Adrian listened sympathetically, and the dog appeared to do so, as Talgai repeated and elaborated upon the sad facts concerning his brother.
“He was always getting into trouble,” said the woodcutter, shaking his head sadly. “Yes, even from the time when he was as young as you are. Maybe even before that. I remember well, our mother always used to say that if Buvrai kept on as he was going, he would come to something like this, sooner or later. It’s just a good thing that she’s not around to see it.”
Adrian put in a few words now and then, expressing his sympathy as best he could. Twice he was on the point of saying something else, and twice he forbore.
It seemed that his suggestion might have been unnecessary in any case. Talgai seemed to be working his way toward the same idea on his own. Without prompting the woodcutter had fallen into a study, frowning at his canvas package.
“Of course,” he said at last, thinking aloud, “of course I might try to buy his freedom. A treasure like this-it is a real treasure, even I can see that. How would I go about it, though?” He raised his eyes as if appealing to this village boy for a suggestion.
For all his schooling to be heir to a kingdom, Adrian couldn’t think of what to say, or think, or do. At the moment all he could think of was that he’d had the Sword, yes, the real Sword, right in his own hands a moment ago. And then, like the damned fool idiot that he must be, he’d handed it right back again. Given it right away.
The woodcutter brightened. “Of course, the Sword itself is so lucky, maybe it would keep me from going about things in the wrong way. Until I actually handed it over to someone else. To the prison warden, or whoever. But… I wonder…”
And now it seemed to Adrian that yet another idea, this one the real step forward, had dawned at last on Talgai.
They spent one night on the journey, Adrian sleeping in the canoe, at Talgai’s insistence, because it was probably a little safer there, while man and dog and lucky Sword lay all close together on the grass nearby.
The travelers were all up early and on their way, and now it was obvious, from the rapidly increasing human presence on the banks and in the river, that they were getting very close to Smim.
When Coinspinner acted next, it was a subtle move, and Adrian did not at first recognize the small event for what it was.
Talgai was taking another turn at paddling. In the midst of another lament about his brother, he turned his head, broke off in midsentence, and pointed toward something on the shore.
“What is it?” Adrian asked.
“A friend of mine. Old Konbaung, he used to be my neighbor. There he goes. But now I remember, he had a relative who worked in the court! I must catch up with him, maybe he can do something for Buvrai.”
Driving hard with the paddle, Talgai turned the canoe abruptly toward the place where he was certain he had seen his old friend. There was a footpath there, following the riverbank, and one branch of it turned and angled inland, doubtless heading to town.
Running the canoe ashore, the woodcutter leaped out impetuously into the shallows. “Thank you for giving me a ride, lad. All the good gods be with you. I hope you find your parents.”
Adrian stuttered something, but he was too late. The man with his back turned was already up the bank and striding rapidly inland, the Sword of Chance a nondescript bundle on his shoulder.
The dog, after bounding around irresolutely on the muddy bank for a time, whining and yapping, suddenly decided to accompany Talgai, and went running inland in pursuit. The Princeling yelled after the nameless beast, but it ignored him this time.
Now the Sword was gone, and for a moment Adrian hesitated, on the brink of running after it. That would, of course, have meant abandoning the canoe, and he felt reluctant to do that after the many difficulties the craft had borne him through.
While yet he wavered, his mind was made up for him by the appearance of two men. These were both armed and unsavory-looking, and one was strolling upstream along the bank while the other moved downstream to join him. They were going to meet at the place where Adrian was hesitating.
“Hey, kid! Nice boat you’ve got there. Where’d you get it?”
He might have tried some magic on them, but it had become almost instinctive to conserve energy, to use enchantment only as a last resort. Instead, Adrian pushed off the canoe again and paddled out toward midstream. The river was wide enough here for him to-
Only when he was twenty-five meters or so from shore did he become aware of the two sizable boats, big enough to hold half a dozen men each and both crowded, that were closing in on him, one from upstream and one from down.
There were several other craft on the river also, but all of those were distant, and none were concerned with what was happening here.
The two ominous boats had got within fifty meters or so of Adrian, perhaps, before he could be sure that he was the object of their interest.
At the same time, the two men on shore, of similar appearance to those in the boats, were walking along the bank, staying opposite Adrian’s canoe, ready for him if he should try to land again. And the men on the bank exchanged brisk arm signals, obviously prearranged, with those in the boats.
“Let’s see what you’re hiding in the bottom of your boat there, lad,” a voice loaded with false heartiness called out to him. It belonged to a man standing in the prow of one of the two craft closing in. On this man’s shoulder there perched a winged, half reptilian-looking messenger.
Wood and his people used such creatures. Adrian felt his heart sink. “I’ve got nothing hidden!”
“Let’s just take a look.” The man grinned.
They think I’ve got Coinspinner with me. If only I did.
Now a middle-aged woman, something of an enchantress from the look of her, was calling out from the other boat to the male leader, telling him something about the magical aura she was able to see around Adrian. She could quite definitely confirm his identification as the missing Prince.
“Good, we’ve got him, then. And where’s the Sword we were to look for? Has he got it there?”
“I doubt that very much,” the woman called back. “If he ever had it, I think it’s gone now, and no telling where.”
The two boats were moving steadily closer. With many oars apiece, they could easily overtake him on the water if he tried to flee.
“That’s the canoe we were told to look for, no doubt of that. And he’s the right age.”
The leader, smiling, spoke softly to the creature on his shoulder, whose beady eyes inspected Adrian. In a minute, the Prince thought, he’s going to send it back to Wood, with word that I’ve been taken.
There was no way to escape-diving, trying to swim away underwater would be simply foolish.
Adrian’s reaction to being trapped was the same near-instinctive reflex that had served him well before. Just as the two other boats were closing in on him, he reached with his mind into the depths of the earth, and fought for his life in the only effective way he could manage.
Call upon heat, call up pressure, evoke great density and mass and elemental toughness. The layers of rock beneath the muddy riverbed shifted, vibrated, pounded with the sudden stress of their own energies, being manipulated in a new way. Relief came with concussive force. Suddenly the materials upon which Adrian’s mind was working split; a river-elemental was born almost accidentally, becoming separately objectified from the earth-elemental stirring at a deeper level.
Great pseudopods of water burst up into the air, overwhelming both large boats. Fortunately no innocent craft were near enough to be drastically affected. Gigantic geysers of rock and mud and water, flung higher than trees or houses, struck up into the air, projecting fragments high and hard enough to sting and wound the flying reptile, throwing it into a panic. It had sprung into the air from its master’s shoulder at the first eruption, even as the man himself was hurled out of his boat.
One shoulder of the nearest erupting wave caught Adrian’s canoe, lifted it above the river’s surface, and dandled it like an infant for a moment. But the creator of the creature was able to soothe his creation successfully, and just in time; his return to the river was no worse than a splashing fall.