Côte d'Ys lounged in the glow of an early summer evening. Buckjack and Carlin stepped out to look it over. John "Buckjack" Weldon and Julien Carlin, sometimes called "Style," were both trainee cavalrymen in the Dedicated Cavalry of Grand Normandy: last summer, along with four other young men, they had presented themselves at the cavalry base, been shot with enchanted arrows, and become horses from the waist down. It was called the Dedicated Cavalry for good reason.
But they differed as centaurs quite as much as they had differed when they were men-simple. Carlin was a paint, white with big patches of ruddy brown. He had been on a sweaty endurance march from early morning until mid-afternoon, but that coat was now gleaming again. He wore his dress uniform jacket, red with white piping, and a blue stetson, almost the same as the standard dress hat but with a customized Australian curl to the brim, allowing him to show off a piratical ear-ring. Beard and mustache—a darker brown than his patches, as were his hair and tail—were freshly trimmed and waxed to points, framing a crooked smile. His hooves were polished. There was a definite prance to his walk.
Then there was Buckjack. He was a buckskin—hence the nickname, bestowed by Carlin—with fawn coat and dark hair, beard, legs, and tail. He wore only the standard ruddy-brown duty stetson and the matching T-shirt that was fatigues for him. He had given himself a good wash-off and rub-down when the day's march was over, but his coat and hooves did not shine. He paced soberly next to Carlin and knew he looked like the sidekick, if not the pack animal, even though he was almost a hand taller than Carlin, and even though it had been his idea to go look about the town.
"So how big is this place?" Carlin asked, glancing up and down the street. Or maybe road. It was unpaved and held foot traffic, a couple of horse-drawn wagons, and, in the distance, something like a golf cart. On one side stood the stores, on the other were the docks.
"I don't know the population," Buckjack answered. "Nothing like London, of course." Carlin was from London. "I'm sure it's not even as big as Sterk"—the small coastal city Buckjack came from. "I expect we saw half of it on the march in." He thought he was starting to sound apologetic and decided there was no need. Not everywhere had to be a metropolis. "It is the biggest settlement on Brequelle."
Carlin nodded, still half-smiling. He looked along the road. "And things are picking up," he remarked approvingly. There was more traffic than when they had marched in.
"Getting cooler," Buckjack said. "They'll be busy far into the night, between us and the fays." Centaurs, like horses, only slept two or three hours a night, and fays were nocturnal more often than not. "Let's have a look." And he led the way across the road, to the docks.
There, looming and swelling like an iceberg or a grounded cumulus cloud, lay the white bulk of the GNNV Bythos. The Grand Norman Naval Vessel was a mix of new, old, and mythic, a schooner of old-style lines, made of modern materials (spiced with alchemy) and fitted with modern instruments (nursed by gremlins). It was bound for places even more exotic than itself: behind it, the Ysean Sea lay quiet at present, but rising above the horizon was the edgestorm, boiling with clouds and tossing off chunks of rainbow, and beyond the edgestorm lay the frayed boundary of Brequelle's little continuum, fluttering in hyperspace. Mostly. Here and there were passages to other such continua, or back to Earth.
The Bythos would seek out those passages, hoping they were still there and still led where they had. Once in that next worldlet, Buckjack and Carlin would disembark, along with their classmates. So would other Dedicated cavalrymen, and folk of the Standard Cavalry (in which men and horses were separate beings), Infantry, and Magery. They would explore and survey the lands of the Hathor Passages while the crew of the Bythos mapped the waters. If all went well, the Bythos would end up back here, at this dock in Côte d'Ys, and Grand Normandy would have another increment of knowledge. The Dedicated Cavalry Class of 'Seventeen, including Carlin and Buckjack, would march back through the land passage to their base in Ufham, Berkshire, trainees no more, fully qualified for the next round of exploration. That was the plan, anyway.
Buckjack and Carlin wandered along the dock, craning their necks to view the tops of masts, catching glimpses through hatches and portholes, staying out of the way of busy men, women, less identifiable fay things, and a few senior centaurs. They would be swept up into this activity soon, but their time was not yet.
They reached the prow. The gilded figurehead was a bearded centaur with a telescope raised to his eye, his rear body becoming a fish tail that twined up and around the bowsprit.
"A mer-centaur," Carlin observed. "Double-dipping on the transformations."
"Ichthyocentaur," Buckjack supplied. "There were two, Bythos and Aphros, sons of Poseidon." And the GNNV Aphros was twin vessel to the Bythos. The Grand Norman navy was small, and these were the only two ships specially fitted to transport centaurs.
"Fletcher!" Carlin exclaimed, pointing at the figurehead's face. "That's Fletcher!" Captain Fletcher was their instructor and commanding officer.
Buckjack stared doubtfully at the gilded profile, then shook his head. "Nah. That's just a generic guy. Why would it be Fletcher?"
"Hey, he trained about a third of the guys in Dedicated. Alain trained another third, and the last third are from way back when."
"Information courtesy of Charliehorse?"
"Of course." Carlin, dispenser of nicknames in their class, had seriously considered re-dubbing Charles "Charliehorse" Darneley as "Answerman" or "Numbers Guy."
"You think there are such things?" Carlin asked, still gazing at the figurehead. "Or were?"
Buckjack shrugged. "Can't say no. Look at us. A shapeshifter like a pooka or heddleykow could do it, I suppose. But as a true shape?" Another shrug.
Carlin had shifted his gaze down to the water. He made a megaphone of his hands and shouted, "Hey!"
Buckjack looked down and saw a merman in the act of surfacing. It looked like he had been working on the hull a bit below the waterline. Buckjack could just discern the oval outline of an instrument port or some such.
"Hey!" Carlin shouted again to the mer-tech. His half-smile had become a full grin and he pointed to the figurehead. "What do you think of our recruiting poster? Take an arrow and give the Cavalry a sea-horse!"
The merman waved his hand dismissively but grinned back and called, "Our ship! Our poster! Chew the weed and give us a sea-horse!" Then he dove but not deeply; a floating tool bag on a tether followed him around to the other side of the ship.
Carlin looked back at the figurehead. "Do you think you can stack transformations that way?"
Buckjack shrugged again. "Never heard that it's been tried." He eyed the figure and grimaced. What a useless form. What good are horse legs in the sea, or a fish tail on land? "If anyone ever wore that shape, I hope it was a 'shifter doing it for fun or for show. What a thing to inflict on anyone!"
He was a little surprised to see a spark kindle in Carlin's eyes. "Good point. Yeah, let's say that's an old god in fancy dress. They did that kind of thing. Still say they used Fletcher for the model."
Having had their look at the Bythos, they crossed the road and began strolling past the stores. "About the same as back home," Carlin said, "only more cramped." Ufham, the town that hosted the cavalry base, allowed extra space for larger customers. "Ah, this one's different. Different stuff."
It was a chandler, a hardware store full of boating and shipping gear. Carlin removed his fine hat and ducked through the door. Buckjack stood preoccupied for a moment, looking up and down the road, then followed. Floorboards clumped and creaked under their hooves.
It was a big place, with a high ceiling, but very full, and they had just made it fuller: engines, pumps, motors, pipes, small buoys, occupied racks and stacks, along with cans and tubs and drums and everyday tools. No other customers at the moment.
They edged their way through. "This is what Agility class was for," Buckjack muttered.
"I forgot how much of this stuff was, y'know, textile—fabric and rope," Carlin said, gazing about. Folded sails and nets, spooled cabling and fishing line, hats, and heavy-weather gear took at least as much space as the machinery.
"You forgot?" echoed Buckjack. Carlin rarely alluded to his past. "You worked on ships?"
"Nah. But I was always down at the London docks, and on and off ships. Stuff like this always piled around, getting used, getting sold..." He trailed off.
Buckjack had lived flank-to-flank with Carlin for most of a year, but still felt he had most of his work ahead of him, getting to know this classmate. "Seeing the water kind of made me homesick for Sterk," he ventured, like a fisherman casting out a line.
Carlin had been staring at nothing and everything. "Like this," he suddenly went on, now brisk, "but more and bigger and dirtier."
"I like a clean shop." So said the rangy, middle-aged woman, standing behind the counter at the far wall. Buckjack, who had put his hat back on after he entered, tipped it to her and smiled.
She probably did not notice: Carlin had had his hat in his hand; he now flipped it, caught it, clapped it to his head, and then tipped it to her, while upping the wattage on his smile. "Très propre," he agreed. "Cavalryman Julien Carlin, madame. And this is my friend Buckjack—John Weldon."
She smiled back, polite but not impressed. "Do you sail on the Bythos?"
"Trainees from Ufham?"
"Yes again, madame."
She nodded. "You sound like it." Her own Chenelaise was tilted toward French, as theirs was toward English. "Are you looking for anything?"
Buckjack tried another hat-tip and smile. "Just looking around, madame," he said diffidently. "We got settled in at the caravanserai, so I asked our captain if we could poke about. He said, 'Very well, there's nothing to do for a bit. You're explorers. Go explore.' We'll try not–"
"Are those fishing flies, madame?" Carlin broke in, pointing to a little display at the end of the counter.
"Oui. You fish?"
"No." But he moved over to the display anyway and began poking around.
The lady looked to Buckjack for explanation, but he knew nothing and just shrugged. He paced over to the counter himself. "Madame, do you know Harry Morley?"
She looked up at the looming young man-horse and considered. "I do not think so. Unless he is married to Matilda Morley?"
"That's him. The merman. They come from my home town. I heard they moved to Brequelle."
"She comes in occasionally. I do not recall if I have seen him." Most people would recall seeing a merman, but not a resident of Côte d'Ys; they were too common here.
Carlin now came to them with a couple of boxes of fishing flies, each holding three brilliant bits of stabby allure.
"If you're not going fishing, what are they for?" Buckjack asked.
"Decoration," Carlin replied.
Buckjack rolled his eyes as one who should have guessed. "You're going to put them in your hat?"
"Not this hat," he answered, "but my duty hat could use some spicing up. So could yours. Here." He tossed one box at Buckjack.
"Thanks." He supposed. "You think they'll make us look more ... nautical?" He watched the proprietress suppress a smile as she took the payment.
"I think it'll make us look sharper."
"Wear them to good fortune, mes garçons," she told them, smiling openly now. "Maybe some fish will land on your heads." They laughed, thanked her, wheeled, and made their way out.
Outside, Carlin twitched the hat off Buckjack's head and started inserting flies in the band. "So who's this merman you were asking about?"
"Harry Morley. He got changed just a few years ago."
"Got changed? Did he dive or was he pushed?"
"Pushed. He was a longshoreman in Sterk, juggling goods across the Sundering." He watched Carlin insert a bristly orange-gold fly in his hat band. He hadn't asked for it and wasn't sure he wanted it. But it showed a generous, if managing, side to Carlin, and maybe that should be encouraged.
"A few years ago," he went on, "he and two mates were sent on a delivery to a boat that wasn't there, got grabbed, had mer-weed stuffed in their mouths, then got shoved in the water. Hey, presto! Mermen. Then something or some seeming chased them way out to sea. Harry made it back home a year later; his mates got lost in a storm and haven't been seen since." In went the next fly, sparkly silver with crimson flaps. It looked nothing like a small prey animal to Buckjack. He wondered how it looked to a fish. Would merfolk know? Carlin took his time placing it.
"They tried hard to find out who and why—I think the constable grilled everyone on the street, and maybe there were even detectives sent in from Magery—but no luck. Best guess is either the guys had some dangerous information without knowing it, and the criminals didn't even want their ghosts available for questioning, or it was some kind of sacrifice. You okay?" Carlin had jabbed in the third fly, an irridescent blue disc, with a sharp grunt. "Stick yourself?"
"Fine," Carlin growled. "I can think of one more motive. Bullying. The pure pleasure of messing someone's life just to prove you have the power."
Buckjack studied Carlin's face. The usual half-smile was gone and his classmate was staring into some fire only he could see. "Maybe," he said cautiously. "But mer-weed is expensive. A lot of trouble to go to, only to mess someone around for fun. I mean, you could mess them around just as much for free with a jack-knife. Just no cool special effects."
"Maybe they have specialized tastes," Carlin spat in an undertone. "Of course," he added, still hissing, "if you use a magic arrow, the Crown pays for it." His gaze returned from the internal furnace and met Buckjack's. "So you're looking for him here?"
Buckjack stowed speculations away for later consideration and nodded. "They moved to Brequelle a year or so after he got back. Because of the other merfolk here. But I don't know exactly where. Somewhere in Côte d'Ys, it seems."
"Who are you looking for?" ask a new voice. They turned and saw the speaker was a young boy.
They stared. The boy was a colt.
Their classmate Danny Brice had been transformed at sixteen. That was as young as the Cavalry took them, and it had been more than three generations since Grand Normandy had encountered any other centaurs. But this boy could be no more than ten or a small eleven. He stood bare in the summer evening, cinnamon skin, black hair, brown eyes. His equine body was white with black stockings and tail, as leggy as a colt-simple of only a few months.
"Who are you looking for?" he asked again. He grinned proudly. "I bet I can help. I know everyone in town."
Buckjack nodded, but then cocked his head and asked, "Are you Jocomo?"
"Joachim," the colt-boy corrected. He broadened his grin, taking his fame as his due.
Buckjack fished up a smile of his own. "Pleased to meet you, Joachim. I'm Buckjack and this is Style." He turned to Carlin. "Style, this guy's our senior. He's been up on hooves six or seven years." Carlin still stared, but the half-smile began creeping back.
"That's right," said Joachim. "They did it when I was little, to cure me. Who is it you're looking for?" he asked again.
"Harold Morley. Harry."
"The merman from England? Sure, I'll show you his berth." Joachim turned in an easy tight pivot that Buckjack found he still envied—though he thought he could do that well now, after a year of Agility classes—and led them back down the road and across to the docks.
"So what's this about the kid?" Carlin asked in a low tone as they followed. "He's like Horsepower?" Their classmate Horsepower had transformed to cure himself of cystic fibrosis. Usually, transformation did not overwrite such diseases, but sometimes a blessing cropped up in the mere magic.
"Yeah. It was a big news story for one day, about seven years ago," Buckjack answered, also low. "I forget what he had—hemophilia maybe. He was dying fast but the scryers said transformation would fix it in his case. His parents begged the Crown to let him become a centaur. They agreed right away. I remember the news clip: the King and Queen attended while Alain shot him." Joachim's mother had collapsed into the King's arms. The Queen had hugged his weeping father. And in the foreground, the new boy-colt had risen, stumbling and smiling. Had the parents' tears been from relief? Buckjack's mother had wept from some mix of sorrow and horror.
"And then I guess they moved to Brequelle," Buckjack concluded. It made sense. Here, off the home zone, they need not cope with the Sundering and a transformed child, and Brequelle was one of the biggest off-zone holdings. The choice of transformation made sense, too. The Crown did not control the changes into merfolk, and after would be the barrier of the sea itself (unless the whole family changed). A little boy could not be turned into a satyr, something-or-other be praised. If he were changed into a fay, he would be lost in another way.
"And he knows everyone in town," Carlin reflected. "I guess he's a kind of town mascot, for now."
"Hey, Joachim!" Carlin called. "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
"I'm joining the Cavalry," he answered promptly. "Look how chevalin I am already." And he paused to rear a little, displaying his back as he looked over his shoulder. A stripe of hair, no wider than a heavy eyebrow, ran down his spine. Buckjack had already noticed it; something a little more robust ran down his own back. Such things appeared to be random variations in the spell.
"You figure you'll get horsier as you grow up?" he asked.
"Sure! I'm practicing wiggling my ears." He dropped back to all fours and took on a stuffed expression. Looking carefully, the two stallions could see his ears wiggle a millimeter or so. "Cool," Carlin admired. Joachim went from stuffed back to smiling and resumed leading them.
"Well, I guess that's all sorted," Carlin said, going back to the low tone. "Hope he doesn't decide he wants to be a jet pilot next week."
"On the other hand," Buckjack murmured back, "if he decides to be a math professor, he'll just need an extra-large office."
"Hm. Could he get horsier as he grows?"
Buckjack shrugged. He knew of no precedents.
Pursuing a previous line of thought, Buckjack remarked, "He seems quite happy about his situation. Like Horsepower."
Carlin grunted and nodded. "Beats being dead."
Then, in a merely apparent change of subject, Buckjack remarked, "You looked furious when I told you about Harry."
"My horse is getting to me."
More fodder for speculation. A few months in, their class had developed the private slang of referring to one's equine side as "my horse." Fletcher had overheard them and had given them a polite but firm lecture on why they should not speak that way: Their new equine nature was not something separate. In mind and heart as well as body, they were now both horses and men. Both at once. And if that was a tricky proposition, on the other hand they could now draw on both species' strengths. But to think of their equine aspect as something apart from themselves was an opening for regarding it as something they might fear, or could reject or not be responsible for.
Afterward, Charliehorse told them that Fletcher had been sparing their anxieties—which Charliehorse himself apparently did not choose to do. He had researched the psychological effects of transformation thoroughly before signing up. (No one was surprised. They knew Charliehorse by now.) Failure to embrace one's inner horse could result in problems like body dysphoria, depersonalization, and alien limb syndrome ("Even worse than usual if it applies to the bulk of your body.").
He then had to explain what those were. His classmates were suitably aghast.
Fletcher did not flat-out forbid them to use "my horse," because he knew the order to be unenforceable, and Carlin occasionally used it out of Fletcher's hearing to express impatience with the new side of his life.
Buckjack ran through the inferences. "Fellow feeling is at least as human as it is equine," he pointed out mildly. Meaning: You don't have to blame your sympathy for Harry on "your horse."
