1

WHEN THE PROCESSION reached the edge of the volcano, the thief abandoned all dignity and began to scream. The priests ignored her, allowing her terror to bury the droning of prayers. The crowd, packed onto the platforms that hung over the crater, murmured in satisfaction; it was, after all, her terror they had come to hear.

“They say she actually got her hands on The Stone.” The pudgy merchant dabbed at his ruddy forehead with a scented cloth. The heat of the sun above, combined with the rising waves of heat from the molten rock below, had driven the temperature in the viewing areas distressingly high. “They say she came closer than anyone has in the last twenty years.”

“They say,” repeated the young man, forced into proximity, and thus conversation, by the press of the crowd. His voice hovered between scorn and indifference. His gaze stayed on the stone. Red-gold, as large as a child's head, it sat enthroned on a golden spire that rose up out of the seething lava some thirty feet beneath the platforms. A captured fire burned in its heart, the dancing light promising mystery and power. The Stone kept Ischia, the royal city of Cisali, from vanishing under a flood of fire and ash, from choking in the sulfuric breath of a live volcano. And they say the thief actually got her hands on it. He applauded her skill if not her good sense.

The prayers ended.

The priests of the Fourth, their dull red robes like bloodstains against the rock, stepped back and two massive acolytes lifted the bound and writhing body into the cage.

A collective almost-moan rose from many of the spectators on the public platforms and the young man wondered if this execution was intended to be a religious occasion. The religion of the region, not only of Cisali but of the surrounding countries, operated on a number of complex levels involving both priests and wizards, secular and nonsecular rituals. The One Below—a type of mother goddess as near as the young man could determine—had borne nine sons, the Nine Above, and the Fourth—none of them had names—was the god of justice. The screams took on a new intensity.

The young man's gaze flickered to the royal platform. Only the twins were present. The descent would be feet first, then, and slow. It was said in the city that the twins were also bound to the Fourth although they had never entered the priesthood and were certainly not wizards.

Justice. His lips twisted up off his teeth.

“You're, uh, not from the city.” The merchant was definitely more interested in his neighbor now than in the day's event.

Ginger hair, cropped shorter than was currently fashionable, pale skin, sharp features, and a slight build marked said neighbor as an outlander. Amid the placid and pleasure loving city dwellers, his scowl and brittle intensity marked him just as surely. There were few outlanders in Ischia, certain policies of the king had been set up to discourage them from staying.

“Is this your first time watching The Lady?”

The young man merely grunted. He thought the local name for the volcano—or more specifically for the crater—ridiculous.

“Perhaps,” the merchant wet his lips and reached out a tentative hand, “you would let me buy you a drink?”

“No.” The hand was avoided; the young man radiating disgust.

The merchant shrugged, disappointed but philosophical—outlanders, who could fathom them—and again turned his attention to the crater.

Smoke rose from the thief's soft leather shoes.

MAKING HIS WAY down the terraces, slipping deftly between merrymakers, the young man considered the fate of thieves in the royal city. He hefted the weight of the merchant's purse, lifted almost without thinking as he'd left, and the corners of his narrow mouth quirked upward in what served him for a smile. Well, the man had offered to buy him a drink.

AARON!”

The outlander looked up. Pale fingers stopped playing in the contents of the merchant's purse. Brows, a lighter ginger than his hair, tufting thickly over the center of silver-gray eyes, rose.

“Don't waggle those demon wings at me, boy. That was the third time I called you. What keeps you so enthralled you ignore me in my own house?”

“I went up the mountain today. To see the drop.”

The old woman on the couch snorted. “Disappointed you, did it?”

Aaron scowled, animation returning to his sharp features. “You don't know what you're talking about, Faharra.” He shoved the purse deep in the pocket of his loose trousers.

