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'Uskins!' snapped Taliktrum. 'Living creatures are not to be referred to as things things. And you in particular must learn to keep your mouth shut. Nothing but foolishness comes out of it.'
'Mr Taliktrum,' said Elkstem nervously, 'they may have flashed that signal already.'
Taliktrum looked at him, startled. The crowd was abruptly tense.
'He's right,' said Alyash. 'What good's a watchtower if it's not quick with its warnings? And even if the mainland can't spot its signal light, there must be boats on the Gulf that can. And they'll relay the message to that city, if it's really there.'
'No,' muttered Felthrup.
'They could be weighing anchor even now!' said an ixchel at Taliktrum's side.
'And our men are in no shape for a fight,' added Uskins.
'Fight?' cried Bolutu. 'My dear sirs, you do not grasp the situation at all! We are a secure and confident people. No power in Alifros need give Bali Adro a moment's fear. We do not attack strangers who arrive on our doorstep! Why should we? Go and get your water, gentlemen! No one is going to take your ship away.'
'Listen to him!' shouted someone, and the crowd rumbled agreement.
'No, no, no,' said Felthrup, who was now practically writhing on Thasha's shoulder.
'Can't you keep that rat quiet?' Alyash snapped at Thasha.
Thasha returned his stare with loathing. 'What's the matter, Felthrup? Don't listen to him. Go ahead, speak up.'
All eyes turned to the rat. Felthrup opened his mouth to speak - but his brain was working too quickly, and his nerves got the better of him. He began to sniff hard and fast, like a monk at his breathing exercises. Then he gasped aloud.
'Grease,' he said. 'Cookfires. Last night's dinner!'
Alyash made a sound of contempt.
'I don't smell a blary thing,' said Elkstem.
'You ain't a rat, are ye?' said Fiffengurt. 'They can stand on a roof and smell a bean in the basement. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if those smells fetched across the water.'
'No!' wailed Felthrup. 'I can't smell anything! anything! Wake up, wake up!' Wake up, wake up!'
He began to squeal pitifully and rub his snout with his paws. Thasha cradled him, whispering soothing words, but he only grew worse, convulsing with dry heaves. He spoke no more, and with a look of concern Thasha bore him away.
Myett whispered something urgently into Taliktrum's ear. He nodded, as though the thought had occurred to him already.
'Mr Elkstem,' he said, 'plot a course through the inlet. We shall go and get our water - quickly - unless there is some coherent coherent objection?' objection?'
A roar of approval from the men. Pazel and Hercol exchanged a look. In the swordsman's eyes Pazel saw a reflection of his own unease. Felthrup had an extraordinary way of thinking. His nerves had betrayed him the same way in Simja, when he guessed Ott's trick with Pacu. Some deep part of him seemed to grasp things before he could explain them, even to himself.
But what choice did they have? Without water, the men would soon be more delirious than Felthrup. And then they would start to die.
Mr Fiffengurt took a tally: of the sixteen officers charged with record keeping, eleven reckoned the date to be 20 Ilbrin of the year 941.13 He sent a request to Captain Rose to make the date official: He sent a request to Captain Rose to make the date official: Without that we agree on the date, sir, I fear the men's hearts will go evermore adrift Without that we agree on the date, sir, I fear the men's hearts will go evermore adrift. Rose agreed at once, and the date of the IMS Chathrand Chathrand 's entrance into the Gulf of Masal was fixed for all time. 's entrance into the Gulf of Masal was fixed for all time.
Fiffengurt assumed that the day would be remembered for the meeting of two worlds so long divided, and in a sense he was right. It was in any case a day no one aboard was ever able to forget.
They cleared the inlet with nine fathoms to spare. On the leeward side Cape Lasung formed a broad sandy hook, with a number of small, rocky islands clustered near the point commanded by the Tower of Narybir. Several of these inner isles had stone houses and fortifications. But no voices hailed them, from tower or village, and the channel-markers Bolutu had predicted could not be found.
'Where's the fishing fleet?' said Pazel.
'Out on the Gulf, obviously,' said Mr Uskins, as though glad to be addressing someone of lower status than himself. 'Still bringing in the night's catch.'
'Every last boat?' said Pazel dubiously.
'How many do you imagine they have?' said Uskins. 'Even by Ormali standards this hardly represents a--Look there! A ship! Ship on the starboard quarter! What did I tell you, Muketch?'
