Chapter I

	"Getting cramped, son?"
	Randrik alt Harbinnen twisted on his little wheeled
 cart and glared at the "blind" man sitting next to him on the
 sweeping stairs of the Temple. It hurt. He tried to stretch leg
 muscles that had been efficiently tying themselves into knots as an
 unseasonably warm early spring morning turned into sweltering late
 afternoon. That hurt worse. Erdel knew she was pulling the straps
 too tight, but when he mentioned it she just snarled at him to stop
 whining and yanked them up another notch. 
	Considering she had only one mood -- nasty -- under
 normal circumstances, he should have expected something of the
 sort. She hadn't been at all happy with his having put one of her
 best men temporarily out of commission. Maybe she meant to cripple
 him for real.
	"Another hour and my ankles are going to be
 permanently attached to my ass," he groused back. "Damn Erdel,
 anyway. I didn't start that fight and I only offered to do this as a favor."
	The blind man chuckled, taking a chance and letting
 his eyeballs drop back to their normal position since there were no
 marks close enough at the moment to notice him.
	"You should give her what she really wants. That
 would sweeten her disposition considerable."
	"I'd sooner lose my legs."
	There were a score of them spread across one end of
 the broad staircase leading into the columned shade of the Temple
 of the Light, all with one disability or the other. Some were truly
 afflicted, and the ones who put their disabilities on in the
 morning and took them off at night always shared a portion of their
 take. There were, after all, only a few -- the ones too proud to
 accept the charity and paternalism of the Temple -- and there was
 usually more than enough largesse from the public to go around.
	The blind man started to laugh, then abruptly turned
 it into an emphysemic cough and wheeze guaranteed to raise pity in
 the hardest heart. His eyes rolled upward until only the whites
 showed again, an action that always made Randrik a little queasy
 when he had to watch it.
	A half dozen well-dressed women -- merchants' wives
 bringing their daughters to pray for a rich husband, probably 
 were crossing the paved courtyard, chattering like flocked
 starlings. They were sure to give something to the gaggle of
 beggars strewn over the temple steps, if only for added insurance
 that their daughters' husbands would be kind, good providers so the
 girls wouldn't end back on their parents' doorsteps.
	Randrik and his companion had the best spot, down
 front. It gave them first try at anyone who believed helping the
 poor was a good way to win the support of the gods. The ones
 looking for absolution for whatever sins were pricking their
 consciences were even more generous.
	"Help the blind," the man gasped as the women came
 by, tilting his face so the afternoon sunlight emphasized the awful
 featureless mask of shiny scar tissue. "Please, my lady, aid a man
 who gave his eyes for his country."
	One of them paused and tossed a coin into the blind
 man's bowl. The rest were busy looking at Randrik. 
	"Poor boy, to be crippled so young," sighed one,
 taking careful note of the jet curls that swooped charmingly over
 one dark, dark blue eye and tumbled across broad shoulders
 strategically exposed by the gaps in his tunic. Randrik hung his
 head, gazing up at her through his long, thick eyelashes, and
 flexed his fists to make his biceps ripple.
	"A small price to pay for ensuring the safety of
 lovely ladies like yourself," he replied, adding just the right
 balance of noble regret and admiration to his deep voice.
	"So brave!" exclaimed one of the younger women,
 pushing her way up for a closer look. Her big brown eyes melting
 with sympathy and one or two more interesting responses, she leaned
 over and dropped a handful of coins in his bowl. She made sure she
 gave him a clear view down the front of her bodice that almost
 compensated for his cramping muscles. He allowed his eyes to linger
 here and there for just a moment longer than was quite polite, just
 to let her know he had noticed. Then he flashed them up at her with
 a smile that made her breath catch and her cheeks turn a charming
 shade of pink.
	Unwilling to be outdone -- or to miss anything 
 the other prospective brides, and several of their mothers as well,
  took their turns commiserating financially with the gallant young
 veteran.  When they could no longer justifiably linger on the
 steps, they made their way into the shadows of the temple, shaking
 their heads over the waste.
	"No wonder Erdel was glad you volunteered," the
 blind man said. "That's the fourth time today you've filled your
 bowl."
	"It's going to be the last time, too."
	Randrik scanned the courtyard quickly to make
 certain no one was looking. Assured all was clear, he tipped the
 money into the bulging purse hidden under his rags. Instead of
 putting the bowl back on the ground, however, he tossed it into the
 pack lying beside the little cart.
	"She's going to have to settle for that," he said,
 slinging the bag over his shoulder. "I said I'd make sure she
 didn't lose anything, and I can guarantee she's never gotten this
 much from Mitran."
