The Far Sea: Chapter 65
THE Golden Queen met the waves badly now, lurching and rolling from crest to crest. The Rito were not experienced sailors; at least, although they were well able to handle the ship adequately, they did not know her as her regular hands did.
Zelda's head throbbed in tune with the motion of the ship. She gripped the counterpane tightly and forced herself to pay attention.
The situation, at least from where she was sitting, had rarely looked bleaker. At least when they had been trapped in Sepultura's prison cell, they had all been together. Sofia had been right this morning--it had been foolish, deadly foolish, to let them go off like that, alone. But then... what if Link and Dark had been on the ship when the Rito attacked it? They would have fought. They could not have won, not against so many. So we would still have ended up where we are now, just with more dead and bloodshed...
That, and Link had the Forest Amulet. She knew him well enough to be sure that he would have it with him; he only took it off to sleep. So as long as he was free, at least one of the Amulets was safe. She tried not to be aware of her own Amulet where it lay beneath her grimy shirt, warm on her bare skin.
Concentrate, she told herself. Watch, be cautious, learn. You may find something you can use.
It was just that she was so tired... And everything still felt unreal; she felt as she had felt this afternoon, as if she was underwater, or dreaming. She could not be sitting in the captain's cabin, talking to this impossible apparition while the ship sailed Nayru knew where. Not after the morning and how normal it had been. It was simply impossible. She covered her face with her hands for a moment, struggling to focus, barely aware of Sofia as she sat down quietly beside her.
"Who is the entity who searches for you?" the Rito man asked, his voice gentle, persuasive. It was hard not to like him.
At the first she had thought that the attack on the Golden Queen was a simple act of piracy: these Rito had learned of her presence aboard and intended to ransom her to her father. Such things had happened before in the history of her family. But the mention of Sepultura--and she was certain Kovanni spoke of her, it could hardly be otherwise--changed matters, and not for the better. If it had been piracy, she would have been less worried. I must know what the sorceress has said to them, what she has promised or threatened them. Whatever it is, this is not a simple matter of monsters...
No, not monsters. There was no such sense of wrongness here. These were people--a people unknown in Hylian history, not one of the five ancestral folk mentioned in the Book of Nayru, but a true people nonetheless. And somewhere they had learned the Hylian tongue.
She raised her head to look him in the eye, shutting out the stab of pain from her head. She knew nothing of these folk nor their culture, but from his richer dress and the way the door-guards had deferred to him she could guess that he was powerful--their leader, or one of their leaders.
And he recognised me on the deck. I am sure of it.
"You're the one," she said. "You dropped the dead gull. Why did you attack our ship?"
He did not fall for the feint. "You fear this being," he said softly, tilting his head. A flicker in the hawk's eyes told her he was aware of what she did.
Zelda's head throbbed again. She forced the exhaustion back; she didn't have time for it now.
"A powerful spirit, if she can speak to us across the sea," the Rito man said. "And no friend of yours, I am guessing."
"She is evil," Zelda said softly.
If her bold statement had surprised him, he did not show it. He raised one eyebrow. "Some might say that evil depends on your point of view."
"And what is your point of view?" she countered at once.
Grudging approval showed now, in the bird-man's eyes--although it was swiftly veiled behind a mask of casual amusement. "My first responsibility is to my people."
There! There's the weakness! The Princess fought not to show her exultation. Now I know what she used!
Sofia had spotted it too, for she was the next to speak. "So your unprovoked attack on our ship was merely self-defence?" It was a sharp jab, so typically Sofia that Zelda could not stop the corner of her mouth from twitching upwards.
"Then you believe that I am evil?" he said mildly.
And should therefore side with her? Oh, you are clever. Zelda took a breath.
"We won't play word games. What do you want, or what does she want, with us?"
The Rito man sighed wryly and reached up to adjust the clasp of his feathered cloak. "This could go on for a long time," he observed, "answering questions with questions. How about you go first?"
Sofia nudged her. The message was as sharp and clear as if she had spoken: Tell him nothing!
Kovanni's hawk-eyes did not miss what had passed between them. "It would be in your best interests to tell what you know. What choice have you?" There was a bit of flint in the melodic voice now. She saw him waiting, watching her for a reaction; though the face was not easy to read, she could see something of his intentions in his eyes. He debated with himself over something: she thought he was trying to decide whether to risk a little more.
