"The goddess has granted me a gift," said the blind bard. "I can sense the true nature of a man."
"Indeed?" I said politely. I certainly hoped not. If so, my mission would be short indeed, for soldiers patrolled here in the marketplace of Daxis's capital.
"Yes, indeed," replied the bard complacently. He was sitting on a stool at the edge of the marketplace, entertaining passersby for a silver coin or two. In my native land of Koretia, he would have been considered a beggar. Here in Daxis, his rank was exalted. That much I had figured out during this, my first week in Daxis.
"Now, you . . ." He reached out toward me. I stood still, thinking he wished merely to touch my clothes to identify my occupation. Instead he took hold of my hand, saying, "What long fingers you have."
I went rigid. His hand slid to my wrist. "Ah, you are a Koretian," he said, feeling the scar of my boyhood blood-vow upon my wrist. "I wasn't sure from your voice."
There were certain advantages to blindness, I reflected as I pulled myself free. Most Daxions, glancing at me, would immediately conclude I was Koretian. I wore the tunic of a Koretian trader, brown like the skin of the southerners around me; Koretians and Daxions alike are descended from a desert people, and the gods granted us skin that darkens easily in the sun, rather than burning. My voice had never quite lost its Emorian vowels, but I had an explanation ready for that.
"I've spent time in the borderland," I said. Brief time, spent trying to slip past the Chara's notoriously skilled border guards, on my way to the Empire of Emor.
"Your accent hasn't quite the lilt of a southern Koretian," agreed the bard. "But that wasn't what I meant. Your voice . . . it is strangely mixed, like that of a bard who has been trained to sing the parts of women."
Now my back was pricking, as if the torturers employed by the King of Daxis had started their work on me. The torturers, though, would not have stripped me of my modesty; no southerner was that barbarous. Such barbarities were reserved for the Emorians, our neighbors to the north.
In the flat, low voice I had perfected as a young man, I said, "I've no such training. We Koretians are not a musical people. I have often wondered how it is that the Daxions came to value music so greatly."
"Why, the Song Spirit took us to her bosom as her children on the day our land was founded," replied the bard, fingering his harp. "Before that, southerners worshipped all the gods. But the day came when some of us southerners refused to worship the goddess, because she was unmarried and owed allegiance to no lord. And some of us, in response, pledged all our worship to the Song Spirit. And so the Koretians were split apart from the Daxions, on a day of great sorrow."
"Indeed?" I crouched down at the bard's level, resting my forearms upon my thighs as my tunic hung down to hide what lay beneath. My interest had quickened. I wondered whether the Jackal knew this tale, and what he thought of it. If I caught him at the right moment, he would be able to tell me whether the tale was true.
But when such moments came, I was invariably struck with such awe that it would not occur to me to ask any questions.
"Your ruler . . ." The bard hesitated.
"The Jackal," I volunteered.
"Ah, yes. You are no longer ruled by the Chara." With an old man's tendency to forget the recent past, the bard tilted his head to the side, as though contemplating the events of the last nine years. "The Jackal embodies the Jackal God, I have heard, in the same manner that the King and his Bard together embody the Song Spirit. Has the Jackal never wished to make peace with his Sister?"
A man of my own kind, it seemed. I responded, "The Jackal is best known for his accomplishments in warfare, but he is truly a man of peace and would extend his friendship to the King, as he has already done to the Chara whom he once fought, when our land lay under bondage to the Chara and his empire. Yet old quarrels are not easily healed. We live too close together, perhaps." I gestured toward the mountain that divided the Daxion capital from the Koretian capital, forgetting that the bard could not see me.
"Yet every nation of the Three Lands possesses treasures that ought to be shared with the other two nations," replied the bard, reaching for the key with which to tune his harp. "Half-men know that."
During the silence that followed, I could hear the Daxion merchants singing their wares – for truly, the Daxion are a people who sing whenever they can, whether they be trained bards or not.
My tone was rough as I said, "Half-men?"