	He portioned out the usual percentage for the real
 beggars and gave it to the blind man to distribute later. Signaling
 a woman behind him whose face was a mass of pustulant boils to take
 his place, he pushed himself out of the temple grounds.
	Sweat broke out all over his body and started
 trickling down his back. The day was not only too hot, it was drier
 than normal for so early in the spring. More important, he had a
 deep feeling something wasn't right; but he couldn't figure out
 exactly what that something was. There were lots of rumors, of
 course. There were always rumors, only he usually was able to
 extract without too much effort whatever tiny grain of truth might
 lurk in them.
	So far, he hadn't managed to learn anything that
 made any sense from the latest crop, and that alone was enough to
 make him nervous.
	His route took him past any number of crowded pubs,
 and he wished he could stop in one for a tall mug of ale. He would
 have if the pain in his legs hadn't begun climbing up his spine. He
 muttered a curse, damning all meat-headed thugs and greedy old
 women to the deepest reaches of hell as every joint from the waist
 down screamed in protest at the abuse.
	Despite his many discomforts, however, he missed
 nothing as he traveled. His route took him from the broad avenues
 outside the Temple through the crowded market squares to the narrow
 alleys that made up the riverfront. Erdel might have absolved him
 from any further repercussions, but he knew better than to trust
 Mitran and his gang.  And it wasn't as if he needed to actually
 watch where he was going. He could have found his way with his eyes
 closed, just following the way the smells changed as he went deeper
 into the city.
	Around the Temple there was the scent of flowing
 water from the many fountains inside and outside the walls,
 combined with the everpresent scent of incense and the clean smell
 of hot stone.  Then came the markets, with mingled odors of meat
 both fresh and grilled, cut flowers, perfumes and herbs and,
 further along, the sharp-sour stink of livestock. As the spruce,
 well-kept homes and stores of the merchants gave way to the
 seedier, more densely-inhabited tenements of the poor, the stink
 grew stronger and more human. Sweat, unwashed bodies, open cesspits
 and neglected midden heaps made up the special miasma of poverty,
 and neither the edicts of both king and Temple nor the complaints
 of the more comfortably-off had the power to eradicate it. 
	The reek abated somewhat when he turned down the
 side street that led to his mother's house. It was one of the few
 small enclaves in the Old Quarter that still hosted crafters and
 service workers, and they fought a constant battle to keep the
 creeping pollution that surrounded them at bay. Here the gutters
 were clear of night soil and garbage, the buildings sported coats
 of paint and bright doors and shutters; and there were window boxes
 with minute gardens that bloomed defiantly in the dusty sunlight.
 The bright red door of Elissia's combined apartment and pottery
 shop was a beacon of relief and safety, if only for a brief time.
 Breathing a sigh of anticipated relief, he shoved his cart through
 it into the cinnamon-and-clay-scented coolness beyond.
	Stripping off the pack and the ragged tunic, he
 tossed both into a corner and tried to reach the straps pinning his
 legs in place. They were just out of reach. What a surprise.
	"Ma? Can you give me a hand with this?" he called.
	Wiping clay from her hands, Elissia came out from
 her workshop and undid the buckles. The pleasure of finally being
 able to stretch  would have been almost erotic if it hadn't hurt so
 damned much.
	"You really wouldn't need to look quite so pleased,"
 he mumbled, wincing as his thigh muscles locked in a cramp. "It
 hurts."
	Her expression remained, but she did kneel beside
 him and begin to work the knots out of the abused muscles. She
 pointedly ignored his yelps of protest when she pressed too hard on
 a particularly sore spot. Skillfully she eased the cramps and the
 strains until at last he flopped onto his back on the floor with a
 huge sigh.
	There was a superficial resemblance between them. 
 They were both tall and slender, and there was no doubt where
 Randrik's long lashes had come from. Her complexion was a pale
 version of his own golden amber. Other than that, he was his
 father's son. The many times he had caught her looking at him, her
 face tight with love and unending grief, had made that clear a long
 time before.
	"You put yourself in this position," she said
 needlessly, standing up and brushing nonexistent dust from her
 skirt. "It isn't as though you need to associate with the likes of
 Mitran and Erdel. The Musician's Guild could find you enough work
 to make you rich in a year. And you certainly don't need to get
 involved in a fight over my reputation."
	Eyes dark gray as storm clouds, half worried, half
 exasperated, met midnight blue.
	"Playing for a lot of overfed, tone-deaf nobles
 night after night while they stuff their faces and whine about how
 unappreciated they are isn't my idea of a good time."
