The Blackgod-2#(3)
Author:J.Gregory Keyes

    XXIV Sorceress

    GHAN emerged into the fresh air and light of the afterdeck reluctantly; he had much reading to do and too little time, he feared, to complete it. But the motion of the boat—imperceptible as it usually was—made him queasy when combined with many hours of reading and writing. And though in Nhol he had considered sunlight about as desirable as poisoned wine, here he found it revived him, soothed him for more work.

    Unfortunately, Ghe's sharp ears always heard him emerge and the ghoul almost always joined him, where they sat like a pair of spiders, limbs curled and eyes squinting at the brightness of daylight. This time was no exception; the door soon eased open behind him and Ghe trod noiselessly across the baroque patterns of rust-colored stains that recalled the carnage of a few days before.

    “The dream becomes more persistent,” the ghoul informed him, with no preamble, as if they were already in the midst of a conversation. Ghan glanced up from his absent study of the bloodstains, but Ghe was not watching him, staring instead at some middle distance.

    “The dream about the Mang?” Ghan asked.

    “Yes.” Ghe drew his legs beneath him cross-style as he sat. “The emperor included you on this expedition for the purpose of counseling me. Use your scholarly wits and tell me what these dreams mean.”

    “I'm a scholar, not a soothsayer,” Ghan snapped. “You need an old woman with casting bones, not me.”

    “An old woman with casting bones …” Ghe's eyes widened in startlement, then went far away—a sign Ghan had come to interpret as a search through his shards of memory. After a moment, he unfurrowed his brow and leveled an enigmatic gaze at Ghan. “Well, there are no casting bones here and no old woman. You must know something of dreams.”

    Ghan rolled his eyes and then tapped the deck, as if he were explaining to a child. “Hezhi had dreams about Perkar, before he came to Nhol. The River linked the two of them with visions, drew them together through them. You understand that much?”

    “Have a care, Ghan,” the ghoul cautioned him.

    “You asked for my help.”

    “Yes, yes, go on.”

    “The River sends dreams, especially to the Waterborn. You told me he had sent you other dreams, in the past.”

    “Yes, to explain my purpose.”

    “Just so,” Ghan agreed. “If you press me for my opinion in the matter, you are being connected to this Mang man by the River. He is an ally or an enemy.”

    Ghe twisted his mouth ruefully. “But which? I can sort that much sense into my dreams. Bone Eel could have told me that”

    Ghan snorted. “Please, be my guest in seeking scholarly advice from Bone Eel.” He rocked back against the bulkhead. His hip still hurt, and he wondered if he had cracked it. He turned to find Ghe, jaw muscles locked, staring intently at the water.

    “You are wrong, you know,” Ghan remarked.

    “About?”

    “I told you what I thought about your dream, and I told you I didn't know the explanation for it. A. fool—like Bone Eel—would have given you a definitive answer.”

    Ghe fingered the little scar on his chin. Ghan thought he looked a bit more relaxed. “I see what you mean. Though even if you had an answer for me, you might not reveal it to me.”

    Ghan let that pass. Why deny the obvious? Instead he settled for at least appearing to be helpful. “What do you think about this mysterious horseman?“ he asked. ”What feeling do you have?”

    Ghe shook his head as if affirming something. “That he is like me, a servant of the River. That he seeks Hezhi as I do.” He shifted on the deck, produced a knife from somewhere, and began absently picking at the wood. As he spoke, he kept his gaze focused on the knife point, only occasionally half glancing at Ghan.

    Like an embarrassed little boy. For some reason that comparison trotted a little shiver up Ghan's spine and disturbed him more than the moment when he had seen the scar and known what the man was.

    “The odd thing is,” he went on, digging a little trench around one of the larger stains, ”though I have more frequent dreams of the horseman now, they are more shadowy, as well. His face is less clear than it was the first time I dreamed of him.”

    Ghan continued to shiver despite the deep warmth of the day and turned to watch an enormous green heron lift from the reeds at the banks of the River. Beyond the reeds and a few willows, short grass extended to the horizon. Two days farther south it was desert.

