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'I have a little water,' she said. 'And meat. And an herb you can rub into your skin, to keep those flies away.'
'You take too great a risk with these visits,' said Hercol.
'Not especially,' said Diadrelu. 'You're a deadly fighter. Your people wouldn't dare approach this cell without lamps and noise.'
'But yours might.'
'Well, then!' she said, trying to sound lighthearted. 'If I'm not wanted--'
'Need I respond to that, my lady?'
She put down her pack, leaped in one bound to his knee, and sat, folding her long legs beneath her.
'Need I stick a pin through your lip to stop you calling me lady lady?'
Hercol laughed softly. 'Thirty years of service to the n.o.ble-born have made some habits unbreakable,' he said. 'Very well, just-plain-Dri: how goes the journey? Is there anything to see but the empty horizon?'
'I told you of the sky-ribbon.'
'That was days ago. Has it returned?'
'Yes. Men are calling it the Red Storm, a name out of some old tale of the Ruling Sea. They say Rose glimpsed it decades ago, that he sailed this far, and then turned back to safety to the north.'
'Curious,' said Hercol. 'But that is not what concerns you most, I think.'
She was surprised that her voice had given away so much. Disappointed, too: why worry him with things he could not change?
'The Vortex is in sight again,' she said. 'A little nearer, this time. The first watch saw it pull a thunderhead down from the sky and devour it, lightning and all, and this has put the fear of death in the men. Before today we were fairly flying southward. But now Rose has us beating west, away from that monster.'
Hercol's smile was gone. His eyes slid once around the cell block, professionally.
'You truly think you can break out of here?' she asked.
'It has been arranged,' he said, matter-of-fact, and glanced briefly at the ceiling. 'But the harder question is, whom can I help by escaping? When I break out, I shall have only a short time to accomplish something before I'm put back in again. I could run to the stateroom, and perhaps find refuge there, but I do not wish to do so while Rose is leaving our friends in relative peace. They would merely place ten Turachs on the doorstep, and we should all be prisoners together.'
'You would be safe, at least,' said Diadrelu.
Not a flicker of response showed on Hercol's face. 'What news of our friends?' he asked.
Diadrelu sighed. 'Neeps and Marila have become somewhat more than friends; Pazel and Thasha, somewhat less. They are cold to each other. Pazel simply will not remain in her presence, and Thasha is too proud to ask him why. In any case, they have all been busy recruiting people to our cause - and debating how much to tell them.'
'They are going ahead with the council meeting, then?' asked Hercol.
'It begins just minutes from now,' said Diadrelu. 'That's why I've woken you at such an hour, I - well, it was an impulse, I was pa.s.sing near--'
'You're not not going to show yourself to six strangers!' going to show yourself to six strangers!'
'Hercol,' said Diadrelu, 'I am an outcast, not an imbecile. My sophister sophisters and I will keep watch from the ceiling.'
Hercol nodded, realizing he had overstepped. 'What of your quarrel with the clan?'
'It is not a quarrel,' she said. 'It is death, if they should lay hands on me. And not because my people are hot for my blood. No, if it came to that, I think a good number would rather die defending me than obey Taliktrum's order to kill. I should have to help them do it, and swiftly.'
Hercol leaned nearer, blinking in the darkness. 'Help them? What are you saying?'
'That I would take my own life, rather than watch my clan torn to pieces by a blood feud. That is our way. Surely by now you understand?'
Suddenly Hercol cupped his hands beneath her and lifted, as though she were an injured bird that might start into flight. Diadrelu froze, her breath caught in her throat. It was all she could do to keep her mind from battle patterns, the twenty ways she had learned to slash and bite and twist out of such hands. The swordsman brought her close to his face.
'I do not not understand,' he said. 'How can you think the clan would be well served by your death? Surely your nephew's rule will tear it apart anyway?' understand,' he said. 'How can you think the clan would be well served by your death? Surely your nephew's rule will tear it apart anyway?'
