BY the sixth day of the voyage, Ruiz Aw had become friendly with the second mate of the Loracca, the ancient barge that had carried him away from his enemies in SeaStack. Gunderd was a short wiry man with bad teeth. He complained frequently and imaginatively about the decrepitude of the Loracca, the incompetence of her crew, the lucklessness of her captain: "Four ships sunk under him already. He's a young man yet. Makes me constantly uneasy."
Gunderd affected a costume of gaudy rags and a clanking assortment of gold chains. When Ruiz asked him if he feared falling overboard with so much ballast around his neck, Gunderd replied cheerfully that he couldn't swim anyway. "Best to get it over with quick," he explained. "It's not the dying I fear, so much ... it's the long slow falling away from the light. Into the cold dark."
"I see," said Ruiz Aw politely, though he found Gunderd's attitude eccentric.
Gunderd gave him a green grin. "Not everyone is such a philosopher, I admit. You yourself I perceive to be an optimistic flounderer. Am I right?"
Ruiz nodded, amused. They stood together at the rail of the topmost deck of the Loracca, just abaft the wheel-house. They looked out over a blue-black sea, glassy calm. The sky was the color of tarnished brass, clear but for a line of dark clouds to the north. The closest land was far below the southern horizon; the captain had plotted his course to take them well outside a bank of off-lying reefs.
Inside the wheelhouse, the captain hunched over his navigation module and loudly cursed the fate that had laden his vessel with almost two thousand dedicants of the Immolator Mystery, for delivery to the cannibal Blades of Namp. Gunderd apparently regarded the captain as a figure of fun; he winked and flapped his lips in silent mockery of the captain's invective.
A click and whine announced the production of a weather chart from one of the Loracca's predictive synthesizers--and abruptly the captain fell silent.
The Immolators swarmed the broad deck below, reading from sacred tracts, singing discordant songs, beating each other with small ceremonial flails--all of them frantic with suicidal religious mania. Gunderd watched them and made his tiny black eyes wide with melodramatic astonishment. "Though you claim optimism, still you wear the robe of Immolation--surely a more serious impediment to survival than my chains, not so?"
Ruiz smiled, but made no response. Gunderd liked to tease him about his disguise, but his speculations as to Ruiz's real identity and purposes seemed unmalicious.
From long careful habit, Ruiz refused to gratify Gunderd's curiosity.
Ruiz had become acquainted with the second mate at a nightly kanterip game that met in whatever nook of the vessel the captain seemed unlikely to inspect that evening. He and Gunderd were the only players who won consistently--though Gunderd won a good deal more than Ruiz, who cheated just enough to stay a little ahead. One night, a drunken stoker had taken offense at Gunderd's more blatant manipulation of the cards and had attempted to gut the second mate with a cargo hook. Ruiz had tapped the stoker's skull with a handy piece of dunnage.
Thereafter Gunderd took Ruiz under his wing, finding slightly better accommodations for Ruiz and his group of refugees, providing them an extra water ration, and occasionally bringing them food from the crew's mess--food which, though just as plain as the passengers' diet, was pleasantly free of insect life.
Gunderd accepted Ruiz's taciturnity without visible resentment. "Ah ... you're full of secrets. I look at you and rejoice in my own simplicity." Again his little black eyes glittered.
Ruiz clapped him on the shoulder. "Everyone has secrets--even you, paragon of simplicity though you may be." He turned away and went to the ladder.
Gunderd laughed. "Perhaps, perhaps. So, do you return to your odd crew? I must say, they seem even less like Immolators than you do ... though the woman has a certain darkness about her. A beauty, no doubt about that, but fey. You should be cautious."
The cheer seemed to go out of the bright day. "As you say," said Ruiz, and went below.
He made his way through the thronging Immolators, shaking off those who attempted to drag him into their rituals. Most of them accepted his refusal without annoyance, except for one large red-faced man with a nail-studded flail, whose frothing devotion forced Ruiz to dodge away nimbly.
Eventually he reached his quarters, which consisted of a livestock stall on the second deck. An organic reek attested to the identity of former passengers, but the walls of the stall gave some privacy, and a usually reliable breeze blew through the crevices.
Inside, his fellow refugees waited. Molnekh sat atop their baggage in a vigilant pose, holding a steel club ready. The cadaverously thin conjuror had adapted to the rigors of voyaging better than the other Pharaohans; he looked no closer to death than he usually did.
Molnekh laid down the club, which he had acquired from an unwary Immolator. "What news, Ruiz Aw?" he asked brightly.
