7. De profundis

VII. De profundis

1.

The journey from the hill inhabited by Davalon’s ghoulish friends to the place where Davalon thought they should ascend to Upper Dream World took several days, well, several day-periods, well, it took quite a long time. Arkmar and Ryel and Davalon were accompanied by a dozen or so ghouls, who did not tire any faster than Arkmar or Ryel or the drow, but even so they had to stop for several rests. Shorter breathers they took out in the middle of the great expanse of bones that formed the base of the Great Abyss; during these, Davalon and Ryel and Arkmar shared water, brandy and something Davalon had to smoke that was somewhat different from Arkmar’s herb but not very different. It was not, for instance, less strong.

For every three or four breathers, they took a longer rest, and the journey wound up including two of these: then Arkmar rested his eyes or played cards with the ghouls while they studiously ignored sounds coming from among the low hills of bone around them.

“Mmm, yeah,” came a low female voice among giggles. “Oh yeah. Oh yesss.” It went on like that for a minute, with pauses, and then a long pause, and then a giggle.

“That was too close,” said a male voice.

“Oh, you big baby. It was nothing. Probably just one of those hideous dholes.”

“It’s not a joke,” said the male voice, but they both giggled.

“I’m not afraid,” said the female voice, “of some huge mindless sightless thing thrusting up from beneath. Mmm, not afraid at all. Oh goddess Dav. Oh, my, goddess.”

“But Ry—!” the male voice began. It gave up. “Oh gods Ryel. Oh by the very gods of evil and night oh by the gods—! Unnh. Unnhh. Oh goddesses.” They both made guttural noises for some seconds. She laughed. He laughed. “You almost had me there but I remained resolute.”

“Oh yeah.” There was a silence as they listened to the creaking out there in the skeletal sea. The female giggled.

“Ryel,” said the male voice, “really, you have the advantage. I’m the one it would grab first.”

“So you’re worried about something that might devour you whole, something that might hide deep in darkness, hungering for your soul? Is that it?”

“When you put it that way,” said the male voice. “Aren’t you worried about something swooping down from above and grabbing you off me?”

“Afraid I might be carried away on a flight to far places? I’d take you with me.”

“You think so, huh?”

“You think I’m not holding you tight enough to do that? I’ll show you,” said the female voice. More grunts and giggles followed.

“Ahem,” said Arkmar, “I have seven threes. Just how many threes are in this deck anyway?”

“Lots and lots threes,” said the ghoul next to him. “Me got ten tens plus two coupons. I discard one, see, and—!”

“I grab that!” cried the ghoul next to that ghoul, her voice ragged with joy and decomposition. “I got three coupons! I got win again!”

“I don’t like three coupon rule,” said another ghoul.

“I don’t like that she’s the only one of you all who remembers the three coupon rule,” said Arkmar.

They were into the game after next when Ryel and Davalon came running over the bony hill, still buttoning their shirts. “Hey guys,” said Davalon, “uh, best if we bug out pronto, okay?”

“Wait, Davalon,” said Ryel. They all froze. A rumble in the bones passed near, slowed down, stopped: then began again, passing them on the left so close that the bones near them rose up in a rippling wave. A splash of bones clattered down the wave. The wave fell, the ripple moved on, and everyone breathed again, even the ghouls.

“Okay then,” said Arkmar, “I wasn’t exactly cleaning up in this game anyway.”

But the rests, long and short, were sleepless. It was hard to imagine conditions that would allow sleep down here, unless they involved four stone walls, a stone ceiling and, just as important, a solid stone floor. The Great Abyss was terrifying, disgusting, nerve-racking and also utterly boring most of the time. Ryel and Davalon even gave up flirting. Arkmar was asleep on his feet when he noticed they were climbing steadily, and approaching another pillar into the murk above.

This pillar was thin: a crooked toothpick to the Tower of Koth’s muscular thigh. As they got closer, they could see the steps winding around and around, up into the shadow of the thick air.

“Goodness,” said Ryel. “Okay. Up there, the island?”

“Up there, the island,” said Davalon. “The Isle of Quadruun.”

They ascended the rest of the way, the trail worn deep into the bones toward the top. They reached the bottom of the helix staircase, which gave all evidence of continuing down into the bones below.

“You go safe,” said a ghoul to Arkmar. It held out a paw, and Arkmar, who was wearing his mail gloves, shook it gently.

“Thanks, man,” said Arkmar.

“Take care, okay?” Davalon was saying to Ryel: they were hugging. They kissed and giggled and kissed again. “I will, you too,” she said, and he said the same thing, and they giggled again and then kissed some more.

“Any idea what it’s like up there?” asked Arkmar of the ghoul.

“Big bone yard,” said the ghoul. “Lots people die up there, many ages. Biiiiig bone yard. Bit picked over though.”

“Yeh, yeh,” said the other ghouls, nodding their half-canine heads solemnly. One said, “Some good marrow there though.”

“Just a bone yard? asked Arkmar. The ghouls shrugged.

“Maybe some other stuff,” said the probably female ghoul.

“Okay, we’re done,” said Ryel, but she was still in Davalon’s arms. They kissed once more, then giggled again, then kissed longer. “Mmm,” she said, “I better go.”

“Will you come back?”

“Sometime,” she said. She smiled and picked up her pack and started up the stairs. Arkmar saluted the ghouls and their dark elf mentor and followed her. The two of them, Ryel in front, came around the spiral the first time and looked down from above. Davalon and his friends were gazing upward. “I’ll be back,” said Ryel sweetly. “Because you are just such a good fuck. It’s too bad you’re way down here.”

2.

Arkmar pursued Ryel up the steps, which would have unhinged a lot of people who were not dwarves or forest elves. The pillar, including the stair carved into it, was at most ten feet wide, and it wasn’t straight, but wobbled crookedly as it went up, looking like the core of an apple after the rest is even.

They paused for a breather perhaps halfway up. They sat down on the steps, which hardly swayed at all in the thick underground breeze, and had a smoke. “So what do we know about the Isle of Quadruun?” asked Arkmar. “I’m told it has quite the cemetery.”

“I’m guessing it’s an island,” said Ryel. “You know, because it’s called the Isle of Quadruun.”

“It’s got a piece on it,” said Arkmar. “One of the Seventeen Pieces.”

“Or someone dripped blood on that spot.”

“No, it’s not quite the same color as blood,” said Arkmar, checking again in the dim ambient glow of the abyssal clouds.