'Not surely, my friend. Only probably. That is beside the point, however. Of all my people's maxims, the most sacred is clan before self clan before self. None of us quite live up to that maxim, but all of us aspire to. When we abandon the effort, we die. It has happened countless times in our history, as we learn when the survivors of ma.s.sacred Houses share their tales. Almost always the death of a clan can be traced back to selfishness. A leader who has lost the people's love tries to stay in power through fear. An ixchel chased by humans runs towards towards the clan house instead of away. Two ixchel duel over a lover, and one dies - or two.' the clan house instead of away. Two ixchel duel over a lover, and one dies - or two.'
'Or even three, if the lover is too heartbroken to live on,' said Hercol. 'So at least it happens in our fables.'
'I think you do understand me, Hercol,' she said. 'The sort of questions you people face only in wartime or feuds of pa.s.sion, we face endlessly, throughout our lives. What deed of mine will protect the clan? What will endanger them? What will keep death at bay until tomorrow?'
Hercol's hands trembled slightly beneath her. 'I have been thinking of that day,' he said. 'The day you asked us to kill Master Mugstur.'
'I had no right to address you thus,' said Diadrelu.
'You had every right. How were you to know that we were not your equals in honesty?'
'Honesty?' Dri frowned. 'Speak plainly, man. I must go soon.'
'Of course I am a killer,' whispered Hercol. 'Did I not say that I was Ott's righthand man? That I worked his will, pursued his mad notion of Arquali "interests," until the day he went too far?'
'The day he ordered you to slay the Empress and her sons,' said Diadrelu. 'You told us.'
'I failed the sons,' said Hercol. 'They were the age of Pazel and Neeps - indeed I look at those two and am reminded of Maisa's children. Like the tarboys, they grew up with danger and loss, and yet somehow their hearts remained open. They would be grown men by now, if I had saved them. Ott keeps their bodies packed in ice, in a cave under Mol Etheg. Shall I tell you why he goes to such trouble?'
'If you wish to,' she said.
'When a spy has completed all his other training, he must pa.s.s one final test. He must go with Ott to that cave and look at Maisa's sons, lying there grey and wrinkled with their throats slit. Princes of Arqual, he tells the trainee, but also enemies of Magad the Fifth - and therefore of all the people. Ott asks for the trainee's opinion. If the young man objects, or questions the idea that blind loyalty is what Arqual needs; if he so much as looks looks troubled, then he never joins the Secret Fist. Instead he joins the host of the disappeared, one more sacrifice on the altar of the State.' troubled, then he never joins the Secret Fist. Instead he joins the host of the disappeared, one more sacrifice on the altar of the State.'
'You left that world behind,' said Diadrelu softly, 'and have atoned for it thrice over. As for her sons: you must let those memories go. You cannot save everyone, Hercol. That is another thing we ixchel learn as children.'
The warrior's hands were still trembling. A bit impatient now - did he think his burden so special? - she turned her head, so that she was looking down on the fingers encircling her.
'Herid aj !'
Someone had been at his fingernails. On his left hand, one nail was torn out completely, and the finger hideously swollen. Another nail had had slivers cut from it, as though by the tip of a very sharp knife, and the shards that remained dangled by their roots. On Hercol's right hand the fingertips were blue-black, the nails crushed into the flesh. It might have been done with a hammer, or the heel of a boot.
'No,' she said, breathless with fury. 'Hercol - brother - who did this to you?'
'My old master,' said Hercol, setting her carefully on the floor, 'though I swear he did not enjoy himself. Perhaps Ott still dreams that I will return to the fold, and lead the Secret Fist when he no longer can.' Hercol considered his hands. 'Something held him back, in any case. If he had enjoyed himself I would be far worse off.'
The ixchel woman drew her sword. 'All the same, he has signed his death warrant.'