    From the corner of his eye, he noticed Ghe following his gaze—or, more probably, eyeing his back. His shoulder blades felt cold suddenly, like twin hatchets of ice buried in him. But when the ghoul spoke, his voice was tinged with wonder, so that it seemed impossible he could be thinking of killing. “He's out there somewhere, isn't he? She's out there.”

    Ghan nodded and cleared his throat, surprising even himself as he recited:

    “With their ship, the Horse, They ply the sea of grass, They stalk the walking mountains, With stones they make their beds.”

    He trailed off and studied the deck more intently. “Well, you have to imagine it sung,” he muttered.

    “What was that?”

    “From an old book, The Mang Wastes. I sent a copy of it to Hezhi when I learned where she was.”

    “You've read much about the Mang?”

    “Lately. Lately I have.”

    “Since you discovered her whereabouts.”

    Ghan nodded in reply, caught the crooked look Ghe sent his way.

    “You do know where she is. Well enough to send her a book.”

    “I told you that much before,” Ghan replied.

    “So you did. But you never showed me how to get there. When will you tell me thatV

    Ghan answered with some heat in his voice. “You could take what you want. I know that. In fact, I wonder why you haven't.” He set his chin defiantly, so that it wouldn't quiver.

    “Qwen Shen wonders that, also,” Ghe said. “I'm not certain what to tell her.”

    “Qwen Shen?” Ghan snorted. “Is she your advisor, too? Does she help you chart your plans as you take horizontal council with her?” He knew he was straying over the line, and he braced for the fist closing in his chest. But it made him angry, when people were stupid.

    Ghe did nothing more than frown dangerously. “Have a care, old man,” he advised. “Qwen Shen is a loyal servant of the emperor and the River. She deserves your respect.”

    “Five days ago you suspected her of plotting your destruction,” he persisted.

    “Five days ago I had just been wounded. I suspected everyone. Now I conclude that the assassin was a Jik, placed among the guards by the priesthood.”

    “Have you questioned him in this matter—the would-be assassin?”

    Ghe raised his palms in a small gesture of helplessness. “He was killed by a Dehshe shaft just after wounding me. Not the death I would have invented for him, but at least he is no longer a danger.”

    “You don't see the great convenience in that? In his dying before you could question him?”

    “Enough of this,” Ghe snapped in annoyance. “We were discussing your decision to tell me where Hezhi is.”

    Ghan sighed. “My life has recently taken a turn for the worse, but I'm still selfish enough to value it. I will take you to her.”

    “Old man, if I were going to kill you, I already would have.”

    “I know that. It isn't your killing me that I fear.” Which was not entirely true. Ghe inspired both fear and revulsion in him. And something was different about him these past few days, unpredictable since he and Qwen Shen had begun their liaison.

    Ghe's lip curled, half protest, half snarl. “I told you—”

    “I know what you think of her. But I am not sleeping with Qwen Shen—and I don't trust her. You just as much as said she's trying to convince you to swallow up my soul, or whatever it is you do.”

    Ghe gazed straight at him then, his eyes like glass, the unwinking regard of a serpent. He clucked thrice with his tongue, as if chastising a baby. “You don't understand about her,” he said. He leaned close, and his voice became confidential. “I know we can trust Qwen Shen because she is the River's gift to me.”

    “What?”

    “For serving him.” Ghe lowered his voice further, and his murderer's eyes focused on the vast horizon. “Since I was reborn, I've never forgotten that I was dead,” he explained. “When I was a Jik, I used to say ‘I am a blade of silver, I am a sickle of ice.’ That was to remind me that I was merely a weapon, something the priesthood might wield against its foes. I was content with that. When I was reborn, I knew that I was still a tool, but this time my lord was higher, my purpose grander. But still a tool, to be discarded when the job was finished.”