“Unless it’s a different species from what we’re used to,” said Ryel. “So was that a complete list of what we know?”

“It’s in the middle of the ocean, we know that. Maybe your Captain Alkwadir will stop by and pick you up. Did you fuck him, or his wife, or what?”

“His wife, actually,” said Ryel. “I missed out on him this last time. So yeah, it would be good in several ways if the Storm Queen stopped by.”

“If it comes down to it, are you going to be willing to have sex with whomever in order to obtain the fifth piece?”

“Obviously,” said Ryel. “What a stupid question. You?”

“Ah, elf girlie, the question does not arise.”

They resumed their climb and it seemed like five minutes later they plunged upwards into the abyssal cumulus. It was warm and wet and suddenly utterly dark, except for a glow from the middle of the cloud that did them absolutely no good. Once Arkmar slipped and Ryel barely thought fast enough to stick a hand back and grab his hand to keep him from falling over the side; on the next turn around the spiral, Ryel slipped on a moist step and landed on her stomach. She slithered off the next step down and it was all Arkmar could do to grab her hands and keep both of them from sliding off into emptiness.

“Okay then,” he said as they stood panting on the step below, “safety first.”

“Great advice there,” said Ryel. She looked up. “There’s an island above this?”

“That would imply,” said Arkmar, also looking up through the opacity, “that there is an ocean above this.”

They looked up for another minute, then they shrugged and started to trudge on up. It seemed like five minutes later they were coming up out of the cloud and the ceiling of the Abyss was coming down to meet them. It was wet, and a rain dripped from it. This crooked, skinny “pillar” met a downward bulge of the ceiling, and suddenly entered it, and then for what seemed like a long time, they were trudging up a chaotically winding stone stairway, wet and sometimes under an inch of running water. But there wasn’t anything to fall off into, and it seemed like way too much trouble to tumble back down hundreds of steps, so they trudged onward, Arkmar in front, Ryel in back.

Then they rounded a sharp corner and saw the light of day. They smirked at each other in joy, and took off at a stumbling run. It was further than it looked—it felt like the salesman was raising the price on seeing the eager faces of his customers. But soon they were hearing what could only be the sounds of the sea, and minutes later they were climbing the last few steps into a half-cleaned cave.

“What a rush,” said Ryel as she came up behind Arkmar. The cave mouth was ahead of them, and outside there were pines and palms and cypress. They stumbled on out and down the path past the vast cemetery to the beach, and that was where the local gnome police officers arrested them.

3.

Ryel and Arkmar were hailed before a gnomish judge in a windowless room in the ugly basement of an awesome castle on a spectacular mountainside on an island that was truly a gem set amidst the emerald waves. Ryel’s mind was still full of the azure bay, the ivory cliffs, the steep forests, the soaring towers: after yet more days spent in the gloom of the Great Abyss, with nothing to look at worth looking at aside from Davalon, she found herself starved for beauty, and here she was allowed the merest taste of this feast of an isle and then snatched away to skulk under the ground again.

A feast of an isle. And it was inhabited by folk who frankly preferred living underground.

So she was not in an especially good mood when the eight long-bearded, mail-clad gnomes who had arrested them at spear point brought her in front of another gnome, this one with an even longer beard than the others, dressed in a black gown and with a powdered wig.

“Elf and dwarf,” said the lead officer, using the more commonly known form of the Gnomish tongue, “found on the beach near the cave to Down Below, unable to account for themselves.”

“I can account for myself,” both Ryel and Arkmar said, in the same language, which they both had learned long ago.

“Dwarf first,” said the judge. “Why are you come to the Isle of Quadruun?”

“Well, I am Arkmar, and indeed I am of the Dwarves, and, well,” and he laughed charmingly, “I and my friend here—!”

“Since when were Dwarves friends with the Fey Kindred?” asked the judge.

Arkmar looked at Ryel as if wondering what the answer might be. “We’re on a job,” he said after a moment.

“What sort of job?”

“Well,” he said, “we had to retrieve a book for a person in the Great Abyss, a gent who assists the local ghoul population. We had to steal this book from the Gugs. And we did, but then we had to flee the area, because obviously we were going to be somewhat of a target at that point.”

“And you fled up our basement steps,” said the judge.

“It seemed the most likely way to continue breathing, your honor. We will, of course, depart your island on the first ship. We did not mean to cause disruption or to impose upon the Esteemed Race of the Gnomes.”

“You think us inferior?” shouted one of the guards.

“Brakdik,” the judge admonished, “that is not called for.” The judge looked at Arkmar. “Well, do you think us inferior? For the record.”

“For the record, I do not, and neither do any of my kindred. We are brethren! But,” he added, as several of the guards shifted uncomfortably, “perhaps cousins is better? Some sort of relation. Don’t you think?”

“Dwarf,” said the judge, “Arkmar, please accept the hospitality of this island. It is now the fourth hour of the morning. Let you go forth from this place and return in the third hour of the afternoon, to these chambers, for further interviews. In the meantime, please enjoy the castle of Qalqarish and its environs. There is a decent creperie on the Wall Street, which I would recommend for lunch. They have excellent soups as well. Now, go,” the judge finished, not as a shouted order but as a sort of judicial formality.

“But my friend—!”

“Your friend is the next case. Thank you,” the judge said, definitely dismissing the dwarf. Arkmar looked back ruefully at Ryel, then turned and let himself be led out into the sunlight. Ryel stepped up. “Name?”

“Ryel,” she said, “Ryel of the Silvan Elves of Greenwood.”

“For whom are you spying out our land?”

“Spying? I was working with Arkmar. We retrieved this book, you see—!”

“Now listen,” said the gnomish judge. “I do not for a single minute believe that a good upstanding Dwarvish adventurer such as this Arkmar fellow would willingly accept a partner of the Fey Kindreds. So you must have ingratiated yourself with him, or perhaps you took advantage of a victory in a game of chance—!”

“Wait, what? The job was my job, actually, and he—!”

“And now you would have us believe that it was the Dwarvish adventurer who tagged along with the Fey of Greenwood? What kind of a name is Greenwood anyway? I think you might have made it up.”

“I’ve never heard of it,” said the bailiff, an aged gnome with a beard that touched the floor. The bailiff looked like someone who could still wield a heck of an axe, and there were several in the bailiff’s belt loops.

“I didn’t make up where I was born! Sure, it’s come to be known as Mirkwood, but—!”

“Mirkwood sounds evil,” said another of the guards.

