The ship was a sleek sloop of dark wood. The crew was human, with a couple of questionables. The captain was a distinguished older man, tall and strong still, handsome still. He had been quite the lover in his youth: he had been Ryel’s lover in his youth, his adulthood and his early middle age. He looked like he would still readily be her lover. Oh, and he was newly married and his wife sailed with him.
Still, when the captain saw Ryel, he charged over and grabbed her in a hug. “My beautiful deadly elf maiden,” he enthused. “You haven’t changed a bit, though I fear I’ve grown about ten years older since I last saw you.”
“Oh, it’s only four, five tops,” said Ryel. “You look good, you do. Arkmar, this is Captain Alkwadir. Ali, this is Arkmar, he’s, uh, working with me, I guess.”
“At your service,” said Arkmar with a bow.
“At your service and your family’s,” said Ali, doffing his night-blue captain’s hat. He smiled at Ryel, then looked to his right, where his lovely wife had appeared. “And this is Elena. Elena, this is Ryel, an old friend of mine.” Ryel suppressed the eye rolling, even when he added, “Ryel, I would like you to meet the love of my life, Elena.”
Elena was indeed lovely. She was a human of perhaps thirty. She was tall, taller than Ryel by some inches, with bright red hair and plenty of muscle. She was dressed in sailor work clothes, but with a bit of fashionable dash: her plain vanilla shirt unbuttoned far enough that one could see her bright red brassiere, a completely unnecessary scarf in her hair that matched the bra. The bra was far from unnecessary. Elena wore nice leather boots that overlapped her tight leather pants. The boots were, however, scuffed and scraped by work, as were her hands, her shirt and her little leather hat.
“Oh, so you’re Ryel,” she said in a way that made “He’s told me so much about you” completely superfluous.
“Ferdinand,” called Ali, “show these two to the forward single rooms. You’ll eat at the captain’s table, of course. We’re carting a load of metals to Baharna, and picking up what they have to offer.”
“Lava,” said Arkmar.
“Always plenty of that,” said Ferdinand, coming up from below deck. He was big, tall, friendly, muscular and portly. He glanced at Ryel and did a double take. “By the Gods. Ryel! You aren’t dead yet!”
“You know her too?” said Elena. “Do you know the rest of the crew already?”
“No, I,” stared Ryel. She met Elena’s smile. “No,” she said, “and I don’t know Ferd that well, we merely defended an outpost together. From a ghast raid.”
“I thought then you were one of the Cats of Ulthar made woman,” said Ferd. “You used at least three of your nine lives. Come, I will show you your bunks and we can have a drink on me and talk of old times.”
“That sounds wonderful, let’s.” She looked at Ali.
“We’ll put off in a couple of hours,” Ali said. “Sunset in the captain’s galley. I believe we’re having fish.” He held her eyes one moment longer, and did not have to say out loud how much he wanted her. To come. To dinner.
Ferd got the elf and the dwarf below deck and toward the front, and up a single file gangway there was a door on the left. Inside was a tiny room with two hammocks, one above the other. There was also a strong box and some half torn out cabinetry.
“Key,” said Ferd, handing a tiny iron key to Ryel; it was hard to know how his big hand even gripped such a thing. “It’s to the strong box.”
“Do you suggest,” said Ryel, “that I use the strong box?”
“I suggest you use the false drawer in the cabinet,” said Ferd. “That way if aught goes missing, you can assume ‘twas me that done it.” He pulled out his big flask and handed it to Arkmar. “You a dreamer yourself?”
“I am. Arkmar at your service,” said the dwarf, taking a swig. “Ah, it is excellent. I think I will not wake up for a while longer.”
“Ferdinand of Ool at yours,” said Ferd. “I am not a dreamer, I am the grandson of dreamers.”
“Ferd,” said Ryel, “how long has your skipper been married?”
“Been over a year,” said Ferd. “Took him by storm, she did. She’s a good one, though. We all hated her till we learned about her. She’s tougher than she seems, Elena.”
“Does she wield magic?”
“She wields an old magic,” said Ferd, “akin to yours I think. She is a dreamer. Alkwadir is not. He is much smitten with her, and she wants only that he be so.”
Arkmar handed the flask to Ryel, who took a swig, then another. “He’s happy, I’m happy,” said Ryel. Ferd snorted and shook his head. “What?”
“You can’t possibly expect me to keep a straight face when you say such things as that,” the big man replied. “Let it rest, though. Captain would want me to be wheedling from you what you might be about, since he thinks you reckon he’s ferrying you for friendship and asking no questions. So shall we say I wheedled? What would I get?”
“I have no problem telling you,” said Ryel. “I was sent here. I am in search of things. I have a list.”
“And one of them is on Oriab? It’s not up Ngranek, is it?”
Ryel looked at Arkmar, who half pulled the map out of his pocket and gave it an exaggeratedly surreptitious look. “It might be,” said Arkmar.
“You’d want to go see damn Ngranek anyway, Arkmar,” said Ryel, “because you have a thing for rock.”
“It’s dangerous, of course,” said Ferd.
“Like everything else. Maybe the next thing on the list is in the Vale of Pnath.”
“Pnoth,” said Arkmar. “That’s the way I always heard it.”
