The Blackgod-2#
Author:J.Gregory Keyes
    XXII The Dreamsnare

    GHE felt a flash of pain and smelled life leaking into the air. He turned, puzzled, to see that one of the soldiers had thrust an arrow into his own eye and was working it deeper even as Ghe watched.

    No. He had been shot in the eye and was merely grasping at the shaft as he died. Even as Ghe realized that, two more soldiers swore at arrows sprouting in the deck next to them.

    The mist had hidden them, but now Ghe could see a half-dozen canoes ranged upstream on the River. All were converging on the barge furiously, each paddled by ten or fifteen barbarians.

    The soldiers knew their jobs and did not remain surprised for more than an instant or two. Within heartbeats, twenty of them were at the bow, a wall of spears and swords, bows twanging behind them. Three men loaded and cranked the catapult. Ghe was just wondering what he should do when his better-than-Human ears detected a clamor aft. Grimly he raced toward the rear of the boat, springing up upon the cabin roofs and crossing them in great strides.

    A boatload of the barbarians swarmed over the brass railing onto the afterdeck; three Nholish soldiers lay beneath their feet, pumping red life onto the planks. Other than barbarians and dead men, there was none to witness Ghe snarl and leap from the roof; two of the invaders managed to shoot him before he was amongst them, but neither shaft gave him pause. He was a panther among dogs.

    The trip up-River had lulled them all. The people in the villages nearest Nhol had been coolly cooperative when they docked for supplies, but the farther away they voyaged from the great city, the more eager were people to see them. At Wun, the governor had thrown them a magnificent banquet, and though Bone Eel seemed bored by it—it was perhaps not sufficient for his jaded standards—Ghe thought it a grand show of hospitality, as did the soldiers. That had been a day ago. The governor had warned them that the Dehshe tribes on the east bank of the River were troublesome, but Ghe had gathered that most real attacks were on the outposts farther south and east.

    But here they were. The impact of his body hurled several of them back, and then he was amongst them, carving at their hearts and lungs with the icicle point of his knife. He used the blade for two reasons. The first was that the soldiers on board the ship did not know his nature, and he did not want them to know. Let them think him a superb fighter—which, in fact, he was and could easily demonstrate. A more salient justification was that he enjoyed the feel of his blade in flesh, the exquisite geometry of cut-and-thrust, and though he could draw their lives from them more easily than he could stab them to death, the latter gave him greater pleasure. It recalled the joy of learning the ways of the Jik, and with that memory came a vague inkling of why he had ever been loyal to the priesthood, though they were so clearly monstrous. They gave him a thing of beauty; the discipline to kill with elegance, with art.

    Of course, he did have the unfair advantage of already being dead. His wounds closed almost as quickly as his enemies made them, for this near the River, the flow of energy through his body was continuous.

    He shattered an instep with a staccato stamp of his foot, plunged his blade through the gaping mouth of the ankle's owner, spun to parry—again, more for pleasure than anything else—a descending blade.

    A flash of metal from his blind spot, and suddenly steel bit into his neck. His neck.

    Ghe's shriek turned gurgle as his head flopped onto one shoulder. The blade had cut almost halfway through. He felt, rather than saw, the enemy arm cock back for a second blow.

    Ghe blew the rest of the barbarians out like candles, reaching frantically for his head. It was already straightening, a weird, familiar tingling setting in. Ghe bit down on another shriek when the halves of his windpipe knitted back; then he nearly collapsed in a fit of trembling. He saw again the face of Hezhi's white barbarian, the demon, cleaving his head off, his life, his remembrance, blowing away on dark winds. Sagging against the rail, he shook like an ancient, palsied man.

    And then his heart exploded. It was more reflex and gravity than design that toppled him from the barge and into the furrow of water behind it. Li, think kindly of my ghost, he thought, for the second time in two lives.

    GHAN heard the sudden explosion of shouts, the twang of bows. He put his writing brush down carefully and approached the door to his cabin. He latched it. It was clear enough to him that the barge was under attack or that some sort of dispute involving most of the crew was coming to a violent resolution. He suspected the former rather than the latter. Though Bone Eel commanded no real respect from the men—he was such a fool—no one seriously questioned his station. And Qwen Shen did a fine job of seeing that he made the correct decisions, anyway, and so kept the men on his side. These were also imperial elite troops, not likely to mutiny under any circumstances—and thus far the voyage had been rather pleasant. Surprisingly so.

