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'Which of your men was she grooming to kill you?' he pressed. 'You must have some idea. Why should she stay with you? A broken-down, gap-toothed butcher with rhinoceros skin and nothing to live for but conspiracies and lies. You must have guessed she'd try to dispose of you soon. Did you kill her yourself yesterday, before she could admit that she hated you?'
'I would dodge it,' said Ott.
'Your fist. When you think me entirely distracted by rage, you are, I suspect, planning to strike out with your right fist as hard as possible, hoping to smash my head back against the wall, leaving me stunned. Then you would lift me by the shirt and slam me down over and over, perhaps pausing first to stuff that rag into my throat. You noticed my eye. But I have never let that arm of yours slide into my blind spot, Admiral, and I should merely have dodged it, and dealt with you.'
Isiq felt naked. Ott had described his intentions almost perfectly.
'Anger, like fear, hones the senses to a razor's edge,' the spymaster went on. 'You'd have done better to raise some intellectual point. Abstract thought slows our defences. Even I am not entirely immune.'
He arched his back against the wall, at his ease once more. 'Shall I tell you what fascinates me at present? The Nilstone. I did not believe it existed, and I laughed at Dr Chadfallow, who did. But as we both know, the Stone is terribly real. And it seems that long before Arunis took the Red Wolf from the depths, and melted it to reveal the artefact, someone else aboard the Chathrand Chathrand knew as well.' knew as well.'
Ott took a scrap of parchment from his vest pocket, unrolled it, and passed it casually to Isiq. 'That came from the ship's hold. My man took it from the jaws of a rat, if you can believe it. Probably getting set to make it his dinner.'
Isiq tilted the parchment towards the candlelight. The scrap was crumbling, and burned on two sides, but he could still make out a spidery hand.
'--call't it DROTH'S EYE, or en Arqual fe NIL-STONE, a cursed fing t'be sure, es it slays whoms'ever shel touch it, with a swiftnef hideous to bihold, all save fe littlest vermin, who furst suffer grotesqueries of change. fing t'be sure, es it slays whoms'ever shel touch it, with a swiftnef hideous to bihold, all save fe littlest vermin, who furst suffer grotesqueries of change.
Fis stone yur Wizardess hath entombed in fe WOLF OF SCARLET IRON, lately taken by fe arch-heretic NESS, and lost in fe havoc of his fall.
'The language is a mystery,' said Ott. 'Almost Arquali, but not quite. One might think it simply an antique variant, except that it speaks plainly of the Shaggat's theft of the Red Wolf, just forty years ago. It is not Arunis' hand: we have samples of that in the purchase-orders he wrote out as Mr Ket; nor is it like the sorcerer to commit any of his secrets to writing.
'Here we have the strangest of circumstances, no? Someone aboard the Chathrand Chathrand knew what was to come - not only that we were bound to find such a thing as the Red Wolf, but also that said Wolf contained a horror called the Nilstone.' Ott gave him a sudden direct look. 'You wouldn't have any thoughts as to who such a person might be, would you?' knew what was to come - not only that we were bound to find such a thing as the Red Wolf, but also that said Wolf contained a horror called the Nilstone.' Ott gave him a sudden direct look. 'You wouldn't have any thoughts as to who such a person might be, would you?'
Isiq returned the parchment. 'Now you wish me to bargain for the liberty you will never grant.'
'Ah, but can you be certain?' said Ott. 'I discard nothing that is of use to our Emperor. Help me see you again in that light, as I have these several decades, and anything is possible.'
'Really?' said Isiq. 'Can you bring my daughter back to life?'
Ott gave a noncommittal shrug. 'Close your mind to nothing, Admiral. But for today let us speak no more of women. What of Ramachni ? Who or what is he?'
There it is, thought Isiq. Your real blind spot, the one that scares you. Your real blind spot, the one that scares you.
'A woken mink, wouldn't you say?'
Ott just looked at him. The question clearly did not merit a reply.
'Well,' said Isiq after a moment, 'perhaps he's a mage at that. The wizard who served the Becturian Viceroys could turn himself into a golden eagle, if you believe the--'
'Is he comatose, or just deeply asleep? Can he be relied upon to kill the sorcerer?'
Isiq felt his heart sink. Ramachni had answered that question clearly enough. Arunis was the stronger, at least in this world; Ramachni was a visitor, forced to crawl back to his own world in exhaustion. Isiq thought of the mage's departure, of the melancholy that had settled over them all. Ramachni had trusted them to find a way to keep Thasha alive, and they had failed. And now Ott was trying to play him again.
'Ramachni is an angel,' he heard himself say, 'one of Rin's golden angels, like my Thasha and her mother. Go ahead, recruit him if you can. But he may prove harder to deceive than I was.'
