“I still cannot get over that tree.” The herdsman stepped over a small gully. “Standing out there all by itself, with nothing else growing around it, not even a blade of grass. And I have never seen that kind of tree before.”
“I have.” Simna kicked at a small red stone, sending it skipping across the hardpan floor of the wadi down which they were walking. “To the north of my homeland. There are lots of them there. They’re nice trees, and as you found out, their nuts are delicious.”
“They certainly are,” the herdsman readily agreed.
Alongside him, still towing the remnants of their floating pond, Ahlitah snorted. “Omnivores! You’ll eat anything.”
“Not quite anything,” Simna shot back. “I find cat, for example, stringy and tough.”
“But why was it there?” Ehomba was reflecting aloud. “Obviously so far from where its kind of tree normally grows, all alone on top of that small dune? It must have some important meaning.”
“It means somebody else traveling through this Gholos-forgotten land dropped a seed or two, and unlikely as it may be, one took root on that knoll.” The swordsman was not sympathetic to his tall companion’s interest. “You ask too many questions, Etjole.”
“That is because I like answers.”
“Not every question has an answer, bruther.” Simna avoided the disarticulated skeleton of a dead dragonets. Fragments of wing membrane clung to the long finger bones like desiccated parchment.
Ehomba eyed him in surprise. “Of course they do. A question without an answer is not a question.”
The swordsman opened his mouth, started to say something, then closed it, a puzzled look on his face as he continued to stride along. It was early, the sun was not yet at its highest, and the increasing heat disinclined him to pursue the matter further. Not wishing to clutter up the place with another of the herdsman’s inexplicable commentaries, he put it clean out of his mind, a process that with much practice he had perfected some time ago.
Days passed without incident. Game began to reappear. Not in profusion, but sufficient to satisfy Ahlitah’s appetite as well as that of his less voracious companions. Standing sentinel over abating desert, date, coconut, and ivory nut palms began to appear. Other, smaller flora found protection at the foot of these taller growths.
When the travelers began to encounter otherwise dry riverbeds that boasted small pools in their depths as well as more frequent traditional oases, Ahlitah kicked off the shackles he had been using to tow the remnants of the floating pond. It was nearly drained anyway, and he was tired of the constant drag on his shoulders. Despite the escalating ubiquity of freestanding water, the ever cautious Ehomba argued for keeping the pond with them as long as it contained moisture. For once, Simna was able to stand aside and let his companions argue.
Ahlitah eventually won out, not through force of logic but because he had simply had enough of the ever-present pond. Simna watched with interest to see if the herdsman would employ some striking, overpowering magic to force the big cat to comply, but in this he was disappointed. Ehomba simply shrugged and acceded to the cat’s insistence. If he was capable of compelling the litah, he showed no sign of being willing to do so. Simna didn’t know whether to be disappointed or not.
They continued on. Once, when water had been scarce for several days, Ehomba muttered something to the big cat about performing reckless acts in unknown countries. Ahlitah snarled a response and moved away. But this scolding ended the next morning when they found a new water hole. Fringed by bullrushes and small palms, it offered shade as well as water once they had shooed away the small diving birds and nutrias.
After that, Ehomba said nothing more about water and the need to conserve it. This left Simna sorely conflicted. If the herdsman really was an all-powerful wizard traveling incognito, why would he let himself lose an argument he clearly felt strongly about to a mere cat? And if he wasn’t, how then to explain the sky-metal sword and the vial of miraculous whater? Was he really dependent for such expertise and achievements on the work of a village blacksmith and a coterie of chattering women? Where sorcery was concerned, was he after all no more than a vehicle and venue for the machinations of others?
Or was he simply so subtle not even someone as perceptive and experienced as Simna ibn Sind could see through the psychological veils and masks with which the tall southerner covered himself? Much troubled in mind, the swordsman trudged on, refusing to countenance the possibility that he might have, after all, allied himself to nothing more than a semiliterate cattle herder from the ignorant south.
Ehomba’s reaction to the palace that materialized out of the east was anything but reassuring.
Simna saw it first. “It’s a mirage. That’s all.” After a quick, casual glance, he returned his attention to the path they were following northward.
“But it is a striking one.” Ehomba had halted and was leaning on his spear, staring at the fantastical phantasm that now glimmered on the eastern horizon. “We should go and have a look.”
What manner of dry-country dweller was this, Simna wondered, who sought to visit something that was not there? “And just how would we go about doing that, bruther? I’m thinking maybe you’ve been too long on the road and too much in the sun.”
Ehomba looked over at him and smiled innocently. “By walking up to it, of course. Come.” Lifting his spear, he broke away at a right angle to their course.
“I was joking, by Geveran. Etjole!” Exasperated, and starting to worry if his tall friend really was suffering from the accumulated effects of too much sun, the swordsman turned to the third member of the party. “Cat, you can see what’s happening. Why don’t you go and pick him up by the scruff of his neck and haul him back like you would any wayward kitten?”
“Because his scruff is furless and I’d bite right through his scrawny neck, and also because I think I might like to have a look at that mirage myself.” Whereupon Ahlitah turned right and trotted off in the wake of the departing herdsman.
Aghast, Simna called after them. “Have you both lost what little sense you possess?” He gestured emphatically northward. “Every day brings us nearer some kind of civilization. You can practically smell it! And you want to go chasing after mirages? By Gwiquota, are you two listening to me?”
Sputtering inventive imprecations under his breath, the swordsman dropped his head and hurried to catch up to his companions. He calmed himself by determining that while it was a waste of time, the diversion wouldn’t waste much of it.
But he was wrong.
“Interesting,” Ehomba observed as they neared the object of their detour. “A real mirage. I have heard of them, but I never thought to set eyes on one.”
Simna had caught up to the others. “What do you mean, ‘a real mirage’? Is that as opposed to a fake mirage? Have you gone completely balmy?”
“No, look closely, my friend.” The herdsman raised his spear, which when walking he often held parallel to the ground, and pointed with the tip. “An ordinary mirage would be fading away by now, or retreating from us. This one does not wane, nor does it drift into the distance.”
“That’s crazy! Anyone knows that—” Simna broke off, his brows drawing together. “Offspring of Gupzu, you’re right. But how … ?”
“I told you.” Ehomba continued to lead the way. “It is a real mirage.”
Right up to the palace gates they strode, tilting back their heads to gawk up at the diaphanous turrets and downy-walled towers. From their peaks flags of many lands and lineages streamed in slow motion, though not a whisper of a breeze stirred the sand and soil beneath their feet.
Stopping outside the great gates, which were fashioned of pale yellow and pink wood strapped with bands of pallid blue metal, they weighed how best to enter. Simna continued to refuse to acknowledge the evidence of his own eyes.
“It’s impossible, bedamned impossible.” Reaching out, he tried to grab one of the metal bands. His fingers encountered only the slightest resistance before penetrating. It was like trying to clutch a cloud. Drawing back his fingers, he stared down at the handful of blue fog they had come away with. It lay in his palm like a puff of the finest dyed cotton. When he turned his hand over, the vapor floated free, drifting lazily down to the ground. There it lay, at rest and unmoving, a small fragment of mirage all by itself.
“Impressive walls,” he found himself saying softly, “but they wouldn’t stand much of a siege.”
“This is a special thing.” The herdsman advanced and the gate could not, did not, stop him. He walked right through, leaving behind an Ehomba-sized hole, like a cookie cutout of himself. Instantly, the opening began to close up, the wall to re-form behind him. Ahlitah followed, making an even larger breach through which Simna strolled in turn, a disbelieving but triumphant invader.