In a moment more the hawk-eyes narrowed very slightly. "I have sent fliers back to Finne's Rock, and my folk can outspeed any ship. We will find your companions soon enough. The boy who wears green, and the black ghost." And he was watching, watching very carefully to see how they both took it.
His stroke told: she felt a lurch in her chest. She had hoped for a few more hours grace yet. She dared not look to Sofia to see her friend's expression. Stay steady. Give no ground. She waited until she could be certain her voice would sound controlled. "Again I ask, where are you taking us, and why have you detained us?"
Abruptly, the Rito man snorted in disgust. "By Valoo, you're as close-mouthed as a couple of clams! Very well--come with me." He spun on his heel and jerked the cabin door open. The two guards peered in curiously.
"Should we...?" Sofia asked very quietly.
Zelda gave a tight, humorless smile. If she was to be a captive, she would act like one. "We have no choice." She stood carefully, waited for the momentary dizziness to subside, and held out her hand. The other woman got to her feet and took it, shooting a dirty look at the Rito as she did so. He ignored or did not see it; he was halfway out of the door in any case.
The two guards fell in behind as they left the captain's cabin. Out on deck the air was cool with evening, and a sunset glow lay everywhere over the sea. The sun seemed larger than usual, swimming down through drifting clouds in the west. The wind was getting up, and somewhere above a loose sail was making a steady slapping sound.
Again there was that sense of the uncanny about the world. The Golden Queen's real crew had vanished without a trace. Under Rito control the ship did not bustle or resound with shouted orders: the bird-folk worked in silence, or conferred democratically with each other in quiet tones. Zelda had grown used to the obsessive tidiness of the sailors, and it upset her in a peculiarly personal way to see the deck cluttered, coils of rope tipped carelessly across the planks. Perhaps, being able to fly, they cared little for obstructions on the ground.
Kovanni led them directly to the bow of the ship. There was no question of not following, for the two guards came close behind. She stole a glance at one of them, thinking how rough and wild he looked. He was big--bigger than many Hylian men--and dressed in tattered brown homespun. An odd shapeless cap of some kind of grayish leather covered his rough brown mane which showed scatters of white at the temples. The bird's beak was chipped and blunted. Kovanni was slender and reasonably well groomed despite the abused state of his garments; by contrast his attendants looked like brutal tavern brawlers. Perhaps that was his intention in choosing them.
"There," he said, raising his arm to indicate the horizon. "Since you ask, that is where we are going. You should feel honoured--you will be the first wingless to set foot on Dragon Roost in almost a hundred years."
Sofia was already moving to the rail. After a moment's hesitation Zelda followed suit. A dark blot on the horizon resolved itself slowly into the shape of an island, a great inhospitable spire of rock rising out of a storm of white breakers. A good place for sea eagles to nest, she thought wryly.
"Why is it called Dragon Roost?" Sofia asked curiously.
"For the most obvious reason." The Rito seemed distracted now; he leaned on the rail with one arm and watched the sea with narrowed eyes. The setting sun put gold lights in his wild brown mane.
When the dark isle's shadow fell across the ship, Kovanni suddenly threw back his shoulders. He leaped up onto the rail and then flung himself bodily out over the water. Again there was that flurried instance of change, a blur that hurt something at the back of the eyes, and it was a kargaroc that veered off into the dusk, without a backward look. She blinked in surprise, glanced at Sofia, then turned. The two guards were standing together some paces off, paying them no attention: they were watching the sky intently.
"We've got nowhere to run to," Sofia said with a wry, bitter smile. She merely voiced Zelda's own thought.
"This could be a difficult situation..." she began.
Her friend grinned. "I'd say that's the understatement of the year. What shall we do?"
"I really don't see that we can do anything," Zelda said after a moment's thought. "We'll just have to wait and hope for an opportunity to present itself." She leaned her elbows on the rail, wincing at a stab of pain in her head. "I wish the others were here. I can't imagine what they thought when the ship had left."
"I think they'll have to look after themselves for now," Sofia remarked. She hesitated for a few breaths, glancing up at the circling birds, then moved closer. "We sailed due west to get here, or nearly so," she said in an undertone. "If we sailed towards the sunrise..."
"We can't sail this ship," Zelda pointed out. "And I don't think we can free the crew on our own."
"I know, but it's something to keep in mind."
She nodded slowly, then turned back to the island. It was huge now, its peak rising above them for hundreds of feet. The sun had vanished behind it now, so that the spire was black against the fading golds of late evening. There was the beginnings of a chill in the air: it would be a cold night.
