Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Night of the Swarm Chapter 2




With U.K. publication just two days away (!!) I'm happy to bring you the second chapter of THE NIGHT OF THE SWARM. And since this long post will drive just about everything else off the bottom of your screen, let me remind you that there's a funky BOOK TRAILER and other goodies waiting on my new website.

In the excerpt below you'll find a lot of familiar characters here who don't take the stage in Chapter One. This chapter is a rough one, so minors beware. Enjoy!





CHAPTER 2
FLESH, STONE AND SPIRIT


The mighty are beggars, child. They rattle silver cups by the roadside, pleading for love.

—Dlömic folk song

Sandor Ott paced the cabin in a circle. His movements as always were fluid, measured, utterly precise. He spoke no offhand words, made no careless sounds, revealed nothing but what he chose to in the cast of his old, scarred face. His hands hung loose; his knife was visible but sheathed. As he walked his eyes remained fixed on the circle’s center: the spot where Captain Nilus Rotheby Rose sat scowling, fidgeting, in a chair barely large enough to accommodate his bulk.

The captain’s eyes were bloodshot; his red beard was a fright. It was his own day-cabin he sat in, under the assassin’s gaze. The chair was the one he usually gave to the least favored guest at his dinner-table.

Rose crossed his burly arms. Sandor Ott continued circling. For some reason he had also brought his longbow—huge, stained, savage—and propped it near the stern galleries, along with several arrows. Target practice? Shooting gulls from the window? Rose scratched the back of his neck, trying to keep the old killer in sight.

Maybe he would never speak. It was even possible that his thoughts were not with the captain at all, no matter how much he drilled with his eyes. Some people whittled sticks when they were concentrating. Sandor Ott tormented people, stripped their certainties away, needled them with doubts.

There was a small table within the captain’s reach, and a flagon of wine atop it. Rose snatched it up and pulled the stopper. His grip weaker than a year ago: he had lost two fingers in a fight with Arunis. Rose had trod on one of them, heard the knuckle crack beneath his boot. Horrible the things that came back to him, the sensations one was powerless to forget.

He raised the flagon, then paused and removed a small object from his mouth. It was a glass eyeball, beautifully rendered. Yellow and black, orpiment and ebony, arrow-slit iris of a jungle cat. A leopard, to be precise: the symbol of Bali Adro, this empire twice the size of Ott’s beloved Arqual, if the dlömic freaks told the truth. They’d handed Rose the taxidermied animal (sunbleached, moth-gnawed, deeply symbolic in some way he cared nothing about) just hours before the ship’s departure from Masalym. A gesture of goodwill to let a human captain hold the carcass, during those last hours in port. No matter the captain’s own concerns. No matter that he loathed all things feline, beginning with that vile Sniraga, purring even now beneath his bed.

He drank; Ott circled. In Rose’s closet, Joss Odarth was snickering about modern naval uniforms.[1]

[footnote 1: Or rather, his ghost. Jossolan “Snake Eyes” Odarth, Captain of the I.M.S. Chathrand, W.S. Years 593-624. Killed in a brawl on 2 Modobrin 627.Editor]


Monster. Fool. You have blinded the Leopard of Masalym. So the freaks had shouted, and of course it was true. The first eye had come loose when he’d handled the carcass a bit too roughly, clubbed the topdeck with it in fact; the second he’d pried out with a spoon. Thinking all the while of the Tournament Grounds, where his crew had been imprisoned, and from whence twenty-three men had escaped one panicky night into that great warren of a city, and never returned.

Damn your soul for all eternity, Ott! Whatever you mean to do, get on with it!

Rose squeezed the eye in his sweaty fist. He had tossed the leopard ashore when the mooring-lines were freed, just as tradition demanded. And they’d caught it, those dlömic mariners. They’d even cheered a little: the tail had not brushed the ground, and that meant splendid luck. Then they’d noticed the missing eyes and stared in horror at the departing ship. Rose had grinned and popped the eye into his mouth. He had traditions of his own.

He would keep it; there was power in a little theft. One day it would gather dust on his mantel, declaring with its stillness that this was a mantel, in a house without ladderways or a brine reek from the basement, a house that never rolled or pitched or pinwheeled; Gods, how he hated the sea.

Nonsense, nonsense. A frog could not hate the mud that made him; a bird could not hate the medium of the air. He was fatigued; he needed protein; where in the Nine Pits was Teggatz with his tea? He put the eye back in his mouth. Better to keep it there, clicking against his molars, studying his tongue, watching his words before they left his—

“Riding pants!” said Sandor Ott.

Rose inhaled the eye. His face purpled, his vision dimmed. The old killer sighed and bent him double; then came a stunning blow between his shoulders. The eye shot from his mouth, and the hated cat, Sniraga, chased and batted it across the floor.

“Now sit up.”

Rose did not sit up. He was thinking of the augrongs, Refeg and Rer. It was just possible that he could oblige the huge anchor-lifters to kill Sandor Ott, battering through a wall of Turachs, lifting the spymaster, breaking him over a scaly knee. But what if the Turachs killed the augrongs instead?

“Kindly look at me when I am talking,” said Ott. The captain stared hard at the floor. Vital to resist, vital to deny: if he caved in on small matters the larger would follow.

