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That night in the stateroom, while Hercol and Fiffengurt sat at table, speaking of the recent dead and the soon-to-be-born, and Bolutu sketched a drawing of his beloved Empire, pointing out its forests and castles and mountain ranges to a transported Felthrup, Pazel rummaged in his sea chest, among heaps of grimy clothes and knickknacks. When at last he found what he wanted he rose and went into Thasha's cabin without knocking. She was sprawled across the bed, reading the Polylex Polylex with no apparent discomfort - before his startling entrance, at least. He closed the door and went to her, and held the blue silk ribbon up for her to read. with no apparent discomfort - before his startling entrance, at least. He closed the door and went to her, and held the blue silk ribbon up for her to read.
YE DEPART FOR A WORLD UNKNOWN, AND LOVE ALONE SHALL KEEP THEE.
'I was supposed to tie this to your wrist,' he said, and did.
The Kindness of the King
On sunny mornings the man liked to sit by the window and watch the tailor birds repairing their nests. They never stopped or seemed to tire, these little red birds, even when the winter storms lashed the city and pulled their patchwork homes apart like old woollen hats. One of the birds came now and then to talk to him. The man had bribed him with a sc.r.a.p of silk, torn from the lining of his pocket. Now with a telescope borrowed from the king he could see the silk woven into the nest. The bird had thanked him in Simjan, and when the man did not answer, tried several other tongues. The man just nodded, or tilted his head to one side. He had lost the gift of speech and the bird had gained it. The situation was awkward for them both.
Long winter nights the man would lie on the rug, staring at the firelight dancing on the ceiling and worrying about the bird. It was always good humoured but he knew it was in pain. I'm alone in the world except for you, sir. My mate hasn't woken and I fear she never will. I'm alone in the world except for you, sir. My mate hasn't woken and I fear she never will.
When he closed his eyes the rats came looking for him. First he would hear them scuffling below in the depths of the castle, and he would have to get up and check the lock on the door. Later he would hear them sniffing and scrabbling just outside the room. Sometimes they spoke to him in their familiar, horrid way. Penny for a colonel's widow? Penny for a colonel's widow? Often he heard them gnawing at the base of the door. Often he heard them gnawing at the base of the door.
The man had no weapon, and no kiln in which to hide. He knew his only chance was to lie still and make no sound.
They gave him a cat, but it hara.s.sed the bird and he told the nurse with gestures to take it away. They gave him books, all the books written in Arquali that the king could readily obtain, and these were his great comfort. When they hung a mirror above the dressing table the man stood in front of it for a long time, studying himself. A bald, veined head, deepset eyes, chin held high out of habit, not feeling. Then the man turned the mirror's face to the wall.
The king's physician gave him bloodroot tea. He was not surprised that the man had lost both speech and memory. He had treated many battle survivors, and knew the caves into which the mind, like a wounded animal, withdrew in defeat.
'Traumatic semi-catatonia,' he told King Os.h.i.+ram. 'He's made a pact with the G.o.ds, Your Majesty: "Torture me no further and I'll sit here quietly, you'll see, I won't make a sound." '
'Admiral Isiq is a war hero,' said the king.
'Yes, Sire. And also, unfortunately, a man.'
Daytime was pleasant enough. The room in the tower overlooked the Ancestors' Grove, a stand of gnarled beeches surrounding a rush-fringed pool where, as King Os.h.i.+ram had explained, the frogs were said to sing with the voices of the royal dead. It was a small, ancient, walled-in wood. Beyond it lay the rose gardens, dormant now and dead-looking, and farther on the sprawling Cactus Gardens, where the man's last conversation with a loved one had taken place.
The king had installed a sheet of translucent gla.s.s over the whole of the window, with only a tiny aperture to look through. 'For your safety,' the king had told him, very serious and grim. 'The ones who put you in that black pit are still among us, I'd bet my mother's jewels on that. The rat creatures did not kill them all. That is why we can't let your face be seen, and why you must never, ever shout. Use the bell pull; someone will always be listening. Do you understand me, Isiq?'
The king's eyes always told him when to nod.
King Os.h.i.+ram was intelligent and kind. He did not talk down to his guest or presume that what he said was forgotten. Quite the contrary, he spoke to the man seriously, as to a peer, about the intractable problems of the Isle of Simja, and darker matters in the outer world. He often called him Amba.s.sador Amba.s.sador or or Admiral Admiral. He even brought an Arquali fish-and-dagger flag and set it up on a pole in the corner, but after the king left the man had folded it sadly and left it by the door.
