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'What if she hadn't?'
Pazel's question was a plea. As if he could already sense them, somehow: the fire and the death shrieks, the enslavements, the notion of rape, the battle axe history was about to take to his world.
Chadfallow looked at him squarely. Lowering his voice, he said, 'If she had not returned I would have taken you to Etherhorde, and made a proper Arquali of you, and sent you to a proper school. One of the three High Academies, to be sure. And when you graduated, you would not have received a pat on the head, but a line of your own in the Endless Scroll, which the Young Scholars of the Imperium have signed for eight centuries. And you should have had friends who loved you for your cleverness instead of being jealous of it. And though you may not believe me, in a few years you would have forgotten these dullards and jackanapes, and been at home as never before.'
Pazel was dumbstruck. He couldn't possibly deserve all that. Chadfallow looked at him, almost smirking - until Suthinia appeared from nowhere, pushed the doctor back in his chair, and smacked him hard.
'You'll take him when they bury bury me, Ignus,' she said. Then she grabbed Pazel by the arm and marched him into the house. me, Ignus,' she said. Then she grabbed Pazel by the arm and marched him into the house.
'Mother, Mother,' Pazel said as they rushed up the stairs. 'He meant if I was alone alone, if something happened to you. Let go. You don't understand.'
'I understand more than you think,' she snapped.
She was hurting his arm. 'You're an animal,' he shouted, inspired. 'I wish you had had stayed away. I want to go with him to Etherhorde.' stayed away. I want to go with him to Etherhorde.'
She dragged him into the washroom, thrust him before the mirror. 'Look at your skin. In Etherhorde they'd take you for a tarboy, or a slave.'
He bellowed right back at her: 'I'm not the colour of Ormalis either!' Which was true, if just barely: he had a bit too much caramel in his complexion, and his hair was too brown.
Suthinia shrugged. 'You're close enough.'
'I look like you,' he sobbed. At that moment it was the worst insult that occurred to him. His mother began to laugh, which enraged him all the more. 'Etherhorde's a proper city,' he shouted. 'Ignus belongs there, and so could I, if you'd just leave me alone.'
She would leave him the very next day, and possibly for ever, but at that moment his words had a curious effect. Her laughter and her fury vanished, and she looked at him with a kind of sad wonder, as if she had only just understood what they were talking about.
'You couldn't belong there,' she said. 'We will never belong among those who belong. The best thing to do is to cobble together some tribe of outcasts, when you're old enough to find them.'
'Ignus is a dreamer. He's thinking of some other boy, some life that might have been, if the world were very different. I don't care if you believe what I say. Just remember it, love, and decide for yourself who told the truth.'
Pazel stumbled, bas.h.i.+ng Thasha with his s.h.i.+ns. Her body was growing heavy. Fiffengurt was hobbling, favouring a knee.
'This blary guard's right on top of us,' he said in a low voice, glancing nervously at Pazel. 'You'll never be able to - you know.'
'Sure he will,' said Neeps. 'You didn't see us in the Crab Fens, with the Volpeks behind us. My mate here can run like a whiplash hound.'
Pazel smiled grimly. He had a st.i.tch in his side. 'I'll lose them, don't worry,' he said.
'They may not even try to stop you,' said Hercol. But his voice was reluctant, as though something else entirely was worrying his thoughts.
Fiffengurt took no notice. 'I'll miss you, Pathkendle,' he said gruffly, 'd.a.m.ned troublemaker though you are.'
Pazel dropped his eyes. He would miss them too. For somewhere in the heart of the city he was going to slip away. He had to do it; even Hercol had agreed. There was a fight to be waged on the Chathrand Chathrand, but there was another, just as vital, ash.o.r.e: the fight to expose the conspiracy. No better chance would come than this one, with delegations from every land packed into Simjalla. And no better person existed for the job than Pazel. He had learned something from his Gift: when you spoke to people in their own language, they tended to listen. Pazel would speak the truth to everyone he met - servants, sailors, kings - until it was the talk of Simja, and no power on earth could suppress it.
'You won't be missing him long,' said Neeps vehemently. 'Just watch, he'll be aboard the Chathrand Chathrand by nightfall.' by nightfall.'
No one said anything to that. There was no telling what would become of Pazel, once he started speaking the truth. It was more likely that sunset would find him in some kitchen, cowering under the sink, or at the bottom of a laundry hamper, or in a temple belfry, hiding from the Secret Fist. And then only if he managed to win someone's trust. If he sounded not just clever, but sane.
They had carried Thasha as far as the stormbreak pines when the Fulbreech youth reappeared. The palace guard warded him off at spearpoint, until Hercol told them to let him approach.
'The lady Thasha is dead,' he said to Fulbreech. 'Send a carriage for her father - that is him on the road behind us - and find us at the docks, straight away. You and I must must speak again, Fulbreech.'