“Boots,” Ott snarled. “Buckskin gloves. A spare belt buckle, a fifth of rum. Powdered sulphur in your socks. A little whetstone for your axe. But the pants, Captain: they tell the whole tale. They’d been altered that same afternoon: bits of leather trim were still in Oggosk’s sewing basket. The hag stitched them especially for you, with thick pads in the seat, lest that treacherous arse develop saddle sores. You truly meant to go through with it. To abandon your vessel, your crew. To run off with Hercól and Pathkendle and Thasha Isiq.”

“Only to the city gate,” said Rose. “Only until I was sure we’d seen the last of them.”

“And for this you kept the witch up all night sewing pants?”

Rose sat up heavily. “They’re not idiots,” he said. “They had to believe I meant to join their daft crusade.”

Sandor Ott stopped pacing, directly in front of Rose. He put his hand in his pocket and withdrew a small lead pillbox. He held it close to the captain’s face.

“These?”

“Sulphites,” said the captain, “for my gout.”

Ott extracted a pill, crunched it in his mouth. He turned and spat on the polished floor.

“Waspwort,” he said, “for altitude sickness.” The spymaster’s gaze was very cold. “You were going with them over the mountains. It was no bluff at all.”

Rose dropped his eyes. “It was no bluff,” he said.

“I am empowered by His Supremacy to punish you with death,” said Ott. “You were given command of the most crucial mission in the history of Arqual, and you tried to shrug it off and flee. That is criminal dereliction of duty. Your life is justly forfeit.”

“We both know you’re lying,” said Rose. “Emperor Magad gave you into my service, not the other way around.”

“Have you believed that all along?”

The captain’s face darkened. “I am the Final Offshore Authority,” he said.

“Treason nullifies such authority,” said Ott. “You would do better to concentrate on providing reasons I should want to keep you alive. For at the moment, Captain, I have not a one.”

His hand shot out, seized the captain’s own. Then he pointed to a short scar, healed but plainly visible. “How did you get this?” he said.

“From that miserable Sniraga,” said Rose, flicking his eyes toward the cat.

“Stop lying to me, bastard. That’s the mark of a blade-tip. A sword, I think. Who the devil lunged at you with a sword?”

“It was the cat, I say. Have a look at her claws.”

Ott shook his head in disappointment. He turned and walked to the gallery windows, swept the curtains aside. Gray daylight flooded the chamber, refracted through a haze of cloud. It was midmorning but the sun could have been anywhere—high or low, east or west. They were in the shallows of the Ruling Sea, two days out from Masalym, running west along the endless length of the Sandwall. Running for their lives.

“Our relationship,” said Ott, “must proceed henceforth on a new footing, or death alone can be the result. And speaking of death, three mutineers remain at liberty among the crew. It would be better if you dispensed with them, rather than I.”

“That matter is decided for now,” said Rose. “I have suspended their punishment. There were mitigating factors.”

Ott shook his head. “For certain crimes there is no atonement. You will hang them.”

Rose erupted to his feet. “What are you proposing? To hang a pregnant girl from the crosstrees? To hang the quartermaster who saw us across the Nelluroq alive?”

“You condemned them yourself,” said Ott. “And haven’t I heard you tell your officers that they must never issue a command they’re not willing to enforce? What is the difficulty? The girl Marila is nothing: a stowaway who fell in with Pathkendle’s gang, and spread her legs for one of them. Fiffengurt’s skills are redundant, as long as you’re alive. And Mr. Druffle is a tippling buffoon.”

“He claims he was too drunk to know that he’d been brought to a gathering of mutineers,” said Rose.

“Is that one of your mitigating factors? Go ahead, extend that reasoning to the entire crew. Amnesty for drunkards. Pickle yourself before you challenge my command.”

Rose’s mouth twisted. The spymaster looked caught between amusement and outrage. “You can’t have gone soft?” he demanded. “You, Nilus Rose? The man I watched strangling Pazel Pathkendle in the liquor vault? You, who sent a boatload of men ashore to pick apples, then sailed away and abandoned them at the approach of a hostile ship?”

“My hand was forced. As you would know if you had not been imprisoned.”

“But I was imprisoned, Rose—and once freed, I dealt with those who had imprisoned me, and rid the ship of them.”

“That remains to be seen.”

“You’re splitting hairs now,” said Ott. “Some of the crawlies fled into Masalym. Others we killed. They are gone, neutralized. That is how one deals with enemies, unless one prefers to be dealt with.”

He looked out through the curtains again. “I remember when you tossed a man from this window,” he said. “Mr. Aken, the honest company man, the quiet one. You could hear the wheels turning in his mind, you said, and for all I know you spoke the truth. But listen once and forever, Captain: the wheels in your head are loud as grinding-stones. You will not deceive me. When you feign madness, I know it. Just as I do when true madness directs your steps. Your plan to abandon ship was not one of the latter cases. You were deliberate. You had better tell me why.”

“Go rot in the Pits.”

Not a flicker of response passed over Ott’s face. He waited, looking out over the sea.

“You can’t sail this vessel,” said Rose. “Elkstem can choose a heading, and Fiffengurt trim the sails, but neither can manage eight hundred men. Who’s going to keep them working as a team, as a family? Haddismal, at spear-point? Uskins, who nearly put the ship at the bottom of the sea? You?”

“What is the danger you haven’t spoken of, Captain?”

“You know the danger,” said Rose. “There’s a she-devil of a sorceress bearing down on Masalym, in a vessel packed with dlömic warriors. Macadra, she’s called. Arunis’ rival, the one who stayed behind when he crossed the Ruling Sea and set about teaching us to destroy one another. With your expert help, of course.”

“Stick to the point,” said Ott.