    So they were likely being attacked, and likely by Dehshe barbarians—though also he considered that it could be the doing of the governor at Wun. The man, while affable enough on the surface, had a devious countenance when he thought no one was looking, and he seemed more than passing curious about the barge and its purpose. He had certainly not believed their stated reason for going up-River, which from the lips of Bone Eel amounted to no reason at all. What if the governor were in league with the barbarians, hoping to set Wun up as some sort of independent state? Ghan was familiar enough with the history of Nhol and other empires to understand that when an empire was weak—as Nhol was now—such things tended to happen. Or perhaps it was even simpler than that; perhaps the governor had turned pirate.

    Ghan heard the clatter of a door opening and footsteps outside his door. Crouching slowly, so as to make as little sound as possible, he crouched to peer through the keyhole. He saw a figure just crossing from the sunlit hall into the shadow by the door that opened onto the narrow rear deck. That door suddenly swung wide, and a blaze of light flooded through, burned the person into a black silhouette bearing the arcing sliver of a bow in his hand. Through the door, Ghan could just make out another figure on the sunlit deck, leaning heavily against the rail. He thought it was Yen but could not be certain. The first figure raised his bow and fired. Yen—if it was Yen—tumbled over the rail.

    The bowman stepped out onto the deck.

    In the sunlight, Ghan could see that the man was not a barbarian or one of the governor's troops; he was one of the emperor's elite soldiers. Ghan had seen him several times standing watch. His scalp prickled. What was going on? He suddenly reassessed the possibility of mutiny and stepped gently back from the keyhole, realizing that he was holding his breath.

    There came the sound of the outer door closing, then more footsteps, approaching his room. There they paused, and the door strained slightly against the latch.

    By now Ghan was sitting on his bed. He looked up at the ceiling, an exaggerated expression of concern on his face. If the assassin looked through his keyhole, he did not want to be seen studying the door. Rather let him think him an old man, cowering until the battle was over.

    Which, of course, was exactly what he was.

    The footsteps went on. He heard the door to the main deck open. By then, the clamor of battle seemed to have mostly ceased. He heard soldiers barking orders, but no more frantic shouting or screams of pain.

    Ghan's hands were shaking a few moments later when he screwed up the courage to open his door. There was no one in sight, but he could hear several soldiers talking on the rear deck. They must have catwalked around the side of the cabins or across the roof; Ghan had heard much trampling up there since the fighting began.

    As he opened the portal, the entrance to the outer deck swung wide, as well, and for a terrible instant, Ghan thought it was the killer. But, though it was a soldier, it was certainly not the same man.

    “Are you all right?” the man asked hurriedly. “Did any of them get in here?”

    “No,” Ghan replied. “Any of whom!”

    “Barbarians, either Dehshe or Mang. I don't know the difference.”

    “Are they gone?”

    “Yes, or dead.” The man smiled a bit wolfishly. “Took on more than they bargained for, I'd say.”

    Ghan nodded absently. The soldier moved around the cabins, the rest of which were empty. Ghan followed him onto the rear deck.

    “Great River, what happened back here?” the soldier muttered.

    Ghan counted eleven dead men. Three were soldiers, but the rest were barbarians of some sort, dark-skinned, clad in rude leather and felts. He thought that the thick, lacquered wood and leather jackets they wore were probably intended to be armor. Most of them were heavily tattooed with blue unes and circles.

    “Dehshe, I think,” he told the soldier. “I've read that they tattoo their faces—and that the Mang don't.”

    “Well, Dehshe or Mang, they're as dead as dogmeat,” the soldier observed unnecessarily. He rolled one over. “This one's not even cut.” The corpse in question stared at Ghan with vast surprise and horror.

    Ghan realized that he was going to be sick an instant before he actually was, and so he made it to the rail in time not to add more noisome fluids than blood to the deck. The soldier, probably embarrassed for him, left. The other three, having completed their inspection, moved on, too, leaving him mercifully alone. After he was done heaving, Ghan stayed crumpled on his knees, unwilling to turn back to the corpses, afraid that he would choke out his very stomach if he did. His chest ached from the unusual action of die muscles there, and he took deep breaths, hoping thus to soothe himself. Watching the boiling gash of wake, he tried to pretend that the whole nightmare would be over soon.

    Though, of course, he knew it was just beginning.

