Read Dagger Online

Authors: David Drake

Tags: #Fantasy - General, #Fantasy, #Fiction - Fantasy, #General, #Science fiction, #Fiction

Dagger (10 page)

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lesser intensity within its membranous boundaries. Samlor was determined not to scream and slap at the glow which he needed in this place, but the instinct to do so was very strong.

The lid did not rise under gentle pressure from his left thumb. There was no visible catch or keyhole, but the little object had to be a box—

it didn't weigh

enough for a block of solid ivory. Samlor put his dagger down on the desk to free his right hand—

And read the superscription on the piece of parchment there, a letter barely begun:

To Master Samlor hil Samt

If you are well, it is good. 1 also am well.

I enclose w

The script was Cirdonian, and the final letter trailed off in a sweep of ink across the parchment. Following the curve of that motion, Samlor saw a delicate silver pen on the marble floor a few feet to the side of the desk. Samlor set down the ivory box, and he very deliberately kept the weapon in his hand. From the look of matters, Setios might have been better off if he'd been holding a blade and not a pen a week or so earlier. Instinctively, the caravan master's left arm encircled Star, locating the child while he turned and said,

"Khamwas. This is important. I think I've been doing Setios an injustice, thinking he'd ducked out to avoid me."

The other man was so still that not even his chest moved with the process of breathing. The absolute stillness was camouflaged for a moment by the fact that the octopuses threw slow, vague shadows as they circled the room. The manikin on Khamwas' shoulder was executing some sort of awkward dance with his legs stiff and his arms akimbo.

"Khamwas!" the caravan master repeated sharply. "I think we need to get outa here now."

Tjainufi said, "Do not say, 'I will undertake the matter,' if you will not." Almost simultaneously, the Napatan shook himself like a diver surfacing after a deep plunge. He opened his eyes and

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stood, wobbling a little and using the staff for support. His face broadened with a smile of bright relief.

"Samlor," he said, obviously ignorant of anything that had happened around him since he dropped into a trance. "I've found it—

or at least, we need to go down."

"We need to—

" began the caravan master angrily. Tjainufi was watching him. The manikin's features were too small to have readable expression in this light, but the creature must think that—

"

"Look," Samlor resumed, speaking to—

at—

Tjainufi, "I don't mean I want to get out

because we found what / wanted, I mean—

"

"Oh!" said Star. There was a mild implosion, air rushing to fill a small Void.

"There's nothing inside."

She'd opened the box, Samlor saw as he turned. His emotions had gone flat—

they'd

only be in the way just now—

and his senses gave him frozen images of his

surroundings in greater detail than he would be able to imagine when he wasn't geared to kill or run.

A narrow plate on the front of the ivory box slid sideways to expose a spring catch. When the child pressed that—

the scale of the mechanism was so small that

Samlor would have had to work it with a knifepoint—

the lid popped up.

To display the inner surfaces of the ivory as highly polished as the exterior; and nothing whatever within.

Star was looking up at him with a pout of disappointment. She held the box in both hands and the ball of light, detached from her palm, was shrinking in on itself and dimming as its color slipped down through the spectrum. For an instant—

for a timeless period, because the vision was unreal and

therefore nothing his eyes could have taken in—

Samlor saw blue-white light

through a gap in the cosmos where the whorl of white hair on Star's head should have been. It was like looking into the heart of the thunderbolt—

And it wasn't there, in the room or his daughter's face—

for Star was his

daughter, damn Samlane as she surely was damned—

or even as an afterimage on

Samlor's retinas when he blinked. So it hadn't really been there, and the caravan master was back in the world where he had

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promised to help Khamwas find a stele in exchange for help locating Star's legacy.

Which it appeared they had yet to do, but he'd fulfill his obligations to the Napatan. He shouldn't have needed a reminder from Tjainufi of that.

