OF CASTING PITS AND CAUSTIC SALTS



OF CASTING PITS AND CAUSTIC SALTS, by Scott  H. Andrews:

Turusha squeezed the draft-scarab’s reins and fought the urge to scrape her itching wrists against the seat of the cart.  The line of creaking wagons stretched to the dusty city gate, yoked beetles lumbering forward, the ammonia-and-sugar scent fuming from their glistening carapaces.  Andar, seated beside her, stared ahead somewhere beyond the city walls.  His cheeks sagged in the red-black light of dusk.

She could tell him now, before they entered the city and could no longer risk breaking their false identities.  But with him lost in one of his silent moods, the chance it might wound him was far worse.  As if on command, the rash prickled up the undersides of her arms like windblown sand scouring her skin.

The wagon in front of them rolled ahead, but Turusha held the scarab back, just as Andar had drilled her.  His first lesson, fourteen years ago:  always have an escape route.  Without a gap between their scarab and the next wagon, she wouldn’t have room to veer off the road into the caravan camp or turn back into the desert.  Doubtful she would need to, but Andar’s lessons covered all probabilities with equal zeal.

His knobbed fingers slipped from the rail, but he didn’t even seem to notice.  Each time he finally emerged from these moods, he seemed a little slower, a bit duller, a fraction less alive.  Infiltration duty had taken Turusha’s mother, and now it was bleeding away Andar’s soul.  The thought of these moods soon seizing her would wake Turusha in the dead of night, to find the rash creeping across her arms and belly.  She could never repay Andar for raising her after her mother was killed.  It terrified her that he might view her quitting as turning her back not just on his training but also on him.  But she had to do it now, before this mission, or those moods would soon bleed her soul as well.

“Father,” Turusha said, keeping to their false identities.  Roles easily played.

“It was here, you know, my dear,” Andar said, his voice oddly rough.  “Here in Sabk.”

Strange for him to drift from his false identity, even during one of these moods.  “What was here, Father?”

“Your mother.”

She forced her hands to still.  “Of course.”

His gaze flickered over her.  “I’m sorry.  I should have told you, long ago.”

Long ago.  Her mother had died saving his life, but he had never spoken a word of it, not in fourteen years.

Now the walls of Sabk seemed even higher.  The city spilled down a gorge from the desert plain to the green-streaked sea.  Sickly-sweet smoke oozed from the foundries, where the hard resinous lining of ant tunnels was melted and poured into casting pits.  Including new pits, contacts had reported, to mold the spars for a fleet of war galleys.  Sabk would dominate all trade along the sea, cutting Markazi dhows off from the ocean.  Famine would cripple her home city unless she and Andar could taint the pits with the caustic salts hidden under the false bottom of their cart.

And once they had, she would quit.  She had no idea where she would go or what new trade she would take up, but it didn’t matter.  She couldn’t let herself continue any longer in this one.

A huge bull longicorn thrashed about at the edge of the caravan camp, its bristling, segmented legs clawing at the sand.  Turusha tugged her scarab’s flat head away.  The bull’s call rang like planks smacking together, and the lean, bearded rider clung to the traces with plump fists.

Andar stroked his own beard, still staring ahead.  After fourteen years, he deserved to know her intentions.  She had been waiting for the right time to tell him since dawn.

The wagon in front of them halted as Sabk guards in cast-resin breastplates barred its path.  Soon she would lose her chance.  “Father,” Turusha said.  “There’s something, something I must‑-”

Andar waved her silent as the gate captain circled the wagon ahead, surveying its cargo of ant-tunnel sections‑-a jumble of amber tubes each as wide as a man.  The captain quoted the wagoner a fee; then they began to haggle.  The Hulwana:  the absurdly ritualized bargaining for bribes and favoritism that ruled every level of this vainglorious city, from His Munificence the Kahbad all the way down to the beggars outside the baths.  Turusha hated it, but the delay might buy her time.  “Father,” she whispered across the seat.

Andar did not so much as twitch.  His gaze drifted past two men with heads shaven to forelocks in the Sabk fashion who had stepped through the gate:  an officer with a craggy face and an older hook-nosed man in worn robes.

“Andar!” Turusha hissed.  He spun to face her, his expression almost pained.  She had to tell him regardless.  “Once we return home‑-”

The longicorn ripped away from its handlers and bolted into the road, mandibles clacking furiously.  Turusha jerked the reins to pull her scarab away, but the wagon in front rolled backward as the wagoner panicked.  The longicorn barreled ahead, its feelers swinging toward the cart.

Andar grabbed Turusha’s arm and yanked her off the cart.  Packed sand rose up and smacked into her knees.  Resin planks snapped behind her as the longicorn crashed into the cart.  The near wheel split and the bed pitched over.  The false bottom cracked open, spilling sacks of acidic, almost vinegar-smelling salts into the road.

The gate captain stepped forward.  Turusha scrambled to her feet at Andar’s side.

“Bountiful evening to you,” Andar called to the captain and began the Hulwana with a florid offer.

The captain shouldered past him and spotted the false bottom.  “I don’t barter for contraband.  Men!  Bind them.”