"Yes, what news?" rumbled Dolmaero, the stout Pharaohan Guildmaster. His broad face was pale and sweaty; he still suffered from seasickness and had lost weight since their departure from SeaStack. "Do we approach our destination? I almost think the cannibals would be better than this terrible instability." He rose with some difficulty and rubbed at his back.
"Not yet," said Ruiz. "Don't be so anxious to meet the cannibals." He worried about Dolmaero, whose health seemed precarious. Over the weeks they had spent together since their escape from Corean the slaver, he had grown quite fond of the Guildmaster.
The third Pharaohan sat in a dark corner and said nothing. Ruiz smiled at Nisa tentatively, but her expression was distant.
Ruiz turned away. The change in Nisa tormented him. Not long before, they had been lovers, and she had given him the sweetest moments in his long life. Now they seemed to be two unhappy strangers, thrown together by ruinous mischance.
In SeaStack, Nisa and the others had been recaptured by Corean. Ruiz had been unable to prevent this, but Nisa apparently believed that he was in some way responsible for what had happened to her. Since he had rescued the Pharaohans from a slaver's dungeon, Nisa had asked him nothing about the events in SeaStack, and he had been afraid to attempt an explanation, for fear she would refuse to listen. Since they had embarked on the Loracca, she spoke only when necessary. She left her corner only rarely and her beauty had grown even more haggard. It cut at his heart to see her so, which was the reason he wandered the barge, looking for card games and other distractions.
Ruiz lay down on a straw pallet in the corner farthest from Nisa's and used a packsack for his pillow. The spicy resinous scent of its contents overcame the barnyard smell of the stall, for which Ruiz was grateful. Before departing SeaStack, Ruiz had arranged a two-level disguise. On the surface, they were four Immolators, driven by religious lunacy to donate their temporal bodies to the Blades of Namp. However, when they arrived on the burning beaches of Namp, Ruiz was prepared to assume a new identity, that of courier from one of the pirate Lords of SeaStack, who sold the Blades their sacramental drug.
Since the rites of the Blades involved getting high and roasting people on spits, Ruiz wasn't entirely eager to arrive at their destination. Still, that arrival would get them that much closer to the moment when they could leave this brutal world, forever.
He closed his eyes and hoped for a few hours of undisturbed rest.
NISA FELT NO urge to sleep. Since boarding the barge, she had slept poorly, despite her deepening exhaustion. Nothing in her previous life on the desert world of Pharaoh had prepared her for this hideous wasteland of water. It was so unnatural. The ocean struck her as some sort of vast malevolent being, its greasy skin forever heaving and twitching, as though it would shrug them off if it could.
The accommodations were far from ideal. Once she had been a princess, the favored daughter of the king. Now she slept on the floor of a stable reeking of manure and vomit.
On the few occasions she had fallen into an uneasy slumber, she had dreamed unpleasant dreams. The slaver Corean, the slayer Remint, the pirate Yubere--all these dire faces circulated through her nightmares in a slow ominous pavane.
She felt abandoned and alone. Ruiz Aw, whom she had once loved and trusted with her life, had permitted terrible things to happen to her. And now he ignored her, except for an occasional knowing smile. He seemed full of a brittle insincere courtesy.
Presently he would allow some new torment, and she didn't think she could stand it.
RUIZ WOKE WITH a sense of wrongness. The stall was dark, and the motion of the barge had worsened.
He sat up and rubbed at his eyes. The wind's sound had risen to an evil shriek; clearly the weather had deteriorated badly during his nap.
"What's wrong?" asked Dolmaero, who huddled against the hull, eyes wide. "What's happening now?"
"It's just some wind," Ruiz said, getting up. A sudden lurch threw him toward Nisa's corner. He caught his balance easily, but not before she raised her arms in a defensive gesture, her face abruptly fearful.
He wanted to kneel down beside her and try to convince her that he was the same Ruiz Aw she had trusted before. But she turned her head away and looked at the bulkhead with ostentatious fixity.
Despair nibbled at him, for reasons he could not quite understand. After all, this disengagement--though painful at the moment--would in the end be the best thing for her. What had he expected, if they survived and managed to escape from this terrible world? Had he really been naive enough to believe that Nisa, a slave, a primitive from a low-tech client planet, would somehow adapt to the complicated life of the pangalac worlds? Would she have a realistic chance to be happy, with Ruiz Aw? Or he with her? Absurd, absurd.
He shook his head and turned away. "I'll go on deck and see what's happening," he said. "Meanwhile, there's probably nothing to worry about. We've been lucky with the weather, so far...."
