Книга The Jewels of Aptor. Содержание - Chapter II
The boy, like an automaton, approached her.
“Give that to me, little thief,” she said.
He handed her the purse. She took it, and then suddenly dropped her other hand from her neck. The moment she did so, the boy staggered backwards, turned, and ran straight into Urson, who said, “Ooof,” and then, “God damn little spider.”
The boy struggled to get away like a hydra in furious silence. But Urson held. “You stick around… Owww!… to get yourself thrashed… There.” The boy got turned, his back to the giant; one arm locked across his neck, and the other hand, holding all four wrists, lifted up hard enough so that the body shook like wires jerked taut, but he was still silent.
Now the woman came across the dock. “This belongs to you, gentlemen?” she asked, extending the purse.
“Thank you, ma’am,” grunted Urson, reaching forward.
“I’ll take it, ma’am,” said Geo, intercepting. Then he recited:
“Many thanks,” he added.
Beneath the veil, on her shadowed face, her eyebrows raised. “You have been schooled in courtly rites?” She observed him. “Are you perhaps a student at the university?”
Geo smiled. “I was, until a short time ago. But funds are low and I have to get through the summer somehow. I’m going to sea.”
“Honorable, but perhaps foolish.”
“I am a poet, ma’am; they say poets are fools. Besides, my friend here says the sea will make a man of me. To be a good poet, one must be a good man.”
“More honorable, less foolish. What sort of a man is your friend?”
“My name is Urson,” said the giant, stepping up. “I’ve been the best hand on any ship I’ve sailed on.”
“Urson?” said the woman, musing. “The Bear? I thought bears did not like water. Except polar bears. It makes them mad. I believe there was an old spell, in antiquity, for taming angry bears…”
Geo began to recite.
“Hey,” said Urson. “I’m not a bear.”
“Your name means bear,” Geo said. Then to the lady, “You see, I have been well trained.”
“I’m afraid I have not,” she replied. “Poetry and rituals were a hobby of a year’s passing interest when I was younger. But that was all.” Now she looked down at the boy whom Urson still held. “You two look alike. Dark eyes, dark hair.” She laughed. “Are there other things in common between poets and thieves?”
“Well,” complained Urson with a jerk of his chin, “this one here won’t spare a few silvers for a drink of good wine to wet his best friend’s throat, and that’s a sort of thievery, if you ask me.”
“I did not ask,” said the woman, quietly.
“Little thief,” the woman said. “Little four arms. What is your name?”
Silence, and the dark eyes narrowed.
“I can make you tell me,” and she raised her hand to her throat again.
Now the eyes opened wide, and the boy pushed back against Urson’s belly.
Geo reached toward the boy’s neck where a ceramic disk hung from a leather thong. Glazed on the white enamel was a wriggle of black with a small dot of green for an eye at one end. “This will do for a name,” Geo said. “No need to harm him. Snake is his symbol; Snake shall be his name.”
“Little Snake,” she said, dropping her threatening hand, “how good a thief are you?” She looked at Urson. “Let him go.”
“And miss thrashing his backside?” objected Urson.
“He will not run away.”
Urson released him, and four hands came from behind the boy’s back and began massaging one another’s wrists. But the dark eyes watched her until she repeated, “How good a thief are you?”
With only a second’s indecision, he reached into his clout and drew out what seemed another leather thong similar to the one around his neck. He held up the fist from which it dangled, and the fingers opened slowly to a cage.
“What is it?” Urson asked, peering over Snake’s shoulder.
The woman gazed forward, then suddenly stood straight. “You…” she began.
Snake’s fist closed like a sea-polyp.
“You are a fine thief, indeed.”
“What is it?” Urson asked. “I didn’t see anything.”
“Show them,” she said.
Snake opened his hand, and on the dirty palm, in coiled leather, held by a clumsy wire cage, was a milky sphere the size of a man’s eye, lucent through the shadow.
“A very fine thief indeed,” repeated the woman in a low voice tautened strangely from its previous brittle clarity. She had pulled her veil aside now, and Geo saw, where her hand had again raised to her throat, the tips of her slim fingers held an identical jewel, only this one in a platinum claw, hung from a wrought gold chain.
Her eyes, unveiled, black as obsidian, raised to meet Geo’s. A slight smile lifted her pale mouth and then fell again. “No,” she said. “Not quite so clever as I thought. At first I believed he had taken mine. But clever enough. Clever enough. You, schooled in the antiquity of Leptar’s rituals, are you clever enough to tell me what these baubles mean?”
Geo shook his head.
A breath passed her pale mouth now, and though her eyes still fixed his, she seemed to draw away, blown into some past shadow by her own sigh. “No,” she said. “It has all been lost, or destroyed by the old priests and priestesses, the old poets.
She spoke the lines almost reverently. “Do you recognize any of this? Can you tell me where they are from?”
“Only one stanza of it,” said Geo. “And that in a slightly different form.” He recited:
“Well,” said the woman. “You have done better than all the priests and priestesses of Leptar. What about this fragment? Where is it from?”
“It is a stanza of the discarded rituals of the Goddess Argo, the ones banned and destroyed five hundred years ago. The rest of the poem is completely lost,” explained Geo. “I found that stanza when I peeled away the binding paper of an ancient tome that I found in the Antiquity Collection in the Temple Library at Acedia. Apparently a page from an even older book had been used in the binding of this one. I assume these are fragments of the rituals before Leptar purged her litanies. I know at least my variant stanza belongs to that period. Perhaps you have received a misquoted rendition; for I will vouch for the authenticity of mine.”