    A sickly grin writhed upon his lips. “Do you know what it is to live in nightmare? In my world, Ghan, food has no taste, wine no intoxication. The River has large, but simple appetites, and the small things Human Beings enjoy are beneath his notice. Nightmare, where nothing is as it should be. You bite into the sweetmeat and find it full of maggots. You shake your mother to wake her—and find her dead. That's what it's like, if you want to write it down. Yet now, now, the River has given me Qwen Shen. You can't possibly comprehend what that means.”

    “You love this woman?”

    “Love her? You understand nothing. She is a gateway. She prepares me.”

    “Prepares you for what?”

    Ghe stared at him as if he were insane. “Why, for Hezhi, of course.”

    Ghan bit back a reply, but as it sunk in, he shuddered again at the sheer dementia of that claim. He very much wanted to leave the afterdeck and go somewhere else, but there was nowhere else to go. Ghe asked if he understood living with nightmare, and he wanted to reply that he did. The entire barge seemed like a floor ankle-deep in broken glass, and him without shoes: no place to tread safely. His hopes of misleading Ghe and the others grew slimmer with each moment; if the self-styled “ghoul” ever suspected that Ghan was lying to him, he would merely devour him. It would probably be best for him to drown himself now, before they got what they wanted from him one way or the other. But even that might be pointless, if Ghe really was linked with some Mang ally of the River. In fact, since the Mang were nomadic, Hezhi was more than likely not where Ghan had known her last to be. This dream man of Ghe's probably had more current information on lier whereabouts than Ghan did.

    So killing himself would probably not help Hezhi significantly, and it would remove the only real ally she had. No, as long as a chance existed for him to help her, he would not remove himself from this game of Na. He might not be an important counter, but he was a counter. Even the lowest such could eclipse and remove any other marker on the board.

    “Tell me more about the Mang,” Ghe said, abruptly interrupting his thoughts.

    Ghan motioned at the surrounding plain. “You see where they live. They travel and fight mostly on horseback. They live in skin tents and small houses of stone and wood.”

    “That passage you quoted, about walking mountains. What did that mean?”

    “The plains are home to many large creatures. The Mang hunt them to survive.”

    “What creature is as large as a mountain?”

    Ghan cracked a faint smile. “That was Saffron Court literature. Literature from that court is prone to hyperbole.”

    “Hyperbole?”

    “Exaggeration.”

    “But what were they exaggerating?”

    Ghan shrugged. “We shall see for ourselves, soon enough.”

    “That's true,” Ghe murmured. “I'm looking forward to it.” He gestured once again at the alien landscape. “I never understood how big the world was, how strange.”

    “I would settle for a smaller one at the moment,” Ghan admitted. “My own rooms, my library.”

    “The sooner we find her, the sooner we can get you back there,” Ghe reminded him.

    “Of course,” Ghan muttered. “Of course.”

    SLEEP eluded Ghan for most of the afternoon, but he was near finding it through a dark thicket of half thoughts and full fears when he heard shouting. In that realm of semislumber, it seemed like a bell, clanging, and an image erupted from his sleeping memory into vivid life; the alarm ringing in his clan compound, himself just turned sixteen, the grim-faced soldiers filling his father's court like oddly colored ants, the look of terrible despair on his father's face.

    “Hezhi!” The bell rang, and Ghan came entirely awake. The noise was from Ghe's cabin, along with the now-familiar rhythmic thumping of his bed. Ghan's mouth felt dry, and he reached a trembling hand to the stoppered jug near his bed and took a drink. The water was warm, nearly hot, and it failed to soothe him as it might. He wished it were wine.

    Twice now he had heard Ghe shout Hezhi's name in the heat of his passion, and he shuddered to think what it meant. He forced himself to, however, because there was something crucial happening to Ghe, something the ghoul himself wasn't aware of—something Qwen Shen was doing to him. Ghan could see the consequence, but he didn't understand the cause.

