Taste of Russian Fantastica: Cold Coasts
I'd put most of this behind a cut if I knew how, but I don't so I won't. Once again, I present the first chapter of a Russian science fiction or fantasy novel. This one is from the first book of Sergei Lukyanenko's alternate world fantasy duology, Holodnye Berega (Cold Coasts). Enjoy!
CHAPTER ONE, in which I draw conclusions and try to believe in them.
The whip in the overseer's hands seemed to be alive. First she slept, curled up in the sinewy hands overgrown with curly red hair. Next she stretched lazily, almost without concern for the convicts' arms. Then, becoming enraged, she began to rush from side to side, tiny copper tip flashing.
And the face of the overseer was always dull and apathetic, as if he said, "This is not me, not me -- no offense, kids! It's her, her -- whatever she wants, she gets...."
"Well, robbers, killers...will we be rebels?"
A disorderly chorus of voices answered that no, we were in no way inclined to that.
The overseer pressed his smile. "Good, you gladden an old man...."
For the overseer was indeed old -- forty, perhaps. Rarely do they live to such an age in his work -- someone chokes them with a chain, tramples them with their feet, but they also leave on their own, taking their money from other sins. Better to march inside the system, or wander along the night streets in the thin breastplate
of a guardsman, than to have dealt with the ten other things ready for all such scoundrels.
But this one, with the rooted nickname Joker, was too careful to fall into the hands of the despairing, and clever enough not to unnecessarily anger a whole group of prisoners under guard. If the work is great -- to figure out who is guilty before starting with the whip or scolding the cook -- from the unstolen remains of the provisions, would he know how to make something edible?
But no...not everyone understands this. Now, in ships' holds, there also flare up such reckless riots, after which the bewildered officers can't find a trace of such a fierce, strong leader. So there's only one thing left for it -- hang every third man, though this will only calm the convicts for a time.
"And you, Ilmar? Haven't you disassembled the locks yet?" A heavy hand descended onto my arm. Oh, Joker's strong! I wouldn't want to anger him -- even without the chains.
"That's you, Joker. I don't have any teeth."
The overseer who hung over my cot -- honorable, nosy, with only one neighbor -- grinned.
"That's right, Ilmar...that's right. Only you still have a tongue behind those teeth. Eh? He could eat your Word, and on that Word -- is the key's bond hitched together?"
For a moment his eye stiffened, drilling into me. Dangerous.
"If I had the Word, Joker," I quietly said, "I wouldn't be hanging around a second week in this stink."
The Joker pondered. The hold's ceiling was low -- of what's already here, why do more for the convicts -- and he bent involuntarily so as not to bump the lamp dangling directly overhead.
"Also correct, Ilmar. That means it's your fate -- to smell shit."
He finally backed away, and I took a breath.
Shit -- was no problem. And they didn't suffer like that. It was another matter to smell my own stink; now I had to learn to breathe it all the time.
The overseer left, bustled with the bolt, and stomped his boots up the ladder. The hold immediately came back to life. The Joker was not one of those who pretend to go, and then listen under the door.
"Where's the deck done, Baldy?" Loki the pickpocket started to bawl, who'd been sent to penal servitude by some evil smile of fate. According to all the laws, all he deserved was perhaps a good whipping, yes, or it might be another finger cut off. But now, no -- the judge didn't fancy it, or he remembered the girlfriend
who cleaned out pockets in the market -- and all. Send him to the Islands of Grief, and hope that the youth will help lengthen the three years of his sentence. However, Loki didn't lose heart -- those like him never lose heart. He hadn't gotten his nickname in honor of the ancient northern god of tricksters for nothing....
"But you look, you also are our master," gloomily answered Baldy, a minor official who was sent to us for embezzlement. All was clear, today was not his color....
In the distant corner, Volli-Sweetvoice tightened the song interrupted by the overseer's appearance. His long tongue had taken him into penal servitude, but he hadn't drawn any conclusions from that. That is to say, they'd potted him for the third time, and Volli really should have had half a year -- they don't give more than that for rebellion, and he'd started old.
"The collector said -- a new tax.
Then I'll start to cry, I answered...."