    It was as he rose to leave that he saw a hand emerge from the water and reach weakly for the barge. It clawed at the side, failed to find purchase, and fell away again. Ghan furrowed his brow; a mooring rope lay no more than an armspan from him, already knotted through an eye on deck. But was this friend or foe? As if he had any friends on this ship. Fingers showed again, grasping more weakly.

    Ghan fumbled for the heavy rope. A corpse lay half upon it, and he had to shove the still-warm body aside. He pushed the coil beneath the rail, and it unspooled into the River with a muted splash. Ghan then picked up one of the fallen swords, thinking that if the man in the water were an enemy, he would merely sever the rope. He realized—too late—that the sword was so heavy, he might have real trouble doing that.

    It was the first time he had ever held a sword in his life.

    The rope tightened. A face emerged from the water, and Ghan let the blade relax when he saw it was Yen. The boy had an expression of dumbfounded pain on his face. He looked up vaguely at Ghan.

    “Li … ?” he gasped. It was both a question and an imprecation.

    “Come on, boy,” Ghan urged. “I don't have the strength to help you. But you've done the hardest part.” He remembered the archer, certain now that it was Yen who had been shot. He felt a sinking in the pit of his stomach as he realized that this was probably all for nothing, that the young man would die regardless. How had he kept up with the barge?

    Yen managed to pull himself to the rail, and Ghan took hold of the man's shirt and leaned back, felt how appallingly weak his grip was. He was not certain that this helped in the slightest, but the younger man flopped up, under the lowest rail, and dragged himself stubbornly onto the deck. Ghan could see the arrow wound now, though the arrow itself was gone. It oozed blood, or some fluid that resembled blood but was darker. He darted his head about, but there was no one aft.

    “Come on. Can you walk? We have to get you to my cabin.” Because the assassin was somewhere on the ship and, when he learned that his job was not complete, would probably wish to finish what he began.

    Yen managed to get to his knees and, by clawing at Ghan's proffered shoulder, to his feet, though he leaned rather heavily. Puffing, Ghan steered him toward the open door of his cabin. He tried to lower him to the floor gently, but the result was that both of them collapsed. Ghan fell awkwardly, his hip slapping painfully against the hardwood floor. The hurt was mind-numbing, and for an instant he believed that he had cracked the bone.

    Outside, he heard several men enter the corridor between cabins. Groaning, he disentangled himself from Yen, crawled on all fours toward the door, and pushed it closed before anyone could come in sight. Then, back to the door, tears of pain in his eyes, he waited for the inevitable shove against it. What story would he tell? He tried to think; the pain was subsiding to a warm numbness. No one tried his door.

    Yen, for his part, coughed. A few flecks of blood came up, and Ghan knew that to be a bad sign. It was thus strange when the boy rose unsteadily to his feet, went to the door, and latched it. When he looked down at Ghan, this time, there was a sharp sense of recognition, and something unreadable flashed across his face.

    “No,” Yen muttered—clearly to himself. “No, I won't.”

    For the first time, Ghan stopped to wonder why he had rescued Yen at all, despite his basic distrust of the man. But the boy was the only one on the barge he really knew. And Hezhi liked him, which surely meant something.

    Yen reached down for him and lifted him off the floor as if he weighed no more than a feather, cradling him like a baby. Ghan tried to protest, but the pain and his exertions had left him without a voice. The bed was soft, wonderful, when Yen laid him in it.

    “Thanks,” he managed to breathe.

    “No, thank you,” Yen answered. “I … may I stay in your cabin for a time?”

    “I think you should,” Ghan replied. “Someone up there is trying to kill you.”

    Yen raised an eyebrow. “You know who it is?”

    “I saw him. I don't know his name.”

    “Really? That's good. That you saw him, I mean.” He sat down and drew his knees up to his chest. His breathing seemed to have evened out.

    “It might be Li, I suppose,” Ghan offered.

    Yen looked startled—no, he was shocked. “What? Why do you say that?”

    “It's the first thing you said, when you came up out of the water.”

    “Oh. No, I… Li was someone I used to know, when I was a boy. I thought you were her for a moment.”

    “She must have been hideously ugly,” Ghan remarked.

    Yen chuckled. “Most found her so,” he said, “though I did not. Funny.” He looked at Ghan with clear eyes. “I believed I had forgotten her. And yet there she is.”

    “Memory is strange,” Ghan said. “There are moments from my boyhood sixty years ago that I recall more vividly than yesterday. As you grow older, you become accustomed to that.”