    The effect was that Ghe was becoming stupid. In earlier conversations—both as Yen and Ghe—Ghan had not been unimpressed by the young man's native intelligence. Despite a clear lack of formal education, he was still able to comport himself better than most nobles and to discuss topics of which he had no knowledge with fair dexterity once he had been supplied with basic items of information. Now, suddenly, he was unable to make obvious connections. His memory seemed worse than ever, erratic.

    The manifest probability was that Qwen Shen had somehow ensorcelled him. That made it likely that Ghe's earlier—now stupidly discarded—guess that she was somehow connected with the priesthood was correct. He had seen but never read the forbidden books in the Water Temple, texts on necromancy and water magic. The references he had found to what lay inside those covers suggested that there were ways to turn the power of even a god against itself.

    He remembered Ghe's tale of what lay beneath the Water Temple, the things he had learned. Many would have thought that account the insane ravings of a mad beast, but he had always had his own suspicions about the priesthood. How had Ghe explained the power of the temple to stupefy the River? It had to do with the resemblance between the temple and She'leng, the source of the god. The River sought, ultimately, to return to his source, and a part of him was tricked into believing he had found it, into forming a circle.

    Ghan sat up in bed, fists clenched on his chin. What if Qwen Shen had somehow done the same thing to Ghe? His purpose in existing was to find Hezhi. Whatever Human emotions he confused with that purpose, it came ultimately from the River. What if Qwen Shen somehow convinced a part of Ghe that he had found her? Did Ghe somehow suppose he was making love to Hezhi?

    Well, clearly he either thought that or fantasized it.

    And this was making him stupid. Controllable.

    That wasn't necessarily bad. Ghe was a dangerous creature, an eater of life, a ghost in flesh. Whatever motives Qwen Shen had, they were bound to be more Human in origin and scope. But what were they? Unfortunately, though, he knew little of her motives, but he knew at least one of her aims: his death. That in itself was incentive enough for him to find some way of freeing Ghe from her influence. If she ever managed to convince him that Ghan was worth more as a ghost than as a man, he was doomed.

    He was probably doomed no matter what, he thought, and with that optimistic assessment, he lay back down and sought sleep once more, hoping that his own dreams might provide, if not answers, solace.

    “How can we be assured this is the right stream?“ Ghe demanded, making certain that Ghan caught his suspicious tone.

    The old scholar blinked like an owl in the brilliant noonday sun. He pointed vaguely at the River mouth. A sandbar trailed downstream from it, and the banks were verdant with bamboo and other plants whose names were unknown to Ghe.

    “It's the first one wide enough on this side—since going upstream of Wun,” he answered, somehow managing to make those dry facts sound like grumbling, a sharp retort. Ghe considered chastising him, but Bone Eel and Qwen Shen both stood nearby, and appearances had to be maintained.

    He turned to Bone Eel, who was gazing at the stream mouth unhappily. “Can we navigate that?” Ghe asked. Bone Eel knew little else, but he did know more about boat travel than Ghe.

    Bone Eel waved his arms theatrically. “Not far, I suspect. That sandbar is a bad sign. Makes me think the whole tributary might be fairly silty.” He turned to Ghan, hands now balled on his hips. “Does your book make any mention of depth?”

    Ghan looked cross and consulted the volume he had reluctantly dragged from his room to the Tiller Pavilion. It lay on a mahogany desk usually reserved for charts.

    “Let's see,” he muttered. “Thick about with bamboo—the fishing is fair, if one likes trout—here we go. 'The mouth is twelve copper lengths wide, and the channel is five deep. Both the width and the channel maintain themselves for a distance of eight leagues inland, where the River splits into a greater and lesser branch, neither of which will take the hint of a keel. By flat skiff, one may then make one's way.' ” The scholar glanced up from the pages. “That's what it says,” he noted.

    Though he listened to Ghan's words, Ghe found his attention drifting back to the open River mouth. It appeared, to his untrained eye, that the barge could easily fit, once beyond the sand and debris that seemed to clutter the entrance. Past that, the small river looked wide and clear.

