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Chapter 25

Whandall was busier than he had ever been in his life. He'd forgotten that everyone went hungry following the Burning. There wasn't enough food outside: too many gatherers and not enough to gather. Hunger, then feasts when anyone could gather food. They fought over the dishes, and everything tasted so good, he remembered that. Now he knew why: they were starving.

Whandall's elder half sister Sharlatta came home with Chapoka. Chapoka was an adult male, and there was no more to be said for him. He never gathered except from a friend, he complained about everything, and he never shut up. Whandall knew him well enough to throw him out.

Chapoka wouldn't be thrown, and Whandall was harassed and hungry. He decided his household of children could use entertainment. The fight in the courtyard left Chapoka with scars he would have to explain for the rest of his life. The gaudiest were on his back.

Afterward the Placehold's survivors treated Whandall like a Lord. During this time, lack of respect was one complaint he never had.

He hadn't realized-he had to leaf back through his memories to understand that everyone always complained to a Lord all the time.

Even Wess. Loving Wess was wonderful, and she held the Placehold together as much as anyone. But... living with a woman took new skills at accommodation and ate time he didn't have. It wasn't like living with a roomful of brothers, and he hadn't liked that very much.

He saw his former life as a long dream of idleness. He came to understand why lathers disappeared. Maybe he wouldn't have stayed with it. Hut he knew... .

He knew where the men had gone. Whatever befell the Placehold now was his doing.

Whandall's mother brought Freethspat home four weeks after the Burning. Everyone was astonished. He was a heavily scarred man around thirty years old, from so far across town that nobody knew anything of his clan. "Sea Cliffs," he said, and he showed a finely tattooed sea gull in flight.

When Whandall came home that afternoon, Freethspat and Mother had the northeast room. Whandall's things were in the north room that Shastern had taken because no one wanted to move Elriss from the southeast room she had shared with Wanshig.

Wess moved in with Elriss. She was avoiding him again. Once they met on the stair, and Wess spoke rapidly, before he could open his mouth.

"You could have asked me to stay."

"What if I asked now?"

"Stay where? Whandall, I would have followed you. You never said anything. It's like I came with the northeast room, or with your being the oldest man!"

"I wasn't sure," Whandall said. She'd left him once before. She had come to him when his status changed, and it might change again. For those reasons and one other, he'd dithered.

That other reason ... "Wess, if I had you and the Placehold to take care of, that would be my life. Guard you and the rest of them until I am dead. I know how to do that. Be Pelzed's right hand. When Pelzed wants to slack off a little, years from now, I'd be Lord Pelzed. Lord Whandall," he tasted the name, "except when Lords or Lordsmen can hear me. I..."

She waited for him to go on, but he didn't know how to say it. He hadn't even tried until now. I don't want to be Pelzed! Pelzed bows and scrapes and flatters, and sets his people against each other, and lies, and kills, and tells other people to kill friends. And with all that lives not a half as well as the real Lords in Lord's Town. What I want, it isn't here-

Wess brushed past him and was gone.

Coals still burned.

The killing of firelighters had got up the kinless's noses. Now they wanted to carry knives.

For months after the Burning, the talk was of little else. There was no fundamental disagreement among the Lordkin. How could a conquered people be permitted weapons? Of course the firefighters shouldn't have been killed... not killed. But fire was Yangin-Atep's. Wait, now, Yangin-Atep suppressed fire too! So it wasn't blasphemy. Yes it was, but they could have been driven off... taught an unforgettable lesson, scarred or maimed, then driven off... but they'd soaked those blankets to smother the fires-that was drinking water... .

In the street-corner gatherings, Whandall tried to stay out of the arguments. They could get you killed. A teller from Begridseth was beaten for asking the wrong questions, and again Whandall didn't participate.

At home the women were in quiet mourning, but Mother's Mother left no doubt about how she felt. The Lordkin had become no better than animals.

The kinless couldn't see reason. They had been attacked while rescuing horses-yes, and fighting a fire too. Attacked and murdered. The kinless wanted the killers' heads. Hah! No hope of that, of course, even without the protection of their street-brothers. You'd have thought half the city had watched the firefighters die; they were willing to describe what they thought had happened in minute detail, but nobody could remember a face.

But the kinless wanted to carry knives or clubs, to fight back next time!

Many Lordkin would have offered them the chance, for amusement. A bad precedent, though, a reversal of ancient law.

But nothing was being built.

Lords and kinless were holding talks; Lordkin spoke at every intersection; and every mouth was dry. The Deerpiss carried water an uncertain distance and then stopped, because smashed aqueducts were still smashed.

Garbage wasn't moving. The Lordkin began to see that it would not move itself. Rats and other scavengers were growing numerous. Ash pits that had been stores and restaurants now began to serve the Lordkin as garbage dumps.

Mother's Day came and went. Nothing was distributed in Peacegiven Square because there was nothing to distribute. Scant food was coming into the city; too much was disappearing on the way. Great fire, would the Lordkin have to take up driving wagons themselves?

That, Whandall decided, was an interesting notion.