    “There is no 'older' for me,” Yen mumbled, and Ghan caught the glitter of tears in the dim lantern light.

    Ghan swung his legs toward the edge of the bed, still worried about the ache in his hip, but certain he could walk now.

    “I'll find Lady Qwen Shen. There must be someone on board who has medical knowledge.”

    Yen shook his head vigorously. “No, let it be. I'm growing stronger each moment.”

    “Let me see your wound, then.”

    “You won't see much.”

    “What do you mean?” But Ghan felt a sharp jab of premonition. It turned into a pain in the center of his chest, and he clutched at it, astonished by the sudden force beneath his sternum. The room shuddered. Somewhere, inside the maelstrom of pain and fear, he knew he was about to die.

    But then Yen quietly said “No,” as he had before, and the ball of pain in his chest was released. A sweet breath surged into his lungs, and another.

    “I'm sorry,” Yen said. “You didn't deserve that. I—”

    “What are you jabbering about?“ Ghan snarled, pain and relief suddenly churning into anger.

    “Listen to me, Ghan. I wasn't lying when I said you and I were Hezhi's only hope. We are, and that is more certain to me now than ever. The emperor gave this expedition into my hands, do you understand? Not Bone Eel's.”

    “Yes, yes. That much is clear. You and Qwen Shen control this expedition.”

    Yen nodded grimly. “So I am betrayed by the emperor or more likely the priesthood. Possibly both.”

    “I don't understand.”

    Yen sighed. “I'm not certain I do, either. Have you explained to anyone else about our destination? Does anyone else but myself know even generally where we are bound?”

    “The Lady Qwen Shen knows as much as you do. No one knows more.”

    “Then they must feel certain they can get the information from you. They don't want to risk me because they can't control me.”

    Ghan realized that Yen no longer seemed as if he was in pain at all. He had risen, begun pacing furiously about the cabin, though he kept his voice low, raspy.

    “I saw your wound,” Ghan said, articulating each word with great care.

    “You are the greatest scholar I know,” Yen said. He stopped pacing, and Ghan could see that his face was nearly drained of color. “Probably the greatest scholar in Nhol. And so you must tell me what I am, Ghan.” He reached to his throat and unbraided the silly-looking scarf he always wore, let it drift to the deck. Ghan stared, frowning for an instant, before what he saw made itself understood. Yen turned slowly, to help him.

    Another shudder touched his chest, just a light caress, but Ghan thought he knew now where the pain came from, what it threatened.

    “L-let me think,” he gasped, stammering for the first time since his eleventh birthday, eyes fixed on the impossible scar.

    “Take your time,” Yen said.

    THERE was a rap at the door. Ghan, deep in furious thought, looked up at Yen. Yen placidly replaced the scarf on his horribly scarred neck and went to the door.

    Their visitor was Bone Eel, dressed handsomely in blue turban and matching robe. Ghan caught the gleam of steel beneath the robe, however. Bone Eel had apparently been moved to don a cuirass, at least.

    “Ah, there you both are,” he said, sounding delighted. ”I only wanted to make certain you had both weathered our recent bit of trouble. Very exciting, wouldn't you say?”

    “Oh, indeed,” Yen answered.

    “Master Yen, your clothes are wet.”

    “True. Unfortunately, as I rushed to defend the barge, I stumbled and fell overboard.”

    “No! That's dreadful.”

    “It was. Happily, one of the mooring lines hadn't been tied up properly, and I managed to get hold of it. Otherwise, the boat might have left me behind with those barbarians.”

    Bone Eel smiled happily. “There wouldn't have been many to bother about, I assure you. We killed most of them, I'm happy to report, and the others will think long and hard about ever attacking an imperial vessel again.”

    “That's good to hear.”

    “Master Ghan? All is well with you?”

    Ghan tried to focus his thoughts on the lord's demented patter. It was difficult. It was very much like sitting near a fantastically poisonous viper; the viper had struck, playfully, once, just to show him its speed, leaving him to wonder whether the viper would strike him, or Bone Eel—or not at all.

    “Well enough,” Ghan tried to snap. “Though I would be better—far better—if I had never been included in this ridiculous mission.” His tension loosened, just a bit, as he warmed to playing himself. ”I think your charter has been well satisfied. We have sailed to Wun and 'points beyond,' and I think it's time we pointed the nose of this scow back down-River, to civilization.”

