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Chapter 31

He was twenty before the Burning came again. And this time everyone was ready.

Hartanbath was more bison than man. In the Serpent Street region of Tep's Town-Flower Market, Bull Fizzle, Serpent's Walk, and several lesser bands-he was the man a fighter must defeat.

His missing ear-and-a-half contributed to Whandall's own reputation. Whandall could never have hurt him if Hartanbath hadn't been powerfully distracted. Hartanbath seemed to have learned that lesson. He was never seen fornicating in public again, with or without a woman's consent.

Whandall did not want a rematch. Few did. Hartanbath didn't lose.

At seventeen Whandall had taken to driving Alferth's wine wagons. Two years later he was present when Alferth held a street-corner drinking party.

A half-naked, dark-skinned, heavily armed looker ambled up and took a flask of wine with each hand.

Hartanbath objected.

The looker mocked Hartanbath's ears.

The looker was younger. Hartanbath was an inch taller and a stone heavier. Both could hit like logging axes. But Hartanbath ran out of strength first, sat down, and covered his head until the looker was satisfied.

Then the looker finished the wine and consented to tell stories.

He was Arshur the Magnificent. Some tremendous mountain range east of the Valley of Smokes had birthed his people. To the child Arshur, all was vertical, and all vertical laces were slippery with snow and ice. Arshur could climb any wall, enter any building, bypass any trap a householder might set for a thief (as if kinless would dare!).

There were cities where a thief might be imprisoned, others where he might be hanged, and cities where no thief could escape the King's magicians. Arshur had gathered fortunes in these places and others. He had fought monsters and magicians with his good sword-a huge clumsy mass of spelled bronze, thrice the size of a decent knife. A seer had predicted that he would one day be a King. When Arshur explained what a king was, the laughter angered him.

"So tell us, Majesty," Shastern asked, "what brings your magnificence to Tep's Town?"

Arshur's face clouded only a moment. Then he downed the last of the flask and struck a pose. "I spent my last gold coin on a party," he said. "This was up the coast, to the north and west, Great Hawk Bay they call it. They do have hawks, but mostly they have merfolk."

"Merfolk?" One of the younger onlookers was willing to admit ignorance.

"Werepeople," Arshur said. "You hear of werewolves? These are sea creatures. No? Shape changers. People who become animals."

"Old tales," Alferth said. "Not told much anymore. Are you saying they're real?"

Arshur nodded vigorously. "Real, yes. You would not doubt my word?"

No one did, of course.

Arshur said. "Bear men are the worst. Not as much sense as a wolf, and when they want to-" He made motions with his hips.

"Rut," someone shouted.

"Rut, yes. When they want to rut they rut anything. Anybody. They're big and hard to kill, so when they want to rut, most people get rutted. Sea people are easier to deal with. They like people. Especially the girls. Great rutting. And the merfolk at Great Hawk Bay set the best table in the universe. There's a restaurant in the harbor, an island with a bridge to it. Rordray, that's his name-Rordray owns the place. Sometimes cooks himself but usually leaves that to others. He built the place to look like the top of a castle because that's the way his last one looked, somewhere else where the sun rises out of the sea."

The sun rises out of the sea. Wanshig had seen that.

"You spent all your money, Your Magnificence," Shastern prompted. It wasn't obvious to anyone but Whandall that Shastern was set to run if Arshur came after him.

Arshur laughed instead. "It's sad being in a place of magic with no money. Rordray didn't need me! Neither did anyone else. If you steal-"


"-gather, they have magic to catch you. Besides, I like the people at

Great Hawk. I could steal-sure, I can steal from anyone-but they'd know who did it! Then Rordray said he'd pay me for hemp and sage leaves, and the best comes from a place he calls the Valley of Smokes. That's here."

Whandall asked, "Don't they have hemp and sage other places?"

The barbarian looked at Whandall. "Other places they grow too strong. Something to do with magic. Wizards can change the taste, but Rordray says they never get it as good as grows here naturally."

"Hemp tea," Alferth said. "I've been told that before-that you get good

hemp tea here."

"You sure do," Arshur said. "Wish I had a cup. Storytelling is thirsty work."

"Later," someone shouted. "How'd you get here?"

"Took ship," Arshur said. "Fought off pirates, big canoes of them at the cape. They turned and ran after they saw what I did to the first canoe! More pirates out of Point Doom-fought them off too. So when we got here I figured I had some drinks coming. Only thing was, I hadn't been paid yet, and the tavernkeeper wouldn't give me any credit."

"Tavernkeeper?" someone asked.

"Boy, don't you know anything?" Arshur demanded. "But you know, I see how you wouldn't. No taverns here! Just down at the docks. It's a place where they sell hemp tea, ale, wine sometimes. Tables and benches. Good roaring fire at night, only not here; here, the fire's always outside.

"Anyway, I was drinking good ale in peace when the owner demanded his money. He called the watch when I couldn't pay. By the time I explained to them, they'd beaten me upside of the head. The ship captain gave my pay to the tavernkeeper for damages and sailed on before I woke up! So here I am. I'll ship out one day, but I thought I'd see the country."

