One of the dolphins did not. Instead, it swam slowly toward the three travelers with effortless strokes of its broad, flat tail. Its head was different from those of its seagoing relatives, being narrower and with a prominent forehead in back of the long beak. Turning slightly to her left, she raised her head out of the water and parted tooth-lined jaws.
“I am Merlescu, Queen of the High River School and of the central district of the Water-That-Flies. Who are you?” Dancing eyes tracked their every movement.
Simna leaned close to whisper up at his tall friend. “No wonder you can talk to them. They speak perfectly.”
“Of course we speak perfectly!” declared the queen. “Why would you think otherwise, man?”
“Oh, I dunno. Maybe because I’ve never before heard your people do anything but squeak like oversized finned mice.”
It was hard to tell if Merlescu was smiling, because her kind were always smiling. Inherited physiognomy made any other expression impossible.
“It suits us to speak our own language around humans and to keep them ignorant as to our true abilities. Except,” she added as she turned to face Ehomba, “a very few. You, man, have about you a kind and sympathetic aspect.”
“Oh really?” Simna made a show of inspecting his companion’s face. “He looks pretty ordinary to me.”
“What are you doing in the land of the Water-That-Flies?”
“We are making our way north,” Ehomba explained, “so that we may eventually book passage on a boat going to the dry territories that lie to the west.”
“So very far!” Pivoting on her tail, she squealed at her school, whose members replied with energetic squeaks and chirps. Looking back at the travelers, she professed, “I have never met anyone who has crossed the ocean. Not even others of my kind—though there was one who insisted she had talked to one who had talked to one who had done it. What drives you three to undertake so extensive and dangerous a journey?”
“An obligation,” Ehomba told her.
“Treasure,” added Simna.
“The tall idiot had to go and save my life,” fumed Ahlitah.
Merlescu nodded, a gesture that dolphins often used among themselves, particularly when there were no humans around to witness it. “I see that your motivations are as diverse as your appearance.” Turning her body around, she gestured with a fin. “Many, many days of difficult travel stretch out ahead of you before you will come to the end of the Water-That-Flies. This is country best suited to those with fins, or with wings. Not to those with awkward, many-jointed legs. North of here the Water-That-Flies becomes denser still. You will find very few places where you can slip between.”
“I wanted to ask you about that.” Walking right up to the water’s edge, Ehomba sat down and stretched out his legs. Merlescu swam close enough to rest the tip of her beak on one of his bare ankles. Behind them, Ahlitah found himself contemplating a large and easy meal until Simna jabbed him hard in the ribs. The great maned head whirled on the human, but the swordsman, more familiar now and therefore more comfortable with the great cat’s moodiness, did not flinch.
“I see what you’re thinking, kitty. Don’t. Can’t you see that Etjole’s working his magic on our behalf?”
“What magic?” The litah growled softly. “They are only talking.”
“Ah, but that’s how our friend Etjole works his magic. With words. At least that’s the only way I’ve been able to catch him working it so far.”
“Of what possible use to us can talk with these water dwellers be?”
“I don’t know,” Simna readily admitted. “But this I do know: Etjole wouldn’t be wasting his time doing so if he didn’t think we would benefit in the end. So let’s just sit on our natural instincts for a while and see what develops, shall we?” Experimentally, he prodded the litah’s belly. “This morning you ate more fish than both of us put together. Surely you’re not hungry again already?”
“Watch your hands, man. You presume a familiarity that has not been granted.” Settling himself back down on all fours, Ahlitah concentrated intently on the verbal byplay taking place between human and dolphin. “I am not hungry. I just felt like killing something.”
“Well, my furry friend, hold that thought.” Ignoring the big cat’s warning, the swordsman leaned up against the muscular flank, using it for casual support. “I have a feeling that before this little excursion is done you will have more than one opportunity to indulge it.”
Merlescu drew back slightly, sliding deeper into the water. “That is a fine proposition for you, man, but what do we get out of it? You ask much in return for nothing.”
“I would never propose anything so one-sided.” The seated Ehomba was quick to reassure her. “Your rewards for helping us will be many. For one thing, you will be rid of us and any lingering worries our presence in your territory may cause you. More importantly, you will have that rare chance to work together in a manner I know your kind delights in but can only rarely experience. It will require great precision and timing on the part of you and all the members of your school.” He looked away and shrugged indifferently.
“Of course, if you are not the kind of school that delights in this type of activity, we can always try to make contact with another. It may be that you and yours are not up to the challenge. If so, I will understand. After all, that which is elementary is for those whose focus is forever on taking it easy.”
“What, what?” Backing off, the greatly distressed dolphin churned the water as she spun in a tight circle. After several moments of this she reapproached the shore and spat a mouthful of dirty pond water straight into Ehomba’s face. Simna straightened and next to him he could feel Ahlitah’s muscles tense, but the herdsman did not appear in the least perturbed.
Calmly, he wiped water and plant matter from his dripping face. “That is not an answer. Can you do it?”
“Can we? Can we?” She took up another mouthful of water and for a moment Simna thought she was going to drench his friend again—but she did not. Slowly, the water trickled from her jaws. “It is not a matter of can we, but will we.”
“I refuse to concede the point without proof. Will you?” Ehomba leaned forward and squeaked something at her. “It will be great fun—if you can make it happen.”
“It is not up to me. We of the water do not work things as humans do. Not even queens.” Turning and squeaking, she swam out into the deeper water of the pond, calling the members of the school to her. While they convened in a mass of squeals and barks, Simna sidled over to his friend. Ahlitah pretended disinterest as long as he could, but soon he too was standing within leisurely hearing range of the tall herdsman.
“What did you ask of them?” The swordsman kept his eyes on the garrulous, squawling dolphins.
“To help us,” Ehomba explained honestly.
“Help us!” Ahlitah grunted. “How can such as they help us? Without filling our bellies, I mean.”
“Remember what I said previously about engaging conversation?” Ehomba nodded toward the dolphins. “I have just had some. Be patient until they are finished with their squabbling.”
So Simna ibn Sind and Ahlitah squirmed silently and waited to see what their lanky friend was about, wondering how it might involve the three of them with a pack of obstreperous, noisy water dwellers who were not fish but not human, either.
After what seemed like hours of raucous argument the school broke up, its members resuming their former activities of hunting, playing, mating, and chasing one another around and around the single island. Merlescu swam slowly back to land. Leaning back so that she was floating upright in the water, she once again addressed herself to Ehomba. But her words and her gaze encompassed all three of them.
“We will need to find some vines.” As she spoke a trio of adults leaped clear of the pond, across the intervening open space, and into another, larger drifting body of water beyond. “This may take a little time.” With that she turned her head and slipped back beneath the surface.
“Vines?” Simna frowned at his friend. “What do we need with vines?’
“I am not even marginally vegetarian,” Ahlitah added.
“Have you ever wondered what it would be like to swim to the bottom of a pond and be able to stare right through the bottom? It must puzzle the fish.” Stripping off his kilt and shirt, Ehomba kicked off his sandals and dove, naked and none too gracefully, into the water. A pair of the younger dolphins promptly swam up to him and, chattering and squeaking, began a game of tag with him as the divider between.