Simna ibn Sind sat contemplating more gold than he had ever believed could be found in one place. Lifting back the lid of one of the small metal-banded wooden chests that floated like carracks among the coins, he let his gaze linger on its contents: military decorations and awards wrought in the semibarbaric and florid style of the Chlengguu. There were formal lapel pins of fine filigreed gold inlaid with emeralds and sapphires, tsavorites and pearls; medals prominent with ivory and amber cameos of unknown nobles; satin ribbons from which hung intricate scenes etched into the faces of rare crystals by master engravers. Each worth a pocket fortune, and all his. The riches of a lifetime.
Rising abruptly, jaw set, he flung the chest aside, causing its contents to spill in an instant of sparkling evanescence across the pile’s front slope. He found his companions at the entrance to the main hall, preparing to depart.
“Oh no you don’t!” he shouted at Ehomba. Pausing in the act of adjusting the straps of his backpack, the herdsman looked back curiously.
The swordsman stomped up to the taller southerner and got right in his face. “Think you’re all too clever, don’t you?”
Expression innocent of guile, Ehomba regarded his friend. “Simna, I do not know what you mean.”
“Like Grestel’s choice you don’t!” He gestured angrily back the way he had come. “Thinking you can buy me off with a pittance like that!”
“Pittance? My friend, from what little I know about gold, I would think what you have here enough for any man.”
“Leave him to his counting.” Ahlitah growled impatiently. “We should make some distance before nightfall.”
Simna shot the big cat a look. “You keep out of this, masticator of minor mammals.” Not even deigning to respond, the litah sighed and settled down on his belly to wait out the rest of the confrontation. When humans were arguing, it was all one could do. “That’s what you want me to think, isn’t it?” the swordsman told Ehomba accusingly. “That this is enough. First you tried to convince me you weren’t after treasure, and now you’re doing your best to use this trifle to bribe me to stay behind. Well, it’s not going to work.”
Ehomba smiled and shook his head slowly. “My friend, nothing of the sort ever—”
Simna would not let him finish. Instead, he raised a hand and waved it in the herdsman’s face. “No, no—don’t try to deny it!” A broad grin on his face, he began walking toward the exit. “You may as well forget the whole idea, Etjole. You’re not rid of me that easily. I’m sticking to you like a father to his daughter in a naval port until we find the real treasure!” With that he marched imperiously through the portal, forcing himself not to look back in the direction of the storeroom and its glittering riches.
Lifting his mane, Ahlitah yawned conspicuously. “Can we go now?”
Shaking his head, the quietly exasperated herdsman followed in the swordsman’s wake. “Sometimes, my feline friend, I think I understand sheep better than humans.”
Unwinding itself from the floor, the great ebony cat padded along close beside him. “That’s because sheep are more sensible than humans. Now, for real intelligence and common sense, you need to talk to a cat.”
They emerged into the courtyard. No longer having to compete with a fiery, angry visitor from beyond, the sun shone placidly down on the ravaged expanse of the Queppa lands.
“So then tell me,” the herdsman inquired as they began to catch up to the boldly striding Simna, “how does sleeping nineteen or twenty hours a day really affect the quality of your life?”
Predator’s eyes swung around to meet his own. “You ask a lot of questions, Etjole Ehomba.”
The herdsman smiled agreeably. “It is my nature.”
* * * *
It was farther to the Aboqua than Ehomba had hoped, but not as far as he feared. Keeping to a major north-south trade route that followed a convenient canyon through the range of coastal mountains, they soon found themselves sharing the way with a people who called themselves Maliin. They had fine homes and were not much for farming, tending to concentrate in numerous bustling towns and villages. Reports of the invasion of the Queppa had suffused their daily lives with apprehension and dread, so they were much relieved to hear that the cold, cruel Chlengguu had once again been defeated.