“Oh, don't I?” Clawlike fingers plucked peevishly at the fringes of her silk shawl. “I still have my wits about me, boy. More wits than even you give me credit for.” She tried a knowing laugh, but it turned to a fit of coughing that left her gasping for breath and glaring fiercely. “I see more than you suspect. Get me some wine.” As Aaron moved to the small table by her couch, she snared the edge of his tunic. “Not that crap. My granddaughter has it so watered, I could wash with it. There's a flask of the good stuff in the trunk.”

The trunk, a massive ebony box entirely too covered in ivory inlay, was locked. It took Aaron less than five heartbeats to deal with it.

“You'll kill yourself with this stuff one day,” he remarked conversationally, handing her a full goblet.

“And who has more right?” Faharra drank deeply and licked withered lips. Although her hands shook with the tremors of age, she didn't spill a single drop of the wine. “For sixty-two years I was the best gem cutter in Ischia.” She took another swallow. “I cut the emerald that sits atop the royal staff. One huge stone it is and emeralds aren't easy to cut, let me tell you.”

“You've told me,” Aaron broke in, bored. He refilled her goblet until the deep red wine trembled just below the metal edge.

“And if you behave yourself, I'll tell you again.”

She drank in silence for a moment while Aaron replaced the now empty flask and relocked the trunk. Let the granddaughter wonder. He wiped away the barely perceptible smudges his fingers had left on the ebony, then went and sat on the wide marble window ledge, gazing out over the tiny garden at the city beyond.

“You got sunburned,” Faharra said at last. “Good thing you usually work at night.”

Pale fingers touched a high cheekbone. He winced and his eyes rose to the red-gold light just barely visible over the rooftops of the upper city.

“Don't worry, lad.” The old woman's voice was almost kind. “You'll get your flogging. They only drop those who try for The Stone.”

Aaron's gaze snapped down from the mountain. Although his night vision was very good, the shifting shadows of dusk defeated him and he could barely see the ruin of the gem cutter amidst her shawls and blankets and pillows. His voice when it came was hardly his own. “What?”

“You think I don't know why you settled here, boy, after all your years of wandering?” Faharra rolled the rich summer taste of the wine around her mouth and decided. She was too old to continue dancing around Aaron's pain; her time was fast running out and unless he listened to her, she feared Aaron's was as well. She could see him very clearly, outlined against the evening sky. But then, she had always been able to see him clearly. “We flog our thieves to death. Flog them to death in the market square.” Her mind wandered briefly back to the days in the market when her hands had been steady, her eye true, and her skill sought by kings. “Flog our thieves to death,” she repeated, sliding back to the present. “But we have to catch them first.”

The thief at the window might have been carved in stone, so still he sat.

“You're too good a thief, Aaron my lad. If you truly want your cousin's death, you're not going about it very well.”

Faharra watched his face tighten and his jaw set and knew what ran through his mind. Only the memory of his cousin's death closed him up that tightly, shut him even further within himself than he usually was—and that was far indeed. She wanted … oh, she wanted many things: her youth, her skill, her patience, time. She saw Aaron as the last jewel she would ever cut. No, recut, for he was already a diamond, hard and brilliant but with a flaw deep in the many faceted heart of him.

Soon, someone or something would strike that flaw and the young thief would shatter into a million tiny shards. Faharra intended to prevent that and she thanked the Nine Above and the One Below every day for the accident that had brought Aaron into her life; had brought meaning into her life just when she thought meaning had degenerated to bowel movements and watered wine.

The thief, who had slipped shadow silent over her window ledge, had no way of knowing she had fallen from her couch and rather than call her granddaughter—the patronizing bitch—had decided to spend the night on the floor. As comfortable a place as any, old bones ached on down as much as on tile.

Sidling along the couch, reaching for the tiny gold hourglass that stood on the table beside it, the thief had stepped on her.

“Watch where you step, you clumsy ox,” she'd snapped.” I didn't live this long to be a carpet for such as you.” Remembering, she smiled. Aaron's jaw had dropped and those wondrous eyebrows had risen, the perfect picture of surprise. And when she had refused to call the watch, surprise became, just for an instant, something else entirely—another emotion that passed too quickly for Faharra to define.

