A Water Matter
The Duke of Copper Downs had stayed dead.
That thought prompted the Dancing Mistress to glance around her at the deserted street. Something in the corner of her eye or the lantern of her dreams was crying out a message. Just as with any of her kind, it was difficult to take her by surprise. Her sense of the world around her was very strong. Even in sleep, her folk did not become so inert and vulnerable as humans or most animals did. And her people had lived among men for generations, after all. Some instincts never passed out of worth.
His Grace is not going to come clawing up through the stones at my feet, she told herself firmly. Her tail remained stiff and prickly, trailing gracelessly behind her in a parody of alarm.
The city continued to be restive. A pall of smoke hung low in the sky, and the reek of burning buildings dogged every breath. The harbor had virtually emptied, its shipping steering away from the riots and the uncontrolled militias that were all that remained of the Ducal Guard after the recent assassination. The streets were an odd alternation of deserted and crowded. Folk seemed unwilling to come out except in packs. If chance emptied a square or a cobbled city block, it stayed empty for hours. The hot, heavy damp did nothing to ease tempers.
At the moment, she strode alone across the purple-and-black flagstones of the Greenmarket area. The smell of rotting vegetables was strong. The little warehouses were all shuttered. Even the everpresent cats had found business elsewhere.
She hurried onward. The message which had drawn her onto the open streets had been quite specific as to time and place. Her sense of purpose was so strong that she could feel the blurring tug of the hunt in her mind. A trap, that; the hunt was always a trap for her people, especially when they walked among men.
Wings whirred overhead in a beat far too fast for any bird save the bright tiny hummers that haunted the flowering vines of the temple district. She did not even look up.
* * *
The Dancing Mistress found a little gateway set in the middle of a long stucco wall that bordered close on Dropnail Lane in the Ivory Quarter. It was the boundary of some decaying manse, a perimeter wall marking out a compound that had long been cut up into a maze of tiny gardens and hovels. A village of sorts flourished under the silent oaks, amid which the great house rotted, resplendent and abandoned. She’d been here a few times to see a woman of her people whose soul path was the knowledge of herbs and simples. But she'd always come through the servants’ gate, a little humped arch next to the main entrance that faced onto Whitetop Street.
This gateway was different. It clearly did not fit the wall in which it was set. Black marble pilasters were embedded in the fading ochre plaster of the estate’s wall. The darkness within tried to pull her onward.
She shook away the sense of compulsion. In firm control of her own intentions, the Dancing Mistress slowly reached out to touch the metal grate. Though the air was warm, the black iron was cold enough to sting her fingers down to the claw sheaths.
The way was barred, but it was not locked. The Dancing Mistress pushed on through.
The dark gate opened into a tangle of heavy vines. Ivy and wisteria strangled a stand of trees which had been reduced to pale, denuded corpses. Fungus grew in mottled shelves along the lower reaches of the bare trunks, and glistened in the mat of leaves and rot that floored the little grove. There was a small altar of black stone amid the pallid trunks, where only shadows touched the ground. An irregular block of ice gleamed atop the altar. It shed questing coils of vapor into the spring-warm air.
Her folk had no name for themselves—they were just people, after all. And it was one of her people who had written the note she’d found strung by spider webs against the lintel of her rented room. She had been able to tell by the hand of the writing, the scent on the page, the faint trail of a soul flavored with meadow flowers.
No one she knew, though, not by hand nor scent nor soul. While the Dancing Mistress could not readily count the full number of her folk in Copper Downs, it was still a matter of dozens amid the teeming humans in their hundreds and thousands.
This altar freezing amid the bones of trees was nothing of her people’s.
A man emerged from the shadows without moving, as if the light had found him between one moment and the next. He was human—squat, unhandsome, with greasy, pale hair that twisted in hanks down his shoulder. His face had been tattooed with fingerprints, as though some god or spirit had reached out and grasped him too hard with a grip of fire. His broad body was wrapped in leather and black silk as greasy as his hair. Dozens of small blades slipped into gaps in his leather, each crusted in old blood.
A shaman, then, who sought the secrets of the world in the frantic pounding hearts of prey small and large. Only the space around his eyes was clean, pale skin framing a watery gaze that pierced her like a diamond knife.
“You walk as water on rock.” He spoke the tongue of her people with only the smallest hint of an accent. That was strange in its own right. Far stranger, that she, come of a people who had once hunted dreams on moonless nights, could have walked within two spans of him without noticing.
