Down at the riverfront at Kalub, the little gods congregated in clouds, flies and dragonflies and even small birds approaching would–be travelers. They scattered out of the way of wagons and carts, circled over the flagstoned road and then re–formed. Umri walked through them, careful not to jostle or hit. The citizens of Kalub paid deference to a host of more powerful gods, including the river itself, but it was wise to be wary of even these tiny things.
A small bird lit on her shoulder. “Take me with you, I’ll see you safely to your destination!” it chirped.
“No thank you,” said Umri, “I’m seeing someone off.” The tiny brown bird cocked its head, eyeing the bag in her hand, but flew off without saying more.
She found a vantage out of the stream of traffic, in the shadow of a wall, and scanned the docks, her eyes shaded against the glare of the sun on the waters of the broad Nalendar. Women in bright, draped dresses, scarves tied around their hair, sailors in short kilts and very little else… there!
Rilhat Imk, round–faced, dark–haired, somewhat pale—his mother had been a slave from somewhere north, rumor said—in a brilliant red and blue coat she had seen him wear before. He was on the deck of a boat just now casting off, standing self-importantly at the rail. Umri watched as it moved out into the channel and started downstream.
“Now, for a boat going upstream,” she said, more to herself than for anyone else to hear.
“You’re from the Silver Isles,” piped a tiny voice. Startled and apprehensive, she looked around, expecting to see one of the birds or flying insects.
“Down here!” the voice said, and she looked down at her feet, and then crouched, her dull green dress puddling behind and beside her on the gray stone. On the top of her foot was a tiny, black lizard, hardly as big as her thumb, and that only including its long, bright blue tail.
“Excuse me,” she said. “I didn’t see you at first. I’m sorry, but I’m not looking for protection, or a guide.”
“You are from the Silver Isles, I can tell by your accent.”
“I am. And I need to be on my way, good day to you.” She gently lifted the lizard onto her finger, and moved her hand aside to let it step into the road.
It stood firm. “Why are you going upstream? Your home is in the south.”
Umri searched her memory for advice on being rid of a persistent god. She found none. “I like to travel.”
“I suppose otherwise you’d never have come so far from home,” piped the tiny lizard. “Take me with you! The captain won’t charge for me.”
“I’m sorry, god whose name I don’t know, but I don’t make long–term deals.”
“After long and sorry experience I don’t make them either. No agreements, no promises. Take me with you on the boat.” Umri tipped her hand slightly, but the lizard tightened its grip.“I want to go upstream. If I were a great, powerful god it would be a simple matter, I would merely will myself there. But I am as you see me, and no one will sacrifice to me and make me stronger. So I’ll make a small, short–term deal with you. Take me with you, and I’ll choose the best boat going upstream.”
“That would be the fastest, and the soonest departing,” she said, and then was struck by an unsettling thought. Her only real fear of Imk was that she would be forced to injure him, and face prosecution in a city where she had no family—and he might impress a judge as nothing more than an overly persistent suitor driven to desperate means by love. No, it was better to leave town for a while and avoid the problem altogether. But if he had set a spy on her, she might be in real danger. “Has someone sent you to me? Or spoken at all to you concerning me?”
“You are not currently under any obligations to anyone else?”
“None whatever.” Its blue tail twitched.
The answers seemed straightforward. And gods didn’t lie, not without serious consequences. But they could mislead, and obfuscate. “Do you have any association with the slave broker Rilhat Imk?”
“What sort of question is that?” squeaked the lizard. The tiny tail whipped from left to right. “Any association! Surely I’ve spoken to someone who’s heard of someone else who knows this person.”
“You’re not working for Rilhat Imk, or working for someone who’s working for him?”
“I am not working for anyone. And I will not be working for you. I merely wish to board a boat going upstream without being crushed on my way across the dock. Take me with you, and I will be sure we’re on the fastest and soonest departing boat going upstream. No further obligations. Although,” said the lizard, “a very small prayer wouldn’t hurt.”
Umri laughed in spite of herself. “A small prayer I can do. What shall I call you?”
“For now, ‘Little Skink’ will do. And you?”
She took a deep breath. “Nalemeindundawyumrisayedynaremend.”
“What, that’s all?”
“Well, no. That’s just the first part. And I’m usually just called Umri.”
“It seemed short, for the Silver Isles. How I admire such names! So informative. Is it true your names include the phase of the moon when you were born?”
“Yes,” said Umri.“And where I was born, and who my mother and father were. And their parents. And a few other things.”
“I will call you Umri, to save us both time. Speaking of which…”
Smiling, Umri made a small prayer to Little Skink. “Ah, thank you,” said the skink. “What a lovely flavor that had, very pleasing. And now, fortified as I am, I can tell you that the Reasonable Expectations is the vessel for us.”
“Which you had ascertained before you even spoke to me,” Umri said, her initial apprehension returning.
“I have kept my word!” the skink insisted.
“You have. I am merely being cautious.”
“Wise girl! And now, for the Reasonable Expectations.”