RUIZ MADE HIS way up through a mob of panicky Immolators. He reflected that human beings could be very strange. All these men and women claimed to be going eagerly to the abattoirs of the Blades; still, they feared drowning. It seemed to Ruiz that drowning was not an unattractive death, in comparison to most of the varieties of death to be found on Sook.
On the top deck the motion was very bad, and Ruiz clung tightly to the rail as he looked out over the dark gray waters. The wind had veered and was blowing strongly off the land; his lips were already gritty with dust from the deserts of Namp. Twilight was approaching, and he found it difficult to judge the height of the waves, but the wind was beginning to blow the foam into long white streaks.
The Loracca was making heavy going of it, taking the swell on her high quarter, twisting in the troughs, her hull groaning with the strain.
Ruiz frowned and wiped at his eyes. The Loracca plunged along, spray drifting up from each shuddering impact with the sea. He wondered how much strength remained in the old barge's bones. Presumably her owners had been desperate for a cargo, to have accepted the Immolator charter--not a promising thought. Her engines beat steadily, at the moment, but he worried about what would happen if she lost steerageway and lay at the mercy of the waves.
He began to feel a certain degree of pessimism. The sky had an unhealthy bruised look, and conditions had worsened noticeably since his arrival on deck.
A familiar anger began to grow in him; once again Ruiz Aw found himself at the mercy of events beyond his control.
He could see Gunderd in the brightly lit wheelhouse--but the second mate seemed very busy, moving between the course computer and the chart readouts, his usually cheerful face drawn with fatigue.
Ruiz considered going forward; perhaps Gunderd would have encouraging news. However, the captain had posted two armed deckhands by the wheelhouse door, apparently taking precautions against interference by hysterical Immolators. One of them saw Ruiz watching, and made a shooing gesture with his nerve lash.
Ruiz hunched down into his now-damp Immolator robe and went below, where he made reassuring noises at the others and tried not to think of what might happen if the storm continued to worsen.
THE BARGE'S MOTION grew increasingly violent as the night wore on. Dolmaero again became sick, but was considerate enough to crawl outside before attempting to empty his already dry stomach.
Ruiz asked Molnekh to go with him. "Don't let him hang over the rail; we'll lose him for sure."
Molnekh nodded cheerfully; of all the Pharaohans, he seemed the most adaptable.
The sound of retching diminished, washed away by the shriek of the wind.
Ruiz realized, with both anxiety and a small degree of hopeful anticipation, that he and Nisa were alone together. Perhaps now might be a good time to try to find out what was wrong--why she was so distant.
"How do you feel?" he asked.
"Not good." Her voice was flat; she did not look up.
She seemed uninterested in conversation, but Ruiz gathered his determination. They might all sink to the bottom of the sea tonight; this could be his last chance to try to set things right. He moved a little closer to her, so that he wouldn't have to shout over the wind, and settled down with his back braced against the bulkhead. "You've never told me what happened to you in SeaStack," he said.
"You never asked," she said.
He was heartened by the small anger he heard in her voice. Anger seemed far better than indifference. "May I ask now?"
She looked at him, eyes wary. "All right. What do you want to know?"
"What happened after you were taken from the pen?"
She drew a deep breath. "The slayer Remint ... you know of him?"
"Oh yes," he said, suppressing a shudder. "I know of him--but he's dead, I think."
"Really?" She almost smiled. "I wouldn't have thought anything could kill him.... Anyway, after he took us from the pen, he chained us and delivered us to Corean." She fidgeted, her hands knotting together in her lap. "She put me in a machine and asked me questions. Somehow, I couldn't refuse to answer; it was as if my tongue belonged to her. I had to tell her everything."
Ruiz identified the emotion she felt: It was guilt. "Oh no, Nisa--you did nothing wrong. It's very difficult to lie to a brainpeeler--it takes a lot of practice. Special training."
"Oh? Can you do it?"
"I have ... in the past. What happened then?"
She shrugged. "Very little. Remint put us back on his boat and took us to another place. We waited there until you came for us."
"Were you badly treated?"
"I was alone in the cell. There was nothing in the cell but a bed and a toilet." Her beautiful mouth trembled. "I was alone."
"I'm sorry," Ruiz said. "I came as soon as I could."
"Did you?" Her voice was full of ugly suspicion again.
"Yes, of course. What do you mean?"
She didn't answer for a time. Finally she turned away and said, almost casually, "Remint told us that you had sold us ... and then tried to buy your safety by telling Corean where we were."
