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just playing with her sister before. Now she won't be playing."
Howler smiled. He and Soulcatcher were not beloved of one another. He rasped
out, "She's walking."
Longshadow grunted. "Yes. There is that. She's in my territories. Afoot." He
paced. "She'll hide from my shadow eyes. But she'll want to watch the rest of
the world. I won't look for her, then. I'll look for her spies. The crows will
lead me to her. And then I shall test us both."
Howler caught the timbre of daring in Longshadow's voice. He was going to try
something dangerous.
Disasters had knocked the daring out of Howler. His inclinations were toward
the quiet and safe. That was why he had chosen to build his own empire in the
swamps. They had been enough. And nothing anyone wanted to take away. But he
had succumbed to seduction when Longshadow's emissaries had come to him. So
here he was easing back from the brink of death, alive only because Longshadow
still thought him useful. He was not interested in more risks. He would return
to his sloughs and mangroves happily. But till he fashioned some means of
flight he would have to pretend interest in Longshadow's plans. "Nothing
dangerous," he whispered.
"Not at all," Longshadow lied. "Once I find out where she is the rest is
easy."
Chapter Seventy-One
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Volunteers willing to cross the lake with Croaker were few. He accepted Swan
and Sindhu, rejected Blade and Mather. "You two have plenty to do here."
Three of them in a boat. Croaker rowed. The others did not know how. Sindhu
sat in the stern, Swan in the bow. Croaker did not want the wide man behind
him. That might not be wise. The man had a sinister air and did not act
friendly. He was biding his time while he made up his mind about something.
Croaker did not want to be looking the wrong way when that happened.
Halfway across Swan asked, "It serious between you and Lady?" He chose Rosean,
the language of his youth. Croaker spoke the tongue, though he had not used it
for years.
"It is on my side. I can't say for her. Why?"
"I don't want to stick my hand in where I'm going to get it bit off."
"I don't bite. And I don't tell her what to do."
"Yeah. It was nice to dream about. I figure she'll forget I'm alive as soon as
she hears you still are."
Croaker smiled, pleased. "Can you tell me anything about this human stump back
here? I don't like his looks."
Swan talked for the rest of their passage, evolving complex circumlocutions to
get around non-Rosean words Sindhu would recognize.
"Worse than I thought," Croaker said as the boat reached the city wall where
part had collapsed and left a gap through which the lake poked a finger. Swan
tossed the painter to a Taglian soldier who looked like he had not eaten for a
week. He left the boat. Croaker followed. Sindhu followed him. Croaker noted
that Swan placed himself so he could watch Sindhu. The soldier tied the boat
up, beckoned. They followed him.
He led them to the top of the west wall, which was wide and unbroken. Croaker
stared at the city. It was nothing like it had been. It had become a thousand
drunken islands. A big island marked its heart: the citadel, where they had
dispatched Stormshadow and Shapeshifter. The nearer islands sprouted
spectators. He recognized faces, waved.
Ragged at first, beginning with the surviving non-Nar he had brought to
Taglios, a cheer spread rapidly. The Taglian troops raised their "Liberator!"
hail. Swan said, "I think they're glad to see you."
"From the looks of the place they'd cheer anybody who might get them out."
Streets had become deep canals. The survivors had adapted by building rafts.
Croaker doubted anyone travelled much, though. The canals were choked with
corpses. The smell of death was oppressive. Plague and a madman tormented the
city and there was nowhere to dispose of bodies.
Mogaba and his Nar came marching around the curve of the wall, clad in all
their finery. "Here we go," Croaker said. The cheering continued. One raft,
almost awash under the weight of old comrades, began laboring toward the wall.
Mogaba halted forty feet away. He stared, his face and eyes smoldering ice.
"Say me a prayer, Swan." Croaker moved to meet the man who wanted so badly to
be his successor. He wondered if he would have to play this out again with
Lady. Assuming he survived this round.
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Mogaba moved to meet him, taking stride for stride. They stopped a yard apart.
"You've done wonders with nothing," Croaker said. He rested his right hand
upon Mogaba's left shoulder.
Sudden silence gripped the city. Ten thousand eyes watched, native and soldier
alike, knowing how much hung on Mogaba's response to that gesture of
comradery.
Croaker waited quietly. It was a time when almost anything said would be too
much said. Nothing needed to be discussed or explained. Everything hinged on
Mogaba's reaction. If he reciprocated, all was well. If not...
The men looked one another in the eye. Hot fires burned within Mogaba. Nothing
showed on his face but Croaker sensed the battle within him, his ambition
against a lifetime of training and the obvious will of the soldiers. Their
cheers made their sentiments clear.
Mogaba's struggle went on. Twice his right hand rose, fell back. Twice he
opened his mouth to speak, then bit down on ambition's tongue.
Croaker broke eye contact long enough to examine the Nar. He tried to send an
appeal, Help your chieftain.
Sindawe understood. He fought his own conscience a moment, started walking. He
passed the two, joined the old members of the Company forming up behind
Croaker. One by one, a dozen Nar followed.
Mogaba's hand started up a third time. Men held their breaths. Then Mogaba
looked at his feet. "I can't, Captain. There is a shadow within me. I can't.
Kill me."
"And I can't do that. I promised your men I wouldn't harm you no matter your
choice."
"Kill me, Captain. Before this thing in me turns to hatred."
"I couldn't even if I hadn't promised."
"I'll never understand you." Mogaba's hand fell. "You're strong enough to come
face me when for all you knew you'd be killed. But you're not strong enough to
save the trouble sparing me will cost."
"I can't snuff the light I sense in you. It may yet become the light of
greatness."
"Not a light, Captain. A wind out of nowhere, born in darkness. For both our
sakes I hope I'm wrong, but I fear you'll regret your mercy." Mogaba took a
step backward. Croaker's arm fell. Everyone watching sighed, dismayed, though
they had had little hope of rapprochement. Mogaba saluted, wheeled, marched
away followed by three Nar who had not crossed over with Sindawe.
"Hey!" Swan yelled a moment later, breaking the silence. "Them bastards is
stealing our boat!"
"Let them go." Croaker faced friends he had not seen for months. "From the
Book of Cloete: 'In those days the Company was in service to the Syndarchs of
Dai Khomena, and they were delivered...' " His friends all grinned and roared
approval. He grinned back. "Hey! We've got work to do here. We've got a city
to evacuate. Let's hit it."
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From one eye he watched the boat cross the lake, from the other he kept watch
on Sindhu.
It felt good to be back.
Thus was Dejagore delivered and the true Company set free.
Chapter Seventy-Two
The Howler perched atop a tall stool, out of the way while Longshadow
prepared. He was impressed by the array of mystical and thaumaturgic gewgaws
Longshadow had assembled during one short generation. Such had remained scarce
while they had been in thrall to the Lady and nonexistent under the rule of
her husband before her. They had wanted no one getting independent. Howler had
very little though he was free now. He had little need to possess.
Not so Longshadow. He wanted to own at least one of everything. He wanted to
own the world.
Not much of Longshadow's collection was in use now. Not much would be ever, [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]