Ott shrugged again, then rose lightly to his feet. 'As you will. But don't look so morose, Admiral. You did did anger me, and that is not easily done. You're not one to give up - in that sense we're very much alike. Perhaps that is why we are among the last men of our generation left fighting for His Supremacy's cause.' anger me, and that is not easily done. You're not one to give up - in that sense we're very much alike. Perhaps that is why we are among the last men of our generation left fighting for His Supremacy's cause.'
'What cause? Dominion over the whole of Alifros? That is no cause of mine.'
Ott's eyes grew cold; he turned and walked to the table, where his face glowed ghastly in the candlelight. Then he opened the drawer and removed a pen, an inkstand and a sheet of linen paper.
'Speak no words of treason in my hearing,' he said. 'Tell me, does anyone have a cause you believe in? The group who meet in your stateroom, for example?'
Isiq looked up at the spymaster. In his mind's eye he saw the scars etched on the skin of his daughter and her friends: the mark of the Wolf that had safely hidden the Nilstone for a millennium.
'Yes,' he said, 'they do.'
'Then come here and write them a letter. It will be delivered, I assure you.'
He slid the blank page across the table. For a moment Isiq did not move. Then, slowly, he got to his feet and approached the table.
'Anything I want?'
'Once you've explained that you will not be returning to Etherhorde on the Chathrand - Chathrand - yes, anything you want. You may give such reasons as occur to you. But if you tell them that you are being held, you should expect a rescue attempt. Of course they could not find this tomb with a thousand men, but how are they to know? They will try to leave the ship, and will die with arrows in their backs. There will be no one to watch over Thasha's body on the journey home, or to see that she is buried honourably beside her mother.' yes, anything you want. You may give such reasons as occur to you. But if you tell them that you are being held, you should expect a rescue attempt. Of course they could not find this tomb with a thousand men, but how are they to know? They will try to leave the ship, and will die with arrows in their backs. There will be no one to watch over Thasha's body on the journey home, or to see that she is buried honourably beside her mother.'
'If I'm really to go to Etherhorde, why not let me return on the Great Ship?'
Ott smiled. 'There is no hurry to assume your new post. Besides, I can't guarantee that you're ready to shape the minds of future officers, just yet.'
'You never mean to let me go, do you?'
Ott tapped the paper. 'Come, sir. If you wish to write, you must do so now. I am to meet Drellarek within the hour.'
He sat back, waiting. After another pause Isiq lowered himself in the opposite chair. He stared at Ott, his body rigid with hate. Then he took up the pen and began to write very quickly. He wrote in a kind of fever, filling the page in minutes, and signed his name with a last earnest stroke.
Ott lifted the sheet and waved it gently, drying the ink. Then he gave a sharp whistle. Light from a doorway gleamed suddenly, fifty feet or so away, and the same men who had taken Isiq from the carriage walked into the room.
This time they did not hide their contempt. They took hold of Isiq and roughly pulled him to his feet. Ott looked at the page again.
'"Comrades fall, but the mission endures,"' he read, and nodded. 'I couldn't agree with you more. Indeed your letter is quite satisfactory' - he looked up at Isiq and smiled - 'except that you neglected the star.'
Isiq grew very still.
'The star,' Ott repeated. 'That tiny, seemingly accidental ink blot that you always, without fail, let fall on the third line of your letters, and tease vaguely into a star with the tip of your pen. A sign that you are safe, and not being forced to write against your will. Leave out the star, however, and Hercol Stanapeth will know at a glance that you're a prisoner.'
Isiq felt the hope that had supported him dissolve. He was falling into darkness, and who could say where the fall would end? Ott pressed the nib of the pen to the letter, leaving a droplet, and with great care scratched it into a star. Then he looked up at Isiq and smiled.
'Years ago the Emperor commanded all his high officers to take such precautions. At my insistence. Syrarys made it a point to learn your method, of course.
'Now then: the eighth and ninth levels of Queen Mirkitj's prison are intact, along with their statues. I wish you to spend some time there, among the dead. You will have water and food but no light. Get to know them by feel; I assure you they are fascinating. Only, if you find a broken limb, move quickly away. The rats nibble at them, you see. The dry marrow, the powdery flesh. They are quite territorial, and vicious in the dark.
'When the time is right, we will return and present you with a choice. You can die at once, painlessly. Or you can return to public service, doing the Emperor's work. But know that you will forever be observed. And should you dream of mentioning what you like to call a conspiracy, then Hercol and those two tarboys and Nama your cook and any other you esteem will die by the queen's technique. And I will see you obtain souvenirs that prove it.'