“Pnath, dear,” said Ryel. “Your suggestion about the strong box. So is the crew a problem? I ask because you seem to indicate that Elena isn’t the problem and Ali isn’t the problem and you sure aren’t the problem.”
“No,” said Ferd, “ah, maybe some of them are a problem. But then there’s the sea we’re passing over. This is not the place for a midnight swim, either.”
“So Ryel, you didn’t come back here thinking you were going to share the Captain’s bed, did you?”
“It was the furthest thing from my mind, of course, Ferdinand.”
“Well, that’s good,” he said, taking back his flask and turning away. He stepped out and glanced back in with a smile. “Because that Elena. That could be a problem.”
Ryel and Arkmar discussed things in a vague way while they were stowing their small amount of gear. “You know,” she said, “I could just carry it all on me. That would solve the security issue without having to resort to the false bottom drawer.”
“You could,” said Arkmar. “You could get rolled by some of the crew. Or you could have your clothing stolen while you’re without it, at some point. I’m not trying to be crude if I ask: were you thinking, in fact, of being without your clothing at some point on this voyage?”
“Arkmar, how well do you know me?”
“I know you just about well enough to know you were, at least, thinking of fucking him. You as much as said so. Are you still thinking of fucking him?”
“But Arkmar. He wants me to. Should I not?”
“I will not be drawn into such debates,” said Arkmar. “My kin don’t think of mating in such a variety of ways as Elves or Humans do. More, perhaps, is the pity, but there it is. Still, you asked my opinion. So I ask, will it help us do the thing?”
“Us? Thing?” She cocked her head to one side. “Well,” she said, “that depends, doesn’t it?”
“On what does it depend?”
“On what exactly Elena is.”
The sleek sloop, which was called the Storm Queen, was off under beautiful skies of afternoon. The sky was indeed red at night. The sunset was amazing. The dinner was pretty good too: jumbo phacopid trilobite in yak-apricot butter. Elena did most of the talking.
After a glass of red wine, then a custard that was almost unbelievably good even in Dream World, and then another glass of wine, Elena was still holding forth. She was a very old dreamer, and an old lady wherever her body lay sleeping, but in dream she was Elena, and she was on a long, long dream just now. She remembered a lot and she had a lot of ideas about it. Politics in Celephais, the cult of Nodens and its influence on the nightgaunts, whether the Aegri of the southern isles were to be kept in check, and the top ten wines of the Cerenerian Coasts. And of course she was all about how excellent a captain Alkwadir was.
He ate it up, of course, and he ate up her look too, changed into a red evening gown with a plunging neckline. Ryel figured she had noticed an advantage and was pressing it: Elena’s brassiere was doing a fine job, while Ryel did not wear a bra and had, really, rather little reason to. Ryel kept to nods and one-syllable assents, but Arkmar tried to actually get a word in edgewise. They found Dylath and the coastal cliff villages to the south to be a common interest, though Arkmar was into the shore-stabilization engineering while Elena seemed to prefer the shopping and cafés.
All through dessert, Ali had been trying to catch Ryel’s eye. She let him catch her at least three times but nothing was communicated that she could decipher. What was to know about what she wanted? He ought to know exactly what was on her mind. What someone needed to tell someone else was what he planned to do and when.
Ryel excused herself and went out to look at the moonlight. She waited for at least fifteen minutes, because that was long enough for her to do her regular meditation cycle. It went well: meditation in dream was actually kind of a cinch. Only once during the quarter hour, while the full moon moved through 3.75 degrees, did something feel like a menace from the vast churning dark of the ocean beneath her feet. The crystalline waves, the fractal wisps of cloud, the dusty, silvery, perverse, abandoned temple of the Moon: there was no foul influence in any of them that wasn’t always there. But beneath: something moved, cold at heart, cold as the deeps themselves and black of heart. And then it was gone.
She shook herself back into consciousness. “You’re awake, good,” said Arkmar, standing beside her at the rail. “We should go have another close glance at that little map of ours.”
“What? Oh, where’s—?” She stopped and just looked at him, thinking the rest of the question.
“She took him off to bed,” said Arkmar in a low voice, showing that the telepathy was working at least this time. He handed Ryel his flask. “You struck out for tonight.”
“For tonight,” said Ryel.
The next day it poured rain. By evening the solid downpour was over and fog moved in tight. The sails fell limp, until Elena came out on deck and went and had a talk with the main sail.
“Will you look at that?” muttered Arkmar: the dwarf and the elf were standing by the rail again. They weren’t throwing up, just escaping the imprisonment of their cabin.
“I’m gonna help,” said Ryel.
“What? Going to talk up the wind?”
“Gonna try.” She strode toward the stern, past underemployed deck hands. At the stern, Ryel put both hands together on the rail of the afterdeck, gazed astern and then closed her eyes. Her lips moved. Arkmar came back and stood nearby: indeed, Ryel was talking in a low voice and a slow breathy language. She opened her eyes.
The fog was succumbing to turbulence. A breeze was picking up. Zephyr was suggestible.
Ryel turned and smiled as she looked at Elena spelling at her sail: it began to billow, but so did all the other sails and so did Elena’s loose red hair. Elena turned and saw Ryel, then looked around and smiled.
