‘It might be better if Sephrenia and I went alone,’ Sparhawk replied. ‘You have to stay here, and we don’t. If Tanjin’s under suspicion, visiting him could jeopardize your position here in Dabour.’
‘Stay out of alleys, Sparhawk,’ Kurik growled.
Sparhawk motioned to Flute, and she came to him obediently. He put his hands on her shoulders and looked directly into her face. ‘I want you to stay here with Kurik,’ he told her
She looked at him gravely, then impudently crossed her eyes at him.
‘Stop that,’ he said. ‘Listen to me, young lady, I’m serious.’
‘Just ask her, Sparhawk,’ Sephrenia advised. ‘Don’t try to order her around.’
‘Please, Flute,’ he implored. ‘Will you please stay here?’
She smiled sweetly, put her hands together in front of her, and curtsied.
‘You see how easy it is?’ Sephrenia said.
‘Since we’ve got some time, I’ll fix you all something to eat,’ Perraine said, rising to his feet.
‘Did you know that all your bottles are leaking, Sir Perraine?’ Kurik said, pointing at the dripping vessels hanging from the rafters.
‘Yes,’ Perraine replied. ‘They make a mess on the floor, but they help to keep it cool in here.’ He went to the hearth and fumbled for a few moments with flint, steel and tinder. He built up a very small fire of twigs and twisted chunks of the branches of desert shrubs. Then he set a kettle on the fire, took a large pan, and poured oil in it. He set the pan on the coals and took several chunks of meat out of a covered bowl. As the oil began to smoke, he dropped the meat into the pan. ‘I’m afraid it’s only mutton,’ he apologized. ‘I wasn’t expecting company.’ He spiced the sizzling meat liberally to disguise its flavour, then brought heavy plates to the table. He went back to the fire and opened an earthenware jar. He took a pinch of tea from the jar, dropped it into a mug, and poured hot water from the kettle into the mug. ‘For you, little mother,’ he said, delivering the mug to her with a flourish.
‘How very nice,’ she said. ‘You’re such a dear, Perraine.’
‘I live but to serve,’ he said a bit grandiosely He brought fresh figs and a slab of cheese to the table, then set the smoking pan in the centre of it.
‘You’ve missed your calling, my friend,’ Sparhawk said.
‘I learned to cook for myself a long time ago. I could afford a servant, but I don’t trust strangers.’ He sat down. ‘Be careful out there, Sparhawk,’ he cautioned as they began to eat. ‘Arasham’s followers are a bit limp between the ears, and they’re all obsessed with the idea of catching some neighbour committing a minor transgression. Arasham preaches every evening, after the sun goes down, and he manages to come up with some new prohibition every night.’
‘What’s the latest one?’ Sparhawk asked.
‘Killing flies. He says that they’re the messengers of God.’
‘You’re not serious.’
Perraine shrugged. ‘I think he’s running out of things to forbid, and his imagination is severely limited. You want some more of this mutton?’
‘Thanks all the same, Perraine,’ Sparhawk said, taking a fig instead, ‘but one chunk of mutton is my limit.’
‘One chunk a day?’
‘No. One a year.’
The sun was turning the western sky a rusty colour when Sparhawk and Sephrenia entered the square near the centre of Dabour, and the light reflecting from the late-afternoon sky bathed the walls of the buildings and the faces of the people in the square with a ruddy glow. Sephrenia had her left arm bound up in a makeshift sling, and Sparhawk held her other elbow solicitously as they walked.
‘It’s right over there,’ he said quietly, nodding his head towards the far side.
Sephrenia drew her veil a bit tighter across her nose and mouth, and they moved through the crowd milling around in the middle of the square.
Here and there along the walls of the buildings leaned hooded nomads in black robes, their eyes alert and filled with suspicion as they peered at every face that passed.
‘True believers,’ Sparhawk muttered sardonically, ‘ever alert for the sins of their neighbours.’
‘It’s always been that way, Sparhawk,’ she replied. ‘Self-righteousness is one of the most common – and least attractive – characteristics of man.’ They passed one of the watchers and entered the smelly shop.
The apothecary was a chubby little man with an apprehensive expression on his face. ‘I don’t know if he’ll consent to see you,’ he said when they asked to speak with Doctor Tanjin. ‘He’s being watched, you know.’
‘Yes,’ Sparhawk said. ‘We saw several of the watchers outside. Please advise him that we’re here. My sister’s arm needs attention.’
The nervous apothecary scurried through a curtained doorway at the back of the shop. A moment later, he came back. ‘I’m sorry,’ he apologized. ‘He said he’s not taking any new patients.’
Sparhawk raised his voice. ‘How can a healer refuse to see an injured person? Does the oath they take mean so little to them here in Dabour? In Cippria, the physicians are more honourable My good friend, Doctor Voldi, would never refuse his aid to the sick or hurt.’
It hung there for a moment, and then the curtains parted. The man who thrust his head out between them had a very large nose, a pendulous lower lip, jutting ears, and weak, watery eyes. He wore the white smock of a physician. ‘Did you say Voldi?’ he asked in a high-pitched, nasal voice ‘Do you know him?’
‘Of course,’ Sparhawk replied. ‘He’s a small man who’s going bald, and he dyes his hair. He has a very large opinion of himself.’
‘That’s Voldi, all right. Bring your sister back here and be quick. Don’t let anybody outside the shop see you.’
Sparhawk took Sephrenia’s elbow and escorted her back through the curtains.
‘Did anyone see you come in?’ the big-nosed man asked nervously
‘Any number of them, I’d imagine’ Sparhawk shrugged. ‘They lined the walls of the square like a flock of vultures, trying to sniff out sin.’
‘It’s not safe to talk that way in Dabour, my friend,’ Tanjin warned.
‘Perhaps.’ Sparhawk looked around. The room was shabby and was piled high in the corners with open wooden boxes and stacks of books. A persistent bumblebee batted its head against the single dirty window, trying to get out. There was a low couch against one wall and several straight-backed wooden chairs and a table in the centre. ‘Shall we get down to business, Doctor Tanjin?’ he suggested.