Andar’s hand whipped back and clutched Turusha’s arm.  “Flee.”

She grabbed for his fingers, but they slipped away.  What was he‑-

Andar sprang at the nearest guard.  The man fumbled to raise his spear, but Andar struck low and hooked his feet from under him.  “Now!” he barked at her, in the same tone that had driven her training for fourteen years.

Turusha fled‑-around the cart and across the road.

A ragged gasp croaked behind her.  She stole a glimpse over her shoulder.  The guards had driven Andar back against the wreck of the cart, the officer from the gate now alongside them.  Andar’s robe had torn and blood welled through at the shoulder.

She stumbled to a halt at the edge of the caravan camp.  Should she run back to help him?  The officer drew a strange rod from a sheath at his waist, not resin or even wood but metal, its hilt studded with nodules.  Andar dodged, but the officer jabbed the rod into his chest.

A crackle hummed.  A miasma of sand puffed from Andar’s robe, hazing the air around him.

Then Andar crumpled to the ground, his body slack against the sand.  Pale smoke curled from his hair.

Turusha bit off a scream.  Even after the eerie crackle had stopped, the sound still echoed in her ears.  Their contacts had said nothing about such a bizarre metal device.  A bright scent swamped her nose, so acrid that it stung.

Two guards pounded across the road toward her.  She ducked into the caravan camp and ran.

aaa

***

 

Turusha darted through the jumbled alleyways between beetle-hair tents.  A few caravaners glanced up from their blue cookfires, but most paid her no heed.  She dove under an empty wagon and crawled behind the rear wheel.  The guards paced by, one alleyway over.  They glared at the blank desert-tanned faces, then moved on.

A hot ache spread through her chest.  She had never known her father, she had lost her mother when she was barely five, and now Andar.  During her mother’s state funeral procession, when blisters shredded her feet, he had carried her.  Later he passed up a promotion in the Jasusi and even a marriage into the Atabak’s clan, so he could continue raising her.

But to him, raising a child meant the same relentless training he gave all the Jasusi recruits.  Memorizing each trinket on a table by day; sneaking along sticky lanes at night.  No time to learn poetry or beadwork or sketching.  It wasn’t an apprenticeship; it was a way of life.  Yet his lessons had served her well.  Even though she had never admitted as much, he’d certainly known.  Hadn’t he?

The guttural banter of the caravaners trading boasts around their fires made her realize what she would truly miss‑-not being able to share with him the ordinary things, the tiny things, that she never imagined would matter.  How her pouch, lashed with a knot of his design, had held fast on the inside of her belt.  The stars of the Leviathan winking blue through the black dusk horizon in the angular shape he had shown her.  The meaty aroma of snake-ribs on the cookfires, like the ones he had roasted on their veranda to celebrate her passing each recruit rank.  Simple things, as she had missed with her mother.  There was no lesson for that.

Turusha sat underneath the wagon for a long time, biting down on her tongue to keep from sobbing.  Then, sometime after nightfall, she dabbed her eyes and filed past rows of tents to the edge of the camp.  The endless dunes loomed a vacant gray in the pale sapphire moonlight.  She slumped to her knees and scraped at the sand, digging until her nails tore.  She found only a handful of rocks, barely enough to build a cairn.  Then again, it hardly mattered because she had nothing of Andar’s to bury underneath it.  Perhaps that was fitting for an infiltrator, always using false identities‑-an empty cairn because he never wore any keepsakes of his own.

Turusha slotted the rocks into a conical pile and knelt beside it.  The dark patches of damp sand on the rocks slowly paled as they dried.  Then, in the breeze, they sloughed away.

aaa

***

 

The Leviathan had risen to the top of the sky when Turusha realized that her neck ached from staring at it.  She was still kneeling next to the cairn.

She twisted around in the sand.  On the far side of the camp, the sickly-sweet odor of the ant-resin foundries still fumed into the sky.  Now she could quit without hurting Andar.  Even if she wanted to finish the mission, she had no salts to taint the casting pits.

But she owed him.  She could almost feel his voice reminding her she still had a duty to her city, to her home.  She had to find some way to complete the mission, even without the salts and without him.

She slipped back into the slumbering camp and circled one of the large temporary paddocks.  A gigantic stag beetle dozed at its pickets, the gap between its sagging carapace plates just wide enough to squeeze into‑-an old desert smuggler’s trick Andar had once mentioned.  Perhaps it might get her inside the city.

Turusha shucked her robe and crawled into the paddock.  The slimy offal piled behind the stag beetle’s abdomen made her retch as she rolled in it.  It also left her tunic slick and her scent unthreatening when she climbed the beetle’s harness and wriggled between two of the carapace plates.

Rolling in the offal had been her own idea.  Andar would have scowled at the stench, but she was certain he would have also been proud.

aaa

***

 

The warmth of dawn seeped through the beetle’s carapace.  Turusha held her cramped limbs still as the caravaners barked the beast forward.  Air puffed from the breathing holes along the crease of its thorax, just above her head.  The inner plates ground against her back.