“An elf,” said Elena from halfway down the ship. “You speak the winds’ language.”
Ryel walked toward her. They met, with Arkmar and Ferdinand converging on them in case they decided to kill each other. Ryel looked at Arkmar on her left, then at Ferd on the right. She appreciated their concern, but that was not the vibe she was getting.
“We should have a talk,” said Elena. She looked at Ferdinand. “Do you especially mind?”
Ferd looked at all three of his companions: elf, dwarf, human, elf, human, elf, human, dwarf. Finally the dwarf laughed and shook his head. “Come, Mate Ferdinand, you and I have things to say to one another about sword play.”
“Come,” said Elena. She gave Ryel one more meaning glance, but it didn’t mean anything to Ryel, who was now one of three on telepathy. So Ryel followed her to the stern, then down a hatch in the deck to a little store room, then out onto a tiny little balcony just above the rudder.
The fog was banished, at least astern. The sky to the east, aftward, was already a violet indigo, speckled with stars and a planet. They came out onto the little balcony, and in a moment the Moon broke the horizon. Over a minute or two, its coppery radiance spread down the waves to them. Ryel turned to look at Elena, who was still looking back, the moonlight in her eyes and on her pale silk shirt and her necklace of blue gems. Suddenly Elena turned her eyes on Ryel.
The elf had expected an attack, actually. She half expected that the other’s eyes would be flaming red. No, they had tears in them, actually. Elena smiled through them, taking Ryel’s hands in hers. Before Ryel could think of anything, Elena pulled her by her hands forward, half closing her eyes as their faces neared one another. Ryel reacted barely in time to tilt her head the opposite way from the way Elena was tilting her head before they kissed.
They kissed, once demurely, then separated by two inches, their eyes gazing down at each other’s mouths, then kissed again longer. Elena’s tears got on Ryel’s cheek, but she giggled a little. “I’m so relieved,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for you for a year, a month and a day. And you’re here.” She giggled again, just a little, and then they kissed for a long time as the sleek sloop sped onward.
“Arkmar,” said Ryel, as she shut the door gently but firmly behind her. “Wake up.”
“Been reading,” he said, picking up the book off his face. “It’s been a bit weird tonight, actually. What?”
“Ele—eh, Elena,” she said, dropping as far as she could in volume and still be heard over all those water molecules out there.
“I saw you had a conversation with her,” Arkmar replied, sitting up and putting his big bare feet on the floor. They looked like they needed a good scraping. He went about pulling his boots on over them, no socks. He was still in his leather pants, but he had stripped down to his tee shirt. “Are you going to tell me what you talked about?”
“Sit down on the floor,” said Ryel, doing so herself. She pulled her pack over and got her own flask out—a fine leather thing with the cognac of Mirkwood in it. “There’s just about room.”
“Are you saying my ass is big?” asked Arkmar, plopping down in essentially the rest of the floor.
“Drink,” she said.
He did, and he raised his eyebrows and frowned happily. “It’s excellent, of course.” He handed it back to her. “So?”
“So,” said Ryel, “she’s been put here to watch. To watch for someone to come along trying to fill a list. Someone with powers.”
“All right,” said Arkmar, “stop there. Who put her here, what powers does she have, what powers would this someone have, how specific was she about the nature of the list, and, what was the other question? Oh yes. What powers do you have?”
“Weeeell,” said Ryel, and she took a little swig of her cognac. “I don’t know who put her here. She didn’t exactly say.” She looked up at Arkmar. “Who put you here?”
“Ha! My sainted mother. Now let’s get back on topic. Powers? I noted she said words to the sail.”
“She has a sort of magic. I’ve seen it before a few places but it’s not like what I’m used to. I just know how to talk to the wind and the trees and stuff.”
“I noticed. I did not know you could do that. And yet, when it’s bat-like bugs or bug-like bats, you have more difficulty.”
“There was quite the crowd of them,” said Ryel. “And they weren’t exactly in their natural environment.”
“Weren’t they? So what else can you do?”
“Not that much before I have to fall back on shooting people. And that would not have worked well against the bat-bugs. I don’t really have powers, I just have my words and my arrows.”
“And your gentle girly caresses,” said Arkmar, “but those wouldn’t have worked on that either. Now what I’m getting at, I guess, is, how sure are you that you are really the one she was put here to watch for? Is it you, and does she think it was you?”
Ryel took another swig. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’m not sure it isn’t me. But I’m sure not sure it is me. That she’s waiting for. Because someone told her to. But she thinks it’s me. She’s sure of it.”
“And what is this person supposed to do?”
“Save the fucking Dream World, actually,” said Ryel. She took another long swig.
“What, only that? From what are you saving the dream world?”
“She didn’t exactly say, but she’s some sort of junior member of a group, she said she was a journeyer or something, but she wouldn’t say any more. Anyway, they put her here to watch for someone who was putting together an item from scattered pieces. And she said,” and Ryel slowed down, took another drink and then another. “Got any of that smoke?”
“She said that?” asked Arkmar.
“She said that there would be people who wanted to put the same thing together in a bad way, see, but she would be able to tell the one who was putting it together in a good way. Arkmar. Do. You have. Any of. That. Smoke.”
