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Chapter 23

He was ready to follow Shig. Pulling his clothing on, checking his own belongings, trading jokes with the others, happy-when he saw that the man now on top of Dream-Lotus was strangling her!

Before the sight had quite registered, Whandall's knife was out and moving in a downward arc. Neatly, precisely, he sliced the man's left ear off.

The man bellowed. His rutting urge had his lower body in thrall, but his head and shoulders tried to turn, tried to reach his belt and knife.

The man who held Dream-Lotus's wrists had only begun to react. Horrified at the strangling, or horrified at Whandall's meddling: no way to tell. Someone else bellowed and snatched at him. Whandall rolled across the strangler's back, notched his other ear, then ran, slashing backhand at his nose and unexpectedly nicking the tip and upper lip. The strangler let go of Dream-Lotus's throat and stood up. Dream-Lotus sucked air in a whistling shriek while Whandall ran.

He'd once heard a man say that strangling a woman would make her react, that it was a greater kick. He'd thought that was disgusting; he thought so now.

There were too many following him to stop and make a stand. Skill was no use here. Run! The strangler himself was in the lead, legs pumping hard, barefoot to the hips. Big guy, and scarred, under a tattooed orchid.

But the knife, so quick! Maybe he could have talked? Persuaded the man to ... what? Nobody plays at sweet reason during a Burning.

Through here! Rigmaster's ropewalk was a long building with no windows but plenty of hemp in storage. It had started to burn. Maybe the strangler would step on a live coal. Whandall caught a lungful of smoke,

realized his mistake, and swerved away. rightward around the pall of pale smoke, then hard left. Someone ran out of the building, a kinless carrying a bundle. He saw Whandall, screamed, and ran hard, still carrying what looked like carved wooden blocks. They'd have burned, but what were they? If Whandall weren't running for his life he'd have found out-

When Yangin-Atep possessed a man, was this what he felt? It didn't feel divine. For that moment he'd felt so wonderful, he'd been so grateful to Dream-Lotus. Then someone was hurting her, and the chance to rescue her was all he could have desired. It felt very natural to cut the strangler, and not at all divine.

Feet pounding hard, Whandall completed his arc around the cloud of hemp smoke. The strangler was a trace of shadow, and yes! he was cutting across, through the rope factory itself! There were other shadows in there: the strangler's friends.

Maybe they'd all chase Whandall and let Dream-Lotus go. Maybe the strangler would outrun the rest, use all his strength catching up, to die under Whandall's knife. Would Dream-Lotus be pleased, grateful for such a gift?

Maybe not. They were squeamish, the kinless, and after all, Whandall too had raped her.

Behind Whandall the strangler ran out of the burning structure, choking and half blinded and reeling with the effects of hemp smoke. He slowed, hearing the laughter that followed him. He looked down, realized his nakedness, and began to laugh despite the blood that flowed from nose and ears. Those behind him staggered about in a giggling fit. They collapsed in laughter as more of the hemp smoke blew past them.

Whandall slowed too, to laugh and gesture, then ran on. Which way was Morth of Atlantis?

As the danger faded, Whandall remembered his thirst. Water was what he would be gathering if he dared stop. What would Resalet expect to find in Morth's shop, of all places? Wanshig must be wrong!

But Whandall kept running, because he knew in his gut that Wanshig was right.

As he ran, his mind caught up.

The scarf! Resalet thought he could gather a tattoo from Morth of Atlantis!

Tras Preetror was interviewing a handful of gatherers in Silda's Hand-meals. The gatherers were preening, proud that their lives would be made legend in lands they'd never see. That son of a dog had helped to spread the Burning beyond its reasonable bounds. If Whandall could catch Tras alone-

You don't stop again. Whandall didn't stop. His head was clearing.

He should be nearing Morth's shop.

Morth's defenses might have preserved him-hut might also he used up by now. Random looters wouldn't know what was sale to take. He hoped his brothers and uncles had waited. He should have come sooner.

Some landmarks were missing: the belfry, the Houses of Teaching. The tallest structures must have made the best torches.

That glare of light and heat to his left: Wood's lumberyard? Lordkin had piled beams into a tent shape to burn better. Just beyond it-

Morth's shop?

Matters were not as he expected. Buildings around the site were burned, charred, but the shop of Morth of Atlantis was a flat circle of gray ash. Whandall felt a fist closing in his chest. Nothing had survived.

Those were bones ... skulls. Five skulls.

Maybe Morth was among them. Maybe Whandall's family was avenged.

Maybe Morth had bent the god's exuberant rage to his own will, to punish looters.

Whandall wouldn't know until he reached home. He couldn't make himself hurry. He couldn't go straight home: the strangler's Flower Market street-brothers hadn't had time to forget Whandall's face.

He saw a whooping Lordkin drop a howling dog into a well to die. That struck him as stupid, but there were four Lordkin and they were big. He left them alone. He found clumps of kinless holding off jeering Lordkin with makeshift weapons, and he left them alone too. In the back of his mind he could see himself and his kin, and in truth, the whole thing was beginning to look stupid.

Others might have thought so. Whandall saw more of caution than of Yangin-Atep's manic joy. The Burning was ending, though coals still burned.

The family cook pot had been stolen from the courtyard. The men hadn't come home.

They never came home. Even Wanshig had disappeared. Whandall at fifteen was the oldest man in the Placehold.

Chapter 22 | The Burning City | Chapter 24