“Sacrifices” by D.J. Butler
“That’s the shipwreck.” Fix pointed at a mass of timbers lying around a cluster of gray, kelp-veiled rocks. The tide was out, and a gull watched the two men from the highest of the timbers.
“It’s a shipwreck,” Indrajit conceded. “How do you know it’s the wreck of the ship bearing the Pelthite ambassador?”
The two men stood on the track running along the headland above the sandy, rock-spiked beach. No highways ran south from Kish to the Free Cities; most of that traffic went by sea. The land-routes out of Kish ran south and east, toward Ildarion and the King of Thunder Steppes. Toward the bit of coastland where Indrajit’s own people lived.
If they still lived.
The late afternoon sky was overcast, the clouds sinking in iron bands to encircle the headland, the rocks, and the waves themselves, so that the breaking surf was only barely visible. In this weather, there could certainly be more than one recent shipwreck.
“Look at the curve of that prow,” Fix said. “Pelthite. Aren’t your people seafaring?”
“We’re fishermen,” Indrajit said. “In the first place, that means that we make our own boats for fishing. In the second, we make small boats. We don’t need to sail to Pelth or anywhere else, we just get out far enough in the water to catch food. So I wouldn’t know a Pelthite prow from a Maliki mainmast.”
“You’d better be able to tell a prow from a mast. Don’t you have a kenning that would help?”
“I know the parts of a ship.” Indrajit sniffed. “I see you missed the alliteration entirely.”
“Ah,” Fix said. “Pelthite prow, now I hear it. I see alliteration better when it’s written down.”
“Poetry that has been written down isn’t poetry,” Indrajit said. “It’s just the dead remains of poetry. An Ylakka skeleton is not the same thing as an Ylakka.”
“But a century after its death, I can still examine an Ylakka skeleton and learn from it. An hour after a living Ylakka walks across this headland, no one will have any idea that it has been here.”
“You belong in the Hall of Guesses,” Indrajit said, “with the other scholars.”
“If I wanted mere knowledge, I’d have stayed in the ashrama.”
“I’m glad you didn’t.” Indrajit clapped his shorter friend across the shoulders. “Shall we get down in there with the prow and the mainmast and see if the ambassador went down with the ship?”
“If the ambassador died, there’s time to find that out.” Fix scanned the headland and Indrajit looked with him, spying a cluster of huts at the base of a cliff ten minutes’ walk away. “Besides, if he died, he’s probably under thirty fathoms of seawater. But if Wopal is right and someone else is interested in the ambassador, and the ambassador is alive, then we need to get to him first.”
Grit Wopal was the spymaster of Orem Thrush, the Lord Chamberlain. Indrajit and Fix worked for him, not as spies, exactly, but as men of all competence. Investigators, observers, enforcers, messengers, bodyguards, and more. Usually, they worked in the Paper Sook, which was the financial market of the city of Kish, but on this day, Wopal had sent them on an urgent errand to find a shipwrecked ambassador.
“If I wrecked on this shore,” Indrajit said, “the first place I’d go would be those houses. For food and shelter, to get wounds tended, to get a message sent off to Kish.”
“Unless you just walked straight to Kish,” Fix suggested.
“We’d have passed the ambassador on the road,” Indrajit said. “With your keen wit and my broad vision, we’d have seen him. What about the necropolis?”
The necropolis stretched to their left. It was larger than the city itself, having once been a city in its own right before being converted into a massive burial complex. From where they stood, it was invisible, shrouded in fog.
“If I knew the lay of the land,” Fix said, “and I thought I was being pursued . . . maybe. Or if I was a stranger, and mistook the necropolis for Kish itself.”
“So first we try the huts.”
They walked to the cluster of hovels. They were on foot because Indrajit didn’t know how to ride. But Fix didn’t complain, and, in any case, they were close enough to the city that it probably didn’t really matter.
But not knowing how to ride limited Indrajit’s ability to be effective. He should probably learn how. He had resisted it, partly out of pride and partly because, on the few occasions he had ridden, the placement of his eyes, far apart on the sides of his head, when he was perched atop a big, fast-moving animal, had quickly made him queasy with vertigo.
“I should learn to ride,” he said, as they approached the village.
“Fine,” Fix said.
There were more huts, visible once they drew close, than Indrajit had realized: half a dozen, all told, none more than twenty cubits to a side and most closer to ten. They huddled around a linear depression in the beach, a slash that created an inlet of water running right up to their doors, fed from a spring in the rocks of the headland. Skin coracles lay upside down beside the huts, which were made of a gray plaster and roofed with bundles of grass.
Indrajit and Fix rattled down a natural staircase made by a tumble of boulders spilling down the headland, hallooing and waving, hands nowhere near their weapons, to catch the attention of a single visible person who huddled in the lee of a cottage beside a tiny fire, smearing pitch from a pot over the fire along a coracle’s seams.