He had indeed spotted a vessel on the Gulf. But it was no fishing boat. It was a strange, slender brig, eight or ten miles off, appearing and disappearing behind the islands. Telescopes revealed three similar vessels at a greater distance.
They were not making for the Cape. All four were sailing due east - and swiftly, by their spread of sail. Those sails were tattered, however, and one of the brigs had lost its mizzenmast. Strangest of all, Mr Bolutu could make no sense of their blazing red pennants, which were not the colours of Bali Adro. 'The world is vast,' he said, shaking his head.
Perhaps, but the village at the foot of Narybir was tiny. It was hard to imagine danger of any kind lurking in that clutch of meagre cottages, listing fences, crumbling barns. Only the stonework - the mighty tower, the low wall above the water-line, a jetty protecting the fishing harbour - suggested that the outpost had any connection to an Empire.
And still there was no one to be seen. No voices answered their shouts and horns and whistles. Bolutu suggested they fire a cannon in greeting, but Taliktrum forbade it. None of the brigs had yet altered course, and he wished to keep it that way. Why announce their presence to every ship in the Gulf?
'You will get your water and return with all possible speed,' he told Mr Fiffengurt. 'But do not forget the hostages. Attempt any betrayal, and the lives of your people are forfeit.'
They lost depth rapidly. Three miles from the village Fiffengurt brought them up short. 'Furl the mains, Mr Alyash, and heave to. We've not come thousands of miles to split our keel on a blary sandbar.'
Fiffengurt pointed at the jetty. 'We'll load our water there. It's a bit outside the village, but at least it's solid stone. Mr Fegin, we shall bring the water on board with the sixty-foot yawl. See to the placement of casks in her hold, and put a cargo lift together. And for Rin's sake brace her main yard stoutly. When they're full those casks will weigh two thousand pounds apiece.'
'Oppo, Cap - Mr Fiffengurt, sir,' stammered Fegin.
'And have the carpenter get started on a wagon, for moving the casks about on shore.'
'Sir, that is pointless labour!' said Bolutu, laughing. 'There are surely wagons in the village. And these are sea-faring folk. They will come out in the hundreds to help fellow sailors in need.'
'All right,' said Fiffengurt, 'don't have him build it just yet, Fegin. But let the plans be drawn up all the same. Meanwhile we shall launch the pilot boat, and go looking for these timid folk.'
The pilot boat could carry twelve. Six of those, at Taliktrum's insistence, were Turachs. Besides Bolutu, Fiffengurt also asked Hercol, Pazel and Thasha to come ashore, for no clear reason except that he trusted them. The last member of the landing party, Alyash, he included for the opposite reason: because he didn't trust Ott's man to be left alone on the ship.
'In some ways,' added Fiffengurt quietly to Pazel as the Turachs rowed for shore, 'the ixchel made our lives easier. The most dangerous men on Chathrand Chathrand are all locked in her forecastle.' are all locked in her forecastle.'
Except for one, thought Pazel, looking back at the gargantuan, battle-scarred ship. Taliktrum had ordered a search for Arunis, deck by deck, but somehow the mage had eluded them. What's he hiding for? Did he find out, somehow, about Bolutu's allies? Could they be closer than we think? What's he hiding for? Did he find out, somehow, about Bolutu's allies? Could they be closer than we think?
The jetty began at the foot of the tower, and was built of the same red stone. It swept in a graceful curve out into the Gulf, shattering the waves from the inlet, and leaving the water within its embrace almost becalmed. Stairs descended to the water in three places, and at one of these they moored the boat. From there, it was a short, awkward jump onto the weedy stairs.
As he climbed Pazel felt terribly dizzy. The very stillness of the jetty was to blame, he knew: after months at sea only constant motion felt natural. They'd be gone again before he got his land-legs.
His comprehension didn't stop him from slipping, however. He might have tumbled right off the wet stones if Thasha's arm hadn't shot out to catch him. Her eyes snapped to his own, and for a moment the Thasha he knew rose within them. She gave him a slight, teasing smile, her parched skin wrinkling. He felt more relief at the sight of that smile than he had to be saved from falling. But even as they stepped onto the jetty the haunted look was creeping back over her face. He clasped her hand, tightly. Stay with me, he thought.
They reached the top of the jetty. Pazel looked up at the soaring tower, its bone-like barrenness, the hundreds of narrow windows gaping darkly overhead. Then one of the soldiers cried out in surprise and pointed.
