Hunt Across Worlds by Sherwood Smith


  Beditha sighed, searched her memory, then said, “Oh yes! The Hill Battle, and the Treaty of Scout’s Bay—”

  Beditha Ten waved a hand. “That’s the records version. What really happened is this: to make people into decent fighters, you have to have someone teachin’ ’em who knows what a sword is for, and like as not that person wants to be a leader, and then wants more powers, and if the fighters shift loyalty to the leader, that person can get power, see?”

  “Oh.”

  “So you can think over them things, as the years pass. Things is right enough now, but every ship comes in whispers of trouble brewin’ round the world. Sartor’s free now, and that’s good, but it’s gonna cause the enemy to cast their nets about elsewhere.”

  “Urg.”

  Beditha Ten looked down at the round, freckled face gazing back at her so solemnly, and nodded. “Enough for now. Fer a name, you want to stay with family?”

  “Of course.”

  “Well, there was my two sisters. Wende was a dear, we all loved her.”

  Beditha Twelve saw grief in the squint of her gran’s eyes. Though great-aunt Wende had died in a terrible battle against the pirates in the Brotherhood of Blood some fifty years before, the older people all missed her like it was yesterday.

  “And then of course there was Padelia.”

  Nothing more said. Nothing more needed. Beditha Twelve knew that few had liked the youngest sister, who’d gone off after three failed businesses (rumor was, it was her temper made them fail), signing onboard the first ship she found as a ship’s cook, and she’d never come back. Not that anyone missed her.

  “Wende’ll do,” Beditha said, testing the sound of it.

  “Wear it a day or so. See if it fits. Time enough to tell ’em.” Beditha Ten waved below. “Speakin’ o’ which, we better skedaddle, if we’re to get there before them Councilors, and put them to work.”

  o0o

  They reached the Town Square well before the Councilors had puffed their way down the hill, each longing for a cool drink and loose clothing. The Harbormistress went straight to the Lighthouse, which was where she reigned. By the time the other three had changed, eaten, commiserated privately with whoever could be got to listen, and then emerged from their domiciles and converged onto the old palace, it was to find willing volunteers (who seemed to have emerged from the stones) lugging out quantities of furniture right into the square and dropping it.

  “No! No!” The Prime Mentitioner shrieked, as she recognized some of her own workers standing about in blank amazement, their storage-chests stacked haphazardly in front of the Meeting Hall.

  “Here, what’s this?” the Guildmaster roared, recognizing some of his own chests and old furnishings now just being borne out by some muscular young folk. “You can’t touch that! I’ll call the Patrol on you!”

  “Go puke on a pirate,” the lead man growled. “It’s the old broom upstairs sent us out wi’ this ballast.”

  “That’s right. Meetin’ Hall was built for you people,” came a strong old woman’s voice from above, and Beditha Ten appeared at a window.

  “But there’s no room,” the Guildmaster protested.

  “I’m accounted a fine housekeeper,” came the wry answer. “Want I should come over there and help you find room?”

  “Hurray!” A cheer went up from all the watchers in the Square, and once again the Councilors felt power slipping away. Each of the three thought with profound regret of their cozy apartments in the Meeting Hall, more spacious by far than their homes, and (this was the kicker) maintained all at public expense. Moving all their workers from the ‘temporary’ quarters in the palace back inside the Meeting Hall would mean giving up that wonderful private space that had seemed so necessary, and that in turn meant foregoing the dinners, the parties, all of which—being held in the Meeting Hall—had been paid for by the public.

  The public coffers would be supporting a palace once again.

  While they sadly supervised the shifting of personal items home (after negotiating on the spot for moving fees) and the restoration of the Meeting Hall as Public Office space, upstairs the two Bedithas finished looking through the residence portion of the their ancestral home.

  Twelve intervening generations had not fostered any particular sense of belonging. They knew that the last king had been far worse a fool than any of those Councilors down below—and he was an ancestor just as much as that first Beditha.

  Wende finally summed up what they were both feeling. “It’s just a huge dustbin, isn’t it?” She looked at the weather-ruined remains of a wall painting featuring a group of people wearing peculiar caps doing some kind of odd-looking dance. Web-draped furniture with rotted cushions and mildewed gild sat in the dusty corners of the room. “Guess I better run back to home and rouse out the dust rags, huh?”