	"That is why you fought with Mitran again, isn't
 it?" she demanded, staying with the point that concerned her most.
 "Or did you think I wouldn't find out about it? You might have
 known Erdel would do something to make sure you didn't get off
 easily."
	Randrik sat up, drawing up one knee and draping his
 arm over it. No, he hadn't expected she wouldn't find out about it
 -- he'd lost that notion at an early age. He just wasn't in the
 mood to argue about it.
	"Well, now she's had a little revenge and is well
 paid in the bargain. Don't worry, love, I can handle her and take
 care of myself. You should know that."
	"I didn't spend my hard-earned money getting you the
 best education I could just so you could waste it on the likes of
 Mitran and Erdel. What could he have said that could possibly make
 any difference to me?"
	He wasn't about to tell her all the details.
 Everyone in the Old Quarter knew Elissia and respected her for her
 kind heart and her willingness to get her hands dirty helping those
 no one else gave a damn about. Her chaste dedication to the memory
 of her one true love was legend. So everyone knew that Mitran's
 boast that she had taken him into her bed and participated in all
 manner of degraded acts to pleasure him was a lie.
	The trouble was, Mitran had said it on a public
 street, in a loud voice, where Randrik was sure to hear. It left
 him with no choice but to make the thug swallow the lies. As
 painfully as possible. In the Beggar Queen's realm, the law had no
 respect for peacekeepers.
	There were other reasons for the fight, of course.
 Mitran harbored hopes of being Erdel's next consort, a position
 with plenty of compensations for someone with a strong stomach and
 no sense of discrimination. But Erdel had her sights set on
 Randrik, and Mitran was always looking for any excuse to eliminate
 the competition.  It was the man's own arrogance that had brought
 him down. On saner days he knew Randrik could best him with any
 available weapon or, for that matter, no weapons at all.  Mitran
 was, unfortunately for his health, longer on temper and ambition
 than he was on brains.
	Retrieving the well-filled purse from his pack and
 tossing it onto the table, Randrik got up and stretched, then
 caught hold of the beam just over his head and chinned himself.
 Dropping back down to the floor, he went through the first few
 forms of a style of weaponless combat he had learned the rudiments
 of from a Nomad one long, boring week in a Fringe village. He moved
 from one to the next with fluid power in a lethal ballet.  He was
 long and lean as one of the feral alley cats prowling the streets
 outside and had the same lithe grace and determination to go his
 own way.
	"You have to stop pushing her, Randrik," Elissia
 warned. "Just because she's inclined to be forgiving now doesn't
 mean she'll feel the same tomorrow."
	"Well, if that purse isn't enough to soothe her
 wounded soul, she'll just have to roust Mitran out of bed and send
 him back to work," he said, waving at the purse as he dropped into
 a chair. "There's more there than he collects in a week."
	"As if it's money she wants."
	So, she knew that part of it, too. That left maybe a
 dozen people in the entire Inner City who didn't know Erdel was on
 the prowl for him. The last he'd heard, the odds were seven to two
 she'd get him, not being inclined to take "no" for an answer. He
 had twenty florins wagered on it. Still, it was a little
 embarrassing to have your mother aware of it.
	"That's what she'll have to settle for."
	Elissia frowned and laid her hand on his cheek. The
 fine grit of her clay rasped gently against his skin and the earthy
 scent filled his nostrils.
	"You're too sure of yourself, Randrik. Right now,
 Erdel's allowing you license because she hasn't given up hope of
 getting what she wants by persuasion. But I know her and so do you
 -- she won't be patient forever."
	He turned his head far enough to plant a kiss on her
 palm.
	"I'll be fine, Ma. I told you not to worry about
 it."
	She didn't say it, but he didn't need to Read her to
 know what she was thinking. "What would your father say?" She
 hadn't said it to him since he was fifteen, dragged home by the
 scruff of his neck by the watch for snatching apples in the market.
 He'd given them to a couple of hungry tots -- he stole for the
 challenge of it, not the reward -- but that didn't make any
 difference to either the watch or his mother. What would your
 father say? she had sighed, and he had turned his anger at getting
 caught on her. He's not here to say anything, is he? he had
 snarled. He was too busy looking out for everybody else to stay
 here and look after us.
	Ten years later he still remembered with vivid
 clarity the way the words had ravaged her, torn her heart so that
 even now he knew there were scars he could never erase. She never
 said it again.
	He crammed the regret of causing her worry into the
 "later" part of his brain, because it was safer not to own up to
 feelings like that. In this part of town, letting guilt and
 responsibility and other such emotions have too much influence over
 your instinct for self-preservation was a quick route to a shallow
 grave by the river. Besides, he'd heard all the cautions and the
 caveats and the protests repeatedly and they didn't change
 anything. He was who he was and where he was and the options
 offered so far to change either one weren't the least bit
 interesting.
