All free men and women in a pyre are tied to its countenance network, a social hierarchy which evolved to manage the peace in a very large population without firm rule of law. A relatively small group of powerful families have de facto control of the government, and “countenance” a larger body of important officials, promising them protection and patronage in exchange for loyalty and service. These officials will in turn countenance a still larger group of ordinary citizens, and so on until the entire free citizenry is subsumed. Any citizen may trust any other, even a stranger, because both will have superiors protecting them and keeping them in line. When a dispute arises, a man may appeal to his social superiors for justice—but his opponent will certainly do likewise.
Ram had always hated the peak day market, back in his militia days. Dul Karagi was, like most pyres, largely self-sufficient; it grew its own food and other necessities. Bulk commodities it could not make for itself, like ore, were purchased by the administration directly, unloaded to dockside warehouses, and sold or distributed from there. The plaza market was for luxury imports, all the little knickknacks and prizes that private trade companies could haul down the river. If a wealthy man thought the world of Misishin wine, Shebnaya decorated tableware, or Natatian silks, this was the place to get it.
All of which was to say, for one day in four, the plaza was cluttered with high-value merchandise and people with disposable income, most of them distracted. Whenever Ram’s market patrol rotation rolled around, he had spent eight hours shuffling around a hot, crowded square, surrounded by things he could not afford, struggling not to offend anyone important by bumping into them. There would be flamekeepers on hand as well, but they were only there to scare off assassins; petty thieves and pickpockets were the militia’s problem.
Now he was back, and except for the absent militia the peak day market was the same as ever. Men in immaculate silk coats flirted with women wearing three pounds of jewelry apiece, while the menials holding their respective umbrellas gossiped or made eyes of their own. A gaggle of acolytes circumnavigated the square in a clump, stopping at every table to discuss what was for sale and which of their group might need it. Ram wasn’t sure if they looked less serene than they used to, or if he was just imagining it because of what he’d heard from Piridur.
Flamekeepers paced about looking sullen; Ram guessed that any thief they caught would lose a hand at minimum. Citizens of more modest means moved briskly in and out, snapping up a few things here and there for gifts or special occasions. The men running the tables were obsequious to all but the musicians and other street performers, who kept themselves to the edge of the square.
“I’d say they’re doing good business,” Ram said to Piridur. They both had their swords at their waists, and Ram had stopped to change into clothes more appropriate to an off-duty flamekeeper.
“The appearance of prosperity is essential to a man of means. Emotionally, socially, and economically. I don’t know if you can appreciate this, but the appearance of fear or weakness would invite disrespect.”
“Sounds like an exhausting way to live.” One of the soldiers on duty glared at Ram, his hand on his hilt; he decided to look away, and refrain from scorching the man’s palm. “Does everybody know I’m here now?”
“Everyone at the Palace and Temple, at least. Word will have trickled down from there.”
“The flamekeepers look a little more lively than they used to.” No blackband had ever been stupid enough to go for a target at the market; would the ‘Council’ be so cautious?
“They’ll be happier once you’re gone. Remember your intended role in all this.”
To attract all the trouble to himself. “Right. Come on, then.” They didn’t have any particular destination in mind; the point of this jaunt was for Ram to reacclimate himself to the pyre, and get a better feel for Piridur. He’d been surprised, but pleased, when the man had agreed to come along. On a whim, he took them east, toward the common hall. “You said there were other problems here, besides whatever the Council is. What do you think is the most pressing?”
“A difficult question,” Piridur replied. The great boulevard was still beautiful, lined with fine old oaks and busy shops. Ram almost wondered if Piridur were making all his troubles up. “We have any number of situations that could become critical in the next few tetrads. Shasipir and Natati both hold this pyre to blame for the Atellu situation, and demand compensation. The shipping companies are angry, and most of the tinapi with them. The metal shortage is forcing us to recycle rusted scrap, though that’s only humiliating so far. We still haven’t started the annual bazuu campaign. There are rumors of sul cults starting up again.”
