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Knowing what to expect, the two sisters had already disrobed by the time their new owner returned to his tent. The older sister's infant was asleep on the pallet. The sisters were a bit concerned that the ensuing activities would awaken him—the pallet was small and thin, oddly so for such an obviously wealthy man—but not much. The baby was accustomed to the noise, after all, having spent the first year of his life in a brothel crib.

Unless, of course, their new owner was given to bizarre tastes and habits . . .

That was the real source of the sisters' anxiety. For all its foulness, the brothel had at least been fairly predictable. Now, for the first time since their enslavement, they faced an entirely new situation. New—and unsettling. Their new owner had said nothing to them, other than commanding them into his tent after his caravan stopped for the night.

But, as they waited, they took solace in the fact that they were still together. Against all odds, they had managed to keep from being separated during the long years of their captivity. Apparently, it tickled their new owner's fancy to have sisters for his concubines. They would see to it that he was satisfied with the result. In that manner, they might preserve the remaining fragment of their family.

So it was, when their new owner pushed back the flap and entered the tent, that he found the sisters reclining nude on the pallet. The fact that they were holding hands was the only indication that any uneasiness lurked beneath their sensual poses.

Standing still and straight a few feet from the pallet, he studied them for a moment. The sisters found the scrutiny unsettling. They could detect nothing of lust in that gaze. For all the natural warmth of the man's dark brown eyes, there seemed to be little if any warmth in the eyes themselves. And not a trace of animal heat.

That was odd. Odder, even, than the austerity of the pallet and the tent's furnishings. Their new owner was obviously as healthy as he was rich. He was not especially tall, but his broad shoulders and lean hips were those of a physically active man. And there was something almost feline about the way he moved. Very poised, very balanced, very quick.

"Stand up," he commanded abruptly.

The sisters obeyed instantly. They were accustomed to inspection by prospective customers. As soon as they were on their feet, both of them assumed familiar poses. Languid, sensual, inviting. But they were still holding hands.

"Not like that," he said softly. "Just stand straight. And turn around slowly." His thin lips curved into a smile. "I'm afraid you'll have to stop holding hands for a bit."

Flushing slightly, the sisters obeyed.

"Slower," he commanded. "And lift up your arms so I can see your entire bodies."

This was not customary. The uneasiness of the sisters mounted. The last characteristic that slave prostitutes wanted to see in a new customer was different. But, of course, they obeyed.

In the long minutes which followed, the sisters found it increasingly difficult to keep the worry out of their faces. Their new owner seemed to be subjecting every inch of their bodies to a detailed and exhaustive scrutiny. As if he were trying to commit them to memory.

"Which of these scars are from your childhood?" he asked. His voice was soft and low-pitched. But the sisters took no comfort in that mild tone. This was a man, clearly enough, who had no need to raise his voice for the simple reason that command came easily to him. He would not be denied, whatever he wanted. Which, again, was not a characteristic which slave prostitutes treasured in their customers. Especially new and unknown ones.

They were so startled by the unexpected question that they did not respond immediately. Instead, they exchanged a quick and half-frightened glance.

Seeing the glance, their new owner's face broke into another smile. But this one was not thin at all, and seemed to have some actual humor in it.

"Be at ease. I have no intention of adding any new scars to the collection. It is simply information which I must have."

The smile disappeared and the question was asked again. This time, with firm command. "Which scars?"

Hesitantly, the younger sister lifted her left leg and pointed to a scar on her knee. "I got this one falling out of a tree. My father was furious with me."

Their owner nodded. "He would know of it, then? Good. Are there any other such? Did he beat you afterward? And, if so, are there any marks?"

The sisters looked at each other. Then, back at their owner.

"He never beat us," whispered the older. "Not once."

"Our mother did," added the younger sister. She was beginning to relax a bit. Enough that she managed a little chuckle. "Very often. But not very hard. I can't remember even being bruised."

The man shook his head. "What kind of silly way is that to raise children? Especially girls?" But the question was obviously rhetorical. The smile was back on his face, and for the first time the sisters detected the whimsical humor which seemed to reside somewhere inside the soul of their new owner.

He stepped up to the older sister and touched her cheek with his forefinger. "That is the worst scar. It almost disfigures your face. How did you get it?"

"From the brothel-keeper."

The man's eyes widened slightly. "Stupid," he mused. "Bad for business."

"He was very angry with me. I—" She shuddered, remembering. "The new customer had—unusual demands. I refused—"

"Ah." With a light finger, he traced the scar from the ear to the corner of her mouth.

"I think he forgot he was wearing that huge ring when he slapped me."

"Ah. Yes, I remember the ring. Probably the same one he was wearing when we conducted our transaction. A large ruby, set in silver?"

She nodded.

"Excellent," he said. "Easy for you to remember, then."