    “Now, Master Ghan,” Bone Eel soothed. “One day up-River of Wun is hardly 'points beyond.' I think young Yen here would agree with that.”

    “I do,” Yen confirmed.

    “I never asked to be included on this trip, however,” Ghan acidly retorted. ”If I had—”

    “Master Ghan, I've heard this objection from you before, several times, and I say what I said then. It is the emperor's wish that you chronicle this voyage, and so chronicle it you will. Now, I'm sorry for all of this unpleasantness, but the barge was never in any serious danger. We repelled all boarders and lost only seven men in doing so. Those are remarkably small losses, as I'm sure you know. Now, I must see to things, and knowing you are well, I do so without concerns for your health.” He made as if to leave and then stuck his head back in and said, “Try to be more cheerful, Master Ghan. It is good for digestion.” Then the noble left, closing the door behind him.

    “Yes,” Yen repeated. “Try to be more cheerful.”

    Ghan turned to face him. His speech about going back was contrived, but the outrage he had discovered was real. “You ask me what you are? Don't you know?”

    Yen's show of tears was over; his face was placid, his eyes frozen jewels. But though his lips formed a faint smirk, Ghan thought they lay there uneasily. He had a brief ridiculous thought that Yen had pressed them into shape with his fingers while Ghan's own attention was on Bone Eel. In any event, Yen did not answer except to gesture with his hand for Ghan to go on.

    Ghan shook his head stubbornly. “No. You can kill me if you wish—that much is clear to me—”

    “I can do far worse than kill you,” Yen interposed, sending a chill down the knotted bone of the old man's back.

    Ghan drew on all of his obstinance to continue. “But if you want my help, you must help me. What do you think you are?”

    Yen stared at him poisonously for a moment, and Ghan wondered how this could be the same boy who had seemed so grateful a moment ago, who had so thoroughly charmed Hezhi a year before. But, of course, they probably were not the same.

    “Very well,” Yen snapped. “I call myself a ghoul. That was what we called creatures such as myself when I was a child.”

    “You have been a ghoul since childhood?” Ghan asked, his accustomed sarcasm reasserting itself finally. It was an old friend, comforting to have around, especially in the face of this.

    “Very clever. I am not asking you to be clever in that way, Master Ghan.”

    Ghan was impressed by the gentle force behind the threat, but he had found himself now and wasn't about to retreat to that younger, fearful self. He was Ghan, and Ghan would not cringe.

    “When did you become this?”

    “The day that Hezhi escaped from Nhol. Her white-skinned demon—”

    “Perkar.”

    Yen stopped, and a look of utter hatred crossed his face. “Perkar. He has a name. I knew I should have consulted you long ago.”

    “What did Perkar do?”

    “Cut my stinking head off, that's what.”

    “You were in the River?”

    “In River water, in the sewers. Something else was happening, too, but I don't remember. There was a sort of fountain of colors … no, I don't know what it was. It was next to Hezhi.”

    Ghan pursed his lips. “I have heard of creatures like you, yes. The old texts call them different things. Names aren't important, though. It's what you are, what properties you possess, that matters, and you know that better than I. Are you still Yen at all?”

    “I was never Yen,” the man admitted. “I was … my name is Ghe. I was a Jik.”

    “Set to watch Hezhi.”

    “Yes.”

    Fury brighter than any that Ghan had ever known jolted through him then, and before he knew what he was doing, he had stepped up and slapped the Yen-thing, once, twice. The creature looked at him in real astonishment, but as he pulled back to strike again, anger danced across the young features. Ghan never saw Yen—Ghe?—move at all, but suddenly an iron grip closed on his wrist.

    “Sit down,” Yen hissed. “I deserve that, but sit down before you make me angry. I have much to tell you. Then I must decide whether to kill you or not.” He pushed back, and Ghan was suddenly sitting on the bed again.

    “Now listen, and then counsel me if you can. Because despite it all, our goal is the same. That you must believe. If you don't—well, there is a way I can kill you and keep your memories. But I would rather have you alive.”

    “Why?”

    “Because Hezhi loves you. Because you helped me just now. Because you remind me of someone.”

    Ghan measured his breaths. Would things ever start getting simpler? He understood more about what Ghe must be than he let on. He had a few ideas about how such creatures might be destroyed. So did someone else on the boat, for they seemed to have almost done it. And yet, ultimately, Ghan thought, whatever this thing was, it had been cobbled together from a man. The pieces of it were Human, though perhaps glued together with something both more crude and more powerful than humanity. But Ghe had feelings that could be known, understood. And understanding was a weapon greater than a sword. Especially in this case, when a sword was likely to be completely ineffectual.