"There's hardly any shore," she said, leaning forward. "Look! Surely they're not going to try and beach the ship on that little spit of sand?" As if in answer, there came a great clanking and shuddering from below. The Golden Queen was paying out her anchor chains.
A heavy hand fell on her shoulder; she turned and looked up into a pair of fierce cold hawk-eyes. "You. Come." The words spilled awkwardly from the bird's beak.
His grip was just short of being painful, but she resisted anyway, for a moment. "Why? Where are you taking me now?"
"Cabin. You take clothes now. Come."
A change of clothes... So they intend for us to stay on the island awhile, and they will allow us our comfort and dignity. Well, that's something... The guard was propelling her forcibly across the deck. She heard a quick scuffle and swearing behind her, as Sofia, presumably, resisted with more force, but she could not turn to look. Her guard hustled her swiftly along towards the rear deck, and down the steep ladder-steps.
It felt odd to be back in her own familiar cabin, especially under the circumstances. Her room had been gone through, this she could see from the disarrangement of her things: but nothing valuable had been taken, as far as she could see. A rather expensive silver and turquoise clasp with the Phoenix and Triforce crest, with which she had been accustomed to tie back her hair, was still lying in plain sight on the dressing-table.
She glanced back once at the impassive Rito who stood silently in the doorway, then took up a bag and went over to her sea-chest.
The short sword was gone from the box, but her books were untouched: perhaps the Rito could not read, or simply had not bothered with them. She stuffed the Book of Mudora into the satchel under a couple of lesser volumes, then grabbed an armful of miscellaneous clothes. The guard watched her, but without interest.
That's what they were looking for. Her little eating-knife and bow had gone, and so had the bottles. Nothing was left that might be used as a weapon.
I think Sepultura has not told them about the Amulets. They would have searched us and taken mine or Sofia's before now if they guessed what they were. She swept the clasp into her bag, along with a few miscellaneous trinkets that might possibly be of use as barter, and shouldered her burden. It did not weigh much.
"I'm ready," she said, and allowed him to walk her back out on deck. There seemed little point in struggling; practically, it would only result in more bruises for her.
The birdmen had pulled up a smaller boat alongside the ship: a battered and graceless old sail-boat with green paint peeling off in strips along its grimy flanks. It was larger than the Golden Queen's skiffs, but not by much: five paces would have taken a Hylian man from one end to the other. Four Rito manned it.
Sofia was already climbing down the rope ladder, a leather bag slung over her back. Zelda followed suit, moving cautiously: the rough hemp rungs twisted and creaked alarmingly under her weight. Her head was throbbing again. It seemed to take a long time before her groping feet found the wood of the sail-boat's side, and then she nearly slipped and fell when the boat rocked under her. Sofia caught her shoulder and helped her down. They stood close together, balancing unsteadily on slippery boards. An inch of murky gray water washed back and forth in the bottom of the boat.
Another Rito landed suddenly at the front of the boat, making it rock violently. He crouched for a moment, getting his balance, then turned and nodded silently to the attendants. Oars rattled as they settled in the worn rowlocks. Sluggishly the boat began to move, battering its way through the swell towards the bleak little strip of beach. It seemed utterly deserted--no buildings, no lighted windows. The only lights she could make out were high on the mountain's flank. Dragon Roost was a natural fortress--without the ability of flight, it would be truly impregnable. No help would be forthcoming from the ship, then, even if the crew managed to free themselves.
Sofia shifted her weight from foot to foot, adjusting to the movement of the boat. She and the Princess had to stand so close together that Zelda could feel her friend's warmth through her clothes. She could feel something else, too: anger and humiliation were coming off the other girl in waves. Sofia wanted desperately to fight; the only thing that was stopping her was her loyalty to her friend. Zelda was suddenly torn by doubt. Was this wrong? Should they have capitulated like this? What would Link and Dark have done--would they have fought? Fought and died, surely, against so many--was that better?
Abruptly, the boat lurched, as its keel ground on sand...
She has been asking for you, Lord. The guard's voice had been hushed, frightened. The white serpent...
Nobody had attended to the torches for some time, and the golden flames guttered low in the smoky air. On the pedestal the Pearl gleamed with sickly shadowed lustre, contagion swirling like old bruises at its heart. The wrongness of it made the air hot, sticky, feverish.
He came forward slowly and stood before it. He no longer touched it, now.