“The point, bastard, is that she wants the mucking Nilstone, and we can’t assume she’ll believe it when they tell her Arunis took it away over the mountains. And even if she does believe, she may still want this ship. Pitfire, she may want us: human beings, to torture or take apart. Or breed. We were their slaves, once, and could be again.”

“What is the danger, Rose?”

“Gods below, man! Isn’t that enough?”

“We stand a fine chance of evading pursuit,” said Ott. “Something else weighs against our chances. Something so terrible you’d rather abandon this family and run away in shame.”

Rose lowered his chin, glowering. His mouth was tightly closed.

“You are asking yourself what kind of force I mean to apply,” said Sandor Ott. “It does not involve pain—unless things go very wrong, that is. It will be worse than pain. But you should know that I never discuss my techniques. Some things are better demonstrated than described.”

“The trouble,” said Rose, “is that you won’t believe me.”

“That is not your concern. Speak the truth. What were you running from?”

Rose looked the assassin in the eye. “Not running from,” he said. “I was running to. The worst danger’s not the one that’s chasing us. Stanapeth and the tarboys and Thasha Gods-damned Isiq: they’re in the right. You don’t like it; nor do I. But it happens to be true. We’re going to be slow-roasted, all of us, the whole Rinforsaken world, if Arunis finds a way to use the Stone in battle.”

As Rose was speaking, Ott had once more grown still. Now he walked to the cabin door and opened it an inch. A Turach was stationed there, barring entry. Ott gestured, and the Turach passed him a pair of objects. A small glass pitcher and a shallow bowl.

Ott closed the door and returned, and Rose saw that the pitcher held a few ounces of milk. Ott knelt beside the captain’s desk, not far from where Sniraga crouched, tail twitching, watchful. He poured the milk into the bowl and set the bowl on the floor. Then he stood and walked to the gallery window. He picked up the bow and notched the arrow to the string.

“You hate this animal,” he said.

Sniraga raised her head, considering the proffered milk. Rose’s eyes widened. “Lower that bow, Spymaster,” he said.

“In killing her I’ll be doing you a favor, no doubt. You’ve thought of doing this so many times, but something has always stopped you from acting on the impulse.”

“Nothing will stop me from avenging myself on you, if you harm the creature.”

For the first time, Ott smiled. “Half-wit. If only I could let you try.”

Sniraga nosed forward. It had been many weeks since she had tasted milk.

“Speak the truth, Rose. Otherwise you may consider this a foretaste of something much slower and crueler I’ll be doing to your beloved witch. Is she your aunt or your mother, incidentally? Or are you still unsure?”

“I can state my motives,” said Rose, “but I can’t make you hear. Put the bow down. That’s an order.”

“You are right in one respect,” Ott continued. “I won’t be killing you. Not until the mission is completed, and Arqual’s victory achieved.”

“That day will never come!” Rose exploded from his chair, prompting Ott to bend the bow. “Damn you to the blackest hole! Forget the mission! It’s a fever dream. A lie you hawked to that deathsmoke-addled Emperor of yours.”

“I will not tolerate slander of Magad the Fifth,” said Ott, taking aim.

Rose was bellowing. “Greater Arqual, the defeat of the Mzithrin—rubbish and rot. One of these sorcerers is going to clap hands on the Stone and make sausage out of us. Out of your precious Emperor, out of Arqual and the Sizzies and the whole Rinforsaken North. Blind fool! You’re a soldier in an ant war, and the mucking anteater’s coming down the trail.”

“Rose,” said Ott, “do you recall that you’d become a disgrace? Removed from command by the Chathrand Trading Family, wanted in twenty ports, living off the last spongings from your creditors? Do you know what a boon of trust His Supremacy gave you, when he restored you to the captaincy of the Chathrand and gave you nominal command of this mission you advise me to forget?”

“We will see how nominal it is when the waves hit eighty feet,” shouted Rose. “As for that boon: rubbish again. Put the bow down, Ott. The game was never winnable, but without me you couldn’t even play. You didn’t dare attempt the Ruling Sea—put the bow down, I say—without Nilus Rose at the helm. I alone know the soul of this vessel. I alone have the sanction of the ghosts.”

“You alone see them.”

Rose’s body was rigid. “I am the captain of this ship. You are an adjunct, a supernumerary. If you challenge me openly you will bring anarchy down upon us all. That’s as clear today as it was when your mucking Emperor—”

Ott’s bow sang. There was a caterwaul (horrid, held) and Sniraga became a red tornado of fur and fangs and blood. The arrow had pinned her tail to the floor.

Rose leaped on the hysterical creature. He was bloodied instantly from hands to shoulders, but he wrenched the arrow free. Sniraga flew from beneath him, crashing against furniture, painting the room with the red brush of her tail. Ott leaned on his bow and laughed.

Then the wailing changed. Rose turned, bewildered; Ott snuffed his laughter. A second cry, a human cry, was drowning out Sniraga. It rose through the floorboards, a voice they had not heard in months. The only voice as deep as the captain’s, or as cruel as Ott’s.

“WHERE IS IT? WHO TOOK IT? FAITHLESS VERMIN, PARASITES, OFFAL WORMS! UNCHAIN ME! BRING IT BACK TO ME NOW!”


Alongside the screamer, other voices began to rise, shouting in fear and wonder. Then commotion at the door. Ott dashed to it, flung it wide. A gnarled stick poked him in the chest, and Lady Oggosk, tiny and raging, hobbled into the room.

“He’s dead, Nilus, get up! He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s alive!”