“Sure, sure, of course, never without,” the dwarf replied. He pulled out his stubby pipe and filled it and gave Ryel the first light. “Now you were saying?”
She handed him the pipe. “So I don’t know if I’m that person. Valar. I’m only the hired gun here. I might be working for the bad guys for all I know.”
“So you are putting things together, you’re telling me that. Segments.” Arkmar looked as serious as Ryel had ever seen him.
“Yes. You know of jobs like this?”
“It’s the seventeen pieces,” said Arkmar, relighting the pipe. “That cylinder thing you picked up in Dylath. It’s a Piece.” The elf nodded. “So,” said Arkmar, “how worried are you really about your employers?”
“I don’t know.” She took a drag on the dwarf’s pipe. “She thinks I’m on the good side, though,” Ryel went on. “It was how I talked to the wind.” Ryel slapped herself on the forehead. “Of course. That’s it.”
“She wanted to really see inside me. She wanted to be sure about me. That’s why she kissed me.”
“And you can tell from just kissing? I might have to take this up myself.”
“No,” said Ryel with an doubtful smile. “Oh no. It takes a lot more than kissing to be really sure.” She took another swig, then one more light on the pipe. She thought about that for a few seconds, then repeated the process: it would have put even Arkmar in a mood to have surgery done. Ryel raised her eyebrows and said, “And Elena made sure.”
They had some more to drink and smoke, the elf maiden and the bald dwarf, but he didn’t feel up to asking any more about her relations with the captain and his wife, and she didn’t think to ask what he had meant way back all those minutes ago when he had said something about “it” being a bit “weird tonight.” Ryel was very tired and rather drunk and fell right asleep in the first minute of what was supposed to be a trance. All the great elf princes and princesses could do it: trance or vigil instead of sleep. Ryel wasn’t pure enough of heart, or something.
The next morning the Storm Queen ran west across a hard south wind over mountainous waves. Ryel got up, had a look above deck, then returned below to use the head, which she had been told was what they called the bathroom. It wasn’t what she called a bathroom, in any case. She went back to the cubbyhole and got in her hammock, the upper one. She closed her eyes and let the rolling of the seas put her in trance. Just as she was starting to manage it, the dwarf let out a grunt, then a fart, which he laughed out loud at.
“Well, that’s the alarm,” he said. “I’m off to the head. That’s what they call the bathroom on a boat, you know.”
Yes, I knew that, Ryel said to herself. It was another ten minutes before she got calm enough again to retreat into trance.
Some hours later, the elf maid crawled out of her hammock, cursing the ocean. She was born in the highland forest, and for her, water was wonderful scampering down wooded hillsides and singing as it cascaded over rock formations and going “Whoooo!” as it plunged over twenty-foot falls. She made it to the deck and had a look over the side. It would seem a dishonor to her kindred to give in and throw up, here in front of a boat full of humans. So she stood there at the rail, looking off to starboard. The sky, that odd Dream World sky, the curious cumuli and rather too fractal cirri. The water, so curiously clear. Shouldn’t oceans be sort of dirty, like a decent soup, full of life and fish sperm and every imaginable creature’s shit? Ryel thought of forests and how what you were walking on was dead forest turning back into live forest. It was so full of fungus and maggot and seed that there was almost nothing else to it. She grew up swimming in rivers where it was four feet deep and you couldn’t see the bottom. The Long Lake? The only place you could see ten feet down was where the dragon had crashed a few years ago, and there you could see all the way to the lake bed, where the old guy lay, a giant lizardy skeleton amongst his regalia of gold and diamond. It weirded out the humans, of course, and Ryel kind of got why, even back there in her waking world where it had seemed an oddly powerful superstition, since it had succeeded in keeping them from diving for riches.
Oceans, in her limited experience and in her intuition, were thick and full of stuff, more like amniotic fluid than glass. But this sea was in the glassy category. She looked down and found herself fascinated, entranced, enraptured. A flotilla of fish swam this way near the surface; fathoms below them a dolphin couple swam that way; tens of feet further down a hammerhead shark swam yet a different way; other things, rays, merfolk, squid, passed this way and that. She suspected she saw an anomalocaris making its way along what seemed to be the top of a crenelated stone wall. Other things she saw that she was not so sure of.
That wall. It was the wall of a city. The city ran down into a deep valley, a little dimmer and green-bluer than the higher lands under the wave. It did not look inhabited by any but the fish, but it did not look like it was built for fish.
She sensed someone beside her. She turned, expecting Arkmar, and found instead it was Elena. She was dressed in long dark pants, sturdy work boots, a head scarf and a brimmed leather hat, and a bright red bikini top: perhaps it was just her bra from last night.
“Hi,”said the redhead.
“Hi,” said Ryel.
“Keep looking,” said Elena.
What, at the sea? was what Ryel thought. She tore herself away from Elena’s lovely top and what it contained, and looked down again. The green blue vista was so wide and open that at first she wondered how she would know what she was supposed to see. But the city was running out below her, and the sunken land rose to hills just, oh, twenty or thirty fathoms down, then fell again. Something like a paved road ran incongruously up over the hills and down, and then started up again. It came to something like a temple, but without doors, without windows, a hermetically sealed place of worship, a church whose parishioners never went home.
Below it there was something like a cemetery. Above it, there was a single post driven into the sunken ground.