Fast was a relative term, going upstream. Rowers strained against the current of the wide and muddy Nalendar, and sometimes, where the water ran very fast, the boat moved forward by means of crewmen pulling ropes tied to trees on shore and progress was mere feet a day. Still, the sun was bright, the breeze pleasant, the banks lush and green, and the sky a crystalline blue. Other passengers sat mostly in the shade to one side of a cabin wall, now and then complaining desultorily of the heat.
“It might have been faster to walk,” Umri said. She stood at the stern, leaning on the rail, a fishing pole in her hand, her eye on the line that stretched out behind the boat. The captain, a tall, weather–beaten man, had lent it to her.
“Why didn’t you?” asked Little Skink. It was perched behind her ear underneath her headscarf, and tickled when it twitched.
“A woman alone on the road? I’d have had to hire guards, or make a deal with a god for protection.” She had made the customary offering to the Nalendar, of course, but no traveler on the river neglected that, and it wasn’t a matter of contracts. “No offense, but…”
“None taken. You’re quite right.”
They were both silent a while, no sound but the water and the rhythmic chant of the crewmen as they pulled the boat against the current. “Could you help me with the fishing?” Umri ventured. “One time, no obligations. Just… interest a fish.” The skink didn’t answer, and she wondered what lay behind its silence. “I’d trade a prayer… no, two prayers.” No answer. Gods, especially little gods, were greedy for prayers. “Why not?”
“Unfortunately, this stretch of the river is not well–disposed towards me,” said Little Skink.
“Oh, well.” Umri’s ear itched as the skink flexed its feet. “The whole thing, actually.”
“You offended the whole river? Every god all the way down to the sea?”
“Well. And the Nalendar itself, actually.”
She felt a dropping sensation in her stomach. She’d been afraid at first that the skink had been working for Imk, and then that it had some other motive for attaching itself to her. She had never imagined anything like this. Every city along the Nalendar depended on the river for its life. No one anywhere near its banks would be foolish enough to anger the god. “How did you…” but at that moment Umri felt a tug on her line, and she whipped the pole up and back. It bent forward, and the line wove back and forth in the water behind the boat.
“Need some help, Miss?” called a man from the shade, one of the passengers.
“No, I’ve got it.” She slowly brought the line in, until she pulled the fish up out of the water, a black, whiskered thing a good three feet long and flipping hard, splashing water onto the deck.
“What a catch!” the man said, rising and coming to the rail. He rubbed his hands together. “Nasty bite on that one! Here, I’ll get it for you.”
“No, thank you,” said Umri, and one–handed wound an end of her dress around her fingers.
The captain had been drawn aft by the commotion.“She probably caught her first fish before she could walk,” he said. “I imagine she could dive in and toss two or three up on the deck.”
“Not with this current.” Her hand muffled by the dull green fabric, she grabbed the fish by the jaw and heaved it over the rail and onto the deck where it flipped and buzzed. “And I’ve only ever dived for shellfish.” She pulled a knife out of her belt with her other hand and drove it into the fish’s eye, and the noise and movement stopped.
The passenger froze for an instant, and then backed away. The captain gave him a sardonic glance and then turned his attention to Umri. “You’ve offered it to the Nalendar?”
“Yes,” she said. “And now I’ll send it to the cook. It’s much too big for me to eat myself.”
“That’s very kind of you, Miss,” said the captain. “I’ll take it to him.” And with another word of thanks he took it away.
When he was gone, Umri sat in the sun on a coil of rope. The skink ventured down her neck and along her arm to her knee. “How did a tiny thing like you offend the whole river?” asked Umri, sure no one was close enough to overhear. “And why are you on a boat on the Nalendar itself? Isn’t that… unwise?”
“Very likely.” The skink raised its tiny head and sniffed, and then lay down to bask. “But considering how long it would take me to walk in my present form…”
“Gods can take any form they want, can’t they?”
“Well,” said the skink. “Well. The more work it takes to do something, the more you have to put into it, yes?”
“That makes sense.”
“So this is as much as I could muster. It took some doing as it is—I entered the skink egg as soon as it was laid, and only hatched three days ago.”
“You’ve fallen on hard times,” said Umri. “What happened?”
“I’d rather not talk about it,” said the skink, an edge to its tiny voice that declared the matter closed. “Tell me, why did you leave Kalub? Something to do with this Rilhat Imk person, I imagine.”
Umri sighed. “Yes.”
“You stole something from him?”
“No!” Umri was indignant. “He wants me to be his mistress.”
“Ah, and he’s poor, or ugly.”
“He’s rich. Or very well–off, anyway. He’s a slave broker.” She leaned back against the rail and readjusted her dress, careful not to dislodge the lizard. “He comes to the bathhouse where I work.” Kalub was a spa town, and its bathhouses were famous. They ranged from plain, roofless stone walls surrounding a single communal basin of hot water, to elaborately tiled and inlaid halls where young men and women served refreshments from jeweled gold and silver trays. “He comes for business meetings. He stares at me.”
“Which is what you were there for, I assume.”