Both those things worried her deeply.
“I walk like a woman in the city,” she said in the tongue of the Stone Coast people. The Dancing Mistress knew as a matter of quiet pride that she had no accent herself.
“In truth,” he answered, matching her speech. His Petraean held the same faint hint of somewhere else. He was no more a native here than she.
“Your power is not meant to overmatch such as me,” she told him quietly. At the same time, she wondered if that were true. Very, very few humans knew the tongue of the people.
He laughed at that, then broke his gaze. “I would offer you wine and bread, but I know your customs in that regard. Still, your coming to meet me is a thing well done.”
She ignored the courtesy. “That note did not come from your hand.”
“No.” His voice was level. “Yet I sent it.”
The Dancing Mistress shivered. He implied power over someone from the high meadows of her home. “Your note merely said to meet, concerning a water matter.” That was one of the greatest obligations one of her people could lay upon another.
“The Duke remains dead,” he said. She shivered at the echo of her earlier thought. “The power of his passing has left a blazing trail for those who can see it.”
“You aver that he will not return.”
The man shrugged away the implicit challenge. She had not asked his name, for her people did not give theirs, but that did nothing to keep her from wondering who he was. “Soon it will not matter if he tries to return or not,” he said. “His power leaches away, to be grasped or lost in the present moment. Much could be done now. Good, ill, or indifferent, this is the time for boldness.”
She leaned close, allowing her claws to flex. He would know what that signified. “And where do I fit into your plans, man?”
“You have the glow of him upon you,” he told her. “His passing marked you. I would know from you who claimed him, who broke him open. That one—mage, warrior or witch—holds the first and greatest claim on his power.”
The girl-assassin was now fled now across the water, insofar as the Dancing Mistress knew. She was suddenly grateful for that small mercy. “It does not matter who brought low the Duke of Copper Downs,” she whispered. “He is gone. The world moves on. New power will rise in his place, new evil will follow.”
Another laugh, a slow rumble from his black-clad belly. “Power will always rise. The right hand grasping it in the right moment can avoid much strife for so many. I thought to make some things easier and more swift with your aid—for the sake of everyone’s trouble.”
“You presume too much,” she told him.
“Me?” His grin was frightening. “You look at my skin and think to judge my heart. Humans do not have soul paths as your people do. You will not scent the rot you so clearly suspect within me.”
The Dancing Mistress steeled herself. There was no way she could stand alone against this one, even if she had trained in the arts of power. “Good or ill, I will say no more upon it.”
“Hmm.” He tugged at his chin. “I see you have a loyalty to defend.”
“It is not just loyalty.” Her voice was stiff despite her self-control, betraying her fear of him. “Even if I held such power within my grasp, I would have no reason to pass it to you.”
“By your lack of action, you have already handed the power to whomever can pluck it forth. Be glad it was only me come calling.” He added in her tongue, “I know the scent of a water matter. I will not argue from the tooth.”
“Nor will I bargain from the claw.” She turned and stalked toward the cold gate, shivering in her anger.
“’Ware, woman,” he called after her, then laughed again. “We are not friends, but we need not be enemies. I would still rather have your aid in this matter, and not your opposition. Together we can spare much suffering and trouble.”
She slipped between the black stone gateposts and into the street beyond, refusing for the sake of the sick fear that coiled in the bottom of her gut to hurry on her way.
* * *
There was no one out in the late afternoon, normally a time when the squares and boulevards would have been thronged, even in the quieter, richer quarters.
She walked with purpose, thinking furiously even as she watched for trouble. That shaman must have come from some place both rare and distant. There were tribes and villages of humans in every corner of the world of which she’d heard. Men lived in the frigid shadows high up in the Blue Mountains where the very air might freeze on the coldest nights, and amid the fire-warm plains of Selistan beyond the sea, and in the boundless forests of the uttermost east. Not to mention everywhere in between.
He was from somewhere in between, to be sure—the Leabourne Hills, perhaps, or one of the other places where her people lived when they had not yet done as she had, drifting away to dwell among the cities of men. There was no other way for him to speak their tongue, to know of water matters, to command whatever binding or influence or debt had brought her the note with which he’d summoned her.
The Dancing Mistress had no illusions of her own importance, but it had been her specifically that he’d wanted. It seemed likely the man had counted her as the Duke’s assassin.