"Have you not seen them in your travels?" The bard leaned forward to listen as he plucked a note. "There are many in Emor, I have heard."
I glanced again at the soldiers patrolling the marketplace. One of them looked at me and then turned away indifferently. Koretian traders can be found everywhere in the Three Lands. Traders travel from the southern tip of the Great Peninsula, where only fishing villages exist, up to the icy mountains of Emor's northern dominions, which border upon the barbaric mainland from which the Emorians originally came, many centuries ago. Everywhere we go, we arrange trades between the merchants we meet and the craftsmen who have hired us. Occasionally, as on this journey, I would be hired by an individual who wished to make a purchase in another land without undertaking the travel himself.
Returning my attention to the bard, I said, "I have heard of such men, yes. But most of them live in the Chara's place, where few foreigners visit."
The bard shook his head. "You call them men, yet they are not. Come, I will sing you the song of the first half-man. The end of the song is very old; do you know the ancient tongue of the Three Lands?"
"I do," I replied stiffly. "But there is no need—"
I might as well have shouted at an army to stop it charging. Once a bard feels moved by the Song Spirit to sing, he or she cannot be stopped. As the bard swept his fingers over his harp-strings, I considered slipping into the crowd; it was unlikely the bard would hear me go.
But that would be ungracious, not only to the bard but to the Song Spirit. If she truly wished to sing to me through her bard, then I must listen, however bleak the message she held for me.
So I waited as the bard began to sing:
In the days before the Three Lands were founded, a young barbarian came with a northern mainland tribe to settle in the milder climate of the Great Peninsula.
But the young barbarian, who was called Robin, could not enjoy the warm summers that beckoned the tribe ever further south. Robin was different from the others: neither man nor woman, but half-man, half-woman. Robin was mocked by the boys in the tribe, for Robin could not throw a spear far, or wrestle well, or lie with a woman to beget a child. And the girls mocked as well, for Robin could not give birth. The boys called Robin "she," while the girls called Robin "he," and so Robin spent every day in misery, neither man enough to be a man, nor woman enough to be a woman.
After much time had passed, the barbarians reached a mountain pass, and there they confronted a people who had travelled from the desert wasteland on the eastern mainland to the fertile Great Peninsula. The barbarians and the desert people wished to fight each other for possession of the peninsula.
But that night the Song Spirit came.
She sang only to Robin, for Robin was not thinking of war. Robin was weeping alone. Robin heard the Song Spirit sing, "You must teach them to be not half a people, but a whole people. They must be united, as you unite the qualities of man and woman."
And so, shining with divinity, Robin went to the warring enemies and sang the command of the Song Spirit. So well did Robin sing that the barbarian people and the desert people recognized the truth of what had been sung. Therefore they joined their peoples together in marriage and engendered children who were of shared blood. After many years, they parted again, the barbarians travelling to settle the northern peninsula, the desert people travelling to settle the southern peninsula. But because of what Robin the first Bard had sung, neither the barbarians nor the desert people were wholly one or the other; all their children shared common blood with each other. In thanksgiving to this, the early inhabitants of what would become the Three Lands joined their languages to create a new one, so that there was not he, nor she, but merely he/she.
The final word of this tale, unlike the rest, was sung in the ancient tongue, which carries no distinction of gender in any of its words. The harp lilted to a stop. The bard cocked his head, waiting as I rose to my feet.
"Thank you," I said, and threw into his cup the smallest copper coin I possessed.
For all its reputation of lingering barbarities, the Chara's palace made an effort to protect the purity of its youngest slaves.
At night, the youngest slaves were housed separately from the older slaves in a giant dormitory that served, during the daytime, as the slaves' dining hall. A curtain down the middle of the hall preserved the modesty of the slave-girls in a token fashion. All the slaves who were foreign, Koretians and Daxions alike, had learned that no Emorian truly grasped the concept of modesty. Any southern boy or girl would consider it shameful to bare his or her entire body in the presence of others, but here in Emor, both slaves and free-men relieved themselves in the presence of anyone of their own sex.
