Peace is death. Battle is life. Victory is everlasting heaven. ~ Incantation to Zatooluh, God of War
Amar needed relief from the dense crowd. He returned to his camp at the sprawling fringe of the Thievesmeet where Smart Grab was already sleeping contentedly, like a child who had played hard. Amar went to sleep as well, but he tossed with dreams of Loxane. Her flowing body saturated his sleep with her naked energy, and his mind ran laps around his encounter with her.
Eventually he escaped the dream and took deep slow breaths to try and clear his mind. He forced away the image of Loxane and eased himself back into sleep. This time Onja’s face greeted him, and he welcomed her soothing beauty. Sparkling water drenched her head, flowing through her hair like liquid crystals and her eyes gathered the light of the dancing droplets and grew brighter. He slept more deeply. His flesh was renewed as his spirit snuggled with the memory of Onja.
Amar was as defenseless as a babe when two pairs of hands grabbed his arms and jerked him to his feet. Fright obliterated his sleep. Before he could even struggle, the two men were dragging him away.
Smart Grab awoke and protested. A wild look ignited his bleary face. He was half way to his feet when a third man kicked him in the chest and yelled at him. Apparently Smart Grab knew he could do nothing because he halted and only looked at Amar with anxious regret. The third man quickly frisked Amar and yanked his weapons off. Then the trio hauled Amar deeper into the encampment. When they broke from the tree cover onto the lake shore, Amar looked up at the cliffs looming over the mass of people. Smoke drifted from dying fires. The ropes of the Kelsurs hung down the cliffs like a great fringed shawl draped over the land.
Amar seized his senses and recognized his attackers as Kez. Their braids dangled over the shaved sides of their heads much like the ropes on the cliffs. The man twisting and yanking Amar’s left arm had two cream and red hawk feathers sticking straight up in his hair.
A mass of people carpeted the ground between the lake and cave. The orgy of the night had collapsed in a stupor. Men lay with women and men lay with men. Discarded drinking vessels and clothing peppered the slumbering crowd, and the rising daylight cast no beauty upon the debaucherous debris. The Kez stepped over people as they marched Amar toward the cave of Lax Ar Fu. Forced to be hasty, Amar kicked some unfortunate sleepers.
He passed by the ropes dangling in front of the cave where Loxane and her attendants had descended. Stumbling over the rock where she had danced so wondrously, Amar resisted his urge to shout at his abductors. He would face this trial with what dignity he could snatch from the situation.
Inside the cave was cool and thick with the scent of burning incense. Beyond the yawning entrance, the cave ceiling reached even higher. The cliff was nearly hollow here and the ceiling was a frightening spearscape of hanging stalactites. Firelight flickered on gold, red, white, and purple mineral drippings.
The Kez hauled Amar deeper into the cave. Torches burned in sconces carved into the walls and on top of stalagmites. Teeth-like shadows snarled at the paintings on the mineral-streaked walls. Elk and bears painted in brown, black, and ocher dominated the scenes where eagles flew and speckled senshals prowled on large paws with their long tails curving. Kez lounged around fires. Their shields and weapons and other gear were stacked against the walls and stalagmites. Conversations died as Amar was noticed and the snores of those who were sleeping halted as they were roused to witness the encounter.
In the rear of the cave, Amar was shoved to his knees before steps carved into the rock. Four steps up, there was an altar-like platform lit with oil lamps and covered in furs. Chunks of incense smoldered on the steps and the smoke curled toward the dark ceiling. Lax Ar Fu rolled out of the altar furs and came to his feet two steps down. Except for his necklaces and bracelets, he was naked, still slick from his coupling with a woman. The black eye makeup had smeared onto his cheekbones and nose, making him look scorched. The obvious strength of his body was naturally intimidating. His sculpted biceps and pectorals advertised his power and his hard abdomen looked like a battle shield.
He came down the last two steps. Amar was released and looked up at Lax Ar Fu. He studied the Kez leader but felt no fear. The numbness that locked much of Amar’s emotions protected him from caring about his safety. If he was to be tortured and killed, then that was no less than he deserved, and, if that did not happen, then he would learn from the encounter what he could.
“Who are you?” Lax Ar Fu demanded in a dialect understood among the civilized tribes.
Amar would not answer questions on his knees and he moved to get up, but one of the Kez slapped a spear against his thigh, warning him to stay down.
“Answer,” Lax Ar Fu said.
Amar turned away from him and showed only his profile. With downcast shifting eyes he watched Lax Ar Fu and the warrior with a spear.