As the beetle swayed back and forth beneath her, she recited the training litanies Andar had taught her as a child.  She wouldn’t have any use for them when she signed on with some caravan or joined the crew of a dhow, but now they helped drive the pain from her mind.

The sickly-sweet odor of the distant foundries taunted her.  Andar’s contact inside Sabk, an agent of some faction hoping to depose the Kahbad, could only arrange access to the foundries‑-useless, without salts to taint the pits.

Many score litanies later, cool shade blocked the warmth and the beetle halted.  Turusha counted to one-hundred, then squirmed free and slid to the ground in a stockyard.  She flexed her numb muscles and hobbled into the adjacent alley.  The towers of the Kahbad’s High Brokerage rose above the roofs to her right, so she hurried left, toward the city bathhouse.

Her clumsy attempt at the Hulwana–bribing a fire-stoker to let her in the servants’ entrance–only worked after she scooped two Sabk gold tens from her slimy pouch.  Andar would have frowned at her for conceding.  The fizzing heated seawater smelled almost powdery with exotic foreign salts.  Turusha peeled off her filthy caravaner garb, bathed, then stole clean tunics and a cloak on her way out of the changing room.

The drop sites to alert their contact were all exactly as Andar had described:  a protruding brick in a shrimp-monger’s pungent shop, the bole of a shrub in the breezy plaza below the High Brokerage, and a knothole in the post of a market stall.  Turusha checked that no one followed her as she left three pebbles in each‑-the signal was not what she left, but how many.

Then she strolled along the lane of stone-walled foundries uphill from the bathhouse.  Inside open bays, the foul sugary odor fumed from huge crucibles hung over glowing ovens.  Workers tipped one on pivots, and burbling amber resin slithered down a channel into the mouths of a row of pits.  Contamination with the proper salts would weaken the cured resin just enough that the galleys would fall apart only after they were built.  Andar had helped the Jasusi’s alchemists devise the plan.

Turusha counted the guards at each foundry gate.  How could she sneak inside?  Did she have any hope of tainting the pits?

She had to find a way.  If these galleys launched, shortages would ravage all of Markaz.  The Jasusi would forget Andar’s past successes and only remember this failure.

aaa

***

 

After a half-chime of the bells in the High Brokerage, Turusha checked the drop sites.  The brick and the shrub bole each held a single pebble and the knothole a folded scrap of parchment.  She decrypted the numerical cipher in her head, then rushed up the market street past a limping porter in a low desert hat.  It was a shame she had to quit‑-she knew she would never be half as good at lashing saddles or trimming sails as she was at this.

She found the resin-blower’s workshop in a run-down alley.  Rickety shelves held rows of amber lamp-globes.  The resin-blower paused at his workbench, cradling a whorl-handled vase.  Turusha gave the arranged signal–a reseating of her cloak across her shoulders.

A chubby man stepped around the patchwork bellows.  His round head was shaven to a forelock, and a string of tiny scars peeked through the stubble.  He inclined the densely taut pouch in his hand toward the vase.  “That, I would like now delivered,” he said.  “I do not care where.”

The resin-blower took the pouch without a word and hurried from his shop.

The chubby man beckoned Turusha behind the bellows.  “I am Didan.”

Turusha replied with her false name, then forced her voice not to crack as she told him of Andar’s death.  “So, we’re short one man and all our supplies.”

Didan wrung a hand along the pudgy crease at the base of his neck.  “I heard of this, but did not know it was you.  I think we perhaps can get you more supplies.”

“You heard?  From who?”

“There are many who talk to Didan.  I always listen.”

“What did they say?”

“That all gates are manned by the Qattat.”  He gave a bitter inflection to the name of Sabk’s cadre of infiltrators.

So the Qattat suspected an infiltration, but they must not have any specific knowledge of her mission or they would have only manned that one gate, and Didan would not still be alive to meet with her.  Turusha described the guard officer and his strange rod made of metal, but Didan did not recognize them.

“Not one of the guard, such as that,” he said, “but the Qattat does host a lone adept in the city, billeted apart from the rest.”

“An adept of what?”

“They do not say‑-I suspect they fear him.  Now, your supplies.  A servant at the alchemist’s tower knows Didan.  This man, he likes the vapors too much.  I suspect he would sell you salts from the alchemist’s stocks.”

“We must meet with him, immediately.”

“He is there many mornings.”

“Good.  Once we have the salts, I’ll need your help getting them inside the foundries.”

Didan shook his head.  “I cannot enter there, or the faulty ships will be blamed on my master instead of the Kahbad.”

“Do you want your master to succeed him or not?”

“I apologize.  But on this, there can be no Hulwana.”

Turusha paced the scorched workshop floor.  She couldn’t lug the salts into every foundry, but perhaps she could dust them over the ant-tunnel sections piled outside.  “Can you get me into the storage yards where they keep the raw sections?”

“That, perhaps,” Didan said.  “I’ll need some of your monies, to agree with the guards.”

Turusha hefted her pouch‑-too light to divide.  “I’ll meet you there, after I see the alchemist’s servant.”