"How do you like Tep's Town?" Alferth asked.

"Not so good. No magic. Not that I know much magic, but a little magic makes life slide by a little smoother. And the women! Down there by the harbor there's a nice town-Lord's Town, they call it. They sure didn't want me there! Anyplace I'd go, they'd send for the watch. Chased me right out of town, they did. So I get here, and the women all run away when I try to talk to them! One of them pulled a knife on me! On me! I wasn't going to hurt her. They tell me you can rut anytime you want to here, whether the women want to or not, but I sure didn't find it that way."

"Burning," Shastern said. "That's during a Burning. You just missed it."

"Arse of Zoosh! I never have any luck. When do you do it again? Next year? Maybe I'll stay a year."

"Maybe in a year," Alferth said. "And maybe longer."

"It'll be longer," Hartanbath said. Tenderly he touched his remaining

shred of cur, notched by Whandall and now torn hy Arshur. "Maybe a lot longer. Seems like more years between Burnings than when I was a kid."

Alferth climbed unsteadily onto the wagon and stood on the seat. He swayed just a bit as he shouted to the crowd. "What say? Is Arshur a Lordkin?"

"Yeah, who says I'm not?" Arshur demanded.

There were shouts. "Not me!" "Lordkin he is!" "Hell, I don't care." "Hey, this could be fun!"

Arshur was treated as a Lordkin from that day. Hartanbath disappeared for a season-healing?-then came back to pound the first fool who referred to his loss. He and Arshur were seen drinking together....

It was an endless, pointless dance; but you had to keep track of who was on top. Arshur fitted into Lordkin society. For a few months he stole what he willed and carried his loot about, until he realized what older children knew almost by instinct: that a kinless might as well tend and carry property until a Lordkin needed it.

And one day Arshur got in a fight with the town guard.

His companions chose not to involve themselves. "They just kept hitting him and hitting him with those sticks," Idreepuct told them later, with secondhand pride. "He never gave up. They had to knock him out; they never made him give up."

Idreepuct was speaking in an intersection of alleys, to people already angry. Voices thick with rage demanded, "What was he doing to make them do that?" and, "Are the Lords crazy, to give them those sticks?"

Doing? It seemed almost irrelevant, but the tellers kept asking, and Idreepuct presently confessed. Ilsern-a tough, athletic woman who had never admired a man until Arshur came-had heard somehow of Alferth's secret wine wagons. Of course she told Arshur and Idreepuct.

They snatched a wagon. It was piled with fruit and it didn't look much like Alferth's wagons, but they took it anyway. They drove down Straight Street, whipping the ponies into a frenzy. Ilsern pelted passersby with fruit while Dree tried to pull the floorboards up and the kinless driver clung to the side and made mewling sounds.

By now the town guard didn't just have sticks and vivid blue tunics. They had built themselves small, fast wagons to put them where there was trouble. Wagons weren't part of the Lords' agreement, but they weren't exactly weapons either.

A guard wagon chased them. Then another. Kinless scattered out of the way. Dree got the floorboards up. "Nothing but road down here," he told Arshur, and Arshur swore and drove the ponies even harder. They nicked a fat Lordkin lady carrying a heavy bag; she screamed curses as they sped away.

They were tire on wheels until one pony tell dead, pulling the other down too.

And that was the end. Idreepuct and Ilsern stayed where they had fallen in the road, kneeling in surrender, and that stopped the guard, of course. Rules were rules. You knelt, they had to freeze. It could be very funny to watch their frustration.

But Arshur was still jittering with berserker joy.

He broke one guard's ribs and another's shoulder, and a blow to his head left another unconscious for two days. When Whandall came on the scene, they were carrying Arshur away strapped to a plank, laughing and insulting the guards, with a broken leg and bruises beyond counting. "And one of 'em hit him in the head," Idreepuct complained. "They can't do that, can they?"

Tarnisos said, "Big deal. Arshur's got a head like a rock-" as Whandall strode briskly out of earshot, and then ran.

There was Mother's man Freethspat on a corner talking to Shangsler, the big-shouldered man who had moved in with Wess twenty days past. Whandall stopped to describe the situation. He ran on, gathering whatever Placehold men he recognized. All of them were near strangers. Some would defend the house; some would celebrate the Burning instead.

The Lordkin believed they could feel it when Yangin-Atep stirred. Whandall felt that now. He intended to be guarding the house when the Burning began.

Days later, nothing at all was burning, and the Placehold men were letting him know it.

Whandall felt foolish. He might have noticed that Idreepuct had spilled the secret of the wine wagons to a score of loose tongues. Some had seen Alferth's wagons moving regularly along the Deerpiss. .. .

The vineyard was said to be totally destroyed. Now the most excitable among the city's Lordkin were out of action, nursing their first real hangovers. A gray drizzle had driven them indoors. The town guard had virtually disappeared, tactfully or prudently, carts and sticks and all.

The Burning remained a smoldering potential. It was only a matter of time.

Chapter 30 | The Burning City | Chapter 32