He had a voice that really was good and plenty of boldness, but the singer here did not have more than a nothing soul. Probably they applauded him in villages and neighborhoods of craftsmen... however, he didn't search for other glory, either. I lazily listened to him about what product exactly the song's hero gathered into a large basket, after which he handed over this product, and how the stupid tax collector erred, throwing the basket's contents into the same cart as the taxes.
He would better have sung other songs, the fool... Of love, of the moon's path on the water, of the hidden Word. He would have lived comfortably, and he would have made people glad.
"News!" Loki began to yell. Today interested him. The fart might be guilty, but might have light fingers. Interesting that they play that -- from soldiering, from duty, from interest?
"Enough," I said, looking at the rocking wooden ceiling. The ceiling creaked -- someone was walking on the deck. "Shut up. It's time to sleep."
"Yes, Ilmar, I agree with you...." Loki started unexpectedly.
"Enough, I said!"
Commanding two ten-men groups of boobies did not particularly make me smile. But it was necessary to work on this -- otherwise, authority in the hold would be in the hands of the Sweetclub, a natural murderer, caught redhanded over a fresh corpse. One hundred kilos of muscle and bone, and nearly brain-dead under his broad forehead. I hoped from my soul that he would happen to fall under a loaded cart in the mines. I'd help it along, only I didn't have any desire at present to climb under the ground.
That means -- tomorrow I'd have to move. To hunt, run away, hide. To prove that not for nothing did I have a reputation as the most deft pilferer in all the Dominions. From the shaft you will not run very far -- my whole hope was in the short way from the port into the mountains.
I needed to get a good sleep....
I got up and snuffed the lamp's wick. It plowed into burning oil. In the darkness the splash of waves outboard immediately became audible, as if aggravated by rumor. The cots creaked; somebody hurriedly growled the prescribed evening prayers to the Expiator. Volli sung a song under his breath -- he didn't know how to stop in the middle. I didn't even start to scold him.
"But now I had a girl once...." Sweet started his usual nightly history. It was better not to talk about women while in prison -- people get burning hot toward the end of the second week, and start not eating. But I didn't smash Sweet -- all his stories were so dull and sickening that they worked better than the bromine medicine, which we assumed they added to our swill. Only Sweet was excited by them, and what's more, so actively that on the second day I'd advised the Joker to change around people's cots.
Now next to the Sweetclub lay a lanky, very strong and silent person from some Russian hamlet forgotten even by the most ancient gods. How he came to the Dominions, where he learned conversation, why he was sent to penal servitude -- I don't know. The fellow wasn't bad, and by his muscles -- another stronger than Sweet. It seems he was a blacksmith back at home. One piece of bad luck -- very inert already, submerged in his own thoughts. Before, he stood up for himself -- but here people do not stay in order.
The boy who first was put next to the murderer, I'd put on the bunk over mine, for my sins. Though as the Elder of the group I had a right to live in comfort, that way things would be calmer. And it seemed at that moment the Patron-Sister from the heights beyond the clouds was also looking at me...I did right, oh, so right.
"But on the third day, when they came to clean her pigsty, I also came near, like as if by chance...." Sweet growled, choking up. "That skirt she started to kilt above her knees so as not to mess it up, but I stole up like...."
"Like how you talk about women!" the lanky blacksmith yelled from depression and muted fury. This was a sore point to him evidently in the furious edge between these two boss rams -- and it was necessary for the murderer to be twisted out constantly.
"What?" asked Sweet, with naive animal cunning. "I talk good! The granny was beautiful!"
"Well, the woman...Her skirts, I say, started to rip...."
"You can't talk that way!"
"Why can't I?" Sweet was sincerely surprised. "Her legs were beautiful. Her snout...."
"Face, face...Her face, not at all, but her legs -- yes! Could it really be said -- that a woman is beautiful?"
"It could," said the blacksmith, thinking it over. "That's a good word."
"But that her snou... face was beautiful?"
"And that her legs were beautiful?"
"That could be, too...." the blacksmith recognized with bewilderment.
"So I also say, the legs on her -- in! I stole up from behind, yes and slapped her...lovingly. She reached out as if angry, but that same snou...face she rubs, and she smiles!"