“Well, that’s what I’m saying, the Necromancer—!”

“Ah, a black magician,” said a guard.

“And you admit that you work for a Necromancer?” asked the judge.

“No! No, I—!”

“So you don’t admit it? What are you doing here, on the Isle of Quadruun? I ask you again, who are you spying for?”

“Whom,” said Ryel to herself, using the correct form of the relative pronoun in Gnomish Common.

“What did you say? What did you just say to me?” asked the judge.

“Nothing, look, this is all—!”

“You’re not going to tell us who you’re spying for?”

“No, I—!”

“Take her from my sight,” said the judge. “Throw her in the detention facility!”

“Not the detention facility!” cried one of the guard. “It’s too horrible!”

“Oh cut it out,” said Ryel. “Throw me wherever. Just let’s don’t talk about it anymore.”

Three minutes of being hustled through the halls later, Ryel found herself thrown into a large cell with a fairly large number of other people. The door clanged to behind her. She looked up.

“Are you a spy too?” a human female of middle age asked wearily.

“I guess so,” said Ryel.

“Well, you’re in good company,” said an elderly human. “We’re all spies here, green girl,” said a female elf of one of the High Kindreds, with the usual condescension. “It’s fine,” said someone off to the left, who turned out to be a crab man. “They feed us regular.”

Arkmar didn’t waste any time waiting to see if the gnome judge was serious. He knew she was serious. He knew she was a she, also, under that lovely beard.

Were gnomes just junior grade dwarves? Arkmar knew plenty of dwarves who felt very much that way. His dad used to say, what are you, a gnome? Pull up your big boy pants, for gosh sake. But whatever they were, Arkmar was in no doubt that the gnomes were some relation to the dwarves. He sensed a kinship. Of course, it was a kinship between rivals. If they were big brother and little brother, then little brother thought big brother would never admit little brother qualified as an adult, and big brother thought that little brother was a bit of a pipsqueak.

Gnomes liked crenelated walls, towers, lovely bits of pavement, statuary. Dwarves loved the architecture of vast subterranean cities. Gnomes loved the music of waters and of harps: they were gaga for harpsichord. Dwarves loved bass viols, trumpets, drums. Dwarves loved works of steel and stone. Gnomes adored gadgets, gizmos, clever contrivances. This island—dwarves would never have set up willingly on an island in the sea—it was full of their little machines.

Still. Gnome women. Maybe some of his brothers would think it perverse, but it wasn’t perverse.

Arkmar found he was standing on the stone platform at the top of the steps, just outside the courthouse, looking out on a small courtyard. Gnome children played, elderly gnomes gardened, gnomes sat and read, fixed machinery, chatted over gnomish chess. Arkmar descended the steps and crossed the courtyard, pausing to admire a sculptor at work, a chalk drawing on the stones executed by gnome kids. Then he wandered over to the gate, nodded and smiled at the guards there, and went out into a lovely day.

He walked down to the sea and let his brain relax in the sound of the waves and the wind. Arkmar was not accustomed to this sort of thing—the Great Abyss really was more his speed. But he could get used to it. He ambled along, whistling, then stopped and leaned against a palm tree, studying the surf.

Ryel would love this. Ryel would eat this up.

Of course Ryel would also bring out the worst in the judge and all the other gnomes around Quadruun. Ryel would be safely put away somewhere in the cellars. No, this time, it would be up to Arkmar, to find the thing and also, most likely, to get Ryel sprung.

He wandered the promenade above the sea shore, then ambled along the outside of the castle, and down into the gardens, and then out toward the harbor. He could see a few ships at anchor, that looked like they had been there for a while. He also saw two more sailing ships out at sea, one closer and one on the horizon. He watched them until he was sure they were both coming here.

Then Arkmar turned and, stroking his beard nervously, he headed back up many steps to the castle Qalqarish. He found a place where he could get a decent crepe and some rice and beans, and he had a mug of ale along with. He took it all out onto a balcony with some tables. He was already out when he noticed that the only other people on the balcony was a party of humans, who stole curious glances at him but tried not to be seen doing it. He sat down by himself and tried to enjoy his feast.

Where would the thing be? And how many of these people were trying to steal it too?

He finished and brought the mug back to the café or pub or creperie or whatever it was exactly, and then he took another stroll past the harbor. The nearer ship was just pulling in, and Arkmar, a dwarf hidden amongst gnomes on the promenade overlooking the docks, watched a familiar-looking gnome at the rail of the ship, waiting to get off. And what was especially interesting is that Arkmar didn’t know any familiar-looking gnomes.

“So you really are spies and thieves,” said Ryel.

“I’m a thief, myself,” said the crab man.

“Spy,” said the high elf. “Thief,” said the elderly male human. “Thief too,” said the middle-aged female. “Spy, actually,” said a young male half elf.

“And you all came here thinking to steal items from the gnomes?”

“Not all of us,” said the half elf. “I came here thinking to steal technology from the gnomes. They make a heck of a silver steel.”

“And they caught you all? I mean, did anyone else succeed and get away?”

“No, no,” said the high elf. “They just pick you up when you arrive on the island. Then they kick you off, or they dump you down here. It depends on how suspicious you look.”

“How long have you been here?”

“A month, no, two,” said the high elf. “It’s getting time to leave, I think. Old Shingrin there,” she said, and the old thief waved, “he’s been in here for years.”

“And all you mighty thieves and spies can’t find a way to break out?”

“The cell,” said the high elf as if it were the most obvious thing. “It’s magically shielded.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning you can’t get through even if you do manage to retain your bow and arrows, Wood Girl. It’s impervious to assault.”

“But the guards bring you food? I mean, it doesn’t just materialize, does it? Someone opens a door and brings it in.”

“Oh, sure,” said the half elf. “But you can’t attack them. They have a force field.”

“Which does what?”

“Knocks you for a loop,” said Shingrin. “I told ‘em. Don’t even try it. One time I got thrown clear across the cell.”

“And if you could get out,” said the high elf, “where would you go? We’re on an island.”

“Well,” said Ryel slowly, as if she were thinking a lot at the same time, “I would have to work that one out after I figured out the first problem.”

Arkmar made it to his appointment with the judge on time. The judge, whose name turned out to be Bidjith, was quite friendly to the dwarf. They had a light lunch (Arkmar’s second) and then took a tour of the Queen’s Museum. While they were there, Arkmar made sure to point out the gnome who had arrived on the first ship of the day.