“Hello!” Indrajit called. “We’re friendly!”
“We’re men of peace!” Fix added. His high-pitched voice made him sound very earnest.
The coracle-mender looked up from the work. Indrajit had seen this race of man before in Kish, among the fishermen of the East and West Flats. They had grayish skin, not pale so much as leached of color, with very wide foreheads and very narrow chins, giving their faces a triangular appearance. Along their chins and jawlines, where other men might sometimes have beards, these fishers instead had fringes of noodle-thin tentacles that bounced when they spoke.
“What do you want?” The coracle mender rose to stand. “We owe no one!”
“We’re not collecting taxes,” Fix said. “And we’re not buying fish.”
“Then we have no business!” The coracle mender cracked his knuckles, but made no motion to return to the work.
“We work for the Lord Chamberlain,” Indrajit said. “And we’re investigating a shipwreck.”
“We’re fishermen.” Triangle Head sniffed. “Not wreckers.”
Indrajit looked at the village, with its rickety boats and its worn nets and its thatch roofs. He noticed that the sand, much disturbed by many footprints, bore the distinct marks of the passage of men with tails. “We believe you. Is it just you and your family here?”
Triangle Head nodded warily. “We’re all kin.”
Fix was watching the fisherman intently. He must also have realized that Triangle Head was lying, concealing the presence here of other men. Were they wreckers, after all?
“There’s a shipwreck just up the coast,” Indrajit said. “Recent. I gather you didn’t see any survivors.”
Triangle Head snorted.
“Can you ask your family?” Indrajit asked. “Maybe they saw someone. Maybe ask them to come out and talk?”
“There’s a reward,” Fix said, smiling.
Triangle Head grunted and set down the stick he had been using to smear pitch. He shuffled into the nearest and largest of the huts.
“There’s no reward,” Indrajit said.
“He’s lying,” Fix answered, “and we’re about to fight whoever is hiding in that house.”
“Zalaptings,” Indrajit guessed, “maybe others.”
He shrugged out of his tunic, wrapped his hand in it, and picked up the pot of melted pitch.
“Good idea.” Fix drew his falchion in one hand and his fighting ax in the other.
Indrajit thrust the smearing stick into the fire; it ignited instantly. “Why will no one every cooperate with us? We are so obviously men of peace.”
Fix positioned himself in front of the cottage door, a thick slab of knotted wood hanging on leather hinges. He scanned the village with his eyes, making certain no one could shoot him out of any windows. “They think they can get a better outcome by lying to us or killing us.”
“I suppose that must be it.”
Indrajit touched fire to the pot of pitch, which burst instantly into flame. Then he threw the pitch onto the thatched roof.
“Come on out,” Fix called. “We’d rather not hurt anyone. We’re just here for the ambassador. But we have set fire to the building.”
Indrajit heard a whirring sound behind him and dove to the side, trying to avoid the sling bolt that he knew was coming. The projectile struck him in the upper left arm, hard enough to make him drop the pot.
“Get the door!” Fix yelled. The shorter man was already bounding toward the boulders above the spring, where two Zalaptings, short, lavender-skinned men with long snouts and tails, crouched and spun their slings again to fire a second time.
“Come out and die like men!” Indrajit bellowed, in his loudest, angriest voice.
Then he gripped the plaster wall, wrapping his fingers around the faintest of protrusions and sinking toes into the shallowest of cracks. Indrajit, like all his people, was a good climber, and he quickly vaulted up onto the burning rooftop.
Indrajit drew his leaf-bladed sword, Vacho, the Voice of Lightning. Eyes watering from the smoke, he peeked over the front of the building, and saw no one. Under his feet, the thatch was ablaze. Timbers were exposed, and through the smoke, Indrajit could see an upper loft over half the building’s footprint, and a single large room below, with sleeping platforms and pens for geese and pigs.
Stepping as lightly as he could manage, Indrajit dropped onto the loft. It was an untidy nest of sleeping furs, clothing, and personal oddments, and a ladder led down into the main room.
“What was that?” he heard.
“The cottage is burning, you moron,” a second voice snarled, deeper than the first. “Soon it will fall down on top of us. Now get out there and kill those two.”
“We don’t know that there are only two.”
“So send the fisherman first. Use him as a shield.”
Indrajit crouched and waddled to the edge of the loft, which had no rail. He saw Triangle Head and a group of other people who looked like him; Triangle Head stood with slumped shoulders and bowed head, and the others, seven or eight of them, were tied hand and foot in the corner. He saw six Zalaptings, and a man four times Indrajit’s size, with mottled red skin, a carapace, and lobsterlike claws where Indrajit had hands. At the red giant’s feet lay one more person, a young man with a yellowish Pelthite complexion. The Pelthite wore loose purple silk pants and a bright red sash for a belt.
He seemed a bit young to be an ambassador. Maybe he was politically connected.