Carlin shook his head, though Buckjack wasn't sure what he meant by it. "Big ol' herd animal. That's me now."
Now. Well, if transforming had made Carlin more compassionate, maybe that was a good thing, even if it annoyed him. It had made Charliehorse bolder, Horsepower calmer, and brought Paul Fells out of a deep depression. It had let Danny feel all grown up, and it had put Buckjack's broken heart behind him.
But had Carlin been aiming to develop his compassion and become a "big ol' herd animal"? It didn't seem likely. Why had Carlin enlisted? All he ever said on the matter was "It looked like fun."
"It is a sad story," Buckjack admitted.
"Sad! It's a bad story. An evil story."
By now, they were well past the prow of the Bythos, approaching a cluster of low buildings and more elaborate docks that appeared to have something to do with fishing. Joachim clattered down a stretch of boardwalk, through a waist-high gateway (elbow-high at the foreleg for the stallions), and down some steps to a pier. There were a number of suitcase-sized boxes mounted on the pilings, with names stenciled on them. Lockers, apparently.
"There's his berth," Joachim said, pointing to a locker labeled MORLEY, "but it looks like nobody's here." He glanced at the surrounding docks. "Lots of fishing boats are out now. That'll be it. They'll be back late tonight." The evening was yellowing. The clouds from the edgestorm looked like smoke, and the rainbows were rich in gold and ruby colors.
Buckjack looked at the row of lockers, each with an owner now deep in the red-glinting water. Without wanting to, he thought of grave markers for those lost at sea. His flanks shivered as he shooed the thought away.
"We'll come back in the morning," he said. All he had wanted to do was look up Harry Morley, see if things were better for him, and let him know his old neighbors had not forgotten him. That was still all he wanted to do. But now Carlin seemed to be taking an interest.
They crossed the road again and thanked Joachim, who smiled, waved, and galloped off. "Late for supper?" Buckjack wondered.
"Galloping's fun," Carlin countered. He should know; he was fastest in class, and his track accomplishments were clearly his favorite thing about his new life. "That looks fun, too." He pointed two doors down, where light and chatter spilled out of the open doorway of a tavern. "Thirsty?"
"It was a hot march," Buckjack admitted. "Let's see if we can squeeze in."
This establishment called itself the Cheese Buoy; the shingle hanging outside showed a particularly cheerful rat perched on an orange-yellow lobster float with bite marks in it. Buckjack needn't have worried about squeezing in. It wasn't as spacious as the Bow and Sabre back in Ufham, but it did accommodate many species.
The main hall was rather barn-like, plank-floored, with wooden rafters. On the left wall was a long bar, fitted with modern conveniences including a TV running sub-titled sports. Around on the right must be a piano, because the music came drifting out, dancing through the chatter. In the middle, the floor was filled with a variety of furniture and an even greater variety of people:
Directly opposite the door, at a narrow, high table, sat their classmates Horsepower and Trickshot (Renny Wardley and Danny Brice), forelegs up, hindquarters seated on mats, looking around as they talked.
A centaur they did not know lay curled up next to a regular table, a woman in Standard Cavalry uniform perched on his back, talking with a civilian couple.
Ravens and seagulls, rats in hats, very large frogs, and very small humanoids perched the rafters, usually in possession of shot glasses.
The rest were mostly mortals, about half in navy or cavalry uniforms, but mingled with them were people too beautiful or translucent or shadowed or short or just odd to be standard children of Adam.
Buckjack recognized the scene from his daydreams. He grinned. "You all meet in a tavern," he murmured to himself. "Roll D twenty."
Horsepower spotted them and waved them over. They set to working their way through, remembering the mantras of their Agility lessons: go slow, be aware, no tail-switching, etc. Soon they gained the table and sat.
"Do we order from the bar?" Buckjack asked, but then a frog with a notepad plopped onto the table.
"You lot don't," it told him. "Cuts down on traffic. What'll it be?"
"You want my beer?" Danny asked, dividing the question between Buckjack and Carlin.
"Still don't like it?" asked Carlin, taking the near-pristine mug. The young chestnut shook his head and looked discouraged. He clearly felt that beer-drinking would help cement his status as an adult, but the stuff continued to taste like moldy bread.
Carlin shook his head in mock sorrow. "You may just be naturally temperate. Even..." He looked grave. "...abstemious." Then he grinned at the sour look he got.
"Try hard cider," Buckjack suggested. "What are you drinking?" he asked Horsepower, whose mug was noticeably larger. Of course, everything about Horsepower was noticeably larger. In some magical pendulum swing, a single arrow strike had taken him from a skeletally thin cystic fibrosis victim to a one-ton creature compounded of a big black draft horse and a man in proportion. He was still capable of feeling giddy over the change. A ton of giddy.
Right now, he was just quietly cheerful. "Boilermaker," he answered Buckjack. "Whiskey for the men and beer for the horses," he quoted.
"You?" the frog asked Buckjack, notepad ready. "Boilermaker?"
"Just a beer, thanks." It wrote this down, took Danny's order for a cider, and leaped back into the rafters.
"You get a look at the ship?" Danny asked. They nodded. "Get inside?"
"No, didn't even try," Buckjack said. "They were way too busy."
"You'll get your chance soon," said Horsepower. "Fletcher put out the word: our check-in time's been moved up from midnight. We're to start loading staples at eleven." Captain Fletcher had been very clear: at this point in their training and at this point in the expedition, their main use was as stevedores. No exploring new worlds until you had packed for them.
Horsepower had nodded as he mentioned their instructor's name. Buckjack followed the direction of the nod and saw his captain, a white-bearded dun, at a table across the room. He sat near the piano, talking with a woman in navy uniform. Buckjack wondered if Fletcher had seen his transit of the room and judged his agility. Two tables over... "Is that Eowyck?" he asked.
Eowyck was the head brownie of the Ufham base stables. Buckjack had never been sure if he was a cavalry officer or if the Crown just felt they were lucky to have him. At his humanest, he was a two-foot-high figure resembling Tweedledee in the Tenniel illustrations for Alice Through the Looking-Glass, dressed in a Standard Cavalry uniform.
He was presently sitting on a table, legs crossed, sharing it with a slender, pale blue figure in a navy uniform, about three feet high. Each held shot glasses.
"I didn't even know he was coming," Buckjack said.
"Yep," said Danny. "Usually, he stays at the stables, but he comes along sometimes to make sure the horses are getting treated right. So he'll be there, hopping around in the ship, when we load up our cousins."
"That's Luinnen, the ship's nix, he's sitting with," Horsepower went on. "And I think they've having a drinking contest, so I hope he gets over hangovers quickly."
A lull in the chatter spread out from the door, then the talk came back brighter, with welcome in it. The stallions saw a young woman standing in the door. Her brown hair was bobbed; she wore a sober blue-gray halter top and a pleated white skirt that swept down to her ankles. Her feet were bare. She leaned on a black walkingstick, though for balance, it seemed, not support.
She took a step in and turned to address the piano player, who was smiling at her as he riffed. The chatter faded again, so all could hear her say to him, "I've come to dance. But I'm not sure I remember how."
When people looked at Horsepower, they might think "big lug," and suppose his wits were slow. This was not true. As the voices rose—as several men started to rise to their feet—he seized Danny's wrist, held his friend's hand up in the air, and thundered, "Here's your partner!"
"Horsepower!" Danny protested as the laughter started.
Horsepower retorted, only a little less loudly, "You've got a great accomplishment and I want you to use it."
"Yes!" cried the lady in the doorway. "Really? Yes, that's perfect! You first, pony-boy!"
Face flaming, Danny rose and walked across the tavern floor. Physically, if not socially, it was easier than before, because people made way for him while the pianist broke into "I Got the Horse Right Here" from Guys and Dolls.
"She's not shy," Carlin remarked.
"I think," said Buckjack, who had been studying her face, "that she'd already decided to be brave, and she isn't going to back down."
"Is she navy, do you think?" asked Horsepower. "Her top looks like their swim gear."
Their frog dropped down from the rafters, one arm wrapped around a mug, the other around a bottle. A second frog, with a similar load, dropped down behind it. "She's a mermaid," it told them. It set the items down at Danny's empty place while the other amphibian served Buckjack. "That's Jenny ai Navino. Navy mermaid. Got a shoreleave belt three, four months ago." The stallions noted the belt of her skirt, made of overlapping discs of mother-of-pearl. "S'pose she's been practicing with it. Wants to try it out now. Can your friend really dance? 'Cause Jenny deserves better than a joke."
"He really can," Horsepower assured the frog, with a "that's my boy" ring in his voice.
"The centaur dances with the mermaid," Carlin mused. "No wonder she said it was perfect. I like this gal's style. Let's get a good look." He got up and led the way through the crowd.
They found Danny and Jenny had moved out to the road, where tavern customers were forming a ring around them. It made sense: Danny could indeed dance—had worked very hard at it with several patient and bemused women back in Ufham—but that didn't make him any smaller.
Danny was respectfully shaking hands with a merman on crutches, standing next to Jenny, holding her walkingstick. "Who's that?" Horsepower wondered.
"Her husband," their frog said, landing on Horsepower's shoulder. Evidently it wanted to see, too. "They met in the navy and she turned mer to be with him."
The piano music had stopped. The piano player was standing by the door, surveying the scene. "Guess I'll just have to play good and loud," he said.
"Oh, here, allow us," said Horsepower. "Style, grab the other end." In short order, they had the piano moved out into the road. The pianist brought out his stool, sat down, and asked what they wanted.
Danny explained that he only knew the waltz, unless Jenny wanted to do line- or square-dancing. Jenny said she too only knew the waltz. The pianist struck up "Blue Danube" and the dance began.
There was more than a foot of difference in their heights, but Danny was well-used to bending for his partner. Soon, they were revolving smoothly.
"Why isn't she dancing with her husband?" Carlin asked Buckjack softly. "Couldn't somebody lend him a belt for tonight?"
"Shoreleave belts can't be traded around like that," he answered. Buckjack's source of knowledge was his father, a trader in arcane goods. "They have to be tailored to the individual mer. Probably because each one is a different species of fish, just about."
The pianist shifted to the "Waltz of the Flowers" from The Nutcracker and brought the tempo up a bit.
"She's barefoot," Carlin observed. "If Trickshot steps on her toes with those foot-rocks of his, will it hurt?"
"If it's a good seeming, yes."
"He won't," averred Horsepower. He didn't.
The pianist ratcheted up the speed again with the "Minute Waltz." Jenny started to laugh.
Carlin turned to the frog on Horsepower's shoulder. "Where'd she get the belt?"
"Thank-you gift. She saved a drowning mage who knew a fay and pulled in a favor."
Carlin nodded. "Local maker?"
The frog shrugged. "Might be. There's the Fanatur in la Fôret. He does seemings."
The music sped up again. "Nice," observed Horsepower. "The 'Cavalry Polka Française.' About four times regular tempo."
"Can Danny dance a polka?" Buckjack asked.
Horsepower shrugged. "He can dance fast..." For Danny was whirling enthusiastically now, simply holding Jenny up off the ground. She still laughed, so that was all right.
The pianist, perhaps noting that there was no couple dancing now, resolved the melody. Danny brought Jenny to ground next to her husband, who handed her the walkingstick. Danny extended a foreleg and bowed. Jenny curtsied, and could be seen to be saying her thanks.
Danny was incapable of melting into the crowd, but he backed away and let others close in. Jenny caught her breath, conferred with her husband, and started looking around for the next partner. Danny's pals converged on him at the same time as Captain Fletcher. He clapped Danny on the shoulder. "Well done, lad." He looked around at the others. "Did you hear, lads? We start loading at eleven. Meet at the caravanserai at ten thirty. Anyone seen Darneley and Fells?"
"I tried calling them, sir," said Danny, "but no luck."
Fletcher nodded. "No coverage here yet. Did they say where they were going?"
"Yessir," said Horsepower. "Charliehorse said he wanted a look at the stars, so he was going out on the caravanserai road past the edge of town. And Paul went with him."
"I see. Well, somebody will have to nip along and fetch them. Did they know that road takes them past a gate to la Fôret?"
The trainees traded uneasy glances. "No, sir," said Buckjack. "At least I don't know that they did. I didn't. Aren't the local fays...?" He trailed off and looked at the frog-waiter still perched on Horsepower's shoulder.
Fletcher looked too. "Good sprite?" he asked. "Is all still well between us?"
It nodded, or would have if it had had a neck. "We are your Good Neighbors as ever. But la Fôret is ours, especially at night."
"Well," Fletcher said, "they have no reason to go in, and they would use good manners if they chanced to."
"No problems, then." It turned to aim for launch. "Return and we return," it said politely.
"Keep faith and so do we," answered Fletcher as the frog sprang from Horsepower's shoulder, onto a succession of heads, and back into the tavern.
Fletcher watched it go. Then, under the crowd's noise, he said to his lads, "Darneley and Fells would use care if they knew they were in a fay wood. I've no cause to worry about their manners in any case, but if I'd known they were going out there, I'd have made sure they knew about the gate. I just assumed the town was all any of you would be looking at. Silly me. Hadn't reckoned with Charliehorse's curiosity."
"I'll go, sir," Buckjack volunteered.
"Me too, sir," said Carlin.
"Good," said Fletcher. "Do you know the caravanserai road?"
"As I recall," said Buckjack, "there's only one road going north out of town, so that must be it, sir, right?" He and his family had often traveled with his father, and he had been in Brequelle before, as a boy-simple.
"Right. Good. Give it some cantering, then, and hunt them up. Here." Fletcher reached into a pack on his flank and handed them what looked like phones.
"Why do these phones work, sir?" Buckjack asked. "If there's no coverage?"
"These aren't phones. They're walkie-talkies, military issue. You'd be getting them soon, anyway. Now's a good time to use them. Call when you find Darneley and Fells." He showed them the controls, far simpler than a phone.
Buckjack and Carlin saluted, wheeled, and put on the aforementioned canter down the road, away from the Cheese Buoy. After a few seconds, Carlin moderated his pace to let Buckjack keep up. They turned right at a conveniently broad crossroad and were soon back at the caravanserai, an inn with a wide courtyard that it shared with a few shops, and a small command post for the infantry and the two cavalries. Currently, the yard was full of people, supplies, and camping equipment. All the people were bipedal.
Carlin and Buckjack returned a couple of waves, turned left, and continued the canter toward the north edge of town. This took them down a residential street where they got a few stares. Then the houses stopped and the road was flanked by pasture. Carlin crept ahead again. Buckjack had been good at track before his transformation, and he was second in the class now. He put on some steam and drew level. He tried not to pant loudly, then gave it up as mere vanity.
"Gallop a bit?" asked Carlin, as if offering a treat. At least he sounded a bit short of breath.
Vanity. puff "Sure." puff
They galloped. The long summer evening turned from gold to amber overhead. Forest came in sight to their right, crowding out the pasture. They could see a stone fence at its foot. How could a random bit of forest, seen at evening, remind Buckjack of home? Perhaps because he knew that it, like the wood behind his backyard on Oakwood Street, was a fay wood.
Their horse bodies were built like mustangs, except for giant Horsepower. Within that range, Buckjack's barrel was relatively long and flexible, his legs long. He was naturally good at the gallop. Carlin was shorter of barrel and leg, just about cavalry average, but his spine was wondrously flexible and seemed to get into a natural resonance, flex-flex-flex-flex-flex, on and on and fast.
Also, when you are largely a rational horse, you talk at length and in detail about running. The class had done so, often, among themselves and with their trainers. Buckjack had to admit to himself there was a voice from his muscles that began demanding to know what the point of this was, exactly, while he saw something in Carlin that just pushed and pushed and pushed. In a word, he knew Carlin had a heart for running that he did not.
Carlin was pulling ahead again. A little unannounced racing? Quite possible, but it might just be that fast was fun in his book.
Two young monsters raced down a road under a crimsoning sky.
Carlin, being ahead now by several lengths, saw it first. He broke his gait—canter, trot, walk, stop—and pointed. Buckjack clopped to a halt beside him and fanned himself with his hat. "There's the gate," Carlin said, with disgustingly little panting. He'd caught his breath while Buckjack was still braking, the bastard.
The stone wall had risen and fallen in height along the road. Here, it was high and pierced with an opening. The wall itself was made of dry-laid uncut stones, but the opening was flanked by two square-cut pillars. A trail ran down from the gateway to the road, but no one could be seen on it.
"What's that on the gateposts?" Carlin asked.
The least visible but most useful part of being a little extra horsey was that Buckjack had very good night vision. Where Carlin saw vague smudges, Buckjack saw round, three-lobed designs, with a hint of texture like filigree. "Just the oak, ash, and thorn leaves, I think," he said.
Buckjack paced to the foot of the path and examined it. "No hoof marks."
Carlin turned on the walkie-talkie flashlight and fanned it over the ground. "Right. That's good."
"Yep." Buckjack seized the initiative and set them off again. At a canter. He was really in marvelous racing trim, just not as marvelous as Carlin. Shortly after he got his breath back, he pointed up the road and said, "There they are."
Soon, Carlin also saw huge shapes on the road, and soon thereafter they waved. "What's up?" came Charliehorse's voice.
"Schedule change," Carlin called back. "Check in at the caravanserai for ten thirty and start loading at eleven, not midnight."
"Oh." Charliehorse's disappointment was audible. Light twinkled in his hand as he checked the time on his phone. "Then we might as well start back now. There'll still be twilight at ten thirty. But maybe we can see some brighter stars before we reach town, if we stroll." He pocketed the phone and set out the way they had come.
"'Stroll' isn't a proper gait," said Carlin in mock objection, falling in beside Charliehorse.
