::'''''Small Worlds'''''
::''Chapter Five''

"Your gun," said the barmaid, her tone surprisingly even. "What is it?"

"It's a weapon," replied Vaniah.

She said nothing. Her face was set. He was sure her eyes were open behind the blindfold; even from a position of weakness, she was staring him down.

"It's protection," he said. "And it's a family heirloom."

Her expression remained hard.

"All right," he said, "if you have to know, it's —" He tried to force anger into his voice, but only sadness would come.

He slipped the blindfold off. She ''was'' staring at him, boldly, mockingly, her blue eyes protuberant and dry. He refused to look away from them. "It's the last thing I have of my mother's," he said.

"It's more than that," said the barmaid.

"What more could it be?"

"It's the ''blaggemol''," she said. "It's what you owe me. It's my world."

The gun a ''blaggemol''? ''And'' a world? Her mockery felt like a blow to the jaw. She knew nothing. She had no connection to the prophetess. She was spewing nonsense, stringing together words overheard from the shedim but not comprehended.

''Why''? Had she planned this damn-fool ruse to get the gun? Or was she fabricating it on the spot to save her own skin?

The girl didn't know what she'd gotten herself into. She had interrupted, at the worst possible time, his attempt to make restitution: that he could forgive. But she had also profaned the last sacred thing in his life, his last memory of the only woman he loved. That he could never forgive.

Whoever this person was, and whatever she wanted, he hated her.

Slowly, feigning gentleness, he slid one hand into the small of her back and rested the other on her shooting arm. He hoped his trembling seemed the result of shock rather than rage. "I'll help you," he said. "Whatever this all means, I'll help you."

He ran his hand slowly toward hers, toward the revolver. Her expression had not changed, but her eyes were no longer looking at him. Her body shuddered with every breath.

Her guard was down.

In a series of jerky but efficient motions, Vaniah prised the gun from the girl's weakening grip, removed his supporting hand from her back, and snatched the knife-handle as she fell.

He knelt to wipe the knife on the inside of his trouser-cuff, where the blood would not show too much, and quickly sheathed the thing. Briefly he contemplated the revolver, running his fingers first over the V.V.V. etched on one side of the barrel, then over the fainter, older inscription on the other side, in the strange alphabet of his mother's people.

The triple-V — his father's initials before they were his — were always what attracted attention. Likewise, Vaniah was to all appearances only a man, a Gaer of the tribe of Asher. He had nothing of his mother's looks, nothing of hers at all — nothing but a death-dealing weapon and a message he could not read.

Vaniah holstered his pistol. Still on his knees, he edged toward the ladder. The flitting worlds were growing more substantial as the train slowed; if he were outside the carriage when it stopped, he would be crushed by the very solidity of the air.

Something thumped behind him. He scooted around.

The barmaid had risen. The blood on her garment was fading, from red to pink to gold to nothing. Her appearance was unchanged, but suddenly he recognized her.

The prophetess strode toward him, her gait unshaken by the rumbling of the train.

"Do you always kill people who tell you the truth?"