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Chapter Two

The cool, wet breezes of late spring blew up Indrajit’s kilt and across his bare arms as he climbed the ramp from the West Flats up into the Spill. Higher on the knob of ruins, sewers, caves, and natural stone on which Kish perched, the Spill was bounded by the East Flats on the far side, and below it and to the north, the Shelf. Like the West Flats, the East Flats and the Shelf were all strewn with wharves, the shacks of fishermen, and the cheap dives the fishermen frequented. South and above the Spill rose the Crown, home to the temples of the city’s five major gods, clinging like barnacles to the city’s highest knuckle of stone, the Spike.

The Spill itself was full of warehouses and shops, of all kinds imaginable, or at least all imaginable goods that came to Kish by sea. The goods generally became more luxurious the closer one climbed to the Crown. The Spill’s buildings did not have the elegance and wealth of those of the Crown; nor yet did the Spill reek of fish and dung-smoke like the neighborhoods clinging to its sides. In the Spill, business got done.

At the top of the ramp, Indrajit turned into the gate leading into the Spill. Like all his people, his peripheral vision was good. That came of having eyes set far apart in their faces, almost, some would say, on the sides of their heads; with his excellent peripheral vision, he could now see he was being followed. The man was a Yifft; they looked like any ordinary, unremarkable man, caramel-brown in color and of middling height like the race of man commonly called Kishi, but a Yifft could be spotted by the lashless line across his forehead that was all one could see of his third eye when it was closed. When the eye was opened, the Yifft were said to possess uncanny powers of vision through it, though the tales also said that every minute they held that eye open was a minute less that the Yifft lived. They were often employed as spies and seers by the great families, and one could find them in less exalted quarters as gamblers, hucksters, and fortune-tellers.

This Yifft wore a dirty yellow tunic and a loincloth, a faded purple turban with a loose length of cloth hanging down over his left shoulder, and rope sandals. Indrajit had seen the man in the Blind Surgeon and thought nothing of him, but now the Yifft was following him.

Indrajit stepped through the Spill and breathed better. This was not the rarefied air of Bank Street or the Avenue of Heroes, but it was the air of merchants and burghers, rather than the oozy smoke of vice dens salted with the oily stink of fish.

Indrajit had been summoned to the Paper Sook, in the northeast corner of the Spill; the most direct route would follow most of the first leg of the Crooked Mile, the long street that zigged and zagged up the Spill’s slope to the Crown. Good. This was an innocuous highway that might be taken by any traveler.

Indrajit looked for an opportunity to turn the tables on his tail. His long, quick stride carried him past a cobbled square where the players of a game of Street Rûphat threw elbows into each other’s throats, kicked at each other’s ankles, and pushed each other to the wall as they jostled to throw the ball through the octagonal stone goal. This was a public court, and the goal protruded from the wall of an adjacent dry goods merchant, who had probably built the court to drive traffic, or perhaps to appease some god.

A thousand races of man and ten thousand gods, though, depending on whom you asked, both those numbers could be larger. Kish itself honored five gods above all others, five gods borrowed from unrelated pantheons rather than a pantheon native to the city. Five gods, and, some said, a sixth.

None of them was Blaat, the Sea Mother.

Indrajit cut across the Rûphat court, earning shouts from two players. He smelled roasting tamarind seed pods, without seeing the vendor. Ducking through an alley at the back and following it through two quick turns, he put himself again on the Crooked Mile, heading for the Paper Sook. He chuckled—let the Yifft try to follow him, and catch a beating from irate players.

He stopped chuckling when he turned his head to look into the stall of a merchant selling polished copper idols and saw the Yifft emerge from the same alley Indrajit had used.

Indrajit passed a line of robed and barefooted women, chanting a song he didn’t know. Some kind of doom cult, probably; Kish was full of them. He bent at the knees and walked like a bird, trying to stay out of sight. A small troop of thin, short men with ragged cloths about their hips and feathers at their knees and elbows saw Indrajit and began to follow him. Their skin was a mottled gray and they sniffed the ground as they scooted along. Just a pack of scavengers looking for a meal; Indrajit ignored them.

He passed a wealthy Bonean man, surrounded by a troop of scimitar-wielding soldiers. The Bonean was likely noble, judging by the profusion of astral tattoos that covered his body, and by the fact that he sat in a sedan chair carried by four tall, pink-skinned slaves. Indrajit paced the sedan, matching his steps to those of the largest bearer, until the Boneans turned aside.

Still the Yifft followed.

More direct action would be required.

The scavenger pack hooted, sensing some kind of game and maybe an opportunity for a meal. They flashed sharp teeth and scratched at the skin of their own throats.

