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by Engor

Chapter 53

Julien felt that keeping secrets aboard a boat as small as this would be impossible, and so, despite Xarax's strong reservations, he had decided to call a meeting.

"Well," he began, "This is a small boat, and I don't want to keep you two completely in the dark – it's not fair for you to have to spend half your time trying to work out what I'm hiding from you. That's why I'm going to explain what we're up to here. All right, there are one or two details that I'm going to keep to myself because actually you'd be better off not knowing, but as far as I can I'll answer your questions, if you have any, to the best of my ability. Does that sound all right?"

The sailors both nodded.

"Right," continued Julien. "Well, the first thing you need to know is that all of us are serving the Emperor. You've probably already worked that out for yourselves – after all, not too many people get issued with a haptir as an assistant. Xarax is helping me purely because I'm working for the Emperor. Ugo's story is a bit more complicated, but he's also serving the Emperor. So: the first thing I have to do is to find the Noble Lord Niil of the Ksantiris. He's my friend, and he's also the Emperor's Privy Councillor."

"Huh?" queried Tenntchouk. "How come? Th' laddie's surely naat a day older than you are!"

"That's true, but he's still who I said he is, trust me. Right now he's aboard the First Trankenn, but we now know that First Lord Ylavan is dead."

"Whaat? Are ye certain?"

"Xarax is hard to beat when it comes to intelligence gathering. I think that's probably why the Noble Lord Nekal refused to help me."

"Of caarse! T'other baast... Waal, they do say as he could never staand the Noble Saan Niil. Nekal, he's ever raantin' behind 'is faather's baack, telling anyone that'll listen as how the boy's a baastard – as if Lady Axelia would have daan saach a thing to th'boy's faather! So, as Oi sees it, 'twould be better for Lard Niil to get 'imself aaf af thaat boat as faast as ever 'e caan!"

"That's exactly what we think, too, which is why we have to get him away from there."

"And how d'ye plaan to do thaat?"

"I'm intending to ask him to join us on Isabelle. But if we're going to be able to do that we need Xarax to be able to get to the First Trankenn to make contact with him, and it looks as if we're still a bit too far away for that at the moment."

"And how'll he maanage to get 'ere? Oi'd say it's a bit faar to swim..."

"I don't know yet. For now the most important thing is for Xarax to reach him. Once he knows we're on our way to him I'm sure he'll find a way to get to us. Right now he doesn't even know that I'm on Dvârinn, far less looking for him."

"Waal... Oi daan't loike to mess wi' things too faar above me station, me. Would it naat be better to let th'Emperor deal with 'un? 'Tis his Councillor, ye say."

"The Emperor is responsible for the whole of the R'hinz," said Ugo. "I'm sure he will do whatever he can as soon as he is able to, but for now it's our duty to look out for Lord Niil, and the most important thing of all is to let him know that we're here."

"Exactly," agreed Julien. "And that's going to mean sailing this boat as fast as we can. Xarax knows the direction to take. The First Trankenn is outside the archipelago, but Xarax thinks that he could make the trip in two hops. He can get from here to Djankou Ling," (and he indicated the northernmost island on the chart) "and then he could rest there for a bit before flying on – hopefully the First Trankenn will just about be within his range if he does that. Meanwhile we have to keep moving closer. That means that we won't be able to rely on the autopilot any longer – we'll need to stick to the compass bearing. That means I'll need to take a watch myself."

"I can stand watch too," said Ugo. "Obviously I can't change the sails, but I can watch the wind and the compass and wake one of you if necessary."

"Thank you," said Julien. "That will certainly help us at night. So let's all give it until tomorrow morning to try to think up a better plan. If we can't, Xarax can leave us tomorrow morning. Of course, if he's going to be stopping off on the way we probably won't see him again for three or four days, and that should be long enough to get us to the edge of the archipelago. If he still hasn't managed to reach the First Trankenn by then we'll just have to take on supplies at Djankou Ling and then carry on from there."

After they had eaten Ugo took the first watch and everyone else retired for the night. That meant that Julien found himself alone with Xarax, and that gave him a chance to broach a subject that had been worrying him for some time.

