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Chapter 74

Master Peacevoice Waterman and two men came to Whandall's wagon when the sun was an hour high. "Message, sir!" Waterman said. "Lady Shanda wishes to see you, here, at the sixth hour today, sir."

Shanda. "Who is Lady Shanda, Master Peacevoice?"

Waterman's expression changed only slightly. "First lady of Lord's Town, sir."

"She's married to Quintana?" Whandall asked.

Waterman was shocked. "No sir. She is married to Lord Quintana's nephew, and Lord Quintana being a widower, she is the official hostess for his household, sir." His voice held reproach, as if Whandall should know better.

"You like her, don't you, Master Peacevoice?"

"Everybody likes Lady Shanda, sir. That right, Corporal Driver?"

"Yes, Master Peacevoice."

Interesting. Sixth hour. Five hours from now. She must be partway here already. "Please send word to Lady Shanda that we will be delighted to have her join us at the sixth hour," Whandall said. A conventional phrase, but he found that he meant it. Shanda.

They set up the market before noon. A tightrope, high the way Burning Tower liked it. Hammer Miller and a kinless boy stood under to catch. Neither Lordkin nor Lord would do that in Tep's Town, and for the moment it was better if Whandall Feathersnake kept his dignity, even if he didn't like it.

Nothing went wrong. Burning Tower's act was flawless. And Clerk Sandry stood, mouth open, watching her in fascination as she wheeled and spiraled hallway down the pole, then deftly climbed, feet on the pole, back up it again.

"Smitten," Whandall heard Green Stone say behind him. "With my sister."

"And well he might," Whandall said softly.

"With Blazes? But all right, she's good on that rope."

"That wasn't the entire reason I had in mind," Whandall said.

It was only after Burning Tower finished her act and went to the changing tent that Sandry went to negotiate for another wagonload of hay and another of water for the bison. As Whandall had guessed, no one in Tep's Town would have dreamed that animals could eat so much.

Or make so much waste for the kinless to clean up ...

Shanda arrived in a small wagon drawn by four Lord's horses. A

teenage girl rode with her. Two chariots, one in front and one behind, clattered along with her. Each chariot held an armored man. If they were trying to convince him that Shanda was important, they succeeded.

He knew she was younger than he was, but she looked Whandall's age. He would not have recognized her. The self-assurance he remembered was there, but the little girl had become regal, desirable, attractive rather than beautiful, but extremely so. She wore a short skirt of thin wool, belt with ornate silver buckle, a brooch with blue and amber stones. Her hair was coiled atop her head, and although she must have been traveling all day in a wagon, she looked cool and fresh.

The girl with Shanda carried a large pine cone. Shanda smiled faintly. "What's it like outside?" she asked.

It took Whandall a moment to remember. "Don't they let you go outside yet?" he asked.

She laughed. "You do remember." She pointed to the pine cone. "And keep your promises too."

"Is that really the same one?"

"No, of course not," she said. "This is my daughter, Roni. Roni, greet Whandall Placehold Feathersnake, merchant prince and a very old friend of your mother's."

Whandall bowed. "And this is Green Stone, my son, and Burning Tower, my daughter. I think the girls will be about the same age. Will you come in, Lady Shanda? We have tea." He led her into the inner nest.

Shanda marveled. "You have done well. Two mirrors! And I'd love to know the secret of how you get wood to shine like that." She stared admiringly at the carpets. "You have dune well indeed, Whandall Feathersnake."

"Thank you. Lady. And have things been well for you?"

"Not as well as we would like," Shanda said, serious for a moment before her smile returned. "But well enough."

"Did you ever finish the new aqueduct?"

Her smile faded again. "Not yet. We keep hoping."

"Peacegiven Square," Whandall said. "I was shocked."

She nodded, waited until Burning Tower poured tea, sipped, and nodded again. "Thank you. Whandall, it shocked us all, that second Burning."

"What happened?"

"Lord Chanthor always hoped to buy dragon bones," Shanda said.

"I remember. We were hiding on Shanda's balcony," Whandall said to his son. Green Stone and Burning Tower knew the story, but Roni looked at her mother. "Some captain sold Chanthor rocks in a fancy box. He had the man killed."