His smile was gone. He nodded to his men, and they began to drag Isiq away. But then with a quick gesture Ott detained them again.
'I did not kill Syrarys, nor would I ever harm her. The years she spent with you were a misery, but she endured them out of love.'
'Love - for you?'
'And duty, Isiq.' The edge of rage was back in Ott's voice. 'To Arqual, our mother- and fatherland, the one hope of order left to this world. But this is useless talk. Some, like you, can never be enlightened. For them the darkness is best.'
'You're not enlightened, Ott,' said Isiq. 'You're enthralled. It's not remotely the same.'
'Syrarys understood,' said Ott through his teeth. 'Every kiss she gave you was necessary. Like Thasha's death. Like the death of your wife - I sawed through that balcony rail myself, Isiq - which allowed Syrarys to take her place at your side.
'I leave nothing to chance, you see. That is a way in which we are not alike.'
8 Teala 941 87th day from Etherhorde
Uthrol, Sarabin, Elegortak, Ingod-Ire of the Killing Dream. Nelu in the lightless depths, and Droth the Master of Masters, Despoiler of Worlds. From a circle of ash within a circle of salt within a circle of tomb earth I call thee, old powers never equalled, ye Lords of the Houses of Night.'
The sorcerer's chant was sibilant and low. He sat on the floor of his cabin; the room was closed, airless; musky smells of bile and camphor and cured meat hung about it. Midnight had come and gone; a blustery wind rattled the glass on the porthole. The white dog slept beneath the bed. From a shelf, a walrus-oil lamp cast its failing light on Arunis, hunched inside the three circles like a dark, thick-bellied spider at the centre of a web.
'Shamid, Woedenon, dread Varag in the Ice . . .'
Now and then, from a crack in the wall over the mage's shoulder, the light also illuminated a tiny, copper-coloured spark: the gleam of an ixchel eye.
'A demon,' said Ludunte. 'He is a demon in human form.'
'Perhaps,' said Diadrelu. 'And perhaps he is something worse.'
They were inside the wall, supporting themselves with their legs, feet pressed to the planks of Arunis' cabin and backs against those of the adjoining room. They looked down on the sorcerer through a gap in the planking no wider than a needle. They had made the gap themselves, with a spyjack: a mechanical wedge that could be hammered between two boards and widened with a crank. For the ixchel it was a survival tool.
'Is he summoning those beings?' whispered Ludunte fearfully.
Diadrelu shook her head. 'If he could bring the Night Gods among us to do his will he would have little need of the Shaggat Ness, or perhaps even the Nilstone. Yet no doubt he seeks their aid. Those circles are a magic quietus: through them he seeks to cleanse himself of any spells placed on this cabin that might prove distasteful to the gods he flatters. And possibly to protect himself. From what I cannot say.'
'You are very learned, Mistress.'
'Call me Dri.'
'As you will, m'lady. Did you not say he must be weakened, after all his black sorcery of recent days?'
'So Ramachni believed,' said Diadrelu. 'And if nothing else we have learned one thing tonight: he still fears Ramachni, unless there is another mage aboard to cast the spells he is fighting.'
'Where did Ramachni go? When will he return?'
'Far off - and not for a long time,' said Dri gravely. 'We must stand alone through many dangers, I fear. And speaking of which, why were you alone? Did my brother's order of two men per watch expire with his death?'
Ludunte dropped his eyes, suddenly uneasy.
'Ah,' said Diadrelu, in a changed voice. 'Taliktrum has ordered you not to discuss matters of the clan with me. Am I right?'
Ludunte gazed at her, in plain distress, but he said not a word.
'This was to be expected,' said Diadrelu, turning away. 'Well, well. Keep your silence, of course.'
She spoke as if of something trivial, but could not quite hide her displeasure. Ludunte was Diadrelu's sophister sophister, her apprentice. Ixchel swore seven-year vows of obedience to their mentors, with only one chance - on the day they completed their second year - to rescind the vow without disgrace. Ludunte's second-year confirmation had come and gone as they lay in port at Ormael. Dri had missed it, and the ceremony she conducted on her return was perhaps less than Ludunte had hoped for: she had simply gathered his friends and the clan elders, described his progress without exaggeration, and passed the House Cup full of spiced wine from hand to hand. That was her way: she did not fuss and flatter. To be one of just five sophister sophisters she had accepted in thirty years should be honour enough.
Of those five, two had completed their studies and moved on. Another, Nytikyn, had been killed before the start of the voyage, by a tarboy on the pier in Sorrophran. Nytikyn had been engaged to marry Ensyl, the youngest of Dri's sophister sophisters. Dri had refused Ensyl at first, fearing that her sympathy for the grieving girl might cloud her judgement. But Ensyl had proven herself brave and thoughtful on the voyage to Simja, and shortly before their arrival Dri had accepted her vow.