“Duchess—” began Rose.

“Is she mad, Rose?” Ott demanded. “Who is dead? Who is shouting below?”

“Nilus, your arms are soaked in blood!” shrieked the witch. “Get yourselves together, you pair of fools. The sorcerer’s been killed, and Pathkendle’s charm is broken. The spell-keeper was Arunis all along. Do you understand now, Sandor Ott?”

A wild gleam lit the spymaster’s eye. He flew from the cabin, shouting at the Turachs to clear a path. Rose looked at Oggosk, but there was no hope under Heaven’s Tree of explaining, so before she noticed Sniraga he charged after Ott. He had a presentiment of disaster. It grew with each roar from below.

Sailors thronged the topdeck; some of them already knew. The captain waved them off, needing to see it before he heard them speak, needing to mark the disaster with his eyes. Down the broad ladderway called the Silver Stair he plunged, bashing aside Teggatz and his tea service, bellowing at dolts who froze at the sight of him, walking right over a topman who had fallen flat in his haste to get out of the way. Everyone below was shouting. He could hear the panic in their throats. He plunged out onto the orlop deck, raced through the fire-scarred compartments, and stepped at last into the manger.

Great devils, there he was.

A huge, hideous man, seventy if he was a day, raged into the center of the chamber, his bare feet stamping in an effluvium of grime, straw and fresh blood. In his eyes was more mad viciousness than Rose had glimpsed in any living soul. The Shaggat Ness, the lunatic king, the most hated man in Mzithrini history. He was tangled in chains looped around an indestructible wooden stanchion. But the chains had been placed to secure a statue, a lifeless thing of stone, for that is what the man had been for five months.

No longer. The mink-mage had told Arunis he could only reverse the spell when someone aboard the Chathrand died. If Lady Oggosk was correct, that someone was Arunis himself. What happened? Did he die trying to master the Stone? Could that gang of children and mutineers possibly have killed him?

No time to wonder. The Shaggat was gesturing, flailing with both hands: the unharmed right and the dead, scarecrow-stick left, the hand that had seized the Nilstone. His jaws were wide, his screams insufferable, a bomb that kept going off, Where is it, who stole it, bring it to me you lice.

His eyes found Rose. He lunged, and the stanchion shook.

Sandor Ott rubbed his chin. He stood with Sergeant Haddismal and several other Turachs, conferring quickly, eyeing the Shaggat like a rabid dog. Ignus Chadfallow, the Imperial Surgeon, was in the room as well, bending down to talk to old, befuddled Dr. Rain, whose gape of horror made him look like an eel. The captain stepped toward them—then leaped sideways with a curse. The Shaggat had lunged at him again.

“BRING ME THE NILSTONE! BRING IT! BRING IT!”

“Monster—” said Sandor Ott.

“I WILL PACK YOUR MOUTH WITH SCORPIONS AND GLASS!”

“Listen—”

“I WILL TEAR OFF YOUR MANHOOD AND THROW IT TO MY HOUNDS!”

“Your toe.”

“BRING ME THE—WHAT?”

“Your toe.”

The Shaggat looked down. And dropped in his chains, howling, seizing his foot with his one living hand. The foot was gushing blood: where the big toe should have been was an open wound.

Undrabust!

It came back to Rose in a flash: how Neeps Undrabust had pulverized the Shaggat-statue’s toe with a lump of iron. Arunis had managed to heal the other damage, the long cracks in the Shaggat’s stone arm: wounds that would have killed a living man. But he had forgotten the toe.

A sailor appeared in the doorway, clutching Dr. Chadfallow’s medical bag. The surgeon and Sandor Ott rushed to the man. Chadfallow seized the bag and withdrew a folded cloth and small blue bottle. He glanced dubiously at the Shaggat.

“This will suffice, but how exactly—”

Ott snatched both items, uncorked the bottle and sniffed. He coughed, then doused the rag with the contents of the bottle. The doctor retreated as a cloying smell of spirits filled the room. The Shaggat raised his head too late. Ott threw himself on the huge man and caught his chin in the crook of an elbow. The mad king erupted, clawing at him, crushing him against the stanchion, rolling atop him on the bloody floor. The Turachs surged forward, weapons drawn.

“Hold!”

Ott’s voice, loud in the sudden silence. The Shaggat’s bellowing had ceased. His arms went limp, and he toppled over in his chains.

Sandor Ott hurled the rag away. “Stop the bleeding, fools!” he said. Then he too collapsed. During the struggle his face had been only inches from the rag.

A cold claw touched Rose’s elbow. Lady Oggosk was there, suddenly, her shawl splashed with blood and fur, staring up at him with her milk-blue eyes. “They will press you harder than ever, now that he’s returned,” she said. “Do not yield to them, Nilus. You know what must be done.”

Rose studied the two men at his feet. He felt a bottomless disgust. The mastermind of Arqual and his tool. Better for everyone if they had strangled each other, if that sleep were the sleep of death.

But what of Nilus Rose? He had sworn to his father that he would bend these creatures to his will. But that was only hubris—the kind of talk his father wanted to hear, demanded to hear. Over and over, decade after decade. The long, daft proof of their power. The family epic. Rose had never stopped writing it, even though a fool could tell you that the premise was absurd.

*

“He was unhinged before, or partly so. Now I fear his derangement is complete.”

