Arnfinn stood there in the middle of the thicket a while longer, his eyes closed now, his right hand still gripping Sightblinder’s hilt. His shivering fear, even before the tremors of it died out in his arms and legs, had almost entirely transformed itself into something else. Before his eyes opened, he had begun to smile.
He had never seen Lake Alk-maar before, but when first he came in sight of the broad, shimmering water there was no doubt in his mind that he had found it. He stopped and dismounted, letting the beast rest after the long, slow climb up the landward side of the hills. Arnfinn remained standing on the tortuous road for some time, petting his mount absently and looking down.
Well below him, and still at some little distance, lay the biggest settlement Arnfinn had ever seen, which had to be the town of Triplicane. Even now, in the middle of the day, the smoke from more than a dozen chimneys faintly marked the air. At the lakeside docks in this town, his advisers in the village had assured him, he would be able to find a boat that would take him out to the castle.
He raised his gaze slightly. There, on an island out near the middle of the lake, was the castle, looking appropriately magical, just as it had been described to him. The home of the benign wizard Honan-Fu himself.
The wizard, Arnfinn had been told, was a little old man with a wispy beard and a kindly manner. He tried now to imagine what it might be like to talk to such a powerful man, and what the good wizard might be likely to offer Arnfinn for such a Sword.
But now, for the first time, Arnfinn felt a stirring of reluctance to give Sightblinder up, even at a price that would have made the people of Lunghai very happy.
Frowning slightly, he remounted his load beast and started down the road to town.
As he passed to and fro along the windings of the descending way, the landscape below him changed. The far end of the town came briefly into sight, bringing with it his first glimpse of the roofs and grounds of an extensive lakeside manor.
Arnfinn had scarcely given that house a single conscious thought during his journey, but even before he had started he had known of its existence. And he knew the name of the person who was said to live there, who must be grown-up enough by now to have her own establishment apart from her father’s. Only now, when he was actually in sight of the place, did the idea suggest itself to him that maybe, on his way to sell the Sword, he might just dare…
To do what? He wasn’t sure exactly. But what harm could it do to simply go out of his way a little bit, enough to ride past that manor house on the road that ran directly in front of it. If he were to do that, then maybe, just possibly, she would see him from a window. See him not in his scrawny, ugly, ordinary body, but transformed, if only for a moment, into what he would wish to be in the eyes of such a lady. Even if he became something that frightened her, for just a moment…
Twice already in his young life, Arnfinn had seen Lady Ninazu. The first time had been five years ago, when he was only twelve and she apparently no older. At that time she, already well on the way to becoming a great lady, had happened to pass through Lunghai, escorted by a troop of the constabulary who served her father, Honan-Fu. Important-looking men, though the wizard himself was not among them, had surrounded the half-grown girl on every side. The appearance even of her escort in their uniforms of gold and green had been fine almost beyond belief in the eyes of poor country folk like Arnfinn and his neighbors. And as for the young lady herself…
Until that moment the boy Arnfinn had never dreamed such beauty could exist. He remained staring after her helplessly, until people began to make jokes and poke him to rouse him from his trance.
She was, his fellow villagers told him in response to his questions, the only daughter of Honan-Fu himself, and she lived with her father in his island castle.
The insistent routines of village life soon occupied Arnfinn’s attention again, but he did not forget the young lady and what he considered her transcendent beauty.
He did not start to dream about her, though, until he had seen her again.
That had happened only a little more than a year before Arnfinn undertook his trip with the Sword. The place was a larger village than Lunghai, where folk from all the district round were gathered to see a traveling carnival in one of its irregular local passages. Again Arnfinn caught only a brief glimpse of the daughter of Honan-Fu. She had grown and changed, of course, though not as he had changed, for she had only become more beautiful. Her beauty was now less childlike and unworldly, more womanly. This time he asked no more questions about her; he could see very well that there was no point in asking.
Now, when he was about to ride into Triplicane for the first time with Sightblinder at his side, Arnfinn hesitated at the last moment whether to wear the Sword into town, regardless of the sensation that might produce, or bundle it up again behind his saddle. After some hesitation he decided to continue to wear it. If lonely roads were likely places to encounter robbers, big cities, at least in all the stories that he had heard, were notoriously worse. Arnfinn supposed that Triplicane was not really a big city. But to him it looked more than big and strange, and impressive enough to make him wary.
There were so many streets in this town that he could not immediately see how many there were, enough to make the passage through it somewhat confusing. Though Arnfinn kept as much as he could to the less traveled streets, still everywhere he looked there were more people about than he was used to seeing in one place.
To his surprise, many of those who passed him in the street did not appear to notice him at all, even though he was wearing the Sword. He was sure its power was still working, because many did stop and stare at him. But then, most of those who stopped soon went on again about their business, as if perhaps they thought they had been mistaken at first in what they had seen.
The modest stock of food Arnfinn had brought with him from home was running out, and with his few coins in hand he went into a store. He hoped also to be able to learn something about transportation to the castle on its island.
He dared not leave Sightblinder on his load beast tethered outside, and so he carried it into the store with him. He could only hope that a storekeeper in a city like this one might be ready to ply his trade in spite of marvels, as capable of indifference as some of the passersby appeared to be.
But that was not what happened when he entered the dim shop that smelled of leather like a harness shop, and of food like a pantry. Instead, the young woman behind the counter turned pale with her first look at Arnfinn. “You’ve come back!” she breathed.
“I only want some food,” he answered, having come in stubbornly determined to stick to business no matter what.
She looked quickly toward the curtain that closed off the back of the store. “My husband-” she began.
At that point a burly, bald man appeared from behind the curtain, as if on cue, or as if perhaps he had been waiting there, listening suspiciously, from the moment Arnfinn entered. At the sight of Arnfinn, fear and hatred filled the shopkeeper’s face, even as a more mysterious excitement had filled that of his wife. But then the balding man was quick to mask his feelings. He stood with folded arms, waiting silently for what Arnfinn might say or do.
Silently Arnfinn played the role of customer, picking out bread, sausage, and cheese. The woman served him, gathering his choices on the small counter.
Suddenly she burst out with a question, as if she could contain it no longer: “Does Honan-Fu still survive?”
Arnfinn was sure that he had heard her question clearly, and yet it made no sense to him at all. “Why should he not survive?” he countered, trying to sound confident.
At that the goodwife relaxed somewhat, and even the man’s tension seemed to ease a trifle. “I was sure,” she said to Arnfinn, “that you must be with them. The new masters out there. Do you suppose you could put in a good word for us? We have no finery for sale here, and their soldiers wear their uniforms, but still they’ll want to buy something, won’t they? And they’ll all be having to eat like anyone else.”