  “I’ll hire me some swabbers from Lovely Arms who might be in need o’some extree earnings,” Beditha Ten said. “Under my eye, they’ll preddy this place quick enough. What we gotta do is inspect.”

  “For?” Wende put her hands on her hips and eyed her grandmother. “You got summat in mind, I can hear it.”

  “I dunno, child, I dunno, but of late, I’ve had me some Dreams.”

  Not dreams, but Dreams. Everyone on their particular slope of Lookout Hill knew that her Dreams were something to be respected, if not understood. She didn’t have them often, and sometimes they were obscure, but they always presaged something happening to someone, or something, concerned with the family.

  For example, Gran had dreamed of her sister Wende, laughing and dancing on the hilltop with a garland of spring flowers in her hair, just like when they were small and celebrating Midsummer Day, the night she was killed. Now, that might have been coincidence, except in the dream Wende stopped her dance long enough to say, It’s the long day for me, Di. And it is the long day, and not the long night. See? There’s Ma, and Granny Eight, and Cousin Shan who went missing up Sea o’Storms way. A freckled pointing finger, and there, right enough, was teenage Shanod, their favorite male cousin, who had vanished fifty years before. Now standing and waving, a grin on his homely face.

  Then the sun had topped the hill, flooding the dreamscape with light, turning the figures to silhouettes and there they faded.

  Wende Beditha thought of that dream, just as her grandmother re-experienced it, as vividly as that first night.

  “What was yer new Dream?” Wende finally asked.

  Beditha Ten heaved a long sigh as she mentally tucked away that precious memory of her last sight of her sister. “Dark silhouette, man shaped. Got him—it’s a him—a pirate glass, and he’s lookin’ our way. Seen him three, four nights, now, a-scannin’ fer us with that glass. Ever since Lenzy come a-tellin’ me about them Council fools deciding to hand off the government, once they roused out records o’ the last Parlebs.”

  “That’s us.”

  “Yep.”

  The back of Wende’s scalp prickled, like pulling a thread in cloth. “But Auntie Lenzy knew who we were!”

  “Yeah, and?”

  “Why’d it take all those days, then?”

  “First, it’s steppin’ on their toes to tell ’em, and second they’d scent a plot, though there weren’t any plot, because they’re used to thinkin’ in terms of plots. Also, they had time to look to their affairs, some. Clean up the worst of their bendin’ of the rules, you might say. We don’t need to start out with trouble of that kind.”

  Wende shook her head vigorously.

  “Slow and steady does it, like I always say—”

  “—Crowd sail, wring mast,” Wende finished, grinning. “Don’t I know it, and here’s me, never yet out to sea.”

  “So it is, so it is. Well, in near to ninety years, if a body don’t repeat once or twice, that’s a miracle,” Gran said with so fine disregard for all the thousands of repetitions of her favorite maxims, Wende had to turn away to hide her laugh. “Come along, child. We better get our nosin’ done before the
whole island finds business down here, in order to get a look at you. I figger gossip has hit Eastway Island by now.”

  Wende did laugh at the idea of the farthest and most isolated island having heard the news, and for the first time she considered what being a queen meant. The thought made her uncomfortable, as if she’d stepped out of her bath and straight outdoors, forgetting to put on her clothes. She decided to think about that later, and instead turned to the inspection.

  It had to be a fast one, even so, for sure enough, people started showing up in the Town Square, and Beditha Ten realized that they were going to have to hire a staff and be quick, or else they’d never get any free time at all.

  So they walked from room to room, trying not to breathe in the dust and mildew. The lower floors (of course) had been occupied by the overflow offices of the councilors. No one wanted to climb stairs if they didn’t have to, and the upper rooms were largely untouched; Wende frowned in disapprobation at the dark, color-faded, moth-eaten hangings and furnishings, stopping finally before a great curtained rectangle raised off the floor.

  “What’s that thing?” She pointed.

  “A bed.”