The youth stared at Thasha, wide-eyed. 'I shall fetch that carriage,' he said at last, and dashed ahead of them towards the city.
Pazel was burning to ask Hercol about Fulbreech. Who was he, why did he keep popping up? But the Tholja.s.san's face made it plain that he would breathe no word of explanation, at least not here in the presence of the guard.
Some minutes later they reached the city gate. Poor folk were busy here, filling sacks with isporelli petals to render into perfume. Thasha's body gave them a terrible shock. Old monks, too feeble for the march to the shrine, burst into shouts of Aya Rin! Aya Rin! Children screamed; old women raised their arms to heaven and wept. Children screamed; old women raised their arms to heaven and wept.
Straight through Simjalla they ran, a morbid reversal of the procession, and with every block the wails grew louder. Pazel was tensed, now, waiting for his chance to break away. But the chance did not come. The captain of the guard was following the king's instructions to the letter: his men ran ahead and behind the foursome and let no one approach. Pazel glanced beseechingly at Neeps, who frowned and shook his head.
As they neared the port the streets were lined with men and women, moaning in disbelief, flags of Arqual and the Mzithrin slipping forgotten from their hands. Pazel was growing desperate. Once they put him in a boat it would be too late.
They turned another corner. At the end of the block, Pazel could see masts and rigging and wooden hulls crowding the quay. 'Listen,' he whispered urgently to the others, 'I'm going, it's time.'
'Pazel, no!' hissed Neeps. 'Everybody and his brother's watching us!'
'So what? It's Thasha they're worried about.'
'This mob's crazy with grief,' said Fiffengurt. 'You run off now and someone's likely to chase you down and break your teeth with a brick.'
'They don't care about me,' Pazel insisted. 'I'm just a tarboy who happened to know her.'
Hercol too shook his head. 'You cannot go now, lad. We must find another way.'
Pazel looked from friend to friend. They were protecting him, even at the cost of disaster. Just as old Isiq would have done, if they'd tried to reason with him, explain the path Thasha had chosen.
Pazel did not look at her, fearing he would choke if he saw her pale, cold face. How had her last minutes been with Isiq? You knew, didn't you, Thasha? A time comes when you just stop arguing. You knew, didn't you, Thasha? A time comes when you just stop arguing.
Seconds later he was leaping and shoving his way through startled onlookers, making for a sidestreet, running for all he was worth. The other three cried out, but they were still supporting Thasha and could not let her fall. Members of the guard hooted and jeered - 'Run, you b.a.s.t.a.r.d! Fair-weather friend!' - but as he'd expected, none gave chase. The sidestreet had been roped off during the procession, and it was not hard to see why. It was narrow and steep, twisting up a hill by way of many crumbling staircases. After the first bend he saw only a handful of people; after the second, none at all. Still he kept running, as though speed were the only way to make sure he went through with the plan. He thought: Lose yourself. That life's finished. A new one has to begin Lose yourself. That life's finished. A new one has to begin. True, Ramachni had said that their greatest strength lay in the family they'd built on the voyage to Simja. But families splintered, and Ramachni was gone - he had been, Pazel suddenly reflected, the very first one to leave.
He turned left into an even narrower street. Here at last he allowed himself to catch his breath. He was well away from the port and the mob of mourners. It was time to think about where he should be going.
Unconsciously he put his hand in his pocket. Something sheer and light met his fingers, and he drew it out. It was the Blessing-Band, the blue silk ribbon from Thasha's Lorg School. YE DEPART FOR A WORLD UNKNOWN, AND LOVE ALONE SHALL KEEP THEE. How had it gotten there? He could distinctly remember dropping it in the shrine.
Pazel looked down the street. Decrepit balconies, bright streamers of hanging laundry. Then he lowered his eyes and saw that someone had entered the street from the far end. It was a rider, seated on one of Simja's giant messenger birds. He stopped the bird with a sharp tug on its wing harness some thirty feet from Pazel, and stared openly at the boy.
A soft sound behind him. Pazel whirled and saw another man, afoot, leaning in a doorway that had been empty a moment before. He was dressed in humble Simjan work clothes, a street sweeper or a mason perhaps. But he looked at Pazel with the same intensity as the rider.
Pazel felt the danger in them at once. Impulsively he began to walk down the alley towards the rider, as though merely continuing on his way. The bird pranced and croaked, and then the rider moved into his path. He held up his hand for Pazel to stop.
'The grain in the fields is yellow, but?' he said.
'I b-beg your - ?'
'That is the wrong answer.'
