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Chapter 6 Diversions

The wet season ended.

Lengthening days brought back the dry dust, and strong sunlight faded the plains grass surrounding the Minwanabi estate house; within weeks the hills would begin to lose their; lushness, until by midsummer all would be golden and brown. During the hotter weather, Lord Desio preferred to remain within the shaded comfort of his estate house, but admiration for his cousin often lured him outdoors.

Tasaio might be serving his family as a senior adviser, but the day never dawned that he failed to maintain his battle skills. Today, while the morning mists burned off the lake, he stationed himself on a hillside with his bow and sheaves of arrows, and straw figures set at varying distances for targets. Within a half hour they bristled with shafts fletched in Tasaio's personal tricolours: Minwanabi black and orange, cut with a band of red for Turakamu.

Desio joined him as his battle servant retrieved arrows between rounds. Aware of the young Lord's approach for  some time, Tasaio turned at precisely the correct moment and bowed. 'Good morning, my Lord cousin.'

Desio halted, panting from his climb up the hill. He inclined his head, wiped sweat from his pink brow, and regarded his taller cousin, who wore light hide armour studded with precious iron garnered as a war prize from the barbarian world. Tasaio wore no helm, and the breeze stirred his straight auburn hair, clipped short in a warrior's style. The bow in his hand was a recurve, lacquered shiny black and tasselled at each horn with orange silk. Politely Tasaio offered the weapon. 'Would you care to try a round?'

As yet too breathless for speech, Desio waved to decline.

Tasaio nodded and turned as the servant approached, a bin of recovered arrows in each hand. He bowed before his master. While he remained on his knees, Tasaio removed the shafts by their nocks and pressed them one by one, point first, into the sandy soil. 'What brings you out this fine morning, cousin ?' ~

Desio watched the arrows pierce the earth, in perfect lines like warriors arrayed for a charge. 'I could not sleep.'

'No?' Tasaio emptied the first bin and started on the second. A jade-fly landed on the battle servant's nose. He twitched no muscle and did not blink as the insect crawled across his cheek and began to suck at the fluids of his eye. To reward his perfect composure, Tasaio at length gave the man leave to brush the insect away. The man gratefully did so, having learned under the lash to ease himself only when given permission.

Tasaio smoothed a parted cock feather and waited for his cousin to continue.

'I could not sleep because months have passed, and still we have not uncovered the Acoma spies.'

Tasaio set arrow to bowstring and released in one fluid motion. The shaft arced out through the bright morning and thumped into the painted heart of a distant straw figure. 'We know there are three of them,' the warrior said evenly. 'And the field has narrowed. We have disclosed information leaks from our barracks, from our grain factor, and also from someone who has duties in the kitchens or among the house staff.'

'When will we know the names of these traitors?'

Drawing his bow, Tasaio seemed totally focused, but an instant after the arrow left his string he said, 'We shall learn more this morning, when we hear the fate of our raiding party. The survivors should have returned by now.' Nocking another arrow to his bow, he continued, 'Besides, discovering the spy is but the first step in preparation for our much larger plan.'

'So when does your grand campaign take effect?' Desio burst out in frustration. 'I want the Acoma ruined!' -~

Two more arrows flew and sliced into targets. 'Patience, cousin.' Tasaio notched a third shaft and sent it through neck of the straw figure farthest from his position. 'You wish the Acoma ruined beyond recovery, and the wise man plans carefully. The best traps are subtly woven ant unsuspected until they close.'

Desio sighed heavily. His body servant rushed to set a cushion under him as he settled his bulk upon the grass. '~

wish I had your patience, Tasaio.' Envy showed through his petulance.

'But I am not a patient man, cousin.' The arrows flew at regular intervals, and a straw figure toppled, riddled like a seamstress's pincushion with feathered shafts. 'I chafe at delay as much as, perhaps more than, you, my Lord- I hate waiting.' He studied his distant targets as if evaluating his performance. 'But I hate the flaw of impatience within myself even more. A warrior must strive toward perfection, knowing full well that it will forever be unobtainable.'

Desio pulled his robe away from sticky flesh and fanned himself. 'I have no patience, I admit, and I was not gifted with coordination enough for the field, as you were.'

Tasaio waved his servant off to fetch arrows, though the line by his feet was not depleted. Then he set his bow across his shoulder and looked at his more corpulent cousin. 'You could learn to be, Desio.' There was no mockery in his tone.

The Lord of the Minwanabi smiled back. 'You have finalized your plan to destroy Mara.'

Tasaio remained still a moment. Then he threw back his head and sounded a Minwanabi battle cry. When he finished his ululation, he looked back to his cousin, a sparkle of excitement in his eyes. 'Yes, Lord, I have a plan. But first we must speak with Incomo and discover if the runners he dispatched have returned with word of the ambush.'

'I will go back and call trim,' Desio grunted as he pushed to his feet. 'Join us in my chambers in an hour's time.'

Tasaio acknowledged that his Lord paid him deference by complying with his request for a meeting. Then his eyes narrowed. He spun, slipped his bow, and set another war arrow to his string.

The servant on the field retrieving arrows saw the move and dropped to earth just a heartbeat before the shot hissed past the place his body had just vacated. He remained prone as more shafts whined by, peppering the dummy by his elbow. Wisps of straw drifted down and made his face itch, yet he did not move to brush them away until he saw that his  master had depleted his arrows.

'You play with your men as a sarcat plays with his prey before the kill,' Desio observed, having lingered to watch the display.

Tasaio raised one cool eyebrow. 'I train them to treasure their lives,' he amended. 'On the battlefield, they must fend for themselves against our enemies. If a servant cannot keep himself alive, and be where I need him, he is of no use, yes?'

Desio conceded the point with an admiring chuckle.

Tasaio said, 'I am done, I think. No need to wait an hour, my Lord. I will accompany you back now.' Desio clapped his cousin on the shoulder, and together they started down the hill.

The Minwanabi First Adviser met them in the private study, his grey hair damp from his bath, and his back erect as a sword blade. He was an early riser, inspecting the estates with the hadonra in the morning hours. Afternoons he spent over paper work, but years of watching sunrises had given him the weatherbeaten appearance of an old field general.

He watched with a commanders perception as he made~j bow before the cousins.

Lord Desio was sweating, though he had already c~

sumed three mugs of rare, iced drinks. Runners continually drove themselves to exhaustion to provide him with luxury; as the summer progressed, and the snowline receded up the northern peaks, the young Lord's craving for cold dishes could no longer be satisfied Then he would turn to drink to dull the heat, but unlike his father Jingu, he did slacken his intake after sundown. With an inward frustrated sigh, Incomo regarded Tasaio, who still wore his armor and archer's glove, but who showed no fatigue from ~

hours of practice in the hills. His only concession to comic was the slightly loosened lacing at his throat; at all time even just after rising, Tasaio seemed but a half second away, from being ready to answer the call of battle. .

'Tasaio has finally devised his plan to defeat the Acoma,'

Desio opened as his First Adviser took his place on the cushions beneath the ceremonial dais.

'That is well, my Lord,' answered Incomo. 'We have just i received word of our ambush on the Acoma thyza wagons.'

'How did it go?' Desio rocked forward in his eagerness.

'Badly, my Lord.' Incomo's expression remained wooden. 'We were defeated, as we expected, but the cost was much higher than anticipated.'

'How costly?' Tasaio's voice seemed detached.

Incomo shifted dark eyes to the cousin. Slowly he said,

'Every man we sent was killed. Fifty raiders in all.' ~

Desio sat back, disgust upon his face. 'Fifty! Damn that A woman. Is every move she chooses ordained to win her victory?'

Tasaio tapped his chin with a finger. 'It may seem so now, cousin. But victory belongs to the last battle. In the end, we shall see where Mara is vulnerable.' He inclined his head to Incomo and asked, 'How did our enemy achieve so total a success?'

'Simple,' answered the First Adviser. 'They had three times the guards on the wagons that we would expect.'

Tasaio considered this, his fingers motionless on his knees. 'We expected them to know we were coming. That they responded with so much force tells us two things: first, they did not want us to capture that wagon, at any price, and second . . .' His eyes widened in sudden speculation. 'That damned cho-ja hive must be breeding warriors like jadeflies!'

Desio seemed confused. 'What does this have to do with uncovering Acoma spies?'

Incomo smoothed his robes with the fussiness of a bird ruffling feathers. Unbreakably patient, he qualified. 'Our offensive was aimed at tracing information leaks. Mara's too competent Spy Master has just confirmed the guilt of one, or all three, of our household suspects. Timing is all, my Lord Desio. Had we planned our attack on commerce more consequential than the grain trade, we would certainly have drawn notice to our purpose.'

Tasaio broke his silence. 'There could well be something else at play here: a garrison as undermanned as Mara's should not have responded so forcefully to so minor a threat. This overreaction is meaningful.' Tasaio paused, his brow furrowed. 'Suppose our action has in some way disrupted a plan the Acoma have under way? Suppose we just blundered into their next move against our interest?

They were desperate for us not to capture that wagon, willing to pay a price far above the worth of the grain or the minor loss in honour of abandoning a small caravan.'

'Now, there is a point to pursue,' Incomo broke in. 'Our factor in Sulan-Qu reports that since our raid the Acoma have doubled the guards on all their trade caravans.

Rumours circulate that secret goods lie hidden under every bushel of grain. By the flurry of covert activity, we conclude that one real treasure exists, a treasure our enemy have determined at all costs to keep secret.' Iwo"

excitement dissolved in a frustrated sigh. 'How I wish I had an informant in Mara's inner household! Something  important is under way, something we nearly discovered accidentally in our raid near Sulan-Qu. Why else should minor sortie provoke such elaborate countermeasures?'~

Desio reached for his ice glass and swirled the last, melting chips in the dregs. 'She's sent messengers to Dustari too. No doubt to invite Chipino of the Xacatecas to park on his return from the borders. If he accepts, the Acoma will: almost certainly gain an alliance.'

Only Tasaio remained unmoved before the evidence of setbacks. Gently he said, 'Let that bide, cousin. I have a~

long-range plan for Mara that might take two years to bring to fruition.'

'Two years!' Desio slammed his mug on a side table. 'If that cho-ja hive is breeding warriors, each spring Mara's estates become that much more unassailable.'

Tasaio waved this aside. 'Let Mara grow strong at home.

For we will not deal with her on her own ground. Gone are the days we could dream of overwhelming her estate by main force.' His voice turned reflective. 'We would win, of course, but be so depleted we would not survive the certain onslaught from other enemies. Were I Chipino of the Xacatecas or Andero of the Keda, I would welcome an open  confrontation between the Acoma and the Minwanabi.'

Desio became sulky when anyone else tried to tell him what to do. Incomo watched as his master sucked his last ice cube between his teeth. Finally the Lord of the Minwanabi said, 'I may come to regret my rashness in vowing Minwanabi blood should we fail to crush the Acoma. I had hoped to spur our people to end the matter quickly. But the Red God gave us no time limit-' he glanced heavenward and made a luck sign, just in case he was wrong-'so we might do well to proceed cautiously. We cannot spare fifty seasoned warriors for each grain wagon Mara sends out.'

With a nod, Desio said, 'Cousin, let's hear your plan.'

Tasaio responded obliquely. 'Do smugglers still operate between the Empire and the desert lands in Tsubar?' he asked the First Adviser. ~

Incomo shrugged. 'Almost certainly. The nomads still covet luxuries, especially jades and silk. And they have to import swords from somewhere, since resin-producing trees do not flourish in the desert.'

Tasaio nodded almost imperceptibly. 'Then I suggest we send an envoy to the ruins at Banganok, to offer the nomads weapons and jades and rich bribes to step up their raids on the borders.'

'Xacatecas' forces would stay preoccupied.' Desio jumped ahead. 'His return to the mainland would be delayed, along with any possible alliance with Mara.'

'That is the least advantage, my Lord.' Tasaio slipped his fingers out of his archer's glove. He flexed his hands as though warming up his grip for the sword, and outlined the steps of a bold plot.

The Minwanabi would cultivate relations with the desert raiders, beginning with bribes to keep the Xacatecas forces pinned down in defence. Over a period of two years, the bribes would be escalated, forming the pretence of alliance.