As the bearers of such good tidings, Ehomba and his friends were received with good cheer wherever they stopped. Eager for the latest news from the interior and relieved that it was, for the most part, all good, enthusiastic townsfolk took pleasure in tending to the needs of the quaint trio of pilgrims. Anointed a herald by the grateful populace, Ahlitah had to suffer the attentions of giggling, delighted children. They pulled his tail and buried themselves in his mane. Ehomba was gratified to see the great cat handle it with dignity and forbearance, even if he did spend many moments grinding his teeth in exasperation at the attention.
“I know you would rather eat them,” he whispered to the litah during a private moment, “but a guest who devoured the offspring of his hosts would not continue to be regarded with favor. Restrain yourself a while longer, until we can find ourselves a ship.”
The litah’s tongue lolled as he stared unblinkingly at a pair of particularly plump six-year-olds. Saliva trickled from one corner of his open mouth. This did not unsettle their hosts, who thought the big cat was merely cooling himself.
“Find one fast, man, and tell our friends to keep the meat coming, or as surely as blood runs red I am liable to forget myself.”
It was therefore for an assortment of reasons that Ehomba was relieved when, employing some of Simna’s Chlengguu gold, they finally were able to book passage aboard a single-masted, square-rigged merchantman departing for the northern shores of the Aboqua. While more than a few members of the crew were leery about having so large and ferocious a feline running loose onboard, they took heart when his “keepers” demonstrated their control over it.
“Is this really necessary?” Reposing on the open deck with his forepaws crossed and jaws parted wide, a mildly annoyed Ahlitah held a pose while Ehomba placed his head deep into the cat’s cavernous, gaping mouth. Behind him, sailors whistled and cheered their approval and admiration. The herdsman withdrew himself and the cat slowly shut his jaws.
“That should be enough to reassure them you are tame,” Ehomba said under his breath.
The litah’s eyes widened slightly. “Tame, am I? They’d better hope this vessel’s supplies are adequate or they’re liable to see how ‘tame’ I really am.” Looking to his right, he inhaled deeply. “I’ve heard about the sea but never expected to see it. It smells like certain shallow lakes in late summer. All brine and brittle.”
“The voyage will not be long, as such journeys go, and I think you will enjoy it.” Ehomba ruffled the big cat’s mane. “The captain assures me there will be fresh fish for the duration of our crossing.”
Half closing his eyes, the litah placed his head down on his crossed paws. “Then I’ll be content. I quite like fish.” Within moments, he was snoring softly.
“Make sail there!” the first mate was shouting from his post alongside the helmsman. “Let go your main braces! Pulleys and haul. Ware the jetty cleats!”
Simna joined the southerner forward, where the truncated bowsprit thrust boldly out over the water. All around them, men were busy preparing to depart the tidy, compact harbor, with its freshly swept streets and innumerable pots and boxes of flowers.
“Been some time since I’ve sailed across anything wider than a lake.” He nodded northward. “Onward to treasure and glory, hoy?”
“To the fulfillment of my obligation,” Ehomba countered evenly.
“Aye, right, whatever.” Grinning expansively, the swordsman clapped his friend on his narrow back. For the first time in many weeks they were without the burden of packs and weapons, these having been placed in their private cabin belowdecks.
“It was good of the townspeople to recommend us to this ship’s master for passage.” The sea here was calmer, warmer, less fractious than the one that washed the beaches below his village, the herdsman reflected.
“Hoy, I never saw so many relieved faces as when we told them of the Chlengguu’s overthrow. I think they were grateful enough to buy us a boat, had we but asked them for one.”
“This is better.” Crossing his arms, Ehomba bent forward to lean on the wooden railing. “I am no sailor.”
“Naturally not.” Edging close and lowering his voice to a whisper, Simna gave his rangy friend a conspiratorial nudge. “Of course, with your powers you could have commanded a ship to sail itself, right?”
Ehomba sighed wearily. “When will you get it through your head, Simna, that I am nothing more than a humble herder of chewers of cud?”