The Skybound Sea

Page 40


“But the crown . . . he covets it. He wears it constantly. He fears its loss. I have seen him remove it. I know it can be taken from him—”


“—and given to another—”


“—that they might wield what he does.”


His roar, shrill as it was, drew attention from the encircling Shen who, at a glare from the siren, returned to the business of sharpening weapons and fletching arrows.

“Do you hear yourself?” Dreadaeleon demanded. “Do you know what you’re suggesting?”

“I know the crown gives power.”

“And do you know where it comes from?”

She nodded, solemnly.

“And do you know that it’s heresy in the eyes of the Venarium?”

“I know it’s necessary in the eyes of the Sea Mother and the world,” Greenhair replied firmly. “A world that breaks beneath our feet as Ulbecetonth begins to claw her way free from that dark place she was sent.”

“And I’m to stop it with the lives of . . .” He laughed, slightly incredulous. “I didn’t even count how many were in that furnace, how many more there might be, how many they spent like kindling to keep their powers running far beyond the point they ever should.”

“As powerful as they are, you are more so. You have the vision, the drive. If only your limits were as removed as theirs are.”

“The stones transfer limitations. The price is still paid, but by someone else.”

“And with that burden no longer yours to bear, you could—”

“LOOK AT THEM.” He swept an arm out over the Shen. “Do you see how they look at you? With reverence? With awe? And you say I should sacrifice their kinsmen? Living beings who speak your name like it’s to be respected, people who don’t know that you’re saying I should eat them alive to commit heresy.”

“I say you should sacrifice some,” Greenhair said, voice raising a quaver.

“And when some isn’t enough? When we need more?”

“It will not come to that.”

“You can’t know that. It’s too high a price to pay to save just a few.”

“To save everyone,” she all but snarled. “Are you deluded with the idea that Ulbecetonth’s threat is contained to this island? The demons are returning. If Ulbecetonth breaks free, she will drown the world, return people to oblivion for the sake of making her children more comfortable. If the longfaces prevail tomorrow, they will deliver this world to darker hands still. You could stop them both if only you lacked—”

“A conscience?”


For the first time, the porcelain of her face cracked, the melody of her voice broke. She became a creature of desperate stares, bared teeth, sweat-slick temples and urgent, pleading whispers. A greedy, hungry, weeping mortal thing.

“I know you. I know your thoughts. I know what you want, I know what you would do to get it and I know the dark places you don’t dare to tread and they simply do not exist. Your only fear is that they won’t respect you, that you won’t be strong enough to make a difference, that you can’t do what you need to to save her.”

Dreadaeleon felt his eyelid tremble. Somehow the word “her” on the siren’s lips sounded a vulgar thing.

“But you can,” Greenhair said, nodding vigorously. “And I can make it happen. I can give you the power to save her, to save yourself, to save the world. You will die tomorrow, lorekeeper, and she and all of them with you unless you take this power when I offer it to you.”

Dreadaeleon stared at her a moment. That thoughtlessness that had possessed him earlier vanished for but a single moment. And for a single moment, she saw something inside his head, something big and bright and beautiful.

And it made her smile.

And it made him feel sick.

“If, indeed, we’re all going to die tomorrow,” Dreadaeleon said calmly, “then I won’t give everyone the added problem of knowing you’ve suggested what you have. But if it’s over and you and I are both still alive, I will eagerly endeavor to remedy that.”

He turned.

“We are done,” he said.

He walked.

“Your thoughts suggest differently,” she called after him.

He did not stop.

More than anything, it was how horribly candid she was being that irritated Lenk.

She dipped another two fingers into the mixture of ash, water, and dye ground into an ugly, dark-red paste. She drew two lines upon her left cheek, complimenting the ones upon her right and the solid bar of red across her eyes. It matched the stripes encircling her arms, the tiny slashes running along the tops of her ears, the curving barbs running down the sides of her midriff.

She leaned over the edge of the stone bridge that ran over the vast, circular pool below. She stared at her own reflection, checking the application of her paint. Satisfied, she rose back up, dipped another two fingers in, and resumed her work.

As though preparing to go die was a perfectly normal thing.

“For the record,” Lenk said from the other edge of the bridge, “I think this is completely stupid and you’re completely stupid for doing it.”

“Your objection has been noted,” she replied as she drew a single red line from her lower lip to her chin. “And once I’m done here, I will be more than happy to reassure you that it is, in fact, you who are stupid.” She dabbed her fingers again. “And then kick you in the groin.”

“You don’t see the idiocy in this? Painting yourself to be as inconspicuous as a bipedal, wounded raccoon and calling it camouflage?”

“Ordinarily, this would be a poor choice of camouflage,” she said, checking herself in the pool once again. “And, if you can tell me that there’s anything at all ordinary about a forest made out of coral through which fish fly like birds, I’ll gladly stay behind.”

“I misspoke,” Lenk said. “What’s idiotic is the fact that you’re going out there to try and shoot a man who can stop arrows with his brain.”

“Mind,” Kataria corrected. “If he stops arrows with his mind, that’s a problem. If he stops them with his brain, that solves my problem.”


