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'Yeah,' said Jervik, his voice abruptly subdued, 'I'm hearing you, loud and clear.'
He'd blown it. He'd said the wrong words, talked down to him a little too much. Jervik had risked everything to trust his old enemy. He'd never be able to stomach the humiliation of not being trusted in turn. Pazel braced himself. Jervik always fell silent like this, before he went off like a bomb.
Then Pazel started. Jervik was poking him in the chest. 'Tell me when,' he demanded.
'W-when?' Pazel echoed.
'When I can help. What needs doing, who you want out of your way. That's all I need to know, see? Just what you want done - you or Undrabust, or the Isiq girl. Now tell me if you you understand.' understand.'
Pazel was utterly stunned. 'Yes,' he said after a moment, 'yes, I do.'
'All right then.' The shadow that was Jervik straightened and turned away. Pazel listened to his footfalls. Then, on an impulse, he hissed: 'Jervik! Wait!' and rushed up to him again.
'Well?' said Jervik.
'Listen, please,' said Pazel. 'If we're going to stand a chance, there's something I have to ask you. It's important, so don't take it the wrong way. Arunis chose to come after you - why you, and not somebody else? Do you have any idea?'
Jervik nodded at once. 'That's an easy one. But I won't tell you, 'cept you swear on your mum's heart not to repeat it to n.o.body.'
'I swear it, Jervik. I swear on her heart.'
Jervik paused, then made a sort of grunt of acceptance. 'It's like this. Arunis thought I weren't afraid.'
'Of nothin'. And it's true, I ain't afraid of that much. Spells and sorcerers, aye - those spook me, and the Vortex would scare any man who ain't plum crazy. But that's just it. He hoped I was crazy-brave, inhuman like. Maybe--' Jervik hesitated, his voice suddenly strained. '--because of how I act. Fightin', talkin' proud. But soon enough he found out I weren't crazy, and he stopped payin' me so much attention. I been wondering why that is. Do you know?'
'No, I don't,' said Pazel, 'But . . . maybe he can only have his way with crazy folks. Maybe he can't get inside your head unless it's already a little cracked.'
Jervik said nothing. Suddenly he gave a violent shudder, as if shaking off some cold and clammy touch. Then he laughed under his breath. 'You're smart, Muketch. Smart enough to beat these b.a.s.t.a.r.ds. I knew it when I followed Dastu down here, and when I waited in the dark. I knew this one blary time I was choosin' right.'
Hercol lay on his side, his left hand tucked carefully beneath his cheek. The first pale glimmers of day were seeping down the light-shafts, distilling absolute black to nimbus gray, carving shapes out of a void.
On the muscle of his upper arm lay Diadrelu. She had fallen asleep there, just minutes ago. He was wide awake, and frightened. He could not catch his breath.
When she woke, her hand clutched for a sword that was no longer there. Remembering, she turned over and embraced his arm with her body. Trembling with wonder. How the world had changed.
'This is what was happening,' she said, still holding him. 'Why I fought with you, why I kept seeking you out. I didn't know it was possible. I didn't know it could happen to me.'
'Possible?' he said.
'You're afraid. Don't be, love. This is a victory. This is why we're here.'
Hercol was silent.
'You're warm,' she said.
He kissed her shoulders, timidly, certain he was appalling her, that his lips and beard were grotesque in their hugeness. Dri s.h.i.+vered, and her arms tightened around him, and for a time he was less timid. Then his eyes felt again the pinp.r.i.c.k of light.
'Dawn is here,' he said.
She moved in a flash, sliding from his arm to the floor, gathering her things in a swift whirlwind. In a few seconds she was herself again, the sword and knife buckled in place, the pack strapped tight across the spot his lips had brushed. He struggled into a sitting position, keeping his wounded hands out of the dirt. She ran up his chest like a short slope and threw her arms about his neck.
'I will keep nothing from you, nothing.'
'Nor I you,' he said, breathless. 'But you must go, my dearest, my heart.'
'We came aboard to steal the s.h.i.+p, Hercol. To wreck it on Stath Balfyr, our Sanctuary-Beyond-the-Sea.'
'Yes,' he said, 'I had begun to think so.'
'That chart in Ott's hand, that Pazel was made to read? We forged it. Do you see the sin of it now? You may have been p.a.w.ns in Ott's game, once. But he remains a p.a.w.n in ours. We've depended on his machinations and his madness. We needed him to succeed.'