“If we wait,” one of the Zalaptings was whining to Lobster Hands, “Payot will come down from Kish with more men.”
“If we wait, Payot will find us roasted. Go!” Lobster Hands snapped his claws. He grabbed Triangle Head and pushed him out the door.
Indrajit had to act now or lose the initiative. He jumped.
He crashed down feet-first, his sandals striking the back of Lobster Hands’s neck and driving the man to the ground. Geese honked and pigs oinked furiously, but Indrajit had no time for the livestock.
“The Protagonists!” he yelled, staggering to his feet and sweeping his sword. The name of their jobber company might not yet strike fear into enemies’ hearts, but if Indrajit kept yelling it as he ran into combat, eventually it would. He struck down one Zalapting and the other three scattered, bouncing into the smoky corners of the cottage.
Lobster Hands groaned and rolled over onto his back.
Vacho’s blade was sharp, so Indrajit cut through the ropes tying the feet of the triangle heads quickly, and then stood, just in time to meet the two Zalaptings returning through the front door. The first ran at him with a short stabbing sword extended, and Indrajit swung with all his strength. Indrajit was tall, with longer reach than the Zalapting, and had a longer blade—the Zalapting’s point was nearly a cubit short of Indrajit’s breast when Vacho bit into the side of the Zalapting’s head, sending the little lavender man into a silent pile in the corner.
The blow left Indrajit off-balance and exposed to the attack of the second Zalapting, but Triangle Head jumped the little man from behind, dragging him to the ground and headbutting him.
Indrajit turned to menace the other three Zalaptings. They huddled in the back of the cottage, among squealing pigs.
“You burned my house!” Triangle Head yelled.
Indrajit scooped up the Pelthite and slung him over his shoulder. “But I saved your family!”
“You burned my house!”
Indrajit had no time to argue. He stooped to move through the small front door. As he drew breaths of fresh air on the outside, stumbling toward where Fix stood pulling his ax from the body of a Zalapting, a flash of green caught his eye. A lizard the size of a smallish dog burst from the flaming cottage behind him and raced toward the headland.
Lobster Hands would be standing soon. Indrajit wanted to get out of sight before the larger, scary-looking man came searching for him.
Fix gave Indrajit a hand up the boulders, and they scrambled up to higher ground.
“Is this the ambassador?” Fix asked.
“We’ll ask him when he wakes up,” Indrajit said. “Right now, there’s a big ugly fellow about to come swarming out of that cottage with blood in his eye, and also someone named Payot coming down from Kish with more fighters.”
“We need to hide,” Fix said quickly.
“I bet you read that in a book somewhere.” Indrajit nodded toward the necropolis, just visible as a wall of gray in the gray mist. “The necropolis it is.”
The lizard bounded on ahead. It had a long, muscular tail, a wide ruff around its neck, and a snout like a needle. Its scales were a shimmering green, dimmed by the fog.
When he reached the wall, Indrajit cast his eyes about, looking for pursuit. The sea was invisible behind them, the land simply disappearing where the headland dropped to the beach, and there was no one following. He saw no one on the road, either.
But the damp ground held his and Fix’s footprints, glaringly visible even to the eye of someone who had never been a tracker.
“Frozen hells,” he muttered.
The wall was low and crumbled at this point. Once, it had defended living inhabitants within, in this remote neighborhood of Imperial Kish, or perhaps in this far-flung suburb, or satellite fortress. Now Indrajit climbed up onto the wall without setting down the Pelthite, and the wall defended nothing, but only marked the line between the land of the living and the land of the dead.
Within the wall were crumbling brick houses. Tall, spiny yellow grass thrust its way up into the fog, knocking aside cobblestones and asphalt, and grim, tenacious black lichen sank invisibly tiny fingers into the cracks between bricks, gnawing at the mortar and striving with centuries-slow growth to tear down the remaining monuments.
“We have to get out of sight.” Fix jogged deeper into the necropolis, turning twice to get buildings between him and the sea. The lizard scampered at his feet, gazing up at him and Indrajit both with a thoughtful expression.
Indrajit followed, slightly more slowly. His burden was beginning to tire him, but the knowledge that they could be easily tracked spurred him on. “Get onto a highway,” he panted. “Let’s get a mile between us and the lobster. Or better still, a league.”
“That’s what he looked like.” Indrajit coughed up and spat bitter phlegm. “Really big, reddish, a shell, claws.”
“I’ve seen those before,” Fix said. “They come from down south somewhere. Easha or Hith, maybe.”
“Makes sense they’re from far away,” Indrajit grunted. They reached a stretch of tarred road that wouldn’t hold tracks—or at least, not any ordinary kind of tracks—and jogged northward along it. This was good, this might let them get on the other side of Payot and his men, and get back into Kish, where the Lord Chamberlain’s power would protect them. “I don’t know any kennings about such men.”