	Sometimes he felt guilty enough about the worry he
 caused Elissia to consider becoming a more solid citizen. So far
 he'd been able to overcome the impulse. Besides, Elissia knew better than anybody how able he was to take care of himself. She was
 the one who had sent him to all the best trainers in the city from
 the time he was old enough to toddle. In case he decided to follow
 in his father's footsteps.
	Fat chance. Getting his throat cut in some backwoods
 corner of the kingdom trying to make the highways safe for the
 rich, fat and lazy was a fool's choice. It left too many widows and
 orphans. Who knew that better than he did?
	"Then take it to her, quickly, before she finds out
 you left before the temple closed," Elissia said, tossing him the
 purse and biting back all the things he knew she wanted to say.
	Randrik tucked the purse inside his shirt and got
 up, catching her around the waist and lifting her high enough to
 plant a kiss on her forehead. He flashed her his best grin,
 identical to the one he knew had let a certain young militiaman
 steal her heart away nearly thirty years ago. 
	"She can wait until I eat," he said, putting her
 back on the floor and collecting bread, cheese and wine from the
 cupboard. "Begging gives a man an appetite."
	Sighing, she added half a chicken and a pint of
 home-brewed ale and set it out on the table for him.  Then, without
 another word, she disappeared back through the curtain that
 separated her workshop from their living quarters. Her displeasure
 with him stayed behind to sour his meal.
	An hour later, Randrik bundled the uniform and the
 harness onto the cart and strapped the whole load strapped on his
 back to keep his hands free. He strolled through the crowded, dirty
 streets that led to the old warehouse by the river where Erdel held
 court. The way led down an alley so narrow the sky became a thin
 strip of light overhead, little of which reached the refuse-strewn
 brick under his feet. To the uneducated eye, the building seemed on
 the verge of falling in on itself and anyone foolish enough to be
 inside. Only the thieves and whores and beggars and con artists who
 lived and starved and killed and died in the Inner City knew the
 decrepit exterior was a blind for a labyrinthine viper's nest where
 the darkest race of humanity came to feast and sleep and fornicate.

	He tapped this week's signal on the scarred wooden
 door at the end. A spyhole slid open, and then the door swung back
 without a creak despite its crust of erosion and filth. Erdel was
 careful to keep both her politicians and her hinges well greased,
 which was why she had managed to stay in business longer than any
 other Beggar Queen.
	Hand casually resting on the hilt of his dagger,
 Randrik stepped into the shadow beyond the door and stopped as it
 closed behind him. He was in complete darkness, but it didn't
 matter. Closing his eyes, he switched on his inner sense and knew
 everything the darkness contained, including the identity of the
 stink of unwashed flesh, mildewed wool and dreamweed standing a
 stabbing distance from his left shoulder.
	"Don't play games, Tulis," he warned. "Take me to
 Erdel."
	"You're cocky for somebody who deserted his post,"
 the hoodlum gurgled nastily. "Could be she sent me to make sure it
 doesn't happen again."
	"Could be you'd be dead before you got the chance,"
 Randrik retorted, drawing his blade out just far enough for Tulis
 to hear the hiss of steel on leather. The thug snarled, a vicious
 dog deprived of a chance to bite; but he started down the passage
 that led into the Beggar Queen's sanctum. Randrik heard the sound
 as his hand slid along the wall to guide him and followed it.
	The narrow hallway fed into another running
 perpendicular to it. They turned left, then right, then left again,
 always in the pitch dark. Tulis stopped and tapped a different
 signal on an unseen entry and then muttered a password. The door
 opened on a vast room filled with the sounds and smells of hell.
	The unwary, entering this gangsters' lair for
 unauthorized reasons, would be blinded the moment they stepped from
 the utter lightlessness of the hallway into the brilliance inside.
 Randrik had closed his eyes to slits the moment Tulis stopped,
 minimizing the effect of the glare. It was a habit he had learned
 early, although he wasn't concerned for any danger. No one who knew
 him -- and everyone inside did --  would have given him the chance
 to make it all the way into the room if they were going to try
 anything.
	There was no way to prepare, though, for the
 overwhelming stink and noise that slammed into him the moment he
 crossed the threshold. Scores of bodies that felt water only when
 caught in the rain mixed their musk with the sharp smell of
 grilling meat, stale alcohol and dreamweed. Urine and vomit reeked
 in the corners where those too drunk or uncaring to find the
 sanitary facilities unburdened themselves. The sour fetor mingled
 with the rotten-flower stench of whore's perfume and a cacophony of
 other smells Randrik preferred not to identify.