It was. “That didn’t bother me, really, it’s happened before. When they approach me, I usually just tell them that the house doesn’t offer that particular service.” The skink gave a derisive squeak. “It doesn’t! And that’s what I told Imk when he asked. And he kept asking. Which was annoying enough, but about a month ago, he told me that he had rented rooms for me and furnished them, and bought clothes and slaves, and that I was to stop my foolishness and be his mistress.”
“And for this you flee the city?” The skink was incredulous.
“When I told him no, he became very angry.” His pale face had gone red, and he had been frozen for nearly a minute. “He said that I had to be his mistress, and that I would help him achieve his destiny.”
“Surely that’s a destiny many men aspire to, and surely any mistress will do.”
Umri laughed. “You’d think. But he came the next day and told me that he would be back in a few weeks with something that would overwhelm all my objections. It seemed wise to be gone before he returned–that sort of thing always ends badly.”
“Does he have a wife?”
“That’s a bad sign,” said Little Skink. “A rich merchant in Kalub—how old is he?”
“Even worse. He should have one by now. No, he’s entirely unsuitable. And besides, you didn’t leave the islands to get tied down to some small–time businessman.”
Umri shifted. The boatmen’s chant stopped for a few moments, and then one voice called and the rest joined in again. “And you? What’s upriver that you can’t find in Kalub?” It was probably better not to even ask, but she was curious.
“Treasure!” said the skink. “But I’ll need help fetching it away. Are you interested?”
At dinner the captain praised her catch, and the stew the cook had made of it, which was delicious. The man who had offered to help her with the fish made short work of it, though Umri noticed that he wouldn’t look at her.
“Ah, the Silver Isles!” the captain said. “Lovely place. Warm breezes, blue water…it must seem cold and drab to you here, Miss.”
“Not at all,” said Umri. She tore off a hunk of flat bread, the better to get the last bits of stew out of her bowl. “The river is quite beautiful.” Behind her ear she felt the skink stir. “I’m sure, captain, that you know nearly everything there is to know about the Nalendar. I would love to hear some of its history. Battles, sunken treasure…” The skink was suddenly still.
“Treasure? Of course! Whole kingdoms’ worth.”
“What would be the largest? The best, the most famous treasure lost to the Nalendar?”
“That,” said the captain, leaning back and pouring another cup of wine for himself, “would be the treasure of Gnarr.” Another passenger made a noise of recognition. “Have you heard of it, Miss?”
“No. What’s Gnarr?”
The captain gestured towards the bow of the boat. “A city upriver from here, and they held all the land for five hundred miles around. By agreement, you understand, with the gods of neighboring countries. Now, Gnarr wasn’t like Kalub, where whatever god can do the best service gets the worship, no, in Gnarr they had an agreement with the god Sursurra, exclusive.
“There was a statue of Sursurra in the center of the city, and at his crowning, the new king would take the statue’s outstretched hand and swear to uphold the contract between his people and their god. The feet of the statue were in a particular spot, you understand, but the agreement with the other gods said that the king would rule for five hundred miles around where he and the statue stood as he held the outstretched hand of the statue.” He paused for a swallow of wine. “So Sursurra, apparently, got to thinking how he might spread his territory without breaking the agreements.”
“He couldn’t move the statue,” said another passenger, a merchant. “The agreement said where the feet had to be.”
“Right,” said the captain. “But he could move the statue’s hand.”
Umri frowned. “But wouldn’t that just move his whole territory over to wherever the king was crowned?”
“The five hundred miles was centered on where the king and the statue were standing,” said the merchant. “And if the statue had to stand in Gnarr…”
“The center of the five hundred miles would be a line, instead of a single point,” said the captain. “That territory wouldn’t be a circle anymore, it would be…” he made a pulling motion with his two hands. “Stretched out.”
“Ah,” said Umri, understanding.
“So the prince of Gnarr,” the captain continued, “broke the hand off the statue—only one was outstretched, you see, the other one held a spear—and boarded a boat, saying he was visiting the Gerentarch of Kalub. He brought chests and chests of gold and jewels with him, for gifts and also for himself, for money or whatever else princes keep gold and jewels around them for.
“Now, the Nalendar was one of the gods concerned in the agreement, and you can imagine her anger when she discovered what was on that boat”
“It sank!” Umri guessed.
“I’ve always wondered where,” said the merchant. “Will we pass over it?”
“Doubtless,” said the captain, with a laugh. “Though I don’t know where it is exactly. It was some seven hundred years ago, after all.”
“Somewhere between here and Gnarr,” said the merchant.
“The man who found it would be rich,” said the merchant’s wife.
The captain took another swallow of wine. “I don’t imagine the Nalendar would allow it to be found. Not that hand, in any event.”
“Surely there aren’t any princes of Gnarr left to hold it and swear the oath,” said Umri.
“Oh, there’s always some lunatic claiming he is,” said the captain.
The skink had been silent and motionless from the moment the captain had begun the story of the lost treasure, and all during Umri’s walk to her tiny cabin. It did not move when she took off her headscarf, or lay down on the narrow bunk and pulled the blanket up over herself.