“We need to wake this guy up and confirm he’s the ambassador,” Fix said. “Because if he isn’t, we have to go back.”
Indrajit grunted his reluctant agreement. They took a right turn, heading east, away from the city, to cross a stone-paved plaza whose flagstones were mostly intact. The buildings surrounding the plaza were whole, and their windows and doors had been bricked shut.
Once shops and offices and dwellings of the living, they were now mausoleums.
Beneath ancient Kish ran a maze of tunnels and caverns in multiple levels. Stories suggested that was true of the necropolis as well. Did that mean that strange creatures fed on the dead interred here?
Or that if someone was buried who was . . . not quite dead, he could escape and walk around?
They walked beneath the gaze of a statue. It was carved of marble but thoroughly weathered, and new features had been painted on the statue, and new words painted over the words that had been chiseled into the pedestal. Indrajit couldn’t read, but he could see that the statue had been carved as a bearded man, and had been painted to resemble a woman with green skin and long hair.
Fix saw him looking. “Old Imperial sculpture. I don’t recognize the name, might be a god or a hero or some long-forgotten banker who was once important. He’s been converted into a burial image for a priestess named Artazia.”
Indrajit wasn’t quite sure where the sun was, given the fog, but he thought it might be getting low in the west by now. He took a deep breath.
“Okay, this is the moment of truth.” He knelt and stretched the unconscious young man out on the stones, as gently as he could. The green lizard rushed up and perched on the crumbled, two-cubit tall remains of a stone column. Its bright pink tongue flicked in and out, and it seemed to watch Indrajit closely. “Wake up . . . how do you address an ambassador?”
Fix grunted. “‘Your Excellency’?”
“I’m going to stick to ‘sir,’” Indrajit said. “If it’s wrong, it’s at least respectful, and doesn’t sound like a comic exaggeration. Wake up, sir.”
He cut the ropes binding the young man, listening for indications of pursuit as he did so. Nothing.
He patted the unconscious man’s cheeks. He was still breathing, but his breath was a little erratic, and he groaned. The Pelthite had long, dark eyelashes, and curly dark hair that fell around his ears and covered what would have been a very high forehead.
Fix handed Indrajit a waterskin. “Try this.”
“It feels impolite,” Indrajit said, but he took the water.
“We need to know, and we need to know now.”
Indrajit nodded, and splashed water in the young man’s face. The Pelthite gasped, opened his eyes, and sat up.
“Banus!” he cried.
“No, sir,” Indrajit said. “My name is Indrajit, this is Fix. You are not our prisoner. In fact, we rescued you. If you are the Pelthite Ambassador whose ship wrecked yesterday, we are here to bring you to the Lord Chamberlain of Kish.”
The lizard scampered between Indrajit and the Pelthite, climbing onto the young man’s chest and laying its head alongside his. The young man grew noticeably calmer, his breathing slowing and his posture relaxing.
“Are you the ambassador . . . sir?” Indrajit asked.
Then young man hesitated, then nodded.
“You seem quite young.” Fix’s statement wasn’t exactly an expression of doubt and it wasn’t exactly a request for an explanation.
“I am a prince of the blood,” the Pelthite said, “born on the rabbit fur. Banus is my name.”
Indrajit looked at Fix, and both men shrugged slightly.
“The Lord Chamberlain is to be my host,” Banus said. “How do I know you serve him?”
“We don’t carry badges,” Indrajit said, “and if there’s a password, he didn’t tell it to us. So I guess your choices are to go back to those guys who had you tied up, or try to get to Kish on your own, or come with us.”
Banus hesitated, doubt in his face. “May I have some water?”
Indrajit handed him the waterskin and Banus drank.
“If you want to strike out on your own,” Indrajit told him, “you can take the water. I should warn you, we’ll follow you and try to protect you, so you’ll still see us. And, if you weren’t sure, Kish is that way.” He pointed. He didn’t like losing the waterskin, but if that was what it took to keep the ambassador alive, so be it.
Fix handed the young man his fighting ax. “Whatever your decision is, you should go armed.”
“You should definitely go armed.” Indrajit laughed. “Welcome to Kish.”
Banus stroked the lizard, pressed his cheek to the creature’s cheek, and struggled to his feet. The lizard stayed perched upon his shoulder. “I will come with you.”
“That leaves us a choice,” Fix said. “Walk back in the dark, or hide here for the night?”
“I don’t like either of those. If we hide here, they might catch us, or we might encounter worse threats, living among these stones, Indrajit replied.” He peered into the deepening shadows, imagining cannibal cults, walking dead, and evil things too old to have names.
“I’d be tempted to dismiss your fears as ridiculous fantasy,” Fix said. “But outlaws and smugglers use the necropolis. We don’t have to encounter any eldritch unnamed thing to meet our end out here tonight.”
