“Really?” The other man swept his right arm around in a broad arc to encompass every inch of their aqueous surroundings. “With whom? Fish?”
“Something like that.” Turning away, the herdsman resumed wringing water from his kilt.
Simna grunted and looked over at the sleepy Ahlitah. “He’s going to talk to fish. Me, I don’t see the use of it.”
“Can he talk to fish?” the cat asked curiously.
The swordsman stole a glance in his companion’s direction. “I dunno. He’s a funny sort, is Etjole. After we first hooked up together he told me a story about him spending time with some monkeys. I thought it was just that: a story. But the better I get to know him, the more I’m not sure.”
“So you think you know him?” The litah’s massive jaws gaped in an impressive yawn.
Simna shrugged confidently. “Sure I know him! He’s a sorcerer, see? Only he won’t admit to it. Hunting after a great lost treasure he is, and I aim to help him acquire it in return for a share. He’ll probably cut you in on the haul, too.”
“And what would I do with the bastard currency of human exchange? A warm place to sleep, plenty of game—preferably old and slow or young and stupid—and a pride of willing females one of whom is always in heat, and I would have all I could ask for. I am immune from and indifferent to the driving need that you humans suffer from to accumulate things. Spending so much time in accumulating, you forget to live.” He yawned again. “Your friend, however, is a breed of human I have not met before.”
“By Gwantha, he’s a new breed of human to me as well,” the swordsman confessed.
“Then who knows? Maybe he can talk to fish.” A guttural cough emerged from the muscular throat as the big cat closed his eyes and rolled over onto his back, all four paws in the air. “Me, I would rather eat them than talk to them.”
“Don’t see what good it would do us anyway,” Simna muttered uncertainly. “Even if he could arrange for us to ride, what fish would be big enough to carry you? And every time we reached the far side of one of these lunatic floating blobs of water we’d have to get off our fishy mounts, scramble over the side, climb up into another and find new fish in the new pond to carry us. Be quicker to walk—provided the water covering the real ground doesn’t get any deeper.” He concluded with a deep breath: “Well, best to leave it to Etjole. He’s the brains here.”
Eyes shut tight, the drowsing litah barely responded. “Among the humans, anyway.”
“THEY HAVE BEEN WATCHING US FOR A LONG TIME. EVER SINCE we crossed the river, I think.”
“What?” Suddenly alarmed, Simna left off repacking his kit and looked around wildly.
Ahlitah lifted his head, nose in the air, nostrils working. “I see nothing. But I do smell something—unusual.”
Without moving from where he was standing, the now wary swordsman turned a slow circle. Beyond the island in the floating pond and outside its transparent boundaries, hundreds of additional bodies of water drifted independent of one another, some the size of small lakes, others mere globules no bigger than a child’s ball. Some squeezed together until their mysterious transparent envelopes merged to form a larger aqueous mass while others wrenched apart until they separated into two or more distinct hovering bodies. He tried to let his gaze touch every one of them, but nowhere did he see anything out of the ordinary.
“There’s nothing out there,” he declared conclusively. “Nothing but fish and frogs, newts and waterbirds.”
“No, you are wrong.” One hand shielding his eyes from the mist-shrouded sun, Ehomba was standing at the water’s edge staring off to the east. “There is something else. Something greater.”
“They’re coming closer.” Head back, nose in the air, Ahlitah was inhaling a scent still too subtle for human nostrils to detect.
“Where, by Gheju! I don’t see anything, and I don’t smell anything! Except you two.” Frustrated, Simna stomped up and down the tiny beach, sending tide-zone insects and crustaceans scrambling for cover from the footprints he left in the soft soil.
They came from beneath the rising sun, distant dots at first that soon matured into rising and falling arcs of glistening pink, as if the morning had decided to hesitate in its brightening and mark the pause with a series of rose-hued commas. With the precision of experienced acrobats they advanced by leaping lithely from one hovering body of water to the next, sometimes entering those nearest the ground, then ascending skyward from pond to pond as if climbing a watery ladder. This they did effortlessly, soaring from floating lakes to drifting ponds in spite of the fact that a single missed leap would in all probability result in the slow, unpleasant death of the jumper. Because while they could live out of water, they could not do so for very long.
“Dolphins!” Simna exclaimed. “Here?”
“Yes, here,” Ehomba murmured. “They have sharp eyes, and even sharper hearing, and ways of seeing the world at distances greater than either eyes or ears can match.”
“But dolphins are creatures of the sea,” Simna protested as he watched the school continue its approach, leaping from one drifting body of water to the next.
“Not always,” rumbled Ahlitah. “I have seen these very same, or their relations, playing in the rivers that crisscross the veldt.”
“There are sea dolphins and freshwater dolphins,” Ehomba informed his friend.
“I guess there are,” admitted Simna. “Strangely colored they are and—” He broke off, frowning. “Wait a minute. You’ve been telling me that you come from a desert country. Now you’re saying that you know all about the different kinds of dolphins, even those that live in fresh water. Deserts aren’t known for a surplus of deep rivers. How do you know so much about this kind of water dweller?”
The herdsman smiled gently down at his friend. “The dolphins of the sea know well their inland relatives. Where river meets ocean they often meet and talk, and sometimes exchange matings. I know about the river dolphins because the sea dolphins told me of them.”
“Ah. So you don’t talk to fish. You talk to dolphins.”
“No. No man talks to dolphins. It is up to the dolphins to talk to men.”
“And they just happened to settle on you?” Simna eyed the tall southerner slyly. “Why would that be, Etjole? Because you are making all of this up to keep from confessing what I’ve known all along? That you are a sorcerer?”
“Not at all, Simna. They talk to me because I like to take long walks by myself along the beach, and the shores of my country are desolate. The currents there are swift and cold. There are men who kill dolphins, for food and to keep them from competing for the catch. I would never do such a thing. How can one eat another who is known to be kind as well as intelligent?”
Behind them, Ahlitah licked a paw. “I’ve never had any trouble with that.”
“Well, I could never do such a thing. I believe that they can sense a kind and kindred spirit. I have been talking to dolphins since I was a child.”
“So you called them to us?” Simna wondered uncertainly.
“Nothing of the kind.” Raising his gaze once more, Ehomba monitored the school’s advance. They were quite near now, slowing as they debated which floating globules to use to make their final approach. “I doubt they have seen many humans in this place before, or perhaps none at all before us. Naturally curious as they are, I believe they have simply grown too interested in our presence here to stay away any longer.” He began walking backward. “You should step away from the water.”
“Why?” Then Simna noted the enthusiastic splashes the oncoming dolphins were making and hastily gathered up his gear, moving it to higher ground among the trio of casuarinas.
The dolphins arrived singly and in pairs, leaping magnificently from a second pond into the one where the travelers had spent the night. There were a dozen of them, including a quartet of youngsters. They took up much of the available water, forcing the indigenous inhabitants up against the transparent skin of the hovering pond or close inshore as the invaders dashed in energetic circles around the island, squeaking and barking joyously. With their bright pink coloration they resembled strips of flame shooting through the water.
If it was a form of ceremonial greeting, it was a dizzying one, as Ehomba and his companions struggled to follow the streamlined racers’ progress around and around the little island. Eventually the new arrivals tired of the game and settled down to hunting out the fish and other pond dwellers who were trying to hide in the crevices and roots of the island.