Enamdis turned out to be right. As evening drew in, the walls of Nibenay were still just a thin, dark line on the western horizon. The Crescent Forest grew closer to the road here, a looming presence off the starboard bow, filled with the mournful calls of the birds and beasts that dwelt within its sheltering gloom. The logging teams had finished their work for the night, the slaves chained together into long trains and led away to their barracks. I could see the orange light of the overseers’ fires a little way off to the northeast, though the sounds of their carousing seemed somehow more distant, as if the forest itself rejected their intrusion.
Neren called a halt, for there was no point in risking damage to the silt-skimmer’s wheels from unseen obstacles in the darkness. Whether we arrived tonight or tomorrow made little difference. The road between Bremil Fort and Nibenay’s Mekillot Gate was undoubtedly one of the safest stretches of road in the Tablelands, thanks to the regular crodlu-mounted patrols sent out from both fort and city. The last patrol had passed us less than an hour before, heading back towards the fort, and I could still see the light from their torches bobbing along the road behind us.
Abhivada had allowed Neren to buy a small quantity of fresh food and water from Bremil Fort’s extensive stores before we left that morning, and we all tucked in to our evening meal with satisfaction, sitting in a companionable circle on the main deck.
Enamdis was still grumbling about the lack of wind. “We should have been in the city by now,” she growled. “I’ve never known this road to stay windless for so long.”
Chanya looked up from her food, her eyes gleaming white against her dark face and the darker gloom of the night. “Damned wind-spirits,” she said.
Some of the other crew laughed, but it didn’t seem to me like she was joking. Gulgans take the so-called ‘spirits of Athas’ very seriously, for they are, in general, a credulous and superstitious people. Unlike my lord and husband, who promotes high culture and rational, logical thought among his subjects, the self-styled ‘Forest Goddess’ of Gulg keeps her people in a state of constant childish terror of the ‘malevolent spirits’ that only her ‘divine power’ can shield them from. Such hypocrisy sickens me.
I noticed that Mei seemed troubled by Chanya’s words. She had stopped eating, a mouthful of rice halfway to her mouth, and was frowning thoughtfully.
I squeezed her shoulder reassuringly. “Don’t look so worried,” I said softly, so that Chanya wouldn’t hear. “Spirits are weak things, fading vestiges of a more barbaric age. They are not really capable of such things. The winds through Bremil Pass can be difficult to predict, but there is doubtless a rational explanation for this lull. Winds are ultimately driven by the Sun, not by ‘spirits’, and their patterns may be complex, but there’s nothing mystical about them.”
The girl smiled up at me, but she did not look reassured.
I sighed and went back to my meal. I still wasn’t sure how Mei truly felt towards me. For all that she laughed and joked with Enamdis and Bayl, she had been strangely distant around me since our battle against the sand devils. I did not think she blamed me for Tamar’s death, and Neren had assured me that she was grateful that I had saved her life. I know that many people would regard being healed by a defiler to be worse than death, but Mei obviously shared Neren’s more open-minded view of magic.
And yet… every time she looked at me, I could see some discomfort in her wide blue eyes. She often seemed to be on the point of asking me something, but always shied away at the last moment.
I suppose I must have seemed just as much of a mystery to her. And just as uncomfortable. There was, after all, still the question of what I was going to do when we reached Nibenay. Most of the time, I could put it out of my mind. But, every time I looked at Mei, I remembered that I would soon have to choose between these people who, through seemingly random circumstance, had become my companions, and my duty to my husband and my city.
Worms of doubt chewed away in the recesses of my mind. This was a worse torture than anything the sand devils had inflicted upon me. The fiends had tried to break me, but they had failed, for I had been able to hold onto my sense of duty, even when all else dissolved into agony and terror. Now, I felt like I was drowning in the Sea of Silt, and there was nothing at all to hold on to. My duty had become a great stone, tied to my ankles, dragging me down into suffocating darkness.
I did not sleep well that night.
And not for long, either. I came awake to Bayl shaking me by the shoulder. When had he become so familiar that he felt he could do such a thing without risk of punishment? When had I grown so comfortable with his presence that I would allow it?
“Mei is gone,” he said simply.
I blinked and glanced around. Everyone else was awake too, their faces drawn with anxiety, but it was still night. Guthay, the yellow moon, rode high in the sky, but its larger green sibling was still below the horizon. I realised immediately why they had awoken me. My hated father’s eyes: I was the only one here who had any chance of seeing for any distance by Guthay’s faint light.
I ran to the silt-skimmer’s rail, pulling my robe around myself. The scrubby plain to the south was empty of all movement. I went to the other side of the deck, sick with dread, and looked out towards the black wall of the Crescent Forest.
And there she was, a slim, pale shape, just disappearing between the trees. I pointed, wordlessly.
Chanya swore under her breath, but she did not sound at all surprised. “The forest spirits have taken her!”
“The forest spirits can go to the Black,” Enamdis growled. “Come on, Bayl. Let’s go get her back.” She glanced at Neren, then at me. “Unless anyone objects?” Her green eyes flashed with barely-controlled fury, as though daring either of us to voice some protest. She needn’t have worried. Despite my better judgement (and possibly as a result of sleep-deprivation), I felt just as protective of Mei as she did at that moment. And I know Neren would never have dreamed of trying to stop her.
“I’m coming too,” I said. I spoke a Word, and my lotulis was in my hands, its runes glowing with power.
Enamdis seemed a little taken aback at my enthusiasm. She glanced at Bayl, who just shrugged. “Best not to argue with her,” he grunted, though I could tell he was just as surprised as she was.
Neren opened his mouth to speak, but Enamdis shook her head. “Three’s plenty to be crashing through the forest in the dark, Neren. Besides, your mother would have my head on a spike if anything happened to you.”
“Both valid points,” he conceded with a wry smile. But his humour evaporated again almost instantly. “Bring her back safe,” he said, in a voice that forbade even the possibility of failure.
It was only much later that I realised he might not have been referring to Mei.