Cover artist Sarah Adams
Cover art copyright © 2012 by Mythic Island Press LLC
A tale of exile, rebellion, fidelity, and fire
The demon Dismay's murderous nature has earned him the ire of his beloved wife, who has sent him away in a fit of temper. In his exile he ventures south into the land of Lutawa, drawn there by the prayers of abused and desperate women who beg him to grant them vengeance against the men who cruelly rule their lives--and Dismay is pleased to do it.
Still, murder is hard and dirty work.
When an avid desire for a bath brings him to a fine Lutawan estate, he meets two beautiful young women. Ui and Eleanor are well-acquainted with the whispered tales of the demon Dismay, who slays men but never women, and they're delighted to entertain their fearsome guest, but they warn him to beware.
Lutawa is ruled by an immortal king, who punishes treason with the terrible weapon of infernal fire. Believing this king to be the same cruel deity known in the north as Hepen the Watcher, Dismay resolves to kill him--and accidentally draws Ui and Eleanor into his schemes.
Those who help Dismay risk a fiery death, those who hinder him risk the demon's bloody retribution, while Dismay, still yearning for his wife's forgiveness, discovers that love can be as hazardous as the wrath of Hepen the Watcher.
The following text is an excerpt from HEPEN THE WATCHER by Linda Nagata. Copyright © 2012 by Linda Nagata. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or republished without permission in writing from the author.
Dismay, please kill them. Kill them tonight, oh please.
Her lips shaped the silent words, this young girl, nine or ten years of age, kneeling on the dirt floor of a tiny hovel, her head bowed and hands clasped together. She prayed in a shadowed corner, outside the reach of moonlight intruding through an unshuttered window. The silver glow fell instead across two men, asleep on a straw pallet. Both were naked, their small, wiry bodies worn with labor, their skin wrinkled with time and washed gray in the moonlight, making them seem even older than they were, serene, ghostlike, altogether different creatures from the monsters who had forced themselves on the girl only an hour before.
Dismay, please kill them before they wake.
The sweet, clean scent of whiskey still hung in the warm night air.
The door opened.
The girl looked up to see a shadowy figure silhouetted against the moon-washed yard, a tall, lean man, with eyes that glittered green as they fixed on her. "Leave now," he whispered, drawing a sword from his back scabbard.
She was on her feet at once. She grabbed a thin blanket from the foot of the bed and half a loaf of bread. Then she slipped silently past the demon and fled into the night.
"Sheriff, the Hauntén demon has killed again."
Marick looked up with a start. As the King's sheriff he was charged with enforcing the law and protecting the people of Lutawa from blasphemy, be it their own or that of a murderous demon sent from the godless north.
Outside the inn where he and his men were lodged, the sun had just risen over the trees. Its rays reached in golden brilliance past closed shutters to stripe the room and the large map that lay open across the table. The young deputy who'd just arrived with his report dared a glance at the map, but he knew his place, and his gaze returned at once to Marick. "It was no more than twelve miles from here, sir. In Breden!"
He was a ruddy-cheeked youth, wide-eyed with excitement. Like Marick, he was dressed in the fashion of the sheriff's company: black boots, black gloves, and a black silk tunic, traditionally loose in the shoulders, cinched at the waist, and flaring again as it draped over loose black riding pants. The silk's sheen was dimmed by a layer of dust from the road.
"And how many were slaughtered in Breden?" Marick asked in a grim voice.
"At least two, Sheriff. A hovel was set on fire! I saw it myself. Two farmhands lived there, along with a child slave they'd only just acquired."
Seated on the adjacent side of the table was Cullo, Marick's first deputy, a man of imposing size who shaved his head smooth every evening because the spark from a pyre had once set his hair aflame. "You predicted it," he said to Marick, satisfaction in his voice. "You predicted the demon would be seen next in the district of Anacarlin, and you were right."
Marick's gaze turned to the map: a beautiful document that charted the kingdom of Lutawa, its farmlands and hills, its rivers and lakes, its villages and towns, all drawn precisely to scale. Seventy-three tiny tags were pinned to the map, each written on in neat script, marking a site where the demon had been seen or where it had left bloody corpses and burned homes. The creature had struck first in the borderlands, but in the days that followed it had moved steadily south, bringing terror into the heart of the Lutawan kingdom.