One day the king told him with great anxiety of the death of Pacu Lapadolma. 'An accident, they said, an allergic reaction to her food, isn't that a preposterous claim!' It was, said the king, a sign of much worse things to come. It meant the Great Peace was unravelling. Then he shrugged, and glowered, and scratched the back of his neck, and murmured almost inaudibly that perhaps it was never meant to succeed.
After that, each visit brought more awful news. The Mzithrinis were in a state of panic and suspicion. They had cancelled their goodwill missions to Arqual, and were preventing visits - all all visits, commercial, scholarly and diplomatic - to their own country, just as in the worst years after the war. The Permanent Blockade by the White Fleet, which just that autumn they had talked of abolis.h.i.+ng, was now tighter than ever. s.h.i.+ps that strayed too close to the Mzithrini line of control were met with warning shots across their bows. visits, commercial, scholarly and diplomatic - to their own country, just as in the worst years after the war. The Permanent Blockade by the White Fleet, which just that autumn they had talked of abolis.h.i.+ng, was now tighter than ever. s.h.i.+ps that strayed too close to the Mzithrini line of control were met with warning shots across their bows.
The doctor advised the king to spare his guest these stories - 'if you ever want to see him recover, that is.' The king frowned, but obeyed. For almost a week. Then came a day when, after struggling through an amusing tale about his nephew's habit of putting trousers on dogs, he fell silent, until the man stopped glancing out the window and looked at the monarch with concern.
The king met his eye. 'The s.h.a.ggat Ness,' he said quietly. 'Do you remember who he was, Admiral, even if you've forgotten yourself?'
The man nodded, for he did.
'All this ferocity and paranoia, this self-quarantine they've imposed, this blasting of guns and practising for war. It's all about the s.h.a.ggat. Word's leaked out. The whole Pentarchy is ablaze with rumours that the s.h.a.ggat Ness is coming back. From the grave! From the bottom of the Gulf of Thol! His old minions on Gurishal have some daft prophecy - connected I gather with the Great Peace itself, and now they're delirious with the prospect of his return. And the Five Kings, d.a.m.n them, are as superst.i.tious as the blary Nessarim. So they're turning away every possible s.h.i.+p that might be trying to smuggle the madman back to Gurishal. Even though he's forty years dead and gone!'
Suddenly he laughed. 'Religious lunatics. Someone had better break it to them, that's all. "Listen, you dumb b.a.s.t.a.r.ds, the dead don't just wake up one day and return to life." '
Then the king stopped laughing, and looked at the man uneasily. 'Of course, you did,' he said.
The tailor bird had overheard the king. 'Isiq, your name is Isiq! A splendid name! And an admiral, did I get that right?'
The man neither nodded nor shook his head. Something the king had said made him feel it would be wrong to answer.
'No matter! Isiq! We have that, and it's more than we had yesterday! Every twig in the nest, eh? Tomorrow I'll listen to His Highness again, and we shall add another twig.'
Eberzam Isiq put his fingers in the aperture. The bird for the first time let him touch its velvet throat.
But for almost a week the king did not come. Isiq heard him pa.s.s through the lower chambers, his voice high and merry as he shouted to his scribe and chamberlain. When he came at last he slipped in quietly and chattered for an hour about things that had nothing to do with war.
Isiq returned his smile, for he felt the king's new joy as his own. Something on the admiral's face must have revealed his curiosity, for the king laughed and drew his stool closer.
'I can tell you, can't I? You won't go gossiping. I've fallen in love. I'm smitten, I tell you, done for.'
Isiq sat up straight. The king went right on talking.
'Oh, she won't be queen - that'll be dreary Princess Urjan of Urnsfich, one of these years - ah, but this this girl! Once in a lifetime, Isiq. A dancer, with a body to prove it. But she's had a hard life. Was forced to dance for piggish men in Ballytween - dance, and maybe more than dance. Now she's too timid to step in front of an audience, or even enter a crowded room. I seem to have been born to shelter--Never mind, sir, never mind. Ah, but she dances for girl! Once in a lifetime, Isiq. A dancer, with a body to prove it. But she's had a hard life. Was forced to dance for piggish men in Ballytween - dance, and maybe more than dance. Now she's too timid to step in front of an audience, or even enter a crowded room. I seem to have been born to shelter--Never mind, sir, never mind. Ah, but she dances for me me, Admiral. I wish you could see her. Beauty like that would make you recall your youth in a heartbeat.'
None of this made any great impression on Eberzam Isiq. He knew only that the king's visits would be rare henceforth, and they were. The doctor came, and the nurse brought food, and new books, and laundered clothes. The little tailor bird came and spoke sadly of his mate. The winter deepened. And Isiq grew somewhat stronger. His body at the very least was healing. He started calisthenics, though he could not recall having learned them fifty years ago as a cadet.
