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Authors: Suzy McKee Charnas

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BOOK: Walk to the End of the World
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In a sense, however, the Endtendant was himself the chill wind of death. He did not seem afraid.
D Layo said, ‘You got tired of waiting for the old man to come to you at Endpath?’
Rubbing at his forehead as if it ached, the Endtendant answered, ‘I caught myself mixing an extra cup, the last time. For myself.’ He looked up. ‘I can’t wait for him to come.’
‘I don’t understand why he hasn’t,’ d Layo said. ‘Knowing your name and where to find you, why hasn’t he had you killed to safeguard his own life?’
‘That’s what I mean to ask him.’
Incredulously, d Layo said, ‘You want to search him out so you can have a polite conversation with him?’
‘I’m a man first and his son second,’ the Endtendant retorted. ‘The proper approach of one rational being to another is through words, not mindless violence.’
‘Spare me,’ pleaded the DarkDreamer, holding up his hand. ‘I should have guessed; finding him is just another test you’ve decided to set yourself – ’
‘Alone,’ the Endtendant continued, coldly, ‘I’ll never get to him. I need your help.’
Kelmz felt as if he were dreaming this talk of matters never openly spoken of; but the Endtenant was real. Though young, his face was clearly marked by inward struggle, bleached by the effort of discipline
even to the icy irises of the eyes. The pallor of the skin was spectral, set off by the brows and closehugging cap of black hair. Sharp-boned, etched in black and white, it was a fanatic’s face, as befitted one bent on smashing the law.
D Layo’s voice was tender. ‘Suddenly, Eykar, it’s you who are the tempter, and I the tempted.’ For him, it would be the danger that attracted: the lure of unformed possibilities as opposed to a settled deal with Bajerman. ‘To find Raff Maggomas,’ he went on, naming the Endtendant’s father quite casually, ‘we would have to go south to Bayo and try to pick up his trail there. It’s been years since he dropped out of sight – as many as our own years out of the Boyhouse. He may go into hiding, if he hasn’t already, when he hears that you’re on his track. It won’t be easy to find him.’
‘If that worries you,’ the Endtendant said, ‘then those years have changed you a great deal more than they’ve changed me.’
‘Eykar,’ the DarkDreamer said, ‘they haven’t changed you at all.’ He allowed one beat of silence to mark the existence of agreement between them. Then he pointed at Kelmz with a tilt and thrust of his chin.
‘And what about this old Rover-runner here? Now that the plan is changed, it seems to me I owe him for the sleep and the work he’s cost me lately, with his cursed snuffling around after me through every dive in town, though I’m sure he’s enjoyed himself. Do you have any objection, Eykar, to my settling with him before we start out?’
Fickle as a fem, Kelmz thought bitterly, or as devious as one, to plan this all along. Either way, d Layo was wolf enough to take Kelmz on here and now, and never mind official standings or the Streets of Honor.
The Endtendant was looking at Kelmz with a steady, cool regard, though it was to d Layo that he spoke: ‘So this is the man who won’t take his mantle. Did Bajerman send him with you to get rid of him?’
‘That’s right,’ d Layo said cheerfully, producing a knife from his sleeve; a thin-bladed, well-balanced weapon honed to a bright-edged, satiny finish, Kelmz noted – a professional item. ‘“Gray head yields to young blade,” as they say.’
‘Captain Kelmz,’ the Endtendant said, ‘if Senior Bajerman were here now, he would insist that you try to enforce the terms of the original bargain. To do that, you must fight Servan here at the outset. In spite of your reputation, I think Servan would kill you. I suggest that you turn your back on those who have turned their backs on you. Come with us. There’s no shame in a fighting death, but I would rather have you as an ally than leave you as a corpse on this fem-stinking beach.’
‘Eykar, you’re being reckless,’ d Layo reproved him. ‘He’ll say yes and turn on us later. Don’t you think other men have tried to buy him over from the Hemaways before this? In the end, he’ll be loyal to his company, whatever he says now to save his life.’
‘Treachery is
your
style,’ the Endtendant snapped. ‘That’s why I need a man like the captain. I’m not such a fool as to travel the Holdfast alone with you, Servan.’
The DarkDreamer put on a hurt expression. ‘I try to help, and what do I get in return? Insults!’ He grinned at Kelmz. ‘Come on, Captain, you can’t resist the call of duty: ‘Hero, I need your escort through danger!” ’
Ignoring him, Kelmz said, ‘I have a question.’ He cleared his throat. ‘What happened to the Endpath Rovers? There have always been four of them, specially trained, with standing orders from the Board to keep the Endtendant safe – inside of Endpath.’