That was troublesome. If one person made that deduction, however flawed it was, others could do the same. A fear for another time, she told herself. Had he learned her people’s magics the same way the late Duke of Copper Downs had done? By theft?
A sickening idea occurred to her. Perhaps this greasy man had been an agent of the Duke.
As if summoned by the thought, a group of Ducal guards spilled out of an alley running between the walled gardens of wealth.
She happened to be walking close along the deserted curb just across from them. They stopped, staring at her. The Dancing Mistress didn’t break stride. Act like you are in charge. Do not fear them. Still, she risked a glance.
The leader, or at least the one with the biggest sword, had a fine tapestry wrapped across his shoulders as a cloak. Looters. Though they wore Ducal uniforms, their badges were torn off.
“Hey, kittie,” one of them called, smacking his lips.
Corner, she thought. There’s a corner up ahead. Many of these houses are guarded. They wouldn’t risk open violence here.
Her common sense answered: Why not? They had certainly risked open looting.
Colors were beginning to flow in the corner of her eye. The hunt tugged at her. That ritual was anchored deep in the shared soul of her people, a violent power long rejected in favor of a quiet, peaceful life. The Dancing Mistress shook off the tremor in her claws as she turned a walled corner onto Alicorn Straight, passing under the blank-eyed gaze of a funerary statue.
They followed, laughing and joking too loudly among themselves. Weapons and armor rattled behind her. Not quite chasing, not quite leaving her alone.
The towers of the Old Wall rose amid buildings a few blocks to her east. If she could get there before the deserters jumped her, she might have a chance. Once past those crumbling landmarks, she would be in a much more densely populated and notably less wealthy area. In the Dancing Mistress’ experience, aid was far more likely from those who had nothing than from those who held everything in their hands. The rich did not see anyone but their own glittering kind, while the poor understood what it meant to lose everything.
“Oi, catkin,” one of the guards shouted. “Give us a lick, then.”
Their pace quickened.
Once more colors threatened to flow. Her claws twitched in their sheathes. She would not do this. The people did not hunt, especially not in the cities of men. Walking alone, the gestalt of the hunt had no use, and when fighting by herself against half a dozen men, the subtle power it gave meant nothing.
They would have her down, hamstrings cut, and be at their rape before she could tear out one throat.
Speed was all she had left. Every yard closer they came was a measure of that advantage lost. The Dancing Mistress broke into a dead run. The guards followed like dogs on a wounded beggar, shouting in earnest, hup-hup-hupping in their battle language.
Still the street was empty.
She cut across the pavers, heading for Shrike Alley, which would take her to the Old Wall and the Broken Gate. There was no one, no one. How could she have been so stupid?
Fast as she was, at least one of the men behind her was a real sprinter. She could hear him gaining, somehow even chuckling as he ran. The Dancing Mistress lengthened her stride, but his spear butt reached from behind to tangle her ankles and she went down to a head-numbing crack against the cobbles.
The guard stood above her, grinning through several days of dark beard and the sharp scent of man sweat. “Never had me one of you before,” he said, dropping away his sword belt.
She kicked up, hard, but he just jumped away laughing. His friends were right behind him with blades drawn and spears ready. Seven on one, she thought despairing. She would fight, but they would only break her all the faster for it.
The first man collapsed, stunned, his trousers caught around his knees. A second yelled and spun around. The Dancing Mistress needed nothing more than that to spur her to her opportunity.
There was small, small distance between dance and violence. Controlled motion, prodigious strength, and endless hours of practice fueled both arts. She stepped through a graceful series of spins, letting the edges of the hunt back in as her clawed kicks took two more of the guards behind the knees.
The shaman was on the other side of them, grinning broadly as he fought with an already-blooded yatagan. His movements held a shimmer edge that was far too familiar.
He gambled on me joining the counter-attack, she thought. It did not matter why. They made common cause in the moment, and tore another man’s hip from its socket. The last three deserters scrambled away before turning to run hell for leather down the street.
The Dancing Mistress had never thought to see a human who could take on even the smallest aspect of the hunt.
“I should have expected more of you.” Her rescuer’s voice was scarcely shuddering from the effort of battle.
She kept her own voice hard, saying in the tongue of the people, “This does not bind us with water.”
“We are already bound. Think on what I have asked.” He nodded, then strode purposeful away among the silent houses of the rich.
Shaking, the Dancing Mistress trotted toward the Old Wall, away from the groaning, weeping men.