“I have an idea.” Kataria whirled on him, narrowing her eyes and baring her teeth. “Let’s you and I just pretend for a moment that I’m actually smarter than a monkey and have already thought about how dangerous this is and how scared I am of doing it and that I’m trying very, very hard not to think about what Sheraptus does to people and what he did to Asper and what he might do to me and then let’s pretend you stop sitting there and telling me how dangerous this is before I pretend to put an arrow through your eye socket just so I can have a moment to tell myself this needs to be done so no one else has to die. How about we do that?”

When she had finished talking she was breathing hard through her nostrils, her lips pressed together to keep from trembling as much as her eyes were as she locked them onto him.

And he was silent.

“It’s not like we have a lot of options,” Kataria said, returning to painting herself. “It has to be this way.”

“I liked Shalake’s idea of attacking Sheraptus through the forest.”

“And then when he realizes something’s up, about the time the arrows start flying, he starts shooting fire. A forest on fire is a death trap, Lenk, one that will waste warriors we need here.” She drew in a long, slow breath. “No. One warrior, one shot is all that’s needed. Right in his neck. Before he knows it. Then I run.” She nodded to herself. “One shot. In his neck. Before he knows it. Then I run.”

She repeated each word, enunciating each syllable carefully until it became mantra, repeating the mantra until it became a deal with some god listening from far, far away.

She was fragile, if only at that moment, if only unwilling to admit it to herself or to him. And so, instead of speaking what he was thinking, he kept it in his head.

There has to be another way, he thought. I mean, Shalake knows the forests. He can find a place that . . . doesn’t burn . . . in a forest. Okay, maybe she has a point. But there’s got to be another way. There’s clearly no way to win this, right?

It took a moment for him to remember that no one would be answering him this time.

There’s always retreat, he conceded to himself.

“You ever notice how easily we run away?”

It wasn’t the first time he had suspected her ears might just be big enough to hear what he was thinking. She stared into her own reflection, a solemn look upon her face.

“I mean, it’s not like we’re cowards or anything . . . or not all the time, anyway. We run when it’s practical, when we’re outmatched or in danger or something.” She looked out from the top of the stairs, out over Jaga and to its distant shores. “We could probably figure a way out of this, if we wanted to; a way to run away and let the Shen fight it out and hope that everything works out all right.”

She glanced at him.

“You’ve probably thought out a few.”

Kill a Shen and steal their boat, kill Hongwe and steal his boat, kill enough Shen and possibly Hongwe to strap them together to make a boat out of flesh and then flee using a sail made out of their skin.

“It hasn’t been on my mind,” he said simply.

“Either way, I like that you haven’t brought it up.”

“And why is that?”

“A couple reasons,” she said, shrugging. “I guess there are some things you can’t run from. I tried.” She looked back at her reflection, her face covered in a red deep enough to be blood. “I tried hard.”

“And was it worth it?”

She looked at him. And did nothing else but look.

“This seems like the sort of thing we can’t run from,” she said. “The sort of thing we shouldn’t try to run from.” She held out a hand. “Demons rising from below. Netherlings coming out to get them. Neither one of them has a problem with us dying. We don’t stop them both, a lot more people die.”

“We’ve seen a lot of people die,” Lenk said. “Killed a lot of them ourselves.”

“There’s got to be a reason for it,” she said. “Beyond money and survival. There’s got to be a good reason for doing what we did here, even if we haven’t done it yet. Because if it is all about the money . . .”

She didn’t finish the thought with words. Her frown did it well enough for her.

It was hard to see her hurt. So he looked away. It was harder to look at the other end of the bridge, opposite the top of the stairs, and the stone door ensconced in the mountain’s face.

A simple slab set impassably within a frame hewn of granite stood seven feet within the face of the mountain. The image of Ulbecetonth was carved as a mantle atop it, hands extended from the mountain’s face in benevolence. The rivers that wept from the mountain’s crown turned to thin trickles here, a thousand tiny tears shed every moment to empty into the pool below.

This. This rock. This rock within a rock, and all its tiny, weepy tears, was what they were going to fight for tomorrow.

What people would die for.

“Death hasn’t bothered you before.”

“Well, maybe it does, now. I know it does, you.”

“I was actually feeling pretty okay with just getting on my skin-ship and leaving.”

“Your skin . . .” She stopped herself from pursuing a line of conversation too stupid to bear. “If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t have come here in the first place. We had a hundred chances to leave, to take an easier job with better pay, but you chose to follow the tome all this way.”

“I didn’t, no. Something else made me come. Something in my head. It wasn’t bothered by however many people could die. I think it got a little giddy at the prospect, in fact. But I didn’t come here for them. I came here for it.”

“And you could have resisted it, like you have before. But you’re here, with me.”

“And the demons. And the netherlings. And the Shen.”

“And me,” she repeated. “But if you still want to run away, this is your last chance.” She clicked her tongue, looked up at the shifting stars overhead. “But if, just once, you want to do something that might be worth not running from . . . well, I guess this is also your last chance.”