Dr. Chadfallow lowered himself stiffly into a chair, scanning the other faces around the table. The wardroom was cool, bathed in gray-blue light from the glass planks in the ceiling. Old Dr. Rain took the chair to his right, glancing at Chadfallow with a mixture of jealousy and gratitude; it was only through Chadfallow’s courtesy that he’d been included at all.

Fiffengurt, the quartermaster, sat down as well, glancing at the other faces as though tensed for a fight. That one will take it badly, thought Rose, studying him.

Fiffengurt was almost old. He had white whiskers and a rogue eye that spun randomly in its socket. He looked anxious, and more than a little guilty. Chadfallow, Rose saw now, was much the same. Allies of Pathkendle and company—even the doctor has at last chosen sides. I must expect the worst from both of them.

No one looked healthy, in point of fact. No one but the ghosts. Three had slithered into the chamber when the door was ajar. Captain Kurlstaff was among them, his pink blouse faded, his painted lips the color of a man’s intestines, his battle-axe huge and unwieldy in the crowded room. He watched the living with interest. He was the only one of the Chathrand’s former commanders with whom Rose deigned, at times, to consult, although today the old pervert merely stood and stared.

At least Kurlstaff had the decency not to sabotage the meeting. Captain Spengler was rummaging in the chart locker behind Rose’s head. And Maulle, the pig, had actually taken a chair, in which he slouched and squirmed and bit his fingernails. The man had the worst facial tic Rose had ever seen; when it happened his face compressed like a sponge, and a puff of chalk powder lifted from his ancient wig.

“Sir?” said Chadfallow.

Rose pivoted away from the ghosts. “So the Shaggat is mad,” he said. “Is that news, Doctor? Have you nothing else to report?”

Chadfallow took a careful breath. “The Shaggat is seventy-four years old. And he has just suffered traumas that would strain the faculties of any man. The touch of the Nilstone. The killing fire that ran up his arm. The transmutation into a dead statue, through Pazel’s Master-Word, and this morning’s reversal. But above all he is disturbed by the loss of the Stone. To gain it was his lifelong obsession. He thinks the Gods themselves chose him to wield it, along with that lesser artifact, Sathek’s Scepter. And because he cannot have had any sense of time’s passage while enchanted, he must perceive that the Stone has just been taken from him.” Chadfallow shook his head. “His mind is warped beyond all healing now. What you saw is likely all that remains.”

Old Dr. Rain cleared his throat. “He exhibits a certain unease, Captain Rose. That is to say, he is uneasy.”

Rose turned him a choleric stare. The old medic looked quickly at Chadfallow.

“I cut off the dead hand,” said Chadfallow. “He felt nothing. Below the wrist the limb was dry and brittle. It’s a wonder it did not break during that wrestling match.”

“It did not break, because I did not break it,” said Ott. “What else?”

Chadfallow shrugged. “His body is otherwise sound. The man is a war elephant. You’ve heard the legend about the arrow that broke off in his chest, the head of which was never extracted? I saw the scar, I felt the hard nub with my fingers. The wound was two inches above his heart. There are flecks of iron embedded in his left eyeball, too, and signs that his feet were blistered by walking through fire, or over coals. He is indestructible, in a word. Only his mind has failed, and that utterly.”

Rain cleared his throat again. “In professional terms—that is, in proper language, medical language—”

“Stop your fidgeting, dog!” snapped Rose. He was addressing Captain Maulle, but Rain flinched as if struck.

Haddismal was scowling. “The Shaggat’s mad, but he ain’t an animal. The good doctor exaggerates.”

“Agreed,” said Ott. “You’re distorting your own diagnosis, Chadfallow, because you wish our cause to fail. In violation of your medical oath, to say nothing of your oath to His Supremacy.”

Chadfallow bristled. “You saw it yourselves,” he said. “That man raged for six minutes without a glance at his own maimed foot. He might have bled to death without noticing the wound.”

“And blary good riddance,” said Mr. Fiffengurt, the quartermaster, unable to contain himself.

Sandor Ott turned his gaze on Fiffengurt. “Another proud son of Arqual,” he said. “What has happened to all your friends, traitor?”

Fiffengurt’s bad eye drifted. But the other was clear and sharp, and he trained it now on Sandor Ott.

“My friends are right here,” he said, thumping a fist to his chest. “Where are yours, exactly?”

A frigid silence followed. Then Ott said, “Captain Rose may have his reasons for delaying your execution—”

“He does,” said Rose. “The word is seamanship, and it cannot be wasted.”

Fiffengurt did not smile—Rose would get no smile out of him, not in this lifetime—but a certain grim pride showed in his face.

“Seamanship,” said Ott, “just so. Yet this voyage will end one day, Mr. Fiffengurt. And when you step ashore, so shall I.” He turned back to the others around the table. “As for the Shaggat: hysteria is rarely permanent. Through all the years of his ascendancy he was prone to fits. They form part of the legend of his greatness.”

“They can’t have been like this,” ventured Elkstem, the sailmaster. “He’d never have been able to lead no rebellion. He was screaming like a stuck pig.”

“I doubt we shall ever see another display like this morning’s,” said Ott. “And if we do—well, Doctor, I did not add you to this mission because I loved your company. You earned great fame with diseases, but your talents go farther, don’t they? Before the miracle with the talking fever you had another specialty. A rather lucrative one, at that.”

Chadfallow started. “You’re mistaken,” he said.

Ott raised an eyebrow, smiling.

Dr. Rain snapped his fingers. “‘Ignus Chadfallow, Sedatives and Stimulants,’” he said. “Remember, Ignus? You gave me your card at the Medical Academy dinner, in the spring. I have it right here . . .”