"Friend Khamwas," Samlor said, "we'll go downstairs if you want that. But—

" his

left index finger made an arc from the parchment toward the fallen silver pen "—

something took Setios away real sudden, and I wouldn't bet it's not still here." Khamwas caught his lower lip between his front teeth. He was wearing his cape again, but the caravan master remembered how frail the Napatan had looked without it.

"The man who looks in front of him does not stumble and fall," said the manikin with his usual preternatural clarity of voice.

"Samlor," said the Napatan. "I appreciate what you say . . . but what I seek is here, and I've made a very long—

"

"Sure," the caravan master interrupted. "I just mean we be careful, all right?"

"And you, child," Samlor added in a voice as soft as a cat's claws extending. He knelt so that Star could meet his eyes without looking up. "You don't touch anything, do anything. Do you understand? Because if the only way to keep you safe is to tie you up and carry you like a sack of flour—

that's what I'll do."

Star nodded, her face scrunched up on the verge of tears. The drifting glows dwindled noticeably.

"Everything's going to be fine, dearest," the caravan master said, giving the child an affectionate pat as he rose.

It bothered him to have to scare his niece in order to get her to obey—

while she

remembered—

but she scared him every time she did something innocently dangerous, like opening the ivory box. Better she be frightened than that she swing from his arm, trussed like a hog.

Because Samlor didn't threaten in bluff.

Khamwas said something under his breath. His staff clothed itself in the bluish phosphorescence it held when the caravan master first met him in an alley. With the staff's

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unshod ferule, the Napatan prodded the study door, lifting the bronze latch. When nothing further happened, he pulled the door open with his free hand and preceded Samlor and Star into the hall beyond.

Samlor touched the latch as he stepped past it. Not a particularly sturdy piece—

typical for an inside door, when the occupant is more concerned with privacy than protection. But it had been locked, which meant somebody had paused in the hallway to do so with a key after he closed the door. Otherwise, it would have to have been locked from the inside by somebody who wasn't there anymore.

In the old Ilsigi fashion, a balustraded hallway encircled a reception room which pierced the second floor. There was a solid roof overhead rather than the skylight which would have graced a Rankan dwelling of similar quality. The stairwell to the ground floor was in the corner to the left of the study door. Khamwas' staff, pale enough to be a revenant floating at its own direction, swirled that way.

"The, ah," Samlor said, trying to look all around him and unable to see anything more than a few inches beyond the phosphorescent staff. "The doorkeeper. It's not ... ?"

"We wouldn't meet it even if we opened the front door from within," said Khamwas as he stepped briskly down the helical staircase. "It isn't, you see, a thing. It's a set of circumstances which have to fit as precisely as the wards of a lock.

"Though it wouldn't," he added a few steps later, "be a good idea for anyone to force the door from the outside. Even if they were a much greater scholar than I. Ah, Setios collected some—

artifacts—

that he might more wisely have left

behind."

CHAPTER 6

THE RECEPTION ROOM was chilly. Samlor thought it might have something to do with the glass-smooth ornamental pond in the middle of the room. He tested the water with his boot toe and found it, as expected, no more than an inch deep. It would be fed by rainwater piped from the roof gutters. Barely visible in the shadow beneath the coaming were the flat slots from which overflow drained in turn into a cistern.

Except for the pond, the big room was antiseptically bare. The walls between top-and bottom-moldings were painted in vertical pastel waves reminiscent of a kelp forest, and the floor was a geometric pattern in varicolored marble.

"Well, which way now?" the caravan master demanded brusquely, his eyes on the door to the rear half of the house. Star was shivering despite wrapping her cloak tighter with both hands, and Samlor didn't like the feel of the room either.

"Down still," said Khamwas in puzzlement. He rapped the ferule of his staff on the floor, a sharp sound that contained no information useful—

at least to the

caravan master. Perhaps it just seemed like the right thing to do.

"There'll be a cistern below," said Samlor, gesturing with a dripping boot toe toward the pond. "The access hatch'd be in the kitchen, most likely. Not in this room."

