine, which was far from good.
"If it's all right with Maliki."
Hide began, "She…"
"She what? The prisoner? What were you about to say?"
"Can't we talk someplace else, Father? Just you and me?" He looked significantly at Jahlee and Maliki.
"You recognized her? Who is she?"
He shook his head, and Oreb croaked, "Poor boy!"
"Then she recognized you, or told you something else you don't want the others to hear, although Bala must have heard it already."
Reluctantly, he nodded.
Maliki said sharply, "Tell us, Bala. This is nonsense, and may be dangerous. Tell me!"
"It really wasn't anything." Bala sounded apologetic. "It was while he was taking off the bandage on her leg. She said he reminded her of somebody she used to know."
"Is that all?" Maliki snapped.
Hide muttered wretchedly, "Horn, Father. She said his name was Horn, and I looked kind of like him."
"Is that all?"
Oreb offered his advice: "No talk!"
"Yeah. I guess Bala didn't hear that last part, she wasn't paying much attention."
Maliki leveled her forefinger at me. "Your name is Horn. So you say."
"Your son doesn't resemble you much."
Hide said, "He looks more like me here than back in camp."
Maliki gave Oreb a hard look before turning back to Hide. "His appearance changes from place to place? Is that what you maintain, young man?"
The blood rose in Hide's cheeks, and he pointed to Jahlee. "So does she. Ask her!"
Maliki rose. "You people are crazy! Mad, absolutely mad, like Nadar."
"In that case there's no point in listening to us," I told her. "Let's listen to this woman prisoner instead. She is sane, presumably."
"Not from the way she fought," Maliki spoke with deep satisfaction. "It was one of the men who surrendered and made her surrender too, when they were cut off and Sinew had fifty all around them."
I started to say that we owed such a brave woman a hearing, but Maliki interrupted me. "Changing all the time, you claim, like dreams. Do you still maintain that all three of you are just dreams?"
"Where is my son's slug gun?" I asked her. "You took it-very sensibly, I thought-when he went into the cellar among the prisoners."
She looked around in some confusion.
"You were holding it on your lap, with both your hands on it, clearly afraid that my grandsons would want to play with it. Where is it now?"
"Gun gone!" Oreb announced.
I turned to Hide and Bala. "Bring her up here, please. I want to see her, and it may be important."