Or, in the case of the half-men, in the presence of anyone at all.
Preparing for bed by making use of one of the communal chamber-pots, I tried to ignore the giggles nearby. I knew they came, not from my fellow boys – who showed their scorn for me in other manners – but from the girls and, perhaps, the half-men, though I couldn't be sure of that. I never looked in their direction.
It was annoying, therefore, to turn around and find myself face-to-face with Loretta.
She wore lip color and eye shadow, though she was the same age as I was, nine years old. She wore a heavy scent too, which sickened me. I tried to move past her, but she leaned forward and whispered, "Don't be silly. I'm not a master. I'm not going to hurt you."
This hint of cowardice caused my cheeks to grow warm. The nearby giggles increased. One of the older boys, who was rolling out the pallet that served as his bed, said something to his wine-friend which made that boy hoot with laughter.
Loretta sniffed as she looked over her shoulder at him. "This is a private conversation," she said in her high voice. "I would thank you to leave us alone."
"'I would thank you to leave us alone,'" said the boy in a falsetto voice, which prompted roars of laughter from the nearby boys, as well as from the nearby girls, who were peeking around the curtain to watch. Loretta's pale cheeks reddened. She shrugged, though, and returned her attention to me. "Don't be stand-offish," she said under cover of the laughter. "Come join us." She gestured to where her friends sat, all in a cluster, hiding their knees as best they could with the short tunics that slaves wore in Emor. To make up for this sexless dress, Loretta's friends had painted their faces with strong colors and had wrapped women's scarves around their necks. Their wrists jangled with bracelets. I knew they had received these trinkets from the adult half-men in the palace, who had welcomed them into their little tribe.
I stepped back, but there was nowhere for me to go. My pallet was in the corner, so that I could better defend myself against the other boys.
Loretta huffed a sigh. "It's not as though they'll ever accept you. I promise you, they won't. I tried." She glanced at the boys, then away. There was a suggestion of moisture in her eyes now.
Hating that girlish expression, I said in a rough voice, "Go 'way."
"Silly." She flounced, putting a hand delicately on one hip. Though she was still a child, already the womanish fat that afflicted so many of the half-men was beginning to grow upon her. "You won't find friends among them. Come be with us." She reached forward and tried to pull me away from the wall.
A great, burning anger rose in me, welcome in its familiarity. "Go 'way!" I shouted, and struck her.
She didn't cry out. That was what I would remember for many years. She didn't cry out or sob dramatically, as a girl would if struck. She merely crumpled into a ball, placing her hands over her head, awaiting the next blow.
The sickness I had felt from her perfume was nothing to what I felt now. Even the boys looked shocked, though I was hardly the first boy in this palace to hit a half-man. Perhaps it was simply the viciousness of my slap that had disconcerted them.
After a moment, Loretta's friends hurried forward. They pulled her up and took her back with them, murmuring reassurances. As Loretta moved off, hunched over, I saw that her eye shadow was streaked; she was crying silently. A girl from behind the curtain rushed for the door, which was not yet locked for the night.
I knew what that meant. Turning away, I pretended to straighten my pallet as whispers began around me.
Obed was mercifully quick in arriving. Not a minute passed before I heard him thunder, "What is happening here?"
I turned. Obed was standing in front of the doorway, both fists on his hips. He was heavyset but strong; the fat on his arms hid powerful muscles, as every slave who had been whipped by him could testify. Now he tapped his foot, waiting for an answer. He wore delicate women's sandals.
Nobody said anything – not even Loretta, who had reason enough to speak. The girl who had fetched Obed crept back to her place; apparently, she had remained silent about the nature of the trouble.
I swallowed. I well knew what Obed's beatings were like, but I also knew that the entire slave-quarters would suffer if Obed did not locate the source of the disruption. Already, some of the other slave-children were looking at me out of the corners of their eyes, as though to say, "We know you're a coward. Are you that much a coward?"