Minwanabi soldiers would add to the raiders' ranks, disguised as tribesmen allies. At a moment judged most propitious, a grand offensive would be mounted on the Empire's borders. In  emergency meeting, the High Council would order the Lady of the Acoma to go to the aid of the Lord of the Xacatecas.

At mention of this, Incomo brightened. 'Mare must lead her relief troops in person or spoil her overtures toward alliance. And if she sends less than her full support in the field, she proves lack of sincerity in her promises.'

'She would be drawn far from her estates, along with most of her cho-ja,'Desio cut in. 'We could mount raids' : Tasaio silenced him with a slightly raised eyebrow. 'Better than that, cousin. Much better.' He went on, ticking off points on his fingers in the manner of a tactician. Mara had no military training, and her only officer with command experience in the field was Keyoke. If her call to arms in Dustari ~]

could be timed as a surprise, she would be handed a crisis. She ~

must strip her outer holdings, hire mercenary guards to flesh ;r out those garrisons of least strategic importance, and then ', leave the heart of her estates under the care of an officer only recently promoted. Or she must assign Keyoke to protect her family natami, and expose herself to risk. Tasaio elaborated.

'Isolated in Dustari, far from help from her clan or allies, there  would be no miracles for Mara. She would be alone on a field of our choosing, and forced to rely on the guidance of an inexperienced officer.' Tasaio paused, licked his lips, and smiled. 'At best, Mara's lack of preparation will do our work for us. She may be killed, or captured by desert raiders, or, at the least, blunder in the assignment and earn the Xacatecas'

wrath, while losing the heart of her army.'

'Interesting,' said Incomo. 'But the weak link is evident.

The assignment left to Keyoke will almost certainly not be bungled.'

Tasaio slapped his empty glove against his palm, and his smile widened. 'That is why Keyoke must be removed. A raid that will deliver him to Turakamu must be carefully planned. Let us say the Lady will receive summons from the High Council on the day of her Force Commander's death.'

Tasaio folded his hands, the model of a Tsurani warrior in repose. 'With Keyoke dead, Mara must leave Acoma welfare in the hands of lesser servants, a Strike Leader named Lujan, most likely, a flutterbug of a hadonra, and an old nurse who calls herself First Adviser. Among these may be one we can subvert.'

'Brilliant!' mustered Desio.

Tasaio summed up. 'As I read the situation, without experienced officers, Mara could never gain from assignment to Dustari. Whichever Strike Leader she promotes to oversee the attempt at relieving Xacatecas will quickly learn the difference between commanding a strike force and planning a battle.' ~

'Brilliant,' Desio said, loudly and with shining enthusiasm.

Incomo considered more practical ramifications. 'Lord Desio would need to call favours from a great number of allies in the council - even become indebted - to contrive for Mara to be assigned to a post in Dustari. Getting Xacatecas there was quite costly, and keeping him on the frontier another two years will be difficult. The nobles who supported us will demand even more concessions to be bought a second time, particularly since the setback of Jingu's death.

We are not as strong or as influential as we once were, I regret to remind you, and the debt incurred will be great.'

'What price the death of Mara of the Acoma?' Tasaio said softly. 'Desio swore blood oath to the Red God. The  alternative is for us to slaughter every woman and child wearing Minwanabi black and orange, then march to Turakamu's temple and fall upon our swords.'

Incomo nodded and turned shrewd eyes on his Lord.

Hot as Desio was to see Mara compromised, he still recognized the gravity of his decision. He did not commit himself or the resources of his house thoughtlessly, but pondered with knitted brows. 'I think my cousin advises me well,' he said at last. 'But can we be sure of the desert men?'

Tasaio looked out of the window, as if something in the distance shaped his answer. 'It's immaterial. For among those "allies" attacking will be a field commander ready to take the necessary steps to ensure Mara's failure. I will supervise the battle personally.'

The suggestion filled Desio with delight. 'Wonderful, cousin. Your reputation credits you too little. You are more crafty than I had been told.' He nodded enthusiastically.

'Let preparation for these plans begin. We shall haste in favour of completeness.'

Tasaio nodded. 'I have much to arrange, my Lord.

plan must proceed with perfection,, or we risk enmity *our' two great houses rising in power. The army we gather two years hence must be smuggled in small numbers by boat 11ama, then westward along the coast trail to Banganok~b.

One must suspect the movement of troops. And when Xacatecas is hard-pressed, we must be ready to kill Key - '

the first moment he's vulnerable.' He blinked, as if recalling his focus to Desio. 'Yes, I have much to see to. I ask my Lord's permission to depart.'

Desio waved him on his way. Though matters of protocol were furthest from his mind, Tasaio arose and made his bow, correct to the last. Incomo watched and wondered again if undue ambition lay behind such perfect poise. As the Minwanabi cousin departed from the study, he leaned close to his Lord and murmured a soft-spoken question.

Desio stiffened in surprise. 'Tasaio? Turn traitor to his Lord?' he exclaimed, entirely too loudly. 'Never.' His conviction rang with blind faith. 'All my life, cousin Tasaio has been an example to us all. Until the moment of my  ascension to the rank of Lord, he would have happily slit my throat to gain the mantle of the Minwanabi, but the moment I took my father's place, Tasaio became mine to command.

He is the soul of honour, and a devil for cleverness. Of all the men in my service, that one will bring me the Acoma natami.'

Satisfied with his own judgment on the matter, Desio ended his clandestine council. He clapped for servants, and asked for pretty serving girls to bathe with him in the cool waters of the lake.

Incomo bowed, content that while Desio fathered bastard children, Tasaio would need his help to begin plotting the vast design to destroy Mara. If the Minwanabi First Adviser felt any resentment at Tasaio's usurpation of his role, he hid it even from himself; he was loyal to his master. As long as Tasaio served Minwanabi interests, Incomo had no jealousy within his breast. Besides, rthe wry thought intruded, Lords of great houses quite commonly came to youthful deaths; until Desio married and fathered an heir, Tasaio remained next in line for the ruler's mantle. Should Desio perish untimely, it would never do to have one unexpectedly inheriting the title be displeased with the resident First  Adviser.

Incomo motioned for a servant to attend his desires. 'Send word to Tasaio that I am at his disposal in any fashion for which he deems me worthy and that I will happily lend my feeble efforts to his great work.'

As the servant hurried off, Incomo considered ordering a cool tub and a pretty woman to wash his sweaty, tired body.

Shrugging off the wistful image, he arose from his cushions.

Too much work remained undone. Besides, if he read young Tasaio correctly, he would be sent for within the hour.

Mara moved between nodding rows of kekali blossoms, a basket on her arm. She pointed to a bloom and said, 'That one,' and the servant who trailed her obligingly cut the stem with a sharp knife. Another held up a lantern so the first might clearly see in the shadows of early evening. The servant lifted the indigo flower, inspected it briefly to see that the petals were unharmed, then bowed and handed the blossom to the Lady.

She pressed it to her nose to enjoy the fragrance before she added it to others already piled in her basket.

The hadonra, Jican, trailed her as she turned down a bend in the path. The ravine between your southernmost needra  meadows has been flooded, my Lady.'

Mara pointed out another flower she wished cut, and smile curved her lips. 'Good. The bridge across our new river will be completed before market season, I trust?'

Now Jican chuckled. 'Planking is being added to the framework even as we speak. Jidu of the Tuscalora sweat' as he writes daily, begging permission to transport his chocha-la crops-down the ravine by boat. However, as politely pointed out on your behalf, my Lady, the right-of-way you granted when you purchased the land permitted only wagons.'

'Very good.' Mara accepted the indicated blossom from: her servant, and carelessly stabbed her finger on a thorn.

The pain she accepted with Tsurani impassivity, but the blood was another matter. Kelewanese superstition held that chance-spilled blood might whet the Red God's appetite, making the deity greedy for additional death. Jican hastily offered his handkerchief, and Mara bound up her stinging finger before any droplets could fall to the soil.

Her plan to beggar Lord Jidu of the Tuscalora and force him to become her vassal had been delayed by a season because of the attentions received by her house following the death of Jingu of the Minwanabi. Now, as events resumed their proper course, she found her planned victory over her neighbour to the south had partially lost its savour.

Hokanu's visit had offered a welcome interlude, but his stay had been brief, owing to his need to return home.

Nacoya blamed her restlessness on the lack of male company. Mara smiled at the thought and shifted her basket of flowers. The First Adviser insisted that no young woman's life could be complete without a healthy male diversion now and again. But Mara viewed romance with scepticism. As greatly as she enjoyed Hokanu's company, the thought of taking another husband to her bed made her hands turn clammy with apprehension. To her, marriage and sex were simplY a woman's bargaining chips in the Game of the Council. Love and pleasure had no place in such decisions.

'Where's Kevin?' said Jican unexpectedly, making his  Lady start.

Mara settled on a stone bench and motioned for her hadonra to join her. 'He's being fitted for new clothes.'

Jican's eyes brightened. Hi loved to gossip, but was seldom so bold as to trouble his Lady outright on matters outside of estate finance.

Mara indulged him. 'Kevin went out with the hunters yesterday, and when he complained that his legs and backside had suffered from thorns, I allowed him to be measured for Midkemian dress. He's off to show the leather workers and tailors what to do, as they know little about his nation's odd fashions. I told him the colours must not be other than a slave's grey and white, but maybe he'll behave with more dignity once his knees are covered with - what did he call it? - ah yes, hose.'

'More like he'll complain he's too trot,' the little hadonra returned. Then, as Mara dismissed the other servants, he added, 'I have news of your silk samples, Lady.'

Instantly he had Mara's entire attention. 'They were safely stowed aboard your message barge yesterday. The factors in Jamar will have them before the close of the week,  in time for inspection before the price auctions.'

Mara sighed with relief. She had worried endlessly that the Minwanabi might discover her move into the silk market beforetime and give warning to their silk-producing allies in the north. Most Acoma revenues came from needra raising and weapon craft; but now she needed to strengthen her army and outfit the ever rising numbers of cho-ja warriors bred by the new Queen. Hides and armour would be needed at home, cutting back on her marketable goods.

The silk trade Mara hoped to create must balance out the loss. If the timing were spoiled, the northern silk merchants would undercut her prices and offer early deliveries to sta' out her fledgling enterprise. Years of established trade hi given them influence over the dyers' and weavers' guild Paying costly bribes to ensure guild secrecy and good" was an unavoidable necessity until Acoma craftsmen could be schooled to mastery of these specialized new skills. B.

Acoma silks arrived on the market at just the right moment not only would Mara gain income, she would upset d' revenues of the Minwanabi alhes.

'You have done well in this, Jican.'

The hadonra blushed. 'Success would not have been possible without Arakasi's planning.' :~ ~

Mara stared out over the gardens, into the gathering gloom of twilight. 'Let us not speak of success until the price auctions are dominated by demand for Acoma goods!' i Jican returned a deep bow. 'Let us hope the day comes without mishap.' He made a sign for the Good God's favour and quietly retired from her presence.

Mara lingered, alone except for a few servants. She set down her basket and surveyed the gardens that surrounded the estate house's east wing. This had been her mother's favourite place, or so Lord Sezu had told the daughter whose birth had caused that Lady's premature death. Front this seat the Lady Oskiro had watched her Lord select his hunting dogs as the young ones were brought out for his inspection. But the kennels' runs were empty now, by  Mara's command; the baying of the hounds had reminded the new Ruling Lady too painfully of the past. And ha husband had cared more for battle practice and wrestling with the soldiers than coursing after game with fleet dogs.

Or perhaps he had not lived long enough to appreciate the sport.

Mara sighed and shook off her regrets. She excused her servants and stared over the distant meadows as the shatra birds flew at sundown. Normally their flight calmed and reassured her, but today she felt only melancholy. That no attack upon the Acoma seemed imminent did not reduce the threat. The most brilliant moves within the Game of the Council were those that came without warning. The tranquil passage of days only made her skin creep, as if assassinS lurked in hiding at her back. Knowing that Tasaio stayed on as Desio's adviser promised subtle and devious trouble. Arakasi was worried also. Mara knew by his  stillness as he stood to deliver his reports. He had survived the kill of one Lord and lived to serve another; a matter that could trouble him would not be anything slight.

Mara lifted a kekali blossom from the basket at her Feet.