The old man fumbled in the pockets of his threadbare coat, at last producing what looked like a mouse’s nest. Tearing open the fluffy wad, he extracted a crushed and soiled square of parchment. He held it up, beaming. Chadfallow stared in disbelief.

“That card is twenty-six years old,” he said.

Ott leaned over and snatched the card from Rain. He squinted. “‘Compounds to Induce Tranquillity and Peace of Mind.’ Capital, Doctor; the Shaggat Ness is in good hands. Besides, we do not require the murdering genius of his youth. All he needs is that apocalyptic impulse, and enough coherence to put his fanatics once more on the path of war.”

“And the Nilstone?” asked Rose.

Ott shook his head. “The Nilstone is behind us. And despite the Shaggat’s obsession, the cursed thing was never part of our plan. It nearly killed him, after all. Let it remain here in the South. If it has truly caused the death of Arunis, so much the better. Our concern is to finish the task His Supremacy placed before us, with all dignity and speed.”

“Dignity,” said Chadfallow.

He spoke the word softly, but it still conveyed the bitterness of a lifetime. Captain Kurlstaff, breaking his silence, said, “I like this doctor, Rose. But the spymaster wants him dead.”

“Hold your peace, Ott,” said Rose. “I have not brought you here to bicker like tarboys.” He turned to Fiffengurt and barked suddenly: “Where in the black Pits is the first mate? Did I summon my deck officers or not?”

“I conveyed your order to Stukey myself, Captain,” said Fiffengurt. “He only grunted at me through his door.”

“Uskins missed his noon log entry as well, sir,” put in Mr. Fegin, who had recently been promoted to the rank of bosun. “Perhaps he’s ill?”

Rose looked at the doctors, who shrugged. “He’s not been to sickbay,” said Chadfallow.

The captain’s fury was a live coal in his chest. “Find the duty clerk, Mr. Fegin,” he said, very low. “Tell him to inform Mr. Uskins that if he is not here within three minutes he will be tied to the mizzenmast with a vat of excrement from the chicken coops, and not released until he drinks it.” He paused, then shouted: “Go!”

Fegin was off like a greyhound. The captain spread his hands flat on the table, glaring at the faces around him. “Why do ships sink?” he asked them. “Imprecision, that is why. Laxity and sloth, and men who look the other way. That will never be while I command this ship.”

He took care not to glance at Sandor Ott. But a part of him knew that his words were for the spy, a reminder of what Rose alone could deliver.

“We are being hunted, gentlemen,” he said. “In all likelihood that sorceress has reached Masalym by now, and learned that we have fled. Whether or not she realizes that we don’t have the Nilstone, she’ll want to take us—and she has the right ship for the job. The Kirisang, also known as the Death’s Head. The vessel’s every bit as large as the Chathrand, and a warship through and through. Or so Prince Olik claimed. Of course I do not trust him, or any other dlömu. But we have seen Bali Adro firepower for ourselves.”

He gave them a moment to remember it: the horrific armada that had passed so near them, great squalid ships held together by spellcraft, bristling with terrible arms.

“Now take heart, for Arunis is dead. Lady Oggosk sensed it, and the Shaggat’s return to life is the proof. He is gone, and the Nilstone is gone, and the ship is both provisioned and repaired. You may have heard that there was a hairline crack in the keel—”

They had not heard: Fiffengurt and Elkstem gaped, struggling to contain themselves.

“—but I assure you that rumor is false: no ship of mine will ever touch the Nelluroq with a damaged keel. No, the Chathrand will not disappoint us. The sorcerer is gone, and if any crawlies remain, we shall deal with them as with any vermin.

“In short, gentlemen, we are done with the South. The last stage of this mission lies before us. We must find our way to Gurishal. The Shaggat must go to his tribe, to wreak havoc in the heartland of the Mzithrin. Only then will we be suffered to return to Arqual, and our families.”

Ott and Haddismal looked deeply content. The others showed varying degrees of confusion. “But sir,” said Fiffengurt, “ain’t it nearly time to land our men on the Sandwall? We talked about it just yesterday. Men with mirrors, to relay the all-clear signal from Masalym, when it comes.”

“We will be landing no one on the Sandwall,” said Rose.

“How, then,” said Chadfallow, “are we to know when Macadra has left the city, and what course she is on?”

“I say again, no need.”

“But I don’t understand, Captain,” said Fiffengurt. “How will we know when it’s safe to return for Pazel and Thasha and the others? Can Lady Oggosk tell you that as well?”

“Oggosk has nothing to tell me in this regard,” said Rose, “because we are not going back.”

The explosion was just as he had foreseen. Chadfallow and Fiffengurt rose, shouting in rage. “You wouldn’t dare, Captain!” thundered the quartermaster. “Leave them behind? How can you even jest about such a thing?”

“I make no jests,” said Rose.

“You will not do it!” shouted Chadfallow. “What’s more, you dare not. The Nilstone—”

“—is in Hercól’s hands,” said Ott, “or perhaps those of the Masalym Guard who rode with him. In either case we can do nothing about it. Believe me, I hate to leave a thing of such power unclaimed. It would be a great joy to present it to our Emperor.”

Chadfallow was gaping. Fiffengurt was nearly out of his head. He stepped toward Rose, hands in fists. Sergeant Haddismal, grinning, merely seized his arm. Ott was watching Chadfallow with lively curiosity. Neither the spy nor the Turach bothered to stand up.