“He needs watching,” said Arkmar. “Not arresting. Just watching. He may be a gnome, but he’s certainly not one of your gnomes.”

“He’s not,” said Bidjith, who seemed noncommital on whether she knew that he knew that she was a she. “Yet this visitor you saw is a gnome, and I do not persecute gnomes or dwarves, just the fey folk and the big morons. Humans, you might call them.”

“I kind of like your name for them,” said Arkmar.

“Anyway, we need not act on this intelligence just now, right?”

“No,” said Arkmar, “we have lots of time. I wouldn’t worry about it until much, much later.”

“Then,” said Bidjith, “since I have cleared my docket for the day, perhaps I can give you another tour?”

4.

Ryel did not chat further with the others for a while. She was having a look at the way the cell was set up. The door was the only way out—the joins of between walls and ceiling and floor were slightly rounded inward, and the entire surface was hard as a rock. The door was steel, without a window. Its locking mechanisms looked pretty clever. For instance, the little silvery key she had gotten from the priest, the one who had split open at the seam and turned out to be full of giant bat-bugs, which now Ryel thought about it, maybe several of the men in her life might be stuffed with: that key didn’t even come close to fitting into the lock. She tried it every which way, after finagling her hand out a gap in the barred door.

Ryel inspected everything she could, and this aroused the interest of the high elf female, whose name seemed to be Aridel. They chatted in Ryel’s Sindarin, then Aridel went back to her usual occupation of moping and making sarcastic remarks at the others. After an hour or two, the other prisoners all started to rouse themselves and form up, making a line or a row along an imaginary barrier about three feet in from the front wall. “Dinner time coming soon?” asked Ryel.

“Meal three, we call it,” said a human male of small stature.

“Okay, meal three,” she said. “You line up?”

“They feed us one at a time,” said the little guy. “Guess what. You get to go last. Ha ha! I’m not last anymore!”

“Well, you’re going to be again,” she said to herself, but he was arguing with the woman in front of him. “Say,” she said to him after a moment, “did everyone get to keep their weapons?”

“Sure,” he said. “Force field.”

“Ah, you did say that, someone did,” said Ryel.

A minute later, there was a second warning tone. With a peculiar, possibly lethal zap, the door opened, and immediately the imaginary barrier crackled into reality. The prisoners shuffled into a better line, except for Ryel. Three gnomes wheeled in a big pot of something and a bunch of bread loaves; the third gnome carried a stack of bowls. He set the stack on a shelf built into the cart that carried the pot and the bread. Then he looked up and saw that Ryel, twenty feet from him, had an arrow on the string of her bow, aimed at the bridge of his nose, and the string was drawn back to a surely lethal tension.

“Forget it,” said the leader gnome, on the other side of the cauldron. “Force field. Your arrow would simply bounce back. It would probably hit one of your friends. So go ahead, one less mouth to feed.”

“As if I didn’t know that,” replied Ryel, swinging the arrow to the gnome leader. “As if I haven’t used my time in your cell constructively. As if I haven’t figured out how to disable your supposed force field. But it couldn’t be that, could it? Because I’m just a stupid member of the fey kindreds. I’m a forest girl. I can’t possibly know a thing about this fancy. Gnome. Technology.”

“You’re new, right? First rule: shut up.”

“You’re telling her to shut up?” said Aridel, the high elf maiden. “You’re definitely sure she’s bluffing?”

“Of course she’s bluffing,” said the gnome, with the slightest glance at a spot on the wall near the ceiling.

The high elf looked at Ryel, who didn’t look away from the leader gnome’s face.

“Ah the hell with you,” said the leader gnome. “Let’s go, boys. Okay, folks, as always: we get the door shut, we let the force field down, you get to eat. As per usual.”

Just as he was saying that, Ryel, who had kept her arrow pointed at his nose the whole time, swung and aimed at a spot near the ceiling and just behind the force field. The arrow sped, struck the force field at a high angle, split and caught fire. Most of the far end of the arrow went through and embedded itself in that spot on the wall. The force field went down.

The prisoners and the gnomes looked at each other for a few seconds. Ryel had another arrow ready. The middle gnome had the bright idea of chucking a hand axe, throwing it at waist level at Ryel. She ducked aside and then shot him in the neck. She went to draw another arrow, but the spell had been broken already and the prisoners surged forward, pressing the two remaining gnomes back and down to the ground.

Aridel was watching this, undecided between pitching in and avoiding physical contact with all these lesser beings. Then Ryel grabbed her by the arm and pulled her out the door. She slammed it behind her and made sure the lock was engaged.

“We’ll be back for you guys,” said Ryel. She looked at Aridel. “Don’t ask questions. We have a lot to do.”

Bidjith showed Arkmar around the Queen’s Museum in the afternoon. He kept an eye out for that peculiarly familiar gnome; he also kept an attentive eye on Bidjith, who had pushed their relationship up to the level of restrained flirting.

There was, indeed, something worth seeing in the Queen’s Museum. There were plenty of things: gigantic gem stones, infinitesimally tiny gadgets, impressively huge versions of ordinary objects like gear linkages and padlocks, interestingly ancient tools and entirely incomprehensible texts. Arkmar didn’t say anything out loud about the fact that the Queen appeared to own an abridged copy of the Pnakotic Manuscripts. It was not, of course, translated: this island, after all, had not been laid waste by the Gods or sunk beneath the wave like fabled Kazmin.

Arkmar thought of Kazmin and shuddered. This thing about the Seventeen Pieces—he had never imagined he would hold a Piece in his hand, much less know someone who owned four of them and was looking to expand her collection—it made him think of Kazmin. Or, as it was usually referred to, Doomed Kazmin.

And here, on a little pedestal, on a little velvet cushion, under a little force field, was a connection of pipes of some bronze-like metal, cylinders attached in a kind of three-dimensional T intersection all three meeting at right angles to one another. He wondered where exactly it attached to the others.

This would be five. And “you could do things with as few as six,” Davalon had said.

He thought of Ryel. No, she wasn’t the sort to “do things” unless she felt the cause was good, or felt she could make out well and the cause wasn’t too bad. But Arkmar knew she was not the only one seeking to collect. He wondered how many pieces someone else might already have collected. Six went into seventeen less than thrice: at most two people might get six of the things together.

And one more after this, and Ryel would be one of those two people.