* * *
She made her way to the Dockmarket. That area was quiet as well, given that the harbor was as empty as it ever had been in the decades since the Year of Ice. Still, there were some humans about. Though the booths were shuttered and the alleys quiet as the Temple Quarter, the taverns stayed open. The breweries of Copper Downs had operated through flood, fire, pestilence and famine for more years than anyone had bothered to count. Political turmoil and a shortage of the shipping trade were hardly going to stop people from drinking.
There was a place off the alley known as Middleknife (or the Second Finger, depending on who you asked) behind a narrow door. It was as nameless as the people it served—mostly her folk, truth be told, but also a scattering of others who did not pass without a sidewise cast of human eyes elsewhere in Copper Downs. Many races had come out of the countries that rose skyward to the north in order to live in the shadows of the human polities along the Stone Coast.
The Dancing Mistress had always scorned solaces such as this. Still, she needed to be among her people tonight. There were few enough places for that, none of them part of her daily life.
She slipped inside with a clench riding hard in her gut.
No smoke of tabac or hennep roiled within. No dice clattered, no darts flew. Only a dozen or so of the people in quiet ones, twos and threes. They sat at tables topped by deep stoneware bowls in which forlorn lilies spun slowly, sipping pale liquid the consistency of pine sap from tiny cups that matched the great bowls. The place smelled of water, rocks and trees.
Much like where she had been born.
She also saw a very narrow-bodied blue man in pangolin-skin armor alone at a table, crouched in a chair with his knees folded nearly to his chin. Though he did not look to weigh eight stone, she thought he must be seven feet tall at the least. There were even a few people who might have been human.
The barkeep, one of her people, glanced briefly at her. He then took a longer look before nodding slightly, a gesture they had all picked up in the city. She read it well enough.
Between any two of her people there was a scent, of soul and body, that once exchanged could not easily be forgotten. Much could be read there, in a language which did not admit of lies. This one was not sib-close, nor enemy-distant, but she saw the path of trust.
“You work in the Factor’s Quarter,” he said in Petraean.
“I did,” she admitted. She’d trained slave girls and the forgotten younger daughters of rising houses. Sometimes they were one and the same. “Before all things fell just lately.” And therein lay her story, the scent the shaman had been tracking.
“In any case, welcome.” He brought out a wooden plate, as tradition dictated turned by someone’s hand on a foot-powered lathe. There he spilled dried flower petals from a watered silk sack, three colors of sugar, and a trickle from a tiny cut crystal decanter. Their hands crossed, brushing together as each of them dragged a petal through sugar and lifewater.
The Dancing Mistress touched sweetness to her lips and smiled sadly. This was what the traditional feast of welcome had degenerated into, here in the labyrinthine streets of Copper Downs. Even so, they were now opened to each other for a moment.
The barkeep nodded again then brushed his fingers across hers, releasing them both. “You are of Copper Downs, but you are not one of my regulars. What brings you here? The need for a scent of home?”
“A water matter.” She sighed. “A difficult one, I am afraid.”
He stiffened, the fur of his neck bristling slightly as his scent strengthened. “Whom?”
“A man. A human man. Not of the Stone Coast.” She shifted languages. “He spoke our tongue.”
“He knew of water matters?”
“It was he who named this business. He was looking for the...agent...behind the Duke’s fall.” She paused, choosing her words carefully against revealing too much of her complicity in the Duke’s death. “This is not my soul path. I do not bind power, nor do I loose it. But the thread came to me all the same. And this one knows far too much of us.” Her voice dipped. “I even glimpsed the hunt within him.”
“I do not accuse you of an untruth, but that has never been. I would not have thought to have seen it.” The barkeep looked past her shoulder, as one of the people often did when seeking to avoid embarrassment. “There is a rumor that one of us was the undoing of the late Duke. Is that what this water matter follows?”
“In a sense, yes,” the Dancing Mistress admitted. “But I was never in the palace,” she added in Petraean.
“Of course not.” He thought a moment. “Do you seek aid in this? Or is this your fate to follow alone?”
“I do not yet see my fate. I do not think this is it.” She sighed, another human gesture. “I doubt my ability to handle this well, and I fear the consequences of failure.”
“Abide then at the empty table near the hearth. Some will come.” He dipped into a slow bow straight from the high meadows of their birth. “I will see to it.”
