Saturday, May 5, 2012
Lilitu Chapters Seven and Eight
Okay, I know I said I wasn't going to post any more Lilitu freebies, but I changed my mind. If you'l recall, at the end of the last chapter, she'd just met Toghril...
"Uhh,"said Lilitu. Other than that, she felt most unsure how to respond.
"Mother?" he asked again, tilting his head to the other side.
"My name is Lilitu, My Lord," Lilitu said.
Sorrow and disappointment registered in those horrible non-features. "And you're not my mother?"
"No, My Lord," Lilitu said.
"You look just like her," he said suspiciously.
"I'm only seventeen years old."
"She was very young when she had me," he said.
"But she'd be much older now," Lilitu said. "She'd have to be."
"I suppose you're right," he replied; quite unexpectedly, he started to walk away. But after a few paces he came right back and pointed at her, looking like he thought he'd been tricked, and said: "On the other hand---"
She stared at him in aching suspense, hanging on his silence.
"---if she came back as a ghost....''
Lilitu realized she was holding her breath.
"---who knows what she'd be like?"
She inhaled at last, answering quickly: "I don't know anything about ghosts."
"Does that mean you're not one?"
"Yes," she said. "I mean, that's not how I know, but...''
He put his face very close to hers, his breath smelling like raw meat. "Sometimes...''
Lilitu almost wanted to cry. "What?"
"Mother said the opposite of what she meant.'' He nodded, as though he thought he had Lilitu figured out.
At that, the man who had brushed her face off suddenly cried: "She's not a ghost, My Lord!"
Toghril turned and growled: "What's that?"
The fellow looked like he was about to melt, but seemed to feel he had some sort of duty, answering:
"She casts a shadow!"
Toghril looked. "Does, doesn't she?" he said. He clapped a hand to the back of his neck, stalked off a few paces again. But then he came right back and snapped:
"I don't see why a ghost couldn't cast a shadow."
Actually, Lilitu didn't either.
"I don't know how it works!" the other man said, and ran away.
Toghril looked at Lilitu, made as if to prod her, paused, wiped his bloody finger on his behind, then poked. "You feel like flesh and bone, at any rate---"
"I am, My Lord," she said.
He turned his face practically profile, one of those horrible recessed orbs going the opposite direction, fixing her. "Will you be my friend?"
"Certainly," she said.
"I'd love to have a friend who looked like my mother."
"Oh, I'll be your friend."
"Come on, then," he said.
She stepped out from among the prisoners.
"Hold your hands out."
She did so. He drew a knife, and with a single swift slash, brought it down between her wrists, severing the thongs that bound them...she screamed before she realized she wasn't hurt. Then he put his face close to hers again, his tonsured scalp almost touching her brow.
"I have very bad headaches," he said.
It was all she could do to keep from looking away from him.
"You must try your best to make me forget about them."
"Oh yes," Lilitu said.
At his insistence, she accompanied him as he set about, with considerable energy, getting his men back on the move. She had the impression that word of Koghar and the truly heavy head had spread very quickly; everyone seemed terribly nervous and anxious to jump at Toghril's commands, although, she supposed, this might be their normal state. Animals that had fled the camp were gathered back up; loot was stowed, and rather to Lilitu's surprise, the captives were allowed to ride--- so many people had been butchered that there were an abundance of mounts. Much sooner than she would've thought, the bandits were all pulled together and heading east at a good pace with their prisoners; riding along beside the chieftain, Lilitu saw him, time and again, out of the corner of her eye, glancing at her.
"We're going to Al-Baradh," he told her.
Plainly he wanted her to continue the conversation; she almost told him that she'd been on her way there, but caught herself, saying merely:
"Have to get back."
"Why's that, My Lord?"
"I set my engineer, Cheung-Leung, a great commission," he replied. "He said he needed four days."
"And what is this great commission, My Lord?" she asked.
"Have you ever seen a boulder on the side of a cliff, just about to fall? Or a tower that's leaning, about to crash down?"
"I've seen trees like that."
"And you grieved? Because you weren't going to be there when they fell?"
Actually, she knew exactly what he was talking about.
He went on: "I really hate that feeling. I vowed five years ago that I'd never suffer it again. There was this little fort on a riverbank, you see, and the water had undercut it, and I was just waiting for it to go...it was making all sorts of noises, groaning and creaking, and I thought, any moment now. But some Imperial troops were closing in, and by the time I settled them, the house had dropped into the drink. I was furious. So now, whenever I see something that's about to go down, I make sure to send it on its way, so I can watch. That's mostly what I use Cheung Leung for."
"You're going to knock something over at Al-Baradh?"
"It's going to be the greatest moment of my life," he answered, then asked suddenly: "You don't like to look at me, do you?"
"A mother should never have to see her son in such a condition.''
"Don't call me Lord," he said. "It's not proper."
"I'm not your---"
"So you say. But I need a mother."
In spite of everything, this touched a chord in her. "We all do, I suppose.'' She certainly missed hers.
"I'd so like to hear my lullabye again," he said.
"What lullabye?" she asked, knowing he wanted her to sing it.
Longingly he answered: "Jerboey's in the Hole."
"I don't know that one."
"You would say that, wouldn't you?"
"Just did," he said.
Taken aback by his quick-wittedness---it seemed most out of place in such a mad beast---she didn't answer. But he seemed more pleased by that than anything else---very like a child who'd gotten the upper hand on his mother---and said:
"Don't worry. I can play along. It goes like this, as you know perfectly well:
Jerboey's in the hole,
It's his nest, nest, nest.
He doesn't like to leave,
It's the best best best.
If he has to go,
He just comes right on back
Jerboey only leaves
For a snack, snack, snack."
Lilitu stared straight ahead, thinking:
Bottomless pit, bottomless pit, bottomless pit…
They pressed straight on through the hottest part of the day; a thunderstorm threatened but slid away to the south, and they got to the top of a slight rise and spotted Al-Baradh, or rather, the uppermost tip of the old fortress, sticking up over a rim to the east...if Nadjibullah hadn't described it already, Lilitu might've mistook it for a spiky red rock formation. Coming to the edge, they looked out over a vast depression, with the oasis spreading out at the bottom of the slope; out of the green, bases ringed with debris, rose two vermilion limestone towers of roughly the same height, streaked with black desert lacquer, one very much wider than the other, a small fortress on the wider pillar, a tall, narrow, elaborate castle atop the other, all spires and turrets. Two piers, the remains of the bridge that had once connected the summits, leaped out towards each other, separated in the middle by a broad gap.
Between the columns was a round lake, profoundly blue; right above the lake, the bases of the pillars were undercut, and there was very little debris, as though the lake was really deep, a sinkhole maybe, and had swallowed it all up. Much smaller than the columns, other outcroppings rose bright red out of the greenery in spots; there were roads, irrigation canals, orchards, fields, houses...all the houses were roofless, and their insides looked very black, and their outside walls seemed to have soot on them above the windows…there were piles of ashy-looking stuff smouldering in the fields.