‘That’s correct.’ The Endtendant stood up. He wasn’t tall, and his build was light, but well corded with muscle. Kelmz knew the type: frail-looking and nervy, cable-tough under strain. He held his head back so that he seemed to look at Kelmz levelly, eye to eye. ‘The Endpath Rovers wouldn’t have allowed me to leave, but they were vulnerable. One of their duties was to dispose of the dead. The central chamber at Endpath is a domed circle, where the drink is mixed and dispensed to the pilgrims. Then each man goes apart into an individual cell to dream his death properly, as he would any other dream – in private. My part ends when I’ve handed the last man his cup and put his name down for inclusion in the Chants Commemorative.
‘Later, the Rovers enter and bring the bodies back into the central chamber, where there’s a chute leading down to an incinerator under the floor. When the corpses are cleared out, the Rovers leave and seal the chamber behind them, and I open a sluice-gate from outside. The sea floods the chamber and scours it out.
‘This last time, I locked the Rovers in while they were still working, and I opened the sluices. They drowned.’
‘Did you watch?’
‘Yes, from the gallery above.’
Sometimes an officer had to kill his own Rovers if they were maimed or went rogue; Kelmz had accepted that necessity long ago. He felt that any man who would not look at his own lethal handiwork was no man at all.
‘Then you traveled down here alone?’ he said, frowning. It was reckless for a man to risk his mental balance between the emptyness of sky and land.
‘No,’ the Endtendant said. ‘I waited outside Endpath until the next group of pilgrims came. They began milling around in confusion when they saw that something was wrong on the Rock. I slipped in among them, dressed like this, and came back with them on the ferry.’
He looked at the captain, waiting. His eyes were disquietingly clear and steady; Kelmz could not return their gaze for long. The dull black of the Endtendant’s uniform showed at the breast and cuffs of the pilgrim gown.
‘Are you satisfied?’ the Endtendant demanded.
The captain saw a night-plumed being, nervous and awkward on the ground but in the air a dark and wheeling grace, lacing the wind with harsh cries.
‘Oh, Kelmz is satisfied,’ d Layo said, sulkily. ‘Look at him, he’s half in love with you already.’ He put away his knife and rose neatly to his feet, yawning. ‘I’ll get together the things we’ll need; you two rest, we don’t leave till morning.’
‘I’ve rested enough,’ the Endtendant said. ‘Captain, will you walk outside with me?’
‘Of course he will,’ d Layo leered. ‘But come back before sunrise; it’s better that no one sees either of you.’
The beach was empty; even the shredding-shed was silent now. The Lammintown horns shouted periodically over the hissing of the sea. They walked by the water. The Endtendant held the skirts of the pilgrim robe clear of the wet sand by bunching his fists in the pockets. He looked eastward over the water, as if there were something to see out there.
With the moon up so bright there weren’t even any netting-crews out sifting the tides; the plankton that they sought only surfaced on dark nights or if it were roiled up from the bottom by storms. It was too early in the fall for bad weather. Kelmz wondered where he would be when the storms began. He couldn’t see his way at all as a companion of these two. He didn’t think he would ever be comfortable in the Endtendant’s company.
They walked without speaking for some time until, brushing up against the Endtendant’s arm by accident, Kelmz felt a tremor in him.
‘It’s cold,’ the captain said. ‘Let’s turn back.’
‘I will; you don’t have to.’
Kelmz stopped and looked up at the paling sky. ‘I’m committed to come with you. I won’t try to turn you over to Bajerman or to the Board, my word on it. I’m a man, not a boy. You can trust me.’
‘What choices do I have?’ The Endtendant uttered hard cracks of sound not much like laughter. ‘Of course I must trust you, and Servan, and who knows how many other unlikely types before our journey is over. But I can try to minimize my risks. You must be nearly my father’s age; whether you wear a mantle or not, Captain, the years make us enemies.’
‘The way things stand,’ Kelmz observed, ‘you don’t have anything but enemies. Even your age-peers would sell you to the Board for extra points, anything to enlarge their share of the lammin-harvest, lean as it is. If you think my age makes me a special risk, why didn’t you let d Layo cut my throat just now?’
‘I don’t like Servan’s attitude toward killing,’ the Endtendant said, drily. ‘He’s too casual. I can manage alone with him if I must.’
‘Look, I have no place else to go but with you.’ Kelmz fell abruptly silent, feeling the heat of shame on his cheeks. What a thing to admit to a younger man!
To his relief, the Endtendant merely said, ‘All right.’
Only age-peers shook hands. They gave each other a short nod of assent and turned back down the beach. Already a fem-gang could be heard approaching from the town; the low weave of their plaintive voices made a walking rhythm of intersecting tones.
The Endtendant said, ‘They shouldn’t be allowed to sing. Don’t you find their voices disturbing?’
Most men were entirely too preoccupied with the creatures, in Kelmz’ opinion. ‘No.’
‘I do.’ The Endtendant put up his hood.
Beyond the silent shredding-shed, the pier reached out over the water. Netters’ boats tied to the tall pilings bobbed all along its length. At the far end, where the ferry pylon reared up against the sky, the winch-housing of the coastal ferry was visible. One winch-arm angled darkly up across the dawn.