And thinking about everyone else he knew of who might want something like this, Arkmar had to conclude that he wouldn’t want anyone else to get to that number besides Ryel. And lo and behold, a peculiarly familiar looking gnome wandered into the room just as Arkmar and the judge were leaving it.

Ryel and Aridel snuck through the back corridors. There were other cells, mostly empty, a couple with prisoners scattered listlessly across the floor, and then they were approaching light around a corner.

“I don’t want to kill any,” Aridel said very softly.

“Me either, actually,” said Ryel. “But we need to get you a weapon.”

Aridel smiled. She was wearing tight-fitting pants and a shirt much like what Ryel wore, with a dark cloak over it all, capable of covering her from neck to boots. From a pocket within it, her left hand emerged with a sort of crossbow pistol.

“Do those things actually work?” Ryel asked softly.

Aridel sidled up to the corner, looking back at Ryel. She whipped around the corner and fired. With a zapping sound, the corridors went dark.

“All I killed was the lights,” whispered Aridel. Then Ryel was being pulled through the corridor, past a couple of surprised gnomes, one of whom she knocked over in passing. Aridel stopped in the next turn, and Ryel pulled her onward toward a very faint light. Halfway there, Ryel pulled Aridel into a side passage left, and then to the right and up some steps. They both put their hands up and found flat wooden hatches above them. The hatches did not open.

“So—?” asked Aridel.

“A little persuasion,” said Ryel. She fumbled in her pockets and came up with a couple of likely persuaders. One, a sort of dentist’s pick, did the trick.

They put their hands up on the hatches over their heads and opened them slowly. It was the middle of the afternoon. They were in a weedy back yard. They pushed the hatches all the way open and climbed out: each hatch was about two feet square. They shut the hatches behind them and Ryel reset the clever little lock.

“Clever,” she said, “but not as clever as me. Aridel, what actually did you come to this island for?”

“I can’t tell you the truth,” said Aridel. “I hope you know that. It’s just not the way my business model works. So if you don’t mind me lying—!”

“How about a half truth? Then I’ll give you a half truth. Why are you here?”

“Half truth? Sure. I do not actually know what it is that my Count sent me here to do. I mean, I grant I was told to come here, but I haven’t the foggiest really what I was expected to do. I suppose it was expected to be self-evident. It was not.”

“Oh, that’s a good half truth,” said Ryel. “Me? Okay. Someone I trust very much sent me somewhere in Dylath—you know Dylath? And I killed someone, not anyone nice. And from him I got this map, and this is one of the places I was sent. And I do know what I was sent to get. I’ll know it when I see it.”

Aridel looked at her, calculating. “Okay,” she said finally, “the boats?”

“I can take you to the boats,” said Ryel, “but I have to find my friend. He’s a dwarf, so they seem to be treating him differently. Maybe he’s had more luck than I have.”

“He’s a dwarf? You hang out with stone heads?”

“Hey now,” said Ryel. “He’s a good partner. You might be as good a partner as him: you can’t possibly be better, not a High Elf.”

“I’m not a typical High Elf.”

“That’s for sure.” They smirked at each other, then they both looked around. “Can we have this conversation over there across the walk?”

“Oh, sure.”

So Ryel, then Aridel, scurried across the disused brick walk across the weedy yard, and headed for a patch of overgrown shrubs along a brick wall. Ryel led Aridel into the bushes and around behind one fat little fir. They stood against the wall, the fir watching their backs. Below them, the beach came up to the other side of this wall, about twenty feet below. Off to the right was the harbor. There were several gnomish freight haulers and one big clipper. A mile or two out to sea, another very fancy ship was coming in. There were gnomes everywhere, and not much of anyone who was not a gnome, aside from the crew of the clipper. “Nice view,” said Aridel. “I don’t suppose you see any openings.”

“Oh, I notice a variety of things,” said Ryel, watching an oddly familiar looking gnome walking along the wall practically below them, and glancing up at the sleek sloop Storm Queen pulling in her sails as she made ready to enter the harbor of Quadruun.

5.

Ryel and Aridel ambled along the wall above the harbor, chatting, while Ryel kept an eye on all these divergent clues. “So whatever you’re doing here,” Ryel said, “you’re now ready to get off the island.”

“That’s about right,” said Aridel. “Smoke?”

“Don’t mind if I do.” They stopped in the lee of another bushy tree and Aridel filled up her pipe. She was a bit over Ryel’s height, but very different in color and body shape. She was distinctly High Kindred: her hair might be red, but it was a dewy, misty red that shimmered in the shadow of the tree. Ryel was the typical wood elf in that she constantly looked like she was either about to make a smart remark, or about to put an arrow in the eye of an orc standing a hundred yards away. Aridel had the full high elf hauteur instead: she looked like she disapproved of touching actual objects. It made it interesting to watch her fill a bowl with that strain of pipe weed that only the high elves can grow. They probably grow it hydroponically, thought Ryel, in vats of sherry. Aridel was a bit stacked for a high elf, or for any elf for that matter (Ryel most distinctly was not stacked at all). Aridel was hiding it just now, in her spy outfit of dark on dark with dark: she was, at least just now, dressed to the same logic as Ryel. She lit the bowl with a spell word Ryel also knew: sko, which someone must have discovered somewhere other than Middle Earth; she took a long pull and handed it to Ryel with a little smile.

Could I work with her? Could she be a partner like Arkmar’s a partner? Ryel considered this as she took a long draw on the pipe: yes, this stuff was indeed quite—hmm. What was I thinking about just now? Gee, the waves look cool with a little sun glinting on them.

“You still have a job to do?” asked Aridel.

“What? Oh yes,” said Ryel. She smiled and took a long gaze around. “Can’t tell you anything about it, of course.” She smiled at Aridel. “I know a ship you can take passage on. It’s just off shore there: see it?”

“Ohhh. I know that ship,” said Aridel, smiling. “It’s the Storm Queen.”

“You know the captain, or his woman?”

Aridel frowned. “He has a woman now?”

“I know, right?” They laughed just a little bit like school girls. They looked around: only bushes were close enough to hear. Beyond that, they were just elves in the woods, and all the gnomes and humans and so on would hear was the sound of the breeze and the chatter of birds. “Did you sleep with him?”

“Of course I slept with him,” said Aridel. “It was the ticket price over here. Oh, that sounds bad, I just mean—!”

“You just mean you’re just like me.” Ryel gazed leftward, then turned and put her butt against the wall and peered through the bushy tree. She turned to Aridel and said, “Wait here, okay? I won’t even be a minute. Then I’ll see about getting you to the Storm Queen without being stopped.”