Now Ensyl and Ludunte alone were left to her. By immutable law they must obey her every command, yet if she ordered them to disobey Taliktrum, the clan leader, she would be condemning them to join her in disgrace.
She looked at Ludunte, and thought for the first time what a terrible burden she had placed on the two of them. Mother Sky Mother Sky, she thought, I've ruined everything. I've ruined everything.
Since the arrival of Pazel, the tarboy who could speak their language and hear their natural voices - and Dri's terribly unpopular decision not to kill him - her reputation for wisdom had been thrown into doubt. Over the course of the summer, as the Chathrand Chathrand ploughed west towards Simja, she had fought for the life of the boy with her brother, Lord Talag, with whom she had shared the rule of Ixphir House for decades. It was an ancient house and a proud family. Their direct ancestors had founded it, abandoning the nomad practice of living in ships for the first time since her race was stolen, in cages and specimen jars, from across the Ruling Sea. ploughed west towards Simja, she had fought for the life of the boy with her brother, Lord Talag, with whom she had shared the rule of Ixphir House for decades. It was an ancient house and a proud family. Their direct ancestors had founded it, abandoning the nomad practice of living in ships for the first time since her race was stolen, in cages and specimen jars, from across the Ruling Sea.
The whole of that House was now aboard the Chathrand Chathrand: six hundred ixchel men, women and children, following a dream of escape that had come to Talag in childhood and pursued him to his death.
There, again: the blunt blow to the heart. A vision of her brother in the mouth of Sniraga, as the huge cat leaped away down a passage. His limbs were scarlet; he flopped like a dead thing in her jaws. They had never recovered his body.
'Feel that thunder,' said Ludunte, pressing a hand to the wall. 'A storm will be here by morning.'
Diadrelu had had no time to grieve for Talag; with his death she had become sole leader of the clan. Talag had been about to recognise his son, Taliktrum, as a full Lord of Ixphir. That task had fallen to Diadrelu - but she had not done so. Taliktrum was of age, and had passed every test of strength and courage. But what of judgement? Dri could not see herself standing before the clan. Here is your liege, your shield and protector, trust him with your lives Here is your liege, your shield and protector, trust him with your lives. Ritual words, some would say. But for Diadrelu they contained a promise she could not give lightly.
For with Talag dead, his son would have joined her as co-commander the instant his title was conferred. And he was not ready. Talag had been a genius, if angry and vain. Taliktrum was merely ambitious. Like his father he distrusted the very air humans breathed, but never realised that Talag's anger, however blinding, was born of a careful study of history. If Taliktrum actually believed in the same dream as his father - to lead their people to safety on Sanctuary-Beyond-the-Sea, the island from whence they'd come - he did so without the least curiosity as to what they might find when they got there.
When Taliktrum was a child Dri had loved him as best she could. But she doubted that he had ever looked at her and seen a loving aunt. For his tenth birthday she took him on a daring expedition: an ice-skate by moonlight on the frozen River Ool. He had been cross to learn that skates could be worn and used by anyone, not just ruling elites. 'Why do we bother with them, then?' he asked, bewildered.
'There's the rain now,' said Ludunte.
No, Taliktrum had seen only the Lady, the office, the power in her hands. It had taught her a lesson, that cold appraisal. It had made her distrustful of titles for ever.
Now this boy of twenty had the power he had always wanted, and she had none. To a people used to being slaughtered by humans, sparing Pazel's life had been bad enough. Revealing their presence to a cabin full of humans was simply unthinkable. The clan assembled; a Council of Witness was elected to hear the case, and three hours later her people stripped her of command. Dri knew it might have been worse: Taliktrum had wanted her guarded day and night, and barred from all further contact with those he mockingly called 'her tame ones'. What would he do if he learned that she had sworn to stand beside those humans, even before her own kin, until Arunis fell and the Nilstone was somehow put beyond use?
'Mistress,' said Ludunte. 'He is on his feet.'
She took his place at the spyhole. Arunis was standing in the centre of the three rings, watched by his motionless dog. Taking care not to brush the circles with his cloak, he reached onto the shelf and took down the lamp, a ceramic water jug and a small wooden box. The first two items he placed on the floor just outside the circles. Then he opened the box and took out several handfuls of downy weed of the sort used for packing breakables. Tossing these aside, he at last removed a black kerchief bound carefully with string. Gingerly he untied the string and unfolded the cloth.
'Rin's blood,' said Diadrelu.