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Chapter Five

She had eyes as big as Indrajit’s palms, perfectly round, with ice-blue irises. They appeared to have no eyelashes or lid, but nictitating membranes that slid up from the underside of the eyes to moisten them. Ilsa’s forehead rose a thumb’s width above the top of her eyes and then turned back at a ninety-degree angle, becoming the perfectly flat disk that was the top of her skull. She had fewer hairs than she had fingers, each coarse and white and reminding Indrajit of wire. Her mouth was wide and lipless, her nose mere slits. Her fingers had one more bone than Indrajit’s, and each bone was longer, which made her hands resemble large nets, or the wire scoops Indrajit had seen used in Bonean variants of Rûphat. Her skin was pale, so pale it almost seemed to shine.

With great effort, Indrajit caught the involuntary gasp that came erupting out of his stomach, grinding it to death between his teeth.

There were a thousand races of man, and Indrajit had seen his share. Many were stranger-looking than Ilsa without Peer, so it wasn’t ugliness in an absolute sense that stunned Indrajit.

Rather, it was relative ugliness. He had been expecting great beauty, and instead encountered a creature that looked like a wide-mouthed troglodyte lizard.

Ilsa swept past, trailing a train and shoulder cape the color of lightning, and leaving behind a sweet scent.

Indrajit caught his breath. What was that smell?

Some flower, and it provoked distant memories of paddling in the warm waters of a calm sea, catching eels with his bare hands, and lying on a warm rock at sunset, basking in the sun’s strength. Deep in his heart, Indrajit felt he was waiting to hear the voice of his mother, calling him home.

When the sensation faded, Ilsa was at the end of the hall, beside the red curtains. Cursing six or seven random divinities—carefully chosen impotent godlets from the Epic, and certainly not any of the city’s cobbled-together pantheon—Indrajit rushed after her.

Two burly stagehands wrestled a crowned helmet over the singer’s head. Not only did it hide her features, it made her a cubit taller, transforming her flat-domed stump of a noggin into a temple of spires and buttresses, with filmy cloth of gold covering a projecting cone over Ilsa’s mouth.

Ilsa moved to the edge of the stage between two red curtains as a round of polite Kishite applause—stomping and whistling—erupted from the audience. The stagehands, one a burly Xiba’albi with his hair in a topknot and the other a bright red fellow with a lower half like a crab, came toward Indrajit. The sight of the stagehand’s crustacean-like legs scuttling across the hard wood toward him reminded Indrajit that he hadn’t eaten in two days, and the last horngrass he’d chewed to numb his stomach had been three hours before going to the Blind Surgeon.

He was starving.

“No spear carriers this scene,” the Xiba’albi said.

Indrajit shrugged. “I was told to come stand right here and wait for my cue. Something about Sigil Hoazza not liking what he saw, last time.”

Whether conjured by the name of the Lord Usher or out of indifference, the stagehands shrugged.

“Don’t get in the way,” Crab Legs said.

Indrajit squeezed himself forward to the edge of the stage. From here he had a clear view of the entire stage, and he also found a fold of curtain within which to stand, where he was invisible to the rest of the backstage area.

Ilsa without Peer drifted gracefully to the front of the stage. The footlings stared up at her, mouths open, eyes gaping.

From where he stood, Indrajit could smell the flowery scent again. What was that? Some rare Bonean flower, or a Pelthite fragrance, but it reminded him of warm times and safe joys. He felt that a place of beauty and safety waited for him just around the corner, if only someone would show him the way.

Ilsa without Peer began to sing. Her voice was loud, and the amplifying cone built into her mask raised its volume even further; her tone was sweet, her vowels open and golden, her vibrato subtle and erotic. Indrajit staggered from sheer surprise, and almost sat down.

She was without peer.

Her voice was enough to make him forgive the harsh racket of the Imperial harps that accompanied her.