"What have you done with all the people?" Lilitu asked Toghril.
"You’re looking at some of 'em,'' he answered. ''What's left of ‘em, anyway. Ones we couldn’t have sold. I ordered 'em burned…we're settling in, see, and you can’t leave too much carrion lying about. As for the rest, we’ve got 'em penned up, on the north side of the oasis…''
"What about Lord Nasruddin?"
"What's it to you?"
"Wasn't Al-Baradh his oasis?"
Toghril nodded. "He died fighting--- actually made quite a nuisance of himself. His wife and his daughters killed themselves---"
"What about his son?" Lilitu asked.
"That beanpole? Caught him. He was still alive when I left, but he might not be now. Depends on whether he talked. His father had quite a stash of gold, or so I've heard. But we couldn't find it, and Akbar didn't want to tell us where it was. So I left him breathing, but as I said, he might've broken, and if he did---" Toghril drew a finger across his throat.
Liliu tried to hide her distress...and was disturbed to find it was all too easy.
"Did you know this Akbar, mother?" Toghril asked.
"We spoke, once," Lilitu said. "He was nice enough."
"Good for him," Toghril said.
They headed to the bottom…a score or so horsemen came up the road and met them at the fringe of the trees.
"And what's Madji been up to in my absence?" Toghril asked.
"Racing donkeys!" several of the men replied, at once.
Toghril howled. "I told him! No races till I got back!"
"He's been drunk this whole time," one of them said. "And bad-mouthing you."
"Has he now?" Toghril cried. "And what did he say, Alaam?"
The other replied: "That we've got more donkeys now than we know what to do with, and you had no business forbidding races, especially when we'd found such a perfect place---"
Toghril howled again, stood up in his stirrups snarling and shaking his head, dropped back down again, then clapped his palms to his temples. He sat rubbing them for a time, then suddenly turned to Lilitu and asked:
"You see what I have to contend with?"
Grimacing, he lowered his hands, working his jaw, and turned back to Alaam, asking in a pained voice:
"Have you met my mother?"
Alaam glanced at Lilitu, then said:
"Alaam, mother, mother, Alaam." Toghril began rubbing his temples again.
Humoring the madman clearly his standing policy, Alaam said: "Honored, My Lady."
They went in under the date-palms. There were several carts on the road, one overturned, all riddled with arrows; but whatever beasts had been drawing them had been removed from the harnesses. Lilitu saw a few slinking dogs, which the bandits shot at, but no other animals…she guessed Toghril’s men had herded them off and penned them, up on the north side, just like the people who’d been culled…
They went some way along the road before coming to the debris-slope at the base of the wider tower. There the road forked, and the raiding-party split as well, one group taking spoil (human and otherwise) to the left, Toghril leading the rest of the bandits off to the right, rounding the apron of broken rock. The sinkhole lake between the towers came into view round the bend, and just as Lilitu had seen from the rim, the tower was deeply undercut above it…there was still debris, but it sloped well back, under the overhang…the road went along at the foot of that, skirting the lake, quite a nice piece of work in Lilitu’s opinion, not that she was an expert…the debris had all been planed level, the cracks between the chunks filled in with mortar. Directly over the road was the curving edge of the overhang, with the wall of the tower soaring above.
As Lilitu went farther around the bend, she saw a dozen or so smoking masses on the road ahead, several more floating in the pond. Toghril began to swear sulphurously, and she halted as he picked his way between and around the first few. The ones on the road appeared to be smashed as well as burned, but Lilitu was able to distinguish animals---horses or donkeys, perhaps---and people.
Didn't Alaam say something about donkey-races?
"Look out!" cried voices behind her. "Up! Above you! Up!"
She craned her head back. Directly above her was that broken arch that projected from the side of the column; falling end over end in a wobbling ungainly movement, three large flaming things---each apparently comprised of a burning beast and rider--- were plummeting beneath it, one some distance out in front of the others. Lilitu caught human screams and a distinct anguished hee-hawing.
With a yelp she pulled on her reins, and when her horse didn't back up quickly enough, she jumped out of the saddle and ran. There came the horrible sound of a large mass of meat and bone stopping very suddenly, and her horse screamed; she paused, looking to see the beast dashing off the ledge into the pond---a donkey had crashed not far from where the horse had stood.
Up ahead, Toghril was standing in his stirrups, one of those long arms raised as he howled curses; shaking his fist at the sky, the remaining two donkeys hurtling towards him, he seemed the very picture of defiance against heaven.
But if God had dispatched Nadjibullah with fearsome accuracy, His aim (if indeed the Deity were involving Himself) was off when it came to Toghril; just missing the bandit chief, the donkeys struck the road on either side of him. His horse leaped straight up into the air, came down into billowing flames; vanishing for a moment, it suddenly swung back into view round the donkey on the right, scorched and smoking but unkindled, Toghril still in the saddle. He rode over to Lilitu, extended a hand; she took it, gasped as he yanked her up off the ground, and all at once found herself jolting down in front of him on his saddle.
"Madji wants to race donkeys, eh?" he asked. "I'll give him donkey-races!"
Beyond the overhang, the road began to wind its way upwards into the talus…reaching the side of the cliff, it spiraled along the outside of the pillar, some stretches on ledges, some on ramps that had been hacked out of the limestone face. Off to the north, Lilitu saw a large camp in a field; there was a stockade full of people, and enclosures for animals. All around the field, swaths of trees had been cut down, for timber, so she supposed.
The troop worked its way higher and higher. Warding the ramphead, six hundred feet above the oasis, was a barbican, hundred-foot-long curtain walls extending on either side of it. As the column approached the gatehouse, a red-faced, very sweaty Naiman stuck his head through a casement.
"My Lord," he said, looking very flustered.
"Ol-jei-tu," Toghril said.
"Open the gates."
Almost whispering, Oljeitu said: "Madji doesn't want us to let you in."
"Is that so?" Toghril asked.
Toghril said: "Open up, and we'll discuss it."
Oljeitu considered this, then vanished.
"Watch this," Toghril told Lilitu. "He's going to do it."
Sure enough, the gates opened. Oljeitu stood in the courtyard beyond, a number of whispering bandits behind him. Toghril rode slowly between the gates towards him, Oljeitu and the other men fading back.
"Where do you think you’re going?'' Toghril said.
"Now," Toghril said, "Who's the boss? Me, or Madji?"
"You, My Lord," Oljeitu said.
Very quietly, the men behind him withdrew further, leaving him standing there.
Toghril began to ride round him, asking:
"If I'm the boss, why are we having this conversation?"
Turning, Oljeitu scratched the bisected tuft on his deeply-tanned forehead, shrugged.
Toghril drew a large double-headed axe from his belt.
At last Oljeitu realized he was in terrible danger. "Oh-oh-oh!" he said, and fell backwards. Luckily for him: if he had remained upright a split-instant longer, Toghril's stroke wouldn’t have missed.