“If you continue to pursue the Shamaness, I will chop your legs off and feed them to you,” Lax Ar Fu announced.
A smile cracked Amar’s face that stiffly resisted the expression. “You have a great sense of possession over she who dances naked before so many,” he commented and peeked slyly at Lax Ar Fu, inviting a response.
Lax Ar Fu took a swift terrible step forward and backhanded Amar to the rock floor. Amar groaned and breathed hard against the pain as he picked himself up. Sitting back onto his heels, he held the side of his face and looked directly at the Kez chieftain.
“I do not pursue her. She talked to me,” Amar said.
Amar observed how his fearless calm intrigued Lax Ar Fu, who was used to taking the measure of men but was finding this prisoner hard to judge.
Does he see what Loxane saw? Amar wondered.
Almost at the thought of her, she emerged from the furs on the platform. Wrapped in a cloak of wolf hides, she came down the steps, nuzzling a fluffy gray tail on her shoulder. Covered now, her face and eyes were even more striking. She appeared amused by the situation. She stopped on the last step and Lax Ar Fu moved over to her.
She rubbed his shaved head and said in her language, “He is spirit-touched, Lax-a-fu. That is why I went to him.”
“Spirit-touched?” Lax Ar Fu repeated, and Amar recognized the word that Gadoh had translated for him the night before.
Lax Ar Fu asked Loxane if she was certain, and she widened her eyes with indignation that he would doubt her judgment of such a thing.
“But none have been touched since your kin came through the mountains,” Lax Ar Fu insisted and regarded Amar warily.
Brushing Loxane’s caressing hands from his temple, Lax Ar Fu approached Amar again. Amar turned away slightly, disliking the proximity of the chieftain’s genitalia.
“Who are you?” Lax Ar Fu demanded. “What’s your tribe?”
Again Amar started to rise and this time when the spear came to restrain him, he grabbed it quick as a lizard and flung it to the floor. Embarrassed, the Kez warrior rushed forward, but Lax Ar Fu raised a hand and the warrior withdrew, abashed. Amar stood up and faced Lax Ar Fu. He was not quite as tall as the Kez leader, and he doubted that he matched the chieftain’s strength but apparently being spirit-touched counted for something.
“I am Amar. I have no tribe,” Amar answered.
Lax Ar Fu walked slowly around his captive, eyeing him suspiciously. He asked one of his warriors to show him the weapons taken from Amar. The well-crafted sword immediately got his attention. A dirty life in the wilds had barely diminished the precisely made sheath. Every leather stitch was still perfect and discs of jade carved with spirals adorned it. Lax Ar Fu pulled out the blade, iron instead of bronze. It glistened with oil and sharp edges. He asked Amar where he had gotten such a good weapon.
“I stole it. This is the Thievesmeet. How else do you think I came by it?” Amar said.
Lax Ar Fu pressed the sword behind Amar’s ear and left the cold edge against the tender skin suggestively. “Of no tribe? I don’t believe that,” Lax Ar Fu said. “You do not have the speech of a whore’s bastard. You’re educated.”
“Perhaps I am a very smart whore’s bastard,” Amar said.
Lax Ar Fu scoffed. He shoved the sword back into its sheath. “This is Lin Tohs,” he said. “You’re some leftover retainer from that sad massacre. You probably took this from your dead lord before fleeing for your life.”
The unfeeling fortress that guarded the remnants of Amar’s soul cracked. He sucked in his stomach and tried to keep the sudden spurt of his emotions from surfacing.
“If the Lord of the Kez knows so much why does he drag me from my sleep to question me?” Amar said, proud of his cocky tone. This interrogation by a powerful man excited Amar. The attention summoned ambition. The shell of his brittle soul cracked and the hungry beak of a raptor broke through.
Lax Ar Fu returned to Loxane. She pressed against him, covering half his nakedness with the fluff of her furs. He embraced her with one arm and fingered her red tresses with his free hand. Lifting a lock to his nose, he savored her smell a moment and then said, “Amar of no tribe, I brought you here to warn you against attracting the attention of the Shamaness. Her power is such that I cannot bear my jealousy. Leave here and do not come back.”
Amar looked into Loxane’s eyes. Her fascination for him remained, but she seemed unrepentant about getting him in trouble with her lover. Amar realized that perhaps the attention of Lax Ar Fu was not such a bad thing. When was he likely to have a meeting with a powerful man again?
Daring to reach beyond his defeated obscurity, Amar said, “Lax Ar Fu, Lord of the Kez, I was told that the Thievesmeet is a place where thieves and rogues are brothers. We who live outside the society of farmers and palaces suffer no judgment here.”
