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“So exactly why is it you’ve brought me here?”

I was beyond irritability, well on the way to impatient anger. Damn Gilga-Yar and his game-playing—to send me, Frewar Zej, halfway across a world in the care of his minion as if I were a first year mage. And to this wasteland dung-pile, of all places.

I had been here before, back when the trade routes between Aeryé and the K’Tarii nomads hadn’t been choked by the dust of war. El Ramir had been a scab of a town then, and from what I had seen before entering its only public house two hours before, it hadn’t changed much. The only good memory I could find from my brief stay a quarter-century ago was of a D’an-Nubii dancing girl I had—

The demon in my pocket chortled, interrupting my re-lived pleasure. “Wait. You’ll see.”

I looked down, my one good eye locking onto the demon’s. “It’d better be good,” I said. “Or you’ll be very sorry.”

It laughed, snorted, farted and laughed again. “I don’t fear you. My master—”

“Damn you and your master both. I have things to do. I don’t have time for his games—to drop everything and travel three thousand miles to this flea-infested chamber-pot just to satisfy his itch for fealty.” I kept my voice low, but the ice was in it.

The demon poked his minute finger into my side, his bug-eyes narrowing. “You want to play, you’ve got to pay.”

I had more angry words, but I swallowed them. The little bastard had me there, just like our mutual master, Gilga-Yar. After all, he hadn’t sought me out thirty years ago. He hadn’t asked for the contract. He hadn’t said “name your price” or “whatever it takes.” I had done that. And each year, as winter settled in the Northern Reaches where I made my home, my patron—or, in this case, his messenger—came calling for a “small token of my commitment.”

I took a swig from the tankard before me and let the cool, fermented danaberry juice tease the back of my throat.

I could have sought another patron over the years—one perhaps more benign. But contract negotiations had never been my cup of qua’en and my focus was on the Art, not all of the politics around it. And going solo—well, why make your own flawed paints, brushes and canvas when there was such a ready, unblemished supply for the buying? I looked at the hook that pretended to be my right hand. The price thus far had been reasonable. A hand. An eye. Some toes. A soul here, a virgin there. Of course, I had preferred those years when he’d bid me kill a rival or find some artifact he craved. Still, the messenger-sprite was correct: I did want to play. And I would pay my annual dues to do so.

It began to caper in my pocket, jumping up and down in a gleeful dance. “Here she comes! Here she comes!” I looked around the room. It was crowded with an odd assortment of outlanders. A noisy band of K’Tarii freeholders, swaddled in silk robes and turbans, occupied a fair portion of the room, their heavy blades of Akiiren steel hanging from broad red sashes. Keeping a fair distance, a cluster of out-of-uniform Suranian warrior-priests, noticeable by their purple-dyed top-knots, talked quietly into their ale mugs, eyes darting around the room. Mixed in like clumps of cinnamon in wine were the natives—dark-skinned, dark-haired men and women, all dressed in a rainbow array of loose-cut pants and shirts. Most of the women sat on or near the nomads, casting playful eyes toward the Suranians but knowing better than to approach. The heavy black curtain jingled as it was drawn back, and a woman walked through.

I don’t know how she came to be in this place—it was obvious she didn’t belong, and yet she was dressed as any other El Ramiran. She was blond, and though her skin was dusky, her eyes were a sharp blue. She looked young—maybe half my age—and she carried herself with an easy confidence. Her crooked nose marked her part D’an-Nubii, but she had smatterings of the Northlands about her cheekbones and mouth. For a moment, I held my breath. There was a wild beauty about her that I felt guilty noticing, after all—

“That’s her,” it gurgled, twitching. “You see her don’t you?”

“Yes,” I said. “I see her. What now?”

“Master wants her soul. Give it to him.”

I’d done this before. “Same terms?” I asked.

“Same terms. No magic. Use the blade. Say the words. Get another year of juice. Get juicier juice.”

I nodded. Someone staggered near me and I paused. It wouldn’t do to be overheard talking to my pocket, even if they couldn’t understand the obscure nether-tongue I used. “Who is she?”

It shrugged. “Nobody.” It paused, could have remained silent, but didn’t. “A fledgling in the Art.” Here my eyebrow raised.

“Does she have a patron?”

It shrugged again. “A minor devil in the Seventh Outer Ring. But . . .”

“Yes?” She walked over to the bar with regal grace and her smile said she knew she was turning heads. She murmured something to the barkeep and he nodded, reaching for a glass. Gods, what a woman.

“She has approached master for a contract. It’s been under consideration these past three years.”

The words stung me alert. “But I thought he had his allotment?”

“He does,” it giggled. “Little does she know . . .” The double dealing bitch-whelp. Memories of my own waiting period came flooding back—years of slavish devotion to prove my intention to sign and stay signed. And now, this young woman, after three years of hard work, hoping against hope to be offered a contract, was to be snuffed out so her soul could decorate Gilga-Yar’s mantle. And no doubt, her current patron wouldn’t lift a tentacle to save her—her disloyalty by this time no secret. But who was I to develop a conscience? A little late in the year for such nonsense.

“Why her?” I asked suddenly, but didn’t know why. “Why not some king or another arch-mage?”

The demon was silent for a moment. “You do not wish to pay? You do not wish to play?” The questions were ominous probes, black fingers in my brain.

I sighed. “She’s so young.”

There was no response.

“Okay, damn you. Of course I’ll do it.” I stood and straightened my robes. I knew what I saw there by the counter—what would she see coming towards her? The great Frewar Zej, Arch-mage of the Twenty-third Order or a fifty-five-year-old man with an empty eye socket and thinning gray hair, who walked with a limp and sported an iron hook instead of a hand? And why did I care?