Without turning over, Oljeitu rose up on his hands and feet and began to retreat, moving with a speed that was quite remarkable given the method; Lilitu thought he looked like some gigantic insect. Evidently Toghril thought so too; twisting in his saddle, he signalled the men behind Lilitu and commanded:
"Shoot that fucking bug!"
Bowstrings thunked, and a blurred swarm buzzed by Lilitu; having expended all his luck falling on his backside, Oljeitu sprouted a small fletched forest and collapsed.
Toghril spurred his horse towards Oljeitu's men, who were watching on the far side of the courtyard; they hurled themselves down immediately, groaning:
"Boss! Boss! Boss!"
"Out of my way," he replied.
They scrambled right and left to let him pass, but just then, a diminutive moon-faced easterner, very unlike the Naimans, came out from the keep, dressed all in finely-brocaded silks. Lilitu guessed he was from the far-off land of Sung. Sung merchants came to Sawaliyeh with the caravans, and Lilitu had picked up the language.
"Cheung Leung," said Toghril.
Putting fist to palm, the other bowed.
"Where's Madji?" Toghril asked.
"By the bridge, My Lord," Cheung Leung answered. "He was racing donkeys, and passed out---he's been drinking very heavily."
"Did he know I was back?"
"He was hoping to strike you with a plummeting fire-ass."
"Was he now?"
"Shigi-Qutuqu suggested the idea to him.''
''Yes. But Madji lost consciousness. For all I know he’s still lying there, by the edge of the cliff. Shigi was most put out."
"And where is he?''
"Hiding, I expect."
Toghril nodded. "What about that project? The one I commissioned?''
"Preparations are complete," Cheung Leung replied. "Just give the word."
"Excellent," said Toghril. He beckoned to Lilitu, then said:
"Mother, this is the engineer I spoke of. Mother, Cheung Leung. Cheung Leung, mother."
Without batting an eye, Cheung Leung smiled broadly, slapped palm against fist, and said:
Growing more and more discomfitted by all this (if that were possible) Lilitu nodded her head just the same.
Toghril and his troop dismounted and went inside. Once they got past the guardrooms, Lilitu thought that the interior of the fort must once have been very nice, much nicer than the mansion at Sawaliyeh; all the stonework was very brightly whitewashed, and there were magnificent mosaics on the floor.
But the walls were splashed with all manner of stains, and there was a great deal of garbage thrown about, bottles, bones, broken pottery; drunken bandits sprawled everywhere, together with a number of women, everyone in various states of undress. As Toghril stalked through the place, a few of the men staggered up only to prostrate themselves, a very odd spectacle. Almost all of the rooms were devoid of furnishings, except for one great hall, where everything appeared to have been deposited, chairs, tables, bronze and ceramic vases; there were a large number of rolled-up rugs and tapestries. Lilitu wondered how much of this loot the bandits were planning to take.
Toghril asked Cheung Leung: "What about that boy?"
"Boy, My Lord?"
"The noble's kid, Akbar?"
"Madji got him to talk."
"He found the treasure?"
"There's a shaft out behind the fort, covered by a flagstone. They threw everything down there. We brought it all up, moved it to the strongroom. Do you want a look, My Lord?"
Toghril shook his head. "I want to deal with Madji."
"I can imagine," Cheung Leung said.
"Look at all these fucking drunks!"
They went out through the back gate, moving out over a broad expanse of flat limestone dotted with low bushes. A score or so donkeys were scattered about, grazing, but there were no bandits in sight.
Lilitu couldn't see the arch that extended towards the other column, since the ground was too flat, and there were bushes in the way. Indeed, she couldn’t even see the gap between the two pillars--- it looked as though she could simply walk across, and she would certainly have wanted to; that lofty many-spired fortress on the far side, orange in the late afternoon sun, was most intriguing. As she passed through the bushes, and saw at last the yawning gulf, she was deeply irritated with the bridge for having collapsed into it.
At the threshold of the ruined bridge were several tall red-clay jars with ladles hooked over their rims, and a big coil of rope. Beyond, a big iron ring was embedded in the arch, and beyond that, iron bars, blanks such as blacksmiths used, sticking straight up in four rows…Lilitu guessed it all had something to do with racing donkeys. Perhaps the rows formed stalls or chutes. There were bars set at the end of each enclosure, as if to keep recalcitrant beasts from backing out. The pavement all around was discolored with ringlike scorchmarks, and a bitter burnt smell hung in the air.
Lilitu heard a groan, off to the right…at the edge of the cliff, belly down amid an amazing collection of bottles, lay two men, one of them with his head hanging over the side. Toghril went very close to them before stopping and raising his hand, the rest of his troop halting behind him. Lilitu heard the men in back of her laughing through their noses.
As for those fellows on their stomachs, they didn't even seem to be breathing, but suddenly one got up, standing uncertainly on the brink, and after a moment the other man, almost as if he were acting upon some mysterious mental communication, did likewise. Without turning, they dropped their trousers and began to relieve themselves over the side.
Finishing before the other, one pulled his trousers back up, turned, saw Toghril, gave a little squeak, and fell backwards into the void.
The other man, a turbaned Kadjafi, turned his head slightly sideways, started, swayed, almost lost his balance; legs shaking, he bent and hauled his pants up. Then he retreated from the edge, finally backing into Toghril, who asked:
The Kadjafi whirled dizzily, demanding: "What are you doing here?’’
''I'm your boss.''
"You told Oljeitu not to let me in?"
Madji began to nod, then shook his head. "I told him…not to tell you…that I told him…that."
"Why did you do such a thing?"
"He pressed the idea upon me."
"Have you been racing donkeys in my absence?"
"Aaaah," Madji replied. “Puh.”
"If they're going to burn," Toghril said. "I want to see it."
"Couldn't restrain ourselves." Madji tottered, then wagged a finger at him. "Here's something you'll like. We got that kid to talk. There was all this stuff down a hole."
"I know," said Toghril.
Madji steadied himself, his bleary gaze shifting to Lilitu. "Who's the filly?"
"My mother," said Toghril.
"Of course," said Madji, smiling knowingly. For no particular reason that Lilitu could discern, he put his finger up to his lips and said, "shhh," then fell to his knees.
Toghril seized him by the arm, pulling him back up. "On your feet," he said. "There's a fellow."
Madji giggled. "What are you going to do with me?"
"Guess," Toghril replied.
Madji pointed over his shoulder. ''Why don't I just jump off the cliff?''
Toghril hit him in the jaw with a fist that looked like one great knobby mass of bone; there was a smack that was most evocative of knuckles striking flesh, and Madji spun completely around, arms whipping, before he collapsed like a man abandoned by his own skeleton.
As Toghril began to issue instructions to his men, Lilitu, not at all anxious to know what he had in mind, took Cheung Leung aside and asked:
"Why does he hate donkeys?"