He turned to the younger sister. Placing one hand on her shoulder, he rotated her partway around. With the forefinger of his other hand, he traced the faint lines across her back.

"These are your worst. How?"

She explained. It was a similar story, except the individual involved had been the chief pimp instead of the brothel-keeper, and the instrument had been a whip rather than a ring.

"Ah. Yes, I believe I met him also. Rather short, squat. The little finger of his left hand is missing?"

The two sisters nodded. He returned the nods with a curt one of his own. "Excellent, also."

He stepped back a pace or two. "Can either of you write?"

The sisters were now utterly confused. This man was the weirdest customer they had ever encountered. But—

So far, at least, he did not seem dangerous. The younger sister spoke first. "Not very well."

"Our father taught us a bit," added the older sister. "But it's been a long time. Several years."

Both of the sisters, for the first time, found it almost impossible to maintain their poise. Memories of their father were flooding back. Their eyes were moist.

The man averted his gaze, for a moment. The sisters took advantage of the opportunity to quickly pinch the tears away. It would not do to offend their new owner.

They heard him snort softly. "Taught his daughters! Scandalous, what it is." Another soft snort. Again, the sisters thought to detect that strange whimsical humor. "But what else would you expect from—"

He broke off abruptly and looked back at them.

"In a few days, you will write a letter. As best you can." Seeing the uncertainty in their faces, he waved his hand idly. "I am not concerned if the handwriting is poor. All the better, in fact."

His eyes moved to the pallet, and then to the baby asleep to one side. "It will be crowded, with the four of us." Again, the thin smile. "But there's no help for it, I'm afraid. Appearances must be maintained."

Moving with that unsettling ease and speed, he glided past them and reclined on the pallet. He was lying on the opposite side from the infant. He patted the middle of the pallet with his hand.

"Come, girls. Sleep. It has been a long day, and tomorrow will be longer. And the days after, as well. We have a considerable distance to travel."

Quickly, the sisters did as they were told. After the confusion of the preceding minutes, they almost found comfort in this familiar process. Not quite.

The younger sister lay next to him. The gesture of protection for the older came automatically to her. The two of them had protected each other for years, as best they could. If she exhausted him, he might be satisfied. Her sister's infant would not be disturbed.

Their new owner was still fully clothed. She began to stroke his chest, her fingers working at the laces.

Her hand was immobilized by his own. The man's grip was gentle enough, but she could sense the iron muscles and sinews in his hand.

"No," he said softly. "That is all finished. Just sleep." He moved her hand away.

Uncertainly, she obeyed. She stared at his profile. He was not a handsome man, not in the least. His face was lean and tightly drawn. High cheekbones, a sharply curved nose, thin lips below a thin mustache, clean-shaven cheeks so taut they seemed more like leather than flesh. Except for the mustache, he reminded her more of a bird of prey than a man.

But she found herself relaxing, despite his fearsome appearance. His voice was soft, after all. And she had never been abused by a bird.

His eyes were closed. "Finished," he repeated. "There will be no more scars."

* * *

Two days later, at daybreak, he arose from the pallet with his usual energy. The sisters had become accustomed to his way of moving. They no longer even found it frightening.

"Enough time has elapsed," he announced. "I will be gone for a few days. Three, perhaps four."

His words brought instant fear. The younger sister's eyes moved immediately to the tent flap. The older sister, suckling her infant at her breast, did not look up. But her sudden indrawn breath was quite audible.

Their new owner shook his head. "Have no fear. The soldiers in my escort will not molest you. I have given them clear instructions."

He turned away and began to push back the flap of the tent. "They will obey those instructions. You can be quite certain of it."

Then, he was gone. The sisters stared at each other. After a few seconds, their tension eased. They still did not know their new owner's name, since he had not provided it. But they were coming to know him. Well enough, at least.

Yes. His instructions would be obeyed. Even by soldiers.

* * *

He returned at midmorning, three days later. When he entered the tent, he was carrying a leather sack in one hand and a roll of leather in the other. Once flattened on the floor of the tent, the leather roll measured perhaps eighteen inches square.

"Should be big enough to prevent a mess," he murmured. He jerked his head, motioning the sisters toward him, while he untied the sack.

When they were squatting next to him, their new owner spilled the sack's contents onto the piece of flat leather.

He had gauged correctly, and grunted his satisfaction. Even with the addition of the fluid pooled at the bottom of the sack, the two objects did not leak blood onto the floor.

Both hands had been severed at the wrist, as if by a razor. Or—

The sisters glanced at the dagger scabbarded to their owner's waist. They had seen him shave with it, every day. He shaved with the quick and sure motions with which he did everything—except honing the blade. That, he seemed to enjoy lingering over.

One hand was plump. The middle finger sported a large silver ring, with a great ruby set at its center. The other hand was thick and stubby. The little finger was missing.