“This is unthinkable,” said Chadfallow, shaking with rage. “Even for you, Rose. We gave you our trust.”

“Oh, Doctor, you’re priceless,” laughed Sandor Ott. “You gave nothing of the kind. Tell the truth, old man: you never expected to see them again. You knew they were choosing exile among the fish-eyes for the rest of their days—indeed, that exile was the best possible outcome for the ardent fools. I’m not calling you a coward, sir. You might even have joined them, if I’d allowed it, for you’re quite fond of your family of criminals. But of course I could not allow it. We have over seven hundred men left to care for, and no doctor but you, save that, that—”

He gestured vaguely at Rain, whose eyes tracked his moving hand, befuddled. Ott and Haddismal roared with laughter.

“Prince Olik’s brief rule in Masalym will already have ended,” said Rose, speaking over them. “Macadra will likely kill the man, if she can do so quietly enough. In any case she will replace him with one of her servants. Ott is correct, Doctor: you knew from the start that we would not return. So did your friends who went ashore, in their hearts.”

“You yourself planned to go with them,” said Chadfallow, staring rigidly at Rose. “What if Ott had let you join the expedition? Do you think for one instant that if Mr. Fiffengurt had taken command, he would have abandoned you?”

“Ott did not prevent me going ashore,” said Rose.

At that Spengler paused his rummaging to laugh aloud. “You’re a liar, Rose. He hogtied you. You should boot that spy’s arse right over the rail.”

“Pointless speculation,” said Ott. “I would have compelled Fiffengurt to sail on, whatever his preference might have been. No, our dalliance with traitors has run its course. If there was any justification for their presence aboard, it lay in their efforts to thwart Arunis and drive him from the ship. That work is done, but His Supremacy’s great task is not.”

Fiffengurt’s face had turned so scarlet that Rose half expected to see blood filling the whites of his eyes. Chadfallow was restraining him by force. The doctor’s jaw was clenched, as if words he dared not utter were caught between his teeth. He drew a deep, shaky breath. “Sandor Ott,” he said, “you’re a man of immense talents, immense energies and strength.”

Smiling broadly, as though preparing for a grand entertainment, Ott leaned back in his chair and placed his hands behind his head.

“You are the personification of commitment,” the doctor continued. “That I would never deny, although I differ with your choice of loyalties. You might have grown very rich, without ever leaving Etherhorde; you might have settled for exploiting your office. You did not. You chose one task and pursued it selflessly, and with skills like no other man alive. I say all this because I wish you to know that I am not blinded by the animosity between us.”

Haddismal appeared to be preparing some caustic remark, but Ott wagged a finger at him for silence.

“Now all I ask,” said Chadfallow, “is that you try to see beyond that hatred yourself. The Emperor you serve has long counted me among his irreplaceable servants. In his name, let me ask . . . a favor of you. Let the men be landed on the Sandwall, and await the signal from Masalym. Let us wait for them here, as we discussed. Only for a fortnight—your plans for the Shaggat will not be harmed by such a small delay. Let us see if Macadra departs, and whether Pazel and the others return. They need not trouble you, now that Arunis is gone. They can be kept in the brig—all of them, all the way to Gurishal and beyond. But do not leave them here, to grow old and die among the dlömu, never seeing human faces again.”

Ott’s smile had faded into something more thoughtful. Haddismal too had shed his look of mirth.

“Rose, you must put a stop to this,” said Kurlstaff. “You’re the blary captain, not the spy. He should be seeking that boon from you.”

Rose looked the ghost in the face but said not a word.

“I am begging you, Mr. Ott,” said Chadfallow. “But more important, I am appealing to the idealist in you—the loyal soldier. Your dedication to Magad the Fifth is a passion in your heart, like all human loyalties. Pazel, Thasha, Hercól Stanapeth—their passions are no different. Consider them misguided, consider them mad if you must. But see what you share with them—it is conviction, sir, a willingness to risk one’s very life for what one holds most dear.”

Ott was frowning now. His eyebrows knitted, and the scars about his eyes were lost for a moment among the wrinkles.

“Not just their lives,” said the doctor softly, “but their souls. They are in the land of the mind-plague. They may all become animals, brainless tol-chenni, if we abandon them. Mr. Ott, do you imagine that they would take such a terrible risk if they did not believe it was essential? Is that not what you believe of Arqual’s conquest of the Mzithrin? Disagree with them all you like—but do not condemn them in this way. To do so is to condemn yourself.”

The room was silent. Even Spengler had turned away from the cabinets to gaze at the Imperial Surgeon. Ott himself was looking down at the table. He blinked, a quizzical light in his eyes.

“A good speech, Doctor,” he said. “It’s plain to see why His Supremacy needed your diplomatic skills. But you’ve left out a key detail, I think.” He raised his eyes. “You’re his father, aren’t you? Pathkendle’s father. You cuckolded Captain Gregory while he was away at sea.”

Silence. The living and the dead were still. Then Chadfallow, never shifting his gaze from Sandor Ott, said, “Yes, I did. And Pazel is my son, that’s true.”

“Are you the girl’s father as well? Did you sire a future sfvantskor on that woman?”

“Neda is Gregory’s daughter,” said Chadfallow stiffly. “She was born before I ever knew him, or Suthinia Pathkendle.”

“You were wise not to lie,” said Ott. “That would have ended the discussion. But one thing still perplexes me, Doctor. Why lie to the boy? He asked if he was your son just before leaving the Chathrand, I believe. And you denied it to his face.”