"He feels they abuse their office," Cheung Leung answered.
"Their prognosticative authority. You of all people should be aware of that.''
"What does it have to do with me?"
"If you were truly his mother, you'd know, of course."
"Well," she said, "just for the time being…''
''Why don't I assume you're not?''
"Very good, madam," he said, with a slight smile. Then, after taking a deep breath, he embarked on his explanation, sounding quite the pedant: "There are those that believe that certain animals have prophetic abilities. This is hardly surprising, given that people, desperate to know what awaits them, will assign predictive qualities to virtually anything---clouds, small rocks, entrails, livers, bones----why, in my own country, cracks on the insides of burnt turtle-shells are said to presage the future; in some lands, the dancing of chickens is held to be the key. Naimans hold that particular horses or donkeys will reveal the future to shamans, who trace signs in the earth, then take careful note of nuzzlings that efface one sign rather than another...''
"What does this have to do with Toghril?"
"His life took a most unfortunate turn because of such nuzzlings."
"By a donkey?"
"You have it. At any rate, a shaman arrived at an inauspicious interpretation, namely, that Toghril would murder his---" Cheung Leung abruptly broke off, looking both embarrassed and queasy.
Lilitu felt a chill sensation, as though a ghost were passing through her. "Mother?"
Cheung Leung grimaced, nodding; just at that moment, she noticed Toghril gazing over at her. He waved; trying to smile, she waved back.
"You might be comforted to hear that he feels very bad about it," Cheung Leung said.
"Vindicating the donkey," Cheung Leung said.
"That's a nice way to put it."
"Thank you," Cheung Leung said. "In any case, I wouldn't be a bit surprised if his headaches are induced by his incontestable and horrendous guilt, although I suppose the fact that half the Naiman tribe galloped over him might also have something to do with it."
"Why did he kill me…'' Lilitu caught herself. "Her?"
"When his brother Urugtai---"
"Urugtai?" Lilitu asked, startled. Wasn’t that Sayida’s father’s name?
"Have you heard of him?" Cheung Leung asked.
"Probably not the same person," Lilitu said.
"Whatever. When Urugtai found out about the donkey's prediction, he tried to get Toghril to leave. But Toghril was very devoted to his mother, and wouldn't. Things came to a head, and she took Urgugtai's side---whereupon Toghril wounded him and killed her in a fit of rage, then killed a Naiman prince who tried to capture him---"
Quite shaken, Lilitu said: "Enough, please."
"Really though," Cheung Leung said. "I cannot stress this too strongly. He's very uncomfortable with himself."
"That's good to know," Lilitu said, not feeling the least bit relieved.
Does God hate me? she wondered. Despite her extremely unsettled state, verse began to materialize in her mind:
And great-granddaughter of misery,
Your name is Lilitu,
And your life is strange and bad…
But that was all that came.
Some of Toghril's men fetched three donkeys; other bandits went into the fortress. As for Madji, he was loaded, still unconscious, onto one of the asses, his wrists tied behind his back and his legs about the donkey's barrel. Then the animal was led out onto the arch and backed in between two rows of bars, which served as a chute, just as Lilitu had guessed. A rope was knotted around the base of the donkey's tail and fastened to the iron ring set in the stone.
By that time Madji was coming round; he began to scream. This spooked the donkey, and it bucked, and strained against the rope, and backed into the rod behind it, hee-hawing all the while. His voice huge and hideous, Toghril began to bray too, mocking it; before long, all his men (with the exception of Cheung Leung) joined in, and the crazed chorus soon cowed Madji and his mount into complete silence. But Toghril let his troop sing on for a while even after they’d made their point…finally signalling them to be quiet, he laughed:
"Have to remember that trick, eh boys?"
Having evidently heard more than their share of donkey-complaints, they received the suggestion enthusiastically.
Presently the men who'd been sent into the fortress came back, dragging two captives. Hanging over the castle, the sun was behind them, its light fringing their shoulders and heads; even though one of the prisoners was tall and gangly, much like the Akbar she remembered, Lilitu wasn’t absolutely certain it was him, and hoped to God it wasn't. But as the distance closed, he began to cry: "Lilitu! Beloved!"
And her heart sank.
"Beloved?" asked Toghril, coming up beside her.
"I was coming here to marry him," Lilitu answered.
"Isn't he a bit young for you, mother?"
"I'm not your mother," she answered.
Toghril stared at her, tilted his head to one side, then the other. Then he grabbed her by the hair, his grip so powerful that he managed to get an excrutiating purchase even though her locks were so short.
"Oh," he said, "I think you'd better be."
Cheung Leung rushed near. "My Lord, a filial son doesn't lay hands on his mother."
"She says she isn't my mother."
"But you believe otherwise, do you not?"
Toghril snarled: ''There's no good way to deal with her. If I try to reassure her, she sides with the donkeys. If I'm glad to see her, she pretends she's someone else. If I kill her she…just…comes…back." He gave Lilitu's head a last tug, then let go, adding: "Don't force me to be unfilial!"
She nodded, scalp smarting terribly.
He turned towards the prisoners---the one who wasn't Akbar was a stout Naiman, and Toghril pinched his cheek. "Shigi-Qutuqu! Where were you hiding?"
''We caught him in the stable," said one of Shigi's captors.
''Well, we have a mount for him!" Toghril looked up at Akbar, who was much taller than he was, and said: "Ah, the little noble lad!" He began patting Akbar's face. "Shouldn't have talked, pipsqueak." Moment by moment the blows got harder, until tears were streaming from Akbar's eyes, but through it all, he kept trying to gaze at Lilitu. When at last Toghril stopped smacking him, Akbar breathed: "My betrothed," only to take a punch that laid him out.
Lilitu touched Toghril's back. "Don't kill him," she said.
"For all I know," Toghril snarled over his shoulder, "you're telling me to do the opposite of what you want."
"Then kill him," she said.
He turned. "That is a cheap trick, and quite beneath you, mother."
"What can I say?" she sobbed.
He rubbed his temple. "Do you love him?"
"Yes," she answered.
"That is a lie," he said.
And of course it was.
"Spare him," she said.
"Why? You don't love him."
At that, Akbar wrestled up off the ground, crying: "She does love me! Just look at her!''
"What stupid shit," Toghril said, then told his men: "Conduct him to his noble steed. Shigi too."
The prisoners were tied to their donkeys, which were then backed into the two empty chutes; once the beasts' tails were fastened to the iron ring, all three donkeys and their riders were splashed liberally with oil from those tall red jars.
"I'm not going to watch!" Lilitu cried to Toghril, who was doing some of the splashing.
"Hee-haw!" he replied. "You’d better!"
"My Lord," said Cheung Leung, "A filial son wouldn't---"
"Kill his mother to begin with," Toghril broke in. "If she's going to come back to this world, she'd better toughen up!"
"Really madam," said Cheung Leung to Lilitu, "I'd watch if I were you."