Xarax, he said, all that long distance flying is going to take a lot of energy, and I really think I ought to feed you before you go. Obviously I didn't want to do it while the sailors were around, but... I think it would be a good idea if I went and took a shower straight away.

For once Xarax agrees with you: he will need all the energy that is available. Xarax could probably last another twenty days or so, but it would certainly be wise to deal with it right now. And a shower is a good idea: explaining away dried blood on your neck at breakfast would be difficult.

One day I will have to teach you to drink through a straw... I hope it won't take you too long to find them. I'm getting really worried about Niil and Ambar And if by some miracle you run into a Guide, it's also imperative to get a message to Aldegard to tell him I'm back in the R'hinz.

There is not much chance of that. Apart from you and your friends, there aren't many people who would let a haptir get close enough to them to communicate with it!

I wonder why? People have the strangest preconceptions...

It had been decided that Julien would take the final watch before dawn, but in fact what woke him up was the smell of breakfast. Tenntchouk hadn't been able to bring himself to wake the sleeping boy up for his watch. Julien realised that there wouldn't be a lot of point in reprimanding him: clearly the sailor had become very fond of his employer and this, for want of a more explicit outlet, was his way of demonstrating it.

"'Tenntchouk, I really ought to be angry about this, but actually I had a great night's sleep, so thank you. But I want you to promise me that you won't do it again. I'm going to need you to be at your best if things get difficult later on and you won't be if you don't get enough sleep yourself."

"Bah, 'tis naathing, laddie. Ye was sleepin' loike a baby, and me, Oi weren't toired. And there's naathin to do aan this vessel most o' the toime, neether. Now, if'n ye're lookin' for Ugo, 'e's up aan deck wi' Graadik. An' Xarax, 'e's already gaan."

Julien went up on deck and, after having shouted a 'Good morning' in the direction of the wheelhouse, made his way forward, climbed up onto the rail while supporting himself with part of the rigging, and had his morning pee over the side. Of course Isabelle was equipped with a head below deck, but Julien, who was in any case used to rather smaller boats, preferred to do it in the open air, surrounded by the immensity of the sea and the sky.

The weather was changing. Of course Julien wasn't well acquainted with local weather patterns, but a depression is a depression everywhere, and the wispy high-level veil that was lightening an otherwise cloudless sky, the two rainbow-coloured arcs on either side of the sun (Jobik, the old sailor from Granville, had told him that these were called parhelia or sundogs) and the deep, slow swell moving uncomfortably against the regular swell caused by the wind, all conspired to tell him that it was time to start taking precautions against heavy weather.

He mentioned this when they sat down to breakfast, and the sailors stared at him.

"Ye noticed thaat, did ye?" asked Gradik. "Aall boi yerself, loike?"

"It's not that hard to see, Gradik. And I can't tell whether it's going to be very bad, or if it's just going to be a brief bit of a gale."

"Oh, it'll naat be a Great Staarm, naat yet. But it will blaaw, roight enough. And Oi'd say that if'n we weren't aall ahaste to caatch th' First Trankenn we ought ter be thinkin' o' a-running under full sail ter Martchoung – thaat's th' nearest haarbour."

"Be still, Graadik," said Tenntchouk. "We knew, us, that this would be naa pleasure-trip when we staarted th' voyage."

"No, Tenntchouk, Gradik's right," said Julien. "Yes, I want to get to Niil as soon as possible, but we'll be no use to him at all if the ship sinks or is too badly damaged to sail. I'll plot us a course to Martchoung."

"Be ye afeard, laddie?" asked Tenntchouk.

"Of course I'm afraid! Any sailor who isn't afraid of the sea is an idiot who is going to die young. And I'm responsible for this vessel – unless you want to take command? I can promise that I won't mind at all if you want to be captain."

"'Old yer 'orses, laddie – that's naat what Oi meant."

"I'm serious, though. You're the professionals, but I'm the one who has to make the decisions. Gradik says that we ought to take shelter, and I think he's probably right. So what do you think, Tenntchouk? And I want your honest opinion here – your sailor's opinion."

"Wall... Oi'd say as Graadik's naat wraang. We're loike to caatch a good'un afore laang. She's a noice ship, but if it were down to me, Oi'd be rannin' fer moi loife."

"What about you, Ugo?" asked Julien.