The figure of a man was in some way attached to the post. Upside down. In the garb of a sailor. Perhaps what Ryel did not like about the way he stared was the fact that he had no eyes anymore.
She looked up at Elena, who was sort of smiling. Elena said, “Can we talk after dinner again tonight?”
“Talk like we talked last night, you mean?”
Elena just smiled, turned and strode off toward the forecastle.
“So how are you going to manage this?” asked Arkmar an hour later as the elf and dwarf stood along the rail near the bow.
“I don’t know, Arkmar,” said Ryel, “let’s just find out, shall we?”
“Elfmans,” he said. He grinned at her: she gave him a single raised eyebrow. “Elf or human. More or less the same thing to the dwarf community.”
“Like you’re so different.”
“We don’t let our gonads run our lives,” said Arkmar. “Do not deny. Your gonads run your life. They do.”
“No, I have no children. At least give me that much credit.” But at that innocent remark, Arkmar looked aghast and angry. But he didn’t stay that way. He quickly changed to glum. He leaned forward on the rail and took an interest in the way the water splashed against the side of the boat. “What, hit a nerve there, did I? Let me guess.”
“No,” said Arkmar, “I am not interested in guessing games. I say we are different; you say we are not. It is not a useful debate. The terms aren’t properly defined.”
“This from someone who used ‘ain’t’ the first time I met him. No, I want to know. Why is my personal life such an acceptable subject for discussion but yours not?”
“It’s different,” said Arkmar.
They spend a minute looking down into the water.
“Does it seem,” said Ryel, “like you can see awfully far down?”
“I thought that, yes. Ferd said not to go swimming.”
“Oh, I have no plans to, believe me.”
Dinner was very good: a poached something or other that Ryel and Arkmar probably did not want to know more about, some lovely greens from Parg, a risotto so delicate Arkmar was afraid he might shatter it, a red wine, a white wine, a coffee that could only have come from somewhere south of Parg where the people are the same color as the drink, and then a dessert beyond any description other than chocolate ganache. Ryel noticed everything about dinner because she was concentrating so hard on it.
At the table were Captain Alkwadir, his wife Elena, Arkmar the Dwarf, Ryel the Elf and a very rich old lady named Liz who had struck a vein of gold somewhere in her dreams so deep she never bothered to go back to waking. She talked and talked, while Elena gave Ryel sidelong smiles and Ali kept trying to catch her eye.
Eventually he resorted to a note, which half distracted Ryel from dessert and coffee. Please meet me in the ship’s library, it said. I must tell you what is in my heart when I look upon you. Oh really. Must you.
When Ryel thought about it, she could easily let herself go and desire Ali totally. She could really fuck the daylights out of that boy. They would lie back after, smiles on their faces, and he would say, “It’s fine that I age and die and you go on, it’s just a privilege that I get to make love to you.” Ryel was not by nature a lover of women. Elena just did not have the equipment that Ali had, and she certainly did not have his lovely scent or his hairy chest or his hairy belly or his, well, everything else.
But then she turned it around, as she turned around a piece of that namelessly compelling dessert, and it was Elena’s embraces, Elena’s sweet kisses, Elena’s secrets, her soft, hard body, her smooth skin, her scent that seemed exotic and pricelessly precious.
And Elena knew something. She was onto something. She was waiting for something. She thought she was waiting for Ryel.
But since Ryel had no idea what that was about, how likely was it she was waiting for someone else? What would they do? What was she here to do?
Ryel looked up and Elena was smiling at her. She winked and looked away, and ten seconds later Elena said, “I’m sorry, Liz, this is all most interesting, but I need to excuse myself. Good night, darling,” she said to Ali, and then they both made great show of kissing and giggling about it as if they were embarrassed. And then she was gone, with a cute smile at Arkmar and the tiniest cute wink at Ryel.
Ryel waited five minutes, during which she only managed to push the last few bites around on the plate. She rose leaving the note on the table. “You can finish mine,” she said to Arkmar.
“Sure,” he said, his eyes gleaming, “I can manage that. So, Captain, I wanted to ask you, have you done the run to the Cloud City of Serannian? Is there a trick to it?”
Ryel left the Captain’s dining room and climbed the steep steps to the deck of the Storm Queen. True to her name, she was riding the gale and the mountain waves in a spitting rain. Ryel almost retreated (to the library?) but then she saw Ferd at the helm and she joined him, sheltered slightly by a roof and partial walls.
“You think this is bad,” said Ferd, “I seen things worse than this on the Inquanok run.”
“You think this is bad,” said Ryel, “you should see my love life.” She stood beside the big man for a full minute, then sighed and went back out into the rain. “Good night, Ferdinand.”
“Good night, Ryel.”
She strode forward and stopped outside the forecastle. The air was whipping across the ship, throwing the water around like a child in her bath. But there was something about that water that made Ryel glad the air was pushing the ship along so fast.
Then she heard a sound and there was Elena, in a doorway, gleaming just slightly.
“Elena,” said Ryel, “are you fully human?”