When the captives and their mounts were completely soaked, Toghril roared:
His men just looked round at each other, then back to him, shrugging.
"Torch!" he bellowed again, and a bunch of them went running, returning presently with a surfeit of firebrands. Toghril picked one, waved it about, decided it was satisfactory, then marched back towards the prisoners.
"Any last words?" he demanded.
Madji just groaned.
Shigi-Qutuqu began a song, something about how Tohktamish was the Scourge of God, but swiftly faltered and fell silent, as though he couldn't remember the words.
Akbar strained to look back; as his eyes met Lilitu's, he howled:
"Remember the snakes, my love!"
Lilitu grimaced inwardly. There he was, revelling, despite his imminent horrible doom, in the most dramatic moment of his short life, but even though she knew exactly what he was feeling, she wasn't sharing it with him in the slightest. She did indeed remember the snakes, and the moonlight on the dunes, and his unskillful but successful effort to take her virginity, but no matter how clearly she recalled their sandy labors, it couldn't make her reciprocate his love or wallow in the moment. She didn't want him to die, ached to think about what he was about to suffer, but guessed she could easily have felt just as badly about a total stranger, except, perhaps, for the fact that she felt she should feel much worse.
"Lilitu!" he wailed, voice cracking on a note of pure romance, just before Toghril torched the oil under the donkeys, the flames running right up their legs; once donkeys and riders were completely enveloped, the beasts straining frantically against the lines that bound them to the iron ring, the bandit chief drew a scimitar and sliced all three ropes at once, and the donkeys, braying madly, shot out from between the bars, trailing oily fire, blazing droplets flying from their bodies and splattering the limestone as they raced towards the gap in the bridge.
Lilitu was vaguely aware that Toghril had turned to watch her; ignoring him, she looked numbly ahead, and had the impression that Akbar's donkey dropped from sight first.
Later that evening in the fortress, sitting at Toghril's right hand, she suffered through a raucous banquet in which there was a great deal of throwing things and copulation with captive women. Worst of all, Toghril was watching her closely, and presently he asked:
"Why did you come back?"
"What can I say?" she replied.
"That's just like you," he said. After taking several gulps of wine, he continued: "I really love you, mother. I'm happy you're back, believe me. But you should've trusted me. It's only fair for me to humble you a bit."
"I feel quite humble," she said.
"It's only fair," he replied.
After a time he retired to his chamber with an eastern-looking girl about Lilitu's age, telling Lilitu (much to her relief) to wait in the hall. By the sound of it, he started in on the girl virtually the instant the door was closed; Lilitu heard cloth ripping, and the girl crying out, and Toghril grunting, in addition to a rapid slapping that Lilitu knew from experience was the sound of a belly striking buttocks. Lilitu hoped and expected the bandit would exhaust himself on the girl, then just go to sleep, but a good deal of time passed, and he was still battering those cheeks. Lilitu began to wonder: was he going to do her too? It was impossible to put anything past him. He was capable of matricide; why not incest as well? Granted, in most instances, the latter would've preceded the former, but that was all beside the point, and she was forced to ask herself a question:
What are you willing to do?
The thought of the ogre pumping away at her was intensely repugnant, and she didn’t know if she had it in her to submit. She had done a number of things with Oded and Sayida that had struck her as somewhat repulsive at first, but she'd always had Sayida's word that she’d learn to enjoy them, and she couldn't imagine her cousin recommending sex with Toghril, on any ground other than survival. That was, however, the very ground on which sex with Toghril might not only be advisable, but necessary. Lilitu didn't know how much she valued her life anymore; even so, the time was fast approaching, apparently, when she would have to decide its worth.
Sooner or later, even if you co-operate, he's just going to get around to killing you, just like he killed his mother. There's just no point in letting him have you…
She could, of course, try to escape, but she was between two guards; when she started off without an explanation, they demanded one, then dragged her back when she couldn't deliver.
That left suicide, but she didn't really have the means. She knew you couldn't get anywhere by holding your breath, because you just started breathing when you blacked out; she considered trying to snatch a blade from one of the guards, doubted she'd get very far with that.
They'll kill you…
But didn't she want to die? When it came right down to it, she really wasn't very happy with the idea of suicide. Perhaps it would be better, after all, to let them do the dirty work.
Then again, she thought, They might be afraid…you're the boss's mother after all…
She paused, wondering what point she was trying to make to herself. Should she really try for a knife because the guards would allow her to kill herself, something she didn't want to do?
You'd never get the knife anyway, she decided. And even if you did, they wouldn't let you do anything with it. And then they might tell Toghril, and he'd kill you. Might even rape you first, and there you'd be, just as raped and dead as you would've been if you hadn't made a grab for the knife…
But that still left the question: what was she willing to do? She considered praying for guidance, guessed she wouldn't receive any. Nadjibullah had made a big impression on her, even though he'd seemed, at first, to have been dispatched by two arrows straight from heaven. But a lot of other people---mostly believers, undoubtedly---had also died that day. And God's aim had certainly been off with Toghril…
She tried to fetch up something from her readings in philosophy to light the way, but to her knowledge, none of the great minds of the past had devoted any thought to the question of whether or not she should have sex with Toghril or allow herself to be killed. Perhaps it was her own fault---she'd never read much moral philosophy, concentrating instead on matters concerning knowledge and the forms. And natural philosophy, of course, although she wished she could put the whole subject of physical processes entirely out of her mind at the moment.
In the end, she decided to keep it all very simple. She valued her life, and she decided she didn't care why. True, that meant she might have to let Toghril have her, but…there might be nothing whatsoever to be done about it.
However, she told herself, You must try to escape if he leaves you the least little opening. And if you can get some of your own back, you'll take that chance too…
Behind the door, Toghril had still been banging away; she winced to think of how sore that poor girl must be getting, seeing as she was almost certainly not in a very lubricious state.
Suddenly Toghril let out a weird ululating sound; the smacking stopped, and Lilitu guessed he had finished. But after a few moments, the slapping started up again, and he added: "Uh! Uh! Uh! Uh! Uh!"
Smirking, one of the guards nudged Lilitu, saying softly:
"Now he's done."
"Mother," came Toghril's voice through the door.
"Better get in there," the guard told Lilitu.
She took a deep breath and opened the door, but stopped on the threshold; a shove between the shoulderblades pushed her across, and the door closed behind her.
Ahead of her the captive girl was crouching naked on a bed, cheek against the covers, face turned towards Lilitu, desperation and terror gleaming in her eyes; Toghril was slumped over the girl's back, apparently still attached, even more hideous nude, which was both surprising and no surprise at all. His eyes appeared closed; Lilitu hoped he might have drifted off. But then he said sleepily:
"Quick, before I wake up."
"What?" she asked.
She tried to recall it.
"What are you waiting for?" he asked.
"Does it go like---"
"Don't give me that," he said. "You made it up.''
She sang what she thought she remembered.
"Again,” he said, sounding sleepier.
She repeated it.