'Are you mad ?' said Hercol, starting upright. 'This is Sandor Ott we are speaking of. A man who has listened for the a.s.sa.s.sin's tread for fifty years. Put revenge out of your mind.'
'It is not for revenge alone that I shall strike,' she said, 'though revenge is cause enough.'
'Dri,' said Hercol, 'the man is poison. I have heard him give lectures lectures on the dangers of ixchel infestations.' on the dangers of ixchel infestations.'
Before Hercol could say more she raised her hand. A voice was calling from the pa.s.sage. It was Ludunte, shouting in ixchel-speech. 'Hurry, mistress! All the giants have a.s.sembled!'
'I come,' Dri shouted back. To Hercol, she said, 'The council begins, I must go. But when it is over I will return to you. That I promise.'
'The promise I ask is that you stay away from Sandor Ott,' said Hercol.
'You do not have it,' she said. 'None of this would be happening if it were not for that man's evil inspiration. And he was not aboard when Ramachni cast his spell, so he cannot be the spell-keeper. Let us discuss it no further. I am a warrior, the same as you, and will choose my own kill.'
'No, I say! He is too deadly. Not for nothing has he lead the Secret Fist for so long.'
'Long enough, I think. Infestations Infestations, he actually--'
'd.a.m.n it, woman, I forbid this!'
'Forbid ?' said Diadrelu. 'Am I your dog, then, to be sent to a corner? One man on this s.h.i.+p has a claim to my obedience - my nephew Taliktrum - and him too I have chosen to disobey. Forbid! Think carefully, human, before you use that word with me again.' said Diadrelu. 'Am I your dog, then, to be sent to a corner? One man on this s.h.i.+p has a claim to my obedience - my nephew Taliktrum - and him too I have chosen to disobey. Forbid! Think carefully, human, before you use that word with me again.'
Hercol dropped forwards onto an elbow, forcing her back a step. 'Hear me,' he pleaded, his voice quite changed. He held up his fingers. 'I will recover from these wounds. Don't leave me with one from which I never shall.'
She had never been so utterly lost for words. The human's breath washed over her. His eyes, rheumy and dilated and as big as her head, were close enough to touch. She could not look at both of them at once.
'Mistress!' called Ludunte again.
Now it was Dri who was trembling. What was wrong with her? She closed her eyes and reached out, burying her hand in the warm bristles of his eyebrow, which leaped at her touch like a horse's flank.
'I will never understand you people,' she said.
The s.p.a.ce between the floor of the mercy deck and the ceiling of the hold was just four inches. Dri entered through a 'jug-stopper,' a quick improvised door, cut by Ludunte that very morning. As soon as she was inside Dri knew rats had been here before her. The smell was faint, but not old. A terrible place to meet with rats. They would have every advantage here. A terrible place to meet with rats. They would have every advantage here.
She crawled forwards, through dust that lay like a grey snow, deeper than her wrists. She saw her hand in his eyebrow, parting the sleek black hairs. When he spoke she felt the vibration in her arm.
The planks stretched in all directions. In such crawls.p.a.ces one could usually spot the humans three compartments off, by the splinters of lamplight that pierced the cracks in floor or ceiling. Tonight not a glimmer met her eyes. But ixchel can see without the light of the sun or lamp: there ahead lay her sophister sophisters, looking down through the tiny gap Ensyl had opened with the spyjack.
Dri crawled up between them. 'We must take care with this dust,' she said. 'Humans cannot hear our speech, but coughs and sneezes are another matter. The day may come when we stand with them - stand as brothers, but--'
Ensyl glanced at her in surprise; Dri was not one to lose the thread of her p.r.o.nouncements. Angry with herself now, Dri wiped the dust from her clothes.
That man is not here. Banish him, face and voice.
'They're just sitting down there,' said Ludunte. 'I don't understand, mistress. For ten minutes they've just been sitting in the dark, blind as puppies, not saying a word.'
'Ten minutes was my suggestion,' said Diadrelu. 'If no one approaches, if no footfall sounds an alarm - then it will be safe to proceed.'
