THE GODS RETURN – Snippet 21

Ilna had never cared much about the landscape. That didn't mean she was unaware of it, though, and the North River waterfront was ugly by any standard. The landings were rickety straggles standing over an expanse of sedges, reeds, and mud.

Especially mud. The riverbank was low, and storms upstream regularly spread water half a furlong back from the normal channel. Anything like organized business required a wharf, though Ilna watched small traders wading to and from their boats.

The river was lined with willows and alders when Ilna first saw it. For as far as she now could see through the haze, the trees had been cut down for building material.

Krumlin's Wharf was more solid than most: it stood on piles, not a lattice of withies, and the floor was sawn lumber rather than a corduroy of thin poles. Ilna smiled minusculely. This was better than splashing through muck to mid-thigh, though she'd have done that too if it had been necessary. It might well be necessary when they landed down-river.

She started down the wharf, checking the vessels moored to either side. Those near the bank were aground, though they didn't seem the worse for it. Each sat in a glistening wreath of water, waiting for another freshet to lift them free.

Master Ingens popped his head up from a berth near the far end, just before Ilna reached that point. "Oh," he said. "You came after all."

"I came, of course," Ilna said. She considered whether to go on; then she said, "Master Ingens, we're going to be together for some time. This will be less unpleasant for both of us if you learn that I mean what I say. Do you understand?"

"It was getting late," the secretary said. He backed down the ladder to the boat below. "Still, you're here. It doesn't matter."

"We'll also do better if you stop telling lies when you make a fool of yourself," Ilna said, swinging her bindle – a few necessities wrapped in a middle-weight cloak, itself the bulkiest item – around to her back to follow him. "The sun's an hour short of mid-morning, which is the time you set."

"Whatever you say," Ingens muttered.

The boat reminded Ilna of the dories that men in Barca's Hamlet had used to fish the Inner Sea, though it had a flatter, shallower bottom. It was about as wide as Garric was tall and as long as five men that height. The mast was unstepped. It and the yard with the sail furled around it were lashed to yokes, keeping the belly of the vessel free for cargo. Since they carried only supplies for the journey, the "passengers' quarters" were as spacious as Ilna ever remembered on shipboard.

The crew of four Dalopans eyed her in flat-faced silence. They wore swatches of bark cloth around their waists and bone pins thrust through parts of their bodies. Mostly that meant nose and ears, but one of the squat, dark men had a triangle woven into each cheek. It'd been done long enough ago that knots of scar tissue swelled over the bone splinters.

The captain wasn't any more prepossessing, though he was from a northern island. The black zigzags slanting across his tunic were a Blaise style. The garment was of good quality, but worn and a little too small for it this man to have bought it new.

"Well, girlie," he said, leering at Ilna. "I guess I don't mind having a woman aboard for the trip after all."

Ilna thought for a moment, then adjusted the pattern in her hands slightly. The fellow was necessary, she supposed.

"This is Captain Sairg," Ingens said. "His boat and crew brought me -"

Ilna stepped so that her back was to Ingens and the Dalopans were on the other side of Sairg; the boat shifted nervously. The captain apparently thought she was offering herself to him; he grinned broadly and reached for her. Several of his teeth were missing and the survivors were black.

Ilna spread the pattern. Sairg screamed and staggered backward, throwing his hands over his eyes. He'd have gone over the side if a crewman hadn't grabbed him.

"Captain Sairg," Ilna said. "You are a hireling and I am your employer. If you ever again forget that, you will spend eternity in the place you glimpsed a moment ago. Do you understand?"

"You bloody fool!" Ingens snarled at the captain. "I told you she was a wizard, didn't I?"

Sairg rose to a squat, looking out past the edges of his splayed fingers. Despite his terror, the boat didn't wobble when he moved. He was somewhat lower in Ilna's estimation than the carp browsing Pandah's sewage on the river bottom, but he remained a sailor.

"Sairg, now that Mistress Ilna's aboard, we should get under way," Ingens said, reverting to a brusquely businesslike tone. "There's nothing to gain by hanging around on this mudbank longer than we have to."

Sairg grimaced, spat over the side, and moved to the stern. He kept as far as he could from Ilna. When he'd taken the steering oar in hand, he squealed and clicked to the crew in a language Ilna didn't recognize. They were already lifting the sweeps into rowlocks made from dear antlers.

"The crew speaks only Dalopan," Ingens said. "He's telling them to push off."

Sairg cast off the stern line; the bow line was already coiled. Ilna looked at the secretary and said, "Do you speak Dalopan, Master Ingens?"

He looked at her, apparently surprised that she had noticed. "A little, yes," he said. "Master Hervir generally took me with him on his travels. But Sairg hired the crew; I don't interfere."

The two Dalopans on the left shoved against the pilings, sending the boat sideways into the channel. They leaned so far over that Ilna was sure they'd fall in. When they were almost parallel to the water, they twisted back aboard with motions Ilna couldn't have described even though she'd watched them do it. Their toes must grip like a skink's. The men settled onto their benches and began dragging the long sweeps, swinging the bow outward against the controlled strokes of their fellows on the right side.

Ilna chose a place and leaned her shoulders against the furled sail. She began knotting a pattern, an occupation rather than an end in itself. At one time in the past she'd have brought a small loom with her, but a hank of yarn would do her as much good as the frame and be much easier to carry. There was plenty of space now, but she had no way of knowing what she'd be getting into later on the journey.