The petals were soft and fragile, susceptible to the slightest chill, and fast to wilt in extreme heat. The bushes themselves were hardy, and armed with thorns for defence;.but the flowers were short-lived and vulnerable. This evening, surrounded by the perishable beauty of the kekali, Mara missed the baying of the hounds at their dinner. More, she missed the strong presence of her father as he sat in the garden, enjoying the cool of the oncoming night, sipping on a bitter ale while his son and daughter prattled on about childish things. Gold light faded from the western sky, and the shatra flocks settled to rest after their sky dance. A barefooted slave lit the last lanterns along the path; the instant he finished his task he hurried away for his meal of thyza mush. In the kitchens and common dining hall, estate workers gathered for the evening meal. Still Mara lingered.

Dusk deepened. Stars appeared, and the western hills became a silhouette against the last trace of afterglow. The silence peculiar to the hour descended, the birdsong of daytime now stilled, while night-singing insects in their  myriad thousands had yet to waken and trill. Since this garden was farthest removed from the soldiers' barracks and servantS' quarters, it was silent; Mara enjoyed a rare moment of peace.

She found herself thinking of Hokanu. His visit months earlier had been disappointingly brief - a lin~j dinner; then at first light, after breakfast and what SEEMED A short chat, he took his leave and departed. Some development in the game had compelled his return to the Shinzawai estates sooner than Mara would have liked. Left with sense that Hokanu felt he should have bypassed the ho and returned straight upriver to his father's estates, Mara felt flattered he had compromised his sense of duty a little and stolen a visit with her. ~ ~

But she had said nothing to him, sheltering her feelings behind tradition's accepted behaviour. His wit might make her smile, and his intelligence inspire her own wit, yet she shied from contemplating any final outcome of this handsome noble's attentions.

Attractive as she found Hokanu, the thought of returning  to any man's bed made her shudder. Even now she had nightmares of her late husband's rages and the bruises h' had inflicted in his passions. No, she decided, she had no desire to encourage the company of a man.

And yet, when Hokanu's small caravan had drawn out of sight, Mara had been astonished at how swiftly the time had fled. The young man's company had pleased her. She had not had a comfortable moment while he had been there, but' she missed his lively company.

Footsteps approached on the gravel path. Mara turned in time to see a tall, long-strided figure invade her temporary sanctuary.

'There you are,' called a voice. Even without the heavy accent, the disrespectful address and the boisterous tone identified her visitor as Midkemian. And as often as Mara was astonished by such directness, she was also attracted to it.

'I've been looking for you since sundown,' Kevin added?

treading a winding path between kekali bushes to reach the bench where she sat. 'I asked Nacoya, and the old witch just grunted and shrugged. The servants looked nervous when I spoke to them, and finally I had to track down Lujan at the change of the guard.'

'He must have known you were following him,' said Mara, unwilling to believe her best soldier would be so lax in his duties. ~

'Of course.' Kevin rounded a last island of flower bed and paused before her. 'We were discussing the fine points of swordplay. Your methods differ from ours. Ours are better, naturally,' he added. Irritated that his intentional baiting always worked, Mara raised her head. She found him grinning in anticipation of her rejoinder, and realized he played with her. She refused to be teased and studied his new attire.

The lantern light caught Kevin in profile, burnished his wavy hair copper, and caught the long, flowing sleeves of the white shirt just collected from the seamstresses. Over this he wore a jerkin belted tightly around his waist, and hose that clung tightly to a muscled length of leg. The neutral grey colour flattered him, for it set off his hair and beard and the  deep tan of his face, and somehow made his blue eyes more intense. Mara glanced down, to find the effect spoiled at the ankle by the same worn sandals he had been given on the day of his arrival. Aware of the Lady's gaze on his feet, Kevin laughed. 'The boots aren't finished yet.'

He looked very exotic, handsome in a barbaric way.

Fascinated by the sight of him, Mara forgot to reprimand his lack of form. However, this time, Kevin kept courtesy. He made his bow Midkemian style, from the waist.

'Is that how you show respect for your Kingdom ladies?'

Mara asked somewhat acidly, mostly because she could not take her eyes off his wide, strangely clothed shoulders.

Kevin gave back a wicked smile. 'Not quite. Have I your permission ?'

Mara inclined her head, then started as he reached' took her hand. 'We greet our ladies like this.' He confidently touched her fingers to his lips. The caress was very.

barely a brush of flesh against flesh. Mara shivered slightly and stiffened to pull away.

But Kevin was not finished taking liberty. The feel proper clothing and the mildness of the night lent him spirit of recklessness. He firmed his grip, not so much i.

his mistress could not break away, but enough that she struggle or follow his lead. 'Sometimes we take the ladies dancing,' he invited, and he drew her to her feet, grasped lightly around the waist, and spun her in a circle through d.

lantern light. her

Mara laughed in surprise, not feeling in the k;.

threatened. Glad to be distracted from the morass q difficult memories, the Lady of the Acoma abandoned herself to this single moment of fun. And between Kevin breathless laughter and the heady perfume of the flowers she discovered that the touch of him was pleasing.

strength did not intimidate but warmed her. Small as a doll in his arms, she tried to keep pace with him; yet she did not know the steps of his wild dance. Her feet got in his way, and he stumbled. She felt his muscles tense in response. He had reflexes swift as a cat's. But the backstep he initiated to save his balance tangled disastrously with the basket she had abandoned on the path.

The wicker container overturned, showering the gravel with kekali. Kevin tripped sideways, dragging Mara with him. The plunge happened too suddenly to allow the Lady to cry out. Caught in Kevin's embrace, she felt him turn his shoulder to cushion her fall. She landed sprawled across his chest, slightly breathless, and still entangled in his arms. His hands moved, slid down her back, and paused at her waist.

'Are you all right?'he said in a voice that was unfamiliarly deep.

Overwhelmed by a rush of strange sensations, Mara did not answer at once.

Kevin shifted under her. He freed one hand and picked up a kekali blossom from the ground. He pinched the stem in his teeth and, by touch, stripped off the thorns. Lantern light softened the planes of his face as he finished and carefully wound the flower in a strand of Mara's hair. 'At home we call flowers that look much like these by another name.'

Mara shut her eyes against a strange rush, something like dizziness, yet not. His fingers brushed her neck as he finished with the flower, then withdrew, leaving her aching. Huskily she asked, 'What name?'

'Roses.' Kevin felt the slight quiver that coursed through her flesh. The hand on her back moved, drew her closer.

Softly he added, 'Though we've none this wonderful shade of blue.' His touch was tentative, and gentle in a manner that did not frighten. Aware through her confusion that he offered comfort, Mara did not tear herself away. For a moment he went still, as if he awaited some form of reaction.

Mara returned none. Her body felt strangely languid.

When she made no move, Kevin held her more firmly. He shifted again, until her hip lay cradled in the hollow of his flank, and her hair loosened from its pins and cascaded in a rush across the opened laces of his shirt. The hand on her back slid down and under her arm, and traced the neckline of her robe. The touch raised fire in her, a warmth that seemed to melt her from within.

'Lady?' he said softly. His other hand brushed the hair  back from her face. She saw that his eyes were very wide, the pupils dark in the lantern light, and the irises narrow bands of silver. 'Do you want this ? A man on my world gives roses to a Lady when he loves her.'

'I care very little for love,' Mara answered, her voice oddly rough to her own ear. Now her body tensed against his. My husband taught me more than I ever wished to know.' Kevin sighed, changed his position, and lifted Overwhelmed by his strength, she felt a giddy sense of familiarity, reminiscent of a time when a tiny girl was"

gently by her warrior father's powerful hands. Yet M~

sensed no danger, for despite the power of those hands, the; touch was only loving. Mara felt a chilly rush of air as and Kevin separated, when he gently sat her upon the bench Her robe had pulled askew. He did not stare at her exposed breasts but sought something within her own gaze. Her eyes followed his as he carefully stepped back, awaiting command.

Mara settled against the stone seat and recovered d~

semblance of poise. Yet the control she had schooled to be second nature came with difficulty. Inside, she remained in turmoil; despite the memory of her former husband's brutality, despite the ingrained fears, her body ached to be touched again by such tender strength. Kevin made no move toward her, and this only made her flesh cry out all the more.

Battling to impose logic over confusion, Mara said nothing,-; which left Kevin the task of smoothing over the awkwardness of the moment.

'My Lady,' he said, and bowed again from the waist. For some reason the movement gave her the shivers. He turned his back, bent, and methodically began to gather the blossoms strewn across the path. 'A man might also give a woman a rose if he admired and respected her. Keep the flower in your hair; it truly does become you.'

Mara reached up and touched the blossom which rested, still, twined in the lock above her ear. She became absorbed by the play of muscles under his loose-fitting white shirt.

The sensation in her middle mounted to an ache. She shivered again as Kevin stretched and recovered the tipped basket. Lantern light caught his hair and his sinewy wrists as  he laid the recovered flowers inside. A few remained, crushed by his body during the fall, and as he arose to return the basket to her, he grimaced and said, 'Curse the thorns.'

Instantly Mara felt contrition. Moved by an unfamiliar instinct, she reached out and touched the back of his hand.

'Did you receive a wound?'

Kevin looked at her wryly. 'No, Lady. I'd hardly call a few pricks in the back on your behalf a wound.'

'Let me see,' demanded Mara, pressed by a recklessness that made her giddy.

The barbarian regarded her, his moment of surprise well hidden. Then his wryness expanded into a smile. 'As my Lady wishes.' He loosened the laces of his cuffs, shed the shirt in an enviably smooth movement, and straddled the bench by her side.

Presented with a view of his back, Mara hesitated. Plain in the light she could see scratch marks, studded with embedded kekali thorns. Shaky now, and frightened, still she fumbled until she found the handkerchief lent by Jican.

Tentatively she dabbed at a cut. Kevin held motionless. The feel of his skin was silken smooth, not at all what she expected. The handkerchief fabric caught on a brier. Gently Mara drew it out. She ran her fingers down and down, found more thorns, and drew them, until finally none were left. Her hands did not want to leave him. She traced the side of his flank, felt the hard muscle there, and then flinched  back with a gasp as memory of Buntokapi made her start.

Kevin swung his knee over the bench and spun to face her.

'Lady? Is something wrong?'

The concern in his voice suddenly broke her heart. She fought against tears, and lost.

'Lady,' whispered Kevin. 'What makes you cry?' He gathered her to him, held her shaking against the hollow of his shoulder. Mara tensed, at any moment expecting his hands to turn brutal, to twist at her clothes and seek out her most tender parts. But nothing happened. Kevin simply held her, unmoving, and in time her fear unlocked. Mara realized.

that he was not going to be rough, but would only offer he.

comfort. 'What troubles you?' he asked again.

Mara stirred, then surrendered to his warmth and leaned against him. 'Memories,' she said softly.

Now Kevin's hands did harden. He caught her firmly.

lifted her, and resettled her in his lap. ,; Mara caught herself just short of a scream. Shame burned her cheeks, that she had so nearly disgraced her heritage. she choked a breath to call Lujan, but Kevin's hold loosened. He stroked her hair, gentle once more, and relief made her cry all over again.

'Your memories must be painful, Kevin murmured in her ear. 'I've never seen a beautiful woman so frightened at a man's attentions. It's as if someone beat you when another man would have kissed you with tenderness.'

'Bunto,' said Mara, her voice lowered to a near whisper.

Her coldness was unexpected, and prompted by a resentment she had never before given rein, except in confidence with Nacoya. 'He liked his women bruised. His concubine, Teani, loved such abuses.' She paused, then added, 'I don't think I ever could. Perhaps that makes me a coward. I don't care. I'm just glad I no longer have a husband to share my bed.'

Now Kevin was silent, shocked to an outrage that made him cup her chin until she faced him. 'In my land, a husband who strikes his wife is nothing but a common criminal.'

Mara managed a weak smile. 'How different our cultures can be. Here a woman has no power over her fate, unless she is Ruling Lady. A man may dominate his wife as he would a slave, and in the eyes of other men, his manhood is increased by her submissiveness.'

Now Kevin's anger could be heard in his voice. 'Then your lords are no better than barbarians. Men should treat women with respect and kindness.'