Didan told her where to find the largest of the storage yards, then left.  Tainting the resin instead of the casting pits would require even more salts.  She had no idea what she would do if this alchemist’s servant could not sell her enough.

aaa

***

 

The alchemist’s tower was a ruined Imperial bastion in the ancient quarter of Sabk, recrowned in sloppy masonry and glinting resin windows.  A shaggy, hooded priest of the Destitute God shuffled by the gate, his unwashed hair reeking of sweat.  Turusha bribed her way past the gatekeeper and met the alchemist’s servant in a cellar stacked with dusty crates.

The servant, a gaunt little man, kept swaying from side to side on the rounds of his feet.  “I don’t know, I don’t know.  What’s it you need, again?”

Turusha wasn’t certain what kind of salts the Jasusi’s alchemists had chosen to weaken the resin.  “Could I see all the salts you have?”

“No, no.  Master keeps the rare ones in his laboratory.  I can only show you what’s down here.”  He led her between heaped trunks to a wall lined with amphorae, then wrenched the wax stoppers from a dozen of them.  They all smelled of salts but with subtle variances:  one powdery and fine like the bathhouse, another smoky and burnt like charred fish, and the last pungently acidic, almost like vinegar.  It smelled exactly like the odor after the wagon crashed, before Andar had….

Turusha cleared her throat.  She negotiated a small sack of that salt to carry with her to persuade Didan and the rest delivered by beetle cart to the alley behind the resin-blower’s shop.  Then the servant was summoned upstairs, so she let herself out through the side entrance.

As she crossed the cluttered yard, a fresh scent drifted over her, so bright that it stung the inside of her nose.  The guard officer’s metal rod!  She spun back to the alchemist’s tower.  Pale vapor curled from an open window.

Turusha raced to the plinth of the tower and crept around toward the front.  Moments later, the servant ambled out to the gate and whispered eagerly to the gatekeeper, but she saw no hint of city guards or the metal rod or the officer.

Sand scraped in the courtyard behind the tower, and Turusha scurried back along the plinth.  A footman paced away toward the servants’ gate.  As he reached to open it, his cloak pulled taut across his back, silhouetting a narrow, perfectly straight object underneath:  the officer’s rod.

She had to meet Didan at the foundry yards.  But this footman might lead her to the officer who had killed Andar.  She could meet Didan afterwards.  She waited until the man had latched the gate, then rushed after him.

By the time she reached the street, the footman was barely still in sight.  When he turned left at the end of the block, she ducked into an alley, shucked her cloak, and emerged parallel to him on a side lane‑-as Andar had drilled her years ago.

She followed the footman down the city gorge, out of the ancient quarter, and up the boulevards of the wealthy district.  This game of maneuver and anticipation had always captivated her‑-perhaps it was the hint of illicit power in the ability to follow someone completely unnoticed.  The footman cut through several private gardens, then veered down a servants’ lane.  Turusha circled a wagon of imported wood just in time to see him slip into the rear entrance of a small villa.

She waited across the alleyway.  The bells in the High Brokerage rang‑-a half-chime until she had to meet Didan.  But this footman was her only link to the officer who had killed Andar.  She waited.  And waited.

Her wrists began to itch.  That damned rash.  It had never happened during a mission before‑-only leading up to them.  She balled her fists to keep from scratching and recited her training litanies, over and over and‑-

The dull clang when the bells rang the next full chime startled her.  The footman still had not emerged, and now she was late.  She hurried away, not sure if Andar would have been proud or disappointed.

aaa

***

 

Turusha rushed from the wealthy district, only looping back once to check if she was followed.

At last she turned along the lane behind the foundries.  An acolyte of the Divine Bounty paced by, azure veil draped over his shaven head.  But it was knotted on the left side, as only full clerics wore.  And devotees of the Destitute God–didn’t they all bathe on the first day of the new moon?  But that priest strolling by the alchemist’s tower had smelled so rank that….

Turusha froze in mid-step.  Agents of the Qattat.  They must have been following her since before the alchemist’s tower‑-she had to assume so.  Which meant they had tracked her from the resin-blower’s shop.  And they must have followed Didan as well.

Didan!  Waiting for her to bring money to bribe the guards at this storage yard.  But now she couldn’t merely walk up to the gate.  She waited until the acolyte had turned a corner behind her, then ran into the nearest alley.  She leapt to grab the flat stone crown of a wall, pulled herself up, and dropped down into an open yard piled with sand-caked tunnel sections.

Whispers hissed from the street.  Turusha burrowed into the nearest tunnel section.  The sunlight had left the resin warm and sourly fragrant.

A shout rang, and sandals pounded away down the street.  Turusha crawled up through the jumble of tunnel sections until she could peer over the wall.  A cluster of men in plain tunics huddled in the street for a moment; then one waved to the foundry gate.  Guards dragged out a chubby man with blood oozing down his pudgy neck‑-Didan.  Doubtful there was any Hulwana in the dungeons of the Qattat.

Turusha peeled her fingers from warm resin.  Alone once more, still without any salts, and her only contact gone.  She had failed her city.  At least Andar wasn’t there to see it.