“I make the exceptions,” Lax Ar Fu said.
Amar bluntly asked what would happen to him if he did not leave.
“Pray to Vu that you don’t find that out,” Lax Ar Fu warned, but he studied the young outlaw more carefully.
Unimpressed with the vague threat, Amar said, “What would the Lord of the Kez do if I said that when I saw him and his fine Kez warriors yesterday that I decided right then that I would join your ranks? I would be one of these brothers who know no law or border.”
Lax Ar Fu frowned. “A man does not just join the Kez. We recruit only. And you seem to have the brains to realize you are not being recruited,” he said.
Again, Amar shifted his gaze to Loxane, flaunting his disregard for the Kez Lord’s jealousy. “There must be something that you desire but cannot have. Name a thing that would make you recruit me, and I will see it done,” he said.
Lax Ar Fu separated himself from Loxane and stalked up to Amar, who did not flinch. He could smell the body odor of the Kez Lord. Its thick masculine scent was charged with agitation.
“There must be something that would change your mind about me,” Amar added.
Finally Lax Ar Fu’s annoyance shifted to curiosity. Amar of no tribe, who according to Loxane was spirit-touched, was simply too strange to dispatch with thoughtless violence. Sometimes strange had its uses, and the Kez could value that.
Lax Ar Fu turned away from Amar and went up the steps to the platform where he had lain with Loxane. He retrieved a fur robe and clothed himself. When he came down the steps he ordered food and drink and invited Amar to sit at a fire with him. Loxane stirred the coals and added a few sticks of wood, and the fire brightened. The orange flames sparkled upon her wondrous hair like a sunset through amber beads. She settled down next to Lax Ar Fu and snuggled him affectionately like a cat. She draped her head against his broad shoulder and idly stroked the fine hair of his chest, but her blue eyes stayed on Amar.
A man gave Amar a cup of water and a plate of cold meat and fresh fruit. He ate while Lax Ar Fu told him what he desired.
“In the war between the Temulanka and the Sabar’Uto, I was cheated by a warrior chieftain named Wayndo. Both of us had been hired by the Temulanka to siege the town of Deko. I was not the Kez Overlord then. I was a lieutenant to my predecessor, Pepum, and great man that he was, he was often too quick to make a deal. He was bought by the Temulanka for the siege before he knew that Wayndo had been hired as well. Wayndo is a Temulanka, a noble’s bastard, yet a bastard warlord with many tough warriors.
“Deko was a big job and we needed our combined forces. We torched the villages and plundered the land. We strangled that town. The people of Deko knew that their fellow Sabar’Uto could not come because their armies were bogged down in fighting with the army of the Temulanka king. Eight times the warriors of Deko came forth to drive us from their gates, and eight times we battled them until they buckled and we broke into their town and laid it waste. Before the smoke of the fires rose very high in the sky, Wayndo was riding to the Temulanka king to announce the victory and collect the payment for gutting the town.
“Wayndo never returned. His arrangement with the Temulanka king had been to earn estates and legitimate titles if he could destroy Deko. He kept the pay for the Kez for himself.
“My Lord Pepum never pursued him as he should have. I do not know what restrained the revenge he must have craved. If there was some influence within the Temulanka Tribe that made him forego revenge, I do not know. But I have not forgotten this insult. I have always wanted the Temulanka, and especially Wayndo, to learn that the Kez do not forget.
“I want revenge, but the Domain of the Temulanka has been full of its warriors since the end of the war, and it’s been difficult to organize a proper hunt for Wayndo. Amar of no tribe, since you’re so willing to impress me, you can act as my assassin. No one will suspect you of being my agent. Bring me the head and cock of Wayndo, and I will recruit you to the Kez and you can join the Brotherhood of Vu.”
Amar ate the last two morsels off his plate, chewing thoughtfully on the tough meat. He doubted that Lax Ar Fu lacked assassins to send after Wayndo. It was most likely that Wayndo was a well-protected target and there was no profit beyond settling an old score in the killing. And Amar suspected that he was meant to get killed on the mission.
The option to refuse and walk away from the Thievesmeet remained, but Amar decided to take the offer he had so boldly gained from Lax Ar Fu. He had nothing else to do, and the life of common artless criminality that he had fallen into with Huan and Smart Grab had no appeal. Amar craved to be part of something larger, and he believed he would find opportunity instead of death on a mission against Wayndo.
Amar nodded and said, “His head and his cock.”