Baldy giggled; apparently Sweet's primitive idiocy was very amusing for the city official. He hadn't lost his sense of humor, hoping not without reason to spend the two years of his sentence in the dustless work of an accountant. The problems with him had turned out to be less bad than I had expected, and so I protected Baldy a little from danger.
One of the convicts, deceived in the course of time by his best expectations, spat with relish. He asked, "What you've got, Sweet, is all stories about grannies who fall into the mud...or do you have something a little worse?"
"Yes, I like it when a gra...a woman is closer to Mother Earth," the murderer acknowledged straight out. "It's the most...."
"Fine, everybody go to sleep!" I decided it would be a good idea to interfere. The blacksmith might see the murderer's words as an insult to the female sex and smother the fool right in his cot. That matter, of course, would be better, but not on the ship! Joker would finish it badly -- blood would spill....
"You've got no right, Ilmar, oy, no right!" said Sweet, cunningly, it seemed to me. "The kids in their flannel jammies want to hear something interesting, and you give orders."
But he didn't find any supporters. Those already in their flannel jammies were not at all entertained. Ha...he was trying to undercut the Elder. Not with his brain....
"Shut your trap!" I shouted.
And the blacksmith added willingly, "And I'll cork that up! You speak evilly in your heart!"
The murderer was instantly corked, and a beneficial silence began. Cots squeaked, from time to time, the deck was pressed in under who knows whose footsteps, waves knocked against the boards. The little ship was small, for the fast prison clipper couldn't carry our whole group. So it'd taken a long time to get here.
I lay muffled up in my jacket, sometimes twiddling my fingers mechanically -- as if putting a little pick into the lock. The dark was desperately deep -- the lousy wick's flame had long ago gone out, but we didn't get lighters. I would sleep and sleep...only now it wasn't possible.
Either at night it'd all begin to seem like nonsense, or....
No, it didn't seem so!
I heard how next to me metal barely, barely tinkled. And let others figure that this was the bronze chain clanking -- I already knew what a lock sounds like when a piece of steel tries to rummage around in it.
Completely weak, I lay and whispered mentally my gratitude to the Patron-Sister. She did not leave her foolish brother in his misfortune; she did not drive him down underground for seven interminable years! Sister, when I return to the Sunny Shore -- I will go to the temple, I will fall at your feet, I will kiss the marble steps, I will put five coins on your altar -- though I know money's nothing to you and it'll all fall into your priest's pocket. Thanks, Sister; you sent success to clumsy me!
Hey, yeah, the boy!
He'd come through, he'd gotten iron onto the ship with the group! Only, where had he hid it? The examiner was really skillful; he looked into places that were disgusting to remember. But all the same -- he'd gotten it through!
I'd searched the hold for a whole week to find whether there was any little present from the previous group or some random nail in the boards that was picked after them all -- only I didn't pay attention to the boy. I didn't know my luck was in him!
Yes, and who could've known?
A boy like the boy, barely the age to be under the edict "On the Eradication of Infantile Villainy" to begin to thunder about penal servitude. First he'd cleaned out someone important's pockets, then he'd climbed up into his house -- the young guy had turned out not to be a talker, he'd told us nothing about himself, and from the first I'd suppressed all questions about his business -- I shouldn't have assumed!
Maybe he'd swallowed some iron ore? No, he couldn't have; the first three days I saw he didn't get off his bunk; everything followed, if he didn't dig someone into his shit.
That means that it really was true -- Sister'd sent me luck.
Someone called out in his sleep -- maybe he dreamed of the mine, maybe he remembered his affairs -- and I needed the jangling to subside. Nothing, friend, nothing. Now I would wait.
...And nevertheless -- how did he carry the iron with him?
His breed -- now that's what had me on the alert. I could tell what type of boy he was -- face thin, features correct, gaze obstinate and steadfast. Boys like him don't earn money in the markets. Surely, someone's illegal son. Someone sent him to penal servitude, and someone else helped him. Gave him Joker's pockets, that and forgot about the regulations; brought in a skeleton key, and put it in the boy's hand.
Only thus, and not otherwise.
The silence had long ago regained its balance, and the boy was all hidden. Finally -- iron creaked. And at the same moment I jumped off the cot soundlessly, holding the chain tight in my hand so that it wouldn't clank.