Excitement coursed through Mara. Time and again Nacoya had told her that all men did not behave like Buntokapi; yet the fact that they owned the god-given right to be brutal had caused her to distrust even Hokanu, whose outward manner seemed mild. Where she had not dared to give herself to a suitor of her own culture, with Kevin she felt oddly safe. ~

'Then your people treat their wives and lovers like flowers, cherishing them without causing pain?'

Kevin nodded, his fingers stroking her shoulders as lightly as the wings of small birds.

'Show me,' Mara whispered. The touch of him made her tingle, and she felt, through his breeches, the pressure of his own aroused manhood.

The barbarian's brows rose mischievously. 'Here?'

The ache inside Mara mounted, became unbearable.

'Here,' she repeated softly. 'Here, now, I command you.'

When he looked as though he might protest, she added, 'No one will disturb us. I am Ruling Lady of the Acoma.'

Even now she tautened, as if at any moment she expected to be manhandled. Kevin sensed her tension. 'Lady,' he said softly, 'right now you rule more than the Acoma,' and he bent his head and kissed her lips.

His touch was soft as a whisper. Reassured, she yielded almost immediately. Then, as his lightness teased her to desire, she leaned into him, demanding more. But his hands stayed soft. He stroked her breast through the fabric of her robe, maddening her with his gentleness. Her nipple turned hard and hot. She wanted his fingers on her bare skin, more desperately than she had ever wished for anything.

He did not comply. Not all at once. Barbarian that he was, he acted as if her very robe were precious. He slipped the silk slowly from her shoulders. Mara moaned and shivered. She tugged at his shirt, wanting the feel of him, but her hands tangled in his unfamiliar dress, and as her fingers encountered his skin, she hesitated, wanting to return the feeling he gave her, but uncertain what she should do. ~ .

Kevin caught her wrists, still handling her as if her flesh.

were fragile. His care made her desire mount further tormented her to an ecstasy she had never dreamed existed i~'

She could not have named the moment he slid her robe and touched his lips to her breast. By then her world had dissolved into dizziness and she moaned for his touch against her loins.

Midkemian clothing was more complicated than Tsurani' dress. He had to shift her to remove his breeches. Somehow they ended up in the grass, lit by the golden sliver of Kelewan's moon, and also by a soft wash of lantern light.

Abandoned to pleasure amid the scent of blooming kekali, swept away by the passion of a redheaded barbarian, Mara  discovered what it was to be a woman.

Later, flushed with the elation of newfound release, Mara ~' returned to her chamber. Nacoya awaited her there with news of a business transaction in Sulan-Qu, and a tray of light supper. One look at her mistress's face, and she forgot the contents of the scroll. 'Thank Lashima,' she said, correctly interpreting the cause of Mara's euphoria. 'You've discovered the joy of your womanhood atlas".'

Mara laughed, a little breathless. She pirouetted like a girl and sat on the cushions. Kevin followed her, his hair still tousled and his face more guardedly sober. Nacoya regarded him closely for a moment. Then, her lips pursed in mild disapproval, she turned upon her mistress.

'My Lady, you must excuse your slave.'

Mara looked up, her first flush of surprise changing to annoyance. 'First Adviser, I shall do as I please with my slave.'

Nacoya bowed deeply in respect for her mistress's prerogative. Then she went on as though Kevin were not present. 'Daughter of my heart, you now have learned the wonder of sex. This is good. And you are not the first great Lady who has used a slave. It is not only useful, it is even wise, for no slave can use you. However, Desio of the Minwanabi will be waiting to take advantage of every weakness, however small. You must not make mistakes and let the pleasures of the flesh grow into infatuation. This Midkemian should be sent away to keep your thinking clear, and you should take one or two different men to your bed soon, to learn they are merely . . . useful.'

Mara stood motionless, with her back turned. 'I find this discussion inopportune. Leave me at once, Nacoya.'

The First Adviser of the Acoma returned a deeper bow.

'Your will, Lady.' Stiffly she arose, and with a last lingering glare at Kevin she left the room. As the indignant tap of her sandals faded down the hall, Mara motioned to her slave.

'Join me,' she invited. Then she shed her loosened robe and dropped naked upon the cushions of the mat that served as her bed. 'Show me again how the men in your land love their women.'

Kevin returned his familiar wry grin. Then he raised his eyes toward heaven in a show of mock appeal. 'Pray to your gods to give me the strength,' he murmured. Then he slipped off his shirt and his drawers, and joined her.

Later, when the lamps burned low, Mara lay awake in the clasp of Kevin's arms and reflected upon the joy she had found in the midst of so many worries. She reached out and smoothed back her lover's tousled hair. She regarded the punctures traced across his shoulder by the sharpened thorns of the kekali; the wounds were slight, already scabbed over. Only then did Mara appreciate the bittersweet nature of the love that had overtaken her at last.

Kevin was, and always would be, a slave. There were certain unarguable absolutes in her culture, and that fact was one.

Caught up in a moment of melancholy, and frowning at: the waining moon through the screen, Mara wondered whether the bad luck that had brought down her- brother' and father might not stalk her yet. Desperately she prayed to  j Lashima that the blood from Kevin's scratches had not seeped through his shirt and touched the ground. Lord Desio of the Minwanabi had sworn the vengeance of his house into the hands of Turakamu. And with or without invitation, the Death God walked where he would. If he; chose to favour the Minwanabi, the Acoma would be swept t away without trace from the land and the memory of man.

Target.

Mara stirred.

Her hand brushed warm flesh, and she started awake.

In the predawn gloom, she saw Kevin as a figure of greys and blacks. He was not asleep but propped on one elbow looking at her. 'You're very beautiful,' he said.

Mara smiled drowsily and snuggled into the crook of his elbow. She felt tired but content. Through the months since Kevin had come to her bed, she had discovered new aspects to herself, a sensual side, a tender side, kept hidden away until now. The pleasures she shared with the barbarian made the brutalities of her marriage seem a distant and unpleasant dream.

Playfully she ran her fingers through the hair on Kevin's chest. She had come to value their morning chat after lovemaking as much as council with her advisers. In ways not fully realized, she was learning from him. His nature was far more guarded than she had guessed upon first impression; she now understood that his direct and open manner stemmed from a cultural surface trait that masked an inner privacy. Kevin remained intentionally vague about his previous life and family, and though she asked often, he avoided talk of the future, as if he concealed his plans in that regard, as well. Different as he was from a born Tsurani, Mara judged his character to be complex and deep. She found it astonishing that such a man could be a common soldier, and wondered if others with like potential lay undiscovered among her warriors.

Kevin said something, disturbing her contemplation.

Mara smiled indulgently. 'What did you say?'

C.aught up by a thought, he mused, 'What strange,]

contrasts your world has.'

Brought to alertness by his uncharacteristic intonation, Mara focused her attention. 'What troubles you?'

'Are my thoughts so transparent?' Kevin shrugged in partial embarrassment. He remained silent for a moment, then added, 'I was thinking of the poor quarter in SulanQu.'

But why?' Mara frowned. She attempted to reassure him.

'You will never be permitted to starve.'

'Starve?' Surprise made Kevin pause. He drew a fast breath, then stared at her, as if he might fathom her woman's mind by studying her intently. At last, moved to some inner conclusion, he admitted, 'Never in my life have I seen people suffering in such numbers.'

'But you must have poor folk in the Kingdom of the Isles,'

Mara returned without inflection. 'How else do your gods show their displeasure at man's behaviour than by returning him to his next life in low estate?'

Kevin stiffened. 'What do the gods have to do with starving children, disease, and cruelty? And what of the righteousness of good works and charity ? Have you no alms in this land or are all Tsurani nobles born cruel?'

Mara shoved herself upright, spilling cushions across the waxed floor. 'You are a strange man,' she observed in a voice that hid a note of panic. As often as she had bent tradition, she had never questioned the gods' omnipotence.

To dare that heresy was to invite utter destruction. Mara realized that other nobles might be less firm in their adherence to their ancestors' faith, but she herself was devout; had fate not destined her for the ruler's mantle, she would have dedicated herself to a life of contemplative service to the goddess Lashima. The ultimate truth was that the gods decreed the order of the Empire. To question this was to undermine the very concept of honour that was the foundation of Tsurani society. It was this divine mandate that imparted order to the Empire and made sense of everything, from the certainty of ultimate reward for honourable service, and the right of nobles to rule, to constraints in the Game of the Council so that wholesale carnage never resulted.

With one careless remark, the barbarian had challenged the very fabric of Tsurani beliefs.

Mara clung to her poise, inwardly battered by a host of alarming implications. The pleasures Kevin brought her could never compensate for the dangerous new bent of his thoughts. He must not be allowed to speak such blasphemous idiocy, especially not within Ayaki's hearing; the boy had grown to dote upon Kevin, and the future Lord of the Acoma's resolve as he led his house to greatness must never be shaken by uncertainties. To conquer the might of other families because the gods looked favourably upon such efforts was one thing; to vainly think accolades came solely through wit and skill, and some random factor of luck was ... was morally destructive and unthinkable.

Cornered, with only one option, the Lady of the Acoma chose her course.

'Leave me,' she said sharply. She arose at once from her bed and brusquely clapped for servants. Although the sun had not yet risen, and the screens were still closed for the night, two maids and a manservant answered her summons.

'Dress me at once,' the Lady commanded. One maid  rushed to select a robe, while the other took up brush and comb to attend to her mistress's tangles. The manservant tidied the scattered cushions and adjusted the screens. The fact that Kevin got in his way seemed not to faze him.

Wizened and old, and ingrained in the habit of his duties, he went about straightening up the chamber as though he were deaf.

Mara slipped her arms into the rose-coloured silken robe the maid held up for her. She turned and saw Kevin standing naked, his breeches and shirt across his arm, and dumbfounded look on his face. The Lady's expression remained stern, her dark eyes fathomless and hard. 'Jican tells me that the work clearing the forest for my needra field goes slowly. This is mostly owing to your countrymen, who complain and malinger over their appointed share of work The maid with the comb lifted the hair from Mara's nap and began expertly piling it into an elaborately knona headdress. Mara continued in a level tone, despite the fact that her head was tugged this way and that as the mea separated each long lock for arrangement. 'I wish you to take charge,' Mara announced. 'Spring will be upon us too swiftly, and the needra herds will increase. You shall  have power over my overseers and the authority to change any detail you see fit. In return, your countrymen will cease their laziness. They will cut timber and clear the new field before the first calf is thrown. You may coddle their needs ff long as the work gets done. Fail to complete this task, and t shall have one man chosen at random and hung for each day my new pastures remain unfinished past the Spring: Welcoming Festival.'

Kevin appeared puzzled, but he nodded. 'Shall I return tonight, or-' he began.

'You will need to stay with the workers in the meadow camp.'

When shall I return-'

Coldly Mara interrupted. 'When I choose to send for you.

Now go.'

Kevin bowed, his face revealing bafflement and anger.

Still carrying his clothing, he departed the room. The soldier on duty by the door showed no change in expression as the barbarian stepped into the corridor. The Midkemian looked at the impassive soldier as if he had said something, then let  loose a burst of ironic laughter. 'Damned if I can figure her out, either,' he confided in tight frustration. The soldier's eyes fixed upon Kevin, but the features remained unchanged.

Despite. being surrounded by servants, Mara overheard Kevin's comment. She heard the pain that he did not bother to conceal, and closed her eyes against inexplicably threatening tears. Tsurani decorum kept her from showing emotion, though her inner self might cry out with the desire to call Kevin back. As a lover she wished to ease his pain, but as Lady of the Acoma she must not be ruled by the heart.

Mara kept her anguish behind a mask, while her servants worked unobtrusively on her person.

Afraid to move, afraid even to sigh lest her control break into an uncontrollable bout of weeping, Mara called in a small voice for a meal. As much as she longed for release, tears would be shameful for the Lady of the Acoma. To be shaken by a barbarian slave's words, to feel desolate over his absence, was not appropriate for the Lady of a great house.

Mara swallowed her pain, which was doubled by knowing she had wounded Kevin in saving herself. She found no relief  in restraint nor did the silent disciplinary chants learned in Lashima's temple help ease the ache. When her breakfast tray arrived, she picked at the food without appetite and stared into empty space. Her servants remained dutiful and silent. Bound to traditions as rigid as her own, they waited for her next command without judgment upon her behaviour.