What was left?  She could scatter this small sack of salts over some of these raw tunnel sections, but that would weaken no more than a score of resin spars.  She could burst into the foundry and try to dump the sack into a casting pit before the guards speared her.  Her mother had given her life to save Andar’s, in this very city.  How meager for Turusha to give hers to contaminate only one pit, which could be redug in a week.

The men shoved Didan into an ant-drawn carriage driven by a lean, bare-shaven man.  His hands looked oddly plump for his build‑-the same as the rider on the bull beetle that had crashed into her and Andar’s cart.  The man had shaven since, or been wearing a false beard then, but his hands were exactly the same….

The Qattat had engineered it all!  And like a pathetic, callow recruit, she had let herself get so distracted that she’d been blind to it.  They had caused the wagon crash.  Their feared lone adept with that strange metal rod had been lying in wait‑-a Qattat assassin, waiting to pounce on Andar after the crash.  Waiting to slaughter him like a crippled beetle.

Turusha slid back down behind the wall, squelching her tears.  Such an utter failure.  Her wrists stung like sunburn, but she fought the urge to scrape at them.  The Qattat had used the threat of the war galleys to lay a trap.  Somehow they had known exactly which city gate.  They had snared Andar, but not her.  Not yet.

Their source must have also told them of the resin-blower’s shop.  She could check there to see if the alchemist servant’s delivery had somehow slipped past the Qattat agents certainly watching the shop.  A slim hope.  But if it had, she would need to move or hide the salts at once, before the Qattat did find them.

And if it hadn’t, then the salts had been intercepted, and the Qattat had outmaneuvered her yet again.  In that case, all that seemed left was either to flee the city in failure or throw her life away contaminating only one pit.

aaa

***

 

Turusha climbed back over the foundry yard wall and paced up the street.  Crowds of townspeople and beetles and ants jammed the avenues near the market square, then thinned as she entered the artisans’ district.  An old man in a threadbare cloak limped up the lane behind her, swinging his right leg in a stiff arc.  Exactly like the porter in the market street that morning, except the porter’s limp had been in his left leg–

The same man, following her all day.  The Qattat assassin!  He had killed Andar, and now he hunted her.

She ducked into the next alley and crouched behind a roof-fed cistern.  The man’s gait scraped up the cobbles, then halted out of sight.

Turusha waited.  Tiny noises percolated from the city around her–the muffled Hulwana of thousands.  A fishmonger rolled a handcart past the alley, then a wiry man in a bright tunic and headcloth strolled by.  No trace of a limp, but his head twitched toward the alley as he passed.

The assassin–he had abandoned his cloak and his limp.  Turusha ran to the other end of the alley and turned parallel along the street.  She paid an astonished hawker a whole gold ten for a frayed veil, then ducked into the resin-ware shop beside the next alley.

Had he noticed her and abandoned the chase?  Or had he somehow slipped past?  She held a cast-resin serving bowl at arm’s length and scanned the street behind her by watching its upside-down reflection in the bowl’s polished concavity.

Finally she spotted him emerging from the alley next door.  He glanced about, then swung up the street.  She followed, a full block behind.  At that distance she could easily lose sight of him, but she dared not risk following any closer.

Stalking an assassin thrilled her.  But whatever would she do if he caught her following him?  Andar would have rebuked her for being so reckless–even his training had not included fighting assassins.  And this man was drawing her away from the resin-blower’s shop, farther from any chance to find and hide that cart of salts before the Qattat seized it.

They had been one step ahead, the whole mission.  How?  And why had they murdered Andar?  This assassin might lead her to whoever had given the order.  The mission could wait.

aaa

***

 

As dusk waned, Turusha tracked the assassin across the city.  He turned at nearly every alley.  He paused at each intersection and checked behind him.  He even stooped to pet a noblewoman’s leashed weevil.  He had been trained very well indeed.  Yet she had matched him, so far.  Either she was equally skilled, or he was luring her into another trap.

He increased his pace in the wealthy district, darting from one lane to the next.  Turusha hurried after him.  She lost sight of him along the railing of a private garden, one that the footman from the alchemist’s had crossed that morning.  She peered through the hedges and checked the street on the opposite side.  The assassin was gone.

But she had a guess where he might be headed–although following him there would be twice as reckless.  She paced the streets until she found the servants’ lane the alchemist’s footman had taken that morning, then followed it to the same small villa.

The gardens on the other side of the outer wall were silent.  Hopefully the assassin was indeed here‑-or hopefully he wasn’t?  Turusha struggled over the wall and slid down behind some shrubs.  A servant approached her from an outbuilding.  Turusha flashed him a lascivious grin, then dropped him with a blow to the temple.

She slipped through the side entrance and crept across an ornate dining room that smelled of cardamom.  Footfall sounded from the narrow courtyard at the center of the villa‑-the assassin.  He stepped into a room on the other side of the courtyard, and Turusha hurried across it after him.  Up close, this man seemed taller than the officer at the gate.  Then who was he?  She peered around the doorway curtains, just as the man peeled off his headcloth and plopped onto a settee.

His scalp was recently shaven to a forelock, leaving a crown of pale skin above sun-darkened temples.  His chin was smooth around the faint outline of a missing beard.  But the set of his face, she knew.  It had marched her over a hundred hills and tested her with a thousand lessons.  Andar.