“Why did you do it?” she asked after a few moments of silence.“Why did you think the river would let you?” For nearly a minute she thought it wasn’t going to answer. There was no sound but the river, and the thunking and low voices of passengers on the other side of the wall.
“Why shouldn’t she have let me do it?” the skink said finally. “I was stronger than any of my neighbors, only the agreement was holding me back. Had I succeeded, I’d have shared my power with her. Why would she turn it down?”
“I suppose the river isn’t that kind of god.”
“Every god is that kind of god,” said the skink.
She decided it was best not to pursue that. “How are you going to get the hand out of the river?” It said nothing. “How are you going to find a prince?” Still no answer. She wondered what it must be like, to have been such a powerful god, ruler of a kingdom, and now tiny and powerless, without any worshippers. “I suppose if you find one, and he sacrifices to you, you can eventually make him king of Gnarr, and keep the agreements you haven’t been able to keep.”
“That’s the worst,” the skink said in its tiny, high voice. “To have made the promise—You’ll be king!—and not be able to keep it, not in any way. The people calling on me to keep my agreements, my contract with them, and not to be able to, each time a fresh injury, my power bleeding away. A god can’t lie, not and escape the price. But I meant to keep my word!”
“You meant to cheat your neighbors,” said Umri, but quietly, the walls of the cabins were thin. “And now I know I can’t trust you.”
“You knew it before,” squeaked the skink. “But I never meant to cheat you. I’ve done what I said, and you’ve done what you’ve said. And the treasure is real.”
“Real? Not just the hand? Gold and silver and jewels?”
“Chests and chests of it, just like the captain said.”
“And how are you going to get it out of the river?”
“It’s not in the river. Not anymore.” The skink’s voice took on a fresh enthusiasm.“The river changed course, and left a lake behind, and the boat is there.”
“And the river has left it completely unguarded.”
“Some things we can only concern ourselves with when we get there. The gold and silver is no good to me, but I imagine it interests you.”
“I don’t care about money.”
“You lie! You paid your fare on this boat without so much as a wince. You’ve been pouring tea and hiding your money away, probably investing it, too, and I think it’s why you left the Silver Isles to begin with. You didn’t want to spend your life with nothing to your name but a loincloth and a knife, watching someone else grow rich off the fish you harvested for him. Am I right?” Those shellfish were packed in ice and shipped up the Nalendar. They served them at the bathhouse in Kalub, and Umri had gasped at the price. “Chests and chests of gold,” said the skink. “You’d never have to work again unless you wanted to. You could travel anywhere in the world.”
“Are you making a promise?” asked Umri, half afraid of the answer.
“I don’t make promises,” said the skink. “Not anymore.”
The captain brought the Reasonable Expectations to the shore, at a place the skink had indicated to Umri. “You’re well south of where you said you wanted to go.”
“Yes. I’ve changed my mind.”
“Well, it’s your right to do so, no question. I’ll be coming back downstream in a couple of weeks, signal me if you need a ride.” He hesitated a moment. “I won’t say I’m not worried. There’s nothing around here for miles.”
“I’ll be fine, Captain, thank you.” She leapt onto the grass and turned to wave as the crewmen pulled back the gangplank and began pushing the boat back out into the channel.
“Make sure they go,” said the skink.
“You’re suspicious. Which way?”
“Directly west. About a mile and a half.” The skink scurried down her neck and arm to her outstretched hand and made a quick circle, stopping suddenly and pointing with its nose. “That way.”
It was cool and shaded under the trees, and quiet except for an occasional birdsong and the shushing of wind in the leaves. Both Umri and the skink were silent for some time, until she stopped and set down her bag. “What?” asked the skink, behind her ear again.
“I’m cold.” She shivered, and brushed gnats away from her arms.
“If I had enough sacrifices,” began the skink.
She untied her bag and pulled out a shawl. “Considering the shape you’re in that would be a lot of sacrifices. And I’m not much of a hunter.”
“There will be fish in the lake.”
“And the Nalendar won’t be offended?” Umri settled the shawl around her shoulders and retied the bag.
“It’s not the Nalendar anymore!” The skink was indignant.
“But it might have its own god by now.”
“True,” said the skink. “Perhaps you should pray to me as we go. It will be better than nothing.”
“I can pray as hard as I like and it won’t…” From up ahead, faintly, had come the sound of horses.
“Damn!” piped the skink.
Umri waited, but it said nothing further. “I got off a perfectly nice boat in the middle of nowhere…”
“Hush, woman!” the skink squeaked. “Perhaps it’s only travelers passing through. Wait here and I’ll go ahead and see.” It skittered down her arm and jumped off and was lost under dead leaves.
Umri sighed, and moved to the nearest tree that looked like it wouldn’t be completely uncomfortable to lean against. Above the trees the sky was bright, but the breeze had a chill edge that made her pull her shawl closer around her.