Looking up again, Marick fixed a hard gaze on the young deputy. "Hovels are known to catch fire. Why do you believe this was the demon's work? Did you see the creature?"
"No, Sheriff. No one saw it. But the hovel burned so fiercely it had to have been doused with oil, and anyway, the farmboss--"
The youth stopped midsentence. His gaze cut away as the color of his ruddy brown cheeks grew even warmer. "Well, the farmboss said it was the demon's work."
"Did he? And why was he so sure? Speak, son! If you know something, say it."
The boy looked at Marick again. He straightened his shoulders. "I'm sorry, Sheriff. It's just . . . I know the farmboss was speaking in anger, but he told me the two dead men had defied the master when they brought the girl home. The master is a godly man of the Inherent. He doesn't permit any of his slaves or servants to keep a child whore. The farmboss said the demon was welcome to punish the two men for their disobedience, and that they got no more than they deserved."
Marick's brows rose.
"Blasphemy," Cullo growled.
"Is it blasphemy?" Marick asked the young deputy. "Did this farmboss invite the Hauntén demon in?"
The boy looked suddenly frightened. "No! Or, I don't think so, sir. It's just the dead men were longtime troublemakers. The farmboss had to whip them all too often. The master takes it from his pay if the servants and slaves don't live as godly men."
Cullo's chair creaked as he leaned forward. "There's no doubt these two troublemakers are dead inside the hovel?"
"The farmboss was sure of it, though he can't look for bones until the fire's cooled."
"Return to Breden in the afternoon," Marick said. "Look for the child whore's bones among the ashes. If you can't find them, look for the child whore and bring her to me."
"Now go tend to your horse and get some sleep."
The deputy left, closing the door behind him.
"One mile, twelve, or a hundred," Cullo said. "How can we catch a creature that comes and goes with the stealth of smoke?"
Marick reached for a quill and a new tag. "We must lay a trap for it."
"Ha! If only we could--but how? Despite what the Breden farmboss thinks, the demon strikes at random, for no just cause. How can we predict where it will go next?"
Marick wrote out the new tag, then pinned it beside the village of Breden. "It doesn't strike at random."
The first attacks had been the worst. They'd taken place in daylight, far north in the borderlands. Hundreds of free farmers had been slaughtered, along with their dogs and women. Farmhouses and fields were burned. Each rampage went on for hours, consuming farm after farm, but after several days, the demon disappeared.
When it finally struck again, it did so with a new discipline, coming at night and in stealth. It stalked farmhouses and mansions both, entering unseen to murder the men as they slept, splattering bedroom walls with blood and soaking the floors--but the dogs and the women no longer suffered its wrath.
"It's not random," Marick repeated. "Each time there is a woman, and many of these women have confessed that they summoned the Hauntén demon with blasphemous prayer."
Cullo scowled. "Do you mean to bait your trap by forcing the bitches to pray?"
Marick didn't want to admit to the temptation. "I serve the King," he said sharply. "It's not for me to encourage blasphemy--"
"--and no doubt the demon would know a false prayer anyway."
A knock sounded on the door; it opened again. Another deputy peered inside. "The Inherent are here to see you, Sheriff."
"We'll join them shortly."
Marick stood up to roll the map--the King's map, entrusted to him. The King's law forbade anyone to possess a true map of Lutawa, excepting only His own trusted servants, and none were more trusted than the King's sheriff, who was charged with ending the terror of the Hauntén demon.
Cullo held up the brass map case. "It's a risk to involve the Inherent," he warned as Marick slipped the rolled map inside. "They are devoted to the King, but not to you. They fear your influence with Him."
"As they should. Still, they are godly men. In the matter of the demon, we are surely allies."
"You have a great confidence in these old men, to set them on guard against the demon."
Marick shrugged. "The Inherent have the privilege. Let them share the risk."
* * *
There were three Inherent families in the district of Anacarlin, each ruled by a patriarch as God had decreed. The master of Breden was the oldest of them, and the master of Anacarlin the youngest, but the master of Cuhoxa presided over the largest estate by far in the district, and the others deferred to him.