* * *
The Dancing Mistress stared into the cold fireplace. There were no ashes, though there was sufficient soot blackening the bricks to testify to regular use in colder months. The darkness before her brought the man in the shadows very much to mind.
He’d offered to spare the city much suffering. She knew that the Duke’s loosened power was like lightning looking for a path to the ground. Her hope, shared with Federo and the others who had conspired with her, had been to weather that storm until the ancient bonds relaxed. If the city was lucky, it would vanish like mist on a summer morning. Then her people’s centuries-long part in the madness of the Duke’s tyranny would be over.
The shaman had other ideas about that power, but even so he had not set himself up as her enemy. Except he knew too much. He knew their tongue, their ways, the hunt.
He was a threat to her kind. Anything he did in Copper Downs would seem to be the work of her people to the priests and the wizard-engineers who infested this city like lice. He might as well slit all their throats one by one.
I arranged to kill a Duke so that we might reclaim our power, she thought. What is one more man? She knew the answer to that: no more than another, then another, until her soul path was slick with blood.
Once more the hunt pulled at her, bending the light at the edges of her vision. Long ago in the high meadows when her people foraged or fought, they could slip their thoughts and deeds together. A hunt was a group working as neither one nor another but all together, as termites will hollow out a tree or ants ford a river. What one heard, all heard; what another touched, all felt. Deep into the hunt, leaderless and conjoined, there was none to call a halt to slaughter, none to direct their steps, and so with the power of their mesh-mind the people could become like a fire in the forest.
They had given it up long ago, save in most extreme need. There was too much violence at their command, too much power. She had never heard of the hunt being cried within the walls of a human city. If these pasty, pale folk even suspected what her kind could do when stirred to mortal effort, they would be lucky to be only driven from the gates.
Her claws slipped free again. Her blood thrummed in her veins. The Dancing Mistress was afraid of what this man had stirred her to. And how could he not know of the hunt and what might happen?
He must know, she realized. He’d just counted on finding the power first. That man took chances, just as he’d attacked her assailants from behind, counting on her to rise and join into the fight. He gambled with lives, hers and his.
Interrupting her thought, one of the people sat down next to her. A stoneware cup was quickly placed before him. Moments later a woman of the people sat across. She briefly met the Dancing Mistress’ eyes, then studied the lilies wilting in the stoneware bowl. Another soon came to fill their table. More cups followed.
So they were four. She took a sip of wine fermented from the flowers and fir sap of the high meadows.
* * *
The woman spoke, finally. She had scent of cinnamon about her. “You are said to bear a water matter which has a claim upon all the people.”
“Yes,” said the Dancing Mistress quietly. “This thing tears at my heart, but there is a catamount among us.”
“I would not question your judgment.” It was the taller of the men, who smelled of sage and tree bark. “But I would know this threat.”
She gave him a long slow look. To raise the pursuit she meant to bring to bear, she must tell them the truth. Yet any word of her involvement in the Duke’s death could mean her own.
Still, there was far more at stake than her small life.
“There is a man. A human man,” she amended. “He knows our ways better than do many of our own. He pursues a great evil. If he succeeds, the return of the Duke will be upon us all. If he fails, the price may well be laid at our door.”
She went on to explain in as much detail as she could, laying out the events of the day and her conclusions from it.
For a while, there was silence. The four of them sipped their wine and dipped into the same stream of thoughts. It was a gestalt, edging toward the mesh-mind of the hunt. It was the way her people prepared themselves for deep violence.
“And once again, death brings death.” That was the shorter of the men, the fourth in their hunt, whom she already thought of as the glumper for the small noises he made in his throat as he sipped at the wine. “If we send this shaman to follow his duke, who’s to say there will not be more to follow him.”
Sage-man spoke up, in Petraean now. “This is so soon. The Duke is yet freshly dead. He did not expect to pass. There cannot already be a great conspiracy to return him to life and power.”
“I do not know it for a conspiracy,” said the Dancing Mistress. “He stalks me, seeing me for the bait to call this power back. That does not mean he has sung for my life, but I cannot think he will scruple to claim it in his pursuit.” She flashed to the uneasy memory of the man laying into her attackers, grinning over the bloody blade of his yatagan. He played some game that ran neither along nor against her soul path, crosswise as it might otherwise be.
Still, they all knew, as everyone of the people did, that the Duke of Copper Downs had stolen their magic, generations past. There were stories and more stories, details that varied in every telling, but since that time the numbers and power of her people—never great to start with—had diminished, while the Duke had whiled away centuries on his throne.