She was, she admitted to herself, just a bit frightened. She was miles from anyone or anything she knew, alone except for a tiny, has–been god who could definitely not be trusted. But if a few days of diving would bring her a bagful of gold, or two or three…she thought of what she would do with so much money. A boat perhaps, something like the Reasonable Expectations. She thought of traveling up and down the Nalendar, carrying cargo, taking passengers, beholden to no one but herself. In her imagination, the boat was painted blue and white, like the Reasonable Expectations was. She wondered just who owned it, and how much it would cost.
Leaves rustled. The skink coming back? No, it was too loud. She sat as still as she could manage, hardly daring to breathe, hoping that whoever it was would pass her by. The rustling came closer.
“Ah, here we are,” said a sickeningly familiar voice, and then its owner came around the tree and stood in front of where Umri sat, his blue and red coat brilliant even in the shade—Rilhat Imk.
Imk had his men—there were three with him—tie her to the wheel of a wagon parked on the shore of the lake. In front of her, near the trees, was a small tent, and not far off a raft sat half in and half out of the water. To the south, bullrushes lined the bank, and beyond them pink and purple water lilies. To the west, the main body of the lake was half a mile or more across, and backed by low, tree–covered hills.
“You followed me,” Imk said. He managed to sound both accusing and self–satisfied.
“I didn’t follow you.” She pulled against the ropes. She was sitting on the ground, her back to the wheel. “And this is really uncomfortable.”
Imk gestured to one of the slaves, a tall, slim man, dark–skinned and gray–eyed, who Umri was sure was from the Silver Isles. He disappeared into the tent, and Imk turned his attention back to Umri. “Then why are you here?”
“You said you were going south, so I went north. If I had any idea you would be here, I would never have…”
“You don’t seriously expect me to believe that.” He bared his teeth in what she supposed was meant to be a grin. “It’s inconceivable that you ended up here by accident. You followed me south, and you followed me when I turned north, because you know as well as I do we have business to settle. I knew that it was impossible that you could turn me down.” He showed even more teeth.
She tilted her head slightly, sure she hadn’t heard him correctly. “I have turned you down. And I’ll turn you down again, as many times as you like.”
He narrowed his eyes slightly, but his grin remained fixed. He turned his head and called sharply, and then strode towards the lake, two of his men following. The third came out of the tent and approached Umri, a wide cushion in his hands, blue embroidered with red and gold.
“My name is Nalemeindundawyumrisayedynaremend,” she said in her native language.
He stopped. “Ah. My sister is married to your father’s cousin’s foster son.”
Hope leapt up. “Let me go.”
The slave frowned and glanced at Imk and the other two, now conferring by the water. “There is treasure in the lake. Rilhat Imk has promised us our freedom and a share of the money. I am afraid if I let you go, he would find someone else to do his diving.”
“How do you know he’ll do what he says?”
“I have no reason to believe he won’t,” the man said, and set the cushion down beside her, kneeling as he did. “He seems decent enough.”
She yanked the bonds that held her to the wagon. “Decent men don’t tie women up!”
He made a doubtful gesture. “If you hadn’t tried to run away, there would have been no need.” This left Umri speechless. “If this is some sort of game you’re playing, I warn you not to take it too far. He could change his mind and fall in love with some other girl.” He shoved the cushion closer to her, and rose and walked down to the lakeside and stood with the others.
Umri took two or three deep breaths, and then closed her eyes. There would be some way out of this. She would find it. She felt her bonds with her fingers, trying to reach the knots, to see if she might be able to work them loose, all the time listening to the quiet lap of the water and the murmur of the men. When their voices changed, she opened her eyes.
Imk stood alone on the shore, watching as the three slaves pushed the raft into the lake. She watched them for a few moments, and then returned her attention to the ropes, but was brought up short by a skittering sound in a pile of leaves near her left foot. She froze. The leaves shifted just slightly, and she raised her foot and brought it down hard on the pile.
The skink shot out into the open. “What are you doing?”
“You bastard!” She stomped again.
The skink jumped aside, just in time.“If I hadn’t told him where you were, you’d have left! You’d have gone straight back to the river and flagged down the next boat going upstream.”
She lifted her foot again, pausing an instant to consider whether or not she could reach the skink where it was. “Yes, I would have.” She brought her foot down. It scuttled off to the side, where she could still see its brilliant blue tail, but couldn’t reach it. “You lied.”
“No!” piped the skink. “You never asked me what my association with Rilhat Imk might be!”
“What is your association with Rilhat Imk?” She stretched her leg out to a more comfortable angle, shifted her weight, and looked at the cushion still sitting beside her. She had no way to move it underneath her.
“Imk is the last male descendant of the kings of Gnarr, though how he discovered it I have no idea. Blind luck most likely! He’s just the sort of fool who thinks he’s secretly royal. There have been dozens of them over the years.” It ventured closer, but not anywhere within reach of her foot. “Now you see why I want that hand.”
“So he can be king of Gnarr?” The thought was appalling.