“Yeah,” said Elena breathlessly. She pulled Ryel into the room beyond. It was dark, but it was full of little noises: clicks, whirs, a sort of happy little fast clatter. Ryel looked around: there was a dim light, from a sort of thick glass bulb on top of some sort of armoire. It gave off a sick inner glow, a yellow that seemed like it wanted to be gold. The rest of the room seemed to be given over to odd cabinets connected by pulleys and belts and flywheels.
“Sh,” said Elena. She took the elf by the shoulders, turned her around and pushed her against the cabinet opposite the door. Ryel, dreading and desiring, reached up to stop those perfect breasts with her hands. She felt herself shoved hard against the cabinet, but then the melting together of lips and bodies was both hot and gentle. A minute later Elena pulled back for a moment. Elena was smiling. Ryel was caught between desire and dread in a way that really ticked her off. The sick yellow had suddenly grown to a halfway golden.
“Elena,” the elf maid managed to say before the next kiss, “are you a time tech?”
“Yes,” said Elena, “journeywoman fifth class. You’re here. Thank goddess.”
“Elena, how do you know it’s me you’re waiting for? Elena, are you about to make Mistress grade? Are you leaving Ali?”
“No, no, no,” said Elena, stepping back. She had so wanted more kisses. “No, I plan to stay right here. But you were coming and I had to help you.”
“With what? Help me? And what does the—what does the sex have to do with—?”
But just then there was a series of noises from out on deck, including several hatches slamming, things falling, and voices, including Ferd’s and Arkmar’s, shouting. But Elena pushed Ryel back against the cabinet and kissed her like the elf hadn’t been kissed in a long, long time, a kiss that reached her toes and fingertips and spent a lot of time in her thigh area. Mmm, that pressure: this was not just a means to an end. And yet it was a means to an end. Still, Ryel found it hard to muster any interest in resisting, in spite of the alarms going off all over her head. That light was now a fine warm golden, and the gadgets it revealed, packed tightly all around the two women standing there necking, were happily whirring.
“Just tell me,” Ryel gasped out, “is it me? Or would anyone have done?”
“Oh, it’s you.” They kissed one more time, lingering, their hands, their bodies merging and flowing, and then they stepped back, gasping for breath. “Come on,” said Elena, taking the golden bulb off of its socket. “It’s time.”
Ryel and Elena charged out of the little room. Elena slammed the door behind them. The scene before them looked like something from an old salt’s tall tale.
Amidst a vigorous wind storm, Ferd and Arkmar and three mates, two male and one big strapping Amazon, were sword-fighting against several scaly humanoids, who were fighting a rearguard action toward the side of the ship. Ryel thought there were half a dozen at the moment she and Elena emerged from the room, but they were jumping off and disappearing at a rate of one scaly person per several seconds. She had the impression that the things had no mouths, but possibly more than two arms: what was an arm and what was a tentacle was confusing in the rain and surf. They wielded some sort of saber.
One of them, just leaping off the rail as Ryel saw it, carried a package that looked exactly like Ryel’s bag, the one which had been in the false-bottom drawer.
Arkmar was seeing the same thing: he leaped at the creature with the bag, and went over with him.
Ryel pulled out one of her paring knives—why was she without her bow at a time like this?—and threw it. But another of the creatures, backing up, got in the way and the knife embedded itself in the wrong head. The creature slipped sideways and the Amazon mate brought her axe down, neatly if squishily slicing its head off. There were four left, now three as one more jumped, now two as Ferd waded in and stabbed another through the neck. The other two threw themselves on him and he fell backwards bellowing, but now there was a flash of light and one of the duo flipped backwards, a hole burned in its chest. The other one was still trying to throttle Ferd when the other three mates pulled it off and hacked it to pieces. Green blood, and a little of the usual red kind, was everywhere but was washing away quickly in the storm.
And then, just like that, the clouds broke in the west and the full moon shone through. Ferd was getting up and the other three checking him. Ali came charging out of another hatch, the one to the library, armed not with a tome but a lovely jeweled saber.
Ryel was halfway to the rail. By the time she got there, Elena was with her. “Your spell?” said Ryel.
“This.” Elena held up the golden bulb. Ryel could swear it was steaming.
“My bag,” said Ryel, “and my friend. I have to save him.” With Ali’s and Ferd’s shouts of warning in her ears, the elf did a lovely dive off the bucking rail and into the ice cold sea.
Down, down she swam. She pulled out a knife from her belt for her right hand, then another for her left: she was swimming straight down now with two sharp claws. She heard a noise in the water next to her and then a gleam: and there was Elena, swimming behind her and to the right, holding that golden bulb in front of her.
The water here was still terribly clear, and ten, twenty, thirty feet down, it seemed to be hardly moving. Ryel could not breathe underwater, but she could hold her breath an awfully long time. Gleaming night fish swam up to her, caught the look in her eyes, and fell in swimming in her wake, and soon she and Elena led a small flotilla. Several rays and half a dozen small to medium size sharks joined in. Evidently the sea things were not popular with their neighbors. Perhaps it was the loud parties.
Far ahead of them, perhaps half a dozen of the sea things continued to drag the dwarf downward, and presumably, somewhere down there, her bag as well. Arkmar was her friend. He might die, and all because he was protecting her stuff. And besides, the bag contained the one Piece Ryel had managed to get so far, and probably the map as well.