In a few breaths the darkness swelled excitedly. The Pearl--or whoever spoke through it--was aware of him. He sensed the entity reaching out, feeling blindly through the ether.
"You have kept me waiting overlong. Have you found them?" The goddess's voice was unbecomingly eager, even savage. He wondered again why she refused to show her face in the Pearl. It could not be beyond her power.
"We have two of them," he said. "Two women." Coming here on the ship, he had not relished the thought of this moment.
As he had expected, the darkness in the Pearl swirled dangerously at his unwelcome tidings. "Then where are the other two? They were on the ship!"
His news had angered her, and for a moment he was tempted to try to use it against her, to make her angrier: those who were off-balance made mistakes, and perhaps she might, unwittingly, reveal truth. But he could not risk any damage to the Pearl, especially now when things were so fragile. He dipped his head in submission, feeling sour and immensely weary.
"They fled in a small boat. How they had word of our coming to flee, and yet did not see fit to take their females or warn the ship, we do not yet know. But we will have them; they cannot hide from us on the sea."
"Good. This is well." The swirl began to smooth and subside: she was leaving.
"And then you will release the Pearl?" he pressed.
At once he knew he had made an error, revealed too much. Her voice was suddenly honey-sweet.
"Leave, then. Having the sacrifice you ask for, you will depart this place, without harming the Pearl."
"I have said so." Danger tone now.
He bowed acquiescence.
"Remember--they must be given up to me alive and intact, with all clothes and personal effects. Every trinket, mind--or it will not be well for you!"
Kovanni, silent and alert, caught the strained urgency in her voice, though it was well masked. Bluster and threats to cover up a great fear. That raised new questions. Would a goddess fear? What is it you really want--these wingless, or something they bear?
Aloud he said simply, "As you say. And when we have them?"
"Return them to me, in the land that lies to the east." Eager now. "I shall direct you when the time comes."
"And how are we to do this?" he asked. "We cannot bear them on our backs."
"You bother me with trifles! You have taken one ship--steal another!"
Her words stung. At his sides, hidden by his feather cloak, his fists clenched. "We are not your pirates, madam," he said quietly, with iron control.
Like a snake, striking. "No? But your piratical deeds so far have been exemplary."
Slowly and deliberately he opened his fingers, releasing tension and frustration with a long outdrawn breath. He waited until he was calm before speaking again. "Have a care, madam, or I may rethink my part in this. Whatever quarrel you have with these wingless children, it is none of mine."
"Oh--then you do not, after all, need this bauble?" At once, as if some check had been released, some bar sprung, the darkness in the Pearl flared and burst outwards in a roiling mass, but was brought up short against the outer surface of the sphere. It creaked audibly with strain as the pressure mounted. The air in the chamber grew thick and hard to breathe: the torches were suddenly burning blue. She is going to break it--! Stricken, he raised his hands helplessly to the dying Pearl--and knew that she perceived the gesture and laughed.
The darkness receded swiftly, yet did not seem to shrink--as if it had merely been pulled back into vast space. "Well, little bird?"
"I will... do as you counsel," he managed to say, the words coming bitterly.
"Of course you will," she purred. "Of course..."
Moving swiftly through the King's Hall, he noticed the herald still hovering anxiously, shifting from foot to foot and twisting his hands in an agony of indecision. No time for that; he moved swiftly by, intending to be on his upward way before the other could speak. But the boy actually caught at his sleeve as he swept past. He halted, annoyed, and half tempted to knock the young one down for having the temerity to lay hands on him.
"What do you want?"
"Highness, the Council demands that you attend them at once." The herald would not meet his eyes; he bent his head, trembling with fear and shame.
"Demands?" Kovanni said softly. "Well, well." No delicate language, no 'at your earliest convenience' for the Rito Prince this time; it seemed the elders had reached the end of their patience. Easy now... he is only a messenger and a child, and he likes his duty no more than you do.
Well, there seemed to be no choice. He would have to put off speaking with the wingless females for now. No way to gracefully refuse this summons, not without provoking a serious confrontation with the elders--and he didn't have the strength to do that yet, not while the Queen still lived.
"All right. Since I am called, I shall go." The herald lifted his head quickly, hope starring in his eyes. He was very young. "But you," Kovanni went on, and watched the fear flash back into the young one's face, "I have another errand for you."