But the boy heard. He jerked away, but too late -- I held him by the hand which lay on the lock, pressed down, and whispered in an undertone, "Quiet, fool!"
But my fingers unfolded his hand, probed -- nothing.
I carefully unreeled the chain, and had already started groping along the narrow cot with both hands, hoping all the time that my fingers would feel the chill of metal.
I felt the lock, searched the bunks -- and I rummaged under the boy, and all around him, and then I searched his very self -- he slept, like everyone, in his clothing, and he could, which is no devil's joke, have hid the skeleton key in a pocket or cavity.
"What are you doing!" the boy protested quietly. And now he did this in vain. If he didn't feel guilty himself, and he began to suspect something bad, then he'd now begin to yell. Once it was hidden....
"Take your paws off me! I'll yell!"
Too late, too late. I'd figured out that I'd searched him for nothing, but too late... I stood up, holding the boy's hands and thinking feverishly. He didn't jerk away yet, but waited.
And now, when I was almost certain that the scared kid had swallowed the skeleton key, and there was nothing I could do now -- without ripping his belly open like the wolf in the fairy tale, or putting him in his bunk -- in the morning we'd come to the islands, and he'd have no time left... That's when the Patron-Sister looked down on me again. She shook her head, seeing how I, such a simpleton, held the answer in my hands, but understood nothing, she sighed -- yes, and she even sent me enlightenment.
In my agitation, I squeezed the boy's hand. Then I began from the beginning -- I took his right hand in my left, and vice versa. The boy remained silent -- obviously, he understood it all.
"You won't yell, buddy," I whispered. "You won't at all. Even if I break your fingers, you'll be quiet. Just don't fight me, kid, all the way now, now we're best friends...."
The boy's right palm was cold! Just icy! And here was the whole answer.
"But what are we doing here," I whispered, feverishly trying to remember what they called the boy. He'd introduced himself on the first day, but not since then; first I'd had to create order in the hold, and then everybody just called him Boy. "But what are we doing here, Mark -- let's sit down next to each other and have a talk. In a very quiet, friendly way...."
"I won't talk to you about it!" snapped Mark, when I'd raked him up off the deck and sat down on his own level. All around us, everything remained quiet, and if someone overheard us also, then he probably thought little of it. Let them think I wouldn't go with them to the trolley. Now I was sure!
"It's about that, Mark," I whispered in the boy's ear. "It is. You know the Word!"
He just jerked away, but I held tight.
"No, don't hurry away," I continued to persuade the boy. "Think. You picked the lock the second night; you couldn't do a thing. But tomorrow -- the port. And then -- the mine. Don't think that you can get out chains like that there. There's one exit, and there are no locks in the mine -- guards watch there. I know; I was there. So you'll miss your chance -- the Word won't help you!"
The boy grew still.
"Well, and would you take off the lock?" I laughed to myself very quietly. "What more? Do you think I can't open it? Feel!"
I forced him to take up the hasp of the lock and rapidly pulled from my own pocket my hidden worst-case pick -- durable, good, just torn off from the cot -- and put it into the lock mechanism. The lock clicked very quietly, unlocking.
"Why am I here? But where would I go? Let's assume I manage the bolt -- not much work. What more? Jump overboard?"
"Yes, yes, row hundreds of miles in a boat. Smart guy. You want me to let you out now? Run... Only give me your iron ore... by the way, do you have it there?"
Mark tried to act as if he didn't hear the question. Or was he really thinking?
"Then what to do?"
"Wait till port. Run on the rope, the usual business. Well, and...on the whole, you can get away."
The boy spoke louder from excitement, and I stopped up his mouth.
"Quiet! How -- not your concern. The main thing is that that's exactly when the metal's needed. I can open nonsense like this with only a pick. But I need metal to unlock a good big lock. I need to unlock it fast!"
"With a knife -- would you be able?"
"You have a knife? Yeah...sure. Show me!"
I said it and bit my tongue; the request was too hard and sharp. And loud.
But Mark had decided. He whispered something -- under his breath; I caught nothing. And he extended his hand to me.
