Chilperic sipped at his mead, too. If the shape of the stranger’s bundle had suggested anything to him, he did not say so. When he spoke again his tone indicated no more than a polite interest, though indeed the question he asked was pertinent enough: “Ah, and how long ago was this?”
The hermit allowed himself an equally polite effort to recall. “Let me see now. Was it before this past full moon, or after? But lately most of the nights have been cloudy anyway. I really cannot say with any certainty.”
The other leaned forward, and spoke with evident sincerity. “I will be glad to make it worth your while to try to remember. The fact is that I have been searching for this man.”
“I see. And what will happen when you find him?”
“Oh, I am not a manhunter. Nothing like that.” The visitor, smiling, leaned back in his chair again. “I seek him only to satisfy my own curiosity. Nor do I really travel in search of this fellow you describe. It is only that in the course of my travels I keep encountering him and his strange story. As an interested observer, I would like to know the ending of that tale. No, if you are kindly disposed toward the fellow, you need have no fear that he is going to suffer harm because of anything I do.”
“You intrigue me.”
“I should not. His story is not mine to tell.”
Gelimer shrugged, doing his best to revert to an attitude of indifference. “Ardneh enjoins us to be kind to everyone. But I have no particular reason to wish this fellow well or to wish him ill, for that matter. If you told me he was a thief, though, and that you were trying to bring him to justice, I would be inclined to believe you.”
“Why so?” asked Chilperic.
“Because of the strange and jealous way he treated the peculiar bundle that he carried. As if perhaps it had been stolen. Because of well, because of a certain furtiveness in the fellow’s manner.”
“Ah, yes, you mentioned a peculiar bundle. And you said it was of an unusual size and shape?”
“Yes. Well…” And Gelimer gestured vaguely, measuring the air with his two hands. “A package wrapped in rough cloth. A weighty thing. It might have held a small shovel, or an axe.” Surely an honest seeker would come out openly now, and say / am looking for a Sword.
“And I suppose you never saw the bundle opened?”
“That is correct.” Ardneh was not picky about the letter of the truth, Gelimer had always thought; rather it was the underlying goal of speech that counted with the benign god. “He stayed in my house for a single night, ate sparingly, and was on his way again at first light, taking his bundle with him.” That of course was the point Gelimer had been anxious to establish if he could. “Although the weather was foul at that time and the trails exceedingly dangerous, nothing I could say would induce him to delay his departure.”
“You say the weather was foul, good hermit. On the night when this visitor came to you, was there in fact a notably heavy snowstorm, with enough wind to make it almost a blizzard?”
Gelimer tried his best to give the appearance of a man trying to remember, succeeding a little at a time, recovering something he had thought of small importance when it happened. “Why, I suppose that is a fair description of the weather, now that I think about it.” “And was this strange visitor traveling mounted or on foot?”
“He had a riding-beast. Yes. I didn’t really notice much about the animal but yes, that visitor traveled mounted.”
“And in which direction did he go on his departure?” All pretense of a merely casual interest on the questioner’s part was gradually being discarded.
“He was heading downslope, as I recall, toward the river. Of course he could easily have changed directions once he was out of my sight. He never said anything about where he was going. He did not even give me his name, which I thought odd.”
“But not surprising, in his case his name, or at least the name I have known him to use, is Cosmo Biondo, and he is a great rogue.”
“A rogue, you say.”
“I do. You may count yourself fortunate, Sir Hermit, that he didn’t cut your throat while you were sleeping.”
Gelimer, blinking to give his best impression of being mildly shocked, brought out from under his robes an amulet of Ardneh, which hung always around his neck. He held the talisman in his hand and rubbed it. “Then I truly wish that I were able to tell you more about him. I wish that you were indeed trying to bring him to justice.”
Chilperic shook his head, dismissing that idea, and sat back in his chair once more. But presently he leaned forward again to pose another question: “As I recall, you said you have been visited by two other travelers this month as well?”
“Yes. They were two pilgrims, who came through here only yesterday. The riverboat they were traveling on, they said, had come to grief on the rocks below. The crew, I understand, were trying to tow the craft upstream again with a rope. But I really doubt that the two I met could have had anything to do with this Biondo fellow.”
“Perhaps not. Headed upstream or down?”
“They said that they were going down.”
“What were they like?”
Gelimer, seeing no reason not to do so, described yesterday morning’s pair of visitors in some detail. But he thoughtfully omitted to mention the conversation he had had with them on the subject of Swords.
When today’s visitor had finished his refreshment, and stretched, and looked about the house, he expressed a wish to be on his way while the light and the weather remained good.
Doing his best to pretend a certain reluctance to lose a temporary companion, the hermit at last bade his guest goodbye. “And good luck in your search I would like sometime to hear the rest of this Biondo’s story.”
Chilperic, already mounted, looked down at Gelimer and shook his head. “It might not be safe for you to know that story, good hermit as for me, I already know the dangerous parts of the tale, and so am free to indulge my further curiosity.”
And in a moment, with a final wave, this latest visitor too was gone, having said not a word during his visit on the subject of his own goals and business. He rode downslope, in the direction of the suspension bridge that would take him across the Tungri. Would he be reporting to the Senones, then? Or perhaps seeking to question them? But it would be as easy for this traveler as for the other one to change directions once he was out of sight, and Gelimer was not minded to follow him to be sure which way he went.
ON the morning after their arrival at the fishing village, Zoltan and Yambu were treated to a fine breakfast, an expression of the villagers’ gratitude for Zoltan’s part in last night’s modest victory. Having done justice to this homely feast of fish, beans, and the eggs of waterfowl, the travelers thanked their hosts, bade them farewell, and pressed forward on foot toward the hilltop stronghold or manor where dwelt the Malolo overlords.
Patches of forest engulfed the path, between areas of cultivated land. As they walked, Zoltan told his companion the story of his encounter with Black Pearl during the night. She listened in silence and made no comment. He also warned Lady Yambu that when they reached the manor he was determined to raise the mermaid question with the authorities there, in one way or another, with whatever degree of diplomacy he could manage. Now that he knew the name of Black Pearl, and was certain that she was still alive, and here, somewhere close well, whatever happened, he was not going to let her get away from him again.
“Well, of course you must make every effort to find out more, since now you have actually seen her.” Yambu sighed. She believed what the lad had told her about last night and she had really believed him about the mermaid all along but still there were things about the business she did not like.
Zoltan persisted. “Not only to find out more. If this mermaid curse was put upon her by some magician, then there must exist some magic that can take it off. I mean to restore her to true womanhood.”
Yambu sighed again, this time silently, at the young man’s obvious determination. “When the time comes, then, to speak to the Malolo leaders on the subject, will you let me try my hand at the diplomacy? I do have somewhat more experience in the field than you.”