'Hush, lady - hush, and go now. There will be other nights.'
'No end to them,' she said, and breathed into his ear. Hercol closed his eyes, and for a moment the sound she made was enormous, larger than the envelope of wind about the Chathrand Chathrand, stronger than the gales they had survived.
Then she fled. Hercol caught a glimpse of her, a running shadow as she pa.s.sed through the bars.
'Dri!' he whispered.
The shadow stopped, and turned. Dri stepped back inside the cell and looked at him.
'I killed them,' he said. 'The princes, Judahn and Saromir, Maisa's boys. I didn't refuse Ott's command, I obeyed it. I murdered those children, for Arqual. It was me.'
'I know,' she said quietly. 'I have known for some time now. It is plain as a scar upon your face.'
'My great change of heart, of which I boast to other children, like Thasha who reveres me: it came only after after those two boys lay dead at my feet. I tried to tell the Empress, before she put Ildraquin in my hand. I could not do it. I have never told anyone but you.' those two boys lay dead at my feet. I tried to tell the Empress, before she put Ildraquin in my hand. I could not do it. I have never told anyone but you.'
Dri came forwards and touched his ankle. 'Thasha is not a child,' she said. 'And she does not revere you, Hercol. She loves you. It is a love well earned.'
Hercol looked away, as if regretting his confession.
'Hear me,' she said. 'There is a path out of the Ninth Pit, the Pit of self-torture, the bottommost. But you have only begun to seek it. This truth needs telling to other ears than mine. Will you stand before their mother, one day, and tell her all?'
At first Hercol made no answer. Then, stiffly, he replied, 'I will tell the Empress, if the chance should come.'
'Pray it does. For I fear the lie will gnaw at your good heart - gnaw like a parasite, until you tear it away.'
'Go now,' he said, 'while the darkness protects you. Let us speak of this no more.'
Still her hand remained on his ankle. 'It is you who sit in darkness. I would take it from you, if I--'
'Go!' he said, more sharply than he intended.
And with a last flash of her copper eyes, she went. Hercol sat alone with his knees drawn to his chest. The air was motionless and heavy, as though he were entombed in wax. The light grew slowly. Magritte, the whaling captain, gave a low moan in his sleep.
The s.h.i.+p's bell rang in the morning, his thirty-seventh in the brig. It was time for his exercises, but for once he did not move. He had finally spoken of it. Dri would not love him long.
A man's laugh floated down from the orlop. Someone hacked and spat. In the corridor, a rat crawled out of the gloom. Hercol watched its approach, indifferent. The rat's step was oddly slow.
'You're sick, aren't you?' he mumbled.
'Unquestionably,' said the rat.
Hercol jumped to his feet. 'It's you! Felthrup! Felthrup! You're alive!'
Overjoyed, he rushed to the front of his cell. But Felthrup did not even turn his head. His step was very deliberate, and clearly caused him a great deal of pain. His stump tail dragged listlessly behind him. His fur was matted with blood.
'Come in!' said Hercol. 'Come in here, I have water, I have bandages! G.o.ds below, little brother, who hurt you? Master Mugstur, was it?'
Felthrup made no reply. He walked past the front of Hercol's cell. When he reached the next, he turned very slowly and peered inside.
'n.o.body what, Felthrup? No one is in that cell, if that's what you mean. Only Magritte and I are imprisoned here. Felthrup - do you know who I am?'
Felthrup slipped through the bars of the empty cell. 'The water,' he said, 'if you can truly spare a mouthful, sir.'
Hercol fetched his water bottle and food bowl. He filled the bowl and carried it to where the two cells met, then put it down and slid it through the bars.
Instantly Felthrup blazed up, snarling. Hercol's hand jerked back.
'Never!' Felthrup hissed, lunging forwards, then turning and das.h.i.+ng in a circle about the cell. 'Never, never, never never put your fingers through the bars! Don't come near, and let no one unlock that door! No matter what I say! Do you hear me? put your fingers through the bars! Don't come near, and let no one unlock that door! No matter what I say! Do you hear me? Do you hear ?' Do you hear ?'
'I hear you, friend.'
Felthrup's strength deserted him as suddenly as it had come. He slumped immobile in the middle of the floor, and Hercol had the terrible feeling that he might have died. But a few minutes later Felthrup rose and hobbled with the same weird, mechanical stiffness to the water bowl, drank a few sips, and moved slowly to the back of the cell. He stood there, blinking out at the pa.s.sage, for a very long time.