Some one was standing there, urgently waving: d Layo.
They glanced at each other and stepped up their pace, walking swiftly past the shed. As they cleared it, a man straightened from examining footprints in the sand. He was a highmantled Senior. At his shout, two other men came charging around the side of the shed:
Rovers.
On the run, the captain veered toward the water, shouldering the Endtendant into it. They plunged through the icy tide and clambered into the first of the netting-boats. There was rope coiled in the prow, with a grapnel fixed to one end. Kelmz swung the grapnel and hurled it upward. The cross-arm caught behind the head of a piling above them.
The Endtendant climbed up, the sea-soaked skirts of the robe clinging to his legs. Kelmz followed.
As he had intended, the Rovers had been thrown off by the change of footing. They were pelting around the long way, up the steps into the pier from the landward end. Kelmz held back a pace, racing down the pier, to cover the Endtendant if he had to, for the Rovers were closing hard. A yard ahead of them, Kelmz and the Endtendant dashed across the gangway onto the deck of the ferry. Someone kicked away the gangway, and gouts of cold water shot up over the rail.
The two Rovers stood panting on the pier, eyeing their trapped quarry. Kelmz’ Rovers would have jumped the gap and made the enemy secure. It was a sign of the times that these Rovers did not do so, though Kelmz knew them (by their gear, knives sheathed on the left hip for a slicing crossdraw) to be products of a first-class training officer in ’Ware Company. They were slightly unsure of themselves and should have had an officer in charge of them, not the ’Ware Senior who stood far down the pier talking with another man.
D Layo, ignoring the Rovers and their master, presented the newcomers to a ferryman who leaned stolidly on the railing. This man, bulky in salt-stiff clothing, studied them both from his single eye. The other socket was closed by a discolored veil of skin. He was a young man still, but nearing the top of Junior status by the look of him, nudging the crucial age of thirty years. His name was Hak. A salt-eaten Chester symbol was stitched crookedly to his cap.
He stabbed his thumb in the direction of the two ‘Wares, who were striding toward the ferry now: ‘Friends of yours?’
‘Hardly,’ said d Layo.
The white-haired Senior came emphatically first, though not in haste. Seniors never hurried.
Hak looked Kelmz up and down. ‘What are you, man, under that
blank-coat?’
‘Hemaway.’
The authoritative voice of the approaching ‘Ware Senior rang out: ‘You, on the ferry!’
‘Not Captain Kelmz?’ Hak said, with mild interest.
‘Yes,’ Kelmz said.
‘Right.’ The ferryman winked his eye and turned to gaze coolly up at the ‘Ware Senior. Apparently what d Layo had said was true: there were Chesters who remembered the work Kelmz had done for them once, to which they owed several recent skirmish-victories against their rival, ’Ware Company. Blandly, Hak said, ‘Do something for you, Senior?’
‘Give me those three men.’
Hak looked thoughtfully down into the water. ‘My gangway got knocked overside, Senior. There it is, floating.’
The Senior did not look down. He wore a beard in the fashion of Lammintown Seniors and had singed his eyebrows to make them grow in thick and spiky. Frowning, he looked impressively fierce. ‘This isn’t the first time we’ve had trouble with you Chesters this five-year. Your superiors will not be pleased.’
‘Never are,’ Hak said, sadly.
There was a short pause. The morning wind plucked at the ferry cable that swooped down from the top of the pylon to the deck wheel. Two ferrymen lounged at the winch, looking bored.
The Senior said menacingly, ‘This is no game, Boyo.’
To this insulting term, Hak responded merely by spitting carefully into the water between the ferry and the pier.
The other ‘Ware, a Junior, hung unhappily in the background, pretending to be blind and deaf for fear he would have to pay later for having witnessed the scoring-off of the Senior at a Junior’s hands. In theory, the Senior should not have entered into any game-point rivalry with the young man, since for anyone over the age of thirty the simple accretion of years measured personal worth on an absolute scale. But informally, fierce competition was the rule among Seniors as well as Juniors, though normally it was confined to verbal games like this one. Older men found in the accumulation of gamepoints (which they affected to despise) a way of unofficially offsetting the implacable order of the age-scale among themselves.
This ’Ware Senior mastered his anger carefully to avoid further
losses in his encounter with the Chester ferryman.
‘Listen,’ he said, ‘you’d better understand what you’re mixing into. There have been reports of unlawful use of my company’s work-turf. These are the offenders. They are two unknowns, probably Skidro drifters going home via Bayo with whatever they’ve lifted in Lammintown, including some packets of prime lammin that are missing from storage. The third one is the DarkDreamer d Layo, who’s long overdue for burning. The price on his head is enough points to buy you free of your duties for a five-year.’
The ferryman took off his grimy cap and scratched his head. He squinted down the coast toward the next pylon, and the ones beyond that; they marched parallel to the beach in single file as far as the eye could see.
BOOK: Walk to the End of the World
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