The man spurred his mount towards Pazel, and the bird lowered its head and struck him a blow like a blunt axe to the chest. Pazel staggered, his breath knocked out of him. The man in work clothes was strolling towards him, grinning. The rider turned the messenger bird again, and Pazel saw a long steel nail protruding from the toe of his boot. Pazel leaped sidelong as the man lashed out. The nail missed by inches. Cursing, the man began to dismount.
Then his head shot up. Pazel turned and saw Hercol leap into the air like a dancer, feint with his right leg, and deliver a lightning strike with the left that felled the man in work clothes like a puppet whose strings have snapped.
The moment he touched the ground Hercol was sprinting for Pazel. The rider hauled his bird about, kicking savagely with his heels. With a deep croak the bird bore him away.
Hercol seized Pazel by the chin. 'All right?' he said.
'I think so. Ouch! Ouch! ' He put a hand to his chest. ' He put a hand to his chest.
'You'll be sore for a fortnight, if it was that fenneg fenneg bird that struck you.' He shook his head. 'Why didn't you listen, Pazel? I told you not to go through with it.' bird that struck you.' He shook his head. 'Why didn't you listen, Pazel? I told you not to go through with it.'
'I thought you were just trying to protect me,' said Pazel.
'So I was! I saw the Secret Fist watching us from every third corner, the moment we entered the gates. Come quickly! When that rider sounds the alarm they'll fall on us in force.'
They ran back the way Pazel had come. The man Hercol had kicked lay still, his neck twisted at an unnatural angle. Pazel shut his eyes a moment, but he never forgot the man's look of shock, the gape of the bloodied mouth, the wide-open eyes. Like the faces of so many dead, he would glimpse it in dreams for years to come.
When they reached the port they had to fight their way through the crowd. Even in the short time he had been gone it had swollen, and its anxiety had increased. Some were literally weeping with fear. There would be war, another eternity of war; how had they ever let themselves hope it could end? Others vented their anguish on Pazel: 'Caught the little deserter! Good work! Always whip a s.h.i.+p-jumper, I say!'
Hercol led him to a fis.h.i.+ng pier, at the foot of which King Os.h.i.+ram's men were holding back the crowd. They were let through, and Pazel saw Fiffengurt and Neeps standing beside Thasha's body at the end of the pier. Both were looking in the direction of the Chathrand Chathrand, which loomed like a sea fortress three miles offsh.o.r.e.
Their faces lit up at the sight of Pazel. 'Welcome back, fool,' said Neeps.
Pazel didn't argue the point. 'What are we going to do now?' he said.
'First, get Thasha back to the Chathrand Chathrand,' said Hercol. 'When that is done, we shall seek another way to reveal Arqual's plot to the world. A way that doesn't require tarboys to play cat and mouse with a.s.sa.s.sins.'
'That'll be a pleasant change,' said Neeps, watching the bay. 'Dancing devils! Why are those rowers so slow?'
'Because you're watching 'em,' said Fiffengurt.
Pazel paced the dock, trying not to look at the bundle at Hercol's feet. After an interminable wait the skiff reached the pier. The men at oars saw Thasha and began shouting at once: 'Who did it, Mr Fiffengurt? Who would lay a finger on her? Can we kill him, sir ?'
Lowering Thasha into the boat was an undignified affair. The Babqri love-knot slipped, and her golden hair spilled onto the slimy floor. They could not stretch her out, and at last placed her feet on the bench between the rowers. Neeps tried to clean her hair on his trousers.
The sailors wept. Like most of the crew they had not cared much for the Treaty Bride at first. n.o.ble-born pa.s.sengers came and went, often greeting sailors, if at all, with a barely disguised sneer. The men returned the favour, and accounts of first-cla.s.s ignorance, seasickness, fear of rats and fleas and bedbugs and general uselessness were traded like hard candies on the lower decks.
But they had not sneered long at Thasha Isiq. Rather than fine food or bleached petticoats she had wished for a chance to climb the masts or explore the black cavern of the hold. She was also a virtuoso swearer: a lifetime of eavesdropping on captains, commodores and other guests at her father's table had made her a walking sc.r.a.pbook of naval curses. By the Chathrand Chathrand 's first landfall men were boasting of her beauty, and when a rumour spread that she had flattened a pair of thuggish tarboys in a brawl, they had added ferocity to her list of virtues. She was 'a good 'un,' they decided, and there was no higher praise. 's first landfall men were boasting of her beauty, and when a rumour spread that she had flattened a pair of thuggish tarboys in a brawl, they had added ferocity to her list of virtues. She was 'a good 'un,' they decided, and there was no higher praise.
A sudden voice from the Chathrand: Chathrand: 'What is this, Quartermaster ?' 'What is this, Quartermaster ?'
It was Captain Rose. The red-bearded man was studying them with intense suspicion, his enormous hands gripping the rail. Beside him stood Lady Oggosk, his witch-seer, old eyes gleaming from beneath a faded shawl.