"It's not a difficult one, don't fear. Find my lieutenant Grell on the ship--you'll know him by sight, yes?--and tell him to check on our guests. Make sure they're comfortable and have food and water if they want it. Nobody else is to come near them."
"I will do it at once, my Lord," the boy said quickly, looking vastly relieved. He took the customary two steps backward, bowed, and then dashed from the hall in a flurry of feathers.
Hands on hips, Kovanni looked to the curtained doorway through which the child had flown, and then, regretfully, to the upward stair. He sighed. Delay after delay, and all he wanted to do was talk to the wingless. There had to be more to this--and he was certain that the two women held the truth of matters, if he could only get at it.
He did not believe that the entity in the Pearl was a goddess. Why would a goddess demand such a thing of Her worshippers? Why would She need to? Kovanni was not, in general, a religious man; he observed Din's rituals before the people on the required days, and that was about the sum of it. He had read no more of the sacred text than he had had to. Yet even so he was certain that this was not the way a goddess would act.
And if she is not a goddess... if she is mortal...
Well, he had tried to speak of this before to the Council, and they had refused to hear him. He would try it once more.
He went to the curtain, pushed it aside, and stepped through into night and a cool gusting wind. It was cloudy; there were no moon or stars tonight. The air tasted of salt and greenness. Somewhere far below, in the thick darkness, the sea boomed against rocks--a comforting sound, childhood lullaby to a Rito. He leaped onto the rail and balanced there for a few moments, then stepped off lightly into the wind.
"Well, at least there aren't any bars on the windows," Sofia said. "Maybe we could tie sheets together to make a rope."
Despite her aching head, Zelda couldn't help laughing; the joke was bleakly funny. The large room to which they had been brought was not so much a chamber as a natural cavern in the rock. The climb to it had nearly drained their last reserves of strength: a long and terrible trek up the steep bare mountainside, struggling on a precarious and crumbling ledge with the white sea foaming below, and then many hundreds of rough-hewn steps through gloomy torchlit passages. Their current prison had two exits: at one end, there stood a stout wooden door bolted from the outside. It was through this that they had come to reach the chamber, and beyond it lay a straggling maze of shafts and stairways, doubtless teeming with guards. The other end of the chamber was open to the winds. A great arched opening looked out onto a circular horizon of sea and sky crisscrossed by wheeling birds. The floor fell away into a nearly sheer slope of bare gray stone falling perhaps sixty feet to the restless ocean. From this height, the waves' ceaseless booming was like thunder over a distant hill.
The room was not bare. There was a bed, resting directly on the uneven floor--although it was not so much a bed as a great tangle of assorted silks and furs, with here and there a tattered brown feather clinging to the rich material. The chamber walls were likewise hung with exotic fabrics and weavings, some of them more gorgeous even than the ancient tapestries back home. There was even cloth-of-gold, shimmering in the gloom. A small fire burned brightly in an open pit. It was needed, for the wind driving through the great opening in the south wall made the chamber bitterly cold.
Zelda pulled one of the furs out of the tangle and wrapped it around her shoulders. The pelt was too fine and soft to be bear, but seemed too large to be anything else. "They want us to be comfortable anyway," she said.
"For all the good it'll do us. I suppose they're going to hand us over to Sepultura." The red-haired woman shook her head slowly and turned away from the view. Her golden eyes gleamed as they caught the firelight. "If we'd fought-"
"We couldn't have fought so many," Zelda said. "You know that. All we'd have done would be to cause a few more deaths, possibly our own."
There was a long silence. Sofia leaned against the rough stone wall, framed by the entrance, and lowered her head as if lost in deep thought. Eventually she sighed. "Yes. I suppose that's right. But... what happens now--do we just go quietly into her hands?"
"Time for a council of war," the Princess said with a grim smile. She sat up straighter and ran her fingers through her hair--or tried to; it was impossibly knotted by salt. After a moment she gave up and settled for smoothing down her crumpled tunic. "Well... let's talk about it. What do we know?"
"We know the Rito are in league with Sepultura," Sofia said slowly, looking up. "Except..."
The Princess nodded. "Kovanni."
"He doesn't like it, does he?"
"You noticed that too? We only know half the story--that's the problem. What has Sepultura said to him? To them? I'm sure she hasn't told them about the Amulets; this is an awful lot of effort for them to go to to get hold of a couple of necklaces." Zelda reached for her own, the broken Amulet, and drew it out, laid it on her palm so that the old rich gold caught the firelight. Its sadness touched her again. "If they'd known what they were looking for..."