"I hit her." I pointed to Loretta.
Obed sighed, and then, as I might have guessed he would, he stooped down to Loretta. "Are you all right, darling? Did he mar your face?"
"No, sir," whispered Loretta. "It was my fault. I bothered him."
"She was trying to make friends," defended another of the half-men. Her arms were wrapped protectively around Loretta.
There were several snorts throughout the dormitory. I had acquired a reputation by now, one year into my slavery.
Obed rolled his eyes, but he patted Loretta gently. "Come to my office tomorrow, darling, and I'll give you more eye shadow. You're a brave dear."
The half-men all sighed with relief. They were really half-boys, and there weren't many of them. For all its barbarity, Emor did not follow the mainland practice of gelding enemies in war. Among Emorians, gelding was reserved as the first stage of the so-called Slave's Death, ordered by the Chara for traitors. Unfortunately, any slave who sought to flee the palace was considered a traitor. Each year, a score or more of slave-men and -boys were condemned to a prolonged Slave's Death in the hands of the Chara's torturers. Each year, a handful of the condemned were spared by the Chara after the first stage of torture, to serve as a visible reminder to the rest of us of the consequence of treachery.
I had not contemplated running away. I was too busy trying to keep alive, assigned as I was to the cruelest lord in the Chara's palace.
Now Obed came to a halt before me, his long free-women's gown clinging to his massive thighs. His eyes were sharp under the women's wig he favored, since he had gone bald before his gelding. He had been a lord once, so rumor went, before he betrayed the Chara and lost his right to live as a man. Yet unlike most half-men, the palace slave-keeper had chosen to retain his male name and his male pronoun. For that reason, and because he was as kind to the slave-children as his duties permitted, I was inclined to respect him, despite everything.
"I have heard," he said, "that in Koretia, to be a man means to be a man of honor, caring for the weak. Is this not so?"
I nodded mutely. The other slave-children were all listening. Obed's lectures were invariably worth listening to.
"It is the same here in Emor," Obed continued. "If you wish to be a man, you must be a man of honor. That means not striking girls or defenseless half-men."
My entire body went hot with shame. The other slave-children were exchanging glances.
"I won't hit her again," I promised finally. "I won't hit anyone, except other boys who bother me." I said this loudly enough to be heard by the boys throughout the dormitory.
Obed shrugged. "Boys' quarrels I am not duty-bound to interfere in. As for the rest . . . Face the wall, please." He held out his hand, and one of the boys ran to fetch his whip.
I did as I was told, biting my lip. Obed's beatings were always vigorous. But I was a boy who would one day be a man; even Obed had recognized that. I would not cry. I would not be like Loretta—
I leapt to my feet, dagger in hand.
It took me a moment to realize I had been dreaming of the past, and it took me a moment more to awaken fully. George, the innkeeper who was hosting me, spent those moments looking worried, though he had taken the precaution of positioning himself on the opposite side of the room before he spoke to waken me. The Jackal's thieves have a certain reputation.
George – a Koretian emigrant who was the only man in Daxis to whom I had entrusted the knowledge of my mission – waited patiently as I slipped the tiny, lethal thigh-dagger back into the pocket strapped around my thigh, well hidden under my tunic. Then he said, "I am sorry to wake you, sir."
"No need to apologize. You have news for me?" Though not a thief himself, George had been recruited by the Jackal to assist the thieves by providing them with a safe place to stay during their forays into Daxis's capital. The innkeeper passed on to us any public gossip we might miss hearing.
George nodded. "You said yesterday that you wished to know who provided supplies to the King's army. I have learned that a city merchant is in charge of making arrangements with all the capital's seamstresses to create uniforms for the Daxion army."
"Good. What is his name, and where does he live?"
"Her name is Deborah, and she lives on the high street. Her house is clearly marked."