The three men had gathered on the veranda of the inn, seated in plush chairs arranged in a semicircle, each with a mug of sweet fruit juice and a tray of boiled eggs and wine-soaked berries within easy reach.
When Marick appeared on the threshold, Nedwary of Cuhoxa was first to take note. Though he was a man of middle years, with his black hair and neat beard half-gone to gray, he kept himself trim, and when he rose to meet Marick he did so with the stiff-backed bearing of the general he once had been. "You are the Sheriff Marick?" he asked.
"Sir, I am."
Nedwary, standing a full head taller than the sheriff, studied Marick with a stern expression. After a few seconds, he nodded. "God bless you then, and welcome."
He resumed his seat and discussion of the demon began. The master of Breden was most incensed, given the loss of his farm hovel. "Sheriff, it's your duty to stop this creature! Stop it now, before it does real harm!"
Nedwary wanted details. "We are told this demon is a spirit creature, though one that will sometimes clothe itself in flesh."
"Exactly so," Marick agreed. "It appears first as smoke or a mist. In this form it can do no harm, nor be harmed. But in the blink of an eye it can take on the appearance of a man. Then it can be killed--or captured."
"Captured?" asked the wide-eyed young master of Anacarlin. "Is it possible that shackles could hold such a creature?"
"Not shackles, but an iron cage. If a Hauntén demon is pierced by metal or confined in iron it will be pinned in the world and unable to escape to the spirit realm. So says the King."
Marick paced in front of them. While the Inherent wore richly colored silks, he was garbed in black: the color of the King's justice. The Inherent were the chosen of God. In power and in privilege they were set above all others save the King--but His blessing was sometimes given to a freeman too.
Marick intended to earn that blessing by capturing the demon. "It deserves no quick death. The King's justice is served best by a public execution. If you encounter the Hauntén demon, then pin it. Kill it only if there is no other choice and remember--if you hesitate, it will kill you. You cannot save your life or your household by fleeing. The demon will hunt you down, and it has never practiced mercy."
The masters shared a dark look among themselves. Then Nedwary of Cuhoxa admonished him. "You forget to whom you speak, Sheriff. We have all seen more of blood and battle than you or any of your men. It's not our custom to flee from danger."
Marick held his face carefully expressionless, but he could not stop a rush of heat to his cheeks. "I meant no offense, Master. It's only that I would have no harm befall the King's beloved Inherent."
"And yet you would have us help you in your demon hunt?"
"It's an elusive creature and my men cannot be everywhere at once. I ask that you instruct your servants and slaves to be alert for any sign of the demon's presence. It must eat. It must sleep. This makes it vulnerable. If you discover it, send word to me. My only wish is to fulfill the King's command, and bring the evil creature to justice for its crimes against Lutawa."
The demon Dismay was in an infernal mood. He hated everything about Lutawa, but he especially hated the heat. The heat was driving him mad. It smothered him as he slept. It haunted his dreams. It crushed his memory. He was filthy with it, forever caked in blood and sticky sweat. Every dawn he prayed to the Dread Hammer for the courage to endure the unrelenting sun of yet another day.
Each day the sky was bland and pale with heat. There were no rain spirits anywhere, and the only wind spirits he'd met were bitter little gusts that delighted in rattling the dry brush in gullies or on the edge of pastures whenever they discovered him sleeping there.
He slept in the day, afflicted always with a horrible dream in which he was free to journey north again, but no matter how far he ventured along the threads that made up the weft and warp of the world he never could reach the Puzzle Lands where he'd been born, or the cool shade of the Wild Wood that was his home. There was only the plain of Lutawa unrolling ahead of him, forever without end.
And whenever he awoke his head was filled with a murmurous thread of prayers uttered by women who pleaded with him to Come, come avenge me.
This he didn't mind so much. Granting such prayers was the task set for him by the Dread Hammer and it pleased him to do it. It pleased him too to defy the idiot god of Lutawa, Hepen the Watcher, who despised women as weak and stupid, and yet somehow so dangerous that death was meted out to anyone who dared teach a woman to read. Under such a god, cruelty thrived, and in time, cruelty demanded vengeance. Only the most desperate women called on Dismay. Though it pleased him to carry out their bloody retributions, it would please him even more if he could just get a decent measure of sleep beforehand. But how could he truly rest when he had no choice but to sleep under bushes, or in barns, or in the root cellars of farmhouses, with some part of his mind always on watch?
