Whispers and gossip
Xarax was not happy. He knew that every minute's delay was making an already tricky situation worse. Aldegard had to be told of Julien's return as quickly as possible so that he could deal with the rumours which were sure to run unchecked through the R'hinz if the Emperor failed to create a new Mirror for Dvârinn. But it was impossible to fly in this sort of weather. Eventually he might be able to find a Guide to take him to Nüngen, but he was reluctant to make use of the Guides at the moment: there were too many unanswered questions about their part in the Emperor's disappearance, and he couldn't be sure that some of them at least were not working with Yulmir's enemies.
So since he was stuck on the Gyalmangs' trankenn he decided to use the time to gather information by using his ability to blend into the background to listen in on private conversations. This was fairly easy, not least because nobody would think to protect themselves from concealed haptirs – after all, apart from the Emperor's Haptir, whom nobody ever saw, haptirs never left Kretzlal. For most inhabitants of the other eight worlds haptirs were no more than creatures who only existed in fairy stories.
The first thing his eavesdropping uncovered was that Lord Margoth of the Vedaris was having a torrid affair with one of the newly-married daughters of his liege lord, and that the lady's husband, the Noble Lord Aughtem, even though he had not yet visited his wife's bed (he preferred to receive the attentions of a muscular lieutenant of the guard) was intending to have his revenge in a way which his wife's lover would not enjoy at all. Aughtem had declared his intention of giving his wife an exquisite pie whose contents would include, among other delicacies, her lover's family jewels. Convention, he asserted, permitted him to do this with impunity, because although unmarried ladies were free to entertain themselves in any way they wished, such amusements were considered most unbecoming once a lady had taken her wedding vows. The fact that he did not consider his private life to be in any way restricted by his own vows didn't seem to bother anyone who was aware of his intentions.
As far as Xarax was concerned this was of no real interest, but the second thing he found out about was potentially far more important. It seemed that the Noble Lord Nandak, soon to be First Lord of the Ksantiris, was gathering his most ambitious vassals around him in preparation for a campaign to extend the dominion of his House into new areas, ones which his Noble Father had inexplicably ignored. He also felt that some minor archipelagos, which were displaying unwholesome aspirations towards independence, needed to be reminded of their allegiance as soon as possible, even if that should mean entrusting their government to more reliable hands – the hands, for example, of the new First Lord's most faithful vassals. Naturally Lord Delian of the Gyalmangs was determined to demonstrate that he was the most faithful of Lord Nandak's vassals, which is why his trankenn was sailing, despite the appalling weather, to rendezvous with the First Trankenn, where he would be able to reiterate his allegiance to his Lord in the clearest possible way, with his ship sailing behind the First Trankenn, while the other nobility would have to rely instead on being transported to their master's presence by Guides.
But what really piqued Xarax's interest was an exchange between Delian and his Master-at-arms. The Master-at-arms of a Noble Family was responsible for the training and upkeep of the Family's army, but also for everything that directly or indirectly concerned the Family's weapons, and in the discussion overheard by Xarax, Lord Delian informed his Master-at-arms in carefully indirect language that Lord Nandak had promised to supply him with some 'decisive arguments' recently discovered in a secret cache that dated from before the fall of Tchenn Ril. In other words, the Lord of the Gyalmangs had been offered, in exchange for his support, the use of forbidden weapons which would give him a position of unchallengeable supremacy over his enemies.
Of course, this was nothing new: Nandak was far from the first young wolf to dream of building himself an Empire and using unorthodox methods to achieve it. But in this case the timing was clearly bad, and if it wasn't nipped in the bud it would set a dreadful precedent. And of course the real problem was that nobody could deal with this properly except the Emperor.
After the storm
The Emperor... right at that moment he was soaking wet, cold, hungry and asking himself for the umpteenth time why he had chosen to leave a wonderful rotten summer in beautiful rain-drenched Normandy to come instead to a horrible archipelago that was being scoured by a storm brewed in the depths of hell. They had finally managed to travel far enough in a north-westerly direction to be once again in the lee of Martchoung Island, and they were currently heading for what the chart described as a good anchorage, well-protected from every direction except the south-west.