Chadfallow looked shocked. Though why should he be, thought Rose, to learn that the spymaster continued to spy?

“You let him depart thinking himself the son of that traitorous freebooter, that nobody,” said Sandor Ott. “Why?”

The doctor’s hands were trembling slightly. “I made a rash promise,” he said at last. “To his mother, the night she told me that the child was mine. She was afraid of losing her son, as she was already losing Captain Gregory. She feared that Pazel would choose me over her, one day, if he ever learned the truth. And so I swore I would never tell.”

“It has cost you a great deal to keep that promise, I think,” said Ott quietly.

Chadfallow nodded. “Yes, it has,” he said.

“Hmm, so,” muttered Ott. “You wish us to give them a fortnight. To catch up and rejoin us.”

“Nothing more,” said Chadfallow. “A fighting chance, sir. In Magad’s name.”

Ott looked sidelong at Haddismal. Then he rose to his feet and started for the door. He waved his hands as though relinquishing the matter. “This means the world to you, apparently,” he said.

“Do you mean—”

“You served Arqual truly, once,” said Ott. “I haven’t forgotten.”

Chadfallow closed his eyes, his shoulders bowed with relief. Mr. Fiffengurt put a shaky hand on his arm.

Then Rose glanced up to see that Ott was ushering Turachs into his cabin. Haddismal barked a code word, gesturing at the doctor and Fiffengurt, and before either man had time to react they were seized, and the door slammed anew. Ott struck Fiffengurt in the stomach, lightning-fast, dispassionate. The quartermaster doubled over, laboring to breathe.

The soldiers threw the struggling doctor to the floor and stretched him out, a man on each thrashing limb. They beat him, slapped him so hard that the outlines of their fingers appeared like strips of white paint on his cheeks. Sandor Ott let himself into Rose’s sleeping cabin and returned with a pillow, fluffing it in his hands.

Credek, he’s in for it now,” said Captain Maulle.

Ott tossed the pillow to Haddismal, then knelt and tore open Chadfallow’s jacket, sending buttons flying. He drew his long white knife, slipped it under the doctor’s shirt, and cut the fabric from collar to waist. He did the same with each leg of the doctor’s trousers. The doctor’s skin was very pale. His limbs were muscular but the joints looked stiff and swollen.

“Be gentle with his hands, we need them,” said Ott to the marines. Then he nodded to Haddismal, who lumbered forward and knelt by the doctor’s head. Using both hands, the sergeant held the pillow down over Chadfallow’s face, leaning into it with the whole of his bulk. The doctor kicked and thrashed, but the Turachs held him firmly. A muffled howl escaped the pillow, but it did not carry far.

Fiffengurt tried to lunge and was brought down with a second blow. The ghosts were backing away. Death, for some reason, could always be counted on to unnerve them.

Ott pinched the doctor’s skin appraisingly, as a tailor might a jacket he was preparing to trim. Then his knife-hand moved in a blur, and an arc of scarlet appeared on the doctor’s breast. Chadfallow’s writhing did not change: he was suffocating; the pain of the cut passed unnoticed.

Ott studied the wound a moment. His hand flicked again. The second cut, three inches lower, was exactly the same shape and length as the first. Rose found himself admiring the man’s concentration. Two more strokes followed, curling this time, bisecting the lines in a graceful pattern.

Captain Kurlstaff moved away from his ghostly companions. He flowed through the crowd, through the table, and solidified again by Rose’s chair. “You whore’s bastard! Make him stop! You’re the captain of this ship!” Rose sat as if turned to stone.

The doctor’s movements grew erratic. Ott picked up speed, moving from chest to stomach to legs, violating the doctor’s body with the precise but impulsive movements of a painter surrendering to inspiration. Blood ran in stripes over Chadfallow’s limbs, trickling into the remains of his clothes.

At last Ott gestured to Haddismal, and the sergeant removed the pillow. Dr. Chadfallow was barely conscious. Blood foamed about his lips. He had bitten his tongue.

“In Magad’s name,” said Sandor Ott.

Thumping footsteps outside the cabin. Mr. Uskins, the disgraced first mate, pushed open the door. He was terribly disheveled, his hair untrimmed and greasy, his uniform lumpy and stained. He gaped at the scene before him, then broke into a smile of glee.

“Look at the Imperial Surgeon! How the mighty are fallen, eh, Captain Rose? How the highborn are brought to heel!”

Fiffengurt was sobbing. Chadfallow moved feebly, leaving smears of blood. Captain Kurlstaff stared at Uskins with vague apprehension. There was a white scarf knotted at his neck.

Ott cleaned his knife in Chadfallow’s hair, then stood and stretched his back, wincing with pleasure. “Spread him out,” he said.

The Turachs pulled at Chadfallow’s wrists and ankles until the doctor lay spread-eagled on his back. Unbuttoning his fly, Ott began to urinate on the man, methodically, face to feet and back again.

“The trust we put in you,” he said, “makes your defection all the more base. It is not only treasonous but hurtful to His Supremacy. It a crime against—what did you call it, Doctor?—the soul.”

The room grew rank. Chadfallow groaned and spat but could not move. Ott paused, chose a new position, began again, soaking the doctor’s wounds and shreds of clothing. When he finished, he went to the table and gathered the linen napkins and tossed them at the doctor. “Clean yourself,” he said. “Rose, I am sorry this occurred in your cabin. Tell the steward to clean with vinegar and lye. I believe this concludes our business, gentlemen. Let us hope for favorable winds, and a swift departure for the North.”





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