I blinked, though I should not have been surprised. The Jackal's thieves – his spies, who have worked for him since he led a stealthy rebellion to free the Koretians from bondage to the Emorians – possess deadly skills, especially the Jackal's blood brother, who is reputed to be the most dangerous man in the Three Lands. But the Daxions have their own reputation. They alone, among all the civilized people of the world, entrust women with positions of high power, saying that this pleases their goddess.
It was partly to satisfy the Jackal's curiosity about the Song Spirit's people that I had come to this land in my usual guise as a trader. That, and to determine the strength of the Daxion army, which forever threatened Koretia's border.
So far I had learned little about the latter but much about the former. The most intriguing information I had uncovered was that the King's nephew and heir considered a bastard girl in his uncle's palace to be a danger to him. In Daxis, it seemed, first-born children usually receive the throne, even if they are female.
I had sent that information back to the Jackal the previous day, shortly before my conversation with the blind bard. The Jackal was not the sort of ruler to meddle in other rulers' dynasties, but he had compassion for anyone like the bastard slave-girl, who was half something, half another thing. It was one of the reasons I valued his opinions so greatly.
"I will visit Deborah, then," I said, but the innkeeper was already shaking his head.
"That is not possible, sir," he responded. "Many years ago she learned that certain merchants will only deal with men, and so she decided to be a merchant who deals only with women."
We were speaking in Koretian, which, like Daxion and Emorian, genders its nouns. "Merchant," however, is a very old word, taken from the ancient tongue; it bears the sign of its antiquity by the fact that it is genderless.
It had never occurred to me to consider that merchants might be either male or female, despite the word's genderless status. I stored this thought away for another time, for I was beginning to feel uneasy. "No man?"
"None at all, sir." Regret coated George's words.
"Ah, well. I will find the information I need by other means. Have you a place for me to bathe?" The storeroom where the Jackal's thieves slept in this inn was private, but not private enough for my liking; it looked out upon the courtyard and stables, where inn patrons placed their horses.
Happy to be of assistance, George offered me use of his own bathroom. He added, though, "It is a shame that Lord Andrew is not here."
"Lord Andrew?" I turned to look for the pack I had brought with me to Daxis.
"The Jackal's blood brother. Surely you have heard of him, sir? He is a most consummate ambassador and is said to be the finest bladesman in the Three Lands. His courage is that of a mountain lion, and his skills for solving dilemmas are exceeded only by the Jackal's gifts." The innkeeper smiled, patriotism clear in his voice. "If Lord Andrew were here, he would find a way to talk with Deborah."
"No doubt." I kept my voice cold. It was often cold when I did not intend it to be, but the coldness could come in handy at times. "I should like that bath now."
Apologizing profusely, the innkeeper led me to the bathroom, which, I ascertained after a quick check around the premises, could not be seen from any other room. Also, it had a lock.
I took my time, however, after the innkeeper's maid had filled the tub and left. Having locked the door and lit all the lamps in the room, I looked down at the water, staring at my reflection. I rarely saw it. Although the Koretian palace had been built during the Emorian occupation, the Jackal saw no reason to keep frippery that had stuffed the palace when the Chara's avaricious governor had lived there. Whereas the Chara's palace was filled to the brim with mirrors, the Koretian palace was now starkly dignified, like its ruler. It had been . . . oh, nine years since I had looked in a mirror in the Chara's palace and seen my own face.
I had not changed much. I was thirty-two years old now, well into my manhood. I remained beardless in the Emorian fashion, and my skin was paler than that of most Koretians, since I had spent fifteen years in the Chara's palace, first as a slave, then as a valued free-servant, before being permitted to return to Koretia. I was a tall man with long limbs. Inside the Chara's palace, this was a disadvantage, for everyone there knew what that stature meant. Here in Daxis, it was the perfect protection. Few Daxions seek to tangle with a Koretian who is tall and strong and armed. Koretian men are known to draw their daggers at the slightest offense, for in Koretia, a dagger is the sign of manhood.