“But between the necropolis and the Caravanserai, on the south side of the city, is open ground. Flat as a frying pan.”
“Is that an actual kenning from the Blaatshi Epic?” Fix kept a straight face, and Indrajit couldn’t tell whether he was being teased.
“No, it’s a cliché. There is an actual kenning for broad, flat meadows, and it’s earth asleep, still as breathing, wide face of earth unending.”
“You’re a poet,” Banus said.
“Sort of,” Fix answered.
“I am the poet,” Indrajit said. “I am the four hundred twenty-seventh Recital Thane of the great epic poem of my people.”
“You wouldn’t believe how impressive people find that,” Fix said.
Banus nodded solemnly.
“If we try to cross the open ground, we’re easy targets,” Fix said, finishing Indrajit’s thought. “Of course, with the fog, it might be hard to see us.”
“And it might be hard for us to see Payot or Lobster Hands sneaking up on us. And it might be hard to find our way to the city. We might walk all night toward Ildarion.”
“Which one of you is the boss?” Banus asked.
“You have divined the weakness in our management structure,” Fix said.
“It’s not a weakness.” Indrajit snorted. “It’s a strength. We decide unanimously. But I think there’s a third possibility.”
“We go south,” Fix suggested. “Walk a week to the Free Cities, book passage on a ship, and sail back.”
“Close, actually. We sneak back to the fishing village under cover of darkness. We borrow a coracle and paddle it up the coast to Kish.”
Fix was quiet for a moment. “Yes. I think that’s a good idea.”
“Unless they expect it,” Indrajit said. “In which case, they might be waiting in ambush for us. Again.”
“That’s true of any choice we make,” Fix pointed out. “And I think this seems like a pretty unexpected maneuver.”
“I don’t really want to find out what this place is like after dark. And, even if it’s just smugglers, I don’t want to meet anyone else out here.”
Fix pointed. “Back that way is west. If we can get to the wall and take shelter near it, we can easily walk straight out to the coast once it’s dark.”
“Or a few hours later.” Indrajit started walking.
The journey back westward was easier in that he was no longer carrying Banus. The Pelthite prince kept pace with Indrajit and Fix easily, even though the lizard rode on his shoulders. He spoke a lot, but kept his voice down, and most of what he said was innocuous to the point of being vapid. “That’s a big building . . . I wonder what kind of people used to live here . . . ooh, this must have cost someone a pretty penny, once upon a time . . . I can imagine that this would have been a lovely street, with a cooling breeze from the sea.”
Perhaps ambassadors specialized in small talk with no content. Banus kept his voice down, and Indrajit didn’t object. He and Fix took turns grunting laconic agreement with whatever the ambassador said.
The journey wore on Indrajit’s nerves, though, because the shadows grew deeper and darker. Rattling and slithering noises that he had ignored in the afternoon, assigning them in his imagination to birds and snakes and marmochucks, he now imagined to emanate from the footfalls of assassins and cannibals and masked hierophants with stone daggers in their hands.
They reached the wall. Here, it rose to its former height, with a parapet and a walkway. A stone’s throw away, a tower stood athwart the wall, its peak staring out over the battlements, a yawning entrance and the bottom of a flight of steps at its base. The sun was down and the entire tower lay in shadow. Only the toes of the lowest two steps were visible in the gloom.
“Who wouldn’t feel safe, surrounded by such walls?” the Pelthite prince asked.
“A prisoner.” Indrajit smiled, the expression lost in the darkness that had fallen. The lizard on the prince’s shoulder made a rasping sound that sounded like laughter.
“I’ll go first.” Fix started up the stairs, falchion probing ahead of him in the shadow.
The prince with his lizard followed close behind.
Indrajit turned, leaf-bladed sword in hand, and stood at the base of the stairs. He heard his friend and the ambassador climb, steps fading to hushed whispers the higher they went. He took a single step back into the shadows and scanned the murk of the necropolis.
He heard Lobster Hands coming before he saw the man. At first, he heard footfalls, and though his imagination conjured up slithering eyeless crypt denizens, toothless eaters of the flesh of the dead, and asymmetrical, lurching monsters with three wings and a single fang, he held still, breathed deeply, and tightened his grip on Vacho. But then he heard the sound again, and knew it for the heavy tread of a foot. And then he saw Lobster Hands, walking directly toward him.
The man came from the north. With him came two Zalaptings—Kish had absolutely too many of the lavender-faced little men, and they seemed to fill out the cheap sacrificial ranks of every jobber company in the city. Should the Protagonists get a few Zalaptings? If they died, you didn’t have to pay them, and in Indrajit’s short experience working as a jobber, the Zalaptings always seemed to die first—and in greater numbers.
But until they died, they’d want to get paid. And if he asked Fix, Indrajit expected to hear that, with employees, the Protagonists would have to enter into more risk-merchantry contracts, to be able to pay out death benefits to the families of jobbers who were killed while working. Which might make Zalaptings a spectacularly bad choice for employees, since if they all died, you’d have to pay benefits to all their families.
