As I re-entered the receiving chamber, I glanced across the table to where Abhivada sat, talking quietly with Neren. She gave no sign that she was even aware of me. Neren too pretended not to have seen me enter, though he was a far less accomplished actor. I tried not to smile at his well-intentioned but totally unnecessary attempts to avoid drawing Abhivada’s attention to me.
I settled myself comfortably amongst the crimson velvet cushions next to Bayl. He didn’t seem to have noticed me, either. He and Enamdis, looming at his other side, burst into raucous laughter at some private joke. I saw Mei lean over from Enamdis’ other side and sign something to the two of them with her fingers.
Bayl is a good teacher, and I had by now picked up the rudiments of the Silent Speech, but Mei’s fingers still moved more quickly than I could follow. Whatever she had said, Enamdis and Bayl collapsed into another bout of uncontrolled laughter.
Mei laughed too, but silently, looking more like someone gasping for air. Perhaps it was the wine, but the sight made me want to weep. The girl seemed to have accepted the loss of her friend and lover, Tamar. It was good that the tragedy of that loss had not destroyed her lively and rather impish sense of humour. But her earlier loss – of her tongue and, I suspected, her innocence – could never be made right. I still wanted to deny that one of my sister-wives could have done such a thing, but I knew deep in my soul that what Neren had told me was true.
And none of that could sweep aside my duty to hand Mei, Neren and all the rest over to the Temple when we reached Nibenay. That duty hung over me like an executioner’s axe.
I could stomach no more of the over-rich food. Instead, I drank until sleep overtook me and comforting darkness smothered my anguish.
In my dreams, a red-haired warrior-woman stood over Mei’s sprawled and helpless form, fending off nightmarish shapes with her twin carrikals. She paused in her desperate fight to stare at me. Her lips moved. She seemed to be asking me a question, but I could not hear the words. She asked again, more urgently, pleading with me for… something.
Her large, dark eyes filled with whirling stars, and I felt myself spiralling back down into ordinary sleep.
The sun’s rays seemed to be trying to bore through my eyes and into my brain, and I was pretty sure the silt serpent I’d eaten was trying to climb back up out of my stomach. But I have always had a good head for wine. Aside from the nausea and the dull ache behind my eyes, I felt well enough.
Not so Bayl. As I sat up, blinking and cursing the sun’s obnoxious presence in the dusty olive-hued sky, he groaned loudly from where he lay, swaddled in blankets, just to my right. We had both been installed under the blue wyrm-silk canopy immediately forward of the quarterdeck.
The silt skimmer was already outside the walls of Bremil Fort. Indeed, it had been its rumbling motion that had awoken me as much as the sunlight. It was still early – only a couple of hours past dawn at the most – but already oppressively hot. I could see Chanya and Larech heaving at the vessel’s capstan, and now understood why the two of them had drunk only a single cup of wine apiece the night before. The great sail was unfurled upon the mainmast, but it hung limp and useless. The surrounding mountains usually channel the wind into Bremil Pass, but this morning was quite still.
Bayl tried to sit up, but immediately regretted the effort. He sank back into his blankets with a muffled curse. “Some bastard’s set up some sort of large-scale mining operation inside my skull,” he said after a few moments. “Did I lose a bet again?”
“I think you might have been trying to impress Enamdis,” I ventured. My own memories of the previous night were rather foggy, but I wasn’t going to let Bayl know that. I winced, wondering if I too had embarrassed myself. I could only hope that Abhivada had assumed my appearing to drink myself into unconsciousness was just part of my ‘cover’. Certainly, nobody at the meal could have imagined me to be a bride of the Shadow King.
Bayl grunted. “I thought I saw a funny thing, last night.”
“Oh?” I replied, rather absently, as I pulled my robe around me and fumbled among the blankets for my makeshift belt.
“I went out for a piss. Must have been after midnight. I wasn’t really drunk yet.” His heavy brows furrowed. “I needed a bit of fresh air too, so I went outside into the yard. Told the guards Neren had sent me to check the skimmer’s wheels had been properly braked.”
I finished belting my robe and glanced back at Bayl. “Well, go on. What did you see?”
He shrugged his heavy shoulders. “Well, Mei must have slipped out too. I hadn’t seen her leave the meal, but you know how quiet she can be. As I came round the bow of the skimmer, I saw her sitting on the ground. I could have sworn she was talking to someone.”
“That’s just it. There was no-one there but her and me, and she didn’t seem to know I was there. And she wasn’t talking with her hands. Her mouth was moving, but of course nothing was coming out.”
“Maybe she was just eating?” I ventured.
Bayl grunted. “Maybe. I was behind her, pretty much, so it’s possible.” He shook his head. “Anyway, I went back up to the meal. After a minute or two, she slipped back in too. Nobody seemed to have noticed she’d even been gone. It’s probably nothing.”
“Probably,” I agreed. “But it’s nice to know your watchfulness did not entirely desert you last night.”
He had the sense to look chastened at the implied rebuke. “Sorry, lady. I don’t know what possessed me to drink so much.”
I sighed. “Never mind, Bayl. No harm came of it. In fact, it probably made us both seem no more than ordinary travellers, which is all to the good. Now, let’s see if Neren has anything aboard I can use to cure that hangover of yours.”