The footlings swayed back and forth together, eyes closed, as Ilsa sang of love and forgiveness. Across the stage, a man in a green costume and mask, surrounded by four actors in green loincloths with green skin-paint (or skin) and green swords hanging from their belts, took up the other half of the duet, lamenting the necessities of statecraft and praising the lord wise enough and strong enough to make the sacrifices his people called for in ringing stentorian tones.

Indrajit shook his head, dragging himself out of the spell of the story. It was slow and dull and shallow compared with the Blaatshi Epic, anyway.

Then he noticed that Gannon’s Handlers were no longer among the footlings.

He scanned the audience. The stage was lit by oil lamps and candles set into reflective silver dishes, but the audience was darkened. Still, he thought he would notice a big yellow frog-woman in a gray tunic, if she were out there.

He didn’t see her.

He couldn’t see Fix either, though his fellow jobber was much more nondescript.

They would need a name, if they were going to form a jobbing company. The Fixers had a kind of ring to it, but it did rather imply that Fix was the company captain.

Also, it sounded a lot like the Handlers.

Where were the Handlers?

The green singer knelt center stage, bellowing a series of high, leaping notes that were surely very hard to sing, and which Indrajit found annoying. Behind him, his five green swordsmen drew their weapons and raised them in salute, chanting a bass line underneath the lead’s tenor.

Only…hadn’t there been four of them?

Indrajit looked closely: four of the men had matching long, straight blades, painted green.

The fifth man’s weapon was leaf-bladed, and glinted like steel.

Indrajit sprinted onto the stage.

The audience gasped in delight.

The man with the leaf-bladed sword darted forward, swinging for Ilsa.

Indrajit was too late—

But the swordsman’s aim was too high. His weapon sliced neatly through Ilsa’s mask, scattering all the horns and buttresses and possibly slicing off a few of her wirelike hairs, but not touching her scalp.

Then the attacker stopped, looking at Indrajit with a delighted expression.

Indrajit stabbed the man in the forehead with his spear.

It was only after he thrust the weapon at the man’s face that he remembered that he was holding a balsa-wood prop, and not an actual killing implement. The painted spear head and the top third of the shaft shattered, snapping into half a dozen bits of wood that exploded out in all directions.

The force of Indrajit’s charge still carried him forward, so as the would-be assassin raised his arms defensively, a stupid expression on his face, he sprang forward, twisting and channeling the energy into his shoulder.

The swordsman was shorter than Indrajit. Indrajit’s shoulder slammed into the man’s nose and sent him flying into the footlings.

Indrajit caught himself at the edge of the stage. He flapped his arms wildly, as if they were wings and by sheer force of motion he might be able to take flight, and managed to regain his balance. He shook his head, clearing it of persistent memories of the sunlight on the sea and mild breezes, and looked up to see a Luzzazza in a gray tunic, charging toward him across the front of the stage. The man’s flopping blue ears would have been comical, if he weren’t a head taller than Indrajit and attacking.

The yelling from the audience was no longer an indication of delight.

The actors stood still, stunned and uncertain. From behind the curtain came yelps of surprise and anger.

The Luzzazza had a long straight sword in one hand. Catching Indrajit’s gaze, the slate-blue man slowed, raising his arms to the side in a pacific gesture.

He was still armed, though.

Indrajit saw the leaf-bladed sword at his feet. Kneeling, he picked it up, and pointed it toward the Luzzazza, tip low.

“You’re one of Mote Gannon’s Handlers, right?” he asked.

“Step away from the actress,” the Luzzazza said.

“Right, you’re here guarding her,” Indrajit said. “So am I. Didn’t you see that guy?” With his left hand, he pointed down into the mass of the footlings. He was afraid to look for the assassin, keeping his eyes fixed on the advancing Luzzazza. The man had a sprig of some flower worn on his clavicle, bright green with a splash of yellow, hanging from a short string.

The Luzzazza sheathed his long sword and spread his arms wide. “I mean you no harm, Twang.” He stepped closer.