    Ghe narrowed his eyes. Something was happening where the tributary met the River. Water swirled into him, and where those waters met, Ghe saw a line of turbulence—not just in the liquid, but in the substance behind it. And he felt despair, humming in the air like some familiar song.

    Despair and pain, hunger. The first two from the stream flowing in; the last, of course, from the River, for it exactly resembled the hunger he knew when he was away from the water and the living were his bread and meat. The River devoured this smaller watercourse: not just its water, but its spirit. Which meant that there were other spirits than the River in the world. Not gods, surely, but creatures like gods.

    The sudden import of that struck him nearly physically, and he heard not a word of the conversation that continued between Ghan and Bone Eel. Instead, as he gazed at the continuing death of the tributary, he heard again the laughter of that creature beneath the Water Temple, its smugness, almost as if it viewed the River God with condescension.

    He nearly killed Bone Eel when the fool plucked at his arm. He felt the might gather, and behind it a sudden renewal of hunger, perhaps a sympathetic reflection of the River's own hunger. But he caught Qwen Shen's concerned gaze, and he relented. “Really, Master Yen,” Bone Eel was saying. “I must insist you pay attention.”

    “I'm sorry,” Ghe said, trying to infuse his voice with interest he did not feel. “I was just taken with the thought of leaving the River. It seems so strange.”

    “Yes,” Bone Eel agreed, “and I wonder why we are doing it. Eight leagues isn't very far. What can we discover in eight leagues? It seems to me that we would be better off sailing farther up the River himself.”

    “Darling,” Qwen Shen said sweetly, patting his shoulder. “Don't you remember explaining to me how important it is to chart navigable watercourses and land routes? Master Ghan assures us that both can be found up this stream. You may also remember that you said the crew needed a break to hunt and forage for a time. What better opportunity than now?”

    “Oh, that's true,” Bone Eel said. “I was thinking that.”

    Inwardly Ghe wondered how such a woman as Qwen Shen could stop herself from smothering this silly fop in the night, but he also knew the answer. For women in Nhol power could be had only through a husband, a son, or a brother. Bone Eel was heir to a fair amount of power but hadn't the wits to use it. Probably everyone at court understood the source of the nobleman's ideas and was relieved that he had a keeper.

    “Very well,” Bone Eel said. “Haul on the tiller, and I shall command the dragons!” he called to a knot of sailors awaiting his orders. “Soldiers, I want to see bows and fire for the catapult! This is unknown territory, and who can say what we shall find?”

    Moments later, their prow nosed carefully through the mouth of the River and entered, by way of water, the lands of the Mang. When they crossed that line—the one no one but he could see—Ghe felt a tremor, a wave of sickness that quickly passed. But it left undefined worry behind it. He noticed Qwen Shen's batted eyes, the invitation they issued. She understood his moods and knew just as well what was good for him. After a few moments, he left the deck and went to his cabin to await her.

    Ghan was already back in his room, deeply engrossed in yet another tome. How many had the man brought with him? In passing, he noticed a feeling like… triumph? Hope? It was hard to tell with Ghan. He must have found something in his book he had been searching for. Hezhi used to light up with that same sort of ebullience when she found something she suspected or hoped for in her research. Though then he had not the power or need to sense those feelings; Hezhi radiated them, the way the sun produced light.

    Hezhi. Soon!

    His body stirred, in anticipation of Qwen Shen's arrival.

    GHAN heard when Ghe went by; he had learned the ghoul's gait long ago. Desperately he began reciting a poem to himself, over and over, trying to mask his true feelings, his precariously balanced hope and triumph.

    Ghe passed, but Ghan kept repeating the verse:

    “Often sweeps Death

    The houses of living, A menial task, That brings into her fair, dark eyes

    A sparkle of joy

    At the little things she finds there.”

    Only when he heard Qwen Shen enter and the sounds of pleasure begin in Ghe's room did he return to the book, tracing his finger back to the point he left off, a paragraph or so below the bold caption that read, in the ancient hand:

    On the Nature and Composition of Dragons.

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