Indrajit saw his chance, in the form of a bawdy show. The actors stood on a low platform made of planks, just tall enough to raise their heads above the crowd. They projected their voices admirably, but this was no Epic recitation: the actors hit each other, danced, mimed gigantic farts, and pretended to rut like beasts. One of them wore a papier-mâché mask in the shape of a horned skull, suggesting that he was supposed to be Orem Thrush—more properly, Orem Thrush the seventh, head of House Thrush, said to be the richest of the seven great families of Kish, and the current Lord Chamberlain. Thrush was by far the most flatulent of the characters, and also tried to hump the young female characters any time the older characters turned their backs.

So the bawdy was political.

Indrajit didn’t care. What he liked was the crowd, which was thick and noisy with jeers, laughter, and catcalls. The audience was getting thicker by the moment, too, growing like a Zalapting warren.

He turned his shoulders to slide as neatly as he could into a wall of spectators without breaking their ranks, then crossed a thin row of young pipal trees, their drooping leaves a rich, dark green. On the far side he ducked and stepped sideways, creeping out of sight until he could shelter behind the band.

The musicians consisted of a girl playing a forked shepherd’s flute and two men playing bang harps. The harpists seemed much more comfortable with their drone strings and the percussive butts of their instruments than with the fretted melody strings; Indrajit cringed at the roughness of the music.

The Yifft struggled to get through the crowd and passed right by the musicians. Indrajit orbited sunwise around the band to stay out of sight, and almost laughed when the Yifft began looking left and right frantically, and picked up his pace.

Moving catlike on the balls of his feet, Indrajit rushed to catch up to the man following him. The Yifft was muttering under his breath; Indrajit tapped him on his shoulder.

The Yifft turned.

His face was angry and his third eye was beginning to open. Having lost Indrajit, then, he was turning to his magical gift to find the poet again. Indrajit chuckled as the anger turned to surprise. He saw just enough of the Yifft’s eye to notice that the white of the eye was a deep yellow, thick with mucus.

Then he punched the Yifft, right in his sorcerous orb.

Indrajit Twang was a tall member of a tall race of mankind, and the Yifft was off-balance and surprised. With a shrill yelp, the snoop dropped to the paving stones and lay still.

Passersby looked, but no one looked twice.

This was Kish, after all.

The Yifft’s third eye opened fully. Indrajit now saw that it had a horizontal iris, like a goat’s eye. Looking at that eye, he felt a trickle of sweat run down his back, and an unsettled feeling in his stomach.

Grabbing the Yifft’s turban in both hands, he yanked it down to cover the eye.

“No fair watching me while you’re unconscious,” he said.

With yelps of delight, the gray scavengers swooped down upon the Yifft. Indrajit kicked two of them, and then drew his knife to chase away the others.

“Not for you!” he called to them.

The Yifft had followed Indrajit, but he hadn’t done anything worse than that. Indrajit dragged the unconscious man to the cluster of musicians, tossing him into their midst to keep him safe from the scavengers. The bang-harp players glared and hissed, but kept playing.

Indrajit resumed his walk. He picked up his pace, stepped off the Crooked Mile, and deliberately took alleys and byways, cutting away from the Paper Sook before angling back to reach it. He stopped twice at shops to pretend to examine first a saddle and then a glazed clay jar while checking for another tail.

He seemed clear.

Surely the Yifft was Holy-Pot’s man, sent to make certain Indrajit complied with the summons. But Indrajit needed no urging; he owed Diaphernes Holy-Pot and he knew it, and if Holy-Pot had wanted to make an example of him, he’d have had him killed in the street, rather than summoned to a meeting.

Unless, of course, he had a more excruciating fate than mere death in mind. What if he intended to torture Indrajit, then hang his corpse up over the Paper Sook as a warning to future employees?

But no, surely Holy-Pot had some job that needed to be done, something distasteful or dangerous enough that he preferred to call in his debt with Indrajit rather than send an employee, or a more ordinary jobber.

Or maybe he needed someone with good peripheral vision. Or an epic poet.

The Paper Sook was the least comprehensible of the markets in Kish, and, if tales could be believed, the one through which flowed the most money. Everything traded by the merchants here sounded to Indrajit like gambling: bets on foreign currency, bets on ownership in companies, bets on next year’s prices of grain, lumber, and bronze, and counter-bets to cover all the other bets. He couldn’t understand for the life of him why anyone would want to trade in the Paper Sook, unless they simply had a taste for taking blind risks.

The sook itself was square, and from dawn to sunset, every day of the week, was full of shouting, spitting men who handed each other chits and scratched notes onto paper with stubby bits of charcoal. The merchants who traded in the Paper Sook had offices in the narrow alleys around the sook, and so did the professionals who helped them: guards, lawyers, assessors, surveyors, scribes, porters, and risk-merchants.