His palm was cold, as if the boy had held it on ice for several minutes. With a sinking heart I realized that right next to me -- he knew the Word! But here was steel -- warm, warmed by his hand. They don't say it for nothing -- the Word only freezes the living.
"Careful, it's sharp!" warned Mark, too late.
Licking my finger, I felt the knife with my other hand. A short, narrow two-edged dagger. A handle carved from bone. Good steel, it seemed -- the boy hadn't broken the point or notched the edge of the blade once, rummaging clumsily in the lock.
"Fitting," I said. "Give it here...."
Of course, he didn't give it to me. Of course, I hadn't counted on this. I held the blade for another second, and then it disappeared. It dissolved under my fingers, and I held air.
"You're going to have to trust me all the same," I warned him.
There was no way out.
"Listen, I won't repeat it. We run on the rope...."
For ten minutes I made him understand, not forgetting to recall several times that he'd have to give me the knife anyway. The boy kept silent, but I got the feeling that he was agreeable.
"That means we're agreed?" I asked for clarity.
Correct. And where would he go? No fool; he understands that in the labyrinths of the old mines where thousands of convicts are crammed together, nothing good will happen to him.
"In the morning, stick together. They worm in, run on the rope they'll fix up -- start after me. As the time comes, I'll let you know."
"I can't go to the Islands...." whispered the boy.
"Right, you can't."
"You don't understand. I can't get off the ship."
"I...shouldn't have been in the prisoner squad."
Here it is! The old song. All of us here are loyal, innocent sons of the Expiator, unlucky brothers of the Sister. But around us -- are villains, murderers....
"They were supposed to have executed me."
I hadn't expected anything like that. The boy spoke with conviction, and no need to doubt him. Only they don't hang somebody for nothing; the judge may be a bastard, too, but they'd rather send a murderer to bake on hard labor or rummage around in the mines, than spend rope without reason.
If they don't take it to extremes, then they execute only convicts such that his fellow convicts would rip him up all the same. Well, if someone killed a woman bearing a child -- this was understandable, this the Sister left to us when they led her to the bonfire. To kill someone asleep or helpless -- also a mortal sin. If the known count of victims is over twelve -- and here the matter is clear; the Expiator truly said, "Even should he fell a dozen, all the same he is pure before me, if wholeheartedly he repents", but about the second dozen he was silent. Possible, of course, to have misbehaved before the House -- only what extreme could the boy have contrived to anger the House?
In any case, I moved back from Mark. If the young guy's head wasn't in order, then I'd have to watch myself. He only needed a moment with the Word to reach into the Cold and get his knife. But me against steel -- in the darkness, when you can't see your own nose?
"Fear not," said the boy, and I jerked up at this impudence. But I kept silent -- what to do? -- and I really did fear. Though there was barely, barely any light, though there was a chink in the deck and an icon-lamp on the other end of the hold -- I was used to it all. I'd crept through the Saxe caves, groped in Kirghiz barrows, cleaned out Chinese palaces by night, when one phosphoric light came from the ceiling of the heavens... But there was nothing -- but sit, wait, and if not, get a dagger stuck in my side.
"And what kind of business should they have hung you for?"
"That's true. Only what are you afraid of now? The sentence was given, you got into a ship, they almost towed you to the Islands. You feel how the waves pound? This is already coastal tossing. The pilot is inexperienced; he's afraid to enter the bay by night.
"If they understood...there..."
"And what? They'll send out a clipper after you? A great bird! They will send it with an order to hang you on the spot, or conversely to send you back."
"Maybe a clipper, maybe a glider."
Well, well. That's so with everyone. I remember one little type who seduced a girl, shaking so in the chamber -- "They'll hang me, hang me"... But he got lashes, yes, he even got to go home.
"Go lie down and sleep," I ordered, as if Mark himself had gotten out of his cot in tears. "Tomorrow you'll need your strength. Consider -- you may have the cleverest cleverness, but if you don't know how to run -- that's the end."
I helped the boy back to his cot, chain jingling loudly, and already not even one convict woke up. They started to turn over, coughed, and groaned; someone cursed sleepily. But I lay down for a while, closed my lock at the right moment, and started to think.