"Doesn't have to be, for me to do it," Charliehorse countered. He spread his arms. "Look at me, I'm strolling. 'Prance' isn't a gait either, and you're always doing it." Charliehorse was almost a silhouette against the evening, a big dark brown bay, his tail, hair, and bushy beard darker still. He was an inch or so taller than Buckjack and much blockier. He would definitely have been the Big Guy of the class if it hadn't been for Horsepower. He too could be mistaken for a big dumb lug, briefly, until he said something informative or complicated.
Paul Fells, sometimes "Broncodaddy" when his little girl was around, was much easier to see, being palomino. Buckjack fell in beside him, behind the other two, still amusing themselves with badinage. "What brought you out here?" Buckjack asked him. "You into astronomy too?"
Fells shrugged. "Not really, but he wanted to go and I thought someone ought to go with him. Not a bad idea to use the buddy system, out in a strange countryside at night."
"Mm. Do you miss daddying?"
Fells smiled. "Sure. But this is buddying, not daddying."
Buckjack nodded to concede the point, then said, " 'Scuse me," and brought out the walkie-talkie to call Fletcher.
"Are we in trouble?" Fells asked when he was done.
"Oh, no. He was a little worried when he found you'd gone out of town, particularly on a road past a gate to la Fôret de Brequelle. Really, it's the schedule change." Buckjack was more interested in astronomy than Fells. He pointed to a bright light in the sky toward the sea. "If this were home, I'd say that was Venus."
"I think it is Venus," said Charliehorse over his shoulder. "And the Sun and Moon are the same. The whole sky is probably a copy of the sky over the English Channel. And dozens or hundreds of people have probably noted that over the years, but no one bothered to write it down in an expeditionary report. When the sky is different, they make vague notes like 'Odd green stars in the north' or 'Two suns, white and orange,' and that's all." Charliehorse's old cosmography tutor had asked him to work on comparative astronomy, a charge he took very seriously.
They got back to the caravanserai a bit after ten and met Captain Fletcher coming in, followed by Horsepower and Danny. Fletcher had Eowyck tucked under one arm. "Ah, good," he greeted them. "All serene?"
"Yessir," said Charliehorse. He eyed the brownie dubiously. "Sir, I think he's turning into a badger."
"Thanks." Fletcher hastily wrapped a hand about a muzzle in the act of forming.
"Lost the drinking contest?" Carlin asked.
"Not for me to say," Fletcher replied, leading the way into the courtyard and wending through the stacked supplies and impromptu bedding.
"I'll take that as a Yes," Carlin muttered.
Eowyck had resumed his more human face and was struggling. "Put me down, ya big donkey!"
"Yessir. In a minute, sir," Fletcher answered. "Sanders?"
"Yessir." His palomino lieutenant approached, saluted, and regarded the brownie with malicious amusement. "Got a bed for him in a crate right here, sir. I suppose he must have a pitch with the Standard folk, but I couldn't find it."
"They won't want him just now anyway. Thank you." Fletcher, followed by watching subordinates, took the brownie to a crate next to a stack of bags, provided with a folded blanket. Gently, he sat Eowyck down in it. Sanders handed him a canteen. "Here, sir, drink as much of this as you can."
"Drink? Gah!" But, with assistance that was only slightly forcible, the patient got down several good swallows. He fell back on the blanket. Fletcher tucked a towel over him and Sanders inserted a brown bottle hand-labeled "Mother Murdiger's Patent Disebriator."
Fletcher picked up the lid of the crate and held it poised over the top. "You get a good rest, now, sir, and we'll see to the horses."
"Horses! Don't let 'em near that rum!"
"Certainly not, sir. Good night, sir." He lowered the lid. Sanders tacked on a note reading DO NOT OPEN BEFORE 7:00 AM.
"You seem to have a system down, sir," Charliehorse observed.
"Yes, well, this happens most times he comes along. It's sort of a ritual between him and Luinnen."
"Is that hangover cure any good, sir?" Buckjack asked.
"Yes, but don't any of you try it! It's for fays. It works by poisoning them enough to rile up their immortality, so they magick all the toxins out of their systems, including whatever godawful stuff is going on in their livers and brains."
"The original kill-or-cure," observed Charliehorse.
"He'll be a rag in the morning," said Fletcher, "but sober and civilized. Now! Let me show you what we've got to move tonight." And he led them away to the supply depot.
They were to be men and horses at the same time. They were to be true king's men and comport themselves like gentlemen. They were to be scholars on hooves. And they were to be workhorses. They worked.
Buckjack and Carlin got a very good look at the interior of the Bythos, particularly the holds, and saw the fishing boats come in late in the night. Charliehorse got a good look at the night sky after all, staring west where the edgestorm glittered faintly, picking out constellations as he waited in line on a cargo gangway, a quarter ton of staples on his back and another two hundred pounds in two sacks on his shoulders.
Fletcher dumped them into bed at four thirty.
Buckjack awoke to the summery smell of cut grass. His horse belly growled. It was the smell of cooking mulch, grass stew, de rigueur for breakfast in the Dedicated Cavalry.
He sat up and looked around. He lay on a mat next to the pile of bags, not yet loaded. He had slept with a drunken brownie in a box a yard from his head, but his luck seemed to have held. It was six thirty.
He did not feel sleepy. He did feel stiff and hungry. He got up and picked his way through the caravanserai, now much less packed, to where a Standard cavalryman was stirring the mulch pot for his Dedicated brothers. He collected a bowl and, to avoid thinking about the taste, looked around. (Mulch might smell nice, but you had to be a lot horsier than Buckjack for it to taste good. Still, it was good for the inner equine.)
A handful of men and women, Infantry and Standard Cavalry, were up and breakfasting. Fells dozed. Charliehorse stood near the wall, doing stretches. Horsepower lay as still as a dark hill. His muscles saddled him with expectations, and he had worked almost feverishly. He lay back to back with Danny. Captain Fletcher and Lieutenant Sanders sat in a corner, using crates as impromptu desks, doing paperwork.
Buckjack got a tray, loaded it with three mugs of coffee and a plate of doughnuts and scrambled eggs ("Both stomachs want breakfast," he quoted to himself from the Narnia books) and made his way over to them.
"Ah! Thank you kindly, Weldon," said Fletcher when he arrived and put down the tray.
"Did you sleep at all, sir?" Buckjack asked.
"With these joints? A bit of a nap. Horses don't sleep much; old men don't sleep much; old man-horses sleep very little." Fletcher had been in there hauling, all night. It was part of his motivational program of "Surely you young broncos can keep up with an old plug like me."
"Sir, is it all right if I look around the town some more?"
"Certainly. Just be back here by eight. Carlin is already out there, if you're looking for him."
Buckjack had been wondering. It was like Fletcher to guess that. "Thank you, sir." He saluted, took his own coffee cup and a couple of doughnuts, and picked his way out of the caravanserai.
He found Carlin nursing his own coffee, yawning as he walked, apparently orbiting the block. "Want to poke around some more?" Buckjack asked.
"Shuh-ah," Carlin answered through the next yawn. "Get the blood circulating." And yet, half asleep on his hooves, he had got around to changing last night's T-shirt for his dress jacket and custom hat. He was evidently set on "stepping out" even before Buckjack appeared. He downed the coffee, shivered his flanks, switched his tail, and the prance was back in his step. Show time.
He let Buckjack pick the stage, though—that is, lead the way. "For where I am is the show," Buckjack murmured to himself, "and where the show is, there must I ever be."
"What was that crack?"
"No it wasn't. That's your riff on Faust. Where Mephistopheles says, 'For where we are is hell, and where hell is, there must we ever be.'" He gave a foxy grin at Buckjack's expression. "It always surprises people when I know stuff like that." The smile retreated. "So you meant what by that?"
"I– Sorry, it's just– You seem inseparable from, from– You did let Charliehorse nickname you 'Style.'"
Carlin nodded, conceding the half-articulate point. "Okay, that's fair. Yeah, it's my hobby. I mean, I know my looks are nothing special unless I make an effort. So I do. It's something I have left... from before." His voice sank briefly and Buckjack got the feeling he hadn't meant to say "have left." "I mean," he continued more firmly, "it's not like the old life never happened. We all keep stuff."
"Yep," Buckjack agreed quickly. They were back at the road now. Buckjack led the way across, past the Bythos—no longer a novelty—toward Harry Morley's berth. Carlin showed no surprise and made no comment.
A few minutes later, the coffee cups had been disposed of, the doughnuts eaten, fish sandwiches bought and eaten at a stand, and three new cups of coffee purchased.
They clattered down the boardwalk and onto the pier, and there was Harry Morley. His locker was open. There was a mirror in the door and he sat before it on a folding stool, shaving. He had not looked up at their noise; he was probably used to all manner of traffic around his berth. "Mr. Morley?" Buckjack called.
Harry looked up at them, blankly at first. Then he recognized Buckjack and started in surprise. "(Jack?)" he said, in a wheeze. Then, normally, "Jack Weldon?" There were gill slits at his waist, where fish met man. They had been open, relaxed, when he wheezed, held shut when he spoke clearly.
"Yessir. Jack Weldon, sir. How are you doing?"
"Fine, fine," said the double amputee, because that's what you say. "Let's sit over there. There's more room." He pointed to a wider stretch of pier coming off the row of lockers at a right angle.
Buckjack and Carlin clattered down the last few steps, then onto the pier. They sat, then Carlin scooched up and dangled his forelegs in the water. After a moment's consideration, Buckjack followed suit.
In the meantime, Harry quickly finished his shave. He nicked himself in his haste, dabbed with a bit of cotton, then swung himself along the pier by his arms, tossing the cotton in a bin along the way. Soon, he was seated next to Buckjack, his tail dangling in the water next to Buckjack's forelegs.
There was a silence while everyone took stock of each other. Carlin, expert in smiles, gave a friendly one to Harry, then blew on his coffee and politely did not appear to stare at anyone. Buckjack took his first good look at Harry since, well, all the changes.
He looked very much as Buckjack remembered, down to the waist at least: a lean man of middle size with ropy muscles and a long face. He was heavily tanned on the back, less so on chest and belly. His face was perhaps more weathered than it had been and looked ... beaten.
Below the waist and the gills, his body was a six-foot fish tail with fine, smoke-gray scales and fins of a dark brown, the same color as his hair. A pair of fins below the waist were presumably what was left of his legs.
Buckjack broke the silence by presenting Harry with the two cups of coffee he was holding. "This one's black and this one's cream and sugar," he said, offering the choice. Harry thanked him and took the cream and sugar one.
While Buckjack had been studying the merman, Harry had been studying the centaur. Buckjack remembered going home for Christmas, where old acquaintances had stared and stared helplessly, their gazes sweeping from the familiar body to the unfamiliar one and back. Which was what he himself had been doing to Harry.
"So you..." Harry began, then trailed off. He had never been a big talker, Buckjack remembered.
"Yeah, I did," he replied. He had taken the poor man by surprise, so, he decided, it was up to him to get the conversation rolling. "About a year ago. And this is Julien Carlin. He's my classmate." ("How do you do, Mr. Morley?" said Carlin. Harry nodded and timidly smiled.) "We're sailing on the Bythos for our trainee expedition."
"I, uh, I thought you were going to marry that Donna girl."
Buckjack was a little surprised to find the subject no longer stung. "I thought so too, but she didn't."
Harry nodded, his mouth forming a silent "oh," then glanced again at the equine body that was now the greater part of Buckjack. Clearly, he was putting two and two together the way everyone back home had. "None of my business, of course," he mumbled.
"Everyone knows back on Oakwood Street," Buckjack replied. "No reason you shouldn't. But you know my family: my dad always hauling us off to distant parts. Well, now I've made distant parts my career."
"I remember your brother changed, too."
"Yessir. Gave me the idea." Did Harry look a bit sadder? Did he not like hearing about more transformations? Maybe especially of people he had known, even if only slightly. Maybe he wouldn't be looking sad at all if Buckjack had stayed away. Damn.
"I wanted to look you up and see how you were doing."
Silence again. Please, Harry, fill in the blank. Just as Buckjack was considering rephrasing this as a direct request—"Please tell me how you're doing"—Harry replied:
"Oh, pretty good. I work for one of the fishing fleets, Flotte de la Côte Nord, in the mer-crew. School fish, do the lobster pots, check hulls, keep lines from fouling, whatever can best be done below. Tilly and I have a nice little place up on Route Hugues." Buckjack remembered the merman on crutches last night, and wondered if Harry's place had more than one floor. "The kids like their school. We try to keep in touch with folks back on Oakwood Street. Well, that's mostly Tilly." He stared at the cardboard cup in his hands. "You see Walter Cosser lately?"
Buckjack raced his brain. Horses have good memories, and therefore his had improved. "Yessir. For a little bit, when I was home for Christmas."
"The day I washed up at Sterk, first person I saw was Walter Cosser. He brought me a cup of coffee first thing, after he ran to fetch Tilly. That and his hand were the first warmth I'd felt in more than a year. He and his wife, they helped us through a lot."
"He's a good guy," Buckjack agreed. But there had been a cost. Walter Cosser and he had seen each other across the street for maybe five seconds. Cosser had blanched and turned away, shuddering. It would be foolish to say Cosser was as upset by Harry's transformation as Harry himself or Tilly, but clearly such things now made his blood run cold.
Another silence. Buckjack swished his forelegs in the water, noting the cool feel around his pasterns and the soles of his hooves, even trickling under the hooves. He tried to compare the sensation to the feel it had had on bare feet, human feet. Or should he compare it to the feel on his hands? Early on, his forelegs had sometimes seemed like arms. It didn't matter; he could no longer remember how his old body felt. None of them could. He supposed Harry couldn't remember legs at all.
"So how do you know each other?" Carlin asked. "I mean, I know you lived on the same street, but besides that?"
"Not really much more than that," Buckjack admitted. "But Oakwood Street is all there is to Grand Normandy in Sterk, or to anything Sundered. And it's only, what? a couple of dozen houses, so everyone saw each other all the time."
Harry smiled, with a bit more warmth than the merely social smiles until now. "First thing I remember about you, I was a young fella working the docks, and you and your brother and sister were fooling around down there, larking on and off a ferry or something. Come to think of it, your dad must have been getting ready for one of those trips he took you on. You weren't doing anything bad, but the three of you made me nervous. For your safety. We'd just had our first, or maybe Tilly was expecting; that was probably why."
"Mum or dad must have been somewhere around," said Buckjack, feeling like just Jack or even Jacky again.
Harry nodded and continued: "At some point, the three of you were sitting on the pier, dabbling your feet, just like this, and I teased you. Said the crabs would pinch your toes. Well, not just like this. We're about thirty toes short for that, now." To Buckjack's surprise, Harry's smile turned wistful but did not go away. "You didn't believe me."
"I think we knew you were kidding," said Buckjack, who did not at all remember the incident. But he remembered endless sunny times at the docks, flitting about—How tiny that body would seem to him now!—and the smell of salt and engines, the glitter of water, the creak of wood and the many voices of waves. Endless games with Jeff and Chloe and other kids, ignoring grownups almost all the time, in childhood's own Sundering. The games were forgotten, but not the light and voices and sounds.
"You know the water, Mr. Carlin?" Harry asked.
Carlin nodded. "London docks. Mudlarking on the Thames. Kinda like Buckjack here. Nothing like you, of course, Mr. Morley."
"Oh, yes, I know the water now," agreed Harry, sadly. Carlin had probably meant the remark for a compliment but Buckjack found himself wanting to push him in and ... let the crabs pinch his toes. Idiot. "'Buckjack'?" Harry asked, turning the subject.
"I'm a buckskin," Buckjack explained. "That's my coat pattern. So 'Buckjack.' Carlin nicknamed everyone else in class. We call him 'Style.'"
Carlin smiled and tipped his custom-made hat. "There's Horsepower and Trickshot and Broncodaddy and Charliehorse," he said. "And I used to be 'Mr. Paint.'" The gauche compliment was washed away.
Harry nodded and smiled. Then he cocked his head, listening. " 'Scuse me," he said and vanished into the water. A moment later, a small rowboat came out from under the dock, pushed by Harry. He reached in, pulled out a coil of rope, and tossed it to Buckjack. "Make fast, please," he said.
While Buckjack tied the rope to one post, Harry heaved himself out and tied another rope to the next post so that the rowboat was tethered both fore and aft.
He expelled water from his gills, then said, "I heard the kids down the road. They'll be here with Tilly in a minute. It's not a school morning, so they'll be wanting a ride. The kids, I mean. That's something we have left from before, giving them rides. This is even the same boat we had at Sterk. 'Course, now I don't row it for them; I just pull it. But they like that fine. We go further and faster."
"That's nice," Buckjack ventured. "Last Christmas, my brother and I gave our family rides." Of course, he reflected, he had been celebrating his transformation and showing off. "They–"
"Loot!" Carlin burst out suddenly. Buckjack and Harry stared at him. "You gotta count your loot! You been inna fight, and maybe you lost, but that doesn't mean you didn' come away with some loot." Carlin's accent was noticeably more Londonian. "Loot! Like– like not everyone is happy to take the sagitta, but some hadta. So they'd rather not... be 'ere–" And his hand came down on the planks where the half-men sat. "–but they can still count their loot. Like bein' big and strong and tough and fast. That's loot. And you, you can breathe water, and swim faster than any man-simple, and you're cold-proof, and you can learn sea-magic and stuff. So that's your loot."
Buckjack realized his mouth was hanging open. He closed it. Harry had collected himself sooner and now nodded politely. "Make the best of it. Look on the bright side. That's right. We try."
The very courtesy of the agreement, in its mildness, made Buckjack think of the phrase "damning with faint praise." This talk of loot was a little like telling Harry he was lucky to be saving money on pants and shoes.