His weariness put him in an irritable mood, and his irritable mood was made infernal by the filth: blood, soot, sweat, offal. The death he meted out never smelled sweet and the stench was only made worse by the heat, the unendurable, crushing heat. Though late autumn had come, each day in Lutawa was still hotter by far than the hottest summer day in the Puzzle Lands. No wonder the Lutawans were crazy. Who wouldn't be, living with such weather day after day after day?
The demon Dismay had gone a little crazy too.
That was why he was standing at twilight outside a country mansion, contemplating slaughtering everyone inside. No prayer of vengeance had summoned him. He'd been drawn instead by the scent of clean water and spiced soaps, and the fact that the mansion was isolated from the road. There would be no one to hear the screaming.
A paved driveway wound through orchards and gardens, ending at a wide forecourt with a pretty tiled fish pond and beds of sweet-smelling flowers. The house itself was a sprawling single-story with white stucco walls, a wide veranda, a brass door, and blue ceramic tiles on the roof. The roof tiles alone implied such wealth that the demon's imagination was offended.
He'd been altogether happy living in a hovel in the Wild Wood with a thatch roof and no chimney to let out the smoke from the hearth. What need was there for a roof that must have required dozens of slaves to mix and form and glaze and bake the clay for tiles that were each as fancy as a dinner plate?
The Lutawans were truly fools.
Still, he was quite sure there must be a lovely bathing hall inside. It wouldn't be so hard to murder the family . . . well, it wouldn't be hard to murder the men. He scowled. It would not be his choice to murder the women . . . but still, to enjoy a nice, long soak and be truly clean for the first time since he'd left the Puzzle Lands. . . .
He sensed movement in the threads that underlay the world. Someone in the house was coming closer. The shutters along the veranda stood open. Light glimmered through the windows, moving, shifting, pausing here and there to dip and pass its spark to a candle, or an oil lamp, until the windows glowed with sweet light.
Then the front door opened and a servant--or maybe she was a slave; this was Lutawa, after all--came out to the veranda. Smoke, hidden within the inky shadow of an orange tree, watched her from only a few feet away as she lit a lantern that hung beside the stair.
The light showed her to be young and lovely. The pretty yellow shift she wore was belted tight around her waist to show off her figure. It left her arms bare, and revealed her calves behind a little ruffle. Her hair was long, black, and silky, falling in a thick tail down her back.
She turned to light the second lantern, and as she did so its light fell across the demon, curling around his tall, lean figure and glistening against his honey-brown hair that he wore pulled back from his face and tied behind his neck.
He must have looked like a ruffian in his bloodstained brown tunic with sleeves rolled up against the heat, trousers dark with blood and soot, and boots singed by fire. He carried a sword on his back along with a bow, a quiver of arrows, and his rolled-up coat. Two long knives hung from his belt. The girl gazed at him in stunned silence, her eyes so dark and full of life he imagined for a moment he was looking into Ketty's eyes.
Ketty, who had sent him away in a fit of anger. Ketty of the Red Moon, cruelest of wives.
The women of Lutawa called him Dismay, but Ketty called him by another name, one he'd almost forgotten.
It hurt to remember. Pray to me, he'd told her, when you want me to come home. Two moons had passed since then and Smoke was still waiting for Ketty's prayer. He'd begun to suspect she didn't love him anymore.
"Dismay!" the serving girl whispered. To Smoke's surprise she didn't flee, but instead, after a cautious glance over her shoulder to be sure no one was watching, she scurried down the veranda's three steps and slipped into the shadows beside him. He saw confusion, not fear, in her gaze. "Dismay, why are you here? I didn't pray for you. Did the young mistress pray for you? It's too soon. We're not ready to call on you yet." She gestured toward the driveway. "You must go. Later, maybe, we'll need--"
Smoke bared his teeth and at once she stopped her whispered excuses. It astonished him the way his legend made its way through the countryside even ahead of his own swiftly moving presence, but tonight he was in no mood to be charming. He said, "Know this: It's a dangerous thing to pray to me, but it's more dangerous to send me away."