“What?” But Ryel was gone into the maw of the bushy tree.

“Bottle of red, steward,” said Bidjith to the waiter gnome as she and Arkmar sat down in the gnome version of a café. “It’s very good here.” She grinned at Arkmar. “Don’t go anyplace. And don’t pay for the wine. It’s on me. But if you’ll excuse me, I have to powder my nose,” which she said in exactly those words in Gnomish Common.

“Powder your nose,” Arkmar repeated with an appreciative laugh.

“I also need to take a wicked dump,” said Bidjith. With an enchanting smile, considering it was half hidden by a long and silky beard, she was off to find the lady gnomes’ room.

Arkmar looked around, smiling benignly, thinking of things much more seditious than sleeping with Her Honor. He looked at the hedge along the edge of the outdoor café, and did a double take. He stood up and crossed the six feet of distance.

“Ryel,” he said in a low voice, “I’m glad to see you out of jail, you look wonderful not behind bars. But you have to give me some space on this, I have it covered.”

“Yeah, and the piece?”

“I have it covered.”

“That’s great, Arkmar. How about the fact that I just saw what looked an awful lot like—?”

“Actually,” he said, “I think I have that covered too. Stick around and watch and maybe you can help out. But don’t get tossed in the dungeon again or it might complicate things. You notice I’m with your least favorite person on the island.”

“I think it might be a tie, Arkmar. Did you hear when I said I saw a gnome who looked an awful lot like—?”

He just smiled. “Leave it to me,” he said. “Got to go. Bye now.”

“What was that all about?” asked Aridel when Ryel elbowed her way back through the tree.

“Fucking Arkmar,” said Ryel. “My dwarf. He seems to think he has a—well, anyway, do you want me to get you on the Storm Queen?”

“No hurry,” said Aridel. “You’re up to something. I’m wondering what. Maybe my count wanted me to help you.”

“Maybe,” said Ryel, “your count wanted you to steal what I’m trying to steal.”

“Ah, you’re stealing. The plot thickens. Because you know, I do believe my count wanted me to steal something: I had the distinct impression that larceny was the basic concept.”

“And your count is who, and he lives where?”

Aridel began her next sentence with sarcasm but she ended it with an earnestness that only the High Kindred could manage. “He lives in a tower,” she said, “and I cannot tell his name, not aloud, not so soon nor so close to the object.”

“If you think I trust you,” Ryel replied, “you are insane. Oh, that’s right. You’re a high elf. That would account for it.”

“For what? Being insane?”

“No. For thinking that all the other elves will fall all over themselves trying to make you happy in your blessedness.”

“Now look here,” said Aridel huskily, closing the distance between them. “You’re not a typical wood elf, to say the least. Let’s just posit that I am not the typical high elf. Is that doable? Are you good?” She was playing with the unbuttoned top buttons of Ryel’s shirt.

Aridel. Pouty little mouth, twinkly red hair. That air of the other side of the sea, that air of the blessed land, mixed with the perfume rising from her body. And there were her eyes: green, or blue. Her head was cocked downward, but her eyes were aimed up at Ryel’s. Her left hand moved to Ryel’s shoulder, then down to her elbow and then to her wrist, which she lifted to the side. She spoke words, and Ryel found her own lips speaking them as well without knowing what they were: not elbereth, but something along that line.

“We have the most interesting abilities,” said Aridel. Ryel did not look around, but she was pretty sure she stood in a tiny little garden. “I find it especially interesting,” she said, her left hand letting go Ryel’s right wrist and gliding to her waist, “when I use them in new and different ways.”

“Hey,” muttered Ryel, “you’re unbuttoning my shirt.”

“What’s that suggest to you?” Aridel replied.

“You’re a lot of fun,” said Bidjith. She wasn’t wearing anything more than her beard.

“Oh,” said Arkmar, “you don’t know the half of it.” He lay back and laughed to himself.

“You’re an international bad guy,” said the judge. “I should not be seen with you.”

“Who’s seeing?” He laughed low again. “Ah, yer honor,” he said, looking at her, “this is strange in many ways and yet—!”

“Just tell me,” she said, rising to an elbow and grabbing her mug off the side table, “that I’m not a means to an end.”

“No, no,” said Arkmar, “in fact I might be helping you. How would you like to catch a thief red-handed? Would that be good for your prestige?”

“This gnome who came with the ship?”

“The very same one.”

“All right, I’m listening. When do we swing into action?”

“It’s not time yet,” said Arkmar. “No,” he said, lying back on his back, “it will wait till the dawn. This is an island, after all.”

Ryel and Aridel floated in a place that was not trapped between a fat pine tree and a sea wall. They turned and wandered into a long valley given over to garden, complex garden, garden full of odd side paths and glens full of moonlight. They were both naked as they walked along the bank of a small river, the lotus flowers drifting along its glass-like surface. They came to the top of the valley, and there they bathed under a waterfall, the perfumes and the vapors and the herbal smokes surrounding them, twining them together, making them twins, the voluptuous, extravagantly magical Aridel and the wiry, tight, precise Ryel. She floated up into the falls, she floated on the falling water, floated under Aridel’s loving hands. They kissed, they kissed again, they made love, and then Ryel was lost in the magical, the fragrant valley between her high elf lover’s thighs.

The heaven was timeless. A paragraph or two is not sufficient to contain it. They weren’t in Rivendell or Lothlorien or even Valinor: they were in a valley of their own, or perhaps in a valley that belonged to Aridel, and where Ryel strayed but was made welcome.

Elbereth, yes. Oh yes. She was made welcome.

She woke slowly and found herself in a home-made glade under the bushy tree, with the top of the sea wall a few feet away. Aridel lay beside her, on her side, gazing on her. Aridel, her red hair falling about her, her breasts, which were rather amazing anyway, given new wonder as they settled slightly to the side, the rest of her body—ah, the rest of her body. It all quite unnerved Ryel, who lay open to the high elf’s incense-like influence. Yet it was Ryel’s role to be the rebel wood elf to the high kindred whose rebel was Aridel, and Ryel, in her spareness and simplicity and her smirking skepticism, gazed upon Aridel ready to meet all that mystery and throw her forest and her wildness back as a challenge.

Aridel was saying something. Ryel struggled to find her way to the surface of this lovely, warm, deceptively clear sea.

“What was that?” she asked.