Mara at last signalled, and servants removed the breakfast tray with the food barely touched. Determined to master her inner turmoil, Mara called her advisers to conference. They met in her study, Keyoke alert as always, his Force Commander's plumes the only decoration on his well-scarred, common armour. He had been up before dawn to oversee a patrol on the borders, and his sandals were still dew-drenched and dirty. Nacoya, who usually dragged in the mornings, perked up sharply as she completed her bow and noticed Kevin's absence. She breathed a perceptible sigh of relief: at long last her mistress had come to her senses and sent the tall barbarian away.

Angered by the old woman's worldly-wise satisfaction, Mara repressed a desire to slap Nacoya's wizened cheek.

Then, shamed by her inappropriate resentment, she looked for her hadonra's arrival. At the point when she was ready to send her runner slave to find him, Jican arrived. Puffing, he bowed very low and apologized profusely for his tardiness. As Mara belatedly recalled that his delay had been caused by her summarily rearranging the work roster, she cut Jican's apologies short.

'I want a list of every asset we have that you feel might be vulnerable to exploitation by enemies,' Mara instructed.

'There must be other transactions aside from our silk interests that Desio could damage, either by undercutting prices, or through buying off the guilds who rate the quality of our goods. There are markets he might strangle, trade routes he could disrupt, agents that could be bribed, and buyers who could be threatened. Boats could be sunk, wagons overturned, warehouses burned; none of this must be allowed to occur.'

'That does not seem to be Desio's style,' a dry voice said from the doorway that opened onto the outer pathways. Arakasi stepped in through the partially opened screen, a shadow against the misty grey of dawn.

Mara barely managed to repress her surprise; Keyoke and the guards in the hallway all lowered their hands from their weapons. The Spy Master bowed and chose a place among the advisers, and the furrow over his brows indicated he had more to say. Mara indicated her permission, and the Spy Master sat at the table, his long fingers folded in his lap.

He continued as if his presence had been expected all along. 'Except that the young Lord of the Minwanabi has not held power for long enough to evolve much style.' As if he were still formulating his conclusion, the Spy Master stroked the merchant's plaited scalp lock he had cultivated for his latest guise on the road. 'One thing is clear, though: Desio is spending huge sums of money upon something. The markets from here to Ambolina are  choked with Minwanabi goods, and from the scant information from our clerk in Desio's employ, I would presume the unaccounted money is being invested in gifts, bribes, or favours.'

Agitated at this news, Mara chewed her lip. 'Bribes for what?' she mused softly. 'There must be some means of finding out.'

Keyoke's deep voice interrupted. 'This morning, my soldiers caught a strange herder lurking in the needra fields that border the Tuscalora estates. They took him for questioning, but he died on his dagger rather than name his true master.'

Arakasi's eyes slitted speculatively as Nacoya said, 'He was probably one of Lord Jidu's spies, sent to check the guard on the bridge across the gorge.' The First Adviser pursed her lips, as if thought of the Acoma's southern neighbour brought a bad taste to her mouth. 'The Tuscalora chocha-la harvest is nearly ready for market, and by now even Jidu's thick-witted hadonra must guess that his wagons will not be using Mara's bridge to reach the road without paying toll for their passage.'

The Spy Master leaned sharply forward. 'I would not  count on the possibility that herder was Jidu's.'

Mara nodded. 'Neither do I take your hunches lightly, Arakasi.To Keyoke she added, 'We must send a patrol to guard Lord Jidu's borders - unobtrusively, of course.

His warriors are good, but they may not realize how much my enemieS might gain if their master's crops burned.'

Keyoke nodded, the hands at rest upon his sword unmoving as he contemplated this touchy assignment.

Jidu of the Tuscalora might be lax in his spending habits, but his soldiers were fine warriors. ~y

Jican diffidently offered advice on this point. 'Lord Jidu hires migrant workers from Neskesha to help with ~

harvest, when his crop is abundant. This has been q bountiful year. Perhaps some of the warriors could disguise themselves as chocha-la pickers and infiltrate the workers u.

the fields. The overseers would not know every strange face; and since our men would be drawing no pay, their presence'

might pass unnoticed for many days.'

Keyoke expanded this proposition. 'Better, and for o - : warriors' honour, we could stage battle manoeuvres in the meadows beside Lord Jidu's estates. Our own workers can infiltrate the groups of Tuscalora pickers, and if trouble arises, they could slip away and alert our troops.'

Mara nodded decisively. 'Let this be done.' She dismissed; her advisers, assuring Jican she would study the finance papers brought for her review after the midday meal.

Then, atypically vague and aimless, Mara retired to the garden, seeking solace. But the paths between the flowering kekali bushes seemed lonely and empty in the morning light; The growing heat of day oppressed her. As the Lady wandered among the fragrant akasi blooms, her thoughts returned to her nights in Kevin's arms. Her feelings at the time had seemed so profoundly right, and now his absence made her ache, as if a piece of her being were missing. She contrived a thousand excuses to send for him - only for a moment, to answer a question, to play with Ayaki, to clarify some obscure rule in the game his people called knucklebones . . .

Mara's eyes sheered over with tears, and she misstepped,  stumbling over a raised stone in the path. Her musing dissolved into anger; she needed no reason, she was Mara, Ruling Lady of the Acoma! She could order her slaves where she would without explanation to anyone. Then. wakened to her own folly before she gave in to impulse, she firmed her inward resolve. Her house had stood at the brink of ruin since the death of her father and brother. She must do nothing to risk the gods' displeasure. If she failed, if she lost sight of the ways of her ancestors over an affair of the heart, every Acoma retainer from the least servant in her scullery to her beloved senior advisers would suffer. Their years of loyal service and the honour of her family name must never be sacrificed for the sake of dalliance with a slave. Nacoya had been right. Kevin was a danger to her, best put aside without regret.

Damn the barbarian, she reflected with irritation.

Couldn't he learn his place quickly, and become a Tsurani slave? Couldn't he cease his poisonous, perilous thinking?

Sadness pushed through her confusion and mixed with annoyance at herself. I am Ruling Lady, she scolded inwardly. I should know what to do. Miserably, Mara admitted, 'But I don't.'

The servant by the garden gate who awaited his mistress's command called out,'My Lady?'

Mara bit back a needlessly harsh reply. 'Send for my son and his nurse. I would play with him for a while.'

The man returned a proper bow and hurried to do her bidding. Immediately Mara's mood brightened. Nothing brought a smile to her lips more reliably than the boisterous laughter of her son as he chased after insects, or raced till he was breathless through the garden.

Desio hammered his pudgy fist into the tabletop, causing a candle to topple, and a dozen jade ornaments to scatter and roll upon the carpet. A nervous servant hurried to gather the fallen items, and First Adviser Incomo stepped aside to avoid being struck by the rolling pedestal that had supported a goddess figurine.

The servant arose, 'My Lord,' he implored cautiously, 'you must patience.'

'But Mara is about to gain a vassal!' Desio howled ' lazy idiot Jidu of the Tuscalora doesn't even see coming a half-dozen precious carnn.

clutched to his chest. Desio chose that moment to bang ~j table again. The servant cringed, and with shaking hands began to restore the ornaments to their former resting place Incomo regarded his Lord's flushed face and sighed with restrained impatience. He was weary from days spa.

indoors, each one filled with long and profitless hours in attendance upon a Lord whose mind held no subtlety. yet until cousin Tasaio returned, Incomo could do little except endure Desio's ranting.

'If only we could arrange a raid to burn those chocha-la,  bushes,' the Lord of the Minwanabi complained. 'Then Jidu would see his ruin staring him in the face, and we would t rescue him with a loan that would compel his loyalty to us Where did that fatheaded needra bull find the foresight to disguise informants among his workers? Now we dare not intervene without damaging our credibility in the council.'

Incomo did not trouble to voice the obvious: that with their current outlays in bribes to get Mara assigned to duty in Dustari, the Minwanabi finances could hardly be: extended any thinner; and Lord Jidu was a poor prospect for a loan at any time, with his reputation for drinking gambling, prostitutes, and bad debts. Not to mention that Mara would most certainly counter a Minwanabi loan by ruining Jidu, ensuring no funds could be recovered. Even if: she remained ignorant of an enemy's transaction, the: problem would simply recur next year. Incomo knew better than to waste his breath with explanations. He prepared to endure another hour of complaints, when a voice interceded from the doorway.

'The informants among the workers were not Lord Jidu's,  but spies set in place by Keyoke,'Tasaio said as he entered.

'They are the reason two hundred Acoma warriors stage manoeuvres on the borders of Jidu's estates.'

'Keyoke!' Desio echoed. His face turned deeper purple.

'The Acoma Force Commander?'

Tasaio's smile thinned at this statement of the obvious.

'Seeing the Tuscalora chocha-la safely through the harvest is in the Acoma's best interest,' he reminded.

'Mare's security is too tight,' Desio grumbled, but with a shade less heat. While the relieved servant finished with the ornaments and scuttled into the background, the portly young Lord sought his cushions. 'We could not send an assassin to poison this Force Commander with any assurance of success - we've already lost a man trying to infiltrate the Acoma herders. And from what we've discovered about that gods-lucky Strike Leader, Lujan, we might not benefit so greatly from Keyoke's death. The upstart might be recently promoted, but he could prove just as able a defender of Acoma honour. I say he needs to be killed, as well, but he guards the Lady's own chambers!'

Desio's anger reasserted itself. 'And if I could get an assassin that damn close, I would order him to murder Mara  instead!'

'True,' Tasaio agreed. Before Desio's disgruntlement could mushroom further, the warrior threw off the mantle that draped his armoured shoulders. He tossed the garment to a hovering servant and bowed before his cousin with flawless deference. Then he sat. 'My Lord, there has been a new development.'

Incomo lost his sour expression, admiring the tact that transformed the Lord's ill-tempered restlessness into attentive eagerness.

Tasaio smiled, revealing straight white teeth. 'I have ascertained the identity of Mara's three spies.'

Desio was silent a moment. The anger fled his visage, quickly replaced by astonishment. 'Wonderful,' he said softly. Then, with more pleasure than Incomo had heard since the death of Desio's fattier, the young Lord repeated himself. 'Wonderful!' He clapped his hands together. 'This calls for a celebration, cousin.' while a servant hastened off to fetch refreshments, and a carafe of a rare vintage sa wine, the Lord sank back on his cushions, eyes narrowed with  rapturous speculation. 'How do you plan to punish these traitors, cousin?'

Tasaio's expression never changed. 'We shall use them as our pawns, send falsified reports to the Acoma, and arrange Keyoke's demise.'

'Ah!' Desio echoed his cousin's smile as his thoughts leaped ahead. The plan conceived in words the season before at last seemed a reality to him: to kill the Acoma Force Commander, and force Mara to personally command troops in the field, where Tasaio could seek her out and kill her. He clenched a fist, his pleasure almost sexual in intensity. 'I look forward to seeing the Acoma bitch's head on the floor before me. We shall feed the spies our false information this afternoon.'

Incomo muffled a grunt of annoyance behind his hand, but if Tasaio shared his impatience with Desio's shortsightedness, he showed no Sign. 'My cousin,, the warrior said evenly, 'to send the reports today would be gratifying, I admit. But we must bide our time until precisely the right moment to utilize our knowledge. To use Mara's agents now would certainly reveal our infiltration and waste our advantage. These men are not simple servants but men who,  in their own way, are fierce in their loyalty to the Acoma.

Like warriors, they have made peace with the gods and are ready to die at any moment. Should Mara learn that we have uncovered them, she will simply cut them loose. They would welcome death at her order, rather than betray her trust.

They might try to flee to the safety of her estates, or they might fall upon their swords. If their courage fails, we might have the small satisfaction of executing them, but for Minwanabi advantage, we gain nothing.'

Incomo added his agreement. 'Given the fact Mara has three agents here, her Spy Master will certainly work to install replacements. We could then be reduced to another lengthy search to smoke out the new culprits.'

Tasaio urged his cousin,'Make no overt move until the fall. By then I can smuggle enough of our warriors into Dustari to have a fair chance against the army Xacatecas and Acoma will send against the nomads. All through the summer, Mara must wonder what our crucial move will be.