Four humans stood watching them, where the jetty met the shore. Two men, two women. All four naked. They were lean, sun-darkened, their hair long and tangled. They were motionless as deer.
For a startled instant no one said a word. Then Fiffengurt turned to Bolutu with an exasperated gesture. 'Speak, man, speak!' The dlomic man cupped his hands to his lips.
'Waelmed!' he shouted. ' he shouted. 'Peace te abbrun ye, en greetigs hrom ecros ke Nelroq!'
The four figures turned and ran. One of the women gave an odd, keening cry. Then all four vanished around one of the rootlike buttresses of the tower.
The others in the party scowled in bewilderment. What Bolutu had shouted was almost almost Arquali, and yet unlike anything they had ever heard. Arquali, and yet unlike anything they had ever heard.
'What in the tar-bottomed Pits was that gibberish?' said Fiffengurt.
'That was their language, Quartermaster,' said Bolutu promptly, 'and my own. I'm happy to tell you that our Imperial Common Tongue, which we call dlomic, is first cousin to your Arquali, for the simple reason that your empire was founded by exiles from Bali Adro, many centuries ago. Didn't I say Pazel's Gift would not be needed? Give yourselves a week or two, and you'll understand almost anyone you meet. You speak a dialect of dlomic, my friends, and have done so all your lives.'
'Exiles?' said Thasha faintly.
'Human exiles,' said Bolutu, 'but in Bali Adro every child - human or dlomu or otherwise - learns Imperial Common. Your histories don't reach back that far, m'lady, but ours do, and they leave little doubt. Your great Empire began as a colony of our own.'
He spoke with humility, as if he knew his words would shock. They did, of course. But no one exclaimed, or asked questions. They had gone beyond shock in recent weeks, and thirst was making it hard to think or care about anything else.
Yet in some part of his mind Pazel was still fearful and confused. 'Why did they run off, if you were speaking their language?' he asked.
'They didn't understand a word!' said Alyash vehemently. 'They're savages, obviously.'
'In these parts? Nonsense!' said Bolutu. 'I expect they were swimming, and we startled them.' His silver eyes glanced at them sidelong. 'You should see yourselves. I might run too, if you popped suddenly out of the sea.'
They headed for shore, through the cool spray of the breakers striking the jetty's seaward face. The village was out of sight behind the wall along the shore, except for a few roofs and steeples in poor repair. Little sand-coloured crabs ran before them. Grey pelicans swept by overhead.
Pazel was frowning. 'It doesn't add up,' he whispered to Thasha. 'The way they just froze, staring at us. And then ran off without a word.'
Thasha blinked, as though struggling to focus on his words. 'Their hair was still dry,' she managed finally. 'They hadn't been swimming.'
Pazel squeezed her hand tighter. The behaviour of the humans was certainly strange, but Thasha's troubled him even more. Her awareness of him, and for that matter of all that surrounded her, came and went like the sun through drifting clouds. Often her gaze turned inwards, as though her body were forgotten, and she was living in some distant country of the mind. But at other times her eyes jumped and darted, chasing things invisible to his eyes. Was it the Nilstone at work? She had touched it with the hand he held now, the one she'd maimed years ago in the garden of the Lorg. He ran a finger over the scar. It was warm to the touch.
Her hand twitched as though he'd found a ticklish spot. She gave him a look that was briefly clear, and once more that hint of a smile played over her lips.
'Oggosk can't do much to us now,' she said.
Pazel nodded, avoiding her gaze. It was true: they were free. The ixchel were no secret; Oggosk had run out of blackmail. But the witch had had a reason for her threats, something she believed absolutely. What Thasha is to do, she must do alone. You can only get in her way What Thasha is to do, she must do alone. You can only get in her way.
They reached the jetty's end. Fiffengurt stepped ashore, knelt, and kissed the sand at his feet.
'Hail Cora, proud and beautiful,' he said, and the others mumbled an affirming 'Hail.' It was a ritual never to be skipped: the commander's greeting to Cora, Goddess of the earth, at the end of any particularly deadly voyage. Failure to do so, it was thought, could bring disasters ashore to match those just avoided at sea.
As Fiffengurt rose, something caught his eye. He chuckled, pointing. Scattered on the earth were several piles of blue-black mussel shells, still wet from the sea. A few had been cracked open. Pazel looked down, and saw the little shells clinging thickly to base of the jetty, right at the water-line.
