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Chapter Four

There were no tickets to be had, but Indrajit was proved right—for six bits from the purse Holy-Pot Diaphernes had given him, he bought his entrance and Fix’s.

“Technically, we’ve sold all the footling tickets.” The ticket-taker, a squat woman with faceted eyes like those of a fly crowning her lime-green head, looked left and right as she spoke to them. “But you can squeeze in at the foot of the stage anyway, if you don’t like the view from the back. There’s always room.”

The six bits didn’t go into the cash box, but into the ticket-taker’s pocket.

She insisted that Fix check his spear. She didn’t try to take his other weapons; this was Kish, and a man went armed. The spear disappeared into a closet of polearms and missile weapons.

Fix took a chit in exchange.

The two jobbers waited in the back, trying to look inconspicuous as the lamps were dimmed, and then crept up along the side of the theater. Above and behind them, the seats rose in five tiers, the chairs of each tier more deeply cushioned than the one below. The floor was of a pinkish marble; Indrajit didn’t know where it came from, but it wasn’t quarried at Kish, or anywhere especially close. Maybe Ildarion? The Epic contained an epithet, a formulaic repeated line, about red stone of Ildarion. In any case, the marble of the floors and walls and columns and the polished tamarind wood of the seats suggested serious wealth.

“They don’t use jobbers to sell tickets, or guard the Palace of Shadow and Joy, do they?” he whispered.

“No, they have their own staff, like the temples and the great families and the Hall of Guesses and the library. It’s the city functions that get farmed out to jobbers. Well, or any other job regular employees and servants aren’t dumb enough to do.”

“Everyone knows that. That’s what the Auction House is for. Half an hour to sunset. Once the play starts, I’ll talk my way backstage, to watch Ilsa from there.”

“How will you recognize her?”

“She has no peer, right? It should be easy. If in doubt, I’ll ask. You watch from the space below the stage.”

The curtain swept open, revealing a stage lit by oil lamp and a painted backdrop of blossoming rose-apple trees.

“Look.” Fix pointed with a shoulder. “There are some of the Handlers.”

For a moment, Indrajit thought the other man was pointing at the theater’s own guards, four men who stood, two at each side of the stage, in front of the curtain. They wore red silk from head to toe, including red masks, and the handles of the yetz-wood swords were lacquered red, so that in front of the curtains they were nearly invisible.

But then he saw the jobbers. There were four of them, spread among the footlings. They wore matching gray tunics with a circular glyph on the breast, and they stood with their backs to the stage, staring at the crowd.

The uniforms gave them an air of professionalism. One more thing Indrajit had to think about, if he and Fix were to organize.

On the far side of the footling mob was a Luzzazza, tall, with slate-blue skin and long ears that drooped downward. In the middle stood a broad-shouldered man with the fair skin of an Ukeling or a Karthing from the north, hair red as a pepper from Thûl, and a confident, wide stance that looked as if he were prepared to fight hand to hand that very instant. At the near end stood a pair of people who looked like dull yellow frogs standing on their hind legs, one a cubit shorter than Indrajit and thin, the other two cubits taller, and built like an ox.

“Look at the way that Karthing is standing,” Indrajit said. “He’s a fighter.”

Fix nodded. “A Sword Brother, maybe?”

The skinny frog leaned toward the big one and whispered something.

“We’ve been noticed.” Indrajit smiled and nodded at the froglike jobbers. “That makes me uncomfortable. I’m not sure why.”

“Because the Handlers might take us for kidnappers if we’re not careful, and attack. Or if Holy-Pot’s suspicions are well-founded and the original risk-seller plans to cheat, they might intend to kidnap Ilsa without Peer, and they might decide they should kill us first, just in case.”

“Yeah,” Indrajit said. “Those are good reasons.”

“But they don’t necessarily know who we are, they just see us looking at them. Pretend to watch the play.”

They slowed their pace and Indrajit pretended. The worst thing about Kishite high opera was its traditionalist insistence on using just the one instrument, the Imperial harp. The Imperial harp had five strings, which meant it played extremely simple melodies in a pentatonic scale.

The music of high opera was dull.

“Be careful around the big Grokonk,” Fix said. The two men stopped walking. The chorus came onstage and began to shout together over the pentatonic crash of the unseen harps, a prologue about the twenty-year-long war between two kingdoms that preceded the moment the audience was about to see onstage. “That’s the female. Does your epic tell you much about Grokonk?”

“It’s not my epic, it’s the Blaatshi Epic. And yes, the standard short epithet for the Grokonk in the Epic is fierce-fighting Grokonk, who smell attackers coming, and the long one is Grokonks the dreamers, who fight all battles twice, once in their dreams and the second time more deadly. Both epithets refer to their inborn psychic gift that warns them of approaching danger. They are much prized as sentinels and bodyguards, as a result.”

“What do you mean by a psychic gift?”

“A magical power they all possess. Like the third eyes of the Yifft, for instance.”

“That’s nonsense,” Fix said.