The only dagger I carried on this trip was hidden under my tunic, but Daxions remained polite to me nonetheless, giving me what I wanted. I sighed, wondering whether any hope existed that Deborah would give me what I wanted, which was the number of uniforms that the Daxions required to clothe their army.
With hands shaking now, I removed my clothes.
My chest was as broad as any other man's. No doubt, if I had chosen to sing with the bard, my song would have been powerful, though not quite the song he would have expected. I was slender, having watched my eating habits carefully since my days as a boy in the Chara's palace. My procreative organ was no bigger and no smaller than the average man's; I had been enslaved when I was entering into an early puberty. This made a difference, it had been explained to me at the time.
No, the briefest of glances would not reveal to anyone that I was different from other men. But a longer glance . . .
I leaned forward. Try as I might, I could not sight in the reflection my testicles, which had been cut from me at age eight, when I was bought by my cruel master.
"Robin," I murmured, "for you, being treated as a half-man and half-woman represented freedom. You were able to be what you considered yourself to be. But if it had not been for you – if it had not been for the traditions you started in Emor – I would be treated as the man I am. A cut man, but a man nonetheless. I would not be told that I must be a half-man, because of what was done to me as a child. I would not be scorned by everyone who knows I was gelded, because I refuse to take my place among the half-men. Your goddess should have thought of that when she sang to you."
I drew in a slow breath. I was being unfair to the Song Spirit, I knew. Obed was satisfied with being a half-man. I might have been, if I had chosen that path. And the Jackal had accepted me as what I claimed to be: a man. If much of the rest of the world would not accept my claim to manhood . . . Well, I had forgiven the Emorians long ago for my captivity. I would have to find a way to forgive the world for their refusal to accept me as I was.
But today, of all days . . .
I reached for the pack. I had not come unprepared to Daxis. Though I had not known that this particular problem would arise, I had sensed that a special guise might be needed in Daxis, the land of powerful women. Perhaps only my boyhood experiences had enabled me to see what the other thieves had not recognized: that where a man could not go, a disguised man might go.
Still I hesitated, held back by a lifetime of refusal to take on this role. A lifetime of resisting this moment.
"Andrew son of Gideon," I murmured to myself. "The people of the Three Lands think you have the courage of a mountain lion. For the Jackal's sake, show it."
I reached into the pack and pulled out the eye shadow.
For a trained spy, I was singularly unprepared.
This thought occurred to me before I arrived at Deborah's house. Ordinarily, if my work required that I adopt the guise of an occupation, I would research the occupation for months beforehand. I would certainly not don my disguise without the slightest idea how to act.
Deborah greeted me at her door with a kiss on the cheek. "How kind of you to visit!" she exclaimed. "This is my first time hosting a Koretian woman."
"Darling, you are gracious." I dipped a curtsy, nearly falling over in the process, having never undertaken this exercise before. Half a dozen times on my way here, I had come close to falling on my face, tripping on the gown I wore. How did Obed manage to walk in such an atrocious leg-trap? Womanly ambulation was fine for women who were born with such skills or who learned them at their mother's breast. But all half-men had spent their early childhoods walking as boys.
At least I could be sure my voice would not betray me. I had donned no disguise there; I had simply spoken in my natural tone. It gave me a chill, hearing myself speak in a high voice, as though I were still a boy. How could the half-man stand to speak that way, knowing that others would mock them?
"Please sit down." The merchantwoman gestured me into the house. "You must share a meal with me."
"So kind of you." I trilled my words as Obed would have, regretting this a moment later as it occurred to me that being a half-man was not necessarily the same as being a woman. Certainly half-men painted their faces with stronger colors than women did, as though they were ancient soldiers donning war-paint.
I could see Deborah's eyes lingering on my painted face as I sat down, trying to move with the elegant slowness I had once seen exhibited by the wife of an ambassador—
Ambassador. That was another word which came from the ancient tongue. It held no gender. Did this reflect the fact that peacemaking, while undertaken professionally by men, was a job more often associated with women?