The chart was not lying, and once they reached the promised anchorage they were able, for the first time in ages, to enjoy the stability of a deck that wasn't pitching and rolling all over the place. They were inside a sort of circle of reddish rocks, probably the remains of an ancient volcano crater that was now open to the sea. The light was poor because there was still a covering of thick, dark clouds, and they could hear the wind howling on the higher ground above them, but here in this haven there was a wonderful calm, and neither the bitter cold nor the few snowflakes that were beginning to swirl around could detract from it.
“Waal, laddie,” said Tenntchouk, “Naaw we can get warm.”
He had tried several times to send Julien below to the stateroom, but Julien had refused to leave his companions: he was fully aware that by taking the wheel himself it freed them up to deal with the sails, a duty that was exhausting in conditions such as they had just been through. He had also insisted on taking his turn at the pumps, even though his hands were soft for that sort of work, even protected by gloves. He hadn't done it deliberately, but his attitude had completely won the respect of the sailors and had transformed him from a luxury passenger to the true master of the ship. He was half dead from exhaustion, but the soup was delicious, the stove radiated a heavenly warmth and the sailors' obvious respect made him feel stronger. It also gave him the energy to try to comfort Ugo.
“Don't feel bad,” he told him. “If it hadn't been for you I'd never have got back here at all. If everyone sticks to what he's best at things always work out in the end. And I still need you at your best, because we're not out of trouble yet, and we'll need you to stand a watch on the moorings now while we sleep. And it's starting to snow out there, so good luck!”
They slept until the evening, when they had a bit of a feast to celebrate their survival. The tide was rising again, although there was no danger of it making them drag their moorings, and the deck was now covered in ten centimetres of powdery snow. The wind seemed to have dropped a little, but they still decided to wait until morning before setting sail once more.
For once the dawn brought good news with it: the temperature had risen considerably and the sky was at last free from its veil of heavy storm clouds – all that was left were a few scraps of ragged cloud such as are often seen after a storm. The wind had subsided to a far more reasonable level and what they could see of the ocean was pleasantly flat. The snow that had been on the deck the previous evening had had the decency to melt, and Gradik was getting the rigging shipshape again while Tenntchouk was filling the stateroom with the scent of the breakfast he was cooking. Julien had decided against washing in freezing cold water and had instead treated himself to the luxury of a complete set of dry clothing.
“I think we can probably make a move,” he said, while they were demolishing a large stack of pancakes. “Of course we can't be sure exactly where the First Trankenn is, but if we head north we'll probably be going in roughly the correct direction. Just as long as we don't run into another storm...”
“'Tis naat the season yet,” said Gradik. “Thaat were just a good gale.”
“I'm sure you're right, but I'd prefer to avoid any more like it. I've had about enough of that sort of weather for the time being. Haven't you?”
“Oi haave. But 'tis naat the same on a big trankenn as in a little boat loike our Isabelle – although she's brave, roight enough. She holds 'er course loike a maach bigger ship.”
So they sailed northwards, propelled by a good south-westerly breeze and a gentle sea. The weather was cold, but at least the sun was shining and the clouds were progressively vanishing. They were able to use the autopilot again, and after what they'd been through this part of the trip felt like a nice holiday. Tenntchouk even put out a fishing line baited with little pieces of cloth and caught a dozen or so phenomenally ugly creatures that looked like some sort of a cross between eels and fish, without scales but basically fish-shaped. Julien would have thrown them back without hesitation, but once they'd been through Gradik's expert hands in the galley they tasted exquisite.
“Gradik,” commented Julien, “you're a master cook. You ought to be working in a nice warm kitchen of some upper class inn, not breaking your back hauling sails out here.”
“Oi love the sea too maach for thaat. Me an' Tenntchouk, we couldn't live aall the toime ashore. 'Tis baad enough as we 'ave to stay ashore in the staarmy season. But mebbe 'tis haard to understaand for one as isn't fraam these paarts.”
“You're right, Gradik: I'm not from round here. But I can understand; all the same. Where I come from there are plenty of people who don't want to settle in one place and see nothing of the rest of the world.”
“An where do ye caame fraam?”
“Do you really need to know?”
“Waal, no. Oi suppose ye'll tell us when ye're ready.”
“I'll tell you as soon as I can – but first I have to deliver my message”