“Pfft. When are there not rumors of sul cults?”
“We have something of a legitimacy crisis, Ram—or would you prefer to be addressed as Ensi?” Ram shook his head. “There is a shortage of certainty. The man on the street doesn’t know who to trust. I won’t make the mistake of dismissing any rumors out of hand.”
“Including man-eating resh-worshippers?” He’d set a leisurely pace for them, and they were still only halfway to the common hall. It was, now that he thought of it, not a bad choice of destinations. Most of the old militia had roots near the hall, where they and their families ate. The east end was full of little shops and other small businesses, haunts of the lower citizenry, for just that reason.
“I’ve seen a number of disturbing things in my service to this pyre. That would not be the worst, if it were true.”
“What would be?”
“What I see in the near future. The undermining of our whole way of life. That one murderer who said he was ‘countenanced by the council’—have you ever heard of such a thing? A small band of self-appointed hoodlums trying to dictate the lives of almost a hundred thousand?”
Ram wasn’t sure how to answer. Truthfully, that was very nearly the system the pyre had at present, though it was debatable if the great families counted as ‘hoodlums.’ But he could also see how having this sorted out by force would be worse.
“Countenance by the council,” Piridur repeated. “That’s what frightens me. Like the first threads picked out of a blanket—the hardest part is starting the hole. We’ll have to patch it quick, or the whole thing will fall apart.”
Ram nodded, barely listening. The common hall loomed at the end of the boulevard, five stories tall with a domed roof of glass and bronze. It was hard not to compare it to Naimenka’s Garden, given its shape, and that was a contest the building couldn’t hope to win. It was an ugly, functional thing, meant to pack people in and stuff them with food as efficiently as possible, serving thousands at every meal. Just now it would be preparing for dinner.
The heat of the day was passing, and the street grew busier in response, as citizens set out on the errands they’d postponed. There was a thin but steady stream of men and donkeys sweating their way east with Ram and Piridur, taking cargo from the docks or market to their masters’ houses. Bondservants congregated by fives and sixes, taking a moment to exchange news before carrying on with what they were supposed to be doing. Boys and girls rushed up and down, either running errands or playing or a little of both.
Ram’s other sense revealed less activity. This neighborhood was a desert for haranuu; most of the handmaidens were at work elsewhere, running smithies or kilns all day, and nobody around here had the funds for a dulsphere. Flamekeepers were rare, and clumped together, like as not for their own protection. A pair of them stood guard at one of the busier intersections, nodding cautiously at them as they passed. Only one spirit in the area was moving around much.
“Piridur? Are there any visitors from another pyre here at the moment? Specifically, in this area?”
“Hmm?” His audible fuming had faded into a fretful silence as they walked. “No, not that I know of. There’s an embassy from Shasipir, but they have a suite in the Palace, and don’t leave without an escort. Why do you ask?”
“Because there’s a haranu about, oh, four or five few blocks north, up ahead. It’s not one of ours, but it’s moving around.”
“The Shasipiri didn’t bring any flamekeepers along,” Piridur said. “Can you tell what pyre it’s from?”
“The power’s not that specific, I’m afraid.” But it was a moving haranu. A dulsphere would be needless at this time of day, and fairly pathetic at this distance from its mother pyre. Another pyre’s flamekeeper would have no business carrying his sword around the east end of Dul Karagi. Which left one possibility, one he’d have thought still more ridiculous before the bloom. “We might want backup for this; do you have the authority to command those two flamekeepers back there?”
“Not anymore. But you might.”
Neither soldier was pleased to meet Ram, and initially they were reluctant to listen even to Piridur. But after hearing what Ram had to say—and confirming, via incredulous looks at Piridur, that it was not all a mad joke—they agreed to come along. The possible danger didn’t frighten them; given events of the past couple of tetrads, they hadn’t been all that safe where they were.