Sounding muzzier than ever, he said: "Again."
She complied once more, then paused, waiting to hear if he wanted it a fourth time, but no more commands were forthcoming.
Not daring to go back out, she sat down on her heels, hands on knees, eyeing the object of Toghril's lust, the girl looking back at her with an indescribable expression. Lilitu wondered when the poor thing would work up the nerve to crawl out from under, but when Lilitu curled up on the floor and went to sleep, the girl was still crouching there---
---And was still in the same position, wide awake with Toghril on her back, when Lilitu woke the next day.
Lilitu was just thinking that perhaps she should look and see if the guards were still outside when there came a knock, and Cheung Leung let himself in. Smiling, he bowed to her, said, "Madam," then turned towards Toghril, saying cheerily: "Time to wake up, My Lord!"
"Is it?" Toghril said in a muddy voice.
"Indeed, My Lord. The sun is shining, but it's not too hot…in short, a perfect day for a spectacle."
Toghril groaned, raising himself off the girl's back, a long string of drool running from his lower lip to her spine. He crawled off the bed. Lilitu couldn’t help looking at his equipment---he was hung like a horse, albeit one whose genitalia had been partially rearranged by the passage of other horses.
"My head hurts," he said. "And my mouth tastes bad.''
"I'm very sorry to hear that, My Lord," Cheung Leung replied. Then he told the girl: "You can go now."
Pulling a blanket over herself, she darted from the room.
"She hates me," Toghril muttered.
"You should put your clothes on, My Lord,'' Cheung Leung said.
Toghril began to dress himself. "Did you set up the parasols and chairs?"
"I'll see to it shortly. You’ll have a magnificent view.”
Toghril looked over at Lilitu. "You're going to love this, mother."
"What?" she asked apprehensively. "More donkey-races?"
Cheung Leung said: "Nothing of the sort, madam, I assure you."
"Let's get something to eat," Toghril said.
Toghril issued commands to men he passed along the way, some rushing off, others attaching themselves to the troop; it got to be quite a mob. But to Lilitu's relief, the morning repast proved a far more subdued affair than the feast had been the night before. True, the sight of Toghril ripping into large pieces of flatbread with his jagged broken teeth, and the snarling sounds he made as he did it, made Lilitu lose her appetite, but no one was throwing anything, and there was no copulation, and that was all indisputably for the better.
Cheung Leung left with a number of men before Toghril had finished; when at last the chieftain led his troop out behind the fortress, a row of seats had been set up on the edge of the cliff, and fellows were waiting with folded parasols. Lilitu looked across at the fortress on the other pillar. The sun was just rising over the uppermost parapet, between two spires; the abandoned stronghold remained a vast violet silhouette against its light. She had a queasy impression that it was leaning slightly forward.
As Toghril approached the men with the parasols, they opened them out, the umbrellas making loud thudding noises as they blossomed. He dropped into one of the seats; three of the parasol-men rushed to place themselves behind his chair, and when they all knocked into each other, he promptly located himself in another seat, whereupon another parasol-scramble ensued, this one resulting in at least one broken umbrella before the right to keep the sun off the boss was firmly established.
With a glare and a grunt, he shooed one of his lieutenants out of the chair on his right, motioned Lilitu into it, then turned to Cheung Leung, who was hovering behind with his hands folded inside his silk sleeves, a small horn hanging from his hip on a baldric.
"Everything set?" the chieftain asked.
"Yes, My Lord," Cheung Leung replied.
"What are you going to do?" Lilitu asked.
"Don't you like surprises?" Toghril asked her. "You did when you were alive."
"Perhaps I should explain, My Lord," Cheung Leung said. "After all, we don't want to alarm your mother unduly---"
Cheung Leung began: "Now then, madam. Are you aware that combustion---that is to say, burning--- generates gas?"
Lilitu nodded. "The Achaean philosopher Attalicles, in his Physics, argued precisely that."
"Is that so?"
"It is," Lilitu said…there was, of course, no reason why someone from Sung should’ve known anything about Attalicles.
"In any case," Cheung Leung went on, "certain mixtures, when burned, generate gas so quickly that a great deal of pressure can be exerted, particularly if the mixture in question is tightly contained---"
"You're the one putting out gas," Toghril broke in.
"I shall try to speak more concisely---"
Cheung Leung looked a bit flustered, but continued: "What it comes down to is this. I've invented a formula…there are many exciting applications. However---" here he sighed, "Much to my sorrow, the people of my homeland, narrow-minded as they are, have steadfastly refused to see the potential for anything beyond vulgar noisemaking---"
"Do you need to hear any of this, mother?" Toghril asked.
"I don't know," Lilitu answered.
"Lord Toghril, on the other hand," Cheung Leung said, a note of irritation in his voice, "is a man of wisdom. He asks, why should I waste my time with petty flashes and little feeble bangs, when my servant can make heaven and earth change places?"
"That is indeed my attitude, Leung," Toghril said. "So get to it.''
"I've covered everything of import," Cheung Leung said. "Does madam have any questions?"
"What are you going to do?" Lilitu asked.
Cheung Leung opened his mouth, but Toghril said impatiently:
"Give the signal."
"Yes, My Lord," Cheung Leung said, and took a long rolled-up tube---it appeared to be made of vellum---from a man standing nearby; there was a tightly twisted cord sticking up out of the top.
"You're sure it's going to fall the right way?" Toghril asked.
Is he talking about that tube? Lilitu wondered. Is he going to throw it off the cliff?
"Absolutely, My Lord," Cheung Leung.
"And you had enough powder?"
"That was quite a load of sulphur we took from that one caravan. And with those manure-drying racks you permitted me to set up at---"
"Proceed," Toghril broke in.
Cheung Leung snapped to attention. "First, the warning-signal."
He blew three blasts on his trumpet.
Three answered from the gulf.
Lilitu tried to look over the edge. She couldn't lean far enough to see the side of the column she was sitting on, although the pillar opposite was visible top to bottom, and she had a very clear sense of the way in which its vertical lines converged upon its base---in her readings, she'd run across the term perspective, and believed this was an example of it. The pool between the columns was exceedingly unclouded, submerged rocks about its rim fully visible through the water…there was a dark hollow in the middle. White birds were moving across the surface, wakes widening behind them. She made out a number of men on the debris at the foot of the far column; one had a lit torch.
"I'm waiting," Toghril said.
Lilitu looked back at Cheung Leung. He signalled. A man stepped up to him, shielding a lit taper with a cupped hand. Cheung Leung thrust the rolled-up tube towards it, kindling that twisted string; expecting the string to burn---merely---Lilitu was startled when the end burst into exuberant flame, hissing and sparking.
Ducking beneath the fringe of a parasol, stepping between Toghril's chair and Lilitu's, Cheung Leung stepped to the edge of the cliff and extended the tube at arm's length; the string burned all the way in. Then, fetching a little delighted gasp from Lilitu, who’d never seen anything like this before, the tube suddenly vented a series of small flaming balls, which, trailing white smoke, shot far out into the void before arcing downwards and burning out.