He was alive!  She ran to the settee as he bolted upright and swamped him in a hug.  The rough wave of his tunic scraped her cheek.  He was alive.

His knobby fingers pried her arms from around his chest.  His face had gone taut.  “You must flee, my dear.  At once.”

Turusha stepped back.  He had survived the assassin’s weapon.  Then he had followed her all day, returning to the same villa as the alchemist’s footman.  The Qattat’s assassination had completely failed, yet they were hiding the still-living target?

Unless….  No‑-  “You turned.”

Andar tugged at her arm.  “You are not safe here.  You must flee.”

“The assassination was a ruse, to hide it.  From the Jasusi, and from me.”

“You must flee.  Please!”

“How‑-how could you?  All those years you lectured me on loyalty, and now you betray our city?  Betray me as well?”

“Hurry!  You have no idea what they would do.”

Torture?  A grim reality for every infiltrator, but one she knew Andar did not fear.  So this was something else, something even worse.  What could it be?  “And you do?”

His face froze, transfixed with a cavernous sorrow that terrified her.  “Yes.  Now come.”

She stumbled after him to the rear of the villa and down a servants’ corridor.  How had he learned so much of the Qattat so quickly?  Or had he turned years ago?  He had infiltrated Sabk many times before, including with‑-

Turusha wrenched her arm free.  “Tell me.  How you know.”

A weight thudded against the servants’ exit at the end of the corridor.  Shouts also echoed from inside the villa, behind her.

Andar faced her.  His pasty, beardless chin looked pitiful and old.  “Everything they will tell you about me is true.  Do as I taught you.  Do what you must.”

What was he certain they would tell her, that terrified him even more than her discovering his betrayal?  What did the Qattat know that could have made him turn on not only the city but also her?

No.  No, not that‑-

It sucked the breath from her lungs.

“You‑-  You killed her.  After they captured you.  And turned spy for them‑-fourteen years ago.  To buy your own life.”

For the first time in fourteen years, Andar would not look her in the eye.

The servants’ door clattered open.  The hook-nosed older man from the city gate stepped through, trailed by a broad man in a plain cloak.  Sandals slapped on tiles up the corridor as more men approached behind her.

The hook-nosed man eyed Turusha with a cold, imposing gaze.  “Leave us,” he said.  The others all backed away, and the broad man withdrew through the servants’ door and closed it softly behind him.

“She won’t take your bribe,” Andar said.  “Release her, and you can keep me.”

The hook-nosed man shook his head, as nonchalant as a hawker declining the price for a sand turnip.  “I already have you.  Now I will bargain for her.”

Turusha met the man’s impassive stare.  Her head throbbed as though with a fever.  This was no servant to be bought with mere coin.  She chose the boldest gamble she could make.  “I want the same offer you gave him.  The same you gave my mother.”

Andar’s face went as pale as the crown of his head.

The hook-nosed man smiled.  “Just as clever as she was.  You are right, young one.  I made your mother that offer too‑-kill her partner and work for me, and I would let her live.  Of course, only one of them could take that offer.  Her partner accepted first.”

Turusha fought to keep her balance.  Would she have grown into a different woman if her mother had taken the Qattat’s offer?  If her mother had killed Andar and returned home, would Turusha have learned poetry and sketching?  Or would squeezing the last breath from a partner, a comrade, have driven even her mother to train a ten-year-old girl by dumping her alone on a dockside lane?  With no money or food, left to survive for three days by only her wits?

“I accept,” she said.

The hook-nosed man reached under his cloak and pulled out the strange metal rod.  His palm brushed between the double row of spherical nodules, over a brass catch on the hilt, as he passed the rod to her.  A vicious anticipation simmered on his face.

Andar sagged against the wall.  He seemed shrunken, a husk of the man who had carried her during her mother’s funeral.

He had killed her mother.  He had also raised her‑-but out of kindness, or to ease his own guilt?  He did not deserve a cairn built from rocks she had clawed out of the sand.  He deserved to die.

She raised the rod.  His eyes met hers‑-weary, almost relieved.

What was it he had said?  Everything they will tell you is true. He had not lied to her, even to save himself.  He had never admitted the truth, but he hadn’t belittled her with lies.  She had met many revered old infiltrators and they lied reflexively, even to their own families.  Not Andar.

The hook-nosed man eyed her, barely restraining his sly delight.  He expected this rod to kill now, but it had only knocked Andar unconscious at the gate.  What was it he had done before he handed it to her?  Something on the hilt.  Turusha shifted her hands, and the catch on the rod scraped her palm.  The hook-nosed man had slid it forward.

As Turusha pressed the rod to Andar’s chest, she slid the catch back, underneath her hand.  The buzzing jarred up her arms into her teeth.  Andar’s forelock twitched like a beetle’s feelers.  He collapsed and slid down the wall.

The hook-nosed man stepped over him.  Turusha palmed the catch forward and waited.

Andar wheezed for breath.

The man whirled, fury seizing his face.  Turusha shoved the rod into his stomach.  His eyes bulged in their sockets like boiled ant eggs.  The stinging scent made her nose burn.  The man’s tongue flapped from his mouth, and he tumbled back against the wall.