One day, nibbling soda bread with a blanket across his knees, staring at a page of Arquali poetry as the bird pecked crumbs from the floor, he heard the king beneath him, laughing deep in his throat. The monarch raised his voice to a shout: 'Yes, yes, darling, you win, by all the G.o.ds! Your wish is my own!' And then, very faintly, Isiq heard a woman's musical laugh.
He shot to his feet, scaring the bird back to the window. Book and blanket and cake fell to the floor. He took a step forwards, lips trembling, possessed by yearnings the very existence of which he had forgotten.
'Syrarys?' he whispered.
'Isiq!' screeched the tailor bird, beside himself. 'Isiq, best friend, only friend, you can talk!'
A Meeting of Empires
20 Ilbrin 941 219th day from Etherhorde
With the lookout's cry at dawn, grown men wept with relief.
'Tower ash.o.r.e! Tower ash.o.r.e!'
Felthrup's eyes snapped open. Had he heard correctly?
He was in the doorway of the wedding cupboard, under Hercol's chair. Hercol was already on his feet. 'A tower!' he cried softly. 'Thank the sweet star of Rin!'
'We are saved!' said Felthrup. 'Any settlement will have water! They cannot refuse us enough to stay alive!'
'To me, little brother,' said Hercol, and lifted the rat to his shoulder. Felthrup clung tight, revelling in the strength of his three good legs. Just like Master Mugstur, he had seen his battle-wounds healed when he took monstrous shape. Then (a far greater blessing) the Red Storm had nullified the hideous change, restoring him to his true body, just as it had done to Belesar Bolutu. Even with his burning thirst, Felthrup had not felt so strong in years.
The door to Pacu Lapadolma's cabin opened, and Bolutu himself stepped out, his silver eyes s.h.i.+ning with antic.i.p.ation. The dlomic man had lately moved into Pacu's cabin, which like Hercol's cupboard stood inside the magic wall. He wore an amulet about his neck: a lovely sea-green stone, inlaid with gold likenesses of tiger and snake. It was a sacred emblem, he'd explained vaguely: and this was the first time he'd dared display it in twenty years.
He had also taken to wearing a broadsword. Felthrup didn't know where the sword had come from, but he knew why Bolutu kept it at hand, and why he had changed his quarters. The mood on the Chathrand Chathrand was explosive; men were almost as thirsty for a scapegoat as they were for water. Felthrup himself went nowhere without a guardian. The only thing worse than being the sole dlomu aboard the Great s.h.i.+p was being its last surviving rat. was explosive; men were almost as thirsty for a scapegoat as they were for water. Felthrup himself went nowhere without a guardian. The only thing worse than being the sole dlomu aboard the Great s.h.i.+p was being its last surviving rat.
Scores of men were already rus.h.i.+ng up the Silver Stair, with ixchel flowing past them left and right.. Hercol threw open the stateroom door. 'Thasha! Pathkendle!'
Pazel and Thasha stumbled into the pa.s.sage, blinking. Ensyl was there as well, riding on Pazel's shoulder. Felthrup leaped into Thasha's arms. 'Wake up, my lady!' he said, wriggling with excitement. Thasha nodded vaguely; she did not seem to know quite where she was.
Bolutu was first up the Silver Stair. As soon as he reached the topdeck a cry of joy burst from his lips.
'Narybir! Ay dorin Alifros Ay dorin Alifros, beloved home! That is the Tower of Narybir, Guardian of the East! We have reached Cape Lasung! There is a village beside the tower, and fresh water to spare! And see, there is the inlet we were hunting for!'
The others rushed up the ladderway. A joyful clamour was breaking out above: A village! A village with water to spare! A village! A village with water to spare!
On the topdeck, Bolutu stood with his half-webbed hands spread wide above his head. Men crowded around him, suddenly indifferent to his strangeness, hanging on his every word. Others gazed with longing from the portside rail.
Felthrup sniffed the wind and s.h.i.+vered with excitement. Forest! Forest! He could smell wet bark and pine sap, and a boggy smell like an inland swamp. Then Thasha moved forwards, and Felthrup saw the tower. He could smell wet bark and pine sap, and a boggy smell like an inland swamp. Then Thasha moved forwards, and Felthrup saw the tower.
'Rin's eyes,' said Hercol beside them.