Lax Ar Fun grinned for many reasons. “Good, Amar, good. I will even be generous with you and assign three fine Kez to accompany you. They will be watching to see that you undertake what you have agreed to do. A man does not make a deal with Lax Ar Fu and then not follow through.”
“Yes, Lord of the Kez, I understand,” Amar said. “I shall go today.”
The three of them rose to their feet. Loxane let go of Lax Ar Fu and hugged her furs close. Amar noted that she looked tired now, having no doubt been up the whole night busy with her depravity.
Lax Ar Fu summoned three Kez to him and introduced them to Amar. Vame, Kym, and Cybar were their names, and each of them smirked skeptically when their lord described their assignment and Amar’s mission.
Amar disregarded their attitude and told them where he was camped and that they should meet him at midday and be ready to leave.
Eager to leave the depths of the cave and feel the warm sun, Amar dipped his head to Lax Ar Fu after a courtly fashion. “I intend to serve you well, Lord of the Kez,” he said. Then, he bowed to Loxane and said, “It has been a pleasure, Shamaness.”
The parting comment visibly rankled Lax Ar Fu, but the deal had been made and he let Amar walk away.
Outside the cave, the hungover participants of the Thievesmeet groggily welcomed the day. Fires were stirring, and people were bathing in the lake. A few Kelsurs were even climbing the cliff; their packs already loaded with goods for which they had traded.
Not far from the cave, Amar encountered Smart Grab and Huan. An expression of happy surprise lighted Smart Grab’s face, which startled Amar. He would not have expected such a look to cross Smart Grab’s mean features.
“You live!” Smart Grab exclaimed and grabbed Amar by the shoulders and gave him a shake. He also looked Amar up and down as if checking to make sure all body parts were present.
Huan moaned, “Amar, I told you not to bother the Kez.”
“They bothered me,” Amar explained while he gestured to Smart Grab to back off. “But do not worry. I am going to join the Kez. It’s all arranged.”
Huan laughed and demanded to know what Amar had been drinking.
Amar walked with his comrades back to their camp and explained what had happened between him and Lax Ar Fu.
Smart Grab digested the news and then commented that only a fool would meddle with Wayndo.
Amar stopped. “You know of him?” he asked.
Smart Grab nodded and almost seemed a bit insulted that Amar was surprised that he knew something. “I worked for him seven summers ago. He is cruel and devious. So suspicious that he kills friends and allies before an enemy can even have the chance to get close to him,” Smart Grab explained.
Amar asked Smart Grab what work he had done for Wayndo.
“Things,” he replied with disturbing suggestiveness. “But too much work. I left. Better to thieve and have fun with no master.”
“Yes, I see,” Amar murmured. “What does Wayndo look like?”
Smart Grab told him that Wayndo was wiry with scarred arms, especially his right arm because it was his sword arm. He was a little shorter than most men, bald but what hair he had he kept long and in a single braid.
Amar thanked him for the information and declared that he would be a fool and seek Wayndo.
They reached his camp and Amar began to organize his few possessions that had been scattered during his scuffle with the Kez. Smart Grab and Huan watched him pack. Both of them were still clearly surprised by his sudden Kez mission.
“You shouldn’t do this, Amar,” Huan cautioned. “Even if you could get Wayndo and become a Kez, why would you? The Kez must serve their master and their god Vu always. You should live free like us.”
Amar tied shut his pack and shook his head. “I want to be part of a big group,” he said. “But I thank you for the companionship,” he lied.
Smart Grab snorted with amusement. No one had ever said that to him before. He slapped Amar on the shoulder and then strode off toward the Thievesmeet, indifferent to Amar’s departure.
Huan, however, was annoyed by the abandonment. “You are too green for this nonsense. Stick with me. I’ll make a good thief out of you,” he insisted.
“I am sure that you would, Huan,” Amar agreed. “But I cannot get what I want wandering around with you and Smart Grab.”
Huan frowned and asked what Amar wanted. In his mind there was little else to desire besides total freedom.
Amar did not answer. He wanted to hurt Ginjor Rib, and perhaps he would be a step closer to that goal after trying his hand at being an assassin. The idea suited him.
“The Kez interest me,” he said simply.
Huan groaned dismissively and seemed very like his father in that moment. “Good luck to you, Amar,” he said and left to catch up with Smart Grab.
Without watching Huan or Smart Grab go, Amar slipped his pack across his shoulders and adjusted his swords. He would not miss their company. He knew whose company he craved, and he would seek Onja before confronting Wayndo.