I shuffled to the counter, my one hand burying itself in travel-stained cloth to rest upon the bone knife-hilt. My fingers absently traced the runes as I pushed up beside her, my mind racing over the litany. She hadn’t turned yet, the center of her slim shoulders a waiting target.

I could have done it right then—could’ve finished it. But I paused. Her hair smelled of apples and my eye followed its waving, broken line over her small ears, down her slim neck. In my pocket the demon poked and pushed impatiently.

Her head came up, as if hearing, and her eyes settled on me.

“Have you come far?” she asked. Her voice was music, and yes, it was D’an-Nubii—her accent proved it out.

I must have started, because she smiled.

“I can see you are a foreigner,” she said. “Have you come far?”

“Yes,” I said. Damn. This wasn’t getting easier at all. I released the handle of the knife and rapped on the counter. “Qua’en, barkeep. And chilled, if you have it.”

“Where from?”

“Erlan’s Fjord,” I lied. She smiled. My drink arrived and I tossed a copper regliré to the barkeep’s waiting hands.

“A veteran?” A plausible explanation for my missing pieces, but she knew and I knew that she knew. She had turned just enough and my eye had unwittingly discovered that the left side of her chest was noticeably flat compared to the ample curve of her right breast. The demon hadn’t lied—she had already begun paying her dues.

“I think you understand the reason for my condition,” I stated, quickly flashing her the recognition sign that conveyed my rank and order. She nodded, her fingers quickly making her own sign. She seemed both frightened and excited at the truth, and tried badly to hide it. At this point, enough people had noticed us together. I would need a quieter place for my work now.

“My name is—”

I cut in, angrily. “I don’t want to know your name.”

Her lower lip jutted out. “I only . . . I mean—”

“I’m sorry,” I said. I had to recover somehow. To turn this to my advantage. “It’s been a long journey. Please. Tell me your name.”

She shook her head and smiled. “No. It’s not important. What I’d really like is to talk with you.” Her voice lowered to a whisper. “I’m new to the Art and have never met an arch-mage before. I have so many questions.”

“Then perhaps we should go someplace more amenable to our conversation.” The demon in my pocket broke wind noisily and stifled a giggle.

“What was that?” she asked, eyebrows arching with surprise.

“Nothing,” I said and gave my pocket a thump.


First-moon hung low in the sky, an evil urine-colored orb that dominated the horizon. We were silent now, watching and hearing the night around us. In the distance, desert wolves howled as we sat in the gathering dusk. Four times I had slipped my hand to the knife, and four times I had stopped myself. I knew that I would have to go through with it soon, that every moment I stalled made it harder and easier at the same time. Harder, because already I dreaded the deed. Easier, because with each word she seemed to trust me more. For hours we had sat at the edge of the oasis, gazing out over the mauve wasteland while I answered her myriad questions about my life with the Art. She seemed so innocent there, framed in the moon-light, drinking in my every word. She was a perfect woman to my ego—all rapt attention and wide-eyed wonder.

“So,” I asked, breaking the silence, “Tell me of yourself.” The messenger-sprite had gone to sleep two hours ago, mumbling curses and threats under its breath.

She shrugged and her fingers began to play in her hair. “There isn’t much to tell. I was born here in El Ramir. I’ve lived here all my life. My mother was a D’an-Nubii dancer and my father was—”

The world reeled around me as a picture came into focus. “Damn and blast!” I lunged to my feet. “Damn and blast!” I repeated the words again and again, startling the demon awake with my pacing. The girl watched me. Did she know? She couldn’t know. But she would if I didn’t rein in my anger quickly. My hand dipped into the pocket, clutched the demon’s scaly throat and hauled it out of its hiding place. I threw it to the ground.

“I won’t do it!”

The girl stood up at the sight of the thing and drew near me. “Do what?” she asked.

“Gilga-Yar knows, doesn’t he?”

The demon recovered its wits. “You want to play? You’ve got to pay!” Then, it fell to the ground and began rolling back and forth, holding itself as it shook with laughter.

“Then I don’t want to play.” The demon sat up, surprised.


I pulled the knife from my robes and hurled it at the tiny sprite. It dodged away, but I grabbed its heart between my thumb and forefinger and began to squeeze, feeling the Art give it shape and texture beneath my touch. The demon gasped and began to shriek, struggling to inflate itself to full size. It was all fang and eye and claw now, as it twisted in the dirt. With a ceremonious twist of the wrist I burst its heart like a grape and watched it collapse into itself, a puff of sulfuric smoke. Then, I turned to the girl.

She stooped over the knife, picked it up, stared at it.

“What is this about?” she asked.

“I think you know.”

She swallowed, nodded. She dropped her hands to her sides. “I’ve known all along.” It was an awkward moment, and dueling visions battled over my imagination. Gilga-Yar would probably hunt me now—perhaps I would become someone else’s annual dues. Gods knew I had killed his renegades before.

She stepped into my arms and I embraced my daughter.

“Father, what have you done?” What had I done? I was solo now. A free agent. And a father. I felt her shoulders shake beneath my hand and arms.

“There, there. It will be fine.” Her shoulders shook even more and she said something incoherent against my shoulder.

“Besides,” I said, trying to make light of it all both for her and for myself, “Gilga-Yar now has room for another contract—if you’re willing to pay.”

She looked up, smiling, teeth showing, and there were no tears—had never been tears.

“I am willing to pay, Father,” she said, and I felt the knife slide into my back, rasp against my spine, pierce my heart. She laughed aloud now and I felt her quiver in my arms as she settled me to the ground. “I want to play.”

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