She will lie awake at night and sweat in the darkness, and send out informants, and learn nothing. Are we trying to strangle her grain markets? she will ask. Will we insinuate  ourselves between her and potential allies in the council?

Might we raid outlying warehouses when her finances are vulnerable? Let her conceive of a thousand possibilities and agonize over each and every one.'

Tasaio sat forward, his amber eyes afire. 'Then, after harvest, when she has exhausted herself with worry and taxed her useless spies to their limits, we strike.' Fast as a sword stroke, the Minwanabi cousin clapped his hands. 'Keyoke dies, along with a company of Mara's best soldiers - perhaps her First Strike Leader, Lujan, falls as well. The Acoma household is left without military cohesion, and whatever surviving officer the Lady promotes to wear plumes must assume a post for which he is unpractised. Troops that have served under the same commander for thirty years cannot help but become disrupted.' As he looked directly at Desio, Tasaio's manner embodied confidence. 'Now, cousin, suppose we further the Acoma's disarray? Suppose that the summons to Dustari arrives from the High Council before Keyoke's ashes have a chance to grow cold?'

Desio's eyes lit. Though the plan was as familiar to him as a prayer, the repetition swept away his doubts; his anger  dissolved, and as Incomo observed his master, he saw the wisdom of Tasaio's manipulation. When Desio doubted, he became unstable, a danger to his house, as he acted on impulse. The oath sworn to the Red God at the young Lord's investiture might have brought such a disaster. But like a master tactician, Tasaio would turn the blunder into victory. Not for the first time, Incomo wondered why the gods had not switched fathers of the two cousins, that the truly brilliant man might wear the Lord's mantle instead of the one who at best was merely competent.

Desio heaved his bulk straight on his cushions and released a deep-cheated chuckle. The sound gained force, until the young Lord rocked with laughter. 'My cousin, you are brilliant,' he gasped between paroxysms, 'brilliant.'

Tasaio inclined his head. 'All for your honour, my Lord, and for the triumph of the Minwanabi.'

Summer came, and the Acoma silk samples disrupted all of the southern trading districts' markets. The factors for the northern guilds were taken entirely by surprise. No longer could they market their lesser-quality goods for premium prices in the south. The auctions were an Acoma triumph, and the talk of every clan gathering the breadth of the Tsurani Empire. Supplied with enough orders to busy the  cho-ja for five years, Jican had to restrain himself to keep from dancing in his mistress's presence. At one stroke, the Acoma's monetary position had gone from critically overdrawn to abundant. From a well-to-do house without much liquidity, the Acoma had become among the wealthiest in the central Empire, with enough cash reserves to narrow any threat posed by enemies.

Mara smiled at her hadonra's elation. This victory upon the silk market had been a long time in the planning, but she was given no time to appreciate her hard-won fortune. Just one hour after word arrived from the auctions, another messenger delivered fresh news. Her southern neighbour, Jidu of the Tuscalora, presented himself, asking audience, presumably to beg for Acoma vassalage to save his house from irremediable debt.

This touched off a flurry of activity. The Acoma senior advisers all gathered with Mara to meet Lord Jidu in the great hall. An honour guard in ceremonial armour stood arrayed behind her dais. With Nacoya on her right hand, and Keyoke and Lujan on her left, the Lady observed the  proper forms as the fat Lord - splendid in pale blue robes and clouds of expensive perfumes - presented his appeal.

Once Mara's Tsurani soul would have revelled in the sight of an antagonist brought to his knees before tier, particularly since Jidu had tried to bully her as if she were an importunate girl after her husband's death. Though she and her honour guard had suffered an attack at this neighbour's command, and she had come close to being killed, the humbling of a man twice her age had lost all sense of triumph. Perhaps Mara had matured in the past year; certainly the exposure to Kevin's alien concepts had changed her.

Where once she would have seen only glory gained for the Acoma, now she could not escape noticing the hatred in Lord Jidu's pouched eyes as he paid her obeisance. She could not block her ears to his overtones of anger, nor entirely absolve herself from his self-made burden of shame. With stiff shoulders, and eyes that sparkled with frustration too private for expression, Lord Jidu admitted his dependence upon Acoma good grace.

Almost, Mara found herself wishing she could turn this event to another ending: allow Jidu to redeem his honour through Acoma generosity, and gain his gratitude and willing alliance. As Jidu ground out his last sentence, she was haunted by Kevin's accusation on the last morning she had seen him: 'Are all Tsurani nobles born cruel?'

And yet leniency where Lord Jidu was concerned was a dangerous indulgence. In the machinations of the Great Game, mercy could be dispensed only by the unassailably strong; in the small or the weak, it was considered weakness. The ruler of the Tuscalora might be lax in matters of finance, but he had strong warriors and a gift for strategy on the field. Given his penchant for gross overspending, his loyalty could all too easily be bought by an enemy, and Mara dared not leave such a threat unattended on her southern border. As her vassal, Jidu could make no alliances without Acoma sanction. The honour of his house would be entrusted to Mara's hands, and those of Mara's heirs, for the span of Lord Jidu's living days. Her sovereignty would become such that he could not fall upon his sword without her leave to die.

'You drive hard and dangerous bargains, Lady Mara,' the Lord of the Tuscalora warned. Should the Tuscalora effectively be reduced to a pawn for Acoma ambitions, his  clan and fellow members of the Yellow Serpent Party would be less willing to treat with her because of Acoma domination over one of their own.

'The Great Game is a dangerous undertaking,' Mara replied. Her words were not empty platitude; Arakasi kept her informed of politics afield. If clan or party action brewed up against her family, she would hear well in advance of the fact. Her heart might be divided, concerning Jidu, but her options stayed unequivocally clear. 'I choose to take your oath, Lord Jidu.'

The ruler of the Tuscalora bowed his head. Pearl ornaments chinked on his clothing as he knelt in submission, to recite the formal words. Mara signalled, and Lujan stepped from the ranks, the rare metal sword of her ancestors in his hands. As the Acoma Strike Leader poised the shining blade over Jidu's bent neck, the Lord swore his oath of vassalage, his voice hard and deep with pent-up hatred, and his fists clenched helplessly in rage. He ended the last phrase and arose. 'Mistress.' He pronounced the word as if he tasted poison. 'I ask your leave to withdraw.'

On impulse, Mara withheld her consent. While Lord Jidu flushed red, and her honour guard went from ready to tensely nervous, she weighed her need for control against her wish to ease this man's humiliation. 'A moment, Jidu,'

she said finally. As he looked up, suspicious, Mara strove to impart understanding. 'The Acoma need allies, not slaves.

Give up your resentment over my victory, and willingly join with me, and both of our families will benefit.' She sat back upon her seat, speaking as if to a trusted friend. 'Lord Jidu, my enemies would not treat you so gently. The Lord of the Minwanabi demands Tan-jin-qu of his vassals.; The word she used was ancient, describing an absolute vassalage that granted the overlord powers of life and death over the members of a subservient household. Under Tan-jin-qu, not only would Jidu become Mara's vassal, he would be her virtual slave. 'Bruli of the Kehotara refused to continue that abject service to the Minwanabi when he inherited his office, and as a result, Desio withholds many of the protections the Kehotara have known for years. Bruli suffers because he wishes the appearance of independence. I do not shame you by demanding the lives of all your subjects, Jidu.'

The stout Lord conceded this point with a curt nod, but his anger and humiliation did not lessen. His was not an enviable position, to be at the mercy of a woman he had  once tried to kill. Yet something in Mara's sincerity caused him to listen.

'I will establish policies that benefit both our houses,'

Mara decreed, 'but the daily affairs of your estates remain yours to oversee. Profits from your chocha-la harvest shall stay in the Tuscalora coffers. Your house will pay no tribute to the Acoma. I shall ask nothing from you save your honour to serve ours.' Then, given insight on how she might mollify this enemy, Mara added, 'My belief in Tuscalora honour is such that I shall entrust the protection of our southern borders to your troops. All Acoma guards and patrols will be withdrawn from the boundary of our two lands.'

Keyoke's expression did not change at this development, but he scratched his chin with his thumb, in a long-standing secret code of warning.

Mara reassured her Force Commander with a suggestion of a smile. Then her attention returned to Lord Jidu. 'I see you do not trust that friendship might-exist between us. I will show my good intentions. To celebrate our alliance, we shall mount a new prayer gate at the entrance to your estate,  in glory to Chochocan. This will be followed by a gift of one hundred thousand centuries to clear your past debts, that the profits from this year's harvest may be used for the good of your estate.'

Nacoya's eyes widened at the amount, fully a fifth of the funds being forwarded from the silk auction. While Mara could afford to be generous, this honour gift cut considerably into Acoma reserves. Jican was certain to become apoplectic when his mistress ordered the sum transferred to the wastrel Lord of the Tuscalora.

Jidu searched Mara's face. But study as he might, he saw nothing to indicate that she toyed with him. Her words were spoken sincerely. Considerably subdued, he said,'My Lady of the Acoma is generous.'

'The Lady of the Acoma strives to be fair,' Mara corrected. 'A weak ally is a drain, not a benefit. Go, and know that should you have need, the Acoma will answer your call, as we expect you to honour ours,' and she gracefully allowed him leave to withdraw.

No longer angered, but profoundly puzzled by his sudden shift in fortune, Jidu of the Tuscalora left the hall.

As the last of his blue-armoured guardsmen marched out, Mara abandoned her formal posture. She rubbed weary eyes and inwardly cursed her weariness. Months had passed since she sent Kevin off to oversee the crew clearing forests.

She still slept poorly at nights.

'My beautiful Lady, let me compliment you on your deft handling of a particularly vicious dog,' said Lujan with a respectful bow. 'Lord Jidu is now well collared, and he may only whine and snap at your command, but he dare not bite.'

Mara focused her attention with an effort. 'At least we won't need soldiers guarding that cursed needra bridge day and night after this.'

Keyoke burst into sudden laughter, to the astonishment of both Lujan and Mara, for the old soldier rarely showed pleasure.

'What?' said Mara.

'Your stated intention to strip our southern border had me concerned, my Lady.' The Force Commander shrugged.

~Until I understood that, without needing to patrol the Tuscalora side of our boundary, we have freed several companies to reinforce more critical defences. And with no further worries from the north, Lord Jidu can mount more vigilant defences on other fronts. We have effectively gained another thousand warriors to guard one larger estate.'

Nacoya joined in. 'And with your generous gift, daughter, Jidu can afford to ensure his men are properly armed and armoured, and that cousins can be called to serve to expand his army.'

Mara smiled at the approval. 'Which will be my first...

ah, "request" of my new vassal. His warriors are good, but they lack the numbers for our needs. When Jidu recovers from wounded pride, I shall "ask" that his Force Commander consult with Keyoke on the best ways to protect our common interests.'

Keyoke returned a guarded nod. 'Your father would look upon your farsightedness proudly, Lady Mara.'He bowed in respect. 'I must return to duty.'

Mara granted him permission to leave. Beside her, Lujan inclined his plumed head. 'Your warriors will all drink to your health, pretty Lady.' A playful frown creased his forehead. 'Though we might do well to assign a patrol to ensure that Lord Jidu does not tumble headfirst from his litter and bash in his skull on the way home.'

'Why would he do that?' Mara demanded.

Lujan shrugged. 'Drink can spoil the best man's balance, Lady. Jidu smelled like he had been guzzling since dawn.'

Mara's brows rose in surprise. 'You could smell through all that perfume?'

The Strike Leader returned an irreverent gesture around the scabbard of the ancestral sword. 'You didn't have to lean over the Lord's bared neck with a blade.'

Mara rewarded him with a laugh, but her moment of levity did not last. She waved dismissal to her honour guard,  then retired to her study with Nacoya. Since her wedding to Buntokapi, she was disinclined to linger in the great hall, and with the redheaded Midkemian slave sent away, she found no relief in solitude. Day after day, she immersed herself in accounts with Jican, or reviewed clan politics with Nacoya, or played with Ayaki, whose current passion was the wooden soldiers carved for him by her officers. Yet even when Mara sat on the nursery's waxed wooden floor and arranged troops for her son - who played at being Lord of the Acoma, and who regularly routed whole armies of Minwanabi enemies - she could not escape the realities.