“One of the problems with inherited offices,” said the skink, “is that you’ve got to take whichever offspring you get. If you’re powerful enough, and vigilant, you can engineer things so they generally turn out well, but it’s still a gamble.”
“So he’s the king you’re stuck with. And he wants me, and you’re giving him what he wants.”
“No!” Its squeak was so loud that Umri looked quickly over to the lake to see if Imk had noticed. The raft was now in the middle of the lake, and only two men were on it. Imk stood on the shore, looking towards them. “I never intended to make him king. I meant to arrive here before him and have you dive for the hand and whatever gold you wanted. But the boat took too long!”
“The river…” Umri began.
“I have no power against her, not anymore.”
“Surely Imk would sacrifice to you if you asked him.”
“The bastard is always sacrificing to me,” the skink said. “Goats, horses, slaves. He’s poured blood out by the gallon, but it’s all got conditions and I can’t touch a drop of it!”
“Look at me!” The skink nearly leapt straight into the air. “Do you know how I got this way? By making promises to that vacuous nitwit’s ancestors, that’s how!”
“You got this way by…” A cry interrupted her, and she turned to look at the lake again. All three slaves were on the raft, waving. “They found something.”
“Of course they found something. They could hardly help finding something.”
She turned back to the skink. “Get me out of here!”
“I can’t.” Umri frowned. “Well, I can’t!” it insisted. “I can’t chew through your ropes, and I…” Suddenly, it scurried under a leaf.
Imk’s voice startled Umri. “Talking to yourself?”
Imk laughed, his pale, round face unpleasant. “Prayers are cheap. It’s blood the gods want.”
“Not just blood,” Umri said, remembering the skink’s words.
“Blood,” Imk repeated. “No god can resist it.” By sheer force of will, Umri didn’t look at the leaf she suspected the skink was hiding under. She said nothing, only looked away, and after a few moments Imk left.
“Skink,” she whispered, and it scurried out from under the leaf and up onto her leg.
“He dares!” it fumed in tiny rage. “I, Sursurra, who raised his thrice–misbegotten progenitors from the slime to the rulership of a great kingdom! I cannot resist his ridiculous bribes! I am to be so easily commanded!”
“Listen to yourself!” Umri admonished.
“I have done very little else for the past seven hundred years!”
“If I crossed my legs I would squish you into nothing,” she said.
“Get that hand! And destroy it!” squeaked the skink. “Do whatever you have to!”
“And in return?”
“Don’t be ridiculous!”
She looked up. Imk was returning, something in his hand, shining and wet. A tickle on her arm and neck—the skink returning to its favorite hiding place. She considered shaking her head to dislodge it, but didn’t.
Imk knelt and laid his burden across her shins. It was a band of finely worked gold links and red and yellow jewels, as wide as her palm and nearly a yard long. It glittered in the sun, stones catching the light, drops of water throwing tiny rainbows. “This is not a hundredth part of the treasure in the lake. It once belonged to the kings of Gnarr.”
“Gnarr?” She made her face as innocent as she could.
“It was a great kingdom!” Imk spread his arms. “Rich and powerful. The center of culture and civilization on the Nalendar! And seven hundred years ago, the prince of Gnarr set off down the river to visit Kalub, but the boat sank, and there have been no kings of Gnarr since then.”
“How interesting,” said Umri.
Imk gave his toothy grin again. “I have always known that I was different from most people. My ancestors must have been brave warriors, bold thinkers!” He put his hand on his chest. “So when I discovered that I was the heir to the throne of Gnarr, I was hardly surprised.”
“Ah!” said Umri, afraid to say more.
“I learned the location of this treasure from the same source,” he said, somewhat ponderously. “Along with what I would need to do to make myself king of Gnarr. So you see, you would be mistress to royalty.”
She knew she should say something like, well, now that you put it that way, or anything that would make him untie her so she’d have some chance to get away. But she couldn’t quite bring herself to do that. “What source was that?” She shifted her shoulders, trying to find a more comfortable position against the wagon wheel.
“I am—” he lifted a finger to his lips, “sworn to silence on the matter, but I will say that I and my family have always been favored by certain gods.”
“And whoever is ruling Gnarr now, they’ll just give it up to you?”
“The god Sursurra is obligated to make me king, once I perform a certain ceremony.”
“And this Sursurra is willing to help you?”
He shrugged and brushed a leaf off the shoulder of the red and blue coat. “He has no choice. Besides, I’ve spent a great deal sacrificing to him. No doubt I’ll have to spend more, but it will be well worth it.” He leered, apparently under the misapprehension that he was smiling pleasantly. “My men are back onshore, and I’m going out on the lake with them now.” He pushed himself to his feet.
“Can I come too?” she asked, as wide–eyed as she could manage.
Umri sat in the center of the raft, surrounded by gold. Cups, armlets, coins, pins, rings set with emeralds and sapphires. The sun, almost directly overhead, made the water and the gold so bright she had to squint to save her vision. Rilhat Imk sat beside her.