'So that's what they were up to,' he said. 'But why didn't they bring a basket? How were they going to carry them home?'
'No clothes, no baskets, no tools,' said Alyash, frowning. 'Right free spirits, ain't they?'
'It is is strange - I confess it,' said Bolutu sharply. 'But there are strange folk everywhere. Come, let us go and clear this matter up.' strange - I confess it,' said Bolutu sharply. 'But there are strange folk everywhere. Come, let us go and clear this matter up.'
Suddenly a cry, faint but urgent, reached them from the Chathrand Chathrand. They turned and looked at her, but could see nothing amiss. The sound did not come again.
'We must find that water,' said Hercol. 'The crew's patience is at an end.'
The tower doors were shut; a bolt as thick as Pazel's upper arm lay across them, with locks at either end the size of dinner plates. Sand buried the foot of the ramp leading up to the doors. 'This makes no sense at all,' said Bolutu, 'unless the tower became unsafe while I was gone. But what am I saying? It has stood for a thousand years! Why should it weaken in the last twenty?'
The path to the village ran along the outside of the sea-wall, and was overgrown with trefoil and gorse. A mile ahead, near the quay with its crumbling docks and outbuildings, it passed through a stone archway. 'There should be a common well,' said Bolutu, but the confidence was gone from his voice.
They made for the village. But they had not gone twenty paces when one of the Turachs grunted, 'Look there!'
A man had stepped from the archway. He was naked like the other four, and like them strangely crouched and shuffling. He darted back through the gate before Bolutu could call to him.
Bolutu rushed along the track, no longer able to hide his concern. Fiffengurt shouted after him: 'Wait for us, damn it, don't you dare--'
Bolutu did not wait. He broke into a run, sandals slapping along the dusty track. The others followed him in some confusion, not certain whether more haste or less was called for. Hercol drew Ildraquin from its sheath.
A sudden shout came from their left, echoing off the stones. It was a man's voice, but it uttered no words. It was simply a hoot, challenging and somehow derisive.
'Where are you, blast it?' cried Fiffengurt, turning in place.
'There, sir!' said a Turach, pointing upwards. A child's face, wild of hair and eye, ducked quickly behind the sea-wall.
'We should double back,' said Alyash. 'I don't fancy walkin' alongside that wall. They could rain stones down on us, or worse.'
While the others stood undecided, Thasha pulled Pazel forwards, towards the gate. There was an urgency in the way she tugged him, as though she both needed and feared what lay ahead. Hercol came after them. Despite the others' protests the three were soon running after Bolutu, who was by now a good distance ahead.
Long before they could reach him he gained the archway. There he paused, and spread his hands as if in delight. He turned and flashed them a smile, the white teeth very bright in the black face, and then he vanished through the archway.
They were a hundred yards from the opening when they heard him scream. It was a sound of horror, or of pain. Hercol redoubled his speed, his black sword held aloft. Pazel and Thasha followed as fast as their legs would carry them.
An ambush, thought Pazel. Aya Rin, we're probably too late. Aya Rin, we're probably too late.
They reached the archway and skidded to a halt. They were not too late: there at twenty paces stood Bolutu, in a little square formed by dilapidated structures of stone. There was a round stone basin at the centre - a basin with water a basin with water, Pazel saw with a flash of pure longing. And before Bolutu stood two of his own kind - two dlomu, blacker than black, their eyes four bright silver coins. An old man and a young. They wore tattered work clothes, wool caps pulled low over their silver hair, boots of sunbleached leather. They held no weapons, and showed no sign of threat.
Bolutu stood by the basin, gazing at them. His mouth was open, and his face was clenched like that of a man told something so ghastly that he was struggling to spit it from his mind. The other two were speaking to him gently, insisting that there was nothing to fear. 'Don't worry,' they said, again and again. 'Don't worry, they obey us, they're tame.'
'Tame?' cried Bolutu, his voice almost unrecognisable.
'Of course,' said the younger dlomu. 'We knew they could be--'
He broke off with a frightened shout. He had spotted the three newcomers in the archway. 'Gods unseen!' he shouted. 'Look at them, Father, look!'
Bolutu gestured desperately: Don't come in here, stay back Don't come in here, stay back. But Hercol marched boldly through the gate and into the village, and Pazel and Thasha followed. The dlomu backed away from them.