'There is our resistance force,' said Ensyl, shaking her head. 'Rin save us.'
Diadrelu set her eye to the crack. Ensyl was right; the scene did not inspire confidence. Ten humans perched on barrels and boxes, timid in the dark, unable to see each other's faces. Their alliance, their sea-wall against the worst storm of villainy ever to bear down on the world. 'Pazel,' she said aloud, 'if you can hear me, scratch the back of your neck.'
Pazel scratched the back of his neck. Months ago he had learned that his Gift extended his hearing to ixchel frequencies - an ability that had almost cost him his life, for Taliktrum had realised what he was hearing before Pazel himself. It was comforting, if a bit strange, to know that Dri was watching from eight feet overhead. He cleared his throat twice in the darkness. It was another sign they had agreed upon, this one for Thasha and Neeps: it meant All present and accounted for. All present and accounted for.
'Right, let's begin,' said Thasha nervously. 'I think we've been quiet long enough.'
'That's for d.a.m.ned sure,' growled Fiffengurt.
A match blazed; and Thasha's face appeared, dazzled by the sudden light she held. I miss her, Pazel thought, watching a strand of her hair singe as she tried to light the candle. The wick caught, and she raised her eyes suddenly, freezing him with the directness of her look. He felt as he did when he faced Ramachni: transparent, naked, perfectly understood. An intolerable feeling. He dropped his eyes.
'Remember,' he mumbled, 'if anyone asks, we're just here for a drink.'
The laughter was barely audible. Thasha pa.s.sed the candle to Neeps, and Marila lit her candle from his. Soon half a dozen were burning around the chamber.
The reserve liquor vault was where the better drink was kept, rather than the briny rum used to mix the sailor's daily grog. It was about ten feet square. Floor to ceiling, it was jammed with casks of white Opalt rum and Hubbox sherry, tins of cider vinegar and cooking wine, vats of brandy, and here and there a case of something truly fine, like spruce gin or the cactus-orange liquor of Pol. Despite the bottled luxuries, the vault smelled putrid: they were only a few feet above the bilge well, that cesspool at the bottom of the s.h.i.+p, into which filth from every deck found its way. Because they were so far aft, the water slopped and churned, with a sound like cattle floundering in a pond. At least they would not easily be overheard.
So far, so good: not one person they'd approached had turned them down. Pazel's choice had been Bolutu. They'd met in the veterinarian's cabin on the orlop deck; when Bolutu had grasped what Pazel was talking about he had jumped from his chair and scribbled As soon as possible! As soon as possible! on a page of his notebook. Neeps had recruited Dastu. When the older tarboy had slipped into the vault, Pazel had felt suddenly hopeful, as though only now believing that they had a chance. The other tarboys looked up to Dastu, for his decency as much as his toughness and good sense. He could bring dozens over to their side. on a page of his notebook. Neeps had recruited Dastu. When the older tarboy had slipped into the vault, Pazel had felt suddenly hopeful, as though only now believing that they had a chance. The other tarboys looked up to Dastu, for his decency as much as his toughness and good sense. He could bring dozens over to their side.
Marila's choice was more troubling: Dollywilliams Druffle. Neeps had urged her to choose the freebooter, reminding her that no one hated Arunis more than the one he'd magically enslaved. Pazel couldn't argue with that; Druffle grew spitting mad whenever talk turned to the sorcerer. He'd also known about the ixchel for months and not breathed a word. So for all his chatter, he could keep a secret. But did that mean they could trust him? Druffle's moods were erratic, and his way of thinking peculiar. It had never crossed his mind, for instance, to tell Pazel that his mother had had an affair with Chadfallow, until the night the doctor had insulted him. And again this morning his breath stank of rum.