"Oh, no. No."
"Did he lie?"
"Yes." Ruiz shook his head wearily; small wonder she seemed distrustful and cold. "I had nothing to do with your capture; it was just bad luck."
"Really?" Her voice had a sudden lightness.
"Really. If I'd betrayed you to Corean, why would I have returned for you?"
"I couldn't understand that," she said. "But I've seen so many things I couldn't understand, since I left Pharaoh."
He smiled. After a moment she smiled, too, and though it was a small uneasy smile, he felt better than he had in many days. A particularly violent roll threw her against his shoulder. She didn't immediately pull away, and for a time he was able to enjoy the warmth where they touched.
"So," she said. "What did happen to you, after you left us?"
"It's a long story."
She glanced about the dark livestock stall. "I suppose I could spare a few minutes."
"Well, then..." He told her about asking help from Publius the monster maker, who had betrayed Ruiz at every opportunity, who had plotted to reign over SeaStack, who had been mortally wounded by Remint the slayer ... Publius, who had died on the third day of the voyage.
The price of Publius's help had been an assault on the fortress of Alonzo Yubere, who controlled an enclave of Gencha minddivers.
Ruiz told her of returning to the pen where he had left her and the others--and finding them gone.
Her eyes grew a little softer.
"I learned that Remint had taken you. He set a trap for me at a fabularium," he said. "He caught me, too. Effortlessly. But for blind luck, I'd still be entertaining Corean."
"But you got away."
"Yes. I followed Remint back to Publius's laboratories, and ambushed him when he was wounded and off his guard. He almost killed me anyway ... the man wasn't human. Any other time, he'd have bested me easily." Ruiz shivered. Remembering the slayer, his present situation seemed less threatening.
"I forced Publius to keep his bargain, which was to provide us this escape from SeaStack. Something was going on in the city, something that had the pirate Lords in a frenzy ... and this barge was the only way out."
He fell silent, remembering the events of the past several weeks. He couldn't shake off a feeling that his life had passed beyond his control, running faster and faster down invisible rails.
"A lot happened, didn't it?" Nisa said, finally, and he could hear that she wasn't entirely convinced. But at least she was speaking to him, which seemed a vast improvement.
He might have attempted further conversation, but just then Molnekh and Dolmaero returned, soaking wet. Dolmaero's normally ruddy face was gray, and his lips had a bluish cast. He leaned heavily on Molnekh, and collapsed on his pallet, breathing with apparent difficulty.
Ruiz knelt beside him and loosened the lacings of his robe. Dolmaero looked up at him, eyes dull with misery. "I suppose I'll die soon, Ruiz Aw. Though at the moment, I'm more afraid of the possibility that I will continue to live."
Ruiz was very worried about the Guildmaster, but he made himself smile; "That's the common reaction to seasickness, but it's rarely a fatal condition."
"Oh, no," said Dolmaero faintly, and closed his eyes.
Ruiz covered the Guildmaster with bedding he had collected over the past few days from Immolators who had prematurely consummated their rites. "Rest for a while," he said. "You'll feel better for it."
Thereafter everyone was quiet. The Loracca rolled and plunged, and the wind rose to such a pitch that it almost drowned out the screams of the Immolators.
COREAN HEICLARO, LATE of the Blacktear Pens and once a rich slaver, hid in a dank steel room deep under the surface waters of SeaStack. She stared moodily into a broken piece of mirror, pushing back sweaty tendrils of dark hair. She barely recognized her expensive face; her beauty had suffered during the days she had spent hiding from the pirate Lords, who in their self-destructive hysteria had turned SeaStack into a battlefield.
Blood enriched the canals and lagoons, and the predatory margars were growing fat on the bodies that fell from the heights above.
At least she was alive. And she could take comfort in her fantasies--all of which involved Ruiz Aw and a versatile cast of sharp things, of red-hot things, of barbed things.
At the moment she was alone but for her Mocrassar bondwarrior. The huge insectoid stood silent and still in the farthest corner of her refuge, awaiting her instructions. The Moc was her greatest remaining asset, until such time as she could return safely to the Blacktear Pens. As long as it obeyed her, she was reasonably safe.
Her other asset, an ancient cyborged pirate named Marmo, was away. With any luck, he had posted a query for the Pharaohan slaves Ruiz Aw had stolen from her. The query would go out over the datastream to all the slave markets of Sook.
Sooner or later, Ruiz would sell them. Then she would find him. Then she could begin balancing their accounts.