For an ordinary man to become an ambassador was a sign of high honor. But for a gelded man to be given such duties . . . When the Jackal had named me as his ambassador, had this been a subtle way of telling me he considered my peacemaking efforts womanish?
"Do you drink cider?" asked Deborah.
Too late, I realized I was sitting with my legs sprawled open, as men do. I snapped my legs shut. By the gods, half-men must have better memories than the Chara's clerk, to keep track of all this womanly behavior. "Certainly," I said, though in fact I hated cider.
"I'll fetch it from my storeroom." Deborah left the room.
I rose and went over to the mirror on the wall. My wig was askew. I quickly patted it back to where it should be, musing upon the memory of Obed's wig, which always remained in place, no matter how energetically he wielded his whip. Even Loretta and the other enslaved half-boys were able to keep their long hair in beauteous order. It had never before occurred to me that this required hard work on their part.
Peering into the mirror, I forced myself to consider my face in an objective manner. To my eyes, I looked like a painted man, but I had a lifetime's worth of evidence that people considered me womanish. Would my womanish qualities, whatever they might be, come through clearly enough to fool the merchantwoman? I had spent my entire life trying to force such qualities back – to be as manly as any other man.
Had the Jackal found my efforts humorous? He was not the sort of man to laugh at another's affliction, but why else would he send me to a land where I might have to disguise myself as a woman? Was he telling me to take on my natural role as a half-man?
Yet I had already seen, in these few minutes, that to be a half-man was no easy task either. I thought again of Loretta, ignoring the mockery of the boys and girls as he/she played his/her chosen role.
I heard a step behind me. Turning, I said, "Darling, I really must leave—"
I stopped. The King's soldiers stood in the doorway.
By the time I was captured, all five of the remaining soldiers were wounded. One soldier was dead.
In justice, I would not have blamed the surviving soldiers if they had beaten me. My efforts to remain free were both instinctive and dutiful; it could do the Jackal no good if word got about that his blood brother and ambassador had been caught spying. But there was no need for me to kill anyone. The soldiers were simply doing their duty.
The lieutenant of the patrol was a man seemingly less concerned with justice than with his own duties. He pressed his lips thin as he glanced at the corpse, but he told his soldiers, "Bind him and bring him to the palace."
"Wait." I slipped from the grasp of my captor. It wasn't hard; I could have slipped all the way to freedom if not for the fact that the lieutenant was standing between me and the door, his sword unsheathed and still red with my blood, from when he had disarmed me of my thigh-dagger. I had no doubt he would go farther than that if I tried to flee.
But my purpose was not to escape. I fell to my knee beside the corpse, thinking to myself that, if there was anything worse than being captured in the garb of a woman, it was speaking like a woman.
But I owed that much to the man I had killed. And so, reciting the funeral words that only women speak in Daxis, I said, "May the Song Spirit guide you home to her bosom, and may your murderer face justice. For the Song Spirit loves her children, and she will not countenance disobedience to her laws." I reached over and closed the soldier's eyes.
When I stood up, all the surviving soldiers were gaping. Only the lieutenant's eyes narrowed, as though uncertain of what he saw.
It was Deborah who spoke, however. She cried, "You fool! You think you can continue to pretend you're a woman? Why, I saw through that falsetto voice of yours at once! You're as much a woman as I am a man."
All around her, the soldiers nodded.
I laughed then. Laughed loud and long, thinking to myself that I owed the blind bard a gold coin, and his goddess my thanks. For I recognized finally – finally! – why the Jackal had sent me here.
Not to become a half-man. No, the Jackal wanted to tear me away from the poor, cramped concept of being a man that I had acquired as a boy, living among the Emorians with their rigid notions of manhood. The Jackal – the man or the god, I knew not which – was giving me this opportunity to assume without shame various duties: making peace, mourning the dead, even donning a woman's clothes if my duty required that.
To be unafraid of being mistaken for a half-man, for now I valued their strength.