Holy-Pot Diaphernes was one of the latter. Holy-Pot’s office was in the back room of a blacksmith’s shop, allegedly so that the noise of the smith’s hammer on his anvil would prevent eavesdropping on Holy-Pot’s work…or, according to other versions of the story, so that anyone trying to negotiate with Holy-Pot would be distracted by the loud banging.

A stone bench across the alley faced the door that opened into Holy-Pot’s office, and served as a waiting room. A person who came to see Holy-Pot didn’t knock or announce himself. He sat on the bench and waited for the door to open. Holy-Pot apparently had a spell that told him when anyone was sitting there.

When Indrajit arrived, a man sat on the bench. He was of average height but of solid and muscular build. His complexion was dark brown, and he had large eyes set close on either side of a beaklike nose. His hair fell in a simple black bowl around his skull.

He looked Xiba’albi, but they were copper-skinned, and this man had a Kishi complexion. Maybe from Bat, or the Free Cities, or some cheerful mixture of all of them?

Like Indrajit, the man wore a kilt and sandals. Unlike Indrajit, he was bare-chested and heavily armed. He held a long falchion lying across his lap, a spear leaned against the wall of the building beside him, and two knives and a hatchet hung from his wide leather belt. After looking at Indrajit, the man turned his gaze down, at a sheaf of paper in his hands.

“Buying risk, or selling it?” Indrajit asked.

He wasn’t entirely sure how one bought risk, really, but he’d heard Holy-Pot use the phrase. Also, staring intently at his papers made the man seem studious. Like someone who might be in the trade.

The man looked up, squinted, then returned to his reading. “I’m here to see Holy-Pot.” His voice was gentle and high-pitched.

“So am I. You won’t mind if I sit, then.”

“This is Kish,” the man said. “Make your own way.”

A few minutes passed. Cries of dismay in the Paper Sook turned to hoots of joy and then back to sorrow. Runners rushed to the sook with news, and rushed away with different tidings again.

Indrajit fidgeted. “What are you doing there?”

The other man didn’t budge. “Just reading this fascicle.”

Indrajit nodded. “I’m Indrajit Twang.”

The other man didn’t look up. “I’m Fix.”

“Are you a builder of some kind?”

“Are you a minstrel?”

Indrajit furrowed his brow. “What? No, why would you guess that?”

“Your name is Twang.”

“But I’m not carrying a harp or anything.”

“And I’m not carrying a level or a hammer or an awl, so the fact that my name is Fix shouldn’t make you guess that I’m a builder.”

Indrajit grinned. “To be fair, you are carrying a hatchet.”

Fix looked up, his expression mild. “That’s for chopping people.”

Indrajit nodded, then cleared his throat. “Did I hear you say you’re reading a fascicle?”

Holy-Pot Diaphernes’s door opened.

The Doorman emerged. Indrajit didn’t know another name for him. He could call the man the Usher, only that would risk confusing him with Sigil Hoazza the third, who was the Lord Usher in the same way that Orem Thrush was the Lord Chamberlain. They were the heads of two of the great families of Kish, whose ancestors, key servants of Kish’s last emperor, had stepped in to impose order when the empire fell.

The Doorman was the most nondescript person Indrajit knew. He was brown, like most men, but of a middling hue, with bland facial features, and average height and build, a true Kishi. His hair, if he had any, was concealed beneath a faded red turban that matched the faded red robe, the sort whose upper half was arranged to resemble an aristocrat’s toga. A brooch on the Doorman’s shoulder was a disk of baked red clay incised with a cuneiform character. Indrajit had seen documents and other objects marked with that same sign, and they’d always been associated with Holy-Pot Diaphernes.

“Indrajit Twang,” the Doorman intoned in his sexless, flat voice. “Fix.”

Indrajit raised his eyebrows at Fix. “If you have the same appointment I do, you must be a real piece of work.”

Fix laughed, a girlish sound deeply incongruous with the wall-like man from which it emerged.

They followed the Doorman into the building.

“Also,” Indrajit said, “just Fix? One name?”

Fix said nothing.

The Doorman gestured at a bead-filled doorway and stepped aside. Indrajit found that his heart was beating fast; despite his assurances to himself to the contrary, there was no guarantee that Holy-Pot hadn’t brought him here to kill him.

“Fix,” he whispered. “Does Holy-Pot Diaphernes want you dead?”

“Probably not.” Fix walked through the bead curtain.

Taking a deep breath, Indrajit followed.

