"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
"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
"You really wouldn't need to look quite so pleased,"
he mumbled, wincing as his thigh muscles locked in a cramp. "It
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
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
"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
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
"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
"I'll be fine, Ma. I told you not to worry about
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
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
"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
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
"I told you to stay until the gates closed," she
"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
"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
"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
"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
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