“You know anything about this area?” he asked them, as he led them toward the spirit. He wasn’t worried about losing it, but if it bolted he’d lose a lot of important clues.
“Not really,” one answered. “It’s a shithole.”
“Right.” If Ram recalled correctly, this part of the northeast was a genteel-poor neighborhood, popular among small-time artists and craftsmen. It was far enough from the river that rents were cheap, but close enough to the north end to be readily accessible for any well-off household to send messengers asking for a commission. He’d had little enough cause to go here in his militia days—nobody robbed portraitists, and they didn’t tend to make trouble.
The real warrens of crime and disorder were along the southwestern waterfront, near the south gate, or around the pyre’s great factory districts, where more than a thousand people might live and work together. It was easy enough for a thief to get lost in those crowds, for fights to start among them, or for a troublemaker to rile them up. But the closest such clump was Anshuligi’s glassworks, a ways off to the northeast at the pyre’s edge. This was nowhere. Which, Ram guessed, made it a wonderful place to hide.
“All right, this is the place.” He pointed to a five-story building, slightly shabby, with a few pomegranate trees swaying on the rooftop. Most of the buildings around here had them, or some other useful plant; they made the roof cool and pleasant, and were a more reliable source of income than the tenants. The strange haranu had stopped moving, somewhere on the third floor.
“You—what was your name? Zizri? Can you stay here for me? If somebody comes running out in a hurry, detain him. Or her. If—yeah.” Better not to say ‘if you dare.’ The flamekeeper seemed to guess what he’d been about to say, but only nodded with a sour look on his face. “Your friend, can he go around the far side? There should be two exits.” This reminded him too much of his evening at Lashantu’s. “Piridur, come with me, please. I don’t know how many people are up there.”
The front door opened on a stingy little lobby, with a few metal chairs around a chipped glass-top table, all in different styles and covered in dust. A door on the far side of the room led to a long, dim hallway and a staircase. From somewhere in the building came a familiar tap-tap-tap. It was a friendly sound; a sculptor worked here. “Ram, how hostile is your acquaintance? The other ensi?”
“I don’t know how he’ll act. I’m fine if you let me take the lead; he can’t hurt me. I won’t think less of you. You’re here to grab the stragglers, or cut them down if there’s a real crowd. The quicker and quieter we go, the—“
“I know, Ensi. You do remember how we met, don’t you? Lead on.”
It was somewhat embarrassing to realize that Piridur was considerably more composed than Ram. Mortal man though he was, he’d gone to war multiple times, and probably seen plenty of danger in other contexts as well. He was only letting Ram lead to humor him, or to let him run the risks. He tried not to resent that as he led the way, soft-footed, up the stairs. At least they were brick; metal steps would have advertised their arrival to the whole damn building.
The third-floor landing was lit only by a window, sending warm amber light from the Temple all the way down the hall to their right. Its floors were covered in an abstract patterned mosaic that had seen better days—perhaps one of the residents had done it, ages ago. A number of colored tiles were missing now. Every door was marked by a little iron plate on the frame, advertising the resident’s name and craft; these were combination homes and studios. But there was little sound besides low conversation and their own feet clacking against the floor. The haranu was halfway down the hall on the left-hand side; “Jeznensapa, Melodist” was the listed owner.
“Ready?” he mouthed to Piridur, one hand on the curtain. Piridur waved his hand in a go-on motion. Ram took a couple of calming breaths, then threw the curtain aside, drawing Beshi with his other hand.
It was a long, narrow room, with a small and mostly empty bookshelf on one wall next to a cheap metal desk and chair. There was only one occupant, a young woman lying on the bed under the window. She lifted her head and stared as Ram entered, but looked more annoyed than afraid. She was young, about twenty-five, and distinctly homely, with a big nose and a bad complexion. Her clothes were plain, cheap hemp, a drudge’s rags, but Ram could almost see the alien haranu burning in her heart.
“Oh,” she said in a flat, dull voice, “it’s you.” She dropped her head back down onto the pillow and said, “You just missed him.”
