fine-boned face. He kissed the lady through her own veil. ‘It’s done, sister.’
She was looking at the sword, and the fine black line along the blade. ‘He took the money?’
‘He refused it. I offered him Bokosan steel instead.’
‘Do you think this a game, Roshana? The way is clear, now. My contact waits by the kitchen platform. We must hurry.’
‘You have blood on your clothes.’
‘It doesn’t signify, not at night.’ The jewel bright eyes surveyed them all with the dispassion of a snake overlooking a nest of mice. ‘I see you brought him.’
‘I said I would.’
Kurun dropped his gaze as the Kefre stared at him. ‘Ushau, do not let him make so much as a squeak.’
‘Those are mistress’s orders,’ the deep voice rumbled above Kurun’s head.
‘Good. Now follow me, all of you, as quick and quiet as you can.’
They dashed across a space open and bright under the moonlight, and before them the buildings of the palace reared up like some sheer-sided mountain, decked here and there with yellow-burning flammifers. Kurun fought down a roll of agony that brought his gorge rising. He shut his eyes, pressed his forehead against the hot chest of the giant who bore him.
‘Stand here. Stay clear of the walls,’ Rakhsar snapped. ‘Saryam, mind your cloak – if it catches in the pulleys you’ll jam us in the shaft.’
They were standing on one of the platforms connecting the palace to the kitchens below. Rakhsar tugged on the communication rope, and at once there was a jerk. The thick wood trembled under their feet, and they began to descend.
Into darkness. Rakhsar up-ended the illuminating torch in its sconce and the last of its sparks winked out as they bounced off his bloody sword. The air popped in Kurun’s ears; they were descending very fast. Then there was a dull boom, and the platform was still, staggering them with its sudden halt.
‘My prince,’ a familiar voice said.
‘Auroc – nicely done. Now point us right for the undercity.’
Kurun stared open-mouthed in shock, and found shock staring back at him. Auroc’s face was bruised and swollen, but wholly familiar; the first familiar thing he had seen since leaving the kitchens.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said to the kitchen-master, the words a sob, gargled out of the giant’s grip.
‘I thought they killed you,’ Auroc said, disbelieving.
‘They damn near did,’ Rakhsar said. ‘Auroc, lead on. We are short on time.’
Auroc dragged his gaze from Kurun’s tearstained face. ‘Yes, of course. Follow me, my prince. I will take you to the Silima. From there, you follow the road all the way down.’
There was a time that followed when Kurun’s head bobbed on Ushau’s chest and his tears came hot and free. But the thought that had occurred to him could not be pushed aside.
The Silima? It did not seem right. It was akin to a burglar leaving a house through the front door. The Silima was the main thoroughfare of the undercity, and it was guarded night and day.
‘Auroc,’ he said thickly. ‘Master, the Silima cannot be taken. We cannot travel it and stay hidden. There are better ways.’
‘Be quiet,’ Auroc said quickly. He was sweating. And to Rakhsar, ‘Lord, the Silima is the quickest way out of the ziggurat. You will be on the streets within the hour.’
Kurun felt fear as cold as water down his back. ‘Master, I do not think –’
Auroc struck him across the face.
Kurun swallowed that pain along with the rest. He had to point out the mistake. Auroc was wrong. He wanted to save him from his error. At last he said to Rakhsar, ‘Lord, this is not right. My master is guiding you awry.’
Rakhsar brought up the keen point of the scimitar and levelled it easily at Auroc’s throat. ‘Is that so?’ He studied the kitchen-master for a long, brittle moment.
‘Kouros questioned you, didn’t he?’
‘Lord, I was interrogated due to a misunderstanding – this whelp here left his post and spied on