"Yes. And another promised but couldn't deliver, but he didn't take any money. Chanthor kept trying. One day it came. Dragon bones! In an iron box. Terribly, terribly expensive.

"We really couldn't afford them, but, well, we planned to do so much for the people!" Shanda said. "Make rain in just the right places to clear out the waterways, wash all the filth out to sea. Repair buildings. Heal the sick. Finish the aqueduct! It would have been worth what we paid." She was talking as much to Green Stone as to Whandall. Maybe it was the ears? Green Stone could absolve her, speaking for the kinless? Forgive her for the crushing weight of taxes to buy this disaster.

Resalet had opened a cold iron box. ...

"Back there, at that building, the Witnesses had an office." Shanda pointed through the doorway to where no building stood. Dark ground, charred. "Lord Chanthor brought the box there to be registered. Then they set up by the fountain for the ceremony," she waved at the fountain, blackened and split by heat and near waterless, "with our wizard. We tried to find Morth of Atlantis. He'd gone like smoke in a Burning. Years later we were told he left with you, Whandall! So we hired the wizard from the ship that brought the dragon bones, and on the fountain he opened it...". She fell silent.

"And the last thing his eyes ever saw?"

She stared.

"Yangin-Atep took the magic," Whandall prompted.

Shanda's daughter Roni jumped. "Yes!" she said. "He's right, isn't he, Mother? We were home waiting. Mother was so excited, all the good we could do, and she was watching for dark storm clouds, for rain, and suddenly black smoke was pouring up everywhere. Burning," Roni said. "We'd just had a Burning!"

"It was horrible, Whandall," Shanda whispered. "They burned so much! The square, the new ropewalk we'd paid so much to build after we lost the Ropewalker family! To you, they told me! You took the Ropewalkers out of Tep's Town. I don't think I ever quite forgave you for that."

"I didn't know who they were when we started through the forest," Whandall said. "Or what Ropewalkers do. But, Shanda, I'd have freed those children anyway."

"What? Yes. Yes, of course," Shanda said, and blushed violently. "Whandall, I almost went outside. My stepfather thought of marrying me to a Condigeo merchant prince, and I'd have lived in Condigeo. But he didn't-maybe the man lost his nerve-and then I met Qu'yuma." Her voice and expression changed and for a moment Whandall envied Qu'yuma.

Green Stone asked, "Yangin-Atep took the dragon bone manna to himself. Like with new gold?"

"And came violently awake," said his father. "And possessed whoever he could."

"And the city has never been the same," Roni said.

He thought, Really? He remembered better than that.

Shanda brightened. "But now you're here! You can help."

"How?" Whandall asked.

"Trade. We can use more trade," Shanda said.

"It's hard for wagons to compete with the sea captains," Whandall said.

Roni started to say something, looked to her mother, and kept silence. Whandall let the silence stretch on. It was painful, but he was Whandall Feathersnake, and his son was watching. Better to win the bargain and then be generous than to let anyone think he could be cozened.

"There aren't so many ships, now," Shanda said, trying to keep it light. She sipped weak hemp tea. "They came for the rope, of course," and the words were escaping, slipping free. "It was all that brought them. Father explained it to me. When the Ropewalk disappeared, we had to import another system, and that evil captain screwed us against a wall-sorry. Sorry. But he took every coin we could find, and then the Ropewalk was gone in the two Burnings! Ships still come for tar, but now the harbor is silting up," she said. "It's hard to get in, and worse, we don't have as much to trade as we used to. There's only the little Ropewalk now, so there's not much rope for the ships."

"Tar," Whandall said. "Tar is always valuable."

"And we have lots, yes," Shanda said. "But I may as well he honest. They found tar somewhere south of here, some lagoon between here and Condigeo. It's hard to get to, but if we charge what we need, the ships will go there instead. But you'll help, won't you?"

"Why should he?" Green Stone demanded.

Whandall gestured. This was not the time to play roles in the game of negotiation. Was it?

"It's his home," Shanda said simply.

"No, Lady," Green Stone said. "Not anymore. Whandall Feathersnake lives in the New Castle at Road's End. Everyone along the Hemp Road knows that!"

Burning Tower looked admiringly at her brother.