That someone was hunting power through the Dancing Mistress now, so soon after the Duke’s fall, meant old, old trouble returning. The man being a high country shaman with too much knowledge of their kind was only a seal on that trouble.
The cinnamon-woman broke the renewed silence. “You have the right of it. If we stop the Duke’s man now, we may crush the seed before the strangler vine has a chance to grow.”
The glumper stared up from the cup of wine clutched his hands. “Crushing is not our way.”
“Not now.” The cinnamon-woman looked around, catching their eyes. “Once...”
“Once we were warriors,” said the Dancing Mistress. “We called storms from the high crags.” They all knew those stories, too. “If we cry the hunt now, we will spare lives.”
“And what do we give up in following your plan?” asked the glumper. “The old ways are gone for good reason.”
The Dancing Mistress felt anger rising within her, a core of fire beneath the cool sense of purpose to which she’d hewn all her life. “They are gone because of what the Duke took from us.”
He gave her a long stare. “Did you ever think we might have given our power away with a purpose?”
Even in argument, the mesh-mind was knitting together, the edges of the room gleaming and sharpening. The Dancing Mistress set down her cup. “It is time,” she said in their language. “We will find this shaman and stop his scheming, before he drags all of us down into darkness.”
* * *
The moon glowed faintly through the low clouds, but the shadows outflanked the light at every turn. Torches burned at compound gates while lamps hung at intersections and in the squares. The nighttime streets of Copper Downs were streaked with smears of heat and scent.
The hunt slid through the evening like a single animal with four bodies. Her vision was complex, edges gleaming sharp at all distances and ranges. Odors told stories she could never read on her own, about the passage of time and the sweat of fear, passion, even the flat, watery smell of ennui. The very feel of the air on her skin as she ran had been magnified fourfold. She saw every door, every hiding place, every mule or person they passed, in terms of force and danger and claws moving close to the speed of thought.
The sheer power of the hunt was frightening in its intoxication.
They slipped through the city like a killing wind, heading toward the Ivory Quarter and the black gate through which she’d passed before. She’d never run so fast, so effortlessly, with such purpose.
Why had her people not stayed like this always? she wondered. All the logic of civilization aside, surely this was what they’d been made for.
It seemed only moments before they’d crossed the city to the old ochre walls of the compound, now glowing in the moonlight. The ancient stucco seemed to suck the life of the world into itself, though the trees beyond and above the wall practically shouted to her expanded sensorium.
Three times in as many minutes they circled around the shadowed walls, and found no sign of the shaman’s black gate. Not even a significant crack where it might have stood.
There was power aplenty in the world, but it was not generally spent so freely as this man had done. Opening that gate was the magical equivalent of a parlor trick: flashy, showy, a splash of self such as a child with a paintpot might make. But costly, very costly. The greatest power lay in subtlety, misdirection, the recondite support and extension of natural processes.
It was here, she thought, and the hunt took her meaning from the flick of her eyes, the set of her shoulders, the stand of her fur. They believed her. She knew that just as they’d known her meaning.
Together they drifted back to the main gate. It had stood propped open years before the Dancing Mistress had come to Copper Downs, but no one ever passed through it. The squatters who lived within used the servants’ gate beside the main gate, and so observed the blackletter law of the city even as they had built their illegal homes upon the grounds. The trail of their passing back and forth glowed in the eyes of the hunt. It was human, but there was something of their people mixed in with it.
The hunt slipped through the narrow door one by one, their steps like mist on the furze within. The path followed the old carriage drive through a stand of drooping willows now rotten and overgrown with wisteria. Trails led off between the curtains of leaves and vines toward the hidden homes beyond.
There was no scent to follow here. The shaman might as well have been made of fog.
A thought passed between the hunt like breeze bending the flowers of a meadow: An herbalist lives here, a woman of their people.
She felt her claws stiffen. The wisdom of the hunt stirred, the mesh-mind reading clues where ordinary eyes saw only shadow.
Is the Duke in fact still dead?
It was the same question she’d almost asked herself on her way to this place the first time.
Sage-man twitched aside a mat of ivy and stepped into the darker shadows. A brighter trail well-marked with the traces of one of her people led within. Of course, cloaked in the magic of her people the shaman could also have left his tracks so.