On the edge of the raft sat two of the slaves—the tall one from the Silver Isles with his feet hanging in the water and another man, not quite so tall, long black hair tied back, who had said nothing all afternoon.
The third broke the surface near them, and took a long breath. “There’s a box,” he said. His accent was odd, Umri hadn’t been able to place it. “About so large.” Briefly he measured off with his hands something a foot and a half long, perhaps eight inches wide.
“That’s it!” said Imk, and he started to his knees. Coins spilled from his lap, and a knife, its blade eight inches long, its haft gold and lapis.
“What’s in the box?” asked Umri with as much innocence as she could muster, her attention on the knife.
“A family heirloom,” Imk said, his nostrils flaring, the corners of his mouth showing early signs of a grin.
“There’s a big fish,” the slave said, still in the water. “A very big fish.”
“Fish…” Imk made a dismissive gesture.
“A lot of teeth,” said the slave, his hands on the edge of the raft. He hoisted himself up, tipping the raft forward. “Very sharp.”
Imk frowned. “It’s just a fish.”
By now the slave was on his knees, water running off his body. He said nothing.
“I’ll go,” said Umri’s unhelpful almost–cousin.
The recently returned slave, still kneeling and dripping on the end of the bobbing raft, looked up at him. “Big fish,” he said.
Umri’s cousin shrugged.“I have a knife.” Despite the bright sunlight Umri shivered.
“Go,”said Imk, and the slave dived, knife in hand.
They waited, Imk still half sitting. The man who had refused to go still knelt motionless and silent, staring somewhere in front of himself. Only the occasional bird’s cry and the sound of the water broke the silence.
After five minutes Imk moved cautiously to the edge and peered over. The long–haired man rose and moved aside for him, but the other stayed where he was. For a moment Umri wondered what would happen if she shoved Imk over the edge, but she didn’t trust the other two men.
After seven minutes she suspected her cousin would not return. She looked at the man who had refused to go, and saw him still expressionless. “Nalendar,” she said. He looked at her, one sharp glance, and then away again.
“What’s that?” cried the long–haired slave. Umri crawled to the edge to look. Something big rolled under the surface, rising, and then it broke the water, broad and scaled and greenish, and subsided again. The raft rocked madly in its wake. The long–haired slave stumbled a moment and then caught his balance, and Imk gripped the edge of the raft tighter, his pale knuckles whiter than normal.
“A tree maybe?” he suggested inanely.
“I’m leaving,” said the one who had refused to go, and he turned and went over the edge in one fluid motion and swam for shore.
Still half–leaning over the side, Imk looked at the remaining slave. “I want that box.” The slave looked at him without answering. Umri wondered if Imk could swim. “You can have their shares, too. I don’t care about the gold.” The slave frowned slightly, dubious. Umri wasn’t sure what she hoped for—that the man would dive and leave her alone with Imk, or that he would refuse and send them back to shore. “You’ve seen how much there is,” Imk continued. “Think of what… who you could buy with that.” An unreadable expression flashed across the slave’s face and then was gone.
“Though maybe you should pray to the Nalendar before you dive,” suggested Umri into the silence that followed. She could think of no more explicit warning that would not arouse Imk’s suspicions. The skink flexed, tickling her ear. “Or Sursurra.”
Imk waved his hand, nonchalant now that the raft had stilled. “I am favored by the Nalendar, and Sursurra assists me as a matter of course.” The slave’s frown cleared, and it occurred to Umri that he was almost certainly the least intelligent of the three. “Likely the one was ill–fated,” Imk continued. “The other was certainly a coward.”
“Yes.” The long–haired slave nodded, and in a single swift step he was at the edge, and then over and into the water.
Two minutes later he broke the surface and stroked one–handed for the raft. “Do you have it?” called Imk, nearly tipping over the edge in his eagerness.
“I have it,” said the slave, putting a hand on the raft and heaving the box up beside Imk. It was a plain, rectangular thing, black where the mud was rubbed off. Imk seized it and began to yank fruitlessly at the lid.
The slave put his hands on the edge of the raft. “I didn’t see…” He cried out and was suddenly gone, down into the water.
Imk still held the box, but now was looking with puzzlement at the spot where the slave had disappeared. “What…”
Umri kicked Imk, hard. He caught his balance before he went over the side, dropped the box but caught it just as it hit the edge of the raft. The lid flew open and the hand tumbled out, black stone veined with white and gray, mirror–smooth, jagged at the wrist.
Imk cried out and grabbed, and, triumphant, drew the hand out of the water. His cry turned to a laugh and then a scream as a long, needle–toothed snout rocketed out of the water and snapped on the stone hand, and Imk’s own hand, wrist, and forearm.
The skink was squeaking something high and unintelligible, still in its place behind her ear. Umri grabbed the gold and lapis knife, threw herself forward and stabbed at the fish, but it slid to one side and the blade glanced off diamond–shaped scales as hard as bone. The creature was nearly nine feet long and almost cylindrical, a stone column of a fish. Imk had fallen back, screaming, and she stabbed again and then a third time, sinking the now-battered blade into the thing’s eye. It convulsed, yanking the knife downwards out of her hand and lifting the back end of the raft up off the water, sending a cascade of gold clattering and splashing over the edge.
