‘Have it your way,’ he shrugged. Then he too raised his voice ‘Your heart is not dead, Lillias,’ he declared to the audience breathlessly clustered on their balconies. ‘Far from it, I think. What of Georgias the baker? And Nendan the sausage-maker?’ He was selecting names at random.

Her face blanched, and she shrank back, covering her generous bosom with her robe ‘You know?’ she faltered.

That hurt him just a little, but he covered it. ‘Of course,’ he declared, still playing to the balconies, ‘but I forgive you. You are much woman, Lillias, and not meant to be alone.’ He reached out and gently covered her hair with her hood again. ‘Have you been well?’ he asked her very softly

‘I get by,’ she whispered.

‘Good. Are we almost done?’

‘I think we need something to round it out, don’t you?’ Her face looked hopeful.

He tried very hard to keep from laughing.

‘This is serious, Mahkra,’ she hissed. ‘My position in the community depends on it.’

‘Trust me,’ he murmured. ‘You have betrayed me, Lillias,’ he said to the balconies, ‘but I forgive you, for I have not been here to keep you from straying.’

She considered that for a moment, then sobbed, fell into his arms and buried her face in his chest. ‘It’s just that I missed you so much, my Mahkra. I weakened. I am but a poor, ignorant woman – a slave to my passions. Can you ever truly forgive me?’

‘What is there to forgive, my Lillias?’ he said grandly. ‘You are like the earth – like the sea. To give is a part of your nature.’

She thrust herself back from him. ‘Beat me!’ she demanded. ‘I deserve to be beaten!’ Huge tears, genuine for all he knew, stood in her glowing black eyes.

‘Oh, no,’ he refused, knowing exactly where that would lead. ‘No beatings, Lillias,’ he said. ‘Only this,’ and he gave her a single chaste kiss full on the lips. ‘Be well, Lillias,’ he murmured softly. Then he stepped back quickly before she could wrap her arms about his neck. He knew just how strong her arms were. ‘And now, though it rends my soul, I must leave you again,’ he declaimed. He reached out and drew her veil once again across her face ‘Think of me from time to time whilst I seek out the fate that destiny has in store for me.’ He did manage to resist the impulse to lay his hand on his heart.

‘I knew it!’ she cried, more to the onlookers than to him. ‘I knew that you were a man of affairs! I shall carry our love in my heart for all eternity, my Mahkra, and I shall remain faithful to you to the grave. And if you live, come back to me.’ She had both arms spread wide again. ‘And if you do not, send your ghost to me in my dreams, and I will comfort your pale shade as best I can.’

He backed away from her outstretched arms. Then he spun so that his robe would swirl dramatically – he owed her that much and vaulted into Faran’s saddle. ‘Farewell, my Lillias,’ he said melodramatically, jerking the reins to make Faran rear and paw the air with his front hooves. ‘And if we do not meet again in this world, may God grant that we meet once more in the next.’ And he drove his heels into Faran’s flanks and charged past her at a gallop.

‘Did you do all that on purpose?’ Sephrenia asked as they dismounted in the courtyard of the waterfront inn.

‘I might have got a little carried away,’ Sparhawk admitted. ‘Lillias does that to a man from time to time.’ He smiled a bit ruefully. ‘She gets her heart broken on an average of three times a week,’ he noted clinically. ‘She was always militantly unfaithful and just a little dishonest where the cashbox was concerned. She’s vain and vulgar and self-indulgent. She’s deceptive and greedy and grossly overdramatic’ He paused then, thinking back over the years. ‘I liked her, though. She’s a good girl, despite her faults, and living with her was never dull. I owed her that performance. She’ll be able to walk through the quarter like a queen now, and it didn’t really cost me all that much, did it?’

‘Sparhawk,’ she said gravely, ‘I will never understand you.’

‘That’s what makes it all so much fun, isn’t it, little mother?’ He grinned at her.

Flute, still sitting on Sephrenia’s white horse, blew a mocking little trill on her pipes.

Talk with her,’ Sparhawk suggested to Sephrenia. ‘She understands.’

Flute rolled her eyes at him, then generously held out her hands to permit him to help her down.

Chapter 24

The voyage across the mouth of the Arcian Strait passed without incident. They ran northeasterly under clear skies with a fair following breeze and with the other ships of Voren’s flotilla clustered about them protectively.

About noon on the third day out, Sparhawk came up on deck to join Sephrenia in the bow where she and Flute stood looking out over the sparkling waves. ‘Are you still cross with me?’ he asked her.

She sighed. ‘No. I suppose not.’

Sparhawk was not entirely certain how to put his vague sense of unease into words, so he approached it obliquely. ‘Sephrenia,’ he said, ‘did it seem to you that everything in Dabour went just a little too smoothly? I somehow get the feeling that I’m being led around by the nose again.’

‘How do you mean, exactly?’

‘I know you tampered with Arasham a few times that night, but did you do anything to Martel?’

‘No. He’d have felt it if I’d tried and he’d have countered me.’

‘That’s what I thought. What was wrong with him then?’

‘I’m not sure I follow you.’

‘He acted almost like a schoolboy. We both know Martel. He’s intelligent, and he thinks very fast on his feet. What I did was so obvious that he should have seen through it almost immediately, but he didn’t do a thing. He just stood there like an idiot and let me pull his whole scheme down around his ears. It was just too easy, and that worries me.’

‘He didn’t really expect to see us in Arasham’s tent, Sparhawk. Maybe the surprise threw him off balance.’

‘Martel doesn’t surprise all that easily.’

She frowned. ‘No,’ she admitted, ‘he doesn’t, does he?’ She thought about it. ‘Do you remember what Lord Darellon was saying before we left Cimmura?’

‘Not exactly, no.’

‘He said that Annias behaved like a simpleton when he presented his case to the Elene kings. He announced the death of Count Radun without even verifying the fact that the count had really died.’

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