“Good.” Indrajit raised the tip of his sword, pointing it at the Luzzazza’s sternum. “So just stop right there.”

The Luzzazza nodded and smiled.

“Hey,” Indrajit said. “How do you know my name?”

An unseen power slapped the leaf-shaped blade aside and the Luzzazza swept in. Trying to stab but with his weapon abruptly out of place, Indrajit lurched forward, and an invisible force grabbed him by his tunic, raising him off the floor and drawing him in close to the Luzzazza.

With one hand, the Luzzazza seized the wrist of Indrajit’s sword hand, pinning it. With the other, he drew his long sword again.

Over the Luzzazza’s shoulder, Indrajit saw the two Grokonk come lumbering along the stage. The female really was enormous. He grabbed at the force gripping his tunic, patting it and finding it was shaped like two hands. The hands flowed into wrists, which became arms, which seemed to be attached to the Luzzazza. The blue man had a second set of arms, right underneath his first set, and they were invisible.

“What in frozen hells?” Indrajit muttered.

“I seek the path.” The Luzzazza’s face was calm, expressionless. He raised his sword over his head, angling his point down as if he planned to skewer Indrajit through the neck.

“Hey!” Indrajit squirmed and kicked, but the Luzzazza was stronger than he was. “Hey, I was rescuing her!”

At that moment, Ilsa without Peer, her theatrical helmet dangling around her head in a splintered ruin, darted forward. She had to jump to do it, but she flung herself upward and grabbed the sprig of flowers at the Luzzazza’s neck.

The string broke and the flowers came away in Ilsa’s hand.

And the Luzzazza froze.

His face, serene and expressionless a moment earlier, was taken over by a glazed, vaguely ecstatic expression. He breathed deeply and smiled.

His heart hammering in his chest, Indrajit again felt warmth and smelled the salt sea. But he also saw the blade hanging over his head.

With a grunt and a heave, he managed to swing his knees up and get his feet between him and the Luzzazza. The Luzzazza resisted, but only barely, as if he were half asleep.

Indrajit kicked, and he flew away from his attacker.

The Luzzazza staggered back, crashing into the female Grokonk.

Indrajit fell to the stage. He landed hard, lost most of the air in his lungs, and found himself staring up at Ilsa without Peer.

“There’s something about you,” he murmured. “I just want you to…I just want to know…”

She reached down and grabbed his unresisting hand, then hoisted him to his feet. “Hold this,” she said to him in a rasping voice in the low bass range, and she pressed the bundle of flowers into his palm. “Sniff it.”

Warm waves, warm air. And he felt an irresistible urge to do as Ilsa had told him.

Indrajit sniffed the flowers, and his head cleared. Where was Fix?

“There’s a trap door,” the singer growled. “We can get beneath the stage.”

Indrajit shook his head. “Time to get you out of here,” he said. “I think these guys are trying to kill you.”

“They are only men, after all.” She shrugged, nictitating membrane fluttering, the tops of her eyes just visible from this angle through the ruins of her singing mask. “Did Orem send you?”

“No, I work for the risk-seller. Or the reseller, rather. Repurchaser? I think.”

Ilsa without Peer laughed, and her golden vocal tones returned.

The Luzzazza and the Grokonk female were trying to climb each other to stand, and getting in each other’s way, instead.

“This way!” Indrajit whispered, and dragged Ilsa with him.

“Beneath the stage,” she said again. “There’s an exit that only I know.”

Indrajit had already picked his way out, and didn’t want to risk getting lost. He dragged the singer along by main force. “There’s an exit this way!”

“To my dressing room, then!” She pointed.

“No time!” He panted.

“If you want to hide me,” she rasped, “I can’t go outside looking like this.”

Good point.

Indrajit stood in the door of her dressing room for just ten seconds while she tore off her stage helmet and glittering train and threw on a black hooded robe. He noted a pair of windows, open and facing out onto the street. Cool night air, painted yellow by torches and oil lanterns, drifted in from the Crown.