“Not so. The Grokonk are indeed prized as sentinels, as the Luzzazza are often committed to mystical pursuits, and the Blaatshi are irresistibly attractive.”

“Yes, the female Grokonk is highly valued as a guard. But that’s because her mates warn her of approaching danger.”

Indrajit wanted to scoff, but Fix had shown himself to be surprisingly knowledgeable. “The skinny one is the big one’s mate, is that what you’re saying? And he watches for her?”

“Not quite. The skinny one is a Third.”

“So where is the mate, then? Somewhere else, exercising his psychic gift?”

Indrajit caught himself scanning the audience, looking for more Grokonk. The chorus shouted a final warning, and then three women in old Imperial-style armor of lacquered wood and bronze disks strode purposefully onto the stage. Their faces were hidden by masks, so he couldn’t tell which of the three, if any, deserved the appellation peerless.

“They’re on her back.”

Indrajit snapped his attention back to the Grokonk. The big one—the female—was looking right at him with domed, bulbous eyes, a big yellow hand resting casually on her leaf-bladed sword.

“If so, they’re tiny. I think your fascicle is tricking you, Fix.”

“I didn’t read this in the fascicle. I sneaked into a lecture at the Hall of Guesses and saw it there.”

“There’s a reason they call it that, you know. Scholars know nothing. They just guess, and there’s not even a penalty for guessing wrong.”

“This was an anatomy lecture. Before the Vin Dalu cut the pickled female Grokonk open, the lecturer and her assistant pried off the male Grokonk one by one.”

“The Vin Dalu…Rao?”

Fix hesitated. “It might have been one of the other ones. The Vin Dalu Diesa or the Vin Dalu Nikhi.”

The Vin Dalu were the city’s three priests of a god whose name was so sacred it was never spoken aloud, and consequently unknown. Instead, the deity was called simply the Dismembered One, and his priests, the Dismemberers, presided over torture, dismemberment, dissections, and, if rumors could be trusted, even darker scenes. The Dismembered One was not one of the city’s five gods.

“One by one?” Indrajit asked. “How many male Grokonk can fit on a female’s back?” He felt as if he was reciting a bad joke, and possibly a dirty one.

“The one I saw had twelve. Apparently, that’s not an extraordinary number.”

Indrajit swallowed, finding his mouth dry. “I’m going to leave aside, for the moment, the question as to why you were sneaking into a lecture on Grokonk anatomy. You’re saying that if I looked at that female Grokonk’s back, I’d see—”

“You’d see a jellied, mucus-like mass, easily mistaken for a slime-covered, hunched back. In fact, it is a swarm of male Grokonk, who are much smaller than the females, each attached by his mouth to a sort of nipple on her back. Through that nipple he receives nourishment from her, and he also fertilizes her eggs.”

“His…fertilizer…is in his…mouth.”

“Yes. Or rather, deeper back in his throat. The slime on her back is generated by her, and it protects him. In turn, he protects her. His eyes are open under the mucus—if you look very closely in good light, you might see them—and when he spots a threat, he trembles.”

“I feel ill.”

They both pretended to be watching the action on stage.

“To be fair, she’d probably feel ill if she knew how you…fertilized.”

“Well, then I won’t tell her. What’s the skinny one, the…Third? Not male or female?”

“Well, that was the real subject of the lecture at the Hall of Guesses.”

“I’m all ears.”

“I’ve seen a race of man that was all ears. It wasn’t pretty.”

“But I bet it had good hearing.”

“Here’s the lecturer’s hypothesis: When the males fail to find a female to mate with, or fall off their mate sufficiently early and can’t reattach—”

“Because of the slime?”

“I guess so. Those males grow bigger. And their…fertilizing apparatus…dries out and becomes hollow, and they learn to speak with it.”


“So the males can’t speak at all, because they’re attached, feeding and fertilizing. The females can only speak Grokonk, which is unintelligible to you and me, because it just sounds like croaking. But the Thirds develop something like vocal cords, and learn to use them to speak the other languages of man. So they are sexless, and you always see them in the company of a female. She acts as his…or its…protector, because she’s bigger than the Third, and it acts as her translator.”

“Talking through his dried-out…fertilizing apparatus. Which is in his throat.”

“The dissection seemed to bear that out.”

“Right.” Indrajit took a deep breath. “I’m going backstage.”

The women onstage were in full song, one throwing a high descant over the harmony generated by the other two as a fourth person came onto the scene, dressed all in black, face again covered by a mask. How was Indrajit going to figure out which actress was Ilsa without Peer if everyone in this production wore masks? The backing Imperial harps shifted mode and rhythm to something jarring, jumpy, and harsh.

Indrajit exited into the lobby, smiled at the ticket-taker, and then exited the Palace. Outside, the glow of sunset began to pink the inward-leaning spires of the five temples on the Spike, the rock peak above the top of the Crown, as well as some of the tallest of the Crown’s buildings, including the Palace.