"You've travelled a great deal, have you not, mistress?" said Ingens. He was seated on the bench between the fore and aft pairs of oarsmen, looking toward her with polite interest.

Ilna thought for a moment. "Yes, I suppose you could say that," she said. For a peasant who'd never expected – or wished – to leave the hamlet in which she'd grown up, she'd travelled very widely indeed.

In a slightly harder tone – she supposed her tone was never what you'd call gentle – she went on, "But why do you say that, Master Ingens?"

The secretary held a scroll in his left hand, his thumb marking his place. He used it to gesture mildly and said, "I guessed you'd travelled because you didn't come with a wagon train of luggage. And I spoke because, as you pointed out, we'll be together for some time. If you prefer, we can try to keep silent save for necessary business, but that isn't my preference."

Ilna considered, then smiled faintly. "Nor mine, I suppose," she said. "I gather you and Hervir travelled widely also?"

"Yes," Ingens said. "Hervir took over the prospecting, I suppose you could call it, six years ago when his father moved into the office. When he became head of the family at Halgran's death, he left the office work to his wife and mother and continued to handle contacts with suppliers all over the Isles. He kept me with him on all his journeys. He said my notebooks -"

The secretary gestured again with the scroll.

"- were invaluable. He was always very appreciative of my efforts for the company, in fact."

Ilna kept her face blank as she digested what she'd just heard. The words alone could've been bragging – very possibly truthful, but bragging nonetheless. Ingens' tone, however, was either bitter or sarcastic. Or both, she supposed; there was no reason it couldn't have been both.

She looked to her left – the boat's right; starboard to a sailor, she knew, but she wasn't a sailor. They were well into the channel, so she could see the far bank despite the blur of mist which the sun even now hadn't completely burned off. The trees and brush were gray-green, indistinguishable save by shades of color that she perhaps alone would note.

"You were a friend of Hervir?" Ilna asked. Her fingers started to knot a pattern that would give her the answer, but she paused to let the secretary speak. She supposed she was being polite.

"Master Hervir was my employer," Ingens said. "He was a considerate employer who paid me a fair wage and who was both in public and in private appreciative of my efforts for the company. As I said."

He considered Ilna for a moment, either choosing his words or choosing the words he was willing to speak to her. "We were not friends, no," he said. "The relationship was not a personal one."

"You didn't sail to Caraman with Sairg in the first place?" Ilna said.

"I hired Captain Sairg on Blaise when I reached the river," Ingens said. "He'd made the trip up the river twice already before. We sailed to Pandah on the prevailing wind; downstream we'll use the current. The sweeps are mostly for steering."

The river was a muddy brown picked out by patches of scum and flotsam. The debris was mostly vegetable, including a large tree whose roots, washed clean by a flood, wriggled in the air like an ammonite's tentacles. Ilna saw the corpse of a dog, though, and a sheep so bloated that it looked like fleece mattress.

"We went overland from Valles," Ingens said. "Hervir's plan all along was to find a suitable ship for our return via the river. I simply followed his intentions. Though without the saffron, of course."

And without Hervir, which is all that concerns me, Ilna thought. She wondered if it concerned Ingens. There was nothing in his words or expression to suggest that it did, but on the other hand he had started back to find his employer immediately after delivering word of his disappearance.

"The channel is constantly changing, Sairg says," Ingens said. He pointed with his whole arm toward the near shore. "Even I can tell that. See that stand of cypress?"

"Yes," said Ilna, when she was sure that she did.

"There's only three trees left," the secretary explained. "I remember counting seven when we were coming upriver. Four were undercut and fell into the river. I don't think the others will survive much longer. The whole world is still in flux."

Ilna sniffed. "Trees have always fallen into rivers," she said. "Things have always died."

"Yes, but everything is new now," Ingens said. "This whole river is as new as the lands it drains."

He paused, then added, "Hervir was adamant about that. He said there was no end of what a bold man could achieve in this new world. Hervir was a very ambitious man. Marrying the sister of an Ornifal nobleman was barely the start of it."

"Are you a bold man looking to better yourself, Master Ingens?" Ilna said, watching the secretary's face. How he chose to respond to the question would tell her more than the mere words he used.

He snorted. "Me?" he said. "Boldness isn't enough, mistress, if you don't have money to back it up with. I have my salary; which is adequate to my needs, but not the sort of stake I'd need to set up as a spice merchant on my own."

"Did you think of asking Hervir for a loan?" Ilna said. "You say that he valued you and respected your abilities."

"Hervir valued me as an employee," Ingens said. He didn't try to hide the bitterness, perhaps realizing that he wouldn't succeed anyway. "He saw no benefit to himself or to Halgran Trading in having me as a rival. He laughed, in fact. 'I haven't spent six years training you, Ingens my boy, in order to have you undercutting me with my suppliers.'"

The secretary's face worked; another man would've spit into the brown water. "Him training me," he said.

"I see," said Ilna.

She might've said more, but at that moment Sairg chittered an order to the crew. "He's telling them to move us farther out into the channel," Ingens translated. "We're over a flooded forest here, and brushing a treetop the wrong way could tip the boat over."

The oarsmen quickened their stroke. One started what was obviously a chantey even though Ilna didn't understand the words. Her mind flashed bright with an image of Chalcus bending over the stroke oar, his tenor voice floating, "To me, way, haul away -"

And Merota's clear soprano answering, "We'll haul and hang together!"

Ilna wasn't crying, she didn't cry; but she closed her eyes and rubbed her face in the sleeve of her tunic until the moment was past.