  “‘s what I thought.” Wende curled her lip. She knew about beds: land-bound folk and the rich slept in them. She shook her head. “If’n being a queen means I have to sleep in that thing, all over hot, and solid as ground, then I ain’t doin’ it.”

  “We’ll sleep up hill in our hammocks, same as always, at least for now.” Gran said, and grinned. “And if we have to move here, well, hammocks can be slung in a palace just as easy as a hut.”

  “Let’s look on farther, then.”

  They finished touring the rooms, and stopped before a door. The attic was completely closed off, and locked.

  But this lock didn’t stop Beditha Ten; she picked it with a tool in the pocket of her trousers, an art Wende had not known she’d had (and Gran didn’t explain), and the two went in to find an even bigger treasure of dust and spider webs than anywhere else.

  But it became clear that this jumble was what was left of the Parleb archives.

  “Archives, and not treasure,” Gran said as they poked about. “I knew it all along, that the Council sold off the old jewels and swords and things over the years, and no one around to stop ’em.”

  “All these books. Whew! Clothes in this trunk.”

  “Phaugh! That rotten stuff musta been silk. Nothing left but the gold thread. Well, that can be reused.”

  Gran went on to inspect a few more trunks.

  Wende prowled on, bending from time to time to touch objects sitting on shelves. What was all this stuff? Did kings and queens just stash all their trash? Weird, wasn’t it, to think that long-dead ancestors had touched these things! Was that why her fingers felt all tingly?

  She straightened up, staring down at a wooden box on the lowest shelf. She’d never had Dreams—had nothing funny that way whatever. But her fingers did feel funny, and it wasn’t just the dust.

  She bent and picked up the box. Would something nasty be inside?

  She blew the dust off the top, lifted it. Inside she saw, in faded ink, a heavy piece of rice-parchment. The paper had conformed to a circle-shape, almost a coin-shape, except thicker; it had obviously settled round the object it covered.

  “What’s this?” she asked aloud, though of course whatever answer there might be was on the paper, and not known by anyone alive.

  Beditha Ten came up, her shadow falling over the box and the paper. “Mmm-mmm,” she said. “I got me a bad feeling in my bones.”

  Wende squinted at the old-fashioned lettering. “It’s Sartoran, Gran!”

  “Well, I paid good money down to get you learned in their writ. What’s it say?”

  “It’s so messy, and faded. The letters are...” Wendy stopped complaining, and puzzled out the words, shaping each sound with her lips as though it would help translate the paper’s message.

  “Something about time, and twelve.”

  “Twelve, well, that would be you.”

  “Oh, Gran. Nobody knew I’d be born when this was put!”

  “Time,” Beditha Ten pronounced, “ain’t always what you think. Now, go on, what’s the rest say?”

  With this dyr the twelfth must break the binding over Everon.

  Beditha Ten sighed. “I almost told you to toss it, but now I know what’s what. That there thing is part of an old treaty. I don’t know which one, but my great-gran told me there was some mighty secret stuff here, and it don’t take no Dreams to tell us this here thing is one of ’em.”

  Wende flicked up the aged paper with a careful finger. It crumbled at once. “Urk!”

  “No matter, you read what could be read. Ugh! I don’t like the look o’that thing.”

  Wende reached in and gingerly picked up the dull round shape lying there. It was more gray than silver, made of material that wasn’t quite metal nor yet quite stone, but seemed comprised of the two. Otherwise it was heavy, and cold.

  “Want it?” Wende offered the thing to her grandmother.

  She took it, held it up to the light, inspected both sides, then handed it back with a shake of the head. “Your duty’s clear enough,” Gran said. “You gotta up and take it back where it belongs.”

  Five: In which The Hunt Begins

  Lenzet Arbic, Harbormistress, knocked out her pipe and leaned over to take a pinch of fresh leaf from Old Ran’s pouch.

  Captain Ran Nalved reloaded his own pipe and sat back, looking out over the harbor as his old friend lit her pipe. Night-lights hung in the topmasts of the ships, a friendly forest of lights that reflected in golden shimmers on the peaceful water. The night was balmy, rare enough, and he’d come in from a successful run. Life was good.

