10 February 2012

What Do You Want?

Some time later, people began to join them in that small windowless room. A nondescript knock, a grunt of "Whaddaya want?" from Tommie, a brief reply, and another man or woman would sidle through the half-opened door. Some were large and hard-looking like Tommie; some were smaller, softer, clerkish types; a couple could have been respectable shopkeepers; one might be plump and solemn, the next skinny and full of laughter.

They had in common a certain presence: an air of being profoundly engaged in whatever it was they did, whether talking to each other, or staring at him, or simply warming their hands at the fire. They didn't appear to be thinking about where they would be later tonight, or whatever might have happened this morning, or how their clothes looked, or whether the person to whom they spoke liked them or thought they were witty.

All they were doing was what they were doing.

They reminded Deliann of a saying Hari Michaelson had liked to quote sometimes, all those years ago: When you eat, eat. when you sleep, sleep. When you fight, fight.

Slowly, through the dazed whirl of his fever and everything that had happened that day, Deliann pieced together a pattern in the responses to Tommie's growled Whaddaya want? at the door. Each answer had been different, which was why Deliann hadn't noticed the pattern at first. One said, I want to come in; another simply said, A choice. A third had said, A big fire and a comfortable chair; a fourth, A good father for my children.

What Deliann gradually came to realize was this: Tommie's grunt was more than a rude greeting. It was a question. The same question he had asked Deliann.

It was a recognition code.

"This room," Deliann said wonderingly. "That's why this room has no windows..."

Tommie grinned at him. "Well, sure. It's not too healthy for us all to be seen together these days."

"You're Cainists..." Deliann breathed.

"Like I tolja before," Tommie said , chuckling, "sometimes it's you bright guys that have hardest time figurin' shit out."

The laughter this brought from the group was warm as a hug. Another knock came, and Tommie growled, "Whaddaya want?" and the reply that came back wasn't an answer.

"It's Caja, Tommie. Let me in."

The room fell deadly silent.

Tommie sighed. "Shit, they broke him," he said, and the door shattered open and shouting men in grey leather flooded the room, firing crossbows in a stuttering drumroll as they came. Quarrels hit chests and faces and heads from so close that they burst out the far sides in sprays of blood and splinters of bone. The impact slammed men and women into each other, going in screaming tangles to the floor, and Deliann could only stare, his mouth shaping a silent No.

"Get down get down get down get down!" screamed the men in grey. "On the floor hands in sight get down!"

Deliann found his voice, and the voice he found said, "No."

Now more men came through the door, and crossbows swung to cover him. "On the floor!"

Deliann rose from his chair, and the fire at his back haloed him with a red-gold gleam. "There's been too much killing."

"There'll be more if you don't lie down," one of them said.

"I suppose you're right," he said sadly, as the fire behind him roared up from its ring of brick and spread phoenix wings that spanned the room: wings that enfolded him, and held him in an embrace of flame.

Quarrels leaped from crossbows, and Deliann did not lie down.

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