Winecups were refilled again, and presently it began to look as if Bonar at least might be on the way to serious drunkenness. Yambu and Zoltan sipped moderately from their cups the vintage was passable and Bonar’s two sisters drank even less than their visitors. Meanwhile Gesner, seated at the far end of a table by himself, clutched a forgotten flagon and stared at nothing, while the servitors, still looking frightened by the presence of the visitors and the authority of Yambu, continued working on their belated job of cleanup.
Wondering if the wine could be enlisted as his ally, Zoltan made one more attempt to bring up the subject of mermaids with the chief. But at his first words, Bonar gave him a single, scornful, drunken look that said: Mermaids again? Forget it. We have more important things than that to worry about.
Zoltan sighed, and once more abandoned his efforts. But he had already decided that if the survivors of the Malolo clan wanted his continued help, and that of the Lady Yambu, they would eventually have to help him in turn.
Yambu, drawing her young companion aside when the opportunity arose, cautioned him again against impatience. “If you want the active help of these people for your Black Pearl, there is no point in irritating them unnecessarily on the subject. Also it may be better not to let them see how important she is to you.”
With that, Zoltan had to agree.
Perversely, just after this private exchange, Bonar raised the subject of mermaids yet again himself. After he had rambled on about it for a while, spilling and drinking his wine meanwhile, all of the members of the household were firmly under the impression that Zoltan wanted to rent a mermaid for some magical stunt or entertainment somewhere.
Zoltan suppressed his angry reaction to this idea. Outwardly he decided to go along with it, hoping such a plan would offer some way to get Black Pearl away. If he could not present himself convincingly to these half-mad people as a magician, maybe they would take him seriously as the proprietor of a traveling show.
Of course, Zoltan meditated, even if he were able to take Black Pearl away from here, she would still be a mermaid. So simply to take her away would be of doubtful help. If he brought her back to Tasavalta, would Old Karel or some other wizard be able to cure her?
Zoltan had no idea.
Now Bonar, who should have fallen asleep or gotten sick some time ago, was instead working himself up to a drunken effort at diplomacy. He made a formal offer of alliance to Lady Yambu.
She responded vaguely and diplomatically. Very diplomatically, Zoltan thought, considering the chief’s condition.
Gradually the day had passed, and sunset was now imminent. Zoltan walked out by himself to scout the grounds before darkness fell. When he returned to the house, he found Bonar at last snoring with his head down on the table. Violet, the more diplomatic and practical sister, issued a formal invitation to the two visitors to stay indefinitely. Then Yambu and Zoltan were assigned sleeping rooms upstairs since last month there were plenty of rooms available and a dour servant to wait upon them.
As they were on their way upstairs to bed, Zoltan whispered privately to Yambu: “If only there were some trustworthy and halfway competent magician available, closer than Tasavalta!”
The lady only shook her head. Both of them knew there wasn’t a wizard available that either of them would want to trust, not just now. Certainly not Gesner. It appeared that for the time being any direct attempt to help Black Pearl by means of countermagic would have to wait.
Zoltan looked forward to his clandestine meeting, scheduled for this very midnight, with Black Pearl.
AT nightfall on that same day, just after Zoltan had finished his reconnaissance of the Malolo grounds, the man who had called himself Chilperic was making his lonely camp in a small clearing on the wooded north bank of the Tungri. Shortly before sunset Chilperic had crossed the river from south to north, making use of a rope suspension bridge that for some years had spanned the lower end of the gorge. The bridge spanned the river just above the deep pool in which the Tungri at last ceased its deadly plunging, its white self-laceration upon rocks, and widened out again into a calm flow.
Despite the feud so Chilperic had been informed by a chance met peasant the bridge had remained in place for many years. Members of both feuding clans sometimes found it advantageous to have the means of a dry crossing, and so except on rare occasions both sides were willing to let the span of ropes hang there unmolested, though often they posted sentries to warn of an enemy crossing in force. Today there had not been a sentry in sight at either end.
Chilperic had been reasonably cautious in choosing a site in deep woods where his little camp would not readily be seen. With practiced and efficient movements, he erected a small shelter tent of magically thin, strong fabric in an inconspicuous place. He also took care to keep his fire small. The one visitor that he was more or less expecting would need no help in locating his bivouac. Meanwhile Chilperic’s mount, also an experienced campaigner, moved about on its hobble calmly, foraging as best it could upon the new spring growth.
The man’s face, as he went about the routine chores of making himself comfortable in the woods, was set in a thoughtfully attentive expression. He looked like a man who was waiting to receive some special signal, but uncertain of at just what moment or even in what form the signal might come to him.
And then Chilperic paused in the act of gathering firewood; a frown came over his face and he stared at nothing. The signal he had both feared and anticipated had arrived at last.
The first indication of his visitor’s approach was neither a visual appearance nor a sound. Rather an aura of sickness began to grow in the very atmosphere Chilperic breathed, and a special gloom, which had nothing to do with clouds or sunset, seemed to fall over the earth around him. Very quickly he also began to experience a sensation of unnatural cold. His riding-beast, hardened as it was to these matters, ceased to browse and stood still and silent, quivering lightly. The cries of animals in the surrounding forest changed, and presently fell silent. Even the insects quieted.
No more than a few minutes passed from the first manifestation of the demon until the creature made its presence known in a more localized and immediate way. But somehow to the man, shivering involuntarily, the interval seemed considerably longer.
The full manifestation, as he knew well, was apt to vary substantially from one occasion to the next. On this occasion there was not very much at all in the way of an optical appearance. There was only a cloudiness that might under ordinary circumstances have been taken for a temporary blurring of vision, a little water in the eyes. And simultaneously with the cloudiness there came a strange unearthly smell and a slight sensation that the world was tilting. Had there been any lingering doubts about the nature of the presence thus establishing itself, those doubts would have been dispelled by what came next, a rain of filth falling out of nowhere into the light of the man’s small fire, and into the pan of food that he had begun to prepare beside the fire.
Chilperic’s expression did not change as he picked up the pan and with a snap of his wrist threw the polluted contents into the woods behind him.
“So you have come, Rabisu,” he said quietly. He spoke to the ghastly thing without the least surprise, addressing it with the reluctant firmness of a man who wants to avert both his eyes and his thoughts from something horrible, even though he knows the confrontation will be even more difficult and dangerous if he fails to meet it directly and unflinchingly.
And now at last he heard the demon’s voice. It sounded more in the mind of Chilperic than in his ears, and it came in the form of a noise that reminded the man of the chittering of insects, and also of the tearing of live flesh. Still, the words which modulated this noise were clear enough: “I have come to learn what you have to report to the master.”
“I want you to tell our master this.” As he spoke, Chilperic sat down on a log beside his fire, put his head down, let his eyes close, and rubbed his temples. He spoke in a tired voice. “Tell him all indications are that the Sword he seeks is still somewhere in this area, between the Second and Third Cataracts and near the river Tungri. But whether it will be found north or south of the river I know not.”