“I hope you’re good with that sword,” she croaked. “I’m unarmed.”

“I’m excellent,” he lied. “Positively heroic.”

He also had no idea where to go. The shared garret where he’d been sleeping on a pile of rags in the corner? Though he was in arrears there, and the landlady, a three-legged woman with a bloblike, trembling knob of flesh on a long stalk that hung before her like an esca, might not let him in. The Blind Surgeon, where apparently his credit had been restored? Holy-Pot’s office?

The last idea seemed to be the most commonsensical—Holy-Pot had resources and knowledge—but he wouldn’t be in his office at night, would he? And Indrajit had no idea where the risk-merchant lived.

“This way!” He grabbed her hand again and they ran down the stairs. He was leading their charge toward the tradesman’s entrance when a man in a gray tunic leaped into his path. He emerged from a hall that reached the door at right angles to Indrajit’s. He was the fair-skinned man—Ukeling or Karthing, or maybe Ildarian, since those river-valley dwellers of Ildarion had northern blood in their veins—and he held a long, straight sword in each hand.

Pink Face the doorman shrieked and ran.

A Sword Brother, indeed. Indrajit groaned.

The Sword Brotherhood’s name made it sound like a monastic order, but in fact it was a martial art. The warriors who mastered it were sworn to ancient ideals of justice and poverty, or maybe they had secret masters directing them from an underground kingdom, or perhaps they were mere mercenaries.

Sword Brother or not, the pale man standing in front of the door looked grimly competent in his stance, and he wasn’t budging.

The Sword Brother growled. Lowering his chin to his own sternum, he inhaled deeply, and Indrajit saw a sprig of the same flower he held in his hand, pinned to the top of the man’s linothorax like a blotch of yellow and green paint.

Ilsa without Peer dropped her hood.

The Sword Brother flinched and Indrajit attacked.

For a moment, he had the upper hand. He knew his own limitations as a fighter, and kept to strictly utilitarian strokes, aiming for the center of the man’s mass, putting his weight behind blows that would, if he landed them, be fatal.

But the Sword Brother twisted aside, so the blow that should have stabbed him to the heart skidded along his ribs instead, and then he battered aside Indrajit’s second attack, and then suddenly both longs swords were flashing for Indrajit’s head.

Indrajit stepped in front of Ilsa. After a couple of deflected slashes, he found he barely had the speed and energy to parry the blows that came at him and keep his body between Ilsa and the Sword Brother, and no capacity to attack.

It was a matter of time before one of the Sword Brother’s blows got through.

And then the Sword Brother caught Indrajit’s leaf-shaped blade between his two swords. Stepping forward and cranking his blades in a circular motion, he ripped Indrajit’s sword from his hand and to the ground.

Then the Sword Brother lunged forward—

And a spear hit him in the side.

The spear was thrust, not thrown, and Fix followed through his attack. The short brown Kishi emerged from the same hallway from which the Sword Brother had come, at a full sprint.

A man with slower reflexes would have been impaled through the gut and died horribly. The Sword Brother, caught by surprise, still managed to turn and avoid the worst of Fix’s blow. Still, Fix’s onslaught was so fierce that it knocked him to the ground and tore both his weapons from his hands. As the Sword Brother fell, Fix kneed him in the groin, elbowed him in the throat, and then punched him repeatedly in the face.

The Sword Brother groaned and passed out.

Indrajit picked up his leaf-bladed sword.

“Where did you leave Ilsa?” Fix asked.

“I’m Ilsa,” Ilsa croaked.

Fix frowned and cocked his head quizzically.

I’m Ilsa,” Ilsa sang in her golden voice, and Fix’s eyes grew wide.

Indrajit snatched the sprig of flowers from the Sword Brother’s linothorax and clapped it over Fix’s mouth. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”

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