Carlin also caught the lukewarm temperature of the reply. He stared down at the water and kicked his forelegs, splashing.
"Well, here's Tilly and the kids," Harry said. Buckjack looked up to the boardwalk. There was Tilly Morley, looking down at them in puzzlement. She pushed an empty wheelchair in front of her, presumably for after the boating. To her right and left were a young girl and boy in swimsuits, also staring.
"Look who's here!" called Harry, and fortunately supplied the answer, since Buckjack had known Tilly even less than Harry: "John Weldon! And this is his friend, Mr. Carlin."
"Hello, John," Tilly answered in a cautious tone. "Mary Cosser said you'd done the change, in her Christmas letter. I hadn't thought, but of course you'd be coming through here. How are you?"
"Fine, ma'am." He tipped his hat. Carlin tipped his, too, and smiled, but the smile had not regained its usual stagelight shine.
Harry then did a short three-point crawl with hands and tail over to the steps. He hauled himself up on the handrails like a gymnast, ascended as if he was racing, then perched on the rail of the boardwalk, all apparently to give Tilly a very domestic and respectable kiss. The athletics were done with an ease that argued practice.
"He's showing off," Buckjack murmured to Carlin, and now it was his smile that was brighter. "He's showing off to his girl." There was an indulgent note in Tilly's smile that indicated she knew this. "He's interested in salvage, not loot, and that's something he's salvaged."
"Let's go. He has rowboats to pull." They climbed the stairs and said their goodbyes. Harry said he hoped they would see each other again soon, or at least when the Bythos returned. Tilly was polite the way one is to strangers. The children repeated their courtesies dutifully, anxious for Dad to get back down in the water and launch.
Buckjack led the way down the boardwalk, then off onto the road, away from the Bythos, past the fishing docks, toward a distant lighthouse. As usual, Carlin soon pulled ahead, but he was silent and there was no prance to his gait.
Buckjack thought hard for a bit, then, "I like your loot idea," he said.
"Didn't score much with Harry."
"Yeah. I'm sorry. Because that was your best shot, wasn't it? You'd worked on that, hadn't you? You'd thought that through a long time back. I could tell."
Carlin dropped back a pace, bringing himself level with Buckjack, and stared at him indignantly. The phrase "What the hell?" was clearly written in his face.
Buckjack remembered something Fletcher had said in martial arts class: "Screw sportsmanship. Hit the man when he's down. What better time?" Carlin wasn't his opponent. If anything, he felt friendlier toward him than ever. But Carlin had steadfastly avoided revealing his background, and now looked like the chance for Buckjack the Explorer to explore Carlin's past.
When Carlin said nothing, Buckjack started again: "Fun my ass."
"All you've ever said about why you joined was that it looked like fun. Okay, but any 'fun' involved is your 'loot.' You're making the best of some bad situation."
"Well, guess again, Weldon. I just wanted to say something encouraging to Morley. Tried to buck him up and blew it. Yeah, I've thought about bad transformations. How could I not, when each of us has a different reason for joining? Guys don't do this under ordinary circumstances, and just two of us decided we wanted to be centaurs."
"So you didn't just want to change. For fun."
"Yeah I did."
"You just said not. There's two of us who simply wanted to be transformed, you said. There's Danny; it's a family tradition for him, and he worships his big brother, who changed. And there's Charliehorse, who's openly said he didn't like his old personality and wanted to give himself more– What's the word he likes?"
"Moxie. 'I wanted to install a stallion in my soul,' he said. Very poetic, our class scientist can get."
"Yes, but I gather he'd never have said that out loud to anyone, before he was changed. So Charliehorse and Danny are the two who just thought becoming centaurs would make them happy. Paul changed to save his sanity, Horsepower changed to save his life, I changed to start over. And you?"
"You mis-spoke. You were accidentally too candid. Style, I've lived with you for over a year. I don't know the details, but we all know you didn't want to be changed."
"I never said–"
"No, you were very careful about that. But you couldn't police your face twenty-four/seven, or the tone of your voice, or just attitude generally. You like to be too tough for sympathy, but I've seen you being sorry for Fells, and even for Charliehorse and me once in a while, so I know you can do it, and I just saw you being sorry for Harry. Sympathizing. It's been a futtlin' year, Style, and I can tell you were pushed into the Cavalry as surely as Harry was pushed off that dock in Sterk. Style, I'm chewing on you like this because I'm your friend and I want to know what's wrong."
Stiff-faced: "You're entitled to your deductions." Carlin's walk accelerated, nearing the point of breaking into a trot. Running away.
Buckjack caught up. "And you're entitled to some sympathy yourself."
"Why? What good would it do? There's no going back. We're up on hooves for life. Or longer. For all I know, I'll make a four-legged ghost." He doubled his fists and kicked in mid-stride.
"Oh, you know what good. Revenge! Justice! I walked away from women's company—galloped—but you didn't, and you've walked a hard road back, learning how to win them again and make do. I've got my itch to see strange, wild places, but you're a city-boy. I've heard you reminisce about London. You love big cities, and how often do the likes of us see those? You're vain: you like to look good, and not like a good-looking monster, though you run that for all you can. Someone took your old life from you. And I've seen you boiling about it, under that lid you keep clamped. And you've every right to boil! So...? C'mon, I'm nosy. And you've as good as admitted–"
"I admit nothing. I haven't. I can't."
Buckjack's father was a trader in a world full of magic. His son took one pace to make the inference. "Ah. Oathbound. Of course. Bastards."
They were nearly at the lighthouse now, and almost at the edge of town. Buckjack wheeled back. Would Carlin follow? He did. He kept twice the distance between them, but he did. After a few paces, he stopped scowling and closed the gap. Still no usual half-smile, though.
Buckjack scanned the road. Traffic was light, this early, and still just on foot. Was it also avoiding them? Were they conspicuous, two big arguing monsters? Not yet.
Carlin broke the silence. "So, since everyone knows I'm not happy about this, why do they think I did it?"
"The popular theory is that you lost a bet. A big bet."
"And why's that the popular theory?"
"Because you never play poker."
"Maybe I don't know how," Carlin proposed.
Buckjack shook his head, smiling. "You just strike me—us—as the kind of guy who would know. Do you know?"
"Yeah, I know very well. I don't play because there's no challenge to it, and I don't want to make myself unpopular. More unpopular."
"We're all bad?"
"Terrible." The half-grin was back. He counted off on his fingers. "Horsepower and Danny smile whenever they have good hands. Fells switches his tail whenever he has a bad hand. And Charliehorse–! He's so much glass!"
"Well, yeah." Charles Darneley did not know the rules at all well and kept asking for instructions. "How about me?"
"Oh, you are so futtled! You handle yourself okay, but you blush! Never saw such a blusher. For good or bad hands, which makes it a little trickier, but still..."
Buckjack nodded and sighed. His father had mentioned this problem to him, back in the days when they thought he would stay in the family business and have to negotiate trade deals.
"Okay," he said, "so you didn't lose a bet. What was it?" Carlin maintained a deliberate silence. "Oh, c'mon! You've been fuming and hinting about it ever since I told you about Harry."
A trader dealing in enchantments, like Buckjack's father, ran into oaths and their terms all the time. Buckjack thought back to all the times he had heard his parents "playing Sherlock," as they said, about oaths than might or might not be in the way of a deal, and might or might not be secret. What was hinted and what was left out. He eyed Carlin.
"Are you afraid to walk back to the caravanserai and face Fletcher? No? But you know he can tell if you've broken an oath. So you know you haven't. So this oath isn't that ironclad: I can guess my way around it. Do you even know what the terms of it are? You don't have to say anything: I've known you, man and beast, for a year. If you knew, you'd look glum, but instead you look uneasy. You don't know the exact terms! An oath that fast and sloppy– No, wait, you don't know the terms at all!"
"Futtle you, Weldon! Get out of my head! You been taking lessons from Fletcher? Even he doesn't pry this much!"
"He didn't have to spend a year in barracks with you. And I'm not Receptant. I just know you hardly ever look uncertain, but you do now." It was the way he tucked in his tail just a bit and stopped swinging it. Carlin had had a lifetime to learn to govern his face, but only a year with that tail. A short, considering silence, then: "It's not even a real oath, is it? It's some other kind of score, a debt or a favor or something. Vague or coerced or– Coerced?" He saw the alarm in Carlin's eyes. The tail tucked. "Right."
They were clipping down the middle of the road, Carlin angry, Buckjack keeping up. Buckjack scanned the storefronts, saw what he wanted, and took the lead at a determined trot. Carlin trailed now, puzzled as well as irritated.
Carlin saw the store Buckjack was aiming for and halted. Buckjack took his elbow but got shaken off. "Suit yourself," he said and ducked through the doorway, adding back over his shoulder, "Run away, if you like. I still know where you live."
It was as if a fine, tingling mist has been sprayed in his eyes, and a spicy smell invaded his nose, then faded. This was an enchantments shop. It was organized something like a small jewelry store. Shelves and displays were full of trinkets and little bottles. The place was not usually full of soldier-horse, but, as Buckjack reflected, that's what agility classes had been for.
A plump lady had been gossiping with the short, wiry man behind the counter who was probably the hedge wizard responsible for a large fraction of the charms here. They looked up, of course. He smiled briefly and tipped his hat. ("You're a monster," Fletcher said in the back of his head. "Make sure you're a polite one.")
"Can I help you?" asked the probable mage.
"Yes. Um..." Buckjack glanced out the window. Carlin was still there, looking down the street. "Do you...?" He surveyed the store. He was distracted; despite what he had said, he really wanted Carlin to stay while he still had some kind of social upper hand on him.
"You are sailing on the Bythos?" the woman enquired. Buckjack nodded, still scanning.
"Ah!" said the shopkeeper. "Looking to make the voyage a little more comfortable?" Buckjack was young and in a rush. The shopkeeper correctly inferred he was a trainee but incorrectly inferred he was nervous about sailing. "What'll it be? Seasick drops?" He pointed to some shelves behind the woman. "By themselves or with something mundane, both very effective."
"Pauvre garçon," the woman remarked. "What kind of dosage would he need?" She looked him up and down, and then along. "You must weigh half a ton, mon petit."
"About that, madame," Buckjack admitted. "But I don't get seasick." At least, not with his human stomach. He didn't know about the equine one yet. "Do you have–?"
"Well, good," said the shopkeeper. "I must admit, I hadn't considered the dosage. Yes, probably need to chug the whole bottle. Now, dosage doesn't apply to these." He indicated a big glass jar at his elbow, full of knotted bits of rope. Buckjack recognized them: each held a few minutes' breeze. "These are reloadable, if you can push the vis or know someone who can. Some people..."
Buckjack waited for a pause. He felt his resolve melting away. There were awkward implications to the purchase he was intending. He checked the window again. Carlin was talking to a figure that he mostly eclipsed.
"...I'm not saying these are for sailing, though I have known sailors to use a few to get a small boat going in a calm. No, of course you have military-grade stuff for that. But below decks, however clean the ship, it can get smelly or hot, and then..." These must be his personal specialty, Buckjack decided.
To hell with the awkwardness factor. "Your business is your own," his father said of such situations. He did not have to explain. "Pardon me, sir. I just came in for a ward. Something for privacy against scrying."
"Ah," said the shop-mage knowingly. "To be sure, there's little enough privacy aboard, especially for you big fellas. Certainly. Right there." And he pointed to a little stand, half behind a stack of books, bearing amulets on chains. Each amulet was a coin-sized white disc bearing a blue spot with a black dot in the center, a very standard design.
"Thank you, sir," said Buckjack, leaning over the lady and plucking one up. (Don't step when you can reach; it was an indoor agility rule.) "Who is the maker?"
He had to look that up. Buckjack took another glance out the window. Carlin was still talking to the person in eclipse. The one-quarter profile he presented showed he was smiling.
The maker was a reputable name. Buckjack paid, tipped his hat again, and backed out.
Out on the street, he found Carlin still talking to the new acquaintance. She was a slim young blonde in complete flapper gear of the 1920s, down to a tubular blue dress, matching cloche hat, a rope of pearls, and bobbed hair. She turned bright eyes and smile on Buckjack. He smiled back and saluted.
Carlin swept his hand toward his friend and said, "Mlle. Petra Vincent, let me introduce Cavalryman John Weldon."
She extended her hand. Buckjack took it; it was dry and cool and very, very light. "1905 to 1978," she said, graciously confirming his guess. Yet she had not set off the ghost sensitivity that he, like most Grand Normans, had. Therefore he said, "Return and we return," bowing down over her hand.
"Keep faith and so do we," she answered. So: a dead woman who was now a fay. She turned back to Carlin. "I will return when I can. It all depends on his moods, you know." Carlin nodded and thanked her. "Not at all. People in my position, we look for occupation." She turned away, distributing a smile between both of them. "À bientôt, mes jolis poulains."
Buckjack blinked. It was the first time anyone had ever called him "my pretty colt," even if he had to share it with Carlin.
Carlin glanced at the grin on Buckjack's face. "Whoa, boy. She's four, five generations older than you and, y'know, dead."
Buckjack kept up the smile. "Just let me savor the moment, 'mon joli poulain.'" The moment duly savoured, he asked, "What was that about?"
"Workin' on a deal," Carlin replied.
"What kind of deal?"
"The kind I'm not ready to talk about yet. You go on. I'll see you back at the caravanserai." And he turned and trotted back across the road to the docks. Buckjack sighed and decided that his best chance for a peaceful life lay in going back to the caravanserai and having more breakfast.
But he was only halfway there when he heard a familiar rapid rhythm of hooves and, turning, saw Carlin catching him up. "Deal successful?" he asked, since Carlin was smiling above his habitual level.
"Still workin' on it. So what were you working on?"
"This." He dangled the amulet before Carlin. "Now, as I was saying, you're steaming and fuming about forced transformation because meeting Harry rubbed salt in your own wounds, but you're afraid to talk about it because of some coerced bond. Well, here, now you can talk."
Carlin looked doubtful and did not take the amulet. Buckjack took it back into his palm and started walking. "Coerced. Not even a proper oath. Is it? Did you actually agree to anything? What did you say? Notice I'm not asking to whom."
In a subdued voice, Carlin answered, "I didn't say anything. Except he asked, 'Do you understand?' and I said yes."
"So you never promised to keep a secret. And this whole thing is coerced. You don't think there's any justice to this, do you?" Carlin scowled and shook his head. "Right. And you've had a year. You could have absolved yourself seven ways from Sunday. Maybe you have, but you don't know. Sooo...
"Are there penalties in this geas? I doubt it, it's so sloppy." Carlin shook his head microscopically. He was staring at the road as they walked, looking worried.
"It's a plain old threat, isn't it?" Buckjack concluded. "Some guy leaned on you, told you 'Go enlist and keep quiet, or I'll make you regret it.' Right?"
"(Basically)," Carlin whispered.
Buckjack paced thoughtfully next to Carlin. He had sparred with Carlin in martial arts, played rigorous war games with and against him, knew him to be perfectly adequate in archery and guns, and had had a year to decide that the confident prancing was not a pose—well, not just a pose. Carlin was not timid. But this foe had him spooked.
Did Buckjack really want to get involved in Carlin's troubles, if they were this bad? It was not quite too late to back away gracefully. Or it might be, but one could still back, and grace be damned.
But no. To back out now would be cowardly, faithless, and would mean all his needling had been to no purpose. Carlin's hinting showed he wanted to unburden himself, and Buckjack had volunteered to help him through the fear. Maybe out of nosiness as much as compassion, but he had. Back to the fray.
"Look, there's no built-in penalities. All that's left is the geas will notify him if you talk. If it even does that. If it's even still there. And this ward will jam the notification. It's a good ward." He offered the amulet again but still Carlin didn't take it. "C'mon, bro. It's a shoddy geas, probably scrubbed by now, he's at least a world away, and you have a ward."
"And what if all that's not enough, 'bro,' and he comes hunting?"
Buckjack decided not to try "bro" again, but still smiled. "Then the Cavalry will ride to your rescue. We're your classmates, your brothers in transformation, and big ol' herd animals!
"Look at you! Two years ago, you were a man-simple whose only interest in horses was betting on them, if that. Now you're as much horse as man and will be from here on. And you did not want to be. And you've had over a year to chew on that fact, but told no one. Tell now.
"I swear by Saint Martin the Horseman and Saint John Revelator that I will not pass this on without your permission." He felt a little tension in his head, telling him the oath had taken. Soon it would fade into the background, but it would come to the fore again if he started to break it.
Carlin, as oath-holder, felt it too. "Forget it! No deal! Ego te absolvo. Just– Just keep quiet. I'm just as unhappy about people getting snarled up in oaths as I am about forced transformations."
The little tension relaxed. "Okay, I just plain promise."
"Thanks." A few silent paces. "What's John Revelator got to do with it? Who's he?"
"He's my name saint, is all. The guy who wrote Revelation, probably the same as John Evangelist. You're stalling." Buckjack offered his open hand to Carlin, the amulet lying in it.
Carlin took it and looked around. They were nearing the caravanserai. He turned at the next corner, to start a wandering course through a little commercial area. They were out in the open, and so hard to tail. They were moving, and so no one could overhear much. Sundered folk in the unSundered world used this trick often; now, Carlin used it here.
He hung the amulet around his neck and began.
So, I used to be an expediter back in London.
(Buckjack nodded. This much Carlin had told them already. "Expediter" sounded better than "errand-runner." And it did mean an errand-runner who was often given high levels of initiative and discretion. That certainly meant deal-making, and they had all seen that in action as he arranged trades of favors to get apparently unavailable minor goods for his classmates. It seemed shifty to some of the others, but no one had any complaints about his deals. Buckjack was a trader's son and saw that Carlin was working himself up into the trading profession from street level. Or had been. Then it had "looked like fun" to join the cavalry, get transformed, and probably never see London again. Right.)