It stood at the end of the Cape: a magnificent spire of rust-red stone. The surface was irregular and deeply grooved. The tower was broad at its foot, with curving butresses that vanished, rootlike, into the sand. As it rose the structure leaned and twisted, so that from afar it resembled some ancient, wind-guttered candle. A little wall ran along the sh.o.r.e at its base. Inland from the wall stood a grove of rugged pines, and then, perhaps a mile from the tower, a village of low stone houses.
Eastward, the island tapered to a sandy point. Then came a mile of open sea, and beyond it the Northern Sandwall resumed, a ribbon of dunes curving away into the distance.
'Did I not promise you?' said Bolutu, turning to Pazel and Thasha. 'Did I not say that the worst lay behind us?'
'You told us,' said Thasha uncertainly. Pazel stood hugging his coat tight about him, watchful and uneasy. Felthrup caught his eye, and felt a spark of worry ignite in his heart.
'Bolutu!' shouted Taliktrum, looking down from the quarterdeck, where he perched on Elkstem's shoulder. 'Is that a naval installation? Will they confront us with wars.h.i.+ps if we enter the Gulf?'
'There is a small detachment of Asp warriors, if I recall, sir. But it was never a great fighting base. Narybir is a watchtower; her s.h.i.+ps are meant to carry warnings with all possible speed to the City of Masalym, thirty miles across the Gulf, where no doubt an Imperial wars.h.i.+p or two lies at anchor. Her signal-lights also send messages to the s.h.i.+ps themselves, and keep them from wrecking on the Sandwall.'
Another whisper of joy swept the deck. Thirty miles to the mainland Thirty miles to the mainland - - to a city, a city, did you hear him? to a city, a city, did you hear him?
'Can we have washed up right in the heart of your blary Empire?' demanded Taliktrum.
'No indeed,' said Bolutu. 'Masalym is the easternmost of the Five Pillars of the Bali Adro Coast. Sail east another hundred miles and you leave the Empire for the Dominion of Karysk and the Ghired Vale, and beyond that I cannot say. Our capital lies in the other direction, two thousand miles to the south-west. Farther still lies my birth city: beautiful Istolym, westernmost of all.'
'Have you ever set foot in this Masalym then?' demanded Elkstem.
The dlomu shook his head. 'Our s.h.i.+p set sail from Bali Adro City. I know the tower before us from paintings only, but it is unmistakable. Trust me, Sailmaster ! I know exactly exactly where we are.' where we are.'
As he spoke these last words he glanced quickly at Pazel and Thasha, and touched the corner of one silvery eye. To the others it looked like a thoughtless gesture, but Pazel understood at once. His masters, the mages of the South. They know where we are too, now. He's just shown them. His masters, the mages of the South. They know where we are too, now. He's just shown them.
'Trust me, all of you!' Bolutu went on joyfully. 'My mission was a famous one, and even if the name of Bolutu Urstorch has been forgotten after twenty years, that of my s.h.i.+p Sofima Rega Sofima Rega never shall be. The men of Narybir will welcome us with open arms.' never shall be. The men of Narybir will welcome us with open arms.'
'And flash a message to that city in an instant, maybe,' said Taliktrum, 'from which one or two - or twenty - guns.h.i.+ps will be launched.'
'Aye,' grunted Alyash, who had appeared at the rail. 'A Segral Segral from across the Nelluroq won't be greeted with a shrug, now, will it? They'll want to stop us cold. They'll never let us go on our merry way, traipsin' east to west through their waters. At the very least they'll board us and inspect every last corner of the s.h.i.+p. And what d'ye suppose they'll make of the Nilstone?' from across the Nelluroq won't be greeted with a shrug, now, will it? They'll want to stop us cold. They'll never let us go on our merry way, traipsin' east to west through their waters. At the very least they'll board us and inspect every last corner of the s.h.i.+p. And what d'ye suppose they'll make of the Nilstone?'
'Better if we had had struck land in a wilderness,' said Taliktrum, 'for your purposes, and ours.' struck land in a wilderness,' said Taliktrum, 'for your purposes, and ours.'
For a moment no one spoke. On Thasha's shoulder, Felthrup began to fidget. He sniffed the air again. 'Don't like it, don't like it,' he murmured.
'You say men live in that village by the tower,' said a sceptical voice in the crowd. 'Do you mean real real men, or your sort of thing?' men, or your sort of thing?'
It was Uskins, looking pale and rather sickly. He was keeping a sheepish distance from the other officers since his blunders in the Vortex. Bolutu glanced at him briefly.
'As it happens I mean both, sir,' said Bolutu. 'Let me say again: in Bali Adro the races live together in peace.'
'But you things rule, don't you?'