But maybe less, since their deaths were so likely? Indrajit shook his head, trying to shake thoughts of risk-merchantry from his head. A few short weeks in the Paper Sook had already left their mark on him. Like a man immersed in a latrine, he now carried the stink of joint-stock companies and risk-merchantry contracts and future currency purchases with him everywhere he went.
In addition to the two Zalaptings, Lobster Hands walked with three Kishi, the dark-haired, brown-skinned, common man of the city of Kish. Lobster Hands appeared unarmed—other than his giant claws—but the other five carried spears. They scanned the shadows, swinging their spear blades back and forth at the darkness, prepared for a fight. They had numbers, and they had reach.
Indrajit had the advantage of surprise. Jump out and attack them from behind? Or try to quickly kill one or two, and then lure the others into a narrow fight up the stairwell?
But they were too many. He faded back up the stairs, intending to let them pass unmolested.
Only the step behind him crumbled as he put his weight on it, dropping a tiny avalanche of rubble onto the step below it. Lobster Hands heard the falling stone and looked into the opening at the tower base—
Locking eyes with Indrajit.
“Frozen hells,” Indrajit murmured.
The six men charged. In a desperate bid both to warn Fix and to misdirect his attackers, Indrajit stepped out of the doorway and waved his arm as if signaling to someone deeper inside the necropolis. “I’ll meet you at Kish!” he hollered. “Run!” If Indrajit was to be sacrificed, at least his sacrifice would accomplish something.
Then he scooted back up the stairs.
He held his ground first just a few steps up, at a point from which he could see an irregular rectangle of light, or, if not light, lesser gloom, around the entrance to the bottom of the staircase. From the outside, he knew, his own position would be concealed in complete darkness. Kishi had very ordinary powers of vision, and as far as he knew, so did Zalaptings.
There was the possibility that Lobster Hands had special sight and would be able to attack Indrajit in the darkness. There was also the possibility that any of the five attackers had some magical ability to detect him in ambush, but he was willing to take those risks.
He raised Vacho, ready to chop downward with the blade, and tried to control his breath.
The scuffle of feet raced to the opening—and then halted.
“Get in there,” a deep voice growled. Lobster Hands.
“But shouldn’t we . . . ?”
Lobster Hands bellowed, and a Zalapting flew in through the opening. He wasn’t running, he was being thrown, and he slammed against the wall and crumpled onto the bottom steps.
Indrajit had planned to attack the first man onto the stairs, but this was no attacker—this was bait. And because the Zalapting was lying on the steps rather than standing, attacking him would require Indrajit to expose himself more fully than he liked.
Grinding his teeth silently, Indrajit eased back up the stairs, away from his attackers.
The Zalapting looked up at him. “Fish Head!”
Indrajit wanted to hit the Zalapting, but instead he ran. Taking advantage of his long legs and risking the unseen hazards of the steps in the darkness, he pressed his left hand against the central column around which the stairs spiraled and raced upward.
Below, he heard his attackers fumbling on the first steps, and the squeal of at least one Zalapting getting trodden upon. Good; that meant his enemies couldn’t see in the dark any more than he could.
He made it up the stairs awkwardly and emerged onto a narrow stone walkway with crenellations to one side and empty space to the other. He forced himself to reason; the wall must run north and south, with the crenellations outside, hence on the west. Fix and the ambassador should be moving south, to meet at the fishing village, so Indrajit should lead Lobster Hands and his crew north. Which meant crenellations to his left.
He turned, touched the stone defenses to be sure they were there, and jogged. “I do not have a fish’s head!” he yelled. “My eyes are just set farther apart than yours, you pink rat!”
The stars were still obscured by the fog, and Indrajit could barely see the walkway before his feet. If he ran too fast, he risked falling off the side, or running off the end of the walkway if the wall failed.
Had he given his pursuers enough indication that he was running northward?
He’d risk it.
Indrajit sheathed Vacho and levered himself up into the crenellation. The wall wasn’t higher than twenty cubits, he was sure. He was a tall man, and he lowered himself over the other side, letting his legs dangle to their full extent. Subtract another five cubits from the drop for his height, it shouldn’t be more than a fifteen-cubit fall.
Unless there was a ditch.
He heard feet running toward him along the top of the wall.
There could also be rocks.
Help me now, Sea Mother. Indrajit let go of the wall.
He hit water. It wasn’t the sea, but he splashed down into marshy earth. Stagnation filled his nostrils, and something slithered away across the mud. He stood and his feet sank. Indrajit trembled with the excitement of the chase and with fatigue, but he wasn’t injured.
“Something jumped off the wall!” Lobster Hands bellowed.
Frozen hells. Indrajit yanked one leg up, trying to move out of the bog—
And left a sandal behind.