She leaned forward again. That tiny little man with the torch lit something down there, one of those sparky strings maybe, only really long…the combustion was following a definite route, anyway, snaking steadily up the slope and to the right, between the rocks, towards the face of the pillar, as the man who’d lit it ran off with his fellows, round the south shore of the pond, towards the column Lilitu was on. Reaching the top of the debris-slope, the little sputtering fire went right into the cliff through a big crack that climbed some distance up the wall before curving out of sight to the south…"When's it going to go off?" Toghril asked.
"The fissure's quite long," Cheung Leung said, "necessitating an equally long fuse---"
Lilitu had never heard the word fuse before, but guessed immediately that he was referring to the burning string.
“---And for safety's sake," he went on, "I used a slow one."
Toghril snorted: "For safety's sake---"
He broke off as a tremendous gust of smoke and stone fragments belched southward from the column's base, into the trees; it was a split-instant before Lilitu heard the blast, a murderous thundercrack that made her chest vibrate and her ears smart and had her jumping up from her seat; suddenly every crevice and hole in the column opposite seemed to eject a shower of dust and fluttering birds. Great chips of stone flaked away from the black-and-red surface, revealing virgin limestone, very white. Farther up, gaps crumbled open in the walls of the fortress; a round tower fell sideways from the corner of the tallest, narrowest, innermost keep, smashing down through a wall below, raising a great cloud of dust.
Lilitu thought it a very impressive display.
But as the last flake tumbled, and the dust began to settle in the fortress opposite, Toghril said petulantly:
"It's still standing."
Cheung Leung said: ''There were two charges…it would seem one didn’t detonate…''
''Did you make shitty powder?'' Toghril demanded.
But before Cheung Leung could deny that he'd done such a thing, that other charge, for whatever reason, finally elected to explode. A smaller jet of fire and rock-fragments shot out towards the palms, but most of this blast expressed itself westward, towards Lilitu's column---a damburst of fire erupted from beneath the overhang, pushing a vast quantity of shattered stone before it, into the pond. A second thundercrack, louder even than the first, reached her ears; she covered them too late, blinking. A huge cloud of fire and smoke billowed upwards between the pillars.
"That's better!" Toghril shouted. Ears ringing, Lilitu barely heard him.
Cheung Leung shook his head desperately.
"What's not better about it?" Toghril roared, as another tower broke loose and fell in the fortress across the way. Then the smoke rose up in front of the stronghold, completely obscuring it.
"Departure would be prudent!" Cheung Leung shrieked, dashing between Lilitu and Toghril, not ducking far enough under the parasol to keep a silken skullcap from being knocked from his head.
Lilitu grew aware of a low rumbling, nowhere near as loud as the blasts which had preceded it, but even more terrible, perhaps, for its sullenness.
She looked ahead, into the smoke. It was already being swept from the gap by the breeze; growing ever clearer with each passing moment (because it was coming ever closer through the miasma), the fortress on the other side was actually leaning forward now, the whole enormous mass of it, every wall and tower, almost as though the whole column below, the side of its base blown out, were tipping sideways across the gap---
Which was, of course, exactly what was happening.
Lilitu's chin lifted; the sun's warmth leaving her skin, she watched awestruck as the fortress kept tilting into view above her, covering her in shadow, its spires, deformed by their own descent, bending back even as they fell forward, trailing dust. Tens of thousands of cracks spread through the whole thing, as if every single piece of limestone were separating from every other one, even though the fortress continued to retain a certain amount of its shape
She turned; seizing the arms of the chair in front of her with both hands, she hurled the seat sideways out of her way, only to trip over and into a fallen parasol, its struts snapping beneath her weight. She screamed and wrestled about, her flailings causing the parasol's pole to slap her a couple of times as she tried to rise.
Then Toghril rushed up, snatched her out of the umbrella, and ran off with her in his arms---
"Turn around!" Lilitu cried, thinking he'd have to be faster going forward. "What are you doing?"
He didn't seem to hear; she could barely hear herself for all the rumbling, though it occurred to her that he might simply be unwilling to wrench his gaze off the disaster he'd commissioned.
Indeed, he was getting his show and then some. The word barely described the disintegrating, toppling mountain of masonry. Dust was boiling out of it now. Shadowy masses in the churning cloud, bent farther and farther by their own terrible inertia, towers and walls had almost been rendered formless; the storm swept lower and lower, darkening as it cut off more and more of the light.
But Toghril still refused to turn. To Lilitu's amazement, he was retreating at tremendous speed, faster than most men could run forward, although she continued to believe that he could've done better if only he would've turned around. But that was, evidently, too much to ask. She wondered if the lunatic was enjoying himself, thought she heard laughter. She twisted, looked up at that horrendous one-time face. His mouth was wide open, snaggly cracked teeth grinning---he was laughing all right.
Suddenly a great wash of sunlight swept over him; he'd carried her out from under the cloud.
But the danger was far from over. New sounds cut through the rumble, a hard, harsh clattering, and a kind of enormous slither; she looked back to see that the rock-storm had struck the edge of the column at last, whatever remained of the fort's structure flattening out upon contact with the tablelike surface, the masonry continuing forward on momentum, an onrushing flood of sliding limestone flakes.
Then came a jolt that seemed to rise up through Toghril out of the ground, and he fell over with her on top of him. Lilitu had, of course, no time or inclination to speculate on the nature of the shock---suffice it to say that the toppling column had struck an instant or two after the debris, crashing into the cliff some distance below. A haze of dust had already lifted from the limestone tabletop in advance of the onrushing rubble; the jolt thickened it, but even so it remained thin and watery compared to the great seething smoke rolling through it…
Lilitu scrambled up and over Toghril, but astoundingly, he appeared on her left a second later, rushed out ahead of her; then two long tongues of rubble, the remains of two flattened spires, slid up on either side of her with an uncannily fluid sliding motion, the one on her left very close. The air filled with dust. A blurry shadow, Toghril slowed, reached out towards her with one of his long arms---
And went down on his face with rubble simply gushing over his back, burying him.
Stones chewing at her ankle and the side of her calf, Lilitu veered to the side, coughing, pulling the neck of her shift up and clapping it over her mouth to screen out the dust.
Not far ahead she could make out the fortress that had been built to replace the one she was outrunning; the curtain wall had caved backwards into the courtyard in several places. She was making for one of the gaps, but all at once a small herd of donkeys cut her off, driving her off to the right, and she found herself up against a part of the wall that was still standing. Rock bouncing against her legs, she smashed a fist against the barrier, swore and turned, fully expecting to see another wall, this one moving, about to catch her and crush her as it had caught and crushed Toghril.