Desio and Tasaio might die a hundred deaths on the nursery floor, to Ayaki's bloodthirsty and childish delight, but all too likely, the boy who played at vanquishing his enemies would himself become sacrificed to the Red God, victim of the intrigue that shadowed his house.

When Mara was not fretting about enemies, she sought diversion from heartache. Nacoya had assured her that time would ease her desires. But as the days passed, and the dust of the dry season rose in clouds as this year's needra culls were driven to market, Mara still woke in the night, miserable with longing for the man who had taught her that  love could be gentle. She missed his presence, his blundering ways, his odd thoughts, and most of all his intuitive grasp of those moments when she most wanted sympathy, but was too much the proud Ruling Lady to show her need.

His willingness to give strength and his kindness were as rain to a heart parched by troubles. Damn that man, she thought to herself. He had her trapped more helplessly than any enemy ever would. And perhaps, for that reason, Nacoya was right. He was more dangerous to her house than the most vicious of her foes, for somehow he had insinuated himself within her most personal defences.

A week passed, then another. Mara called on the cho-ja Queen and was invited to tour the caverns where the silk makers industriously worked to meet the auction contracts.

A worker escorted Mara through the hive to the level where dyers and weavers laboured to transform the gossamer fibres into finished cloth. The tunnels were dim and cool after the sunlight outside. Always when Mara visited the hives, she felt as though she entered another world. Cho-ja workers rushed past her, speedily completing errands. They moved too swiftly for the eye to follow through tunnels lit by globes that shed pale light. Despite the gloom, the insectoid creatures never blundered into one another. Mara never felt more than a soft brush as the rapidly moving  creatures negotiated the narrowest passages. The chamber where the silk was spun was wide and low. Here Mara raised a hand to make sure the jade pins that held her hair would not scrape the ceiling.

The escort cho-ja paused and waved a forelimb. 'The workers hatched for spinning are specialized,' it pointed out.

When Mara's eyes adjusted to the near darkness, she saw a crowd of shiny, chitinous bodies hunched over drifts of raw silk fibres. They had comblike appendages just behind their foreclaws, and what looked like an extra fixture behind the one that approximated the function of the human thumb. While they crouched on their hind limbs, the forelimbs carded fibres that seemed almost too delicate to handle without breaking. Then the midlimbs took over and, in a whirl of motion, spun the fibres into thread. The strand created by each cho-ja spinner led out of the chamber through a slot in the far wall. Beyond this partition, dyers laboured over steaming cauldrons, setting colour into the threads in one continuous process. The fibres left the dye pots and passed through yet another partition, where small,  winged drone females fanned the air vigorously to dry them.

Then the passage opened out into a wide, bright chamber, with a domed roof and skylights that reminded Mara of Lashima's temple in Kentosani. Here the weavers caught up the coloured strands and performed magic, threading the fine silk weft through the warp into the finest cloths in the Empire.

The sight held Mara in thrall. Here, where Tsurani protocol held little importance, she acted like a girl, pestering the escort worker with questions. She fingered the finished cloth and admired the colours and patterns. Then, before she was aware of herself, she paused before a bolt of cloth woven of cobalt and turquoise - with fine patterns of rust and ochre threaded through it. Unconsciously, she imagined how this fabric might set off Kevin's red hair; her smile died. No matter what the diversion, it never lasted.

Always her thoughts returned to the barbarian slave, however much she might long to sink her attention into something else. Suddenly the rows of bright silks seemed to lose their lustre.

'I wish to go back, now, and take my leave of your  Queen,' Mara requested.

The cho-ja escort bowed its acquiescence. Its thought processes differed from a human's, and it did not think her change of mind was either unmannerly or abrupt.

How much simpler life must be for a cho-ja worker, Mara thought. They concerned themselves entirely with the present, immersed in the immediacy of the moment and guided by the will of their Queen, whose interest was the needs of the hive. These glossy black creatures lived out their days untroubled by the thousand nagging needs that human flesh was heir to. Envying them their peace of mind, Mara wended her way back through the press toward the Queen's chamber. Today, unlike every other day, her curiosity was quiescent. She did not long to beg the silk makers' secret from the cho-ja Queen, nor did she make her usual request to visit the nurseries, where newly hatched cho-ja young blundered on awkward legs to complete their first steps.

Her escort guided her to the junction of two major passages, and was about to turn downward to the deepest level where the Queen's chamber lay when a warrior in a plumed helm raised a forelimb and intercepted them.

Confronted by the razor-sharp edge of chitin that the cho-ja  could wield like a second sword, Mara stopped at once; though the edge was turned away at an angle that indicated friendliness, she did not know why she was being stopped.

Cho-ja did not think like individuals, but reacted according to the mind of their hive, and the consciousness that directed that collective purpose was the Queen's. Cho-ja reactions were frighteningly fast, and their moods could change as suddenly.

'Lady of the Acoma,' intoned the warrior cho-ja. He squatted down into the same bow he would give to a Queen, and as his plumed helm bobbed, Mara recognized Lax'l, Force Commander of the hive.

Reassured that intentions were not hostile, she relaxed and returned the nod due a commander of Lax'l's rank.

'What does your Queen require of me?'

Lax'l stood erect and assumed a statuelike stillness that seemed unreal amid the bustle of workers that continually passed around him and the Lady with her escort. 'My Queen requires nothing of you, but wishes you best health. She sent me to report that a messenger has arrived from your estate  house asking with some urgency for your presence. He waits on the surface.'

Mara sighed in frustration. Her morning should have been free of commitments; she had scheduled no meetings until afternoon, when she was due to review figures from the needra sales with Jican. Something must have come up, though it was summer's end, and the game usually underwent a lull as most Lords involved themselves with finances prior to the annual harvest. 'I must return to find out what has happened,' the Lady of the Acoma said regretfully to Lax'l. 'Please convey my apology to your Queen.'

The cho-ja Force Commander inclined his head. 'My Queen returns her regards, and says further that she hopes the news that awaits you holds no word of misfortune.' He flicked a forelimb to the escort worker, and Mara found herself turned around and bustled toward the upper tunnels almost before she had a chance to think.

As she stepped outside, the sudden reentry into sunlight dazzled her. Mara squinted against the glare while her eyes adjusted. She made out the presence of two officers' plumes among the slaves who awaited with her litter. One was Xaltchi, a junior officer recently promoted by Keyoke for his  valour in defence of a caravan. The other, with a longer, more sumptuous plume, could only be Lujan. Surprised that he should be bearing the message, and not a lesser servant or her runner slave, Mara frowned. Whatever news awaited her would not be a matter for ears that could not be trusted.

She dismissed her cho-ja escort with absentminded politeness, and hurried toward her Strike Leader, who had seen her emerge from the hive and who strode briskly to meet her.

'My Lady.' Lujan completed a hasty if proper bow, then took her arm and guided her through the traffic of cho-ja workers streaming to and from the hive. The instant they reached open ground, but well before they came within earshot of the slaves within the litter, Lujan said, 'Lady, you have a visitor. Jiro of the Anasati is currently in Sulan-Qu, awaiting your word. His father, Tecuma, has sent him to discuss a matter too sensitive to entrust to a common messenger.'

Mara's frown deepened. 'Go back and send a runner to  town,' she instructed her Strike Leader. 'I will see Jiro at once.'

Lujan saw her to her litter, helped her inside, and bowed.

Then he was off at a run down the lane that led back to the estate house. The bearers shouldered the Lady's litter and Xaltchi mustered the small company of soldiers who marched as her escort. More slowly, the cortege followed in Lujan's footsteps.

'Pick up the pace,' Mara commanded through the curtains. She fought to keep the concern from her voice.

Before her marriage to Buntokapi of the Anasati, that ancient house had been second behind only the Minwanabi among Acoma enemies. Since she had engineered her husband's death, the family had more cause than ever to hate her. Only the common interest of Ayaki, son of Bunto and grandson of Lord Tecuma, kept the two houses from open conflict. The thread that held that alliance together was slender indeed. For very little excuse, Tecuma might wish her out of the way, so that he could install himself as regent of the Acoma until Ayaki came of age to assume the  title of Lord.

A matter too sensitive for even a bonded messenger was unlikely to be good news. A familiar tightness clutched Mara's middle. She had never underestimated her enemies'

ability to plot, but lately a lack of any overt threat had caused her to come dangerously close to complacence.

Mentally she readied herself for a difficult interview; she would need five hundred warriors armoured and at the ready, and an honour guard of twelve within the hall where she received Jiro. Any less would offer him insult. ~; Mara settled her head against the cushions, sweating in I her thin silks. Maddeningly, endlessly, between planning what her life might depend on, she thought of a barbarian slave, who at this moment stood in hot sunlight directing'

men cutting timber into fencing, six rails to a span, and shoulder-high to a tall warrior. The needra fields were nearly finished, too late for this season's calves, but well in time to fatten the weanlings for the late-fall markets. Mara blotted her brow in fussy annoyance. She had enough on her mind without adding the question of what she was going to do with Kevin when the new pastures were finished. Perhaps she would sell the man . . . But her mind dwelt on this idea only a moment before she resolved that some other task  must be found to keep him away.

Mara took her place beside the entrance to the estate house, while Jiro's litter and escort approached the Acoma borders.

Her First Adviser stood at her side, looking uncomfortable beneath sumptuous fine robes and jewels. Although Nacoya enjoyed the authority inherited with her promotion, in some things she outspokenly preferred the duties of a nurse. State dress was one of them. Had Mara been less nervous, she might have smiled at the thought of the elderly servant resenting the fussing and attentions of maids that Mara had been forced to endure life long, at Nacoya's tireless instigation.

The only surcease the Acoma daughter had known had been during her novitiate in the temple of Lashima. Those days, with their tranquil simplicity and hours of scholarly study, seemed far behind her now.

Mara glanced about her to be sure all was in readiness Amid the clutter of footmen, soldiers, and servants, she noted one person missing. 'Where's Jican?' she whispered to Nacoya.

The First Adviser inclined her head, forced to raise a hand to rescue a loosened hairpin. She reset the errant finery with an impatience that had much to do with being awakened from a nap for the purpose of greeting a personage still regarded with venom. Nacoya's dislike of Buntokapi extended to all his relations, and though Mara knew she could rely on the ancient woman to maintain perfect protocol, the household was likely to suffer several days of grouchy aftermath.

'Your hadonra is in the kitchens, making sure the cooks slice only first-quality fruit for the refreshment trays,' the former nurse answered tersely.

Mara raised an eyebrow. 'He's more of an old lady than you are. As if the cook needs to be told how to prepare a meal. He would do no less than his best for the sake of Acoma honour.'

Nacoya whispered, 'I told Jican to supervise. The cooks might wish to slip an Anasati guest something less than appetizing- their view of honour is different from yours, daughter.' Buntokapi had not made himself popular in the kitchen, either. Still, Mara kept to herself the thought that even the Acoma chief cook would not shame her house for something as petty as slipping sour fruit to Jiro - no matter  how much he would have enjoyed doing so.

Mara glanced at Nacoya. Silently she considered how easily she had come to regard her house servants as part of the furnishings. That they had actively resented Bunto's brutality as much as she had never occurred to her; she remembered how rough he had been on them. Her servants and scullions had perhaps suffered worse than she during Buntokapi's tenure as Lord, and belatedly, Mara remembered to sympathize. Had she been one of those kitchen girls - or her brother, father, or lover - who had been dragged into service in Bunto's bed, she, too, might have been tempted to feed his brother leavings from the garbage set aside for the jigabirds. Mara repressed a smile at the thought. 'I must pay more attention to the feelings of my staff, Nacoya, lest I perpetuate Bunto's thoughtlessness.'

Nacoya only nodded. Time for talk was past, as the painted red-and-yellow litter and rows of marching warriors filed into the dooryard. Mara fingered the emerald and jade bracelet on her wrist and strove to maintain decorum as the Anasati honour guard snapped to a halt and  Jiro's bearers set down his litter before her doorway.

At the last possible moment, Jican hurried through the door to take his place beside Nacoya and Tasido, who as senior Acoma Strike Leader commanded the Lady's honour guard. Wishing Keyoke or Lujan were present in his stead, Mara observed the Anasati soldiers through narrowed eyes.