“It’s nearly dawn,” Aridel was saying. “Don’t you think we should be about your business?”

Ryel sat up, her smirking skepticism coming reliably to the fore. “We should be about? I still haven’t accepted that you have a stake in this.”

“Oh, but I do,” said Aridel. “You know I do.”

“I know no such thing.”

“Ryel,” said the high elf, “you know you need me. And you know that even if you don’t trust me, you can trust me, all you have to do is say the safe word.”

“Ah,” said Ryel, “the safe word. And what would that be?”

“Remind me that we made love,” said Aridel, with a seriousness that could have been parody. “You know I cannot betray one who has made love with me. You know it in your heart and in all your brain.”

“I know it,” said Ryel, hypnotized. Then she smirked and said, “Fine. We’ll see how that works out for me. Are you going to light that, or should we wait till after we’ve succeeded?”

6.

Judge Bidjith liked an early morning walk, and that suited Arkmar very well. They strolled along the beach, which Bidjith found very romantic. Arkmar found it educational: the Storm Queen was docked, and he could see the good man Ferd putting his mates through their paces. There were loads to load, passengers to get settled, before the ship could sail with the flowing tide. The dwarf and the gnome turned away and wandered the gardens as the sun came up over the eastern sea. They each picked an apple from an orchard they walked through, and chatted, joked and flirted as they took bites from each other’s fruit. They came out into the main square as the morning gnomes were emerging for their exercises. Their concession to the rules of dress for physical education were that no one was wearing either armor or mining helmets.

“I usually join in,” said the judge. “Care to do some—?”

“It looks like tai chi,” said Arkmar.

“Looks like what?”

“That’s what we call, oh, never mind. Your honor, I would really like to, but this morning we have an opportunity that may not present itself again.”

“Ah, yes, you did say,” replied Bidjith. “Where? The Royal Palace?”

“Do you know,” said Arkmar, “I still have not been there? I shall have to go. But no, this morning it’s—!”

A bell tolled so loud it almost knocked them over. Then another tolled near it, and the two alternated, growing yet louder. Bidjith practically jumped into Arkmar’s arms. The gnomes in the square took two seconds to think things over, then started running toward the gongs. “It’s the museum,” cried Bidjith. “You said it. You said it!” She looked up at him. “Shall we go make heroes of ourselves, or is that too boring?”

“No, no, not too boring,” Arkmar replied. “I just have a better idea.”

“Welcome aboard,” Ali was saying to the handsome and enigmatic gnome. “Shall I have my mates stow your gear?”

“No need, my good captain,” said the enigmatic gnome. He cast only the briefest glance over his shoulder. “I do not carry much, and what I carry, I like to keep close. I’m sure you understand.”

“Indeed,” said Ali. “Man of the world, I am. Henri, would you show our passenger to Suite Three?”

“Suite Three!” cried Henri as if it was an incredible surprise. “Yes sir! Come this way, sir, if you would!” The gnome smirked but followed the young Henri, who was the gawkiest cabin boy ever to bash his head on a hatchway.

Ali turned to watch them go, and then looked up and caught Ryel’s eye, where she crouched on the roof of the main cabin. She nodded and disappeared.

Perhaps one minute later, the window of Suite Three slid quietly open. It was supposed to be locked. The gnome, not shifting his body at all, raised only his eyes to watch. A shadow moved against the upper pane, and someone swung down to enter.

A knife flew. It flew from the enigmatic gnome’s waist, and shot through the window. The shadow was not there anymore, and lost in the noise of the sea was the splash the knife made as it hit the water twenty yards out.

Through the windows on either side, women came swinging into the chamber: elf maidens, forsooth. They were not scantily clad, and they were certainly not unarmed. The enigmatic gnome had another knife, but he also had an arrow—piercing the palm of his right hand, which happened to be his usual throwing hand. Undeterred, he tried for his left, but the knife, released quickly, was knocked from midair by another arrow.

And then spell words were sounding, five, six, seven all told, and then the enigmatic gnome failed to resist and was held, and then a few more words fell from Aridel’s lips and the gnome was not a gnome anymore.

“Thaeron,” said Ryel. “You still look like you even at four foot three with a three foot beard. I think it’s your walk.”

“I think it’s his happy smile,” said Aridel.

“You two,” said Thaeron. “Listen,” he said, gesturing as best he could in a held state with the hand with an arrow through it, “could I trouble you to keep me from bleeding to death? Or is that how you roll?”

Aridel came to him, pulled the arrow out (not gently) and tossed it on the floor. “Bind that, would you, baby?” she said to Ryel.

“Oh, suddenly I’m the nurse? Here,” said Ryel, tossing Thaeron a one-foot strip of white cloth she kept in her jacket pocket just for such an occasion.

“Thanks, bitch,” said Thaeron. “I’m going to remember this.”

“Just remember I could have let you bleed to death. Mortal.”

“We’re all mortal when someone sticks a knife in us.”

“Oh, I’m well aware of that. And last time it was your knife, and it had something nasty on it. At least my arrow was clean. Um, Aridel, what are you doing?”

“Ah, the prize,” said Aridel, who had dumped out Thaeron’s pack and then sliced several exploratory holes in it. One of these had breached a hidden pouch, and from it she drew a combination of three bronze-ish pipes attached at mutual right angles. She stood, shimmering in that irritating way of high elves, and backed toward the window. “Well,” she said, “I’d really love to stay, but—!”

“Aridel,” said Ryel.

“You trusted Aridel of the High Folk?” said Thaeron, still wrapping his bloody hand. Held, and also wounded, it was all he could do to move his hands that far. “Some help here, by the way?”

“Don’t try anything, Ryel,” said Aridel. “I have spells that would turn your arrows into earthworms.” She backed to the window. “I have spells that would freeze the air around you solid. I have spells that would—!”

“Aridel,” said Ryel, “we made love.”

“What of it?” said Aridel, all the way to the window, but her voice was a little wild.

“We. Made. Love. We made love. Wemadelovewemadelovewemadelove.”

“Stop it.”

“We MADE love. WE made love. Aridel, we made LOVE. We Made Love. We! Made!”

“Stop it! Stop it now!”

“We made love, Aridel,” said Ryel, starting over toward the high elf.

“Stay back!”

“We made love,” said Ryel very slowly, as if finished making her argument. Aridel looked at her in horror, but Ryel came all the way to her, put her arms around the high elf, drew her close and kissed her like she really meant it.