“No way of knowing how far the drop is!” a Zalapting whimpered.
“There’s one way,” Lobster Hands rumbled.
Indrajit scrambled and got out of the marsh, onto dry land. He kept his second sandal on his foot, but there was no going back for the first one. He ran, southward, back along the wall.
“You aren’t dead, are you?” Lobster Hands called.
“I don’t think so!” The Zalapting’s voice wavered.
Behind him, Indrajit could hear his pursuers continue to come down the wall. He turned right, crossed the road he’d ridden south with Fix, and then nearly ran over the top of the headland in the darkness. The sounds of pursuit behind him were indistinct, and as the waves grew closer, they grew harder still to hear. Dropping to his backside and then flipping over onto his belly, Indrajit kicked off the second sandal and probed with his toes, lowering himself down the steep pile of clammy boulders.
The tide had come in, and probably was now going back out, because when Indrajit reached the bottom, he was standing on wet sand. Turning southward again, keeping the mass of boulders on his left, he was able to see a narrow, winding strip of sea-licked beach before him.
The gray strip led him around a small bay and then a promontory, and Indrajit could see that the waters were receding quickly now, so that the sand on which he ran felt cool and firm, but not wet. He didn’t hear voices behind him, but the fog got thicker as the night went on, and he didn’t dare slow his pace to see whether he was being followed. The beach got noticeably rockier as he traced the edge of a second promontory, and then he ran into the fishing village.
He knew it was the same village that he’d been in earlier, because one of the buildings had burned, its thatch and timbers entirely gone and its plastered rocks scorched black. There were no lights, and there was no sign of any of the triangle-faced people who lived here.
Indrajit stepped on a stick.
Looking down, he saw an arrow, made by laying out sticks, that pointed down the narrow channel of water toward the sea. He could barely make it out, but scratched into the sand beside the arrow was the heraldic image of Orem Thrush, the Lord Chamberlain: a horned skull.
Indrajit looked down the stream and saw a dim flicker of moment, halfway down the lengthening beach to the rolling waves. That had to be Fix.
His legs ached, but he forced them to run. At least here, the sand was smooth and pure and his bare feet were not a disadvantage. He was just leaving the huddle of cottages when he saw a smudge of movement in his peripheral vision. Turning his head, he saw a creature like a centipede—long, segmented, chitinous body, many legs—emerge from the burned hovel, climbing right out of the top of the building.
It was like a centipede, only it was the length of a horse and the height of a dog, and it had a man’s face on the front end. A man’s face with two long mandibles.
Indrajit stopped and pointed at the thing. “Payot!” he shouted. “They need you up at the necropolis!”
It was a guess, and a bluff, and it almost worked. The thing—Payot—stopped and stared at Indrajit. There was enough dim light on its face that Indrajit thought he could see Payot frown and then blink.
“The Lobster Hands guy,” Indrajit said, pushing his luck. “He sent for you.”
Payot laughed and charged.
Indrajit turned and ran. He gripped the sheath with his left hand as he galloped and he pulled Vacho out. Payot didn’t want him, he reminded himself. Payot was after the ambassador. Indrajit could slow Payot down and then get out of his way, and Indrajit could probably slink off without being pursued.
“Run!” he bellowed.
He could see Fix and the Pelthite prince now. They were carrying a coracle between them and they were lurching down toward the waves. They raised their heads when Indrajit yelled, and then ran faster.
A chitinous noise rose in volume behind Indrajit, and he spun about. Payot lunged toward his legs, mandibles clacking together—
Indrajit leaped into the air, vaulting up and over Payot’s head. He came down with both bare heels in the center of the centipede’s back.
Payot squealed and veered sideways, throwing Indrajit off. Indrajit managed to keep his grip on Vacho and land on his shoulder, then roll to his feet. Payot swerved and spun himself in a continuous circle, hissing angrily.
Shouts from the top of the beach told Indrajit that others were coming. He ran.
He nearly stepped on the lizard, which ran just behind Banus, but the creature leaped nimbly aside as Indrajit caught up.
The shouts behind were closer.
He could hear Payot’s hissing and the chitinous rattle again.
Their feet splashed into water. Fix and the prince threw the coracle into the waves and the lizard leaped in first.
“This won’t hold all of us,” Fix grunted.
“I’ll swim,” Indrajit said.
With a sudden scream, Banus tripped and fell into the surf.
“Frozen hells!” Indrajit sloshed to a stop and turned. Zalaptings rushed down the beach in his direction. Behind them came Lobster Hands and Payot. He grabbed Banus by the elbow and tried to raise the young man, but the Pelthite only thrashed about and whimpered. “Hold the coracle!” he shouted to Fix. “I’m coming!”
Only he wasn’t coming. He was stuck, trying to get Banus to his feet, and exhaustion or panic or some cause Indrajit didn’t know was keeping the young man trapped.