But the only place where the rubble was still flowing was off on the right, where a tongue of debris knocked yet another gap in the curtain wall; after that, the stones that had once been the other fortress had spent themselves. The wind came up; dust cleared to reveal a field of broken masonry, relatively flat, from her toes to the edge of the summit. Coughing and spitting, lungs aching, she let the cloth drop away from her mouth.
Like her, a number of men were cowering against the remains of the wall; one of them was Cheung Leung.
Feeling as though there were many layers of cloth wrapped about her ears, Lilitu heard the muffled sound of shifting masonry, and looked to see, about twenty yards in front of her, something moving under the limestone flakes. Moments later a man wrenched himself up into view, debris raining from his back. Even before he straightened and the dust cleared, she knew it was Toghril. He shook his head, wiped his eyes, and cried:
"Hah! Now that was something!"
"My Lord!" Cheung Leung cried, and picked his way across the rubble towards the chieftain with the other men. But Toghril burst out from among them and staggered over to Lilitu, caked with dust but not looking particularly the worse for wear, aside from a few cuts on the arms.
"Mother!" he said.
"Are you all right?"
"What about you?"
He thumped himself on the chest, hawked out a bolt of red sputum, then declared:
Cheung Leung had followed him with the others.
"My Lord," he said, "I'm so relieved---"
Toghril rounded upon him. "You said it would fall straight south."
"I'm dreadfully sorry, My Lord. There was some weakness in the stone that I didn't anticipate---"
"You should have anticipated this weakness," Toghril said.
Cheung Leung stared at him intently, clearly trying to read his mood. It was a second or two before he bowed and said: "Yes, of course, My Lord---"
Growing suddenly pale in the face, he broke off.
Up until that point, Toghril had struck Lilitu as fairly ebullient; he had, after all, been literally buried in spectacle. But almost as though he were a great savage dog inflamed by the smell of fear, his demeanor had changed completely---even from behind, it was clearly apparent in the way he was holding his shoulders and the tilt of his head.
"What about my mother?" he growled.
"What about her, My Lord?" Cheung Leung asked.
"What if you'd killed her?" Toghril demanded.
Cheung Leung said nothing, keeping his head down, making chopping motions above it with his right hand; Lilitu had seen Sung travellers apologize that way, at Sawaliyeh.
"She came within an inch of her life!" Toghril roared.
"Sorry, sorry!" Cheung Leung answered, bowing even lower, tugging on his ears now. Toghril began to reach for the axe at his belt.
Without even realizing what she was doing, Lilitu got between him and Cheung Leung.
"No!" she cried---
Took one look at the expression on Toghril's mangled face---
Then started right back where she'd come from.
But a feeble plaintive pluck from Cheung Leung stopped her.
Why did you stop? she asked herself, but remained for some reason frozen in place.
"Mother," Toghril gritted.
"Son," she said, turning.
Screwing up her nerve, she said, very quickly: "Cheung Leung is a faithful and valuable servant."
"Get out of the way," Toghril replied.
"He was just obeying your orders."
"He should've known!"
"It was an honest mistake, surely."
"Honest my ass."
"And besides," she said. "If I'm already dead---''
''---He couldn't have done me any harm."
Toghril sulked in silence for a few moments. Then, sounding very like a five year old boy, he said: "I want to kill him!"
"For no reason at all?"
He exhaled through his flattened nostrils.
"Who'll knock things over for you?" Lilitu asked. "Arrange such wonderful spectacles?"
He took his hand from the haft of his axe.
And just at that moment, a Kadjafi, smelling most grievously of sweaty horse, came dashing up.
"My Lord," he said.
Toghril ignored him, staring at Lilitu.
"My Lord," the Kadjafi said, "The Khan's sent a full division--"
Toghril looked at him at last. "What?"
"Ten thousand men at least. I saw them with my own eyes."
"Two days, due south. I killed three horses on the way---"
Toghril grunted. "We'd best be off," he said, and went to speak to some of the other men.
Lilitu turned to Cheung Leung, letting out a long exhalation.
Obviously deeply shaken, he put palm to fist, bowing in gratitude. "A thousand thanks, madam," he said.
It turned out that a good half of the replacement fortress had collapsed, but that didn't matter much; the chamber with the furnishings piled up in it had caved in, but the stable and the strongroom had remained intact, and virtually everyone had been outside watching the demolition. As Nasruddin's treasure and various supplies were loaded onto packanimals, Toghril sent word to the camp down below that the time had come to pull out; afterwards, he supervised a donkey drive, herding the asses that had survived the morning's festivities over the side of the mesa. Then he led the way down from the summit.
On the eastern side, the other column was leaning against the cliff, an awesome sight, the road passing some distance underneath it. Dozens of limestone slabs had dropped onto the ramp, but it remained negotiable---as Toghril began to thread his way through, Lilitu fell back with Cheung Leung, letting some of Toghril's lieutenants go ahead.
"Once again, Madam," Cheung Leung whispered, "my gratitude is inexpressible---"
She smiled. "No need to express it then. Where are we headed, do you think?"
"North," he said. "Into the Rohaz forest, if the Khan's men don't catch up. There are some hills, and Toghril's got a cave where he stores his loot. But we'll keep on after that, to sell the slaves."
"The Black Anarites."
"Ah," said Lilitu. Even though she'd been so young, her memory of that wizard's duel remained very fresh.
"They control the Great Slave Road," he said. "Across the Andohar Mountains."
"They have a castle, don't they?"
"A number of them."
"But isn't there a really big one?"
He nodded. "Khaur Al-Jaffar."
"Weren't they like the Sharajnaghim, originally? Holy wizards?"
"Yes. But their order broke up. They got involved in the slave trade, and some of them wanted to stop. But the ones who became the Black Anarites decided they were simply making too much money. Most people think they're called 'black' because they're black magicians, but that isn't it--- wasn't to begin with, at least. It was because of all the blacks they sell to the Tarchans up North."
"Their leader's named Moujiz, right?"
"Some say he's the most powerful sorcerer who's ever lived," Cheung Leung said. "I've spoken with him. Very frightening fellow. Although---he's not unreasonable, oddly enough. I suppose he doesn't have to be. Always gives Toghril a good price. And---he's very knowledgeable about chemistry. Made some suggestions regarding my formula. Good ones, about how to purify the ingredients. But he didn't seem to be interested in pursuing it himself. He has projects of his own."
"Did you ever see him use magic?"
"On some slaves."
"Did he kill them?"
"Oh yes. They were too sick to bother with. He had a little egg-shaped metal device, did something to it, tossed it into the pit where they were being held. A moment later, the hole was completely filled up with spikes, side to side, all of them radiating from a single point, which I suppose was that egg-thing. As the spikes came out of it, I think it must've been thrust up off the floor---anyway, the slaves were run through in scores of places, and up off the floor too. Incredible."
Lilitu said, "But Moujiz isn't unreasonable?"
"I can't imagine he'd ever decide you were his dead mother, for example."
"I still don't want to meet him," Lilitu said.
"Did I imply that you might?" Cheung Leung asked.