"But Dismay, if the master sees you--"
"I'll kill him."
"No, please. He's a good man."
"Better if he doesn't see me then."
"But what have you come for? Why are you here?"
"I want a bath. And I'm hungry, and tired as well--tired of sleeping in barns and under bushes."
"Oh." Again she glanced back at the door. "The master is away at dinner this evening, and no one will be in the bathing hall at this hour. If I go there, can you find me?"
"Go quickly, and pray to me to come, when the way is clear."
Her eyes grew bright with the excitement of doing something forbidden and sweet. "I'll call the young mistress. She'll want to meet you." And with that she trotted back up the stairs, to disappear behind the brass door.
Smoke fixed his mind on the tremble and sway of the threads in the world's weft so that he could follow her progress. She hurried through the great room, and then into a hallway where another woman joined her. The two rushed past a manservant, and then ducked into a room, pulling a door shut behind them. Several seconds passed. Then the serving girl remembered to speak to him in prayer. Come, Dismay. Come bathe and be comforted.
The girl's name was Ui and her young mistress was Eleanor. They were of a similar age and in some ways they looked much alike, sharing the same dark hair and dark eyes. But Eleanor's hair was carefully arranged, tied back from her face in intricate braids before being allowed to fall free down her back; and she wore a dress of soft-green, patterned silk, that somehow caught the candlelight in a way that enhanced the sweet curve of her breasts and her hips; and while her smooth arms were bare, her skirt brushed the floor, showing not even her ankles; and she carried herself with a trained grace that set off her beauty in a disconcerting way.
Ui was a pretty, lively girl, but she faded beside her pampered mistress.
Smoke could hardly take his eyes off Eleanor, and when he managed the trick, his gaze was caught by Ui instead. They were a delight to all his senses; their buoyant presence was a respite and a relief.
He was Dismay, after all, whose task it was to answer the prayers of vengeance whispered by women who could endure no more. Every woman he'd met these past two moons had been on her knees, abused and broken, overcome with hate, begging him for bloody retribution.
Eleanor and Ui only wanted to please him.
The flush he felt as he set his weapons aside had nothing to do with the warmth of the evening and everything to do with the presence of two cheerful young women.
He stripped off his filthy clothes and at Ui's invitation he sat on a stool. Together the two set about washing his long hair, and then scrubbing his skin clean. It was exquisite to simply be touched again, but because they were young and lovely and kind it was arousing too. His passion swelled beneath the towel laid over his lap, but it was tempered as his thoughts turned to his wife Ketty, cruel Ketty of the Red Moon, who didn't care for him anymore, who had forgotten his name, while he had forgotten nothing: not her warmth, her voice, her sweet scent, or the wild joy of entering her sacred gate--
"Ah, Dismay," Eleanor said, softly, shyly. "You have so many terrible scars."
She stood behind him, her fingers lightly tracing the ropy lines of the wounds he'd taken, touching first his shoulders, then his back, and then his arms. Smoke closed his eyes. Ketty used to touch him like that, kissing his scars and whispering her gratitude that he was still alive--but Ketty had been born on a night when the moon turned red, and the spirit of the red moon was pig-headed and stubborn.
Eleanor's soft hand slipped over his left shoulder, to explore the ragged, hideous scar that spoiled the curve of his neck. "That," Smoke said in a low growl, "was given to me in battle by a Lutawan officer when I was a Kor´yos soldier fighting for the Puzzle Lands."
"Ah, you were in the war," Eleanor said sadly.
Ui did not share her melancholy. "Did you kill the officer?" she asked with a breathless excitement.
"Long after, but finally, yes."
Ui held a fresh ewer of water which she poured slowly over his shoulder and chest. "And how many other wicked men have you killed?" she asked, her eyes bright with a bloodthirsty light. "Hundreds and hundreds, I'm guessing!"
Smoke shrugged. "I don't count them."
"But why does the King let you do it?" she wondered. "Why does He let you get away with it? Why does He let you live?"
Smoke chuckled, charmed by her naiveté. "I'm a demon. What can he do to stop me? Unless he's a demon too?"
"Of course he's not a demon," Ui chided, turning the ewer upside down to pour the last of the water. "He is the King! And it's the King's power to strike down anyone with infernal fire! He should strike us down for talking to you."