The escaping sea things were making for another of those undersea buildings: this one looked a lot like a marble temple, but not one that humans would ever have built without a lot of inspiration. It had pillars all around, triangular ones, and the creatures disappeared in between these, carrying their dwarfish burden. The moonlight seemed to penetrate all the way to the bottom, and even intensify, if that was possible: the temple and all around it were lit by a silver glow.
It seemed hours but it must have been just a few tens of seconds before the two women got to the temple. Ryel recoiled at the sense she had of shadow shapes in and about the temple, but Elena was not deterred, nor was one Ryel-sized shark. It turned its pointy head to gaze sideways at her.
“Lead me,” Ryel managed to bubble out. The shark actually nodded, then shot into the darkness of the building. Ryel shot after it.
The inner chamber was dark, but Ryel could see Elena swimming very fast toward a hole in the middle of the stony floor, her yellow bulb held out in front of her. Before Ryel and her shark buddy were even close, she felt herself pulled along and down into the hole. Then they were shooting down a tube many fathoms long, and then they were out into a wide region of green luminance in three dimensions if not more.
Four of the sea men attacked as soon as she came out into the chamber, but her shark friend took them on and she swam right past. She was rising now: the tube had let her out fathoms down into the chamber, and above her she could see a band of air. She rose into it and opened her mouth at the surface, only to discover that it was not oxygen. Ryel’s breath, wonderfully durable so far, took the opportunity to panic.
Elena was up and out of the water. There was a zone of air—well, of carbon dioxide or helium or something—around the edges of the water surface, and it was filled with stolen goods. In a moment Ryel took in chests hacked open, barrels with their tops knocked off, bags of gold and silver coins, piles of gems, and also a number of well-preserved and curiously maimed bodies.
The raiding party was on shore, tentacles flapping as if they were having a frantic conversation. Now Elena was out among them, throwing her fire: the golden bulb seemed to be the source. One blast, one down. Another blast, another down. And another: the sea men were starting to panic themselves.
But of course the golden bulb chose this moment to weaken back to yellow. The next bolt was less potent, and the sea men began to take heart, or whatever they had. Ryel forced herself to take heart too.
She dove and swam and burst from the water again close to the curb of the shore. Four of the things were daring Elena’s weakening power. Ryel pulled herself just out of the water, rolled and threw a knife, catching one in the side. She threw another and caught it in the forehead as it turned to look her way. She was up, her long knife out, and another took that across the side of its neck before it could react. The other two turned on her, but their heads suddenly slammed together and they went down. There was, of all things, the dwarf, with her bag in his hand and a big smile.
Darts of some sort were flying now from up the shore. Ryel could see the shark circling, with some of his friends: there would be no attack from there. But a dozen more of the sea things had gathered on shore and were firing volleys as they charged. Elena backed up to join Ryel and Arkmar, and then she turned and gave Ryel a look.
“This might work,” she said, her voice odd in the changed atmosphere. She grabbed Ryel’s wet head and pulled it to her in a sudden, long kiss. Holding it behind her, she let the bulb spray the energy out again: it had gained just enough oomph that the blast knocked the leaders of the new charge backwards.
Elena laughed at Ryel, not looking at the result of her blast. Then she turned and jumped into the water, bulb in front again. Arkmar gave Ryel his own grin and mouthed, “I have a spell for this. You?” He jumped in too.
No, thought Ryel as she dove after them, I’m a freakin’ elf, I just assume that covers everything. And the fact that it didn’t was not quite so important as the fact that Arkmar, hanging onto the shark’s dorsal fin as they shipped out and up the tube, had her bag in his hand.
Ryel didn’t pay a lot of attention to the way up through the tube, out of the temple, and up to the surface. She let her mind fall back into a trance of nearly complete inactivity, while her body committed all resources to her legs and arms. She made it to the surface: she did remember breaking the surface, somehow emerging from a silvery world to a black one, a heavy cold world to one as thin as space. Hands, the dwarf’s hands, pulled her up with some help from her, up a rope, over the rail, onto the deck.
She breathed and breathed and breathed. She was aware of talk near her but she made no attempt to comprehend it. Presently, sated with oxygen, that wonderful intoxicant, Ryel looked up and saw Arkmar grinning at her, his bald head fringed with soaking wet hair.
“Damn you,” she said, “you saved me again.”
“You saved me first,” he said with another laugh.
“Elena saved us both.”
“You saved me,” said Elena from the rail, where she and Ali leaned. They had been talking, like married folk might about how their child was doing in her lessons. Ali smiled at Ryel, then at Elena, proudly.
“What about the—?” Ryel began.
“It’s all in your bag,” said Arkmar. “And lookie what I picked up down there.” He was holding up another cylinder like the one Ryel had gotten off the asshole priest, but this one had a right-angle bend in it, not like a pipe but with a sharp angle, as if the tube had been cut at a slant and the two pieces welded back together after a half-turn rotation.
Before Ryel could react to what he held, the dwarf palmed it again and slipped it back into her bag. Elena came over and knelt down close on the other side. “I think you need to rest before you get any more answers to your many questions,” said the redhead.
“Okay, fine,” said Ryel, closing her eyes. “Put me in bed.”