Big stuff -- to know the Word. I'd never once seen anything like it; it usually took place over our heads. In war, when I was drafted into the army in my youth. Or in a dark corner in a strange house, praying to Sister that the owner would pass by and not force my sins to multiply.
But to be here that way, holding it in my hand when they whisper the Word and climb into the Cold -- never. True, there was Silent Gomez, who'd earned his name with heroic stuff, but not atrocities. And they drank together, and the revellers arranged it. But then they found him in an alley, so cut and stabbed all over that it became clear to everyone -- they'd asked him for the Word. The smile on Gomez' face was frozen, terrible, evil. Apparently, he'd endured everything, but not revealed the
But that boy, where did the boy know it from? Did his father give it to him? Then exactly -- he was of the aristocrats. Ah, Joker, he got used to me, he watched Baldy, and who was hiding the Word -- he didn't realize. That means, like your fart....
They fed us hurriedly and with what was obviously garbage. The sailors had gotten bolder; they no longer feared a riot. Joker himself brought a cauldron of kasha glue, not even fish-flavored, and a basin. He stood by the door and threw glances as the convicts, wincing, filled their bellies. He was lulled by the weaving. The ship rocked slightly on the waves, but lazily -- even those who labored under sea-sickness had cheered up. Making noise already, getting down the anchor and the capstan, and right next to it, the outboard, we heard muted voices. And that was right; they didn't just bring us, the worker cattle. They also brought provisions from the capital for the officers: weapons, clothing, tools. That town wasn't all that small anymore; there were many to feed near the garrison.
"Well, it's time!" The Joker put on his most polite smile. "I'm glad for you, and unhappy in grief. You will expiate your guilt in honest labor -- I must carry mine back."
"Just don't stay," growled Loki. Only yesterday, he could have gotten a lash for his impudence, but today he escaped their hands.
Joker moved along the hold, stopping by occupied cots and unlocking the chain. All the same, he was a man of great courage -- he wasn't afraid to take the fetters from twenty bandits all by himself. Though of course, he also understood what we all knew -- that the deck and the mooring now were watched by guards.
Joker stopped near me and asked, "Should I take off the lock, or can you manage by yourself?"
"Take it off already," I asked.
Joker shook his head. "That such as you wouldn't know how to take off a lock with a woodchip, too...."
My heart missed a beat, but the overseer opened the lock and passed on. No, he suspected nothing. Probably disappointed that Slippery Ilmar had proved so simple to check.
Nothing. Suffer, friend. Soon you'll get your show....
Mark jumped from the top bunk, rubbing the wrist chafed by the chain. As it always is with boys; they forged it too tightly so that they couldn't get out of the cuff with a flexible hand. But the bleeding track didn't bother Mark. He came toward me with such a conspiratorial look that I instantly turned away. Joker was on the scent; it wouldn't be worth it to anger the Sister with my own stupidity in making trouble.
"One at a time, one at a time, go up!" cried Joker. "Move!"
I was fifth or sixth in line; after me came Mark. After ten days' imprisonment in the close, stuffy, and smelly box, the possibility alone of leaving the hold seemed miraculous, an unprecedented gift. It all gladdened me -- the little corridor, and the steep ladder, and -- here it is, happiness! -- a square of cloudless sky in the hatchway.
"Pass on, don't hang back!" they bellowed at me from the deck. Squinting from dazzling sunlight, I rose, got a kind but strong push in the back, and joined the group of convicts.
The ship on which they'd brought us to the Sad Islands was not large, but strong and tidy. The deck -- mast, sail - it is accurately rigged and set, all in their places. They all have a strict sea placement and incomprehensible name. If I weren't a thief, I would have become a sailor...
The ten-man squad guarding us seemed far more lax than the ship's sailors. Given that they were wonderfully well-armed -- both crossbows and bronze broadswords, and one even had a bullet-thrower in hand. On the other hand, they had a dirty look, sour mugs, and fat. You can't hide the truth with iron.
In front of the guards lay a coil of thick rope. Everything as I'd known it'd be.
This was good. I'd hoped for this.
Turning my eyes from the guards, I started admiring the islands. My eyes watered, but it was nothing. After the darkness of the hold, I remembered with surprise that in light, there's distance and perspective.