He rose and moved to one of the chests against the side of the tent. Opening it, he withdrew a small piece of vellum and writing equipment.

"And now, the letter."

* * *

Long before the sisters had finished, they were sobbing fiercely. Their new owner did not chide them for it. Indeed, he seemed obscurely satisfied. As if the tears staining the words and causing the letters to run added something valuable to the message.

When they were done, he began to roll up the vellum. But the younger sister stopped him.

"Wait. There is something we can put in it." She hurried to the far side of the pallet and began plucking apart the threads along the seam. Her older sister opened her mouth, as if to protest. But whatever protest she might have made went unspoken. Indeed, by the time her sister had extracted the object hidden within the pallet, she was smiling. "Yes," she whispered. "Yes."

The younger sister came back to their owner and, shyly, extended her hand. Nestled in the palm was a bright golden coin.

"It's all we have," she said. "He won't recognize it, of course, because we got it after—" She fell silent, fighting back further tears. "But still—"

The man plucked the coin out of her hand and held it up for inspection. Within seconds, he was chuckling softly.

"Freshly minted Malwa imperial coin. I wonder—"

Smiling, he tucked the coin into the vellum and rolled it up. Then, quickly folding it further, he began tying it up with cord. As he worked, he spoke softly, as if to himself.

"I wonder . . . Ha! Probably not, of course. But wouldn't that be a delicious irony?"

The work done, he transferred the smile to the sisters. They had no difficulty, any longer, recognizing the humor in it. "I'm a man who appreciates such things, you know."

They nodded, smiling themselves.

His own smile faded. "I am not your friend, girls. Never think so. But, perhaps, I am not your enemy either."

He lifted the package and hefted it slightly. "We will discover which, one of these days."

The older sister sighed. "It's not finished, then?"

Their owner's smile returned, this time with more of bright cheer than whimsy. "Finished? I think not!"

He was actually laughing, now. For the first time since they had entered his possession.

"I think not! The game has just begun!"

* * *

In the days, weeks and months to come, that package—and the ones which went with it—would cause consternation, three times over. And glee, once.

* * *

The consternation came in ascending degrees. The least concerned were the soldiers who investigated the murder and mutilation of a brothel-keeper and his chief pimp.

"Who cares who did it?" yawned the officer in charge of the squad. "Plenty more where they came from."

He turned away from the bed where the brothel-keeper's body had been found. The linen was still soaked with blood from a throat slit to the bone. "Maybe a competitor. Or it could have been a pissed-off customer." It was apparent, from the bored tone of his voice, that he had no intention of pursuing the matter further.

The pimp who had succeeded to the brothel's uncertain ownership sighed. "No problem, then?" He fought very hard to keep satisfaction out of his own voice. He was quite innocent of the murders, as it happened, but as the obvious suspect . . .

"Not that I can see," stated the officer firmly. Just as firmly, he stared at the new brothel-keeper.

"On the house!" that worthy announced promptly. "You and all your men! For a full day!"

The officer grinned. "Case closed."

* * *

There was more consternation, a few days later, when the murderer reported to his master.

"You idiot," growled Narses. "Why in the name of God did you kill them? We don't need any attention being drawn. A simple slave purchase, all it was. Happens every day."

"So do brothel killings," came the retort. Ajatasutra shrugged. "Three reasons. First, I thought the hands would lend a nice touch to the package. Proof of good intentions, so to speak."

Narses snorted. "God help us. You're pretending to think." He displayed his inimitable sneer. "His daughters have been hopelessly polluted. What difference does it make—you're Indian yourself, you know how it works—that a couple of the polluters are dead? How many hundreds are still alive?"

"You might be surprised. Purity is one thing, the satisfaction of vengeance is another. Even we heathen Hindus are not immune to that. Even a philosopher like him will feel a twitch, as much harm as he knows that will do to his karma."

Ajatasutra leaned forward in his chair, stretching his arms and arching his back. He seemed to take as much pleasure in the supple movements as a cat. "Secondly, I've gotten out of practice." Half-growling: "Your methods are too damned subtle to keep an assassin's skills properly honed."

Again, Narses snorted. "Pimps."

Ajatasutra's lips twisted into a wry grin. "Best I could find." The grin faded. When it was completely gone, his still and expressionless face seemed more like that of a hawk on a limb than a man in a chair.

"And, finally. I felt like it."

Narses said nothing. He neither snorted nor sneered.

* * *

Weeks later, the package caused immense consternation. It struck the palace at Deogiri like a tornado, leaving a peshwa and his wife weeping tears of joy, an empress confused and uncertain, her advisers divided and torn.

"It's a trap!" insisted the imperial consort. Raghunath Rao sprang to his feet and practically pounced his way over to the open window in the imperial audience chamber. There, planting his hands on the wide ledge, he glared fiercely to the north. The broken hill country of Majarashtra stretched to the horizon. Beyond, invisible in the distance, lay the Narmada river and the Vindhya mountains. And, beyond that, the great Gangetic plain where the Malwa beast straddled the Indian subcontinent.