“I get few enough visitors as it is, boy. I'm not of a mind to have those I do get arrested.”

He had lifted her back into bed, then sat on the window ledge while she talked at him—she in the darkness, he silhouetted against the night sky.

That first night, she recalled suddenly, was the first of the many times she had told him of the emerald. Well, nothing wrong with pride in a job well done.

As he finally readied to leave, she'd tossed him the hourglass.

“Take it, boy. I've no need to watch the sands of time run out.”

He'd smiled then—a real smile, not the twisted expression that usually served—and as he disappeared she'd called out, “Come back!” She'd just realized the emotion that had followed surprise. Disappointment.

A thief disappointed that she hadn't called the watch?

That was the first question.

He came back. Not that night, but a week later she had roused in the darkness to find him sitting on the window ledge.

Why had he returned?

That was the second question.

Faharra had soon found that her midnight visitor was more questions than answers. He clung to their developing friendship with an intensity that astonished her. He was young. He was passably attractive, in a sharp, outland sort of way. Why was he so desperate for companionship? Even thieves had friends. What made her safe when the rest of the world was kept at a distance.

Aaron had saved her from boredom, from loneliness, from lying alone and forgotten in the darkness. She would save him from himself. She chipped away at his shell of stone and night by night uncovered bits and pieces of his past, enough so she could ask further questions.

He had left home at barely fourteen. Why? He had chosen to become a thief, a profession he excelled at, true, but not one destined to provide a steady income, peace of mind, or a ripe old age. Why? She might be safe, but young women terrified him and young men were fiercely taboo. Why?

Actually, it took little digging to find that the taboo against young men was strictly cultural. In Aaron's homeland the soil was poor, the growing season short, and the neighbors likely to torch the crops at any real or imagined slight. Every child was another pair of hands and every pair of hands was desperately needed. Same sex pairs produced no children and same sex love went from being impractical, to being a crime, to blasphemy against god—a god Faharra felt held asinine ideas of what constituted blasphemy, and who in their right mind could believe there was only one god anyway?

Blasphemy was punished by fire.

Unfortunately, Aaron's religious instruction had been intense.

“I was Clan Heir,” Aaron had explained with a shrug, “and Clan Chief rules both people and priests.”

Perhaps. But Faharra watched him watching the crowds that passed outside her garden and wondered if, maybe, the priests thought they were saving him from the fire.

From Clan Heir to thief. Quite the fall. And more than just a thief… . Where others plodded, Aaron danced. Where others fell, he soared. How better to deny a father whose word was absolute law. Faharra had been pleased to run into that answer at last. Her own father had been the worst kind of horse's ass and she had been overjoyed when her strong-minded mother had finally divorced him. Her personal theory said that one father could do more to mess up a child's life than every mother in existence put together. She realized she was not entirely without bias on this matter, but that was all right; she blamed it on her father. What had Aaron's father done to turn his son so far from him and what he stood for?

Aaron's mother had died in childbirth.

Aaron felt—had been made to feel—responsible for her death. Was that what made Faharra safe as a friend? That she was too old to bear children? And Faharra added a hearty thank the Nine and One for that.

It took her ten months of poking and prodding and sifting tales to get to the one question that led to all the rest.

“Aaron, what happened to your cousin? What happened to Ruth?”

Aaron grew so still Faharra could almost see the stone she had spent long months chipping away reforming around him. He grew so still he might have become stone himself. When he finally spoke, his voice, in painful contrast, was almost matter-of-fact.

“My father had her flogged to death.”

And then he disappeared; slid off the window ledge and into the night, carrying his own darkness with him.

IN THE TEDIOUS hours between Aaron's visits, Faharra had held his past up to the light, turned it, studied it, and knew she had all the answers but one. What had happened up in the northlands so many years ago that the pain still ruled Aaron's life?