    But he had to live. He could not let the Life-Eater swallow him. He had read of that ability, as well.

    “Tell me then,” he said. “If what you say is true—if you really want only to help Hezhi—then I will help you. But you must convince me.”

    “I will,” Ghe returned grimly. “One way or the other.”

    WHEN he finally left Ghan's cabin, Ghe felt more powerful than ever, strong enough to rend the barge in two. Now his power was tripled; the holy strength of the River in his veins, the tethered ghosts at his beck and call—and Ghan, as an ally. He could never fully trust the old man, he knew, but he wasn't without his senses. He could feel that the scholar would cooperate. Certainly he would not go to Bone Eel or Qwen Shen—though little would be lost there, since Qwen Shen already knew what he was. And Qwen Shen had tried to kill him, of that he was certain. Not herself, by her own hand, but she had arranged it nevertheless. Why? Of that he wasn't certain, and he needed to know. Was she a tool of the priesthood or the emperor? He thought the former, or else the attempt on his life would have been far less subtle. He went to his cabin, sponged off, and changed into fresh clothing.

    He found Qwen Shen on deck. She smiled when she saw him coming. “Master Yen. I am happy to see you survived the skirmish.”

    “I am happy to have survived it,” he acknowledged. “Overjoyed that you were not injured.”

    “Well, how very kind of you, Yen. Perhaps I am winning you over, after all.”

    He smiled thinly. “Perhaps.”

    “They say there were many dead barbarians on the after-deck,” she said. “Many with no apparent injuries. No one claims to have killed them, even the ones so expertly carved by knife.”

    Ghe bowed slightly. “It would be better that it remain a mystery. But if rumors develop, it might be hinted that I have been trained to kill with the force of my hands, without need of a knife. Such killing may leave no obvious marks.”

    She sidled toward him. “This is true?” she asked, reaching to touch the callused ridges of his hand. “You can kill with these?”

    “You like that?” Ghe breathed. “That intrigues you?”

    “It exhilarates,” Qwen Shen replied. “It makes me wonder what else such hands are capable of.”

    “Such things may be discovered,” he remarked.

    “Caw they?”

    “They can.” He bowed again. “And now I return to my cabin.”

    Qwen Shen bowed back, but her eyes remained fixed on him. He felt her scrutiny return to the cabins with him. It felt, to him, like an archer sighting along a shaft.

    * * *

    QWEN Shen did not wait long to accept his invitation. He had barely enough time to sit down before someone rapped on his door. Trying to anticipate almost any sort of attack, he swung his door wide, but no darts or flashing blades threatened, no incense or mysterious vapors. Just Qwen Shen. She glided through the door when he opened it, then stopped a few steps inside.

    “Close the door,” she said, and he did, latching it. “Now, then. What shall we doT

    “I have some questions for you. If you do not answer them, I will be forced to—”

    “Hurt me? Will you hurt me, Yen?”

    “What?” He stopped in midsentence.

    “Why not hurt me first!” she cooed, reaching for the scarf at his neck. He reached to stop her, but she shook her head.

    “If you want me to answer your questions, you must cooperate with me—at least a little.”

    Ghe had not expected precisely this, he was certain. If she had been responsible for the attempt on his life, there should be some fear on her part, some worry that he suspected her. After all, he had rebuffed her advances since the voyage began. Why should he extend his own now?

    Perhaps she had some weapon, concealed in her clothing.

    “No,” he said. “You take off your clothes first.”

    She stepped back from him, her grin broadening.

    “Very well,” she whispered. She shuffled farther back and undid the sash on her kilt, then the kilt itself. They crumpled into a pile about her ankles, revealing slim, brown legs, a thick dark scorch of pubic hair, a sensuous curve of belly. With the same enigmatic grin she shucked off her shirt in a single motion, and then she was entirely, beautifully naked.

    But nothing stirred in him, and he knew that it should. Would, if he were the man he had once been rather than a ghoul. She walked carefully toward him, as if balancing on a beam.

    “And now you, my lord.” She pushed him back on the bed, and he numbly allowed her to.

