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Chapter 28

Two years after the Burning, Elriss had blossomed into a very handsome woman, desired by nearly every man who saw her. She worked in the roof gardens and tended Arnimer, the son born months after the Burning. She taught all the Placehold children. She worked with the other women, and she was respectful to Freethspat; but except to go to Peacegiven Square on Mother's Day, she never left the Placehold, and she never spoke to men, visitors, or single Placeholders, except for Whandall.

She treated Whandall like Wanshig's little brother. Even wine hadn't tempted her. Presently even Whandall thought of her as a sister.

Whandall was dressing. Presently he would go to the meetinghouse to drink tea with Pelzed, carry out any errand Pelzed might have, watch how power was used...

Elriss came shouting to his door. "Wanshig is back!" she cried. "I see him! He's coming up the street."

And moments later Wanshig was there. He looked older, thinner, and a great deal stronger. Whandall had only moments to greet him before Elriss swept him into the room she had held from before he left. She showed him her son. Then the infant Arnimer was sent out to play with the other children, and no one saw Elriss or Wanshig for a long time.

Whandall went to the roof.

Wanshig knew! Whandall could have come to help the Placehold men, but he stopped for Dream-Lotus. Wanshig was back, and Wanshig knew.

They sat drinking weak hemp tea alter dinner, Everyone listened as Wanshig told his story. He was looking at Whandall as he said, "I ran just as fast as I could and I was still too late. I saw an old man running away, looking back. I wondered if it was Morth."

Whandall realized he'd been holding his breath.

"The shop was full of Lordkin," Wanshig said. "I could see them through the door and a big window: at least ten, and they were all Placeholders, Whandall. Enough Placehold men to drive anyone else away.

"Things were burning inside. Resalet was possessed of Yangin-Atep! I saw him wave at a shelf, and a whole line of pots puffed into flame. He picked up something big in both arms."

"What was that?"

"I never knew. Understand, I was moving at a dead run. Legs like soggy wood. All I saw of anyone was a shadow backed by fire. I knew Resalet by the way he moved, and his arms were wrapped around a heavy round thing about as big as ... as Arnimer."

The babe looked up on hearing his name. Wanshig stroked his back and said, holding his voice to an icy calm, "I tried to scream 'Get out! Get out!' I went, 'Whoosh!' No breath. I sucked in air to scream. Whatever was burning in that shop caught in my throat. I went into a coughing fit.

"Cousin Fiasoom staggered through the door, clawing at his throat, and fell to his knees. Resalet was coughing too. I could see him hunch over, just inside the doorway. He gestured the edge of his round thing into a tiny white flame, very bright. He plucked off the lid.

"Everything went white."

"The box exploded?"

"No. I saw just that much. Resalet exploded. Resalet was one great glare like looking into the sun at noon. It was like daggers in my eyes. I screamed and threw my arms over my eyes and curled up around myself. I felt Yangin-Atep breathe on my back, one long blast, and then he went away.

"I was blind. When I could move, I waited a bit. Maybe someone from the Placehold would see me, see? Nobody did, so I started feeling my way around. I stayed back from the heat that must have been Morth's shop. I could hear the riot around me.

"My sight came back with edges and white spots. I could see people around me gathering and burning. I wanted out. You understand? Out. No more Burning. No more Serpent's Walk, no more Tep's Town."

"Sure, Shig."

"Nobody's called me that in a long time."

"What then? The women were guarding the Placehold-"

"I didn't even think of that. I went to the Black Pit. I couldn't see; I couldn't fight. I needed a place to hide, and you told me ghosts couldn't hurl me, remember? I thought they'd scare away anyone else, so I went there. Spent the night.

"In the morning I could see more. My good white tunic was charred all across the back where Yangin-Atep had breathed on me. My hair came off in handfuls. It was crisp. There were a lot of fires far away, east and south. Whandall, I never wanted to see fire again."

Whandall laughed.

Wanshig didn't. He said, "I went to the docks. I played sneak-and-spy past a few Water Devils. There were ships. I went to the biggest.

"The entrance to a ship, they call that a gangplank. Two men were on guard there, not Water Devils. I told the big one, the older one, 'I want to sail on a ship.'

"Both men laughed, but I could feel them separating a little, you know? To put one behind me. The big one said, 'Well, that's not a problem, boy,' and I turned fast and caught the other one's arm.

"He'd tried to hit me with a little wood club they call afishkiller. You know, Whandall, we practice this kind of thing. I broke his arm and let him dangle over the water, holding him out with my one arm-you know, showing off. I told Manocane, the big guy, the officer, 'I want his job.'

"That was Sabrioloy. His job was guarding the Lordkin. When the Lordsmen wheel up a cart full of gatherers, Sabrioloy knocks them on the head, shows them who's boss. He tried that with me. After that, I was boss, boss over the Lordkin sailors, anyway. Sabrioloy showed me the rest of what I needed to know. He trained me, and I didn't throw him over. Whandall, he couldn't swim."

"A ship's man? I thought even Water Devils could swim."

"Most sailors can't swim."

Their doubt must have showed. Wanshig said, "We were just pulling out of the bay. The officers wanted more sails up, so Sabrioloy and I drove the men aloft to raise them. Jack Rigenlord was an old hand, and he was up there above us all. Then a mountain of water stood up out of the sea and hit us broadside. It must have been magic, Whandall. I never saw anything like it before or since. Waves come in lines, rows, but this just stood up and curled over and wham. The ship heeled over and the mainmast bowed like a whip. Jack flew into the sea. He waved once at us and was gone. That made me a believer.

"I made Etiarp teach me to swim, first time we docked near a beach. Etiarp was a Water Devil who tried to gather from a merchant ship. We taught a few of the Lordkin. If a Lordkin could swim, I promoted him. We taught Sabrioloy too."

Chapter 27 | The Burning City | Chapter 29