None of the family or servants, according to Hissarlik, had been able to do much for her.
Chilperic, looking at her, was sure that he personally could not do much for her, either. But he knew someone who almost certainly could. He nodded to himself, and turned away.
“Can you be of any help?” Alicia, with her burning eyes, demanded of him at once.
“Not immediately, no, I’m sorry. But given a day or two it may very well be possible to help.”
“Do you mean it?”
“Yes indeed. Can you tell me more exactly what happened? Was your aunt in the manor house with you when she was stricken? You say it happened on the night of the great slaughter, and she saw her father killed beside her?”
“No, it did not happen in the house. Rather she was found by some of our militiamen, out on Magicians’ Island. There’s a cave, a sort of a grotto out there, where magicians from both clans sometimes go to practice. They have warning spells or something to keep them from encountering each other. Aunt Meg was found lying unconscious with our father’s body beside her, the Sword through his heart. Farslayer had struck him down from behind. He was the first victim of the treacherous Malolo on that night.
“The militia brought Megara home, along with her father’s body. For a while we were all afraid that she was going to die, too. Oh gods, I was afraid we were going to have to bury her at night, under the stones out in the courtyard, with all the rest who died that night.” Alicia covered her face with her hands.
“Can you help us?” This time the question came from Hissarlik.
Chilperic faced him thoughtfully. “I think I can. I certainly intend to try.”
Invited to stay the night, with a strong implication that he would be welcome to remain indefinitely, Chilperic lost no time in moving his few personal effects into a snug bedroom on the manor’s upper level. There a sobering number of well furnished rooms were vacant now. As soon as he was installed, he began to plan how to convince this puny Tyrant that he and his demon could overwhelm the Tyrant’s enemies provided, of course, that the Tyrant helped Chilperic to recover the missing Sword.
In the privacy of his room, where the demon was able to visit him without disturbing other members of the household, Chilperic was able to make certain other arrangements as well.
Next morning, as he joined his hosts for breakfast, Chilperic felt confident enough to hint strongly that some real help ought soon to be available.
Hissarlik and those with him were pleased and startled at the same time. “Then you have communicated with your master during the night?”
“To a magician of the stature of my master, the great Wood, there are always means of communication.” Chilperic did not say that the means employed in this case had involved several nocturnal visits to the manor by the demon, carrying messages back and forth.
“This help you mention how long do you think it will be before it becomes truly effective?”
Chilperic smiled encouragingly. “Perhaps I will be able to do something for you, and for your poor aunt, tomorrow. Perhaps it will take a day or two longer.”
“As soon as that?” The Tyrant seemed to be struggling with mixed feelings. Pleased, of course, as well he might be, but also a touch alarmed. “How near is your master himself, then?”
“Alas, the mighty Wood is still almost a continent away. But he has rapid means of transport available, when he wants to use them.”
The assurance did little to allay his host’s uneasiness. Still, to Chilperic, everything seemed fairly well under control.
HALF an hour before midnight on his first night in Malolo manor, Zoltan, having listened patiently to the last ineffective warnings Lady Yambu felt bound to deliver, slipped out of a back door of the stronghold. He went quietly over the outer wall of the compound, which was no higher than his head, then moved as silently as possible through the moonlight toward the nearby forest, intent upon keeping his rendezvous with Black Pearl. Yambu’s disapproval of this midnight sortie made him uncomfortable, but a much greater degree of discomfort would have been required to keep him from going.
If the disgruntled mercenaries, Senones agents, or anyone else, were spying on the Malolo manor tonight, Zoltan observed no sign of their presence as he crossed the moonlit clearing. Once in among the trees he paused to let his eyes adjust to the deeper darkness. Then he moved along, steadily following a gradually descending slope. On his jaunt around the grounds late in the afternoon he had made certain where the creek ran near the manor house; and once he reached the creek tonight it ought to be easy to follow it downstream to the spot along the riverbank where Black Pearl had said she would meet him. Fortunately Zoltan possessed a natural talent for finding his way to any desired geographical goal.
The creek was just where he thought it ought to be, and when he had followed the path beside it for less than a kilometer, he emerged on the bank of the river. No mist had risen from the Tungri tonight, or else it had all dispersed again by this late hour, and the broad surface of the stream, a hundred meters wide, lay clear before him in the moonlight.
There was no house or dock in sight, nor had anyone been considerate enough to leave a boat where he might borrow it to go paddling out in search of his love. Zoltan found a smooth fallen log conveniently close to the water’s edge, and sat on it, doing his best to quiet his impatience, preparing himself to wait.
While he was waiting, Zoltan thought over the general situation. It could have been better, but certainly it also could have been worse. The great thing was that he had now found Black Pearl, and he now knew her name. There had been moments during the past three years when such an achievement had seemed impossible.
He was almost lost in thought, enjoying in his imagination the glowing possibilities of the future, when the dark water rippled directly in his line of vision, and she was in front of him again.
Zoltan slid from his rock and splashed thigh deep into the cold, dark stream. “Black Pearl I was afraid that you weren’t coming.”
Two meters farther from the shore than he, the mermaid tossed a spray of moonlit silver from her hair. Swimming without apparent effort she held her head and shoulders out of the moonlit water. It looked as if a girl with two legs was simply standing in a greater depth of water.
“Zoltan.” There was great tension in the mermaid’s voice. “I am pleased that you have not forgotten me.”
The young man blinked at that; it seemed a quite unnatural suggestion for the object of his love to make. “Forget you? How could I ever do that?” Zoltan waded forward until the water was waist deep, and he could feel the full strength of the cold current. Reaching out with his right hand, he touched her wet hair, as before. The skin of Pearl’s shoulder, when his finger only brushed against it, felt very cold. Suddenly he burst out: “And are you doomed to remain always like this? I can’t believe that, or accept it. There must be some way-”
His fingers encountered the thin chain of the amulet she wore around her neck. “Where did you get this? You didn’t have this when I knew you before.”
“It’s nothing, many of the girls wear them. I found it on the bottom of the river, that’s all.” Her dark eyes held his, and she seemed to be trying to find words. “Oh, Zoltan, are you so jealous? What man would love a mermaid, and give her pretty things to wear?”
“I can love a mermaid, I’ve discovered. I can love you. I wish that I had pretty things to give you. I wish …”
The mermaid was silent for a few moments. Then she took his hand in her cold fingers, asking: “And if there should be no way for me to change, to ever be a normal woman? If I must remain like this until I die?”
“I love you,” he repeated, as if that meant some means of solving any problem must exist. And if there was the slightest pause before Zoltan gave his answer, the pause might very well have been only the kind in which a speaker tries to find the most forceful words in which it was possible to express an idea.
“But you would be happier if you had two legs,” he added a few seconds later, feeling that he sounded foolish. “And how can I ever love you as a man should love a woman, unless …”