The room behind the beads was dark, lit by a pair of candles—genuine wax, not cheap tallow—standing on a single sconce beside the doorway. The atmosphere was further darkened by a thick smoke. Indrajit sniffed—not yip or tobacco, but also nothing else he recognized, either. Maybe just incense.

Behind a table against the far wall, in front of another beaded doorway, sat Holy-Pot Diaphernes. He looked tall, but that was probably just the result of his being thin. His skin was the gray of a porpoise’s hide, and his long arms ended in thin fingers that drummed a complex pattern on the red-stained tamarind wood of the table. Holy-Pot’s visible face looked directly at Indrajit and Fix, golden, catlike eyes unblinking and thin lips pressed together. His long forehead, pointy chin, and pale complexion made his face resemble the crescent moon.

On the left side of Diaphernes’s head was a second face. Indrajit had never seen it, and didn’t know anyone who had, but that side of Holy-Pot’s head was covered with a veil. Exhalations where a mouth should be lifted the bottom half of the veil rhythmically, and when it rested, Indrajit could make out the profile of a long nose and chin.

Indrajit had no idea what the pot was. Vaguely, he thought it meant that Diaphernes was some kind of priest, though not of one of the city’s five favorite gods.

“Indrajit,” Holy-Pot Diaphernes purred. “Fix.”

“I’m here because I owe you,” Indrajit said. “The amount I…failed to return.”

Holy-Pot nodded. “And the amount you failed to collect. And your fee.”


“What’s the job?” Fix asked.

Did Fix also owe Holy-Pot money? Or was he just a regular hireling, a solo jobber?

“What do you know apout risk-reselling?” Holy-Pot’s voice sounded like that of a cat about to pounce on its prey, though his expression was mild. He had trouble pronouncing the sound B.

“Nothing,” Indrajit admitted.

“Some,” Fix said.

“Let me simplify.” Holy-Pot cleared his throat, emitting a soft whistle from the veiled face. “An important party has an interest in a certain person. They have hired joppers to protect her for the next eight days. And they have taken out a risk-selling policy, which means that they pay a risk-merchant, and if the person is killed or kidnapped, the party will pe paid py the risk-merchant.”

“Someone paid this party?” Indrajit asked. “What did they sell?”

“Ah, no. A person is said to sell risk when he pays another person to take the risk in his place. The risk-merchant on the other end of the transaction is said to puy the risk. The risk-seller is only paid if the risk is realized, if the feared event comes to pass. A curious terminology, put one grows accustomed to it.”

“That’s you,” Indrajit said, looking for a shortcut. “You sell…no, you buy the risk.” He thought he had it right.

“No. The risk-puyer involved in this particular transaction wants to protect herself from what she regards as a high-risk contract, so she has entered into a risk-reselling contract with me.”

“So she pays you part of the fee she earns,” Fix said, “and if she has to pay out to the risk-assured, she collects some of that amount from you, instead.”

“My head hurts,” Indrajit said.

“Correct.” Holy-Pot’s face became decidedly unexpressive.

“What do you need from us?” Fix asked.

Indrajit nodded. That was the right question.

“I worry that the original risk-merchant might pe cheating. I do not think she is, put she may pe. Perhaps she will kidnap this person herself, take my risk-repurchasing payment from me, and then hold the person for ransom.”

“Or the risk-assured party might do that, too,” Fix suggested. “Risk-merchanting fraud.”

“That is also a possipility, correct.”

Indrajit was beginning to understand. “So we are going to watch the situation for the next eight days. And if anyone tries to mess with this…risk-assured? Or is the risk-assured the…who is the risk-assured?”

“You will watch the opject of the risk-contracts,” Holy-Pot Diaphernes said. “If anyone tries to interfere with her, you will stop them.”

“Does the risk-merchant have jobbers at work, too?” Fix asked.

Holy-Pot nodded. “Mote Gannon’s crew.”

“The Handlers,” Fix said.

Indrajit nodded, though he didn’t know anything about Mote Gannon or his crew. “Why only the two of us?”

Holy-Pot shrugged. “I do not think it is likely anyone is cheating. Only possiple. So I do not wish to spend too much money. Also, I want you to keep out of sight of the Handlers, so I do not wish to hire a large company with a distinctive uniform. The contracts start at sunset tonight and continue until the seventh sunset thereafter, so I wish you to pegin opserving the opject immediately.” He reached under the table and produced two small purses, dropping them in front of the two jobbers. “Partial payment in advance. A similar amount upon completion for Fix, and for Indrajit, upon completion, the forgiveness of all debts.”

They took the money.

“We’ll need to get close to the object right away,” Fix said.

“Who needs guarding?” Indrajit asked. “Who is the…object?”

“Ilsa without Peer,” Holy-Pot Diaphernes said. “The actress.”

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