Before Fiffengurt could reply, Hercol shouted: 'This, Rose, is the end of your conspiracy - and what will concern you far less, the end of one n.o.bler than certain minds can grasp.'
'I've seen enough of corpses. Bury that one in Simja, whoever he is.'
Hercol reached out and uncovered Thasha's face, now deathly grey.
'You would do well not to impede the return of Thasha to Etherhorde. His Supremacy will wish to pay his respects.'
'What, what?' cried Oggosk. 'The girl is dead?'
'I believe I just said that, d.u.c.h.ess.'
Rose did not stand in their way. Indeed he helped by clearing the deck of all but essential hands. Nonetheless as the lifeboat drew alongside the towering vessel, Pazel heard cries of anguish and disbelief. Oggosk's voice had carried: the news was already loose on the s.h.i.+p.
The davit-lines were made fast, and heave by heave the men of the watch hauled the lifeboat up the s.h.i.+p's flank.
'Line a casket with paraffin,' said Rose when they reached the topdeck. 'We'll send ash.o.r.e for an embalmer.'
'Dr Chadfallow will do,' said Hercol.
Rose nodded. 'She was brave. I am saddened by this.'
Pazel looked at him with fury. Liar. Liar.
Across the deck men stood gaping, holding their caps. Lady Oggosk muttered a prayer. As they lifted Thasha from the boat, the witch suddenly put a hand on the girl's cold, colourless forehead. Oggosk's milk-blue eyes opened wide. She turned her gaze on Pazel, and for a moment he was transfixed. It was as if she could see right through him.
'What have you done?' she whispered.
With a great effort Pazel wrenched his gaze away. Oggosk stepped back, but Pazel seemed to feel her eyes drilling at a point between his shoulders as they crossed the endless topdeck, silent but for creaks of the rigging and the sighs of stricken men.
Demons of cruelty had sewn his wedding shoes.
Half a mile behind the bearers of Thasha's corpse, Admiral Isiq kicked the silk things into the roadside brush. At once he felt better. He had been no poor runner once - ages ago, before his first command - and the feel of dry, dung-laced earth on his bare feet summoned memories of Turam, the old Isiq homestead in the Westfirth, where his father had killed a marauding bear with just a hunting knife. He loosened his cravat. He was gaining on them.
Behind him, the mob wailed in their thousands. Soon the youngest would catch up, shout their sympathies, get in his way. He broke into a cautious run. Misery it seemed, like fury, could give one strength.
I've lost my girl. Lost her mother twelve years before. Lost Syrarys - she was ever my foe but I possessed her body, her hands, possessed a lovely illusion. Even that they have taken from me. But not this body, you b.a.s.t.a.r.ds, you filth. Not this mind pitted against you for ever.
He was thinking of his Emperor, and Rose, and above all Sandor Ott. Arunis might have killed Thasha, but Ott had spun the web in which the sorcerer found her, hopelessly tangled. Arunis had come out of nowhere; Ott had shadowed Isiq for years, disguised as an honour guardsman.
By the G.o.ds, it felt good to run again. The road burned the soles of his feet and each slap said, You live, you can act, you have nothing left to fear. You live, you can act, you have nothing left to fear.
He saw now what he had to do. Thasha's sacrifice meant the prophecy was annulled: no stirrings of revolution would begin on Gurishal, no preparations for the return of their G.o.d. But the s.h.a.ggat remained. So did the will to make him flesh again. Above all, so did the Nilstone.
Which meant that some other vessel would have to bear his daughter home: the Chathrand Chathrand must never leave this port. And there was only one power in the Bay of Simja that could stop it. For all their show of guns, the Mzithrini s.h.i.+ps would never dare to act against an Arquali vessel. Not here anyway, before the eyes of the world. But King Os.h.i.+ram would have every right. Simja's navy might be a pitiful thing, but ten or twelve wars.h.i.+ps were surely enough to hold the must never leave this port. And there was only one power in the Bay of Simja that could stop it. For all their show of guns, the Mzithrini s.h.i.+ps would never dare to act against an Arquali vessel. Not here anyway, before the eyes of the world. But King Os.h.i.+ram would have every right. Simja's navy might be a pitiful thing, but ten or twelve wars.h.i.+ps were surely enough to hold the Chathrand Chathrand, immense as she was. You never dreamed I would go this far. You have counted on my blind love of Arqual, my soldier's oath. You will regret it. You never dreamed I would go this far. You have counted on my blind love of Arqual, my soldier's oath. You will regret it.
Thasha's body pa.s.sed through the North Gate, and Isiq was but minutes behind. The flower-collectors pointed the way. He would be mortally sick with fatigue when this task was done. But done it would be, and let the night come after.