Smoke laughed at her zeal. "Infernal fire? What is that? Is it something I should fear?"
"You don't know about infernal fire?" Ui's lovely eyes were wide with astonishment. Her voice dropped to a whisper, as if the King himself might overhear. "It's the King's fire. He may summon it, anywhere, anytime, to punish the wicked, and it can't be put out, no matter what."
Smoke's eyebrows rose. "Am I wicked?"
He expected her to blush and apologize, but instead she grinned, still holding the empty ewer in her hands. "The King must think so."
Eleanor's hands settled possessively on Smoke's shoulders. "Ui, you are incorrigible."
Ui gave her a sour look, but then she turned again to Smoke. "Why does he let you live?"
"Not because he loves me."
Ui laughed in delight, but Eleanor's hands tightened on his shoulders. "Dismay, Ui is right. You must be careful. The King watches over all of Lutawa, he sees everything, everywhere, and he does burn up his enemies with infernal fire."
It was one of Smoke's gifts that he could always tell if a person spoke the truth, so he knew that both Eleanor and Ui devoutly believed what they were telling him. He puzzled over it, wondering aloud, "What man can do such things?"
Eleanor caught her breath. Then she leaned down to whisper in his ear. "Don't you know? The King is not a man. He is God-in-the-world."
"God-in-the-world?" Smoke echoed skeptically.
How very interesting.
Smoke recalled that his sister, Takis, had once asked him to kill the Lutawan King. That was before he'd left the Puzzle Lands, before he lost Ketty.
He had two sisters, twins, who were like two halves of one soul. Tayval commanded the fence of spells that guarded the border of the Puzzle Lands, while Takis was the Trenchant and commanded the army. Both his sisters wanted an end to the endless war that had gone on for generations between Lutawa and the Puzzle Lands, but the Lutawan King refused to consider peace, so Takis had asked Smoke to kill him. She hadn't mentioned that the King might be more than a man . . . but then their sister Tayval had doubted his success--and why would Tayval doubt that he could murder a man? Unless she suspected the King was something more?
A wild hunch took hold in Smoke's mind. "Do you know the King's name?" he asked Eleanor.
She sighed. "Dismay, don't you understand? The King doesn't have a name because he is God. He is not a man to have a name."
Smoke bared his teeth in a wicked grin; his heartbeat quickened with excitement. For two months he'd wandered Lutawa, killing casually, waiting for Ketty to call him home, but now . . . he suspected the Dread Hammer had a greater task in mind for him. "I think I should kill the King."
Behind him, Eleanor gasped. Her hands left his shoulders, and she backed away. "Dismay, you must not say such things! The King is God. He can't be killed, he doesn't die."
Smoke turned his head to look at her frightened face. "I have always heard there is only one god in Lutawa, and his name is Hepen the Watcher."
"It isn't true," Eleanor insisted. "I mean, there is only one god and he is the King, but he has no name."
Smoke dismissed this with a shrug. "You Lutawans have forgotten his name, but we remember it in the north. Hepen the Watcher has long been the enemy of the Dread Hammer. If he and the King are one and the same, then it must be my task to kill him."
Ui wasn't afraid. She crouched beside him, balancing the ewer on her knee. "Who is the Dread Hammer?"
"She is the god of the north."
"She?" Ui whispered in awe.
Eleanor was equally astonished. "A woman who is a god?" she asked, creeping around to stand by Ui's side.
Smoke eyed them both with a lazy smile. "Yes. Long ago, the Dread Hammer and Hepen the Watcher were lovers, but he was cruel. They fought, and she tossed him out of the north. He had no choice but to become the god of Lutawa, and who would want to be that? So of course he's angry with her still. It's why he sends the Lutawan army to attack the Puzzle Lands. The war will never end while he's alive."
Eleanor looked at him sadly. "Then the war will never end, because whether he has a name or not, the King cannot die. Come, Dismay. Soak for a time in the bath, while I comb out your beautiful hair."
* * *
Smoke slipped into the brass soaking tub, sighing as the steaming water enfolded him. Eleanor brought a comb and set to work smoothing the tangles from his long, honey-brown hair, while Ui set about the more mundane task of cleaning the stool and the surrounding floor.