“My father had her flogged to death.”

That was the easy answer. It explained nothing more than why he'd finally settled in Ischia where thieves died under the lash. Looking for his cousin's death, he'd someday make the mistake that would guarantee it.

When he came back, the walls were thicker than ever.

Faharra knew the weak spot now, knew where to place her chisel and strike the blow, but she was afraid. I'm all he has, she told herself. Can I destroy the walls without destroying him, too? And in back of that … He's all I have. I can't risk driving him away.

“Selfish, selfish, old woman!”

“Crazy old woman,” Aaron muttered.

Faharra started and realized she had spoke aloud. While she had lain, wrapped in memories, Aaron hadn't moved. It was full dark now, with no moon or stars to break the blackness, but she could still see him on the window ledge, a shadow against the shadow of the night. He swung his leg over the sill, balanced half in and half out of the room.

“Aaron.” She grubbed among the things she had to say to him but couldn't hold one long enough to bring it clear. “Come tomorrow,” she managed at last.

She felt his eyes on her; studying, weighing, knowing, she was sure, what she wanted to say. It was, after all, the only thing unsaid between them.

“All right.” A long pause, as though he were examining his words. “Tomorrow.” Then he was gone.

Faharra drank the last dregs of wine in the goblet and sighed. If he returned tomorrow then maybe, just maybe, he was ready to admit to the pain that made his choices for him. And maybe, just maybe, she would have time to cut this last gem, her greatest work, before she died.

AARON MOVED ACROSS the rooftops of Ischia, almost happy although he wasn't sure why. He leapt lightly from a marble corner, clung for an instant around the scaled neck of a gargoyle, and dropped to a balcony railing ten feet below. His soft leather shoes whispered along the ornate iron, then he launched himself across an alley to land cat-quiet on the flat root of the building one story down. He paused, checked that he remained unobserved, sped across the width of the roof, and swarmed up the intricate carvings on the adjoining building until he was once again three stories above the street.

Let other thieves slink in alleys, he would take the high roads of the city.

Two buildings and a heart-stopping swing from a flagpole later, he dropped onto the wall around Faharra's garden. He patted his pocket; the gaudy cluster of gems had survived the trip. He looked forward to hearing Faharra heap abuse on the jeweler who had created the ugly brooch.

“More good stones are ruined by the setting some asshole jeweler puts them into than by a hundred gem cutters with bad eyes and drinking problems.”

She'd said it before.

He paused and remembered what else she was likely to say tonight. His stomach twisted. He stared ahead at the black rectangle of her window. His brows lowered until they met in a deep vee above his nose, looking more like demon wings than ever. Then he shook his head and went on. His teeth were clenched and his shoulders had knotted with tension, but he went on.

I'll humor the old lady. She deserves that much at least. More, he could not admit to, not yet, although the thought—the hope—of putting his burden down had become almost too strong to ignore.

He stepped gingerly onto the branches of a slender fig tree, then swung one leg over the wide marble sill of Faharra's room. The room was very quiet. Aaron's stomach twisted tighter.

The couch was a shadow against the far wall. Even with eyes adapted to the night, Aaron could not pierce the smaller shadows piled on it.

He slid into the room and padded silently across the tile floor. The old woman slept so seldom now, he didn't want to wake her. He'd just make sure she was comfortable and leave.

By the end of the couch his foot touched something. Something that rocked and sang metal against stone. He bent. Faharra's goblet. Not quite dry so someone, probably a servant, had poured her a drink before she slept.

He could see the wasted body of the gem cutter now, lying amidst the pillows and shawls and blankets. Another step and he could see her face.

She looked very annoyed.

Her eyes were open.

He touched her hand. The fingers were just beginning to stiffen.

“How did you know,” he asked the god of his father, in a language he had not spoken for five years, “that I loved her?”