Now Freethspat and Whandall and Shastern were the only men in the Placehold. Freethspat fit in well enough. He didn't often beat the younger children and never seemed to beat the women at all. He was respectful to Pelzed and spoke well of Serpent's Walk. Mother never yelled at him, which was unusual.

A week after his arrival, Freethspat was gone all night. Whandall wondered if he'd disappeared. Mother had no doubts, and in the morning he brought home a pushcart full of food, some of it fresh. There was enough food to last a week and no one mentioned the blood on the cart.

Freethspat was a provider.

Freethspat might have had a little Lords' blood in him too. Over the next three weeks, rooms nobody would walk in barefoot became jarringly clean, and the Placehold girls smiled proudly when Freethspat praised them. Six Placehold boys who had been old enough to gather in the Burning, but too young for anything so serious as robbing a wizard, now brought home gold rings and wallets from looker pockets and produce from kinless markets. And Whandall-

"Now it's your turn," Freethspat said.

They were in the courtyard, gathered for dinner. Heads turned as Freethspat spoke. They'd heard this conversation before.

Whandall asked, "Mean what?"

"Mean it's time you earned your keep, Whandall," Freethspat said. "Sure, I can get more to eat, but what happens to your mother if they get me? And your sisters? Your turn."

"I don't know where to get food."

"I can show you, but your mother says you know a lot," Freethspat said. "You've been to Lordshills. Take me there."

Whandall shook his head. "The Lordsmen will kill us both. Me for sure. Lord Samorty told them last time I was there. Here, look at my arm-it grew back crooked." Whandall pulled off his shirt. "Here-"

"Then somewhere else. You know the forest, but there's nothing to be had there, is there? No. Then somewhere you went with your brother- what was his name?"

"Wanshig," Elriss said, glaring. She was nursing Wanshig's son.

"Wanshig," Freethspat said. "They tell me you hung around with him a lot, Whandall. He must have showed you something. They say Wanshig was smart."

"He was," Elriss said.

"So show me."

Whandall could have liked Freethspat. But the man was just an inch taller and just an inch wider than Whandall, just a little too obtrusive in his strength. He called him Whandall, as a brother would. He lived in Whandall's room.

There had been no need for Whandall's gathering skills in the time since the Burning. (Eleven weeks? That long?) There was no need now.

But Whandall was getting restless, and Wess was unobtrusively following the exchange, and it wouldn't take much of a coup to shut Freethspat

up. "I did have a notion," Whandall said. "I just couldn't see a way to make it work. Freethspat, what do you know about wine?"

Well back from the road and screened by growths of touch-me vine, Whandall and Freethspat watched the vineyard. The noon sun was making the workers torpid. Their patient drudgery hadn't changed since he and Wanshig had watched them nearly a year ago. The grapevines were glossy green; the buildings behind them showed no sign of scorching. The Burning of two months back simply hadn't happened here.

The Lordkin guards did seem more alert. A youth passed Whandall walking upright and noisily, far from the comforts offered by that big house. Woodsman's leathers made him clumsy, and still he avoided the morningstar bushes and beds of touch-me, steering wide of the hiding place Wanshig had found for them.

Whandall had been surprised to see how much Freethspat knew about leathers and the chaparral. Freethspat knew about a lot of things.

And here came a pony, a local pony with a fleck of white bone on its forehead, pulling a wagon with a single driver.

"That one," Freethspat said. "No. It's empty."

"Wait," Whandall whispered. He watched the wagon go by. Just watched this time.

He was not bored. In Serpent's Walk, there he'd been bored. The same limp justifications-"What do the kinless want of us? When Yangin-Atep takes us, we do these things! It's not us; it's the rage!"-until they believed it themselves.

It was hard to believe in that empty wagon. Wasn't the bed a little high? Easy to picture a false floor with flasks of wine under the boards. The kin-less driver tugged at his yellow silk noose. A little besotted, was he, rolling a little with the wagon's motion? A big one, he was, with shoulders like boulders; maybe you needed that to control a pony. It hardly mattered. A kinless wouldn't fight.

The guard was a Lordkin, Whandall's age, fifteen or sixteen. Older men had sent him out, and stayed to drink in comfort, no doubt. In armor he'd be helpless. Whandall could take him.

Then the wagon, much closer now-have to sprint to catch it-and the driver. Arms like a wrestler. The big hat shadowed his face, but the nose was flat. Hard to believe in him too. He was still tugging at the yellow silk tied loosely around his thick neck. He wasn't used to it.

Damn! The hat shadowed his nose and ears, but-

"That driver is Lordkin," Freethspat said. His voice was filled with disgust. "Working like a kinless!"

"You're right."

"What could you pay a Lordkin to make him work like a kinless? What could he gain that another Lordkin couldn't take away from him?"

Whandall thought about it while the wagon receded. "Wine, maybe, if he drank it right away. Secrets, things nobody else knows. This isn't going to be so easy, is it? We may have to kill the driver."

"Have to kill the guard anyway. Your turn, Whandall."

Chapter 24 | The Burning City | Chapter 26