The end of the raft slapped down, and the whole thing rocked. By some miracle Imk had not fallen in, but below his elbow was a red mess pumping blood into the water. Where the fish had been was now only a chaos of waves and foam.
She crawled over to where Imk lay and stripped off her headscarf and tied it around his arm, pulling it tight to stop the bleeding. He stirred and said something indistinct.
She sat back on her heels and considered their situation. The pole they had used to control the raft was gone. She could easily swim to shore, but she would have to leave Imk behind. She considered doing that, and then walking to the river and waiting for the next boat, whichever way it was going. Imk would likely die anyway.
Her heart rate began to settle and it occurred to her to wonder what the skink was saying. “Take a deep breath,” she said, “and then speak more slowly.”
“Still be king,” said Imk, faintly.
She frowned. “The hand is in that fish’s stomach, along with…” she stopped. Imk opened his eyes and began to speak, haltingly, unintelligibly.
“The oath!” shrilled the skink. “Stop him! Drown him! Get that hand!”
Umri was incredulous. “He can’t possibly still be holding onto it.”
“There’s only one way to be sure. Dive! Cut the fish open!”
“Did you see what it did to that knife?”
“Then kill Imk!”
She’d been prepared to kill him when he threatened her, but now that he was helpless… “No!”
It bit her on the ear, a tiny stinging pain, and she fished it out from her hair and held it dangling by its tail. “You’ll regret it if he finishes!” it squeaked.
“How did Imk find out who he was?” she asked.
“Who cares? Right now…”
“And who besides you knows where this treasure is?”
The skink was suddenly limp in her grasp. “She would never…”
The raft rocked, and the fish rose up beside them. Its green–gray scales shone wetly, and its long snout was wide open, showing all of its double–row of long, sharp teeth. The gold and blue knife protruded from its eye, and from its mouth came a sound like stones grinding against each other.
“You laugh!” cried the skink.
“I am amused,” the fish said. It settled its snout on the side of the raft. “When I am amused, I give gifts for nothing more than the asking. Nalemeindundawyumrisayedynaremend, I have meddled in your affairs without consulting you, and you have more than gratified my expectations. What would you have of me?”
“The hand!” piped the skink.
She thought for a brief moment. “Gracious and generous river, I would like a pole to steer this raft with.”
“Not the treasure?”
“I can get that myself, O Beautiful Nalendar.” Umri said.
“That you can,” grated the river. “The pole is now beside the raft. And you, little skink,” said the goddess.
“I am Sursurra! There was a time when you spoke to me with more respect!”
The grinding laughter sounded again. “Ask! If I am so disposed, I will grant your request.” In the silence that followed, Imk began to mutter again.
The skink wriggled. “Oh, if I could only curse you! The hand!”
“Ask me very nicely,” said the fish. The skink hesitated. “Perhaps I will ask Rilhat Imk what he wants.”
“You wouldn’t!” cried the skink. The fish said nothing, and Imk’s voice gained strength. “Will you please destroy the hand,” said the skink, nearly inaudibly.
“Louder,” grated the fish.
“Will you please destroy the hand!”
“You’ll never rule Gnarr again.”
“I beg you! That’s what you want, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said the fish, and opened its jaws even further, and out rolled the stone hand. It hit the raft and with a loud crack that echoed across the lake it shattered into countless tiny, jagged pieces.“I’d scatter those around, if I were you,” said the goddess when the sound had died away.“Just in case.” And with that, the fish sank into the lake.
Umri retrieved the pole, and examined Imk. The bleeding had stopped, and he breathed evenly, seemingly asleep.“I think he’ll live,” she said.
“I’m not speaking to you,” said the skink from the middle of the raft. Umri said nothing. “You might have some sympathy for what I’ve been through. Who would have thought the river would be so petty! So vindictive!”
“Petty!” She lowered the pole into the water, gingerly, and leaned her weight against it, propelling them slowly forward. “Haven’t you learned anything, even after seven hundred years?”
“A great deal!” squeaked the skink, indignant.
“I don’t think you’ve learned very much at all.” She gave another shove.
“Have you no understanding? No respect?”
Umri lifted the pole and put it down closer. She looked towards the shore and saw the surviving slave, the one who had refused to dive, watching them. She waved, and he waved back.
“I am going to spend the next few weeks diving for gold,” she said. “And then I think I’ll buy Reasonable Expectations, if it’s for sale.”
“And what about me?” asked the skink.
“Do whatever you like,” she said, with a shove against the pole. “Maybe if you’re nice to me I’ll pray to you. You could save up. Maybe even get big enough to make a living down by the docks.”
“Is that a promise?”
Umri laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said.
“The Nalendar” copyright 2008 by Ann Leckie. Originally appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Issue #36, 2008.
(Editors’ Note: In this issue, Deborah Stanish interviews Ann Leckie.)
© 2008 Ann Leckie