“Dragon’s balls, you two, put your backs into it! We’re not going to reach Nibenay by nightfall at this rate.” Enamdis thumped the skimmer’s wheel in disgust and frustration.
Chanya and Larech wisely ignored the half-giant. She’d been yelling at them on and off like that for the past two hours, but it was obvious to everyone – doubtless including Enamdis herself – that the two of them were working the skimmer’s capstan as hard as they could without actually crippling themselves.
But the skimmer’s hold was packed full of trade goods, there was still no wind to speak of, and we were badly short-handed thanks to the sand devils. Of the eight of us aboard, only Chanya, Larech, Bayl and Enamdis had the strength to operate the capstan at all, and Neren had decided that it was better to have two pairs working it in shifts, rather than risk all four becoming exhausted at once. So we crawled along at barely a brisk walking pace.
Had it been up to me, Bayl would have been at the capstan all day, with the other three adding their strength in shifts. But Neren, for all that he was an intelligent and educated man, was still quite touchingly naïve in some respects. House Neren did not keep slaves – a tradition that went back to some outlandish philosophy expounded by one of its founders – and so Neren had little real knowledge of the mul. No matter how much I, Enamdis, or even Bayl himself had tried to persuade him, Neren still refused to believe that Bayl was capable of such a feat of endurance.
“Stubborn as a dwarf, that boy,” Enamdis had muttered, with the exasperated affection of an old nursemaid. Then she’d stumped back up the steps to the helm and had proceeded to spend most of the next two hours taking out her annoyance on poor Chanya and Larech.
At last, she must have felt that they’d suffered enough. “Alright,” she sighed. “Go have a drink and a rest, you two. The mul and I will take over for a bit. Mei! Come steer this creaking pile of junk.”
As we slowed to a halt, Neren came over to join me at the bow rail. “Have you ever seen a forest before?” he asked, nodding towards the cloak of dusty grey-green that had started to spread out around the foothills of the Stormclaw Mountains as we reached the southern end of Bremil Pass.
“I have seen the Crescent Forest before, yes,” I replied absently.
Seeing Abhivada again, and now the Crescent Forest, had brought back memories of Chanthou, with whom I had shared so much in those early years in the Naggaramakam. It had been three years since our lord and husband had sent her into the forest to serve among those templars who guarded the Temple of the Eye. That ancient ruin was spoken of with a sort of horrified fascination among the Shadow King’s wives. Even High Consort Siemhouk claimed to have no idea how old it was, or to which long-dead god it had been dedicated. Supposedly, there was a network of catacombs beneath its black altar, but none who had explored them had ever returned. Few even of those templars who were sent to watch over the forsaken place were ever seen within Nibenay again. Was Chanthou still alive, or had she too disappeared into that smothering darkness?
“I know so little about you, Ysuun,” Neren was saying. “I would surmise you were born in Nibenay. You say you have seen the Crescent Forest, and you don’t look Gulgan, nor do you sound like a nomad tribeswoman.”
I forced my lips into something resembling a smile, avoiding his searching gaze. Why did he have to suddenly become so damned curious, so close to the end of our uncomfortable journey? “Now, now, an air of mystery is a woman’s prerogative,” I said, aiming for ‘casual’ and instead managing to hit ‘coquettish’. I almost winced.
Neren chuckled. “You’re not a noble travelling in disguise, are you? If you are, please be so good as to let me know before we enter the city. I’d like to have some warning before your house guards turn up and accuse me of kidnapping you.”
I pushed my growing sense of panic back down beneath a mask of playful good-humour and forced myself to laugh along with him. He’d obviously meant it as a joke, which logically implied that the notion I might be a templar hadn’t even crossed his mind. At least, not yet.
We were moving again, rather more quickly now that Bayl and Enamdis worked the capstan. There was just enough of a breeze to waft my long, dark hair lazily against my cheek, and the silt skimmer’s gleaming white sail bellied and rippled, but there was still no real force behind it.
The Crescent Forest slowly took shape, its faded grey-green carpet resolving into ragged clumps of takian, meranti, teak and the massive buttress-rooted sishumu. Between these verdant groves were large areas of bare, sallow earth, from which jagged grey stumps jutted like arrow-shafts broken off in the flesh of a corpse. Timber from the Crescent Forest was one of Nibenay’s greatest resources, transported by argosy all across the Tablelands. When I had last passed this way, three months before, such signs of industry had been reassuring to me: a profound demonstration of how my lord and husband’s indomitable will would eventually bring all the world beneath his wise dominion. But today, the slaves toiling to cut down the great trees and drag them away seemed like ants crawling over the dying body of some great and once-noble beast. The swathes of bare earth were larger than they had been three months ago, and many of the trees that remained were too small to provide much valuable lumber. It hardly seemed worth felling them.
“They’ll soon have to abandon this area and move further west,” Neren said, as if reading my mind. “There will be war with Gulg within the year, you can depend upon it.”
I shrugged. “We’re not exactly at peace with Gulg now.”
Neren smiled ruefully. “You have a point there, Ysuun.” Then he grimaced. “I suppose I’ll have to ask Chanya if she wants to return to Gulg. It would not be fair to prevent her from rejoining her dagada if she feels that her ultimate loyalty lies with her own kin.”
Was it just a coincidence that Neren should raise the subject of ‘ultimate loyalty’ just now, standing beside me? The man was dangerously perceptive and, while he might not have guessed my true identity, I was sure he remained suspicious that I was more than I claimed.
It was ironic that I had first taken him for a naïve, even gullible, youth, while seeing his guardian, Enamdis, as the true danger. Bayl had won over the half-giant in the most direct manner possible, and it was clear from the enthusiastic noises that would drift from the quarterdeck whenever there were moments to spare that they couldn’t get enough of each other. Meanwhile, Neren and I seemed eternally locked in this exhausting dance of mutual distrust.
Not that I had any intention of following Bayl’s example. I couldn’t deny that Neren was a handsome young man, and his courage and compassion were admirable, for all that I recognised the dangerous foolishness of his idealism. A small, treacherous part of me wished that I were really the free spirit I claimed to be.
But I had sworn my love and loyalty to the Shadow King.
As Neren moved away, I watched distant figures sweating and toiling in the desolate wasteland they had hacked from the green world of the forest, and my fingers clawed at my neck as though I too wore a slave’s collar.