They were not relaxed but spaced in a formation that allowed free access to draw weapons. She had expected no less, yet to be confronted by such readiness for hostility with an elderly officer in charge was not a comfortable circumstance.

Old Tasido had arthritis and cataracts; in better times, he would have seen honourable retirement by now.

But the Acoma forces had taken too many casualties on the barbarian world when Lord Sezu was betrayed to his death for even one officer to be spared. In another year, or perhaps two, the old man would be given a hut near the river where he could live his remaining days in peace. But today not one sword could be dispensed with.

Mara had not seen Jiro since her wedding day nearly four years past. Curious as well as cautious, she watched the young man step from his litter. He was well dressed, but not in the gaudy style preferred by his father. His robe was black  silk, sparingly trimmed with red tassels. His belt was tastefully adorned with shell and lacquer bosses, and his hair was cut plainly as a warrior's. He stood taller than his brother Buntokapi had; his build was leaner and he held himself with considerably more grace. The face resembled his mother's, with high cheekbones and a haughty mouth.

His square jaw kept him from looking overtired, but his hands were as fine as a woman's. He was a handsome man, save for a certain cruelty betrayed around his lips and eyes.

Jiro bowed with sarcastic perfection.

'Welcome to the house of the Acoma,' Mara greeted without inflection. She returned his bow, but kept the courtesy brief, in pointed reference to the fact that the Anasati son had brought an armed retinue into her courtyard out of all proportion for a social visit. As was her right as senior in rank, she waited for her guest to begin the formal inquiries. After a pause through which Jiro kept still in the expectation that Mara might blunder and ask after his health, he finally said, 'Are you well, Lady?'

Mara gave a curt nod. 'I am well, thank you. Are you well, Jiro?'

The young man smiled, but his eyes stayed serpent-cold. 'I am well, as is the father who sent me.' He rested a languid hand on the dagger sheathed at his belt. 'I can see that you are well also, Mara, and if anything, grown more beautiful in motherhood. It is a pity for one so lovely to be widowed so young. Such a waste.'

If his tone was impeccably polite, his words bordered upon insult. This was no visit of reconciliation. Aware that his attitude approached that of an overlord visiting a vassal, Mara swept up her robes and led the way through the entry, leaving him to follow like a servant. Let him play his parlour games too long, and she might be manoeuvred into putting up with him for more than the afternoon. Since Tecuma would be expecting the boy to bring back whatever information on the Acoma he might be able to pry loose, Mara had no intention of letting Jiro gain excuse to stay the night.

Servants had laid trays of light refreshments in the great hall. Mara seated herself on the dais. She appointed Nacoya the place on her right, and granted Jican the permission to retire that he longed for. Then she waved for Jiro to make himself comfortable on the cushions across from her; the  place she accorded him was that of an equal. Given this voluntary courtesy, he could not protest the fact that Tasido and his subofficers would be standing at his back. To place her honour guard on the dais was done only when hostile parties met for parley. This not overtly being the case, Jiro's bodyguard must remain by the door. Mara's most trusted house servant plied her noble guest with a bowl to wash his hands, and a towel. He politely inquired what Jiro would prefer to drink, his timing perfectly arranged to keep the guest occupied with trivia. The Lady of the Acoma spoke before Jiro could seize the chance to regroup. 'Since a man would not require so many soldiers on a visit to console his brother's widow, I presume your father has some message for me?'

Jiro stiffened. He recovered his bearing with admirable control and looked up; Mara had struck hard and to the heart. She had turned the memory of the brother who had died to further Acoma standing in the game back upon him, and also implied that Jiro wished to 'console' his brother's widow in a manner more intimate than Tsurani custom found acceptable - and further, that he was nothing more than his father's errand boy. It was the verbal equivalent of a slap to the face. The look the Anasati son turned upon her was icy and possessed a fathomless hatred.

Mara hid a shiver. By Nacoya's white-lipped stillness, she was aware that she had made a mistake; she had also underestimated Jiro's enmity. This boy despised her with a passion beyond his years. In his cold silence, Mara realized he would lurk like the poisonous relli of the swamps, biding his time until he saw his opening. He would not move against her until his trap was perfected and he was absolutely certain of his victory.

'I will not repeat the rumours concerning my Lady's preference in lovers since the loss of her noble husband,' Jiro said with a diction so clear that, while not overloud, could be understood by even the door servants. To emphasize how demeaning the matter was, he raised his drink and sipped with a steady hand. 'And, yes, I did leave off an important trade transaction in Sulan-Qu to stop here, by' my father's suggestion. He has heard of secret meetings between certain council members that he believes might indicate plots that pose danger to his grandson, Ayaki. As regent to the Acoma heir, you are being sent a warning.'

'Your words are vague,' Nacoya pointed out with the acerbity of an elder who has lived long enough to see many a  youth succumb to folly. Using a tone well practised from her days as a servant in the nursery, she added,'Since neither the Anasati nor the Acoma stand to gain if Ayaki fails to inherit his Lordship, I suggest you be more specific.'

Jiro inclined his head with the barest suggestion of malice.

'My father is not privy to these plots, First Adviser, dearest Lady. His allies have not spoken directly to him, which he believes might be due to heavy bribes. But he has eyes and ears in strategic places that see and hear for him, and he wished you to know that factions who are partial to the Minwanabi have met more than once in secret. The Omechan were heard to compliment Lord Desio's restraint in the face of Acoma affront, and while they are powerful, their dependence upon Minwanabi goodwill in the Alliance for War makes them chary of losing supporters at this time.

More than the Omechan applaud Desio's cold-blooded planning, and that approval works against your heir's interests. In short, you have few allies voicing support in the High Council.'

Mara waved for a servant to carry away the refreshment  tray, which Jiro had not touched. Although she regretted provoking Jican's disappointment that the finest fruits in the kitchens should be spurned, she was too tense to indulge herself. She did not like the way Jiro's eyes darted about, taking in every detail of the Acoma hall, servants, and guardsmen. His interest held the hunger of an officer in an enemy camp who gathered information in preparation for an assault. Never as straightforward as his elder brother, Halesco, Jiro thought in subtleties that were rooted in ambition. Mara strove to sort out how much of what he spoke was truth, and how much was exaggeration designed to scare her. 'What you say is not exactly unknown to me,Jiro, at least in general. Surely your father need not have sent you from your important transaction to tell me these things,' she ventured, testing. 'A bonded messenger might have sufficed.'

Jiro returned a detached poise. 'This is a family matter,'

he replied. 'My father wished you to understand that the plot within the council is deeply disguised, and clever. He would not compromise his sources by trusting a hired runner. The sending of a bonded guildsman would remain on public record, and watching enemies would know. Desio has paid to have every guildbook in Sulan-Qu open for his inspection. A message from Anasati sources would be too obvious.'Jiro inclined his head with the barest suggestion of irony. 'But none would question an uncle who stops to visit  a fatherless nephew.'

'Not even one who interrupts an important transaction to pay social calls on a three-year-old?' Nacoya interceded politely.

Jiro did not even blush, which required commendable control. 'We are none of us in a position to trade accusations, as the First Adviser to my brother's widow should remember. Besides, what harm if Desio thinks we share secrets? He can only imagine what they may be.' His look at Mara was a disturbing mix of covetousness and hatred.

Mara regarded Jiro with a searching stare until he could not but feel uncomfortable. His family had treated Buntokapi as an awkward afterthought; it had been their own neglect of his education that had permitted her an opening to exploit. Although the fact that she had taken advantage of a man's frustrated desires and clumsiness did not make her proud, Mara had reviewed the situation through eyes tempered by regret; she knew she did bear all the guilt by herself.

Tired of Jiro's intensity, and more stung than she dared to admit at his implied slander of Kevin, Mara prompted an end to the visit. 'l thank you for the news of Desio's compromising the commercial guilds - that is valuable to know. And of the Omechan willingness to pander to the Minwanabi. You have done your duty by your father, none could say different. I would not delay you from completing your important transactions in Sulan-Qu.'

Jiro returned the driest smile, and anticipated her closing line. 'Unless I should wish to stay for a meal, which your servants would take elaborate and lengthy pains to prepare?' He inclined his head in the negative. 'Your company has no compare. But I am forced by circumstances to decline. I shall be on my way.'

'Without so much as setting eyes on the fatherless nephew you came to visit,' Nacoya interjected. More pointedly dry than usual, she turned shrewd eyes on her mistress. 'Your guest sets great store by your security, my Lady, that he feels confident no rumours of this will reach the wrong ears.'

Now Jiro did change colour, but his pallor was more due to annoyance than embarrassment. He rose and bowed shortly to Mara. 'I see that the regent for the Acoma heir learns much by keeping the company of sour old women.'

'They keep impertinent young men in their places far more readily than their younger, prettier sisters.' Mara rose also. 'Return my regards to your father, Jiro.'

The fact that the young noble bore no title before his name plainly vexed him no end. Given this insight into what might have motivated his bitterness, Mara saw her guest to the door. He climbed into his litter without once looking back at her, and snapped his curtains closed the instant she completed the obligatory words wishing a departing guest safe journey. As the bearers bore up their haughty burden, and the Anasati soldiers formed into columns and began their departure down the lane, Nacoya sighed with relief.

'Thank the gods you did not marry that one, daughter of my heart. He is much too clever for his own good.'

'He bears me no friendship, that much is certain.' Mara turned back into the cooler shadow of the house, her brows tightened into a frown.

Nacoya regarded her mistress keenly. 'What did you expect, after you chose his younger brother over him ? From the first instant you and Tecuma agreed to your handfast with Buntokapi, that boy began to hate. He considered himself the better candidate for your title, and he will carry that grudge to his dying day. More, he hates doubly because at the root he desires you. He would take you still, should you but allow him your teed.' then the old woman sighed.

'Yet after, he would still kill you, daughter, for I think this one has been permanently twisted by envy.'

Mara captured a strayed wisp of hair, then lowered her hand, the rare metal bracelet on her wrist jangling.

'Lashima's folly, but men's pride is easily bruised!' Her eyes betrayed pain that had nothing to do with Jiro's anger over her past rejection of him.

Nacoya shook a finger at her. 'You're thinking of that no-good barbarian again.'

Mara ignored the accusation. 'Kevin has nothing to do with this. Why should Jiro come all this way, and take such elaborate lengths to provoke me, all on the excuse of some  not so very well documented clandestine meetings within the council?"

Now Nacoya looked shocked. 'My Lady, you would do well to heed Lord Tecuma's warning - his spies may not be as widespread as yours, but they are no less gifted. Never mind that Jiro's passions clouded the delivery. You stand in very grave danger.'

Mara dismissed her First Adviser's concern with irritation. '

Nacoya, surely I have enough of real import on my mind without burdening myself with trivia. If there was plotting afoot in the council, surely Arakasi's network would keep me informed of the fact.'

Sunlight fell through a half-opened screen, catching the First Adviser's face like some wizened caricature of a cameo.

'Lady,' she said gravely, 'you rely far more on Arakasi's spies than you should. They are only men. They cannot see into Desio's mind, and they cannot hear every whisper that is exchanged in dark corners behind closed doors. They can be in only so many places at one time. And as mortal men, they may be corrupted or misled.'

'Nacoya, you worry beyond duty's call. You have my  permission to retire and pursue some recreation.' While Nacoya completed a stiff-backed bow, Mara pulled at her heavy robes. She wanted a bath and a change, and maybe some players to make her laugh. Her morning with the cho ja seemed very far away. Jiro's icily schooled antagonism bothered her far more than Tecuma's concerns with the council; and she missed Kevin, unbearably. Starved for his friendly company in a way that made her ache, she impulsively sent her runner to fetch a scribe. When the man she.had summoned made his bow, burdened down with chalks and slates, she cut his courtesy short with a gesture.

'Go out to the new needra fields and observe the workers.

Make a transcription of everything that happens there, with particular regard for the redheaded man who is slave master. I wish to know all that he does and says, so that I may evaluate the efficiency of his work team.'

The scribe bowed low over his satchel. It was not his place to question his mistress's will; but he left with a puzzled look, for the Lady concerned herself with a detail that was normally her hadonra's responsibility. In the days he had  served since apprenticeship, the scribe had never received so unusual a request.

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