    He lay there, watching her undress him, feeling nothing save the stroking of her hands on his flesh—but his flesh seemed like wood. She flicked her tongue along and around his necklace scar, and a spark fluttered, guttered, and died. He tried then, suddenly frustrated. Could his body not remember this, remember what to do at all? He forgot about what he came here to do, forgot that he had never once desired Qwen Shen. He tried, concentrating on her beauty, her warmth, and the luxuriant softness of her flesh.

    “Ah, Lord Yen,” she sighed. “You are keeping a dream from me. That is the problem. Don't try, don't worry, my love. Just let me know your dream.”

    My dream is to be alive, he thought, but he knew now, for certain, that he was dead. He wondered, dully, if when he was fully certain—when every corner of his brain accepted the truth—he would return to oblivion.

    “I believe I know your dream,” she said softly, coyly. “You dream of a little girl, a little heart-shaped face, a little girl named Hezhi.”

    Anger stirred, if nothing else. What was this woman doing? Besides touching him, that is, here, there…

    “Yes, Hezhi. You can say the name of your dream, can't you?”

    “Shut up!” It exploded out of him before he knew what was happening. She sat astraddle him, and he struck her across the face. Her head snapped back, and she gasped, but instead of shrieking, she laughed. She gazed down at him with a broad, bloody grin.

    “Say it,” she repeated.

    “Hezhi!” he snarled, and struck her again.

    And suddenly he came alive. A jagged bolt of sensation was born in his belly and roared out into his limbs, his groin. In that instant, Qwen Shen ceased to be Qwen Shen, and he recognized who she actually was.

    She was Hezhi. Not the little girl he had known but the woman she would grow to be. She still had the same face, and he was amazed that he hadn't noticed before. The same pointed chin and bottomless black eyes. The breasts pressed so passionately against his own bare skin had been barely hinted at before, the curve of her hip deepened, thickened appropriately with the passage into womanhood. The legs were longer, almost as lean, but had more shape. It was Hezhi as she would be, his lover, his queen. Her flesh met his in ardent rhythm, and in rhythm he passed from passion into forgetftilness. He remembered Hezhi, gripping her lip in her teeth, a look of adoration in her eyes. Then he forgot that, too.

    QWEN Shen was dressing as he awoke. He brushed at the fog that seemed to hang about his brow.

    “What?” he sighed.

    “Shhh. Quiet. You made enough noise earlier.”

    “I don't …” He was naked, his body and the sheets drenched in sweat. Qwen Shen grinned faintly at him around her swollen lip.

    “There, my sweet ghost. You rest.” She fingered her injury. “Next time you should not hit my face. I can explain it this once, but if you continue to leave marks, even Bone Eel may come to the obvious conclusion.” She bent, playfully nipped at his nose, then kissed him more fully on the lips. It seemed a distant thing, but his body still hummed with remembered passion. He could even recall the surge of volcanic pleasure …

    He just couldn't remember doing it.

    “Thank you,” he told her as she approached his door.

    “Save your thanks for later,” she whispered. “There will be another time.” Then she was gone, a patter of footsteps outside of his room.

    With her going, he continued to cool. An image hung tenaciously at the edge of his vision, a young woman's face, one he almost knew …

    But he could not summon it in detail, could not call it into recognition. He felt a slight frustration. It was probably some old lover, called back to his mind by making love with Qwen Shen.

    He had to have made love with her. It was the only thing that made sense. But he couldn't remember, and that meant that the River must still be making him forget things.

    He felt—not quite resentment, but puzzlement at that. He had assumed all along that the memories he lost were parts of him that died before the River salvaged what was left of him and made him into a ghoul. He still felt certain that such was the case, because many of the things he had once known would have aided him in his mission. Not knowing the Jik back in Nhol, for instance; the necessity of killing him brought on by his forget-fulness had hastened the Ahw'en finding him. But if he could still forget things, new things … He shivered at that thought. How much of what he knew was real?

    And floating around that memory was the one he had finally recalled. He knew who Li was, knew that he had loved her and trusted her more than any mortal creature. And in his ignorance, he had slain her. Why would the River allow that?

    The pain of remembering who Li was had come closer to killing him than the sorcerous arrow that impaled his heart, but the remorse, like his passion, was cooled in him now. He wondered if it had cooled on its own, or if that, too, had been forgotten for him.

    In the end it did not matter; all that mattered was finding Hezhi, the rest was mere distraction. His longing for her was almost frantic now, though he was not certain why. He must have her, his daughter, his bride …

    This time, the strangeness of that thought troubled him not at all.

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