And it's all true, but this was my home, Whandall thought. Good or bad, it was my home. "I'll do what I can," Whandall said. "We'll look to see what's plentiful here and valuable on the Hemp Road. There must be something. And however easy or hard these new tar fields are to get to by ship, this place is easiest for me. Decide what's your price for tar. It'll tell me whether I come back."

A pony nickered outside. Whandall's expression didn't change as he thought how valuable a bonehead pony grown into a one-horn stallion would be. He said, "Ponies, maybe; there are places along the Hemp Road that might buy a pony. There must be other such things, magical items and animals stunted by Yangin-Atep. We'll look.

"But there's a problem," Whandall said. "The Toronexti make it very difficult for traders."

"We've spoken to them about that," Shanda said. "But I'm afraid they go their own way, much as the Lordkin do. And they have a charter."

"Scraped-off skins?" Whandall asked. "Covered with black marks?"

"I never saw it," Shanda said. "Writings, yes, witnessed by Lords in every generation, granting them privileges. Promises made long ago."

"By dead men."

She shrugged. "Still promises, written and witnessed. Written and witnessed."

Summon them up and ask....ut this is Tep's Town. "If they lost that

charter?" '

Her eyes twinkled, just a touch, like the young girl he'd known deviling her governess. No one else saw it. "They'd never do that. It would be like-like it never was, wouldn't it?"

"How is Miss Batty?" Whandall asked suddenly.

"She married a senior guard," Shanda said. "But I didn't know for years. Samorty dismissed her alter we..." She glanced at her daughter, then said it anyway. "Spent the night in the forest."

"They keep a shop in Lord's Town," Roni said. "Her daughter is learning to be a governess. For my children after I'm married." Roni was very serious.

"And Serana?"

Roni smiled. "She's chief cook, which means she doesn't do any work and orders everyone around."

"Even me," Shanda said.

"Good. Tell her I remember her puddings. Wait. Here ..." He found it tucked under an Owl Tribe basin. Rosemary in a little parchment bag. "Tell her to crush this and rub some on red meat before roasting. Bison or goat or terror bird. And I'll send her some spices with the next caravan I send in here."

"Oh, good. You will be back?" Roni asked.

"If this works out. Shanda, I will need some help. Chariots. I'll need at least two-three would be better-with drivers. Lord's horses, not ponies! If I send my clerks around to look for trade goods, I want to know they can outrun gatherers." And because he'd seen Morth mapping out a path a day-walk long!

"I'll send for drivers," Shanda said. "The kinless hire out, but it will be better if your people are with a Lordsman. Fewer problems-I know. Roni, your cousin Sandry and his friends. Do you think they'd like to do this?"

"Sandry?" Whandall asked.

"We know a Sandry," Green Stone said. "Master Peacevoice Waterman brought him. To assist us. Said he was a clerk."

Shanda smiled thinly. "I hope you're not angry?"

Whandall grinned. "I'd guessed he was more than a clerk," he said. "What of the others? Will they be drivers?"

"Sandry will," Roni said. "I'm not sure about all the others."

"We'll send several," Shanda said. "Whandall can choose those he likes best. I'll have them here in the morning. And I'll speak to Master Peacevoice Waterman about deceptions."

And what will you say to him? "Be more clever next time?" "Thank you. Now, who sells me tar?"

"Us," Shanda said. "The Black Pit belongs to the Lords. A kinless family takes care of that for us. Roni, see to that, please. Find out how many jars Whandall will want, and arrange for them to be filled and sealed and brought here. It's time you learned some of that aspect of city management, I think."

"It's a man's job, Mother."

"Of course it is, hut if women don't understand these things, how can we make sure the men do them right'.'" She grinned at Whandall, the old Shanda again for an instant. "I'm sure our merchant prince understands," she said.

"And if I don't, Willow will explain. My wife," he said, in case she'd missed it earlier. Both of us married, with children. Right? Right.

He was ready for bed when Morth came in. "I walked up Observation Hill," he said. "I used to go there a lot. Those ruins at the top, that was an old kinless fort. I can see the ocean from there, way off. I couldn't see anything, but with my talisman I perceived the elemental."

"Talisman. Another doll?"

"Yes. It won't last long. Whandall, the elemental perceived me. I should go out to look for myself. Sea Cliffs."

"Take a fast chariot. I'll have chariots tomorrow."

Chapter 73 | The Burning City | Chapter 75