“As you say,” said Ali from somewhere above. Then Ryel was in his arms, but not the way she had originally thought she would be: she was lifted, her wet head tucked against the captain’s shoulder, and carried, and she did not wake again until well into the next morning.
Ryel woke in what turned out to be midmorning, stretched and fell out of her hammock onto Arkmar, who had stowed his hammock and was sitting on the floor arranging their loot. The dwarf got himself out from under the elf, amiably, and spread the loot out for her inspection.
There was what they already had: the coppery key, the shiny little coin—of what, palladium? Iridium? It didn’t quite look like platinum. There were twelve coins of silver. There was the cylinder, and now its companion, which Arkmar had been trying to fit together one way or another.
There was also a small pile of jewels: pearls, garnets, amethysts, beryl stones, turquoises and tourmalines, which turned out to be all part of one necklace. And there was a substantial sack, open to reveal a substantial amount of gold, in nugget form.
Ryel picked herself up. She was wearing her underwear: her wet outer clothes hung on hooks around the walls. She found an empty bit of floor and managed to sit.
“Good morning,” said Arkmar. “Fancy a necklace?”
She picked it up and had a look. “No,” she said, holding it away and then gingerly depositing it, “I’m not one for jewelry. That’s for selling in Baharna.”
“I concur,” said the dwarf. “It’s got a bad feel to me.” He held up the two bronze-like cylinder pieces. “What do you think?”
“If there are seventeen, and I don’t know why there wouldn’t be, it’s a lovely two to a power of two plus one prime, then there’s no reason these two should fit together.”
“But it’s supposed to fit together. You know this?”
“It’s supposed to fit together,” said Ryel carefully, still weighing her annoyingly durable doubts about him, “but in several different ways. Still—!”
They exchanged a long look. “And Elena knows this?” asked Arkmar.
“I wonder what Elena knows,” said Ryel, standing up and picking through her bag for fresh clothes.
“I wonder what you know,” said Ryel. They were lying, clothed only in a sheet, in a huge comfortable bed in the forecastle of the Storm Queen, the Moon shining in the bank of little square windows.
“I know,” said Elena, “that you were the one I was waiting for.”
“That’s terribly flattering. And what do you know about what I’m doing?”
“Less than you,” said Elena with a little laugh.
“I doubt that,” said Ryel. “So, how does this work from here? For you, I mean? You helped me find something on my list. Now you get to be a Mistress Time Technician? How do you prove you did it? Or do they just know?”
“There’s a whole process. Magic parchment. Two witnesses. Care to sign?” Elena rolled over to reach a board on the window sill. She turned and sat naked, facing Ryel, holding out the board. There was a sparkling quill on it, and a somewhat sparkly parchment.
We the undersigned, it said in bold black print, bear witness that Elena of Eleis, journey-woman fifth class, has retrieved __________ in successful completion of the sixth and final task of her test for admission to Mastery in the Junior Grade. The blank was filled, in red a bit too light to be blood, with the word piece. At the bottom, there were two places for signatures, and one was filled in with six dwarf runes: ARKMAR.
“Okay,” said Ryel, sitting up too, taking the board. “I’ll sign. But you have to tell me a couple of things first.”
“So that machine of yours—your invention?”
“My proud invention. That was Task One and Four and I already used it in Task Five, and this was Task Six.”
“It converts sexual energy into magic?”
“That’s basically right,” said Elena. “But it’s not just sexual. There has to be real passion there.” She reached out her hand to Ryel’s cheek, then down to her shoulder and then gave a lingering, light caress to the side of Ryel’s small left breast. “It matters that I love you.”
“You only just met me,” said Ryel, suddenly blushing.
“But you’d used it before?”
They both looked beyond Ryel, where the Captain lay unconscious, breathing softly, his naked and quite enticing derriere half exposed. Ryel, hardly even thinking, pulled the sheet the rest of the way off. They both giggled.
“Oh yes,” said Elena. “I had already perfected it.”
“Well,” said Ryel, “Ali certainly is a reliable energy source.”
“Mmm, you know that as well as I do, elf maid.”
“Okay,” said Ryel, signing her name in sparkly red ink. “Now you send this thing off in an envelope to Headquarters?”
“Sure,” said Elena. “And they send me my wrench by return of post.”
“Ah,” said Ryel, not sure if Elena was serious. “So where do you go now? You’re not leaving him behind, are you?”
“No! No, no, no. Give up a reliable energy source? And a pleasurable one too? I can do all my time teching from here, Ryel. A boat on the seas of Dream? And the captain of my heart? What more could a time tech want?”
Ryel reclined on her elbows, gazing off to sea. Elena lay down again on her side facing the elf. “Elena,” she said, “tomorrow we’re in Baharna. I know I have something on my list here, and the next thing may be on beyond, or wherever, I don’t know. I—!” She smiled.
“You’ll need the Storm Queen again,” said Elena. “We’ll take you to the Moon if that’s where you have to go. You know we can make that voyage.”
“I thought you might,” said Ryel. “So what do I do? Whistle? Go stand on the beach with my thumb out?”
“Just dream of me,” said Elena, lying back. How well she knew how beautiful she was: here where the beautiful was often good and the good was rather often beautiful. “Dream of me, a dream within a dream.” She closed her eyes.
“I can do that,” said Ryel, gazing out at the Moon.