"I know nothing about navigation, and in any case a boat is not a democracy. But, for what it's worth, I think Jobik would agree with these two."

Julien thought he'd seen heavy weather in the past, but the occasional Force Eight or Nine squall that he'd encountered while sailing around the Channel Islands had scarcely prepared him for the howls of a mid-sized storm in the Serlingkas Archipelago. The storm broke violently a little before noon, by which time they could just about make out the summits of the hills of Martchoung in the distance. Shortly before the storm broke the wind had dropped completely and the huge swell rocked the boat violently, giving them a little foretaste of the fun and games that were to follow. Everything that wasn't fixed down had promptly started to roll all over the wardroom floor, and they had to hold on tight to anything in reach if they wanted to stay on their feet. Pretty soon even Gradik and Tenntchouk needed to use their anti-seasickness sweets.

After this harbinger the storm proper announced itself in the form of a huge black wall of cloud sweeping towards them. They'd stripped the sails down to two tiny triangles, but even so the force of the first squall was enough to push the boat over onto her side. Julien, wrapped in an oilskin that was too big for him, had insisted on staying on deck, firmly attached to one of the four lifelines which the sailors had rigged for the occasion, but he realised as his boots filled with water and slipped on a gunwale which, due to the tilt of the ship, was currently serving as a deck, that he might have overestimated his own strength. Then he felt someone pulling at him, and he did his best to help Tenntchouk as the sailor dragged him back into the wheelhouse.

The boat righted herself slowly in what was now a sort of artificial twilight. They could only communicate with each other using sign language, because the howling of the wind was loud enough to have drowned out a jet engine. The water in the atmosphere had nothing in common with good old-fashioned rain: it was more like a sort of horizontal waterfall which they had to turn their backs on if they wanted to breathe. Navigation was impossible: all they could do was to try to keep the vessel's stern to the wind in order to prevent her being rolled sideways on into the foaming mountains of water which lifted and dropped the boat like some monstrous carousel at an insane funfair.

Julien lost all track of time. He only realised, some time later, that the noise had diminished a little and that the boat was no longer fleeing along the line of the storm but was instead cutting diagonally across the swell, propelled by a little more sail. He glanced at the compass and realised that Gradik was trying to take them back towards the shelter which they hadn't quite been able to reach before the storm broke. The rain was easier and sometimes actually stopped briefly, and although they were still beneath lowering clouds the light was a little better than it had been previously. The roar of the wind was a little diminished, and now you could just about make yourself heard if you bellowed your lungs out.

Julien realised what Gradik was trying to do. They'd been driven away from the harbour that had been their initial goal and were now to the south of the island of Martchoung, but there seemed a good chance that their present heading would bring them round to the east side of the island, where they could hope to find some shelter from the storm. But they would have to get there before nightfall, and they would also have to hope that the seamanship and navigation skills of their helmsman were up to scratch, because visibility was currently no more than a few hundred metres.

In the event night fell just as they were rounding the southern tip of the island, a tricky point where a strong tide flowing one way ran into the wind blowing in the other, churning up a tidal race which boiled like a huge witch's cauldron, flinging up gobbets of foam that seemed to glow in the fading light. Fortunately, other than a few nasty shoals at the end of the cape, the coastline was fairly clear, and once they had rounded the point it suddenly felt as if they had entered a different world.

It was certainly not the calm of a lagoon, but the horrendous howl of the wind fell away into what seemed almost like peaceful silence, but which was actually the normal sound of the waves coupled with an occasional squall blowing down the cliffs which were providing them with their long-sought shelter. The rain was falling downwards again, rather than lashing against them horizontally.

It took them a further hour to find a place where they could drop anchor relatively safely, without too much risk of being driven onto a rocky shore whose presence could only be guessed from the pale line of surf that they caught sight of from time to time, but finally they were able to gather around the wardroom table with a cup of hot soup, their eyes red from the salt in the air but happy to have escaped the monster which was still lashing the heights of the island above them. The choppy water was still shaking the vessel, but nobody complained, and a little spilled soup in no way diminished their happiness at being still alive and relatively safe.

Very much aware that he had so far been able to do nothing to help, Ugo demanded and was granted the task of keeping an eye on the mooring and making sure that the ship didn't drag her anchors during the night.

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