I worked the whole dock area. Knew the area as well as a cabbie. And knew lots of the deals and networks going on, monde-minor or -major. I won't say all; no one knows 'em all, no one mortal.
There was this guy: you heard about him only occasionally and saw him even less. Sundered London is full of guys like that, but this one was a lot showier than most. He's called the Cloud Rider. He dresses all in gray—regular clothes and different tones of gray, so it's not screamin' obvious or anything. And gray hair and gray eyes. Doing the Quiet Menace pose. You know.
I never spoke to him, only saw him a handful of times before ... he got me. And the rumor was that he rode a gray horse, but it was just a rumor. I didn't believe it. I never saw him on any horse, and they said his was major magic. He could summon it and make it disappear, they said, and it was totally silent, and sometimes translucent, and jumped so far it was basically flying, and like that.
But you know the Sundering is wicked high in big cities. Never mind that magic like that is way too expensive to be common, anyone who tried anything that flashy in a big city would either be an ignorant idiot who'd get smacked down by the third try, or so powerful and so skilled at Sunder-dodging that– well, that they'd be hard to believe in. I figured the Cloud Rider himself put the rumors around, to up the Menace factor and generally muddy the waters. In fact, I didn't even have to figure it; that was the counter-rumor.
What did he do? Not much. That's why you only heard about him occasionally. Every few months, he brought some goods in, nothing large, something you could fit in your pocket. And he'd pass it on to someone who'd start an anonymous chain of moves to his customer. He must have got paid through some other channel, 'cause no one heard of him demanding payment or of anyone hunting him down to pay him. And sometimes, the rumors said, he'd be seen riding his gray horse out of town, in the night, headed south. But never seen coming from the south, or arriving at all; he'd just show up.
Very modest. Hardly worth putting on a big spooky Silent Menace act for. Why not, you know, just lay low and do your business in peace? Well, I figured it out too late: it was no act. He was— is a big spooky menace, just doing what came naturally, and yes, good enough at it that he could dodge the Sundering without raising a sweat.
So I come into it when, one day, one of my contacts, Nell, tells me a client wants to meet me. She looked scared, so I asked her what was wrong, but she said, "I can't tell you," with that emphasis that lets you know they're oathbound. Then she tells me the meet-up is at a coffee shop we both know. One where it's just Sundered after eleven or so.
But it's a gig, and the pay is good, and you don't stay in business getting a reputation for too much caution, so I go, and I wait, and boom! The guy sits down opposite me and it's the Cloud Rider.
I'm careful to be very polite, of course, and so is he. (He's not a native English speaker. Sort of east European accent.) He hands me a little package, about the size of a paperback book, and says he wants it at a place in Greenwich in an hour. And he apologizes for the short notice, but it's very important. Well, that's kind of fishy, because if he's been wanting to meet me for hours, why didn't he meet me sooner to give me more time? But there could be reasons, so I accept, and he says, brisk and casual, "Your word?"
So I say, "I swear by my name that I will do my best to make this delivery for you." It's what I always say. Said. No deal with the devil, just businesslike. And he seems satisfied. So I take the package and start.
I know an express cab service, but they only have certain pickup points. I call ahead and make for the pickup. I get there, but no cab. I wait a little and start making alternate plans, and as I'm peering around, hoping, two guys step out of the shadows and one says, "He had a flat."
This is one Vento, and his partner is called Paster. Two Sundered toughs like a hundred others in town. They have no grudge with me; I only know the names and faces. So they were hired. I don't think that until a couple of blocks later, after I start running.
They are not unskilled. We can assume they're good with fist and kosh, and maybe a little karate, maybe guns. But they are also good at herding, chivvying, driving. You see, the express cab people aren't idiots: their pick-up points are in open, well-lighted parts of town. It was after one AM, but there are still a few people around.
These people, however, do not want to get involved with two guys chasing a third. They chase and they chivvy and soon I'm in bad, lonely little alleys that I would not have chosen to go in, but they didn't let me have that choice.
Finally, they get me in a dead end. And they pull knives and come at me. I yell, "What do you want?! Just tell me!" over and over, in different ways, but they never answer. So what they want is me dead.
I'm making up my mind to go low, tryin' to scoot out at knee level when I see him, the Cloud Rider, riding. His horse is solid gray, and it is silent, and it is translucent. The Rider draws a curved sword, a cavalry sabre, then he clears his throat. The guys look over their shoulders and gasp. (I'd already gasped, but that hadn't distracted them.)
He charges. I curl up in a ball. I hear one yell and one gasp, and then, after a bit, a thudding, punching noise. "Get up," the Rider says.
I get up, and Vento and Paster are lying dead at my feet. Distinctly dead. The Rider is standing over Paster, cleaning his sabre with a handkerchief, and Paster's throat is cut. Vento is lying there, staring, with a big hoof-shaped dent in his forehead, and the horse is trampling him. Only it doesn't seem to do much harm. But a fog is rising out of the body, and then I see it forming into arms and head, the ghost, trying to fend off the trampling.
Then the horse reaches into the fog with its teeth and pulls, and the fog is gone and the horse has a foal by the neck, a foal even mistier, paler than it is. And the foal yells. It's a human voice, not horse, but it can't form words. Like a man in a nightmare. Then the horse throws it to the ground. I suppose the smart thing would have been for Vento to have run off through a wall, or de-manifested or something, if running around London as a ghost colt is your idea of an afterlife. But he was too stunned. He just stood there, staggering and shaking his head.
The Rider watches this with mild interest, then looks over Paster's body, but nothing happens. He shrugs and says, "Someone else has a prior claim, I suppose." Then he turns to me:
"You failed in your charge," he says, "but more, you owe me your life. For you, I killed those two. You owe me. Now listen, Grand Norman: To repay me, you will enlist in your Dedicated Cavalry. You will make the pact tomorrow, and as soon as you can, you will submit yourself to be sworn in and changed. And you will say nothing of me. Do you understand?" And I said yes. He says, "If you disobey, I will know." And then he smiles and says, "After all, you will only be half-changed, and you will be alive."
He sheaths the sabre and turns away, but I feel the geas on me. Then he pulls a canteen off his belt and opens, and whistles to the horse. It turns into mist and dives into the canteen. I didn't see the ghost-foal; I think Vento got pulled in too. Then he ignores me completely and saunters out of the alley, leaving me there with two corpses.
That was in April of last year. I had all of May to wait through, before standing up for Fletcher to shoot me. Thinking about it. And, yeah, it was a shoddy geas, but it was a real good threat. So here I am. I obeyed. And I'm half-changed but still alive, like he said.
"But why? What was all that rigamarole about? He set it all up. It's as clear as day! I asked around, while I was still in London, still two-legged: I can't prove that he hired Vento and Paster, but no one else had, for all I could tell. So he sets them on me and then kills them, either to push the geas or just to show he means business. I'm guessing the first. Just to get me in the Cavalry? Why? I was nothing to him.
"You can bet I've stewed over that one.
"So maybe we were sacrifices to something. To something horsey, the way maybe Harry and his mates were sacrificed to something fishy or watery. Whatever it is gets Paster's blood, Vento as a horse-ghost slave, and me as– me dedicated to something horsey, like it says in the Cavalry's name.
"Or maybe he's just a bully with a horse kink and bloodlust. That would fit the facts too."
Carlin sighed. "But now I've disobeyed him and told. God in Heaven, does that feel good! A little scary, but good. So– so thanks. Thank you, John." Not "Weldon, not "Buckjack," not even "Jack." Just "John."
"Are you crying?! Martin's cloak! Stop it! Blushin' and cryin'! You are a mood ring on hooves!"
"Smoke in my eyes. Someone's breakfast bacon."
"It's as plausible as joining the Cavalry just for fun." He changed the subject: "I never heard you swear by Martin's cloak before. It's usually been his jodhpurs or his polo mallet or something."
"I felt a little more serious." St. Martin of Tours was patron of horses and their riders, so surely he would take the Dedicated Cavalry too. His first conspicuously saintly act had been cutting his cloak in half to share with a naked beggar.
"I am so sorry, mi frer. And so angry for you." The mi frer was Chenelaise, not an English ornament like "bro." It just slipped out but was not rebuffed.
"I don't need pity. I came out of it with some good loot. Look at me! Strong and tough and the fastest thing on f-four legs in either cavalry. Great salary. Great prospects." Rant died down to growl.
"Great need for justice," Buckjack added.
Carlin looked back down the street. "We'd better get back to the caravanserai." Tail high, he straightened one back, then the other. There was an unwonted note of determination in the prance, but the prance was on. Show time.
The caravanserai filled up with people from both cavalries. It was time to move horses. They had been housed in stables all over the area, but now they were to be gathered in one corral, then to be loaded aboard the Bythos.
Captain Fletcher collected his trainees and led them past the corral, then to the livery stable where their horses had stayed the night. He handed the paperwork to the hostler, gestured at the stalls, and said to his class, "Have at it, gentlemen." Then he stood back to see how they would do.
He had brought a passenger who was not so detached. Eowyck leapt from the saddlecloth on Fletcher's back to the captain's shoulder. Fletcher had a hand up and ready, but the brownie successfully planted the landing. He still looked pale, as predicted, and wobbled a bit. "Hold it! I want to check their condition."
He hopped from one shoulder to another, or clambered along the bars of the stall windows, ostentatiously reluctant to touch the floor. The hostler looked sour; he had known what he would be up against, and the floor was as clean as trodden concrete gets. The brownie opened fire and he returned it:
"Have these lights been on all night?"
"Certainly not, sir."
"Look at that bedding!"
"Looks like a horse sat on it."
"These two shouldn't be together."
"They wanted it, sir."
"I know what they wanted! They'll tease each other all night and wear themselves out."
"Don't see how I could have known that. Look fresh enough to me."
"There's no water in this one!"
"Watered them all half an hour ago."
"Well, get him some more! It's hot, you know!"
"If you like. But there's such a thing as too much water, and he's had three pails this morning."
And so on.
The horses had paid no attention to any of this and were variously zoning out, or soliciting petting from the trainees, or shifting about restlessly, hoping to be out and about soon. After the first few exchanges, Fletcher paid no attention either and waved to his lads to get on with it.
Buckjack opened the nearest stall and slid a halter on Pewter. She was a dainty gray and a trainee like him—that is, this was her first expedition, too. She had been stalled with Nuck, an old hand at expeditions, whose blasé attitude would calm her. She was prey to mixed emotions now, though. It was all very exciting and a little scary, and what was going to happen next? He placed a firm hand on her withers and, though he held her lead, did not need it, but just escorted her out into the corridor when the way was clear.
Nuck followed, having already worked his muzzle into his halter and lifted the halter off its hook. Buckjack buckled it for him, meantime blocking Pewter's path with his flank, which she actually took for a reassuring, hug-like gesture.
Nothing had made Buckjack realize so keenly that he was as much horse as man, transformed in mind as well as body, as his new connection to horses. From the first day, he could read their faces and postures as readily as those of humans.
He did not know if it was the transformation or the example and training from Fletcher and Sanders that had led him on to care about them, but he did now. There was still a gap to reach across, but it no longer felt like the gap between human and beast; rather, it felt like the gap between adult and child.
"Okay, girl, settle down. No, no, not in front of everyone! C'mon, ya little floozie, down to business." That was Carlin coping with Lacey, who was an incorrigible flirt. She was nuzzling him in the chest and trying to lip his ear. Carlin gave her lead a sharp tug down with one hand, his other holding the lead for Henny, who gazed her disdain at Lacey. " 'Nother one like that and it's a cold shower for you, kid," he told her. "(For both of us)," he added in an undertone, because, as every male equine in the stable knew, Lacey smelled delicious just now. Again.
"Something wrong with that girl," opined Fells, who was working past Carlin with his own pair of horses. "Seems like she goes boy-crazy every other week."
Eowyck hopped onto Fells's back, looking more recovered, and pronounced, "Just needs to be bred."
Carlin found all eyes momentarily on Lacey and therefore on him. "Well, don't look at me!" he said, getting a round of guffaws. He clicked to Lacey. "C'mon, cousin. A brisk walk in some fresh air. Clear your head."
They led their horses through the streets, to the corral, where they joined the horses from the other stables. For Fletcher's benefit, the trainees remarked aloud on the state of the water troughs and the presence of shade trees. Eowyck, buoyed up and completely restored by the sight of so many horses, started bouncing from back to back, inspecting, calming, and breaking up spats.
That done, they adjourned to the Bythos, where, with the assistance of Peach, who was an expedition veteran of even longer standing than Nuck, Fletcher showed them how to get a horse into one of the slings they rode for most of the voyage.
Then they learned how to get themselves into their own slings. These were slightly different, being designed so the occupant could release themselves. "And there are these pockets," Fletcher pointed out, "where you can stow books and a few personal effects. Do tell us if you get any coverage on your phones."
Then it was back to stevedore work. The loads were not as heavy, but they needed to be stored and stowed and secured more carefully, under the direction of the Bythos crew, whom they thus started to work with.
Late in the afternoon, they were able to stop for lunch, a big lunch with oatmeal for the equine course, to which they were encouraged to add sugar, honey, chopped fruit, syrup, anything for calories. Feel your oats, lads; you'll be burning them.
Buckjack heard Carlin swallow hard. He looked up from his bowl and saw Petra Vincent, now in a spring green flapper outfit, talking to Captain Fletcher. Fletcher pointed to them and then followed Mlle. Vincent across the courtyard to them.
"Oops?" Buckjack asked Carlin.
"Nah. To be expected." He was already standing (they usually ate standing), but he straightened up, put down his bowl, quickly brushed his beard in case of oatmeal bits (absent), and prepared to greet. Buckjack followed suit.
Fletcher stopped a length away but stood openly listening. Mlle. Vincent came on. Carlin tipped hat and smiled, then took the extended hand.
"Bonne après-midi, M. Carlin," she said, and gave a flash of smile to Buckjack too. "He says he does not know your schedule, but he is happy to receive you any time tonight, at the Four Stones. And I will be happy to escort you there, if you do not know the way. Come through the gate nearest town."
"You are very kind, Mademoiselle."
The flower-faced smile became a little grim. "Not at all. My schedule is very open. À bientôt once more, then." Smiles all around, then she turned and left. Buckjack noticed that she cast a shadow, though a faint one, and her high-heeled shoes sounded on the dirt, though slightly. No one, he saw, noticed her passage.
He looked back to Fletcher, who was gazing at them, particularly Carlin. "Well, 'mes jolis poulains,' what was that about?" Buckjack felt his infamous blush rising.
But Carlin had, as he said, expected it. He maintained his stance at attention and saluted. (Fletcher's eyes flickered over this curiously. Usually, Carlin was but minimally respectful.) "Sir, if I have free time tonight, I'd like to go to la Fôret de Brequelle. There's a fay there called the Fanatur. He makes shoreleave belts for merfolk. I want to talk to him, see what it would take to get a shoreleave belt for Harry Morley."
After a short startled silence, Fletcher asked, "Who is Harry Morley?"
"A friend of Weldon's, sir."
Fletcher looked to Buckjack, who was still doing his own startled silence. So that was the deal Carlin had been working on. Had he gone back to talk to Harry about it? Please, no! It would be like promising to buy him a winning lottery ticket. But Fletcher was still staring at him. "Mr. Weldon? I can see this is news to you, too. But who is Harry Morley?"
"Uh… uh… An old neighbor, sir. Um…" He briefly recounted Harry's story.
"So," said Fletcher, who had been looking at Carlin all the while Buckjack spoke, "a worthy endeavor. But what makes you think the Fanatur is ready to produce a shoreleave belt for Mr. Morley?"
"I don't know that he is, sir," Carlin answered. "And I know they take a lot of time and power, and the skill isn't common. But I just want to see what can be done. Maybe get the ball rolling on something. Maybe just ask him what it would take. That's all, sir."
"Mm. Spend seven years weaving a shirt out of nettles without ever breaking silence? That kind of thing?"
"I hope not, sir. But I want to find out."
Fletcher went on looking. Carlin showed his mettle by not squirming. As Buckjack had said, Fletcher was good at keeping secrets, so how much of Carlin's story did he already know? How much of it did he guess? Because, though Fletcher had never admitted it to the class, he was widely believed to be Receptant (or Sighted or Sensitive or whatever you wanted to call it), and was therefore a very good guesser.
"Very well," he said at last. "When we're done for the day. Your free time is your own, as I always say. And you're training to be explorers, so go explore: another thing I always say."
"Sir," Buckjack heard himself say, "may I go with him? I, uh, I think the buddy system might be a good idea."
"Hm. Yes. In fact, you relieve my mind. A bit. You both know your manners around fays, right? Eowyck never complained of you."
"But be sure to take your walkie-talkies. If you run into trouble in the woods, use them."
Fletcher gave each of them another searching look, stared off into the distance for a bit (waiting for any news his Receptance might gather, Buckjack guessed), then nodded, wheeled, and went back to his desk of crates, there to confer with Lieutenant Sanders. Who, it occurred to Buckjack, was equally good at keeping secrets.
Buckjack fumbled in his kit, found the walkie-talkie, and set it back, marking the place for when he needed it. Might need it. He looked up and saw Carlin staring at him. "What brought that on?" his friend asked. "I mean, thanks, but why?"
"Buddy system. You heard. It's only sensible. It relieved his mind, even. Anyway, Harry's my old neighbor, so this is my business too. Though I did not know that until five minutes ago."
Carlin grinned, back in full form. "Yeah, well, gotta keep you guys off balance."
"You're doing beautifully."