He started for a door, ill at ease and angry at himself for 67

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that feeling of undirected fear. Part of his mind yammered that the Napatan was a fool who again mistook a direction for a pathway . , . and Samlor had to avoid that, avoid picking excuses to snarl at those closest to him in order to conceal fears he was embarrassed to admit.

Star poked a hand between the edges of her cloak. She did not look up; but when her fingers cocked, a bright spark swam rapidly from it and began coasting the lower wall moldings.

"D-dearest," said the caravan master, glancing at the withdrawn, miserable-looking face of his niece, then back to the light source. Star said nothing.

The droplet of light was white and intense by contrast with the vague glows that both—

he had to admit the fact—

magicians had created earlier in the evening. It

might even have looked bright beside a candle, but Samlor had difficulty remembering anything as normal as candlelight while he stood in this chill stone room.

Pulse and pause; pulse and pause; pulse. . . . He'd thought that the creature of light was a minnow, or perhaps no more than a daub of illumination, a cold flame that did not counterfeit life.

But it surely did. A squid rather than a fish, too small to see but identifiable from the way it jetted forward with rhythmic contractions of its mantle. The marble floor was so highly polished that it mirrored the creature's passage with nearly perfect fidelity, catching even the wispy shadows between the tightly-clasped tentacles of light trailing behind. The colors and patterning of the stone segments created the illusion that the reflection really swam through water.

"Star," the caravan master demanded in a restrained voice. "Why are you—

"

The reflection blurred into a soft ball of light on a slab of black marble, though the tiny creature jetted above it in crystalline purity. The squid pulsed forward and hung momentarily over a wedge of travertine whose dark bands seemed to enfold the sharp outline.

Then source and reflection disappeared as abruptly as they had spurted from the child's gesture.

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"What?" said Star, shivering fiercely. She scrunched her eyes shut so that her uncle thought she was about to cry. "What happened!" Samlor patted her, blinking both at the sudden return of darkness and his realization of what he had just seen. Star might not know what she had done or why, but the caravan master did.

"Khamwas, come over here, will you?" he said, amused at the elation he heard in his voice as he strode to the sidewall where the thing of light had disappeared.

"You know, I'd about decided we were going t' have t' give up or come back with a real wrecking crew."

"A hundred men are slain through one ^moment of discouragement," said the manikin on Khamwas' shoulder.

"In this town," the caravan master responded sourly, "you can be slain for less reason 'n that."

"I, ah," said the Napatan scholar. "What would you like me to do?"

"Star, come closer, sweetest," Samlor cajoled when he realized his niece had not followed him. Something was wrong with her, or else she was reacting strongly to the malaise of this house—

which affected even the relatively insensitive caravan

master.

She obeyed his voice with the halting nervousness of a frequently-whipped dog. Her hands were hidden again within her cloak.

Samlor put his arm around her shoulders, all he could do until they'd left this accursed place, and said to the other man, "Can you make it lighter down here?

By the wall?"

Khamwas squatted and held his staff parallel with the edge molding. The phosphorescence was scarcely any light at all to eyes which had adapted to the spark from Star's finger, but it was sufficient to distinguish the square of black marble from the pieces of travertine to either side of it in the intaglio flooring.

Samlor could not discern a difference in the polish of the black marble from that of the rest, but the way it blurred the light which the others had mirrored proved what would have been uncertain under any other conditions. He tried the stone with the tip of his right little finger; the 70

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rest of the hand continued to grip the hilt of his long knife. The block didn't give to light pressure, neither downward nor on either of its horizontal axes, but it didn't seem to be as solid as stone cemented to a firm base ought to be.

"Is there something the matter with the floor, here?" asked Khamwas, resting easily on his haunches.

Samlor would rather that the Napatan keep an eye out behind them, but perhaps he couldn't do that and also hold the staff where it was useful. The glow was better than nothing.

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