He turned from her gaze, sighing as he leaned onto his knees.

“I’m just having a hard time seeing the point in it all. We kill the netherlings, then what? Ulbecetonth is still under there.”

“Then we kill her, too.” She sneered. “I said we can’t solve this by running away. Violence is still a good answer.”

“How do we kill her, then? Whatever was in me, it killed demons. It kept me alive. Without it, I’m—”

“Not crazy,” she interrupted, edging over to him. “Not insane. Not listening to anyone but you. Everything else you’ve done has been for some voice in your head, some dream that haunted you. But now . . .”

She lay a hand upon his shoulder, gave it a gentle squeeze, and smiled.

“Now, whatever you do tomorrow, you do for yourself.”

He returned the smile, hoping she would think the tears forming at the corners of his eyes were the result of overwhelming emotion and not because she was currently squeezing a hunk of decaying, pus-weeping flesh that was his shoulder.

She rose to her feet. He took a moment to swallow a scream and followed her. They walked to the edge of the stairs together and were caught between stars. Beneath them, the fires of the Shen continued to burn as the lizardmen continued to work in silence. Above them, the fish brimming with the lights of their bodies continued to dance and sway in the shadow of the mountain.

“There.” Kataria pointed out over the distance, where the road slipped from the vast circle of sand and disappeared into the coral forest. “That’s where I’ll do it.”

“You sound awfully confident.”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” she asked, her grin gleaming with her canines. “I’m me.”

“It might take more than fancy new arrows to kill him, you know.”

“Ah, yes.” She plucked her weapons up, stringing them across her shoulder. She took a single arrow from the quiver, a long, black-shafted thing with a nasty-looking barbed head. “Ravensdown fletching, barbed heads that can’t be pulled out without causing excessive bleeding.” She batted her eyelashes at him mockingly. “How did you know?”

“I just saw it in the Shen stockpile and thought of you,” he replied with a shrug and a smile. “You like them, I take it.”

He wasn’t sure if she was trying to appear amorous, seductive, or maybe a little hungry, but her gaze was hard, unwavering, and more than a little predatory as it ran up and down him.

“If we had more time, I’d convince you.” She slipped the arrow back in the quiver. “But I’ve got to go get my jar and get into position.”

He chose not to ask about the jar.

“I suppose I should tell you something deep and profound before you leave, shouldn’t I?” he asked.

She looked him over and gestured with her chin. “Go ahead, then.”

He drew in a sharp breath and nodded. “Ever since I was young—”

He made it about that far before she seized him by his collar, pulling him closer to her. Fragile as anything else about her was, the firmness of her body as she drew him up against her and pressed her lips to his was not. His arms found her tense, taut, trembling beneath him.

He felt as though he held a precarious grip on a tall mountain with nothing but emptiness beneath him. And when it ended, when she pulled away, he felt as though he fell.

“It was going to be boring, anyway,” she said, smiling as she wiped a bit of warpaint from his lips and reapplied it to hers. “Stay alive.”

“You, too,” he said, watching her as she traipsed away and down the stairs. After a moment, he called out after her. “If you don’t return, I just want you to—”

“Gods, I get it, Lenk!” she snarled back. “Riffid, if I knew you were going to get like this, I would have just let Inqalle kill us both.”

He glanced to the bridge, saw one of the many stone fragments broken from its edges. He resisted the urge to wing one of them at her head as she trotted down the stairs, if only because his shoulder was currently in agony.

Agony became searing pain in a matter of a few short breaths and one decidedly unmasculine squeal. He could feel his skin breaking, dying beneath his tunic, he could feel the blood and disease weeping from it. He peeled out of the garment before more than a few spatters of red could stain it.

He threw himself to the edge of the bridge, only narrowly keeping himself from tumbling into the water as he strained to scoop up a precious handful. He had only a moment to notice how it tingled unpleasantly upon his skin. When he splashed it onto his shoulder, though, he had more time to appreciate just how painful it was to feel the cold chill of the water upon the blackening rot of his wound.

And more than enough time to try not to cry like a little girl.

He could see his face contorted in the rippling reflections below, the screwed-up agony distorted into something even worse as he swallowed his screams, let his tears fall into the pool and lie on top of it, like they weren’t good enough to simply blend in with the rest of the water.

He shook, brushed, clawed the water from his wound. It fell upon the stones, gathered together, slid off the bridge to smother his tears and rejoin the pool.

“The water will not soothe you.”

Had he not been close to crying, he might have had the wit to ask how Mahalar had appeared at the end of the bridge and what he was doing there. But the elder Shen’s comings and goings and the very intent way with which he stared at Lenk from behind his hood were, at that moment, not the weirdest thing about him.

“It does not remember you.”

The Shen rose to his feet, shambled to edge of the bridge and leaned over, casually letting a hand dangle several fingers’ lengths above the water.

And, like a cat pleased to see its master, the water rose to the Shen. In liquid tendrils, it reached out from the pool to caress his fingers, running water over the rotted skin and exposed carpals of his hand.

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