She rolled him over and tore off his cloak.  Andar crawled to his feet, drool oozing from his lips.  She wrapped the cloak around him and pressed the rod into his hands.  Surely she could trust him to help them escape?  “Cry out,” she told him as she crammed the hook-nosed man’s face into the floor.  Andar doubled over and uttered a curt scream.

The servants’ exit rattled open and the broad man burst through from outside.  He eyed Turusha as he dove beside Andar draped in the hook-nosed man’s cloak.

Andar stabbed the rod into the man’s thigh, then shoved him groaning away.

Sandals pounded behind her.  Turusha snatched the rod back and hoisted Andar out the servants’ door.

Shards of light from street-lanterns spilled across the shadowed garden.  Andar’s breath rasped.  “The casting pits?” he asked.

“That wasn’t just part of the ruse?”

“No,” Andar said.  “Those galleys are vital to the Kahbad, to block our ships.  That’s why the Qattat recalled me when they did.”

Turusha eased Andar over the wall, hopped down beside him, and ran, half-dragging him, to the end of the lane.

“I knew you wouldn’t abandon the mission,” he said.  “They thought you would flee.  But I knew.  I was certain.”

Was he trying to ease his guilt, or was he truly proud?  Turusha flagged down an ant-drawn rickshaw.  She forced the driver out, threw Andar in, and steered toward the artisans’ district.  “We can check the resin-blower’s shop, in case the salts I bought made it there.”

“They didn’t,” Andar said.  “I paid the alchemist’s servant to hold them.”

“On the orders of your Qattat masters?”

“No, on my own.  They forced me to do their bidding, but they never had my loyalty.”

Perhaps the mission did still have a chance.  Turusha swung the ant onto the next boulevard uphill, into the ancient quarter.  “They’ll check for weakened resin before they build the galleys,” she said, “now that they know.  But if we could contaminate the casting pits, they would have to re-dig them all.”

“That would set their construction back a half-year,” Andar said.  “Give our fleet time to match them.  We could flood the foundries, to get the salts into the pits.”

“With what?  The bathhouse is too low in the gorge.  Is there a sewer in the ancient quarter?”

“No, but there’s an abandoned Imperial cistern underneath the Columned Plaza.  It would flood everything down to the docks.  I learned of it…from your mother.”

Turusha struggled to focus on the galloping ant.  Would her mother have wanted Andar freed, or wanted him left to the Qattat?  No, she would have wanted the mission put ahead of all else‑-even this.

Andar hacked for breath.  “I’m sorry, my dear.  I had no choice.  Every time I wavered, they threatened to tell you what I had‑-”

“Save your strength.”  Turusha angled the rickshaw onto the street behind the alchemist’s tower and halted at the servants’ gate.  A footman rushed at them, but she felled him with a jab of the metal rod.

At the gate, she hesitated‑-could Andar be laying a trap?  No, the courtyard was empty.  “Only checking for more servants.”

“I taught you well,” Andar said.  “You learned well.”

So well that he had no inkling.  An old cart waited in the stables, its load covered with sackcloth:  stacks of amphorae.  “How will this be enough for a whole cistern?”

“It won’t matter.  Once they smell any salt in the pits, they won’t take the chance–”

“And they’ll have to re-dig them regardless.”  Turusha unhitched the ant from the rickshaw and wrestled it to the cart.

They rolled into the Columned Plaza, the open square once the center of the ancient Imperial city.  The jagged stubs of ruined triumphal columns slumped on worn plinths.  Andar pointed out a squat turret between two shops, but the locked door was too small to drive the cart through.  Turusha circled the square, drawing stares.  Was there no other passage under the street?

She swung down the plaza and turned along the first side lane.  Nothing.  She steered onto the second lane.  Between two houses a narrow gable jutted from the slope, fronted by a faded resin-beam gate.  It must lead under the square.

Turusha pried off the tarnished lock and Andar eased the weary ant inside.  She pulled sooty lanterns from wall pegs, sparked them with a flint, and scrambled down the staircase at the rear.

Her footsteps echoed into a vast darkness.  A thick, humid scent pressed against her face.  The blue lantern-flame rippled off a sheet of unmarred water extending into the gloom, broken only by endless rows of ancient pillars holding the vaulted ceiling.  So empty and silent it was oddly soothing.

An overflow channel drained into the street a few blocks down the city gorge‑-she could hear passers-by chattering.  They could use it to release their flood.

She raced back upstairs.  They dragged and rolled three-dozen amphorae down the stairs to the rim of the cistern.  Andar ripped plugs free and poured salts into the water.  Turusha smashed others on the stones and kicked them in.  The water churned, and the acrid salty aroma bloomed in the air.

She ran to the overflow channel.  A thick resin-plank sluice held back the waters, locked in place.  It would not budge.  Could the metal rod burn it open?

Andar stared into the foaming water.  “We were trying to hide in that drain channel.  This is where they captured us.”

Turusha stiffened.  She had imagined it many different ways over the years, but never in such a starkly beautiful place.