Then it was back to the Bythos, to be shown where and how to stow their gear, be run through emergency procedures, practice hauling and stowing lines, and while you're at it, do some more loading.
("What happened to being scholars on hooves?" Buckjack asked Fells as they waited in line on the loading ramp.
("That's later, I expect," the palamino answered. "If you see any interesting botanical specimens around the loading dock, do tell me. Meantime, I've these tubs of–" He checked the label. "–fiberglass resin paste to load.")
After that, it was back to the corral to check on the horses, exercise them on lead, rub them down and feed them. Then go back to the ship and clean decks because people, many of them in horseshoes, had been tramping all over them.
("I think the hull is sitting quite a bit deeper than it was yesterday morning," Charliehorse observed.
(A mermaid's laugh came up from the water. "It'll be deeper still when all you lot and your cousins are loaded!")
Eventually, they were back at the caravansarai, having dinner under a slow summer sunset. "So, anytime tonight, she said," Buckjack remarked. "When does 'tonight' start? After sundown?"
"I guess. We could start a little before that, if you like."
"Yeah, that would be good." It was getting hard to eat. Both stomachs were knotting up, and he found himself tending to prance in place. Not Carlin's happy, cocky prance, either.
Deliberately not prancing, he started for Fletcher's corner of the courtyard. "Hey! Whoa!" said Carlin. "We're not ready." He waved at Buckjack and then himself. "We need to clean up and put on dress uniform. Show some respect."
"I wasn't heading out. I wanted to ask Fletcher what he knew about the Fanatur."
"Oh. Good idea." So Carlin came along.
Fletcher was in the same corner of the courtyard, flipping through papers on a clipboard. Next to him sat Lt. Sanders, trying to use his forelegs as a lap for a laptop computer. "We loaded our 'desks' a couple of hours ago," he remark as they approached and saluted, "but does the paperwork stop? Noooo... What can I do for you gentlemen?"
"Sir, what do you know about the Fanatur?" Buckjack asked.
"Ah. Good question. Well, he's one of the most powerful fays in la Fôret de Brequelle, maybe the most powerful. But he's still one of the Channel Fays, so he's under the Pact. And he's not like a local fairy king or anything; it's just that I doubt there are any other fays here who'd want to cross him."
Buckjack and Carlin nodded. Fays were either very individualistic or very collective. In that as in many other things, they had few middle gears.
Fletcher eyed them. "What do you know about dealing with fays? We probably ought to have a class in it, but we tend to assume everyone learned it on their mother's knee. Mr. Weldon, I recall you grew up next to a fay wood?"
"Just a little patch of one, but yessir."
"And what were you taught about dealing with fays?"
"My dad said they value good manners like silver and true promises like gold. And bad manners and broken promises are nettles and poison."
Fletcher nodded, satisfied. "And you, Mr. Carlin?"
He delivered a practiced grin of confidence. "Not a lot of fays in London, sir. Not to admit to it. But my old line of work taught me the same lessons."
Fletcher nodded again, but more cautiously. "Then I don't have anything to add. Good luck, lads."
They thanked him, saluted, and returned to their pitch. On the way back, Buckjack asked, "Have you spoken to Harry about this?"
" 'Course not! What if it doesn't pan out?"
"Good. I just wondered because of the way you trotted back to the docks right after we met Mlle. Petra the first time."
"Ah, that. I thought, what if I strike it really lucky and the Fanatur can start work right away? You've heard 'Hope for the best, plan for the worst'? Well, sometimes you oughta plan for the best, too." And plainly he did not want to say more just then.
Back at their pitch, Carlin seized his toiletries kit then headed for the pump in the middle of the courtyard. Buckjack followed suit. There they stripped off their sweaty T-shirts and washed. Returning to the pitch, Carlin took out a mirror and surprised Buckjack by trimming the handlebars off his mustache and re-trimming and waxing it to a solid, serious bar. He trimmed off the curl on the point of his beard, too, but re-waxed and combed it to an assertive forward prow.
Buckjack, continuing to follow suit now, got out a smaller mirror, his scissors, and started trying to trim. He found his head seized and turned. Carlin proceeded to trim his beard for him. "Anyone would think we had hot dates lined up," he murmurred through stiff lips, not wanting to throw off Carlin's aim.
"Later," Carlin answered. "If we're celebrating. How's that?" He presented Buckjack with his mirror. Buckjack saw beard and hair both in an unaccustomed state of neatness. He thanked his barber.
Then they donned their dress jackets and hats. "I wondered why we had to pack these," Buckjack remarked. "I mean, we're off to survey howling inter-dimensional wilderness."
"Now you know," Carlin answered. "You never know who you might meet out there, and you'll want to make a good impression."
Well, if we were turning things up to eleven... Buckjack started transferring the fishing lures from his duty hat to the band of his dress hat. Carlin saw and gave him a congratulatory wink. "Good idea," he said, and installed his own over the curl on his custom hat. Then he broke out the hoof polish.
By the time they were done, their classmates and a scattering of other folk had gathered around to watch. "Dancing tonight at the Cheese Buoy?" Charliehorse asked. "All-night dressage contest? Court martial?"
"Evening services, you heathens," said Carlin, and headed out. Buckjack seconded his mysterious smile and followed.
The back streets of the little town had no light but the sky and the houses. Buckjack was grateful for his good night vision, though Carlin seemed to be doing fine. He felt at his belt for the walkie-talkie. "If we call for help on these," he said, taking his out, staring at it, and re-clipping, "what do you think Fletcher will do? Cavalry charge to the rescue?" It seemed unlikely.
Carlin thought so too. He shook his head. "Psyche 'em out. That's his style. 'Stand to attention, you horrible little goblin! I knew your father when he was a gremlin!'"
Buckjack laughed a little nervously. "That's not much his style either. Oh, hey, do you have the amulet?"
"No. I thought about it, but it probably wouldn't work against a guy who may be the most powerful fay in Brequelle, and it could make us look less than candid. Like, what are we hiding?"
Buckjack nodded. "I see. Okay."
They headed in-land rather than north as they had last night. It was not long before Côte d'Ys was behind them. Before them, beyond a bit of meadow, loomed la Fôret de Brequelle, darker than the eastern sky behind it. As at the other gate, a path led up to a pair of square-cut pillars flanking a break in a wall of dry, unworked stone. On each pillar was carved the trefoil of oak, ash, and thorn leaves.
In the gateway, an uncertain flicker of light kindled, steadied, grew, and illuminated Mlle. Petra. Or possibly she had simply appeared and glowed. "Messieurs, bonsoir," she greeted them. "Return and we return."
"Keep faith and so do we. Bonsoir, Mademoiselle," Carlin returned, "and thank you for making this meeting possible." They tipped hats.
"My pleasure." She led them single file down a path just barely wide enough.
Ahead of Buckjack, Carlin had slowed. There was tip-toe rather than prance in his gait now; he was feeling his way. He looked over his shoulder, back at Buckjack. "Do these– Christ!" And it was as if the back half of him tried to bolt.
There were fay realms where that exclamation would have had repercusions, but not here. Petra simply turned and said, "What– Oh!" and stared at Buckjack as Carlin was doing.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Those damned eyes of yours!" Carlin answered. "They're shining like blue blazes! From Mlle. Petra's light. I was going to ask if the walkie-talkies had flashlights, but you don't care, do you?" And he put his left hand behind his foreleg, where the larger of his hearts was hammering.
"Well, yes, they have flashlights. Remember last night on the road? I, uh, I can't do anything about my eyes."
Carlin waved the issue away. Petra stared at Buckjack's face and said, "Très intéressant. But if you need more light, I can accommodate." Smiling, she raised her hands theatrically. The light that shone on or from her pale skin and silvery dress increased.
Carlin thanked her and proceeded more easily, but for Buckjack it just meant that he lost his dark adaptation and the woods on either side were pitch black. Presumably, they had always been so for Carlin and were still, but now he could see the path. Buckjack told himself that this was no worse than the Oakwood, the bit of fay wood behind his family's home, but he had not made a habit of walking there at night either.
There were no voices, no footfalls, no distant fires.
He thought of Eowyck, whom he saw every day, formidable and peppery, but only in the cause of the horses they both loved. He thought of Mlle. Petra herself, past death but in the act of helping them right now. They were fays but not to be dreaded. Yes, but they were known quantities, not watching silently and invisibly,
Well, so were these other fays. Knowable, anyway, if not known. He turned away from Petra's ghostlight and let his eyes adapt back. Trees in twilight. Stars through branches. It was only a little shock, and then a relief, to see a little face up in the leaves, the color and texture of smooth bark, staring back at him curiously. He waved and the wood-fay waved back.
"What can you tell us about the Fanatur?" Carlin asked Petra.
"Fanatur, shape-master. The title is not an idle boast. He is skilled at glamour and seemings and true shapeshift. And he is ... playful. He likes to combine the three, along with plain disguise, until you do not know where you are. He does not hide his identity—or he hides well enough not to get caught—but no one is sure what is his true appearance. He is as shiftable as a pooka, but also he makes seemings and such for others. He can certainly make the shoreleave belt."
"Good. But what are his pleasures, or his goals? I have to be able to offer him something."
"Ah. True. Well, one can say that he is complet with shape-games now, has mastered them, and now he wishes to be a fay lord. One may say he is a fay lord, because he has formed a troop, though it is still small and his command of it is simple."
Troops were fays being collective. They were united at a deep spiritual level, able to pool magical power and coordinate effort with great facility, but unable to think individually or coherently for long. They often lost track of time and fell into trances or frenzies. Fays able to take themselves and others in and out of troops, and command those troops, were the fairy "lords" and "ladies." Fletcher had told them the Fanatur was not a local king, but that information was starting to become out of date.
"I myself became fay by joining the Fanatur's troop," she told them. That was how it was done: mortals became fays by joining troops, alive or dead, willingly or not. The Pact stipulated willing.
"You aren't a troop member now, are you?" Carlin asked.
"No. When he did that for me, I made the condition that I stay only briefly. Because that stay was short, I owe him a great favor."
"What favor?" Carlin's voice was calm but Buckjack saw his tail tuck in. He felt again for the walkie-talkie and reminded himself of the Pact.
"Not specified. Something will present itself in due course."
And in due course, after branches and turns, the path ended in a clearing. It was far larger than the caravanserai courtyard. The Bythos could have been drydocked in it with room to spare. It was level grass, mid-shin high on Petra. In the middle, four stones, rough-hewn, upright, twice taller than men, stood in a house-sized square, the diagonals of the square pointing in the cardinal directions.
Petra led the way into the square. As they went, the clearing began to fill up. Human-like figures came striding out of the woods. Some were silhouettes in the gloaming, some were translucent, some gleamed like Petra, some were child-high. The grass rustled as yet-shorter creatures moved through it. Fireflies and less visible insects drifted in the air, heedless of a scattering of crows, owls, and hawks.
"Not going to be a private talk," Buckjack murmured.
"That's good," Carlin declared. "Everything above board."
As they approached one of the four stones, a shape came out from behind the stone diagonally opposite, a mounted figure. But not, as Buckjack studied it, a man on horseback.
The mount gave the first impression of being a shining black horse with bold white markings, but it was no horse. The black face gazed out of a white mane that waved and curled over the whole neck and shoulders, like a lion's. The tail was also lion-like, black with a long white tuft. The black legs shook gleaming white feathering, but from the slight sound of them were padded, not hoofed. Beautiful, but not a horse.
No more was the rider a mortal man. Like his mount, he was a bold study in black and white, but he was also a study in invisibility. He wore a stetson, a cowboy hat like Buckjack's and Carlin's, but with white crown and black brim. Below the hat, a white face mask floated on vacuity while black sunglasses covered the eyeholes. Below that, white shirt with black sleeves, then white gloves holding reins, gaps fleetingly visible where wrists should be. Then black pants and white boots, seated on a white saddle. The cut and fabric looked like Standard Cavalry, but for the coloring. There were no insignia.
"Good evening, Mr. Carlin. Return and we return." The voice was blank and bland, like the mask, and like it somewhat more masculine than not, but mostly featureless. The Chenelaise had no trace of English, French, Russian, Italian, or any other accent. The mouth moved naturally.
"Good evening, sir," Carlin answered, promptly, cheerfully. "Keep faith and so do we. Thank you for seeing me."
The Fanatur swung out of the saddle and clapped the mount-beast on the neck. It flowed into a tall man, dressed in black with white boots, belt, gloves, and stetson. He bowed to the Fanatur, respectful but not servile, and walked into the shadows.
Shadows. There was much more light in the square of the four stones than there had been. Without craning his neck to peer around, which would be gauche, Buckjack guessed the stars were shining too brightly, but for them alone.
"You want to discuss getting a shoreleave belt for a merman?"
"But not to make an offer for one?"
"No sir. I don't expect I could afford it now. But if you are willing, sir, I would like to see what could be done. See if it could be paid for in installments, for instance."
"Mm." The little noise was unenthusiastic, but the Fanatur beckoned them further into the square. At least, he beckoned Carlin. Buckjack decided to take the gesture as applying to himself as well. It was hard to tell, with those sunglasses hiding the eyes that were probably empty holes anyway.
But just then a pale light shone from behind the glasses, and the Fanatur cocked his head. Or his mask. "What is your interest in this merman? Why do you care? Is he a friend?"
"He's my friend, sir," Buckjack announced.
"And you are…?"
"Cavalryman John Weldon, sir." He bowed a little, tipped his hat, and got a nod back. "I introduced him to Mr. Carlin here just yesterday."
The symbol of a face turned back to Carlin. "Then I still don't see why you care."
"He was transformed by force, sir," Carlin said. "A few years ago, in England. I … have a special resentment of that kind of crime. I want to do what I can to help him recover."
The light behind the glasses flickered and brightened. The Fanatur cocked his head the other way. "I see." He paced back and forth, approaching them as he did so, looking Carlin over. And himself, Buckjack realized. And Petra, who had come into the square with them.
The Fanatur clasped his gloves behind his back. "Merfolk vary a great deal. One has the tail of a giant herring, another is part shark, a third is trout or eel, and so on. That is why each shoreleave belt is an individual study."
"Yessir, I know." Carlin reached into his belt pouch and extracted a little dab of white. "That's why I brought this, sir, in case we were able to come to an agreement. I thought it might help you start work sooner. It's a bit of cotton, sir, with his blood on it." Buckjack remembered the shaving cut that morning.
"You stole this from him?" There was no expression in the voice, not even a dangerous flatness, but the light behind the glasses dimmed and yellowed, whatever that might mean.
"No sir. He cut himself shaving and threw it away."
"Mm. Best would have been freely given, knowing why. But still useful. Blood means a lot, of course. Well. I have an offer to make you, though not the long, piecemeal sort you suggested. That presents a long time in which things could go wrong. As you may know, I am building up a troop." The mask briefly faced Petra, then turned aside. He raised his arm and beckoned again. "Come."
Out of the shadow moved a block of lesser shadows, leaving a gap in the ring of observers. They looked "normal" for a group of fays: most were specters, ex-mortal ex-ghosts like Petra, but more transparent, dimmer. Some squirrel-sized little folk and a few birds perched, somehow, on ghostly shoulders. There were two or three child-sized folk and one, Buckjack thought sure, actual child. Worrying. Maybe two dozen in all.
They did not look atypical for fays; it was the way they moved. They walked in a tight knot, touching or nearly so, but no one bumped into another, no one tripped over another's feet. They moved smoothly, as the unit they were. They stared attentively at the Fanatur, then with curiosity at the centaurs, then longer at Petra, then back to the Fanatur—and eyes and heads all turned in perfect synchrony.
"You were ... in that?" Buckjack asked Petra, as softly as he could.
"Yes. It was like a dream, like a drug. I was not me in there."
Perhaps the Fanatur heard them. "They are, I freely admit, a beginner's troop. Regardless of form, they are all trivial ghosts, the kind no greater power claims. They need a firm hand, and so are tightly bound. As this is my first venture at ordering a troop, I must apply the same rigor to all." None of the troop reacted to this assessment of their souls, any more than dogs when their master discusses their breeding.
"They learned much from Petra," he continued, "but she did not stay. They remember her knowledge and skills, but her virtues went with her." He smiled pleasantly at Petra. Her return smile was tight. "So, to build character as well as numbers, I need new and better recruits."
The mask turned once more to Carlin. "You, sir, are brave, generous, inventive. You would make a splendid addition to the troop. I always keep work in hand, and with the blood you have there, I could finish a belt tonight, fit it out for your friend, in return for your service."
Carlin's face was white. His legs trembled. He wanted to bolt; Buckjack was sure of it, because he wanted to himself, and no one had asked for his soul in trade.
"Sir–" Carlin began, his voice as husky as Harry's had been, leaking at the gills. Then he began again: "Sir, there are obstacles." The face was still white, the legs still quivering, but he smiled and his voice was steady. Show time. "I am sworn to fourteen years' service to the Cavalry, and thirteen remain."
The Fanatur nodded. "But men have been released from such vows, and your Crown might do so in return, say, for seven shoreleave belts, to be made for navy merfolk. Or, though as I said, I do not like to leave time for things to go wrong, you could take an oath to me and, when your time with the Cavalry is done, I could come for you.
"Another obstacle is that it may simply be impossible. I know of no attempt to take a centaur into a troop, but I myself have tried to make seemings that would let you appear human again. I failed. Something awakes and fights back; something resists any movement back to human, and it might not let you become a fay, either. I simply do not know.
"But the greatest obstacle is that you very much do not want to. I see that. Let me try to reassure you. First, it only looks horrible from the outside. Petra, did you feel horror at being in the troop while you were in it?"
She shook her head, but she was staring hard at the troop and Buckjack did not think she would be any happier to join it again.