Indrajit was going to be overrun and killed. He spread his legs and stood over the prince, swinging Vacho before with a bravado he didn’t feel in his heart.
The lizard appeared, thrashing through the waves, and climbed onto Banus’s face. Would the comfort of his pet reptile help the prince rise? Indrajit stepped aside as the prince rolled over—
And then the lizard tore open the veins of the young man’s throat.
The surf was cold and the young man’s blood was a hot jet on Indrajit’s ankle. “No!” he roared.
The lizard rose onto its hind legs and looked him in the eye. “I am the ambassador,” it said in a low whisper. Then it raced into the water and scrambled up the coracle. Fix started rowing.
Indrajit stared at the young man in his death throes, but only for a moment. He had no choice but to believe the lizard—it could be telling the truth, and in any case, Banus was dead already. Indrajit sheathed his sword, ran until the water was up to his thighs, and then dove in. The salt water was cold and bracing, and the strength of the waves gave Indrajit something to push against. The swim invigorated him.
A bowshot from the coast, he caught up to the coracle and held on. Was he just getting used to the darkness, or was the fog lifting? Overhead, Indrajit saw several of the brighter summer stars.
Fix paddled the coracle slowly and talked with the green lizard. On the beach he could see Payot and Lobster Hands and a dozen Zalaptings dragging the body of Banus up the sand; none of them followed into the water.
“I would have left a written message,” Fix said, amusement in his voice, “only you insist on refusing to learn to read.”
Indrajit ignored him. “How do we know you’re the ambassador?” he asked the reptile.
The lizard fixed him with a cold eye. The ruff around its neck splayed out and grew stiff, which made the lizard look formal and important. “In fact, it doesn’t really matter. The boy is dead and you’ll take me to Orem, because I am all that remains of this task of yours. But since I am the ambassador, Orem will be pleased at your success. But if it helps you in the meantime, ask yourself this: what is more likely? That the ambassador’s pet lizard killed him to escape, when no one was seeking the pet? Or that the ambassador sacrificed his pet man to escape?”
“Banus never claimed he was the ambassador,” Indrajit said thoughtfully, “but he did tell us he was a prince.”
“Do you know how many princes Pelth has?” the lizard asked. “He was a disposable nobleman, with no wealth and no power. He was given to me at my appointment, to be my bearer.”
“How does one address a Pelthite ambassador?” Indrajit asked.
“‘Sir’ will do fine,” the lizard said. There might have been a hint of a grin on its needlelike snout.
“That’s not the strangest thing I’ve ever heard,” Fix said. “It is . . . a little surprising.”
“Why kill your . . . bearer?” Indrajit asked.
The lizard made a rattling sound in its throat that might have been a sigh. “I saw your compassion and self-sacrifice. You gave the prince a weapon. You offered him your water. You split up to try to divert pursuit. You stayed behind to slow them down. You risked yourself for him, or rather, for the ambassador you thought he was, before, and you would have done it again. I admire your impulse to sacrifice yourself, it is noble. But in this case, I could not permit you to indulge it.
“And Banus had to be left behind. They thought he was the ambassador, he was the only sacrifice that would stop pursuit.
“If I had tried to persuade you I was the ambassador, you wouldn’t have believed me. Even a delay while I tried to persuade you likely would have proved fatal. You both would have stayed and died on the beach, fighting for that pretty, but useless, young man. Then I would have been left alone, to try to make my way to the city without a guide and without protection. My work and my mission are too important. It was time for a sacrifice, and the sacrifice had to be my poor Banus.”
Indrajit had nothing to say. In other circumstances, the sacrifice could just as easily have been him, and then this lizard would have been sitting in the coracle, explaining to Banus and Fix how important it had been to kill Indrajit.
Fix just paddled.
“Let us finish the journey in silence, then,” the lizard said. “We will grieve Banus together, and drink a cup the Lord Chamberlain. For Banus, and for sacrifices.”
Indrajit shook his head. He held the back of the coracle and swam.
Copyright © 2020 D.J. Butler
This story is set in the world of July 2020’s In the Palace of Shadow and Joy by D.J. Butler, a far-future planetary adventure novel in the spirit of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser tales and the Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories. D.J. (“Dave”) Butler grew up in swamps, deserts, and mountains. After messing around for years with the practice of law, he finally got serious and turned to his lifelong passion of storytelling. He now writes adventure stories for readers of all ages, plays guitar, and spends as much time as he can with his family. He is the author of the Witchy War series from Baen Books, including Witchy Eye, Witchy Winter, Witchy Kingdom, and the upcoming Serpent Daughter. With Aaron Michael Ritchey, he is the coauthor of Dust-Bowl-era fantasies The Cunning Man and the upcoming The Jupiter Knife, both from Baen. Visit Butler’s web site at http://davidjohnbutler.com and follow him on Twitter, @davidjohnbutler.