‘The heat, perhaps,’ she said, passing a slow hand across her eyes.

‘Sit here,’ he said, pointing at his marble bench. ‘It’s the coolest place in all of Jiroch.’ He smiled sardonically. ‘Which isn’t saying all that much, I’ll grant you.’

She sat on the bench, and Flute clambered up beside her

‘Well, Sparhawk,’ Voren said, clasping his friend’s hand, ‘what brings you back to Jiroch so soon? Did you leave something behind, perhaps?’

‘Nothing I can’t live without,’ Sparhawk replied dryly

Voren laughed. ‘Just to show you how good a friend I am, I won’t tell Lillias that you said that. Hello, Kurik. How’s Aslade?’

‘She’s well, my Lord Voren.’

‘And your sons? You have three, don’t you?’

‘Four, my Lord. The last one was born after you left Demos.’

‘Congratulations,’ Voren said, ‘a little late, maybe, but congratulations all the same ’

‘Thank you, my Lord.’

‘I need to talk with you, Voren,’ Sparhawk said, cutting across the pleasantries, ‘and we don’t have much time’

‘And here I thought this was a social visit.’ Voren sighed.

Sparhawk let that pass. ‘Has Vanion managed to get word to you about what’s been going on in Cimmura?’

The lightly ironic smile faded from Voren’s face, and he nodded seriously ‘That’s one of the reasons I was surprised to see you,’ he said. ‘I thought you were going to Borrata. Did you have any luck there?’

‘I don’t know how lucky it was, but we found out something we’re trying to track down.’ He clenched his teeth together. ‘Voren,’ he said darkly, ‘Ehlana was poisoned.’

Voren stared at him for a moment, then swore. ‘I wonder how long it’d take me to get back to Cimmura,’ he said in an icy voice. ‘I think I’d like to rearrange Annias just a bit. He’d look much better without his head, don’t you think?’

‘You’d have to stand in line, my Lord Voren,’ Kurik assured him. ‘I know at least a dozen other people with the same idea.’

‘Anyway,’ Sparhawk went on, ‘we found out that it was a Rendorish poison and we’ve heard of a physician in Dabour who might know of an antidote. That’s where we’re going now’

‘Where are Kalten and the others?’ Voren asked. ‘Vanion wrote that you had him and some knights from the other orders with you.’

‘We left them in Madel,’ Sparhawk replied. ‘They didn’t look or act-very Rendorish. Have you heard of a Doctor Tanjin in Dabour?’

The one who’s reputed to have cured the king’s brother of some mysterious ailment? Of course. He might not want to talk about it, though. There are some shrewd guesses going around about how he managed those cures, and you know how Rendors feel about magic.’

‘I’ll persuade him to talk about it,’ Sparhawk told him.

‘You might wish that you hadn’t left Kalten and the others behind,’ Voren told him. ‘Dabour’s a very unfriendly place right now.’

‘I’ll have to manage alone. I sent word to them from Cippria to go back home and wait for me there.’

‘Whom did you find in Cippria that you could really trust enough to carry messages for you?’

‘I went to the abbot of that Arcian monastery on the east side of town. I’ve known him for a long time.’

Voren laughed. ‘Is he still trying to conceal the fact that he’s a Cyrinic?’

‘Do you know everything, Voren?’

‘That’s what I’m here for. He’s a good man, though. His methods are a little pedestrian, but he gets things done.’

‘What’s happening in Dabour right now?’ Sparhawk asked. ‘I don’t want to walk in there with my eyes closed.’

Voren sprawled on the grass near Sephrenia’s feet and hooked his hands about one knee ‘Dabour’s always been a strange place,’ he replied. ‘It was Eshand’s home, and the desert nomads think of it as a holy city At any given time there are usually a dozen or so religious factions all fighting with each other for control of the holy places there.’ He smiled wryly. ‘Would you believe that there are twenty-three tombs there, all purporting to be the final resting place of Eshand? I strongly suspect that at least some of them are spurious – unless they dismembered the holy man after his death and buried him piecemeal.’

Sparhawk sank to the grass beside his friend. ‘This is just a thought,’ he said, ‘but could we throw some clandestine support to one of the other factions and undermine Arasham’s position?’

‘It’s a nice idea, Sparhawk, but at the moment there aren’t any other factions. After Arasham received his epiphany, he spent forty years exterminating all possible rivals. There was a blood bath in central Rendor of colossal proportions. Pyramids of skulls dot the desert out there. Finally, he gained control of Dabour, and he rules there with an authority so total that he makes Otha of Zemoch look like a liberal. He has thousands of rabid followers who blindly follow his every lunatic whim. They roam the streets with sun-baked brains and burning eyes, searching for any infraction of obscure religious laws. Hordes of the unwashed and lice-ridden and only marginally human rage through the streets in search of the opportunity to burn their neighbours at the stake.’

‘That’s direct enough,’ Sparhawk said. He glanced at Sephrenia. Flute had dipped a handkerchief into the fountain and was gently bathing the small woman’s face with it. Peculiarly, Sephrenia had her head laid against the little girl’s shoulder as if she were the child. ‘Arasham has gathered an army, then?’ he asked Voren.

Voren snorted. ‘Only an idiot would call it an army. They can’t march anywhere because they have to pray every half-hour, and they blindly obey even the obvious misstatements of that senile old man.’ He laughed harshly ‘Arasham sometimes stumbles over the language which isn’t surprising, since he’s probably at least half baboon – and once, during his campaigns back in the hinterlands, he gave an order He meant to say, “Fall upon your foes,” but it came out wrong. Instead, he said, “Fall upon your swords,” and three whole regiments did exactly that. Arasham rode home alone that day, trying to figure out what had gone wrong.’

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