Holy-Pot’s contract was about to start. Time to find Ilsa without Peer.

Indrajit straightened the cloak where it hung over his forearm. He circled the Palace at a jog, and in an alley behind, found what he was looking for: the tradesman’s entrance. Breathing harder than he needed to, he rushed up to the nondescript wooden slab and banged on it. He was rewarded with a prompt opening, and a wide pink face, blinking hostility.

“The play is in progress,” Pink Face said.

Indrajit panted, pretending to catch his breath. “First act?”

“I suppose.” Pink Face squinted quizzically.

“Then I’m…in time!” Indrajit held up the cloak, keeping it carefully out of Pink Face’s reach. “For Ilsa…without Peer! Second act!”

Pink Face frowned. “You’re a tailor?”

Indrajit shook his head. “Errand boy.” And wasn’t that the truth? Everything was for sale in Kish, including Indrajit Twang. He’d become distracted from his real purpose, and instead tried to merely make a living.

Pink Face reached for the cloak and Indrajit yanked it away. He took a deep breath and steadied himself. “I was told only to put it into Ilsa’s hands. On pain of beating.”

Pink Face frowned.

Indrajit leaned in to whisper. “Is it true she’s a werewolf?”

Pink Face sucked his teeth, then came to a decision. “Leave that pig sticker here at the door.”

“More of a pig chopper, really.” Indrajit unbuckled the knife with a little unease—he hated to go unarmed in a city where people wore swords even to the opera—and handed the weapon to the doorman. “Which way?”

Pink Face, whose body was wrapped in blue-dyed leather, pointed down a hallway toward a narrow staircase. “Up those steps and left. You delivered here before?”


“You read?”


“Picture of the sun on the door. She might still be inside there, so knock first.”

Alcoves lining the hallway rang with sonorous declamation as spear-bearers, swordsmen, nobles, courtesans, and magicians with stars spangling their robes paced up and down, hurling their lines at each other. A heavy bald man, tattooed on every inch of his body below the clavicles, stood weeping as a tailor adjusted his purple tunic. Two carpenters and a painter worked feverishly at what seemed to be a banyan forest.

A short man, so narrow as to appear almost to be a pole, dark red in color and bearing four walrus-length tusks in his mouth, so huge that the tips of the upward-pointing tusks rose over the bald crown of his head, strode toward Indrajit. As he walked, he bellowed scene numbers and names. “Act one, scene four! Stoolish! Katrang! Yatterino! Act one, scene four!”

Opposite the bottom of the stairs opened an alcove containing wooden racks. Costumes hung there: capes and mock weapons, robes, and long tunics. Ducking behind the racks, Indrajit climbed into a brown tunic, threw a gold cape over it, and grabbed a long brown spear. The weapon was so light, it must be made of balsa; the tip was painted with bronze, to appear to be a spear head.

It felt like low art, all this costume-craft and scenery. Cheap makeup on an ugly harlot. An audience paying attention, an audience that cared, would know from the dialogue and from the skilled gestures of the performers what clothing and scenery and props to imagine. A true performer could travel and perform naked, and astound.

Indrajit hung the red cloak on the rack and climbed the stairs.

What would he say if spotted? The cast of the opera seemed large enough that most people involved could probably not look at him and say for certain he was an interloper, but if he hung around Ilsa too much, he would attract attention.

He should take the costume with him after the play, and sneak back in disguised as a cast member again the following night. It had been surprisingly easy so far.

In the meantime, he and Fix would have the problem of following Ilsa without Peer around and keeping an eye on her during her night and morning.

But at the moment, he needed to find her and start his watch.

On the second story, the hall went left and right. To the right, Indrajit saw red curtains at the end of the hall, which must be the wing of the stage. He found the door Pink Face had indicated, marked both in brushscript and in bannerscript with several words and a neat little sun-glyph.

There were no alcoves on this floor, but there was an open door with an empty dressing room behind it, so he stepped in.

Pots of face paint huddled before an ornate bronze mirror, and several costume changes hung on a bronze rack against one wall. Against another stood a reclining couch, the sort decadent upper-class Kishites used at their eating-smoking-drinking-and-vomiting parties. There was a word for such parties, but Indrajit had forgotten what it was.

He was not invited to such events.

The actor—a man, guessing by the size of the boots standing behind the door and by the breeks hanging on the rack—must be on stage. Indrajit closed the door most of the way and stood in the room, facing so that someone passing by might think he was conversing with the room’s occupant.

Thanks to his wide peripheral vision, he could still see the door to the dressing room of Ilsa without Peer.

“Act one, scene five! Ilsa without Peer!” Walrus Tusk bellowed in the hall. Apparently, Ilsa was special enough to get additional notice, because Walrus Tusk then rapped on her door and cried again, “Act one, scene five! Ilsa without Peer!”

Walrus Tusk disappeared. Indrajit tightened his grip on his spear, but forced himself to retain a relaxed stance.

Ilsa’s door opened, and she emerged.

Ilsa without Peer was hideous.

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