Time drained away sluggishly, but finally Marmo returned.
"So?" she said impatiently.
He settled into the driest corner of the room, his chassis dull with a fine patina of brown corrosion. "I found a live datalink, though I was almost ambushed there by a gang of starving terrace farmers.... Anyway, your order is in the datastream, for good or ill." His voice was devoid of resentment, but Corean knew him well.
"It's for the good," she said firmly--though in the deepest part of her mind, doubts bred. "I'll find him eventually."
Marmo made his voice even colder. "And then what? What will you buy him with? How will you fetch him?"
She opened her mouth to speak an angry impotent curse, but then, as if from the damp musty air, an idea came to her.
"Good questions," she said, smiling brightly.
Marmo seemed to shrink, becoming a lump of worn metal and ancient flesh. "I will not like this, will I?" he asked, in another voice, almost a whisper.
JUST BEFORE MIDNIGHT, Ruiz woke from a light doze. Something had changed. After a moment's confusion, he realized that he could no longer feel the Loracca's engines through the alloy deck of the stall.
The motion had altered into a slow long roll, reaching a dangerous degree of heel at the end of each roll.
The others were awake, though Dolmaero looked little better than he had before.
Molnekh ventured to speak. "I know nothing about boats, Ruiz, but should this be happening?"
"Probably not," said Ruiz. "But there's nothing we can do." He reflected that the Loracca carried only two lifeboats, just enough for the crew; perhaps he should look into the situation. He rose wearily, holding on to the stall's divider. "Wait here; I'll have another look. But be ready to come running, if it starts to look bad."
He made his way down to the main deck and clung to a companionway railing on the lee side. The barge was lying broadside to the waves, rolling her scuppers under as the swell passed beneath her. Each time green water roared over the bulwark, a number of Immolators were washed away. Their white robes were indistinguishable from the welter of foam that streaked the toppling faces of the waves.
Ruiz judged that the old barge was coming apart. Ominous grinding sounds came up through a nearby ventilator shaft, and the deck plating was starting to buckle. It seemed only a matter of time before she broke her back.
As if to confirm his judgment, he saw two crew members station themselves unobtrusively near the starboard boat's davits. Ruiz felt certain that they carried weapons beneath their foul-weather suits; apparently they were waiting for the rest of the crew to arrive before standing to the lifeboat's falls.
Ruiz fought his way back through the crowds of panicked Immolators; several times he was forced to kick away men and women who clutched at him, babbling prayers.
When he reached the stall, he saw with relief that the others were ready to go, even Dolmaero--though the Guildmaster seemed very unsteady.
"Take off your robes," Ruiz directed. Under the white robes they all wore brown shipsuits--not too different from the crew's haphazard uniform. Ruiz retrieved a small plastic splinter gun from a place of concealment--the only long-range weapon he had dared to smuggle past the barge's security detectors.
"We'll have to leave most of the dope," he said regretfully. But he swung one small satchel over his shoulder--perhaps it would be well to carry some form of trade goods.
Then he led the way down to the main deck. Molnekh and Nisa supported Dolmaero between them, and they only fell twice.
He made them wait in the shelter of a companionway while he crept out into the storm. To his great relief, he saw that the lifeboat still hung from its davits. The two crew members waited, their white faces swiveling back and forth inside the hoods of their jackets, as though they could not understand what was delaying the rest of the crew.
Ruiz hefted the splinter gun. It contained a minimum charge; he would have to spend its power frugally.
For some reason he felt a dangerous reluctance to act. The two had done him no harm. Perhaps he'd even played a few friendly hands of kanterip with them. But they stood between him and survival; what real choice did he have?
Ruiz sighed. He steadied his wrist against a pipe. He waited for the pause that came at the end of a roll, and then he put a splinter through both unsuspecting heads.
They dropped unnoticed in the chaos that filled the deck. Ruiz sprang forward and reached the bodies before they could roll to the rail. The two had been armed only with nerve whips, which were useless to Ruiz, but he stripped off their foul-weather gear. He waited for the rail to lift again, and then boosted the bodies over into the sea.
Under the companionway, he thrust the smaller man's garments at Molnekh. "Put these on." He donned the other set, then explained his plan. "Molnekh and I will pretend to be guards; Dolmaero and Nisa will board the boat and look like early-arriving crew. When the next group shows up, we'll take them with us. I'm no sailor; we'll need their expertise."
"Will we live through this?" asked Nisa.
He felt oddly cheerful, as if he had returned to familiar, comfortable terrain. "Why not?"