“Just missed who?”
“Mannagiri,” she said into her pillow. “And three exploitable idiots from your pyre. Having a meeting. But they’re all gone now.”
“What were they talking about?”
“Nothing for you to hear.” She rolled over to face the window.
Ram sheathed Beshi. “Look, I know you don’t have any reason to like me. I know it’s partly my fault that all this happened. If you—“
“He left a message for you,” she cut in, in the same dead voice, “for when you showed up. Do you want to hear it, or not?”
“He says that, if you kill me, he’ll send three handmaidens to replace me. And that he has plenty of women like me to spare on that. If you try to hold me captive, he’ll kill me, and send five more. If you make him very angry, he’ll kill one of the handmaidens you left behind in our pyre. If you want to talk with him, or pass on a message from one of the other pyres, you can use those same women. But he wants to be left alone.”
“Will he let traffic pass on the river again, or let the caravans pass on to Jatu?”
“I don’t know. I’ve given you the whole message. Ask him.”
“What does he want, though? What’s he after?”
“I don’t know that either. I won’t tell you anything he didn’t tell me to tell you. He’ll hurt my sisters if I do.”
“He doesn’t have to know—“
“I’m not taking the chance.”
Piridur stepped forward. “Miss, you don’t know me, but if you cooperate, Dul Karagi still has significant resources we could use to help you and your sisters.”
“Mannagiri has more,” the girl replied. “He’s sold off all of High Atellu by now, and turned it into gold. Even our mothers and sisters are sold off, the men held for ransom. He’s not stupid. Evil, mostly crazy, but not stupid.”
“And you’re helping him,” Ram said.
“I don’t care what happens,” she replied. “I don’t even know anything to tell you. Why would he tell me? I don’t matter.”
“But … do you want him to win?”
“I want him to die. And he will, in a couple of blooms. The more we cooperate, the more of my sisters will survive, and the less he’ll hurt us in the meantime. You can’t help us, so save your breath. The door is behind you.”
Piridur put a hand on Ram’s shoulder. “Miss—could you tell me your name?”
“Ninshuma.” The same girl Mannagiri had sent to speak with them when they arrived in Atellu. Was she unusually trustworthy?
“Miss Ninshuma, I’m sorry to hear about your difficulties. But it has to be obvious that we can’t give you free rein to subvert our authority in this pyre. The Ensi found you easily enough, just now; he can find you just as easily again.”
Ninshuma sat up in bed. “And? Are you going to kill me, Rammash?”
“If I have to. My friend is right. You can’t hide from me in this pyre.”
She smirked. “I don’t have to hide … Ensi.” Her eyes flicked up at a spot somewhere above and behind Ram’s head. “I only have to keep you busy.”
The building shook and roared like a rousing lion, knocking Ram and Piridur to the floor. Ram looked back up just in time to see a girl’s leg disappear out the window. He ran after her—clumsily, barely noticing that the floor still shook beneath him—and saw a rope lying across the sill. It jerked and bobbed to and fro—
“Ram!” He looked back; Piridur was upset about something, but he couldn’t hear the rest of it for the groaning and rattling all around them. He might have heard a scream in the distance, but he wasn’t sure. Piridur ran into him, shoving him towards the window. He was shouting too, but nothing was audible. The noise was like a thousand drummers. Ram didn’t understand, but both of the souls inside him insisted on leaving at once. There was only one exit in sight.
He threw Piridur over his shoulder with one arm, and leapt out the window without a thought. They fell three stories, and landed on Ram’s stiff legs, shattering bones all the way up to his hips. He couldn’t hear his own shrieking over the bellow of the building coming down behind them. The shock knocked him flat on his stomach, and sent Piridur rolling across the pavement. A cloud of dust flew over their heads, whistling like a hawk above the desert. When it cleared, he lifted his head from the pavement, and saw a young woman sprinting away down the street unhindered.