  Well, life was interesting. Lenzy leaned over to hand him her sparker and he lit his own pipe, puffing gently. He looked at her, outlined in firelight. Even in that rosy glow he could see that she’d aged, but then so had he. And after what, seventy-five years of friendship, hey, didn’t they have a right to age?

  But still. “Something’s wrong,” he observed. “Eh?”

  Lenzy turned the long stem of her pipe outward. “Not there.”

  For a time there was no sound but the slow slurp at the pipes, a sound equated with the old, for custom decreed that smoking pipe-leaf was reserved for those who had attained the age of fifty or above. Farther away came the brisk sound of music—one of the pleasure houses along the Row, no doubt. Raucous singing and clapping joined. Then somewhere else, unseen, a seabird uttered a long cry.

  At length Lenzy said, “You know how, after, say, four times round the world, you get so’s you know a pirate when you see ’un.”

  “Yup.”

  “Don’t matter what kind o’ rig they run, whose signals they fly, you just know, and they give ’emselves away by so many little signs.”

  “Yup.”

  “That moment, before you see the first sign provin’ ye right.” She pointed her pipe stem at him, her eyes reflecting the ship lights below. “It’s why you’re lookin, don’t you see? You just know. Then you see the proof. And you act.”

  “Yup.”

  Lenzy sat back. “Well, I know something here’s wrong. Right here, in Landes, I just know it. Now I’m waitin’ on me proof.”

  “Eh.”

  “I don’t like waitin’.”

  Old Ran shook his head. “No, can’t say I do either. I take it you’ve put up your preventer stays and storm sails against the comin’ blow?” As he spoke he noticed what he’d previously overlooked: the quiet, regular movement of the fast little tenders that the Harbor Patrol used, each fully equipped with the young Patrollers, and no more than a deadlight in the stern. Yes, she’d prepared for trouble, all right.

  Lenzy gave a nod. “Told ’em it’s a summer exercise. All nice and quiet, no one the wiser. Got half out on the water, and half roamin’ the streets—”

  She stopped, head cocking. In the distance he could hear a ringing
hand-bell. She threw down her pipe and whirled up from her seat with all the force of a twenty year old. “That’s our signal.”

  Just a few clangs, and then silence; the music below did not diminish, nor did any other sounds rise. Apparently no one was curious about a bell, though the sound did carry, bouncing off the hills behind the town and out toward the sea. But of course the Patrol usually used whistles, same as a bosun, though much lower in tone.

  “Want some help?” he asked.

  “Don’t yet know.”

  They ran down the round stairs of the Lighthouse. Her personal rooms were at the top. They had to pass all the closed offices of the harbor before reaching the street level, where they found two young women in patrol tunics, faces crimson, their breathing ragged.

  “Killed six of us so far,” one said.

  The other waved a hand. “Palace.”

  “How many enemies, and how armed?” Lenzy rapped out.

  “Two that we know of. Steel, maybe mage-work,” was the prompt answer.

  “You. Two tolls on Patrol bell. When they assemble tell ’em to spread round the square and move in. You. Take me back the way you came. On the way, tell me everything you saw, leave nothing out. Let me get my sword.”

  Lenzy slammed open the office door adjacent, and cast a glance at the captain. He followed her in, shutting the door and putting his shoulders against it.

  She said, “Ran, you want to help?” At his nod, she went on, “Two days. It’s been two days since the change o’government, and they’re already here. That means magic—bad magic, probably Norsunder.”

  Ran Nalved stared.

  “Still want to help?”

  “Of course.”

  “Then I need you for a cutrose.”

  Ran nodded. Much as the islanders hated pirates—and they did hate pirates—it was inevitable that some pirate slang would work its way into daily speech. ‘Snipping a rose’ had evolved into ‘cutrose’, which meant a cutting out expedition.

  “Get yourself up to Lookout, and warn Di and the squeaker. No one knows this but them and me, and now you: on their inspection t’other day Di and Twelvie found some curst object in the palace, something Di swears had some kind o’ magic on it. Touchin’ it musta set ringin’ some kind o’ alarm. If I’m right, them elevens, or whoever they are, is up there is searchin’ that palace good. I’ll be there quick as I can.”

 
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