"They could probably have got it without attacking the ship," Sofia agreed, and a dark expression clouded her face for a moment. "If they can turn into birds, surely they have other powers... Ugh! Magic! I can never get free of it..."
Zelda privately filed that comment away for later. "I suppose," she said after a moment, "Sepultura didn't want to give them leverage, in case they tried to use the Amulets to bargain with her." She smiled faintly then. "Perhaps we should be thanking Sepultura--she's the only reason we're not yet her prisoners!"
Sofia made a noise that might have been a grunt--an expression of distaste, at any rate--and turned her attention back to the view, though it was very dark outside now. For a little while they did not speak. It was getting cold in the great room; Zelda edged a little closer to the fire and watched the shifting shapes it made.
Eventually Sofia said, "It's raining."
There was a soft whispering outside which Zelda had taken for wind. She glanced up, startled, and saw the fine streaks of water droplets falling down past the ledge. The horizon was misted now. It's going to be cold out there... "I hope there's some sort of shelter on that island," she said. "I hate the thought of them alone out there, not knowing what's happened or where we are."
"Oh, don't worry," Sofia said dismissively. "Knowing them they've already gotten into some sort of exciting adventure. And we're just sitting here," she added sourly, not too quietly for Zelda to hear it.
"No, really--do we just sit quietly until they hand us over to her?" She turned on her heel, began to pace back and forth before the arched opening.
"I don't think we can break that door down," Zelda said, "and even if we could there'll surely be guards. And then we have to find our way down..."
"I'm not stupid. There's more than one way out of this room."
"You mean climb down? In the rain and the dark?" She was shocked.
"No better time--they can't see us."
"But it's so dangerous-"
Sofia stopped pacing and whirled to face her. "More or less dangerous than crossing a lake of molten stone on a bridge a handspan wide? More or less dangerous than playing hide-and-go-seek with a score of Stalfos on the moors at midnight? More or less -"
"All right," Zelda said, sitting back, "you've made your point. What do we do when we get down to the shore? We're still trapped on the island, and we've no weapons to make a try for the ship."
Sofia smiled slowly. "Their boat is down there, tied behind the rocks. I can just see it from the ledge. That's what gave me the idea."
"And have you sailed a boat?"
"Of course not! But I've watched how they handled the Golden Queen, and I saw what Link did this morning. Look--it comes down to a very simple question. Do you want to sit up here and wait to be rescued, or would you like to do the rescuing for a change?"
"Because they're not coming; they don't know where we are. On the other hand, we know where to find them."
It's a mad, stupid plan. Even Link wouldn't do anything like this, and he'd have known how to handle the boat. We'd be lucky if we're not maimed or killed just getting down to the shore... We can't possibly do this...
She sorted through the tangle of furs and fabrics on the bed until she found a more or less serviceable cloak of patched brown wool. It was a little too large, but she put it on anyway, and pinned it with a brooch from her bag.
The King's Chamber was very nearly at the top of Dragon Roost, inaccessible save from the sky. He clawed his way up through the fierce night wind, towards two hooded lanterns which burned outside to guide fliers to safety. It was starting to rain. He landed clumsily on the narrow ledge, took a moment to gather his wits, then pushed the thick curtain aside and stepped through into a tall gloomy space.
They were waiting for him, seated at the great table--all seven, including the frail and black-veiled Queen, who rarely left her chamber nowadays. He bowed to her first.
Her dark eyes, still and sorrowful like deep water, met his through the veil, and she nodded faintly. But it was ancient Ortha, gray and vulture-sour, who spoke, in a voice like a creaking door.
"So, Highness, you finally appear. We have waited over-long."
"My apologies," he said. "I had business."
The old one--advisor to Kovanni's father and grandfather, he reminded himself, and therefore due respect--leaped to his feet, slammed a bony fist onto the stone table. "What business is more important than this?"
"Business that concerns the future of Dragon Roost," he said calmly. "This woman who claims to be a goddess -"
"Have a care, Prince."
"We have received no guarantee that she is what she claims to be."
"We have been through this many times," fat Lant rumbled, easing his bulk back in the tall carven chair. "Prince Kovanni, it is true that we have no proof of the entity's claims--but if She is, as she claims to be, a Goddess, it would be a deadly mistake to goad Her into proving Her power. In any case, we know She has at least enough power to bend Din's Pearl to Her will."