"Second, as I become more expert, I will gladly loosen my grip and have you as my lieutenant within the troop.
"Finally, though I have no plans to let them go," he said, waving at the troop, "we could agree that, like Petra, you could go eventually."
"When would that be, sir?"
The figure shrugged. "That would require careful thought. When they took on more of your character, one way or another, or it became clear they never would."
"And would I take on their character, sir?"
Another shrug, with a smile. "In a tight troop, for a long time? It would be a risk. But you could fight it and I would help."
Carlin's trademark smile had been fading and was now gone entirely. "Oh, sir," he said, and his voice was husky again, "as it is, sometimes I barely feel like myself any longer. I don't think we can deal."
The mask tilted in acknowledgement. The Fanatur then stood still for a few seconds. Then the light, which had gone out behind the sunglasses, rekindled, white and steady. "Then consider this: If you do not want to deal, will you gamble? Let us have a pair of wagers, one for the belt, one for you. If you want to take one wager, you must take the other. First we will gamble for the belt, and if you win, it goes to the merman. Then we have a race, from here to the wall. If I catch you, I have your service if that is possible. Remember, it may be you simply cannot be joined to a troop. If it is not possible, we part as we have met. That gives you an edge."
To Buckjack's dismay, Carlin's smile began to return. "Hm. Well, sir, how will you chase me? I have only my four hooves. You could become a hummingbird, an arrow, a bullet! You could flit."
"I will pursue as a man on foot or on the horse I rode in on."
The smile broadened. "He's no horse, sir."
"The mount I rode in on, then."
"And if I win the belt but lose the chase?"
"As I said, the belt goes to the merman. We will arrange something. For instance, Mr. Weldon could take it." The mask faced Buckjack briefly. The light behind the sunglasses sped up from flicker to glitter. Then one glove rose, hovering over the end of the sleeve, one finger raised. "But that brings me to another condition. Neither of us is to have any help. I except riding Daëroch, since you–" The floating glove gestured down at Carlin's legs. "–always have the advantage of traveling mounted. And Daëroch will act only as my steed."
"Sounds fair, sir."
The flying glove lifted in warning again. "Anyone who does help you, I will regard as lawful prey." The mask turned to Buckjack again. "Like you, they would have shown that they would make a spirited, valuable addition to my troop."
Buckjack made iron pillars of his legs and nodded. (Within: "I will not bolt. I will not bolt. I will not bolt.") "Understood, sir," he said aloud.
The Fanatur turned to Petra. "Anyone," he repeated. She nodded and gave him a cold smile. Buckjack heard her breathing hard, which was interesting.
(Centuries of confusion and slavery. Family and friends lost. Personality washed away. Hope of Heaven removed to an infinite distance. That could be Carlin's fate if he did not help, or his own if he did. "I will not bolt. I will not bolt. I will not bolt.")
"Can we deal now?" the Fanatur asked Carlin.
Buckjack saw Carlin's head move fractionally, but he stilled the nod, not agreeing yet. (Don't agree at all! Buckjack thought as loudly as he could at Carlin. Walk away and leave all as it was.)
"What kind of gamble for the belt, sir?" Carlin asked.
The Fanatur swept off his hat and bowed, giving a brief but clear view down his empty collar, into the hollow shirt. "Look at our motif!" For the first time, the voice sounded animated, individual. "Cowboys! The Wild West! Poker!"
And Carlin's smile was back full force.
(No, Style! You may be a good player, but you're a year out of practice and for all you know, he's the All Faerie Poker Champion.)
"I will give you a head start of fourteen heartbeats—your heartbeats—from the moment you take up the belt or the moment you rise from the game as loser. Best two of three hands, five-card draw. Deal?" And the Fanatur extended a glove.
"Deal." Carlin shook it.
Buckjack stood next to Petra, watching Carlin and the Fanatur. The two gamblers sat on the grass, to left and right of a small white cloth the Fanatur had conjured from a pocket handkerchief. It looked like preparations for a picnic but was in place of a table. There were also poker chips conjured from leaves and a pack of perfectly ordinary cards, as far as Buckjack knew, from the backpack of the Fanatur's mount or bearer, whatever he should be called.
Daëroch, the servant and sometime mount, stood on the other side of the gambling pair, still in human form. Outside the square of the Four Stones stood the troop and an unknown number of other fays, the whole population of la Fôret de Brequelle for all Buckjack knew.
The Fanatur offered Carlin the first deal. Carlin accepted. Both were smiling, both were holding their cards close to their chests, and if anyone in the shadowy audience could see more details, none were stupid enough to make any remark.
Buckjack tried to follow play but soon gave up. He knew the rules but was not so expert that he could deduce anything about the state of play from watching the players draw and discard and bet.
So instead he studied the players. He had not seen Carlin's poker face before, but it looked good: a confident and unwavering smile. If there was a bit of tension in it, and if his posture was a little stiff, the stakes were high after all. And the telltale tail was at the other end, and motionless.
As for the Fanatur...! What poker face? What face? That floating mask had moved in speech and expression before, but now it was immobile, just slightly smiling in counterpoint to Carlin. The invisible body seemed relaxed, to judge by the drape of the clothes.
He realized he was shifting on his hooves and stilled himself. "What kind of fay is the Fanatur?" he asked Petra in a low voice. "I mean, is he mortalborn? Fay-simple? What?"
"Rumor guesses angelblood, but it only guesses."
Buckjack nodded. It did not really matter whether the Fanatur was kin of angels and old gods, an ex-mortal like Petra, or the kind of natural fay that apparently just happened, like Eowyck: he had clearly wound up powerful, skilled, and whimsical.
He fingered the walkie-talkie in his pocket. It was useless now. No calling for help, on their souls.
Carlin and the Fanatur showed their cards. Still smiling, Carlin picked up a pile of chips and put them in front of the Fanatur. He had lost the first hand.
Buckjack studied the Fanatur again. How could Carlin read any tells there? Well, there was the occasional flickering light behind the sunglasses–
Holy St. Martin. There, floating in the air before Carlin, was the Fanatur's hand, reflected in the sunglasses. Buckjack could not see it from this angle, but Carlin must be able to. Had he noticed? Then why had he lost the first hand? Had he noticed too late? Not at all? Playing dumb? Just not got the cards?
However long his mind had been whirling in uncertainty, it had been long enough for the next hand to be played out. Carlin won it.
What if this was a test? The Fanatur was a master of illusions. What if the reflections were lies next time? What if it had been a test and Carlin was supposed to notice and stop the game, nobly telling the Fanatur so the "problem" could be "corrected"? But he hadn't, so under no circumstances must the issue come up now.
Was Buckjack giving anything away? He was shifting his weight again, but that told nothing. He stopped. Was he blushing? Hell, no, he could feel his face was winter-cold. Give away nothing. Just stand there and pray.
Watching was unbearable. He closed his eyes and prayed some more. Not seeing was worse. He opened his eyes again.
Carlin laid down his cards. So did the Fanatur. Carlin reached forward, as he had when he gave the Fanatur his chips on the first hand. But this time, he picked up the Fanatur's stack, claiming them. The Fanatur nodded.
Buckjack watched Carlin breathe, first one ribcage, then the other. He felt his own chests do the same thing. He reminded himself that the real danger was still to come.
Carlin sprang to his feet. Could anyone who was not also a horse see the check on the rearing, that would have had striking hooves to follow? Fight and flight. No. Play the game. Show time.
The Fanatur rose and extended a hand. Glove. "You have a shoreleave belt, Mr. Carlin. Congratulations."
"Harold Morley has a shoreleave belt," Carlin said. "Thank you."
"If you will give me the blood sample, I will make the final fitting to the belt." Carlin handed over the bit of cotton. The Fanatur and Daëroch walked off into the shadows. The stars above the Four Stones began to dim. On the grass, the chips melted back into leaves and the cloth shrank back into a handkerchief. A fox trotted out of the crowd, nodded to them, and began collecting the cards with preternaturally nimble paws.
Buckjack and Petra walked over to Carlin, who was starting to shift uneasily. "You can leave now," he told Buckjack. "You could have left any time. You should leave now."
"That's the nicest thing you've ever said to me. But you can't help me. It's in the rules."
"If I can't help, I can still keep you company. And when I do leave, it'll be easier for me, what with having good night vision and knowing some astronomy and all." The concern in Carlin's face grew; he had understood.
"Astronomy?" said Petra brightly. "But mon cher garçon, one only need bear west, where Venus is rising." She pointed.
"True," Buckjack agreed. "And there's also a bit of city light."
"Guys–" Carlin started to protest.
"Don't interupt, Style. I'm talking to Mlle. Petra. About the best way out. Available to anyone."
"And you speak sense," she affirmed. "But I am very familiar with the woods. Perhaps you would permit me to escort you out?"
"I would be very grateful, Mademoiselle." He looked at Carlin, who was staring blankly, virtually blind. In his imagined privacy, show time was over; there was just fear. What kind of fair race was this, with only one party sighted? Then he remembered: "Oh, and to make things even easier, my walkie-talkie has a flashlight built in, should I need it," he said toward Petra.
The Fanatur came striding out of the dark, followed by his attendant, once more in the form of a riding beast. "Mr. Carlin, the belt." He held out a chain of mother-of-pearl discs. Carlin groped for it. Petra raised her ghost-light so he could see. "Petra," said the Fanatur, warning.
"Ridicule!" she retorted. "Your race has not started yet. Only when he seizes the belt."
"I'm going now," Buckjack declared, and headed for their entrance at a brisk trot. Petra's light faded out.
Even as he turned on the flashlight, he heard Carlin's hooves pounding behind him. Fourteen heartbeats. Big, slow, equine heartbeats. Maybe not so slow.
He picked up his pace. Even so, Carlin galloped past him, into the path entrance. He picked up his pace again.
"You always have to be in front, don't you?" he called.
"If I'm in front, I'm not following you."
Fair enough. All part of the game of oath-baiting. Buckjack decided that, if Carlin took a wrong turn, he would have to continue on the right course, to be able to "coincidentally" lead him straight.
But you don't gallop down a narrow forest path for long, especially at night. Soon, Buckjack was directly behind Carlin.
Carlin turned his head over his shoulder long enough to snap "Go away!"
"I'm just keeping you company."
"You're waiting to help me, and that'll get you on his target list. Who's the fastest one in class?"
"You are, but I'm second."
"Danny's second," Carlin told him.
"We'll settle it when we're safely home."
"Anyway, I'm fastest, so just let me use it."
"I'm not holding you back. I'm just keeping up. You can't sprint through woods like this."
"Oh, hell. 'Woods like this.' We aren't being pixie-led, are we?" Carlin fretted. At least it was "we" now.
Pixie-leading ought to be against the no-help clause. Unless some Fanatur fans were getting equally creative with oath-baiting. Buckjack peered through the branches, looking for town lights or a twinkle of Venus. Then he snorted. "Not pixie-led. Petra-led. Look."
Petra gleamed ahead on the dark path, pointing down the left branch of a fork.
"I don't see her," Carlin said.
Right. If she was only bright enough for Buckjack to see, then she was only escorting him, and if Carlin availed himself of the clue and followed, so be it. "I do." He pushed past his friend.
"Can we trust her?" Carlin asked, voice barely audible over their hoofbeats.
It was a good question. She owed the Fanatur a big favor. Here she was, being tricky. Were they sure she was being tricky for their benefit?
On the other hand, he was not at all sure that good night vision, a smidge of astronomy, and a pair of flashlights would get them out of here. So, "Hope so," he breathed back.
She was gone by the time they reached the fork. Carlin braked to a prat-fall halt and cocked his head, listening. Buckjack did the same.
"Nothing," said Carlin, hopping up and accelerating past Buckjack.
Buckjack tried to keep up. The silence could mean pursuit was far behind, or that the Fanatur was using an enchanted hush (Would that be in the rules?), or that Daëroch made no noise on his un-hoofed feet. So the pause had basically been a waste of time.
Maybe Carlin thought so too. He let Buckjack take the lead and they didn't pause again until they rounded a curve and found Petra arguing with a bear.
Buckjack was never sure, later, how big the bear had been. It had seemed mountainous to his adrenalin-soaked eyes. It had also seemed like a good thing to trample, though he told himself this was not true. It was clearly a fay bear: it was arguing back.
"But if you help him, you break his oath and he will be wroth," Petra was insisting.
"I know nothing of helping," it said. "I've been here all night and I see no reason to move."
"How if I ask nicely?"
Real bears' faces are inexpressive. This one looked cynical. "Rather late for that."
So here was the Fanatur, or his supporters, doing their own oath-baiting. The bear might have parked itself here well before Carlin took the oath, on the chance that it would be useful to make a roadblock. It didn't matter whose idea it had been.
Buckjack checked the sky through the branches. There Venus shone. He listened for rapid, heavy padding behind them. Instead, he heard a metallic click and saw the bear stiffen.
He turned and saw Carlin had pulled a service revolver out of his dress jacket.
"Gun?! You're gonna use a gun?! It's a fay! That won't kill it."
"It'll slow it down while it looks for pieces of its head. Or it can get off the path."
"But you're cheating!"
"He didn't say no guns. Just like he didn't say no bears in the road."
The bear did not look like backing down. Instead, it's overly expressive face looked angry, and it was starting to get up. Buckjack checked the sky again. Yes, Venus, and a hint of town lights.
"Okay, good point," he conceded. "Here's another good point: You know what counts more than raw speed, when you're running in the woods? Being willing to dive straight through brush and brambles."
"Hey, that is a good point." They dove. Behind, Buckjack heard the bear cursing and Petra warning it, "If you chase, you help."
There followed an unclockable time, stumbling, tripping, ignoring whipping branches and scratching thorns. Were the trees helping the Fanatur? They seemed actively malicious.
At one point, they were beating their way past the base of a fallen tree and Buckjack found one hind foot entangled in a root. It would be a hind one, harder to reach. Carlin was immediately at it, sawing with his knife.
"Go! Go!" Buckjack urged. "I'm in no rush. I'm not on his hit list."
"I don't know that. I don't believe that. Anyway, he's not near. We'd hear him or that lion-horse crashing around. Especially the lion-horse. There."
Buckjack kept his thoughts of enchanted hush to himself, thanked Carlin, and plowed ahead.
More stumbling and tripping through whipping and scratching. Sometimes, they seemed to be swimming in brush. Sometimes, they seemed to be navigating a maze with invisible walls, discovered when the thickets would not yield any more.
Somewhere in there, the walkie-talkies ran down and the flashlights died.
Brush is thickest at the edge of a forest. After a farewell skirmish, they broke through into a weedy strip between the forest and the wall. To their left were the path and the gateway. And on the path, just now exiting the forest, was the Fanatur on his mount.
Carlin couldn't see them. He was just panting at a walk, not yet even trotting. "Go!" Buckjack commanded, and swatted his flank. And with that he was probably on the hit list. Too bad. He dove into a gallop from a standing jump. In four strides, Carlin passed him. Good.
The wall got lower the further it was from the gateway. Far enough to the right, it was only about three feet high. Buckjack didn't think they could beat the Fanatur over there. Straight ahead, it was seven or eight feet high. Buckjack compromised and veered slightly right, toward something that might be five feet or a little more.
He bumped into Carlin. Carlin was galloping in the dark toward a wall he couldn't see. On Buckjack's say-so. Dear God. He grabbed Carlin's left arm and steered. "This way," he panted. Then, "Five feet high. Parkour class."
Carlin must have been able to see a little something, because he didn't slap straight into the wall. He hit it running but already climbing, just as in parkour class. But without the padding and safety nets you provide for thousand-pound students.
All but the last quarter of Carlin cleared the wall. Buckjack reared and pushed on his rump. It was inelegant but effective. There was a thump. "That's torn it," came Carlin's voice. Buckjack hoped he didn't mean a ligament. "You're on the hit list now, for sure. Get over here!"
"Sure," puffed Buckjack. "No worries. You're the better runner, but I'm the better jumper." He cast one glance at the approaching Fanatur, and it gave him all the adrenalin he needed. He backed up one length and gave a running jump.
Maybe not that much better a jumper. Both hind legs caught on the top of the wall. Instantly, Carlin seized him under the arms and hauled as he scrabbled with all legs. He fell.
"Thank you!" Buckjack gasped.
"Any time," Carlin wheezed.
Both were sprawled in the high grass. There was a little more light, away from the woods. They clambered up, looked around, and there was the Fanatur.
Daëroch had reared up and stood with his forepaws on the top of the wall. (Buckjack could clearly see blunt claws.) His expression was unreadable, since he was not presently human and certainly not really a horse. Behind and above his head, standing in his stirrups, was the Fanatur. He lifted an arm; from the floating glove hung the shoreleave belt.
"You dropped this," he said, and tossed it into the grass at Carlin's forefeet.
Carlin picked it up. And up. He brandished it. "Thank you, sir!" He felt for his hat to tip, but it was long gone. "Careless of me." Blood from scratches trickled down his face, into his beard, but he grinned like a sunrise.
"Quite understandable," the Fanatur replied. "Congratulations. Both games are yours. You will be sorely missed in my troop. Both of you. If either of you should ever change your mind, there is a place for you with me. In earnest of that, and in thanks for a very diverting night, please name a favor I could do you. Not, I have to say, a great one, but something."
Buckjack's face had gone cold and every leg had buckled when he had seen the shoreleave belt in the Fanatur's hand. He was now dizzy with relief. "Please, sir," he said, "don't be angry with Petra."
The Fanatur laughed. It sounded spontaneous and human. "Granted before you asked, Mr. Weldon. What is the current slang? That's 'not how I roll.' Ask again."
Buckjack just blinked, his mind empty. Carlin said, "We, ah, seem to have misplaced our hats."