The Dancing Mistress nodded the rest of her hunt through—cinnamon-woman and the glumper—and followed last.
* * *
The hut was a shambles. Jars shattered, sheaves scattered, what little furniture there had been now smashed to splinters. While there didn’t seem to be any quantity of blood, the stink of fear hung heavy in the close air, overlaying even the intense jumble of odors from scattered herbs and salves.
The glumper trailed his fingers through the leaves and powders and shattered ceramic fragments on the floor. He sniffed, sending a tingle through the Dancing Mistress’ nose. “I might have thought one of us had done this thing.” He had yet to speak a word of Petraean within her hearing. “But knowing to search, I find there has been a human here as well. Wearing leather and animal fat. He first took her unawares, then he took her away.”
The shaman, the Dancing Mistress thought. Inside the mesh-mind, they shared her next question. What path did he follow now?
The hunt had the shaman’s scent, and the herbalist’s besides. It was enough.
* * *
A warm, damp wind blew off the water to carry the reek of tide rot and the distant echo of bells. Even the rogue squads of the Ducal guard seemed to be lying low, doubtless surrounded by wine butts, and hired boys wearing slitted skirts and long wigs. The city was deserted, waiting under the smell of old fires and dark magic.
That was well enough, the Dancing Mistress thought with the independent fragment of herself that still held its own amid the flow of the mesh-mind. It would not do for her people to be seen gliding over the cobbles at preternatural speed, moving silent as winter snowfall.
The hunt’s grip on shaman’s scent and herbalist’s soul path was sufficient, even when running through fire reek and the alley-mouth stench of dead dogs. They moved together, heeding the Dancing Mistress’ will, following the glumper’s trace on the scent, using cinnamon-woman’s eyes, sage-man’s hearing. Most of all they pursued the dread that stalked the night, the banked fires of the hunt flaring only to seek a single hearth within Copper Downs.
They followed a dark river of fear and purpose into the Temple Quarter. That had long been the quietest section of the city. Once it must have brawled and boiled with worshippers, for the buildings there were as great as any save the Ducal Palace. In the centuries of the Duke’s rule, the gods of the city had grown withered and sour as winter fruit. People left their coppers in prayer boxes near the edges of the district and walked quickly past.
Even with the gods fallen on hard times, locked in the embrace of neglect and refusal, no one had ever found the nerve to tear down those decaying walls and replace the old houses of worship with anything newer and more mundane.
The hunt pursued the scent down Divas Street, along the edge of the Temple Quarter, before leading into the leaf-strewn cobwebs of Mithrail Street. They bounded into those deeper shadows where the air curdled to black water and the dead eyes of the Duke seemed to glitter within every stygian crevice.
They came to a quivering halt with claws spread wide before a narrow door of burnt oak bound with iron and ebony laths. Darkness leaked from behind it, along with a fire scent and the tang of burning fat.
The man-smell was strong here. They were obviously close to the shaman’s lair, where the cloak of the people’s power grew thin over his layered traces of daily use—sweat and speech and the stink of human urine. The doorway reeked of magic, inimical purpose and the thin, screaming souls of animals slit from weasand to wodge for their particles of wisdom.
That was his weakness, the Dancing mistress realized, surfacing further from the hunt for a moment even as those around her growled. He used the people’s power only as a cover, nothing more. The shaman could build a vision of the world from a thousand bright, tiny eyes, but animals never saw more than they understood. Her people knew that to be a fool’s path to wisdom.
Now he worked his blood magic on the herbalist, summoning the Dancing Mistress. He had drawn her here to cut her secrets from her. The mesh-mind overtook her once more in the rush of angry passion at that thought, and together the hunt brushed someone’s claw-tipped hand on the cool wooden planks of the door.
“Come,” the shaman called. His voice held confident expectation of her.
The hunt burst in.
* * *
The four of them were a surprise to the shaman. They could see that in his face. But his power was great as well. The ancient stone walls of this abandoned temple kitchen were crusted with ice. The herbalist hung by ropes from a high ceiling beam, her body shorn and torn as he’d bled her wisdom cut by cut, the way he’d bled it from a thousand tiny beasts of the field.
He rose from his fire, kicked a brazier and coals toward them, and gathered the air into daggers of ice even as the four claws of the hunt spread across the room.
Though they called the old powers of their people, none of them had ever trained to stand in open battle. Their purpose was strong, but only the Dancing Mistress could move below a slicing blade or land a strike upon a briefly unprotected neck.