"Well, so can I!" Kovanni said angrily. "And so can anyone with a whit of sorcerous ability! Why would a true deity lower itself to bargain with the likes of us? I say to you--"
"And I say to you, Prince, that we cannot take that chance!" Ortha punctuated the last four words with thumps on the table; his normally colorless, emaciated face was red with fury. Kovanni faced the ancient counsellor across the width of the table, his mane bristling. A couple of the other councilmembers were on their feet now, everyone trying to speak at once.
Into the clamour, the voice of the Queen fell like a stone into water, quietly, yet causing ripples which spread out swiftly to the far edges of the room.
Silence crept over the chamber like a dark wave, and those councilmembers who had come to their feet--in anger or simple excitement--slowly sat back down again. There was a novelty to this; Her Majesty had not involved herself in affairs of State since the death of her husband nearly ten years ago. Even those now present in this room had considered her reign effectively over, though her son had not been named Regent. Now, calmly, she looked toward each Rito in turn. Kovanni met her gaze for longest, but had to lower his eyes at last.
"We have heard much of late about this White Serpent. What is it that she wants from this ship on our shore?"
Kovanni watched his mother intently, trying to gauge her mood. The mourning veil clouded her eyes and made it impossible to tell. It had been so long since he had heard anything like purpose in her voice... He took a slow breath, seeking inner calmness. "She demands four passengers from this ship, to be given up to her, as tribute, before she will release the Pearl from her grasp."
"Any four?" said the Queen.
"No. She has been quite specific in her demands."
Ortha fumbled in his pocket for a rolled-up bit of parchment. "We have transcripts, Your Majesty. Here: a girl-child of the Wingless, with yellow hair; a boy who wears green and carries a sword worked like a dragon's tail; another girl, dark-skinned and yellow-eyed, and a black ghost."
"We have two of those," Kovanni said. "The two girls. The boy who wears green... we have such clothes in one of the cabins, but no such weapon has been found on any of the crew."
"And the black ghost?"
"No sign of any such thing. I questioned the captain and a few of the crew, but they have said little of use. They fear us as witches; their superstitious beliefs, I think, make them reluctant to speak to us at all. Unless we lower ourselves to hurting them, we won't get much that way." He hesitated for a moment. "I... believe them both to be somewhere on Finne's Rock. I have searchers there at this moment; they should be back very shortly with news."
The Queen nodded very slowly and sank back in her chair as if that small moment of lucidity had drained the last of her strength. For a little while there was silence; Kovanni was just about to speak again, when her eyes opened once more.
"We do not believe that this White Serpent is a goddess. It is as our son says: a deity would have no need to bargain."
"Thank you, mother," Kovanni said, trying not to grin.
"However, we do not believe that it is necessarily safe to deny her what she asks." Heads turned now in surprise. "Consider: if she is not a goddess, she must be a witch of great power to reach out across the sea and speak to us through our Pearl. The strongest of us could not do such a thing; we must touch the Pearl to use it. Our son: this being has promised that she will leave once she has what she wants?"
"Yes," he said reluctantly. Ortha's beak parted in a savage gape of victory.
"Then our course seems clear," the Queen said. "Where are the two females now?"
"My chamber. I saw no reason to treat them cruelly." His brow furrowed; he could feel control of events slipping away from him. "But mother, this isn't right, what she's asking--"
The Queen was shaking her head. "Kovanni, listen. A witch is a bad enemy to have, and the Rito need no more enemies. Our numbers have dwindled as it is over recent years, with the storms and the sea monsters to contend with. And we do not wish to witness more deaths. No--give them up. Give them all up as she asks, and send that ship on its way. They are nothing to us."
"They are living creatures," he began angrily, his mane bristling.
"So are sprats," Ortha shrugged. "Well, Prince?"
At that moment the door curtain blew violently aside, letting a spray of rain and cold darkness in. They turned, annoyed--but it was not the wind that had moved the curtain, but a bedraggled Rito stumbling into the King's Chamber.
"Grell?" Kovanni said, startled. He took a couple of steps toward his lieutenant, then halted, unsure of himself. It was not the custom--commoners should never even enter this place, let alone in such a fashion, wet and dishevelled before the Queen's eyes.
Grell knew it, too, and he stumbled and went to his knees in a clumsy obeisance as much from exhaustion as from reverence. His breath heaved his chest. "My Prince... Kovanni..."
"What's happened?" he said, already knowing the answer.
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