“No,” she said, almost regretfully. “Mine is the authentic version. So, you too, are not that clever.” She turned back to the boy. “But I have need of a good thief. Will you come with me? And you, poet, I have need of one who thinks so meticulously and who delves into places where even my priests and priestesses do not go. Will you come with me?”
“Where are we going?”
“Aboard that ship,” she said, smiling toward the vessel.
“That’s a good boat,” said Urson. “I’d be proud to sail on her, Geo.”
“The captain is in my service,” the woman told Geo. “He will take you on. Perhaps you will get a chance to see the world, and become the man you wish to be.”
Geo saw that Urson was beginning to look uneasy, and said, “My friend goes on whatever ship I do. This we’ve promised each other. Besides, he is a good sailor, while I have no knowledge of the sea.”
“On our last journey,” the woman explained, “we lost men. I do not think your friend will have trouble getting a berth.”
“Then we’ll be honored to come,” said Geo. “Under whose service shall we be, then, for we still don’t know who you are?”
Now the veil fell across her face again. “I am a high priestess of the Goddess Argo. Now, who are you?”
“My name is Geo,” Geo told her.
“Of the Earth, then, your name,” she said. “And you, Urson, the bear. And Lamio, the little Snake. I welcome you aboard our ship.”
Just then, from down the street, came the captain and the mate, Jordde. They emerged from the diagonal of shadow that lanced over the cobbles, slowly, heavily. The captain squinted out across the ships toward the horizon, the copper light filling his deepening wrinkles and burnishing the planes of flesh around his gray eyes. As they approached, the priestess turned to them. “Captain, I have three men as a token replacement at least for the ones my folly helped lose.”
Urson, Geo, and Snake looked at each other, and then toward the captain.
Jordde looked at all three.
“You seem strong,” the captain said to Urson, “a sea-bred man. But this one,” and he looked at Snake now, “one of the Strange Ones…”
“They’re bad luck on a ship,” interrupted the mate. “Most ships won’t take them at all, ma’am. This one’s just a boy, and for all his spindles there, couldn’t haul rope or reef sails. Ma’am, he’d be no good to us at all. And we’ve had too much bad luck already.”
“He’s not for rope pulling,” laughed the priestess. “The little Snake is my guest. The others you can put to ship’s work. I know you are short of men. But I have my own plans for this one.”
“As you say, ma’am,” said the captain.
“But Priestess,” began Jordde.
“As you say,” repeated the captain, and the mate stepped back, quieted. The captain turned to Geo now. “And who are you?” he asked.
“I’m Geo, before and still a poet. But I’ll do what work you set me, sir.”
“And you?” Jordde asked Urson.
“I’m a good sea-son of the waves, can stand triple watch without flagging, and I believe I’m already hired.” He looked to the captain.
“But what do they call you?” Jordde asked. “You have a familiar look, like one I’ve had under me before.”
“They call me the handsome sailor, the fastest rope reeler, the quickest line hauler, the speediest sheaf reefer…”
“Your name, man, your name.” Jordde demanded.
“Some call me Urson.”
“That’s the name I knew you by before! Do you think I’d sail with you again, when I myself put it in black and white and sent it to every captain and mate in the dock? For three months now you’ve had no berth, and if you had none for three hundred years it would be too soon.”
Jordde turned to the captain now. “He’s a troublemaker, sir, a fight-starter. Though he’s as wild as waves and with the strength of mizzen spars, spirit in a man is one thing, and a fight or two the same; but good sailor though he be, I’ve sworn not to have him on ship with me, sir. He’s nearly murdered half a dozen men and probably has murdered half a dozen more. No mate who knows the men of this harbor will take him on.”
The Priestess of Argo laughed. “Captain, take him.” Now she looked at Geo. “The words for calming the angry bear have been recited before him. Now, Geo, we will see how good a poet you are, and if the spell works.” At last she turned toward Urson. “Have you ever killed a man.”
Urson was silent a moment. “I have.”
“Had you told me that,” said the Priestess, “I would have chosen you first. I have need of you also. Captain, you must take him. If he is a good sailor, then we cannot spare him. I will channel what special talents he may have. Geo, since you said the spell, and are his friend, I charge you with his control. Also, I wish to talk with you, poet, student of rituals. Come, you all may stay on board ship tonight.”
An oil lamp leaked yellow light on the wooden walls of the ship’s forecastle. Geo wrinkled his nose, then shrugged.
“Well,” said Urson, “this is a pleasant enough hole.” He climbed one of the tiers of bunked beds and pounded the ticking with the flat of his hand. “Here, I’ll take this one. Little wriggly arms, you look like you have a strong stomach, so you take the middle. And Geo, sling yourself down in the bottom there.” He clumped to the floor again. “The lower down you are,” he explained, “the better you sleep, because of the rocking. Well, what do you think of your first forecastle, Geo?”
The poet was silent. As he turned his head, double pins of light struck yellow dots in his dark eyes, and then went out as he turned from the lamp.
“I put you in the bottom because a little rough weather can unseat your belly pretty fast if you’re up near the ceiling and not used to it,” Urson expanded, dropping his hand heavily on Geo’s shoulder. “I told you I’d look out for you, didn’t I, friend?”
But Geo turned away and seemed to examine something else.
Urson looked at Snake now, who was watching him from against one wall. Urson’s glance was puzzled. Snake’s only silent.
“Hey.” Urson spoke to Geo once more. “Let’s you and me take a run around this ship and see what’s tied down where. A good sailor does that first thing—unless he’s too drunk. But that lets the captain and the mate know he’s got an alert eye out, and sometimes he can learn something that will ease some back-bending later on. What do you say?”