Fiffengurt, for his part, had actually brought two men. His own choice was 'Big Skip' Sunderling, the new carpenter's mate. Big Skip was tall and ox-strong, a woodsman before he took to the sea. His eyes were small but very bright, often with amus.e.m.e.nt, and his hands when at rest seemed merely to be waiting for the next opportunity to wield a saw or chisel. Pazel had rarely seen him without a good-natured smile. But he was not smiling now.
The second man was Hercol's choice: Lieutenant Khalmet. Everyone in the room stole glances at the Turach soldier. Khalmet looked just as strong and twice as dangerous as Big Skip. He could not have been over thirty, but there was a hardness to his face, as if he had seen or done things that had robbed him of all merriment. Pazel wondered if any Turach escaped such a fate.
Khalmet had given only the slightest of hints that he might oppose what was happening on the Great s.h.i.+p. The first had been his suggestion that Rose free Hercol, the second his warning to Marila ('someone is listening') nine days ago. Then one day he had begun to deliver Hercol's food - without stealing from the dish, like the man he replaced. Finally, yesterday, Hercol had put all their lives in the soldier's hands by telling him of this council meeting.
Once again the risk had paid off - or at least not backfired yet. For here he was, without his Turach s.h.i.+eld and helmet, but still wearing his longsword. Pazel felt safer just looking at the man. Then he recalled that over a hundred other Turachs stood ready to cut them down.
He looked again at Thasha, and a welter of feelings - anger, worry, grief - stole over him. They'd stopped shouting at each other days ago, but they had never made up. They talked coldly of the tasks before them, and nothing else. Pazel had returned to the stateroom, but now he slept in the little reading chamber that hung like a gla.s.s shelf from the Chathrand's Chathrand's starboard flank. The room was freezing by morning, and he often woke with his face pressed to the cold gla.s.s, looking out on the slate-grey emptiness of the Ruling Sea. But Thasha's reproachful looks, and his own fear that she was going to see starboard flank. The room was freezing by morning, and he often woke with his face pressed to the cold gla.s.s, looking out on the slate-grey emptiness of the Ruling Sea. But Thasha's reproachful looks, and his own fear that she was going to see Greysan Greysan each time she left, kept him from the common room. Behind the door of the reading room he succ.u.mbed to a new temptation, and pressed his ear to her cabin wall. Often he heard her reading aloud from the each time she left, kept him from the common room. Behind the door of the reading room he succ.u.mbed to a new temptation, and pressed his ear to her cabin wall. Often he heard her reading aloud from the Polylex; Polylex; once, three nights ago, he caught a sob. once, three nights ago, he caught a sob.
Last night, over a meal of rye mush and figs, Thasha had told them that she would be coming alone. Everyone was shocked, and Pazel had asked immediately if she'd misjudged someone's character. Thasha had popped a fig into her mouth and skewered him with a look.
'Maybe,' she said.
Of all strange things, she had brought a suitcase to the council. A bulky cloth-sided case, embroidered by some spinster aunt; Pazel had seen it belching s.h.i.+rts and sweaters onto her floor. Now it sat before her, tightly sealed, and crowding their toes.
'At last,' said Dastu suddenly. 'At last we're starting to fight back.'
Thasha was looking straight at her candle flame. 'I don't know how to start,' she said, 'so I'll start by saying thank you. For being brave enough to come here. For not doing the easy thing, which would be to turn us in. The day Arunis tried to give the s.h.a.ggat the Nilstone, some of us found out that we had had to fight back. We're kind of stuck - me, Pazel, Neeps and Hercol, and a few others we're still looking for. But the rest of you - well, you could have just chosen to look away, and wait for some chance to escape. Or you could have decided we were crazy, that there was no hope at all. But you're here. And now I know we have a chance.' to fight back. We're kind of stuck - me, Pazel, Neeps and Hercol, and a few others we're still looking for. But the rest of you - well, you could have just chosen to look away, and wait for some chance to escape. Or you could have decided we were crazy, that there was no hope at all. But you're here. And now I know we have a chance.'