	Voices shouted, screamed, moaned, grunted and roared
 so that it was impossible to pick out a single word in the din.
 Here and there, whores offered their services, ragged skirts flung
 above their waists and naked thighs spread to take anyone willing
 or desperate enough. Shrieking children, most of them bare as birth
 and not nearly as clean, ran and squalled and fought, no more
 noticed than the rats and other vermin that crawled in the corners
 and under the filthy matting on the floor.
	In the center of that ceaseless boil of humanity sat
 the Beggar Queen on her throne, a huge winged chair of gilded wood
 and crimson velvet stolen from some inattentive mover's cart. She
 was a shriveled raisin of a woman, old as sin and twice as vicious,
 and she watched him negotiate his way through the chaos with the
 same expression she had when she looked at her lunch. Grizzled hair
 hung in greasy hanks over her bent shoulders and a crooked beak of
 a nose thrust arrogantly from her crumpled-paper face.
	He felt her Power, the weapon that had brought her
 where she was and kept her there for more years than most of her
 subjects could remember. She was probing, trying to get past his
 shield and sample him that way, since he wasn't inclined to offer
 anything else. He suspected that was one of the reasons why she was
 so determined to have him -- to use his Power to bolster hers.
	Unable to breach his defense, she let go and spat on
 the floor. Then she leaned back and waited, her eyes glittering
 from under drooping lids.
	He stopped just out of her reach, meeting her frigid
 challenge with equal ice. Reaching into his tunic, he took out the
 purse and tossed it into her lap, but she never looked at it.
 Instead, her eyes dropped to his feet and squirmed their way up,
 pausing for a very long moment to stare avariciously at his crotch
 while she licked her lips. Finally, they were staring at each other
 again.
	"I told you to stay until the gates closed," she
 grunted.
	"And I told you the harness was too tight. I said
 I'd take Mitran's place to make up what you'd have lost. I never
 agreed to cripple myself to do it."
	"Maybe I should have one of my other boys take you
 back to finish your day."
	She gestured behind her, where her "boys," six
 hulking brutes with one mind -- hers -- stood in watchful silence.
 One word and they would shred him into rags and braid him into a
 rug. Maybe.
	"Any of them who feels lucky is welcome to try."
	He watched her, or rather the energy that swirled
 around her, as red lust and black rage over his brashness wrestled
 each other. He ignored the tingle of relief he felt when they faded
 away into lavender.
	Her Majesty was amused. He might actually get to
 live another day.
	Snorting, she picked up the purse, hefted it, and
 then tossed it into the huge chest beside her chair.
	"You'll stay and eat with us, my cocky young
 friend," she ordered, leaning back again and taking another look at
 his midsection, in case he missed her play on words.
	He shook his head, but he smiled when he did it.
 He'd gotten off again, but not by much. Diplomacy was definitely
 called for.
	"I'm playing at the End Of The Wharf tonight and
 they want me early," he explained, sliding the cart and beggar's
 costume off his shoulders. That moment, while he stood with the
 straps binding his arms, he felt the danger; and he tossed the
 beggar's kit aside, drawing his knife in the same motion. One
 moment he was chatting with Erdel, the next he was holding Mitran
 by the throat with one arm, his dagger set to fillet the man's
 liver.
	"That's enough, Mitran," Erdel rasped, unimpressed
 by yet another demonstration of the man's incompetence. "Learn to
 know when you're outmatched."
	Mitran dropped his knife and held his empty hands
 out to the sides in surrender. Randrik let him go, but he kept his
 own weapon ready until the other man was well across the room.
	Mitran, his fists clenched against his thighs,
 stalked back to the far corner of the madhouse where he had hidden
 himself when Randrik first arrived. Four of his cronies were there,
 diplomatically looking at all the places Mitran wasn't. A fifth
 man, his face hidden in the darkness of his cowl, stood with them
 and yet slightly apart, and Randrik could feel hidden eyes studying
 him with uncomfortable intensity.
	"You'd best be gone, handsome -- and mind your
 back."
	Erdel's voice dragged his attention back to her, and
 he thought about asking her who the man in the black robe was. If
 he did that, it might encourage her to try and keep him there. It
 probably wasn't important anyway.
	"I always do, Your Majesty," he replied instead,
 saluting her with the dagger before he put it away. Then he left
 the beggar's den and headed home, desperate for a long, hot bath to
 get rid of the stench and the feel of her evil mind crawling all
over him.
 
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