Closing his eyes, Smoke touched the threads within the world-beneath. Ui had wondered why the King didn't strike him down. Smoke was sure it was because the King couldn't see him. He kept himself hidden from those who could see within the world-beneath, including his sisters, and the Hauntén demons of the Wild Wood who were also his kin.
But though he was hidden, the people around him were not. The shape and vibration of the threads told him of a manservant walking in the hallway outside, and of two older women at work in the kitchen. More interesting to him were the strong threads knitting Ui and Eleanor together. "Are you sisters?" he asked, without opening his eyes.
Eleanor's comb moved gently over his scalp. "We have the same father, but different mothers."
"And different fates," Ui said, a bit breathless. When he looked, he saw that she was on hands and knees, scrubbing the floor. "My mother is a slave in the household, as I am. Eleanor is the young mistress, who will be sold soon to a husband. I think the master would keep her safely home forever if he could, but she is nineteen now, and she must be married."
"Will you accept your husband?" Smoke wondered. "Or will you call me?"
"I don't know," Eleanor admitted in a quiet voice.
Ui got up, leaving her scrub brush on the floor. "The master--our father--he wanted to marry Eleanor to the son of his friend, a young man he knows well, who would have made her first wife--but everything has changed."
"My brother died badly," Eleanor explained.
"Without honor or consequence. He was an officer in the King's army, but he made a mistake when he was at war against the Puzzle Lands--I don't know what--and he died with all the men under his command. The King declared my brother a traitor and my father was required to disavow him along with his wives and children, and to pay recompense to the families of his men. There was money enough for it, of course, but now there is no heir. So my value has gone up. Whatever man gets me will become his son and the next master of Cuhoxa, when God chooses to take my father from the world."
"We listen at the master's door," Ui confessed. "There are powerful men in the army and in the palace who would like to be our father's heir, and who would be offended if he chose a lesser man."
Smoke scowled. "That makes no sense at all. You and Ui should be your father's heirs and you should choose your own husbands. Why do Lutawans make everything so complicated?"
They found this funny. Both women laughed merrily, for no reason that Smoke could see, but at least the gloom that had descended over them was dispelled. Ui bent to pick up her scrub brush. "Young mistress," she said, looking up with a coy smile. "I'm sure you must have combed every tangle from Dismay's beautiful hair. It's time to consider where Dismay should sleep tonight."
The comb hesitated. "You're a wicked sister, Ui."
Ui giggled, her hand over her mouth. "Well, then, if Dismay may not share your bed, and I already share my bed with my mother--"
Eleanor bent close, her breath soft in Smoke's ear. "You'll be safe in my brother's apartment. His wives and children are gone and no one's allowed to visit there anymore. The door's locked, and only my father has the key."
Smoke sighed, basking in her warmth, her nearness. "You should not tease a man."
"Are you a man?"
Her lips brushed his cheek. He turned his head and her mouth touched his, but she was only teasing. She drew back with a sad, regretful look. "If I'm not a virgin when I marry, my father must kill me."
She was utterly beautiful, but untouchable, and as the wavering candlelight glistened in her eyes he was reminded again of Ketty--and suddenly he was angry. Eleanor saw it. She straightened and stepped back. "Your eyes! They're glittering with a green light, as dragon eyes are said to do."
"So? I am Dismay." He held a hand out to her. "Come." She was reluctant, but she didn't dare to offend him, so she took it. "Eleanor, will you pray to me, if you don't like your husband?"
"No. I will pray to you only if my husband is intolerable."
Smoke cocked his head. "What Lutawan man is tolerable?"
Eleanor cast a nervous glance at Ui, but Ui was unfazed, giggling behind her hand. "None of them are tolerable," Ui declared. "Even the master, who makes me sleep in the kitchen when he desires to visit my mother."
Eleanor's tone was suddenly sharp. "Ui, go fetch food for Dismay."
Ui's smile vanished and, chastened, she hurried to the door. Eleanor followed her. She unlocked the door, held it open just wide enough for Ui to slip out, and then locked it again. When she returned to Smoke, he felt her fear in the threads. "Dismay, I don't want to be sold to any man who lives in the palace. My brother's mother was born there. She said that all the women there have the three petals of their demon flower cut away--"
"Their demon flower?"