They were still kissing fifteen seconds later, and Thaeron was still struggling in his hold to wrap his poor hand, when the door burst in and the captain, two mates, five gnomes and a dwarf charged, flew and fell in.

7.

That evening, Arkmar, in his leathers but without the dead weight of his chain mail, his beard unbraided, and Ryel, clad in a scarlet bathrobe, her long dark silky hair done up on top of her head, sat in the bow of the Storm Queen, dangling their feet over the edge of the deck as the prow cut the rolling waves, headed east into the rising, nearly full moon. They passed Arkmar’s pipe and Ryel’s flask, and then they switched and did it the other way around. Somewhere behind them, Ferd stood in the wheel house steering, and somewhere nearer behind them and beneath them, the sound of faint talk and occasional giggles filtered out.

“So you suddenly trust her,” said Arkmar.

“I have something on her,” replied Ryel.

“Care to explain?”

“I can’t explain. Can you explain how you managed to get that judge to do exactly what you wanted? Maybe I don’t want to know.” She took a long draw on her pipe and handed it to him, meeting his eyes. “Was that too prejudiced?”

Arkmar laughed. “Elves, right?” he said. “You don’t think your sex lives disgust us at all?”

“Oh no,” said Ryel, batting her eyes. “We know we’re beautiful. Don’t hate us because we’re sex positive. Et cetera.” She reached in a pocket of her robe and pulled it out: three bronze-ish tubes, somehow welded together into a sort of corner piece of a cube, each one at right angles to the other two. “She did give it up to me.”

“Why did she do that?”

“Arkmar, what can I say? Making love is a form of—well, among the high elves, it’s a form of communion, not—well, maybe it says something about me that I think of it as a form of persuasion.”

“You really are rather a slut, Ryel.”

“You were pretty intimate with that gnome lady. That was a lady, wasn’t it?”

“Hey, she’s a judge,” said Arkmar. “No, I know. I finally have to actually come right out and admit, I know it is a form of persuasion. Not that it can’t be terribly amusing and compelling.”

“But,” said Ryel, gazing down into the dark sea. The moon penetrated far down, and she could see sharks at three different levels patrolling the deep waters. “Making love. I tend to think of it as a euphemism, but sometimes—it’s exactly what one does.” She didn’t look up: Arkmar, not especially impressed, only raised his eyebrows. She went on: “What I did to Thaeron in Baharna. He deserved that. Of course we will never make love again, no, one of us will eventually lose patience and kill the other. But Davalon,” she said, and she stopped, smiled, and shook her head. Arkmar looked at the fifth piece, still in her right hand. “Davalon. Oh, I made love to him. I mean, I fucked him good, but it was making love.”

“You have a long term commitment to this guy? He lives with ghouls.”

“No, I don’t have a long term commitment,” said Ryel as if it was the dumbest idea ever. “I totally adore him but it doesn’t mean I know when I’ll see him next.”

“And this Aridel.”

“What can I say, it’s different,” said Ryel. “She’s a total fraud. She wouldn’t know the truth if it bit her.” She laughed. “The Wood Elves are all about living long, constant lives, faithful to the one they fell in love with when they were fourteen, faithful, actually, to everything they first did when they were fourteen, and they stay fourteen forever because they’re so faithful. And look at me. I don’t live anywhere, I don’t own anything, I don’t have any principles, I really am the biggest slut ever, ever, and I don’t care what I do to people. All for the job at hand. Well, Aridel is like that, but with the high kindred, right? They’re all about morals and trust and the magic of purity, they can do anything because they’re pure of heart, it’s declasse even for them to lie, and here’s Aridel, for whom truth is not even especially necessary. She will betray you if she has the least reason to, and trust exists solely to get you to where she can do so with maximum profit.”

“But.”

“But we made love, I honestly think she did it because she thought she’d profit from it more than me, but what can I say? It was the real thing. The High Elves can bring the magic, I’ll say that. So guess what. She thought I would be ruthless like her, but she didn’t think I was ruthless enough to, well, take her up on that magic.”

“Explain, elf girlie.”

“Well,” said Ryel, still looking down into the waves, “in a ritual like that you open up to the other in a deep, deep way. She hoped that this would allow her to add my talents to hers to further her end. She didn’t think I would use it to further my ends. But it opens you up to that.”

“Why did you have power over her but not she over you, then?”

“Because, dwarf, and this is the important point, as long as I want us to go on together, as long as that’s really what I want, she has no option other than either to abandon the whole quest to find the pieces, or she has to share the quest with me. But what she really wants is to have the quest to herself, and she can’t have that as long as I’m willing to exploit the connection.”

“You talked about the pieces? Explicitly?”

“Everything is implicit, dwarf. That’s the High Kindred through and through. It’s all Understood.”

“You told her how much?”

Ryel laughed. “What kind of an operative do you think I am? I told her nothing. She knows we have one. She may guess we have more than one. She does not dream we have four,” she ended in a sly whisper.

“So are you in love or aren’t you? Never mind, I know, it’s complicated. All right. Ryel. We have five pieces. I have the other four in my bag. That makes five. Remember what Davalon said. The next piece we find, and we’re sitting at the grownup table.”

“I know.” She looked at hers. “I wonder if we can fit these six together. I wonder what they’d do.”

“I wonder who they’d attract,” said Arkmar. “I wonder what your high elf will do.”

“That too,” said Ryel.

“And she knows where we’re headed next?”

“I only talked about it with our captain. I suppose others may guess.”

They sat and gazed out to sea for some time. The hatch behind them flopped open and talk spilled out. Up climbed Aridel, her dress hardly buttoned: the buttons in front that were buttoned were buttoned wrong. Behind her, Alkwadir and Elena looked out smiling, both naked.

“Ryel,” said Aridel, “we want you back, we’ve run out of things just three of us can do.”

Ryel sighed and stood up, rolling her eyes at Arkmar. She turned and looked at the other three, her hands behind her back, holding the fifth piece. Arkmar took it from her and put it in his bag, then pulled out his pipe and lit it and looked out to sea. Ryel smiled at the other three, let her robe come open, and then walked forward gracefully as it fell from her.

“I suppose one more ritual might be just what we need,” she said, advancing to kiss Aridel, melt into her for some seconds, then separate, still holding hands. “Shall we?” With smiles at each other, she and Aridel hopped down into the hatch and Ali shut it over them with one last wink at Arkmar.

The dwarf sat there and smoked and looked out to sea, thinking of how much nearer the moon seemed.

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