'It's starting, Hercol,' he said.
27 Norn 941 166th day from Etherhorde
Of course they could not all march into the stateroom at dawn, while the guard at the door was taking notes. By prior arrangement, Marila and Thasha went to the galley and drank tea with the groggy sailors, just off the night watch. Pazel and Neeps were to spend half an hour on the top deck, where one could linger at any hour without raising undue suspicion. They staggered up the Holy Stair, into a morning of unexpected cold. The deck was slick; a brief rain in the night had coated everything with chilly droplets, which the cold wind stripped from the rigging and flung in their faces.
The boys walked to the forecastle, where they sat down beside a sleepy Mr Fegin, who had the dawn watch. No one spoke: man and boys simply gazed at the cyclonic motions of the clouds over the Vortex, in the east; and the Red Storm, burning across the southern sky, and fading slowly with the dawn. Both the storm and the whirlpool were distinctly closer.
'Somethin' irregular goin' on,' muttered Fegin at last, in what struck Pazel as a triumph of understatement.
When the half-hour was up, the boys made their way down to their old place on the berth deck, under the copper nails. Dastu had slung their hammocks already, and Pazel fell at once into oblivion, despite the daylight and the milling hundreds of sailors and boys. He dreamed that a mult.i.tude of blacker-than-black dlomu, with shark's skin and double-lidded eyes, were surrounding his old house in Ormael, raising black spears and chanting a single word, like a war cry; but the word was Sleep! Sleep!
Three hours later Mr Fiffengurt turned them out of their hammocks again, with many a groan and recrimination, for he had obtained Rose's leave for a short visit to Hercol. 'The girls are waiting outside,' he said. 'Come on, before these apes get too excited by their proximity.'
The girls were puffy-eyed and bedraggled. The five of them stumbled towards the ladderway together, barely speaking, and began the descent into the depths they had left a few hours before. At the mercy deck someone was waiting with a lamp.
'Step lively, there,' said Ignus Chadfallow.
What an unpleasant surprise, thought Pazel numbly, but he knew the doctor's presence was for the best. Chadfallow and Hercol had always been close, and there was no telling in what condition they'd find the swordsman.
His condition, of course, was that of a man with mangled fingernails. Five Turachs in helmets and mail were on hand as well, to supervise the doctor's access to his dangerous patient. Sergeant Haddismal, the new commander of the regiment, was among them. He was every bit as large as Drellarek, and had a belligerent, bug-eyed expression that Pazel found quite unsettling.
'You didn't mention the brats,' he accused Fiffengurt.
Chadfallow caught sight of Hercol's hands, and shoved past the commandos with a florid curse. 'Put your hands through the bars, Hercol, let me at those bandages. This is Ott's doing; I've seen his work before. Criminal! By the verdant Tree, one day I'll have his head!'
Captain Magritte was standing at the front of his cell. 'Doctor, you must attend me next! Give me something for delirium! I've seen the ghost of some old skipper, dressed like a pirate's woman. And fleas the size of kidney beans!'
'That last is no illusion,' said Hercol. 'The fleas are are that big. And they bite like the very devil.' that big. And they bite like the very devil.'
Pazel thought Hercol might be close to delirium himself. Too many emotions played over his face: guilt and ecstasy, pleasure and regret. 'h.e.l.lo, Thasha, boys!' he called out, beckoning with his bandages. 'Pathkendle, come here. I must tell you something.'
Pazel slipped around the watchful Turachs. 'What is it, Hercol?' he said.
The Tholja.s.san switched to his native tongue. 'Don't shout, lad, and don't turn your head to look when I speak. The first thing I need you to know is that I can escape at any time, and come to your aid.'
Dr Chadfallow glanced up quickly. 'Do nothing foolish, man, I pray you,' he said in the same language.
'How could you get out?' said Pazel.
'Never mind that now,' said Hercol. 'Just remember: if you're in danger, a shout down the secondary cargo hatch will bring me quickly. The other thing I must tell you is that the cell to my right is not quite empty. Our missing rat friend is crouched there at the back.'
Pazel seized the bars. 'No! Felth--'
'That's enough!' Haddismal broke in. 'Speak Arquali, if you're going to speak at all!'
Hercol continued in Tholja.s.san. 'He is not well at all. I'm afraid he may be rabid, or worse.'
Pazel discretely s.h.i.+fted his gaze. 'I see him. Aya Rin Aya Rin, he looks dead!'