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“Damn it! get out of the way!” Haplo kicked at the dog.
The animal cringed, slunk away, and endeavored to lose itself in the shadows of the hold, hide until its master’s bad mood passed.
Haplo could see the sad eyes, however, watching him from the darkness. He felt guilty, remorseful, and that merely increased his irritation and anger. He glared at the animal, glared at the confusion in the hold. Chests and casks and boxes, coils of rope, and barrels had been tossed in hurriedly, to stand where they landed. It looked like a rat’s nest, but Haplo dared not take time to rearrange them, stack them neatly, stow them away securely, as he had always done before.
He was in haste, desperate to leave the Nexus before his lord caught him. Haplo stared at the mess, ill at ease, his hands itching to sort it out. Turning on his heel, he stalked off, heading back to the bridge. The dog rose silently, padded soft-footed after him.
“Alfred!” He flung the word at the dog. “It’s all Alfred’s fault. That blasted Sartan! I should never have let him go. I should have brought him here, to my lord, let him deal with the miserable wretch. But who’d have guessed the coward would actually have nerve enough to jump ship! I don’t suppose you have any idea how that happened?”
Haplo stopped, glowered suspiciously at the dog. The animal sat back, tilted its head, regarded him with bland innocence, though its tail wagged cheerfully at the sound of Alfred’s name. Grunting, Haplo continued on his way, casting cursory glances to the left and right. He saw—with relief—that his vessel had sustained no lasting damage. The magic of the runes covering the hull had done its job, kept the Dragon Wing safe from the fiery environment of Abarrach and the lethal spells cast by the lazar1 in their efforts to hijack it.
He had only recently come through Death’s Gate and knew that he should not be going back this quickly. He had lost consciousness on the journey from Abarrach. No, lost wasn’t quite the correct term. He’d deliberately cast it aside. The resultant undreaming sleep had restored him completely to health, healed the arrow wound he’d taken in the thigh, removed the last vestiges of the poison given him by the ruler of Kairn Necros. When he awoke, Haplo was well in body, if not in mind. He was almost sorry to have awakened at all.
His brain was like the hold. Thoughts and ideas and feelings were in a tangle. Some were thrust away in dark corners, where he could still see them watching him. Others were tossed in any which way. Precariously and carelessly stacked, they would come tumbling down at the slightest provocation. Haplo knew he could organize them, if he took the time, but he didn’t have time, he didn’t want time. He had to escape, get away.
He’d sent his report on Abarrach to the lord via a messenger, giving as his excuse for not coming in person the need to hurry after the escaped Sartan.
My Lord, You may remove Abarrach completely from your calculations. I found evidence to indicate that the Sartan and the mensch did once inhabit that hunk of worthless, molten rock. The climate undoubtedly proved too harsh for even their powerful magic to sustain them. They apparently tried to contact the other worlds, but their attempts ended in failure. Their cities have now become their tombs.
Abarrach is a dead world.
The report was true. Haplo had said nothing false about Abarrach. But its truth was polished veneer, covering rotten wood beneath. Haplo was almost certain his lord would know his servant had lied; the Lord of the Nexus had a way of knowing everything that went on in a man’s head … and his heart.
The Lord of the Nexus was the one person Haplo respected and admired. The one person Haplo feared. The lord’s wrath was terrible, it could be deadly. His magic was incredibly powerful. When still a young man, he had been the first to survive and escape the Labyrinth. He was the only Patryn—including Haplo—who had the courage to return to that deadly prison, fight its awful magics, work to free his people.
Haplo grew cold with fear whenever he thought about a possible encounter between his lord and himself. And he thought about it almost constantly. He wasn’t afraid of physical pain or even death. It was the fear of seeing the disappointment in his lord’s eyes, the fear of knowing that he had failed the man who had saved his life, the man who loved him like a son.
“No,” said Haplo to the dog, “better to go on to Chelestra, the next world. Better to go quickly, take my chances. Hopefully, with time, I can sort out this tangle inside me. Then, when I return, I can face my lord with a clear conscience.”
He arrived on the bridge, stood staring down at the steering stone. He’d made his decision. He had only to put his hands on the sigla-covered round stone and his ship would break the magical ties binding it to the ground and sail into the rose-hued twilight of the Nexus. Why did he hesitate?
It was wrong, all wrong. He hadn’t gone over the ship with his usual care. They’d made it safely out of Abarrach and through Death’s Gate, but that didn’t mean they could make another journey.
He’d prepared the ship in a slapdash manner, jury-rigging what he could not take time to carefully repair. He should have strengthened rune structures that almost surely had been weakened by the journey, should have searched for cracks, either in the wood or the sigla, should have replaced frayed cables.
He should have, as well, consulted with his lord about this new world. The Sartan had left written lore concerning the four worlds in the Nexus. It would be folly to rush blindly into the world of water, without even the most rudimentary knowledge of what he faced. Previously, he and his lord had met and studied …
But not now. No, not now.
Haplo’s mouth was dry, had a foul taste in it. He swallowed, but it did no good. He reached out his hands to the steering stone and was startled to see his fingers tremble. Time was running out. The Lord of the Nexus would have received his report by now. He would know that Haplo had lied to him.
“I should leave … now,” Haplo said softly, willing himself to place his hands on the stone.
But he was like a man who sees dreadful doom coming upon him, who knows he must run for his life, yet who finds himself paralyzed, his limbs refusing to obey his brain’s command.
The dog growled. Its hackles rose, its eyes shifted to a point behind and beyond Haplo.
Haplo did not look around. He had no need. He knew who stood in the doorway.
He knew it by countless signs: he’d heard no one approaching, the warning sigla tattooed on his skin had not activated, the dog had not reacted until the man was within arm’s reach.
The animal stood its ground, ears flattened, the low growl rumbling deep in its chest.
Haplo closed his eyes, sighed. He felt, to his surprise, a vast sense of relief.
“Dog, go,” he said.
The animal looked up at him, whimpered, begged him to reconsider.
“Get,” snarled Haplo. “Go on. Beat it.”
The dog, whining, came to him, put its paw on his leg. Haplo scratched behind the furry ears, rubbed his hand beneath the jowl.
“Go. Wait outside.”
Head lowered, the dog trotted slowly and reluctantly from the bridge. Haplo heard it flop down just outside the doorway, heard it sigh, knew it was pressed as close against the door as was possible to do and still obey its master’s command.
Haplo did not look at the man who had materialized out of the twilight shadows inside his ship. Haplo kept his head lowered. Tense, nervous, he traced with his finger the runes carved upon the steering stone.
He sensed, more than heard or saw, the man come near him. A hand closed over Haplo’s arm. The hand was old and gnarled, its runes a mass of hills and valleys on the wrinkled skin. Yet the sigla were still dark and easily read, their power strong.
“My son,” said a gentle voice.
If the Lord of the Nexus had come raging aboard the ship, denouncing Haplo as a traitor, hurling threats and accusations, Haplo would have defied him, fought him, undoubtedly to the death.
Two simple words disarmed him completely.