The Sad Islands -- three of them, but now we stood off the coast of the largest, the most inhabited, and the most beautiful. Rocky shores overgrown with lush verdure. brown hills in the distance, a fort on the huge steep rock towering over the bay, and a town squeezed against the port -- confused, noisy, and bright. Far off in the mountains rose the smoke of the furnaces... at half power -- they'd smoked far more strongly earlier on. It was beauty, and the beauty was that last dying loveliness that I love most of all... In the middle of the city, as could be assumed, rose the spire of the Expiator's church and the cupola of the Patron-Sister's temple. I jealously noted that the spire was far taller, and the the tree's gilding had recently been redone. Eh, Sister, should I live -- I'll bring you a present. It's bad that they're forgetting you these days.... The ship stood in its berth; the loaders scurried here and there on the lowered gangplank, throwing condescending smirks and glances at us. Fine. We'd see yet who'd be laughing last....
Mark came out, stumbling, barely finding his way. The guardsmen burst out laughing, looking at our clumsy movements, and clearly they didn't expect trouble. Someone among the convicts even fell; this provoked particularly wild merriment.
But I was delighted by the light. My eyes already were adjusting; in my line of work, you can't do without this. My chest couldn't not breathe in the sweet pure air. Even the guardsmen's abuse improved my mood -- after all, these were new people, not those snouts that'd become so loathsome to me during the week.
"To the rope," one of the guardsmen finally ordered. "C'mon, who's the brave one...."
And suddenly, Mark took a step forward.
I nearly started to yell "Stop!", but I couldn't attract attention to myself in any way. I couldn't in any way.
"Good boy," the guardsman, elderly and good-natured in appearance, praised Mark. "Follow orders, honor the Expiator -- you'll get back home...."
Dexterously, he threw around the boy's neck a loop of rope connected with a short rope to a second loop, quite narrow. He pulled a tarred rope end out of the coil, jerked it through the small loop, and announced thoughtfully, "Is it pressing on you?"
Mark shook his head, and of course he tightened the craftily connected loop. The guardsmen neighed with laughter.
The old guardsman slackened the knot and said didactically, "Don't pull your head, you'll be strangled... Next!"
My well-thought out plan had flown all to the Devil. And all the same, pushing back Loki, who'd already taken a step forward, I walked to the rope. I waited silently while they put the leash around my neck; then I bent down and started to uncoil the rope.
"Hey, what you doing?" said the stunned guardsman.
"It'll strangle the kid if he has to stand between two grown men," I explained to him. "He has to go first."
"But really...." The guardsman had fumbled this, in the convicts' view. Evidently, he would ponder who to put right after Mark, so the size increase would be a little less.
But the convicts picked out for him were tall. Indeed, I seemed like the shortest... especially now, when I was busy stooping.
"Fine, stand behind him," said the guardsman anxiously. "And walk carefully. Choke the boy -- you'll get lashes!"
Now there was no speech about what goodwill this was; Mark's small stature deprived the guardsman of his expected entertainment. They sorted the convicts by height, cursing the judge who'd put the boy into an adult troop of prisoners. Surely Mark was right in saying that he'd been sent to the mines by bad luck -- they usually exiled tall, strong men here. For children, there were punishments throughout the Dominions -- to sluice gold dust up north, or to find leftover ore in the tailings of old iron mines....
I stood behind Mark and, using the general noise for cover, hissed, "What have you done?"
"They said it themselves -- I'd strangle between two adults," answered the boy in a whisper.
He lied. He only thought that up after I said it. But what was the matter was something else -- he didn't want to let the knife out of his hands....
"The lock can't be opened!"
"Open it yourself."
I waited, seething with illwill. Finally, they'd strung us all onto the rope, and stoppered its ends with wooden bars and heavy locks. So... the key was big, two bits, three cuts, it turned to the left....
Twenty seconds' work, if by knife. Too long. I needed to be faster. Granted, the guardsmen here didn't give honor to the service. All the same, after twenty seconds, anybody would notice something wrong.
"Forward! You've loafed enough!" When we all had been gotten under lock and key, the guardsman's tone changed elusively. The ridicule seemed the same, but now it became nastier, more annoying. "Git!"
And we moved toward the ladder.