The Fanatur laughed again. "Done. Au revoir, gentlemen." He and Daëroch vanished behind the wall.
They waited a minute, catching their breaths, feeling their cuts and bruises catch up with them, but no hats were flung over the wall. "S'pose they'll be delivered later," Carlin murmurred. Buckjack nodded.
Suddenly, he was in a bear-hug. He hugged back. "Mi frer." "Mi frer."
Just as suddenly, he was being held at arm's length, by the shoulders. "Thank you, John!"
"Buckjack. That's the name you gave me and it's the one I like. Buckjack."
"Are you cryin'? Again? You are the weepiest bloke I know."
"It's part of my transformation."
"Transformation? Horses don't weep."
"I do. I changed into me." But he was smiling by now.
The path back to town was, after all, conveniently close, so they walked along the wall toward it. There at the gateway was Petra. She handed them their hats.
"Congratulations, mes amis! All is well."
"Thank you, Mademoiselle," said Buckjack. "And again and again, thank you. I must admit, I wasn't sure we could trust you. You owe him a big one, you said, for letting you out of his troop so soon. What better repayment than to snare someone else into the troop?"
"Vraiment, that would be a good way to pay him off. But not with you, mes braves poulains. All the idea of leaving the troop promptly is that I am not going to be his creature. No, I might well pop someone into his troop, but it will be someone I pick, who will be happy there, or who deserves to be there, happy or not. I am going to be a good fairy. Much more rewarding in the long run, and the long run is much on my mind nowadays. Come back in a few years and I will be godmother to your children, if you like, just to prove it."
"Thank you. Uh, you do know we can't have children?"
"You never know your luck. Look at me. Look at you, for that matter. Good morning, chers poulains." A wave, a smile, a turn, and she faded out.
Buckjack saluted. Carlin blew a kiss. Then they turned and stumbled down the path toward town. After a few minutes, Buckjack looked back at la Fôret de Brequelle. It was outlined against a deep but luminous blue. "It is morning. We were in there all night. I hope it was just one night! When were we due back?"
"Dunno." Fletcher hadn't called to chew them out. Of course, with the walkie-talkies dead, he couldn't now.
They heard a distant ship's bell and looked at each other. "D'you think the fleet's in?" Carlin asked.
"I can't believe you brought a gun!"
"I can't believe you didn't. You're not thinkin' about this the right way. In the old times, would a knight go into a fairy wood without a sword?"
"We're not knights."
"Any adventurer. But look up the history. We may not have the titles, but knights are basically mounted warriors. Who's more mounted than us?"
"Mm. So when did you notice the reflections in his glasses?"
"Then why did you lose the first hand?"
"Had to make it look real."
"What if he had caught you out? I worried about that."
"Me too. But I decided I'd say I thought he was making me a gift of it on the quiet, and it would be rude to refuse."
"Glad I didn't have to try it. Martin's riding crop! Did I envy you your horsey eyes tonight!"
"Glad they were of use."
"Entirely worth having that mane and the hairy ears, to have those eyes."
"They're not that hairy."
"They're not that bald, either. Does it ever itch? The mane?"
"I don't really notice it unless I think about it. Like now, of course."
"I wonder what Petra's story is. She's sure not one of those 'trivial ghosts' the Fanatur has on his leash."
"Maybe we can ask her sometime. I heard her breathing hard while we were waiting out the game."
"Interesting. Well, she's supposed to be healing back to life, right? Maybe crisis situations push that on. Martin's jodhpurs! Look at our jackets!"
"Whoa! La Fôret, one; jackets, zero. I wonder how much they cost?"
Harry hauled out, drained his gills, and scooted across the pier to lean against his locker. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply for a minute or so, exhaling through the gills, to dry out a bit inside. Then he would start cleaning up while he waited for Tilly and the kids. He craved a cup of hot coffee, but it would be laborious to get it; Tilly had the wheelchair, and anyway getting breakfast with the family was part of the routine.
He heard a thunderous clattering on the boards and opened his eyes. There stood two young centaurs, John Weldon and his friend, grinning like jack-o'-lanterns, their jackets in tatters, their tails raised like banners.
"Glad we found you ashore, Mr. Morley," said John. He leaned down and presented Harry with a cardboard cup of coffee. "Cream and sugar, right?"
Harry took it, bewildered. "Thank–" he began.
"Carlin has something for you, too." And he made a grand sweep of the hand toward his friend. Show time.
Carlin held out the shoreleave belt with both hands. "How–?" Harry began, but Carlin urged, "Try it on!" It would be a while before Harry got out a full sentence.
Hands shaking, he obeyed. They hardly had time to see it work. As swiftly as Carlin and Buckjack had shifted and molded on the day of their own transformations, Harry changed. Buckjack barely had time to see that the tail did not split. Rather, it contracted, vanishing, while the pair of fins below the gills stretched, paled, thickened, grew toes.
Harry sat gasping for a few seconds, panting at the gills before he remembered to stop them. When he tried to get up, Carlin bowed down and helped him. He leaned on Carlin's arms for several minutes, sobbing.
The first thing he got out was, "I can cry! I couldn't cry before!" Buckjack had heard that merfolk could not cry. What use were tears in the sea?
Then Harry went down. At first, they thought he was collapsing, but then they saw he was kneeling to Carlin. Hastily, Carlin crouched down before him. "Mr. Morley, I hate what they did to you. I hate it so much, it makes me dizzy. I can't undo it or bring them to justice, for you or for me, but I can do this for you, and I want to. I want to very much."
Harry went into sobs again. After a while, Buckjack could hear the words "thank you" repeated over and over. Then Harry pulled himself together and said, "I, Harold Nicholas, swear by St. Nicholas and by my name–"
"No, sir, please. Let it just be my gift. I want to un-bind you, not bind you to anything."
"But I want to show my gratitude!"
"That's fine. That's fine. But I don't want an oath. Here." And, backing slowly down the pier, Carlin led Harry through his first steps in years. Then he made a nimble pivot at the end, around Harry, and led him back. He was walking on his own, by the end.
"They're strong!" he proclaimed. "My legs are strong!"
"They'd better be," Carlin said, "or I'll want my money back."
"Joking. I paid nothing."
"He won the belt in a wager," Buckjack explained, just a little.
Harry looked confused and alarmed. "Mr. Carlin! What did you wager?"
Carlin waved the question away. "There was a trick. It probably won't work again." And he did not want the details to get back to the Fanatur.
"I wondered if you'd been in a fight," said Harry, gesturing at Carlin's ragged jacket.
"Naw. We just left the forest in a hurry. Don't worry! No one's coming after us or you. Have your coffee."
Harry picked up the laid-by coffee and stood—stood—drinking it. It was hard to sip while grinning so much. "Wait till Tilly sees!" he gloated. He looked down. "Oh. Uh…"
"Oh," both centaurs echoed. Pants were not something they thought about much anymore. Everyone cast about for something to wrap around Harry. Buckjack shucked his shredded jacket. "Here, sir. Best use for it." Carlin followed suit. Tying the sleeves, they used one jacket fore and one aft, and, supplementing with their undershirts, contrived a very breezy kilt.
And then it was done. Despite being young and strong, designed from the tissues up for endurance, and victorious, they just wanted to leave now. Comparing notes a block away, they found both had wanted to leave before Tilly and the kids showed up, because it would be very joyous but very tiring. They had, after all, spent the night running around in the woods, in fear for their souls.
They left Harry on the pier, waiting for Tilly, grinning. The thin morning traffic paid no attention to a pair of naked monsters plodding through the back streets. Côte d'Ys has seen much stranger.
Fletcher had acquired a new crate to use as an impromptu desk, and he had positioned it at the entrance to the caravanserai courtyard. "At last," he remarked as they stumbled in. "You missed a lengthy and informative lecture on shipboard procedures for trainees, by the bosun and the first mate. Don't worry; we recorded it for you. You can watch it during what would otherwise be free time."
He picked his phone up off the crate. "Before you wash up and destroy the evidence, just stand there a moment. Bleed a little more freely, if possible. The exhausted expression is good..." Flash. "I want to show this to Captain Coudray when I explain why I could not produce two of my six trainees." He put the phone back down, next to—Buckjack noticed—a rosary. How worried had Fletcher been?
He looked them over. "So. Should I have seen the other guy?"
Carlin, wearing only his hat and belt (with gun) and still oozing here and there, pulled himself to attention and threw a crisp salute, grinning. "Sir! The other guy, when last seen, was in a nice fancy suit he designed himself, on a steed-thing he likewise designed himself, I suspect, both spic-and-span. But we won!"
Fletcher did smile back, at least. "Good, as far as that goes. Soon, I will need to know things. But go wash up, patch up, and get your story straight. Oh, and why are you naked?"
"We gave our jackets to a naked friend, sir," Buckjack answered.
"Oh. Well. St. Martin could only approve."
Fletcher gave them a few minutes to clean up and settle down with the first aid kit. Then he walked across to their pitch, where the other four of their class had gathered around and were plying them with breakfast and questions.
Charliehorse was deducing at them: "You're covered with scratches except where your jackets were, and now they're gone. And your hats are untouched. You must have parted company with the hats, then got them back after destroying your jackets. But why–"
"No answers!" Carlin proclaimed. "Not till Fletcher's done chewing us over." Then he caught sight of Fletcher. He saluted and smiled, but not the smile of one appeasing the brass.
"Gentlemen," said Fletcher, "I'd like a private moment with our two returning pilgrims." With grimaces of sympathetic fear that Fletcher affected not to see, their classmates retreated into the background, where they could tell the other watchers how little they knew.
Buckjack and Carlin were lying on the ground, weary, dabbing cuts with ointment. Fletcher did not appear to expect them to rise, but he did continue to loom over them. "Why did you not use the walkie-talkies?" he asked. "Why did you not answer them?"
"I'm sorry, sir," Buckjack answered. "The batteries ran down. We had to use them for flashlights." He offered his own for inspection.
"For hours?" Fletcher asked, examining it and finding it inert.
"Sir, it seemed like years."
Fletcher sighed and nodded. He then surprised them by lying down next to them. Buckjack felt he had been forgiven or exonerated. "When it was getting on for the lecture and you still weren't back, I started to worry and tried to call. When you didn't answer, I got worried enough to... Living in barracks and in the field, you don't have much official right to privacy. So I try to give you lads as much unofficial, ordinary privacy as practical. Why make life harder? Why destroy trust? But when you didn't answer, I decided to look through your things for clues, in case I had to bring in the constables or the Magery. I apologize.
"I collected your phones, though I didn't look in them. Here they are back. (By the way, there may be no coverage here, but if you'd taken them, you'd have had another pair of flashlights.) And I collected these two things of yours, Carlin." He produced the amulet and a small paper-wrapped package. "From the state of the wrapping, I think you've had the package a long time. I'm pretty sure you didn't have the ward before arriving in Brequelle, but they seem connected to me." He handed them back and looked at Carlin invitingly.
Carlin's smile was stepped down and look meditative. Buckjack couldn't recall seeing him like that before. "Buckjack bought it for me yesterday, so I could tell him something in confidence. To block a geas."
Fletcher gave a little snort. "You've no geas on you. There's nothing on you but your oaths as a crown subject and a cavalryman. Not even any little commercial deals at the moment. Hm. Ah, but you are freshly freed from something."
"So you are Receptant, sir."
It was Fletcher's turn to grin. "You knew that already." He became serious again. "I don't necessarily need to know what you said in confidence, but I do need to know why you went missing."
"Nnnnno. No sir. I think I want you to know." And Carlin told Fletcher about the Cloud Rider.
"I am very sorry, Mr. Carlin," Fletcher said when he was done. "And I understand your sympathy for Weldon's friend now. But I am glad you told me. You say you've been puzzling over the motive."
"Yeah. Yessir. Was he just having fun? Evil fun? Was he sacrificing me, the way maybe Morley was sacrificed?"
"I've thought of another," said Buckjack. "Maybe he was demonstrating what he could do, or what he was willing to do, to some third party."
"And I've thought of a fourth," said Fletcher. "What if he or his boss wants a plant within the Cavalry?"
"Me?" asked Carlin. "Planted here to do what? Sir, I'll swear up and down that he didn't give me any instructions."
"Not yet. But haven't you worried about him turning up again?"
"Well, yes. But it's been well over a year since I saw him."
"Good. Now, I understand that you don't want a murderer to know you've broken the secrecy he demanded, but I am going to tell Lieutenant Sanders. He keeps secrets, too, and I want more than one officer around here to understand the situation. Also, I will file some open-in-case letters. But I will try to keep it as secret as I responsibly can."
Buckjack pointed at the little package Fletcher had delivered along with the amulet. "Is that the package the Cloud Rider wanted you to deliver?"
"Yeah. The lure." One end was already open. Carlin shook out the contents: an old paperback book, The Centaur by Algernon Blackwood.
"Ha ha," said Fletcher flatly. "Ever read it?"
"No sir," said Buckjack.
"Not this copy," said Carlin. "I had it checked, but it's not enchanted. I keep it just in case. It's the only evidence I have. And it's kind of a black souvenir. Like keeping the bullet that shot your leg off. Only the reverse. Should I destroy it? Could he use it to track me?"
Fletcher shrugged. "He doesn't need it. The Crown is tracking you for him. Your enlistment was in the papers last year—back pages, but there. The Cavalry routinely tracks where it sends us, and we are, after all, conspicuous. Suit yourself. It is, as you say, evidence." Carlin nodded and put the book back.
"Now," said Fletcher, leaning back and folding his arms, "about running around in the woods all night: Are we in trouble with the fays of la Fôret de Brequelle?"
"I don't think so, sir," Buckjack answered. "We didn't mean to cause trouble..."
Fletcher rolled his eyes. "Since long before your birth, I've been dealing with young men who've just erupted into young stallions, both creatures noted for trouble. See if you can surprise me."
They told. He did not register surprise, but dismay, when they got to the Fanatur's wagers. "Good God, man! Your soul!"
"I know, sir, but everything's a chance, isn't it? And that mount of his, it looked cool, but it was as heavy as Horsepower, and as much feline as equine. I didn't think it was really built for a long chase. And he might not be able to put me—the likes of us—in a troop at all, he said."
More quietly: "And I don't know that my chances of Heaven are very good anyway. Faerie might have been my best bet."
"I don't believe it. I certainly don't believe it now. Well then, at a much lower level, what about your military obligations?"
"Oh, he was willing to let Carlin serve out his time," Buckjack interposed with grim relish, "and come for him after." He stared hard at Carlin, who shuddered.
So did Fletcher. "A nice thing to look forward to for the next thirteen years."
"Or– Or! He was willing to buy him out with seven shoreleave belts for the navy." Buckjack and Fletcher both gazed at Carlin, who seemed to be reliving the moment.
"Flattering, in a terrifying way," Fletcher remarked in an undertone. "I wonder what the navy would have said."
"Anyway, I won," Carlin hurried on. "Two out of three hands." He said nothing about reflections in sunglasses. "Then off to the races."
Fletcher sided with Carlin in the matter of bringing a gun. "I didn't recommend it, but I certainly won't say it was wrong."
He listened without further comment up to the presentation of the belt to Harry Morley. Then: "Well. Well done. The first two of this class to graduate to hero." Buckjack felt his blush flame. "Mr. Carlin, I don't know if it means anything to you, but I'm very proud of you." Buckjack was astonished to see a blush creep up Carlin's face. "You've given me a year of courtesy tinged with irony, and I admit I thought you took the sagitta because you were 'on the lam' from something. Well, no wonder you had a sour taste in your mouth. You made a noble response to it." Carlin was bright red.
"Mr. Weldon," Fletcher said, "'there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother.'"
"I just–" Buckjack started.
"You just showed me the way out and pushed me over the wall," Carlin interrupted. "And put yourself in the gun sights." He dabbed ointment on a cut on Buckjack's haunch.
Fletcher looked at the surrounding camp, where their classmates and some other folk of various species were hanging about, clearly trying to guess how much trouble they were in. "You deserve to have your tale told. But you've just felt how embarassing it is to tell it. If I can advise, let it go with as much as you told Morley. Folk as sharp as Charliehorse will quickly realize the magnitude of a bet that led to your present condition. The rest can come out gradually, maybe from folk like Petra. No need to talk about souls or sunglasses."
Buckjack and Carlin traded startled glances. Sunglasses? Oh, well. Receptant.
Charliehorse himself now emerged from the general stir of the camp, with a large bowl of mulch in each hand. "Excuse me, sir, is the private moment over? Because I thought even truants might need some more breakfast."
"And you're curious. A creditable excuse, Mr. Darneley. Well, Mr. Carlin? Mr. Weldon? Is the private moment over?"
"Yeah," said Carlin, cautiously, "I think so, sir. And thank you sir."
Fletcher nodded, rose, and went to delight the ears of Lieutenant Sanders with a fairy tale hot off the press.
Charliehorse plopped the bowls of mulch down next to them. He remained leaning over them, looking remarkably predatory for someone who was nine tenths herbivore by weight. "So? Tell."
"First of all," Buckjack answered, "we are not in trouble." He thought quickly. "How long until our next job?"
"Two and a half hours. We start moving the horses onto the ship. I want to watch Eowyck put the soothing on them."
"And is the Cheese Buoy open?"
"In a town like this? Twenty-four/seven."
Buckjack reached for a T-shirt, leaving the mulch to cool. "Then we'll tell you over some cold beer."
Carlin had already donned one and was combing his hair and whiskers. He stood and shook his flanks. Show time. "And I'll give you lot a poker lesson. I need to win the price of a dress jacket off you. Two jackets."
See Fays, Grand Normandy, Cavalry Cycle, Stories
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2018