“There was nothing I could do.  They told me she would die regardless, and I could either live myself or die beside her.”

Had he truly believed that lie?  Turusha armed the metal rod and pressed it against the sluice.  Nothing.

“What choice did I have,” Andar mumbled up the overflow channel.  “Tell me at last, Sharika, please.  What else could I have done?”

Turusha nearly dropped the rod.  Sharika‑-her mother.

A few splotches of rash seemed tiny next to the impossible decision still bleeding his soul fourteen years later.  This was exactly why she must quit.  If she stayed an infiltrator, eventually she would have to make that same hopeless choice:  her life or her soul.  She would turn her back on her city and her years of training, and even on Andar himself, to keep from ever facing that.

The rod‑-had she tried it with the catch on the hilt switched each way?  She couldn’t remember.  She rammed the catch back and stabbed it into the sluice again.  Still nothing.

“I heard them speak of this weapon,” Andar said.  “Water boosts its power.”  He took the rod and shoved it against the base of the sluice, into the water up to his elbows.

The buzzing sounded from under the water and Andar’s neck went rigid.  Bubbles frothed to the surface.  He paused for a gasp of breath, then resumed.

“Wait,” Turusha called.  The bubbles were rising from between the ancient stones, where a gray smear seeped into the water.  “It’s eroding the mortar.  Aim there.”

Andar thrust his arms deeper and activated the rod again.  Mortar fumed into the water.  A stone slipped loose from the cistern wall as his entire body shook.

Turusha raised the lantern.  Andar’s cheeks were gray, and vapor steamed from his shaven head.  “What else did the Qattat say of this rod?”

Andar struggled to smile through the muscles twitching along his chin.  “Not to stand in water.  Or it will discharge against the wielder.”

Turusha fought to keep the lantern steady.  He was killing himself, as punishment for his betrayal.  He was carrying out his own execution.

“This is….  This is what you want?”

The eager relief on his face looked startlingly foreign, yet perfectly true.  “My dear, it’s what I’ve longed for.  All these years, I never knew if or when you might find out what I’d done.  Imagine, every morning when you pulled on your boots, knowing there might be a viper coiled inside one of them.  Now I’ll be free from all that.  I’ll have finished this mission and earned a long rest.  I know it might seem strange to one as young as you.  I’m sorry if you don’t understand.”

Oh, but she did.

Now that he wanted to break free of all that, might he understand that she longed to be free as well?  Could she tell him?

“This will free you as well, my dear,” he continued, “from the stain of associating with a traitor.  You were brilliant today in the streets, and just as clever in the villa.  You could end up commanding the Jasusi someday, if you keep clear of scandal.  Perhaps even leading the Atabak’s council.”

With his expression brimming with an almost childlike wishfulness, she couldn’t bring herself to douse his hopes for her.  So this was how fatherly pride looked, and felt.

“Of course,” she said, kneeling at his side.  “Thank you, for thinking of me.  Not just now, but all along.”

He leaned back from the water and fumbled for her hand.  He had never hugged her outside of their false identities, so it felt somehow right that he did not do it now.  He took her hand, his grip trembling and weak.

“Your wrists,” he said.  “That rash is gone.”

She couldn’t stifle a laugh, but it burbled out more like a sob.  “So it is.”  And she could never tell him why.

Andar gave her hand a last squeeze, then waved her to her feet.  “Hurry.  When this wall gives way, you’ll want to be well uphill.”

“I will.”  She backed along the flagstones.  Andar hunched over in the lantern light and reached again into the water‑-the water that would free him from the impossible choice he had made so long ago.

And soon Turusha would free herself.  Perhaps at first with a caravan, then onboard a dhow.  Perhaps even the first caravan she came across outside Sabk.

But would she be content, with her talents idle and her training put to no use?  Could she sleep through the night knowing that her city, her home, would eventually fall under threat again?  Which could well happen in only a half-year, once these very casting pits were dug anew.

By then Turusha might be deep in the desert, marshalling pack-scarabs.  Would she still wake in the middle of the night, even if under no threat?  Surely not.  Would those silent moods still someday seize her, even though she no longer had such crucial duty?  Surely not?

Stone crackled behind her as she reached the top of the stairs.  When she was halfway across the Columned Plaza, the cobbles shook beneath her feet and a distant wave thundered free.  In the shadow of the ancient city gate, the fumes of pungently acidic salts reached her nose as a deathly beautiful swell, glinting in the blue moonlight, scoured down the city lanes, through the foundries and their casting pits, past the bathhouse, and into the sea.

________________________________________________________
Scott H. Andrews is a writer, editor, college chemistry lecturer, musician, amateur luthier, armchair historian, and connoisseur of aqueous solutions of malted barley. His literary short fiction has won a $1000 prize from the Briar Cliff Review, and his genre short fiction has appeared in venues such as Weird Tales and Space and Time and is forthcoming in On Spec. He is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of the pro-rate fantasy e-zine Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Visit him on Facebook or his website, http://scotthandrews.com. Scott lives in Virginia with his wife, two cats, nine guitars, a dozen overflowing bookcases, and hundreds of beer bottles from all over the world.


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