"That place between a woman's legs where her husband takes his pleasure."
"Ah, her sacred gate." Then he realized what she'd just said. "They cut it? Why?"
"I don't know! But she showed me her scars. She said it's done at the King's command. It doesn't matter if the woman is the wife of an official, or if she's there with her husband only for a season. The King knows if she's whole. His order comes. It's done."
Smoke smiled. Yes, he was sure now the Dread Hammer meant for him to kill the King--and what a pleasure it would be to slit the creature's throat, whether he turned out to be a god or a man. "Is the King always in the palace?" he wondered.
She nodded, her eyes glistening with tears as she contemplated her likely fate. "It's said the palace is the only place holy enough to contain His sacred presence."
"Do you know where it is?"
She shrugged. "Somewhere south, where the nights are warmer."
"Warmer than here?" Smoke was horrified that any such place could be. Just thinking on it made the bath feel too hot. He stood up, and Eleanor hurried to bring a towel, patting him dry as he stepped from the tub.
"You can't put on your soiled clothes," she told him. "Ui has to clean them. But in my brother's apartment, you'll find clothes that you can wear."
Smoke took the towel from her and wrapped it around his waist. "You would dress me as a Lutawan?"
She looked up at him, tears sparkling in her eyes. "Forgive me, Dismay. I don't know how to dress a demon."
"Would you serve one?"
She caught her breath in fear . . . but then she nodded. "If I can."
"If you're sent to the palace before I find my way there, then pray to me. Your prayer will make a thread that I can follow, first to the palace, and then to the King."
Now it was her turn to look horrified. "But how can I, Dismay? Surely the King will hear such a prayer? Surely he will know."
"You have talked to me all night, but he has not struck you dead."
Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I know he hears all the words of men . . . but the cook has told me he refuses to listen to the words of women."
"Then you can pray to me. Do so and I'll come and kill the King."
Tears started in her eyes. "But by then it'll be too late for me. Please, Dismay, won't you help me? Don't let them send me to the palace."
He shook his head. "It's not my gift to make lives sweet. The prayers I grant are prayers of vengeance. Who would you have me kill?"
"I don't know! No one. Not yet."
He nodded. "Only the very desperate should ever pray to me. The cost is always high."
"What do you mean?"
"That a prayer for vengeance won't save you. I could kill your husband and all the men of his household, but you would still be hunted down."
She shuddered, turning half away. "I wish I had not been born."
"Show me the way into the palace. Then there will have been a reason for your life."
* * *
Ui returned with a large basket in her hands. Eleanor took it from her. "Take Dismay's clothes and clean them. See that they're ready before dawn."
Ui looked startled at Eleanor's sharp tone. Her gaze darted to Smoke, dressed now only in the bath towel.
"Now," Eleanor added.
"Yes, ma'am." Ui scurried to gather up Smoke's soiled shirt, his trousers, and his long coat. She slipped out of the room with a backward glance that lingered on Smoke as he bent to gather up his weapons.
Again Eleanor made sure the door was locked. Then she brought the basket to Smoke, who had his sword, his bow and his belt slung over his bare shoulders. "My brother's apartments are in the north wing of the house, alongside the inner courtyard."
Smoke studied the threads, nodding as he sensed the place she described.
"I'll have Ui bring your clothes at dawn. I'll warn her not to disturb you before then." Eleanor hesitated. "Unless you want her to . . . ?"
Smoke considered it. Ketty had said she still loved him . . . but that was two moons past, a long time ago. A man couldn't wait forever--though after a bit of thought Smoke decided he could wait another night. "It's not her company I want."
Eleanor's eyes widened in surprise. Smiling shyly, she stood on her toes to kiss his cheek. "I'm so pleased you chose our home and that I've been privileged to meet you." She handed him the basket, her dark gaze riveted on him as he bent to pick up his boots. "I wish I was Ui," she added in a husky voice.
Smoke's brows knit in a skeptical look. "You wouldn't like being a servant."
Then he reached for the threads, and let his reflection shift so that he appeared to Eleanor as a column of gray smoke that streamed away through the wall.