If not for their number they would have been cut down without thought. If not for the shaman’s need to capture an essence from the Dancing Mistress he might have blown them out like candles. She knew then that he had set the thugs upon her that day so he could render aid, only to draw her in to him now, when suasion had failed him.
The fight came to fast-moving claws against restrained purpose. His ice made glittering edges that bent the vision of the mesh-mind. The blood of his sacrifices confused their scent. He moved, as he had on the street that day, with the brutal grace of one raised to war, working his magic even as he wielded his yatagan. The glumper’s chest was laid open. Cinnamon-woman had her ear shorn off. Sage-man’s thought were flayed by a dream of mountain fire that slipped through the mesh-mind.
But for every round of blows the hunt took, they landed at least one in return. Claws raked the shaman’s cheek with the sound of roses blooming. A kick traced its arc in blurred colors on their sight to snap bones in his left hand. A brand was shoved still burning brightly sour into his hair, so the grease there smoldered and his spells began to crack with the distraction of the pain.
The hunt moved in for the kill.
The Dancing Mistress once more emerged from the blurred glow of the hunt to find herself with claws set against the shaman’s face. The cinnamon-woman twisted his right arm from his shoulder. She looked up at the herbalist, who dangled bleeding like so much meat in the slaughterhouse, and thought, What are we now?
“Wait,” she shouted, and with the pain of forests dying tore herself free from the mesh-mind.
Cinnamon-woman stared, blood streaming from the stump of her ear. The look sage-man gave the Dancing Mistress from his place bending back the shaman’s legs would have burned iron. Their mouths moved in unison, the mesh-mind croaking out the words,“He does not deserve to live!”
“He does not have a right to our power,” she countered. “But we cannot judge who should live and who should die.”
The shaman bit the palm of her hand, his tongue darting to lick the blood, to suck her down to some last, desperate magic.
Steeling herself, the Dancing Mistress leaned close. Her claws were still set in his face. “I will take your wisdom as you have taken the wisdom of so many others. But I shall let you live to know what comes of such a price.”
“Wait,” he screamed through her enclosing palm. “You do not underst—”
With a great, terrible heave, she tore his tongue out with her claws. “We will not have the Duke back,” the Dancing Mistress whispered venomously. She slit into him, plucking and cutting slivers from his liver and lights. The hunt kept the shaman pinned tight until blood loss and fear erased his resolve. Then the remainder of mesh-mind collapsed. The cinnamon-woman began to tend to the glumper and the herbalist. Sage-man rebuilt the fire before ungently sewing shut the slits that the Dancing Mistress had made in the shaman’s chest and belly.
Ice from the walls turned to steam as the Dancing Mistress fried the organ meats, the tongue and two glistening eyes in a tiny black iron pan graven with runes. The blinded shaman wept and gagged, spitting blood while he shivered by the fire.
When the bits were done the Dancing Mistress dumped them to the blood-slicked mess that was the floor. She ground the burnt flesh to mash beneath her feet, then kicked it into the coals. The shaman’s weeping turned to a scream as his wisdom burned away.
“Our water matter is discharged,” she whispered in his ear. “If your Duke’s ghost comes to you seeking restoration, send him to knock at my door.”
Then the Dancing Mistress gathered the herbalist into her arms. Cinnamon-woman and sage-man brought the glumper between them. The shaman they left to his fate, blind, mute and friendless among the lonely gods.
* * *
The Duke of Copper Downs was still dead, the Dancing Mistress reflected as the night faded around her. Oddly, she remained alive.
She sat at the door of the herbalist’s hut. The woman slept inside, mewing her pain even amidst the thickets of her dreams. There was a new water matter here, of course. The ties among her people ever and always were broad as the sea, swift as a river, deep as the lakes that lie beneath the mountains. She was bound for a time to the herbalist by the steam that the hunt had burned from the shaman’s icy walls.
That man did not have much of life left to him, but at least she had not claimed it herself. Her people had the right of things in centuries past, when they gave up their power. She only hoped that rumor of the hunt was small and soon forgotten by the citizens of Copper Downs.
The shadows beneath the rotten willows lightened with the day. The spiced scent of cookery rose around her, tiny boiling pots and bumptious roasts alike. The Dancing Mistress rose, stretched, and went to tend her patient.
Copyright © 2008 by Joseph E. Lake, Jr.