"A trap," he repeated.

Empress Shakuntala moved her uncertain gaze to the commander of her personal bodyguard. Former commander, rather. As of the previous day, Kungas was no longer her mahadandanayaka; no longer her bhatasvapati. Officially, the man once known as "great commandant" and "lord of army and cavalry" had no title at all in the empire of Andhra. He had been relieved of all responsibilities, since he and his own consort were soon to be founding their own empire.


Kungas' shoulders made the little twitch which served him for a shrug. "Probably so." His gaze moved to the other woman in the room. Shakuntala's eyes followed.

Irene cleared her throat. "Actually, Your Majesty"—she gave an apologetic glance at the figure in the window—"I find myself in a rare moment of disagreement with Rao."

Rao barked a laugh. He turned back into the room. " 'Rare moment!' Such a diplomat."

Irene smiled. "But disagree I must. This maneuver has to be Narses' work. A simple trap is not his style."

Everyone in the room eyed her skeptically. Irene's shrug was as expressive as her future husband's had been terse. "I'm sorry. I realize that must sound hopelessly vague. Even naive. But—"

Her own frown was simply one of concentration. "But I'm really quite sure that I'm right. I can detect Narses' mind at work here. He's up to something, be sure of it. Something—" Her hands groped a bit. "Something complex. Something convoluted."

She glanced at Kungas and Rao. Her frown was instantly replaced by a wicked smile. "The problem with these two, Your Majesty, is that they think like men. You know—crude. Simple."

Shakuntala's laugh filled the large chamber like a bell. She and Irene exchanged a grin. Rao scowled. Kungas' face, as usual, had no expression at all.

"You must remember, Empress," continued Irene, "that Narses is a eunuch. He thinks more like a woman than a man. Subtle, tricky. Shrewd."

Grin. Grin. Scowl. Nothing.

"Not a trap," she insisted. "Or, at least, not the obvious trap. What would he have to gain, beyond inflicting a minor wound on Belisarius?"

"And a major one on our peshwa," growled Rao. He jerked his head angrily at the door. "Dadaji should be here, to give us his wisdom in counsel. He is absent simply because he too overcome with—with—"

"Joy?" suggested Irene. "Relief?"

"For the moment. But what of later? If it is a trap, once it is sprung? When he realizes that his daughters are lost forever."

Kungas spoke. "That's foolish, Rao. And you know it. Dadaji would not be incapacitated for long. He would do the rites—just as he did months ago when the news of his son's death in battle came—and continue onward. More fiercely than ever, now that Malwa added a new wound to his soul."

Rao took a deep breath. He nodded abruptly, indicating his acceptance of Kungas' point. But, still, he was scowling. "I don't trust this thing!"

"Trust?" exclaimed Irene. "What has that got to do with it?" Her own laugh had none of the young empress' pealing quality. It was more like the caw of a crow.

"I don't trust Narses, Rao. What I trust is simply his craftsmanship."

She pointed a stiff finger at the opened parcel on the low table near the door. The shriveled hands and the message for the empress lay exposed. The shakily written message for Holkar, and the coin, were absent. Dadaji and his wife had those in their own chambers, clutching them as fiercely as they did each other. Adding their own tears of joy to the long-dried ones which had smeared the ink.

"He's up to something, I tell you!"

The empress ended the discussion, in her usual decisive manner. She clapped her hands, once. "Enough! It is not for us to decide, in any event. We are simply the conduit. If there is a trap, it is aimed at Belisarius. He must make the decision."

She pointed her own imperious finger at the parcel. "Take it with you tomorrow, Irene. Kungas. Take it with you on your journey to Persia, and put it into Belisarius' hands. Let him decide."

Mention of that journey, even more than the empress' command, ended the discussion. With not much less in the way of sorrow than Shakuntala, Rao gazed at the two people who would, within a day, be gone from their company. Probably forever. Two people who had done as much as any in the world to bring one empire back from the grave, where Malwa had thought Andhra safely planted. And now proposed to do the same yet again, in Malwa's very heartland.

"God be with you," he murmured. His usual wry smile emerged. "He is rumored to have good vision, you know. Even in the Hindu Kush, I am certain he will notice you."

* * *

The glee came as Irene and Kungas were walking through the halls of the palace, back toward their own chambers.

"I hope you're right," muttered Kungas.

Irene's eyes widened. "Are you kidding? Of course I'm right! He's up to something. And since—I know I've told you this—he's probably the only spymaster in the world as good as me, that means—"

She seized Kungas' muscular arm in both hands and began spinning her lover around her, whirling down the corridor like a top.

"Oh, Kungas! We're going to have so much fun!"


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