Crouching low in the sloshing dark at the back of the boat, Gorlen wished for a phib skin of his own. It had begun to rain again – and not a light rain, but a torrent. His boots were full, and where he knelt in half a foot of water, he might as well have been swimming alongside the boat. Meanwhile, Taian, likewise crouched, poled them expertly down watery lanes of increasingly decrepit buildings, rotten sagging piles of swollen wood in corners of which the dimmest lights burned with a sodden, sullen glow. Figures huddled near the flames, wide-mouthed, their flesh streaked gray and blue and sometimes violent red. It was hard for him to believe anyone could live here. Though few other boats navigated the swirling streets, he sometimes saw rounded objects breaking the surface, blowing bubbles, sinking again. Swimmers, he realized. Boats, here, would be a luxury, and unnecessary for personal transport.
But there were two boats ahead of them, almost always lost from view in the shifting rain. Weak lanterns hung above the streets, tossed by the wind, most of them already doused or burned out; they squeaked and rattled on their rusted brackets. Taian’s eyes were sharper than his, he supposed, for after they’d drifted and dodged through a series of abrupt turns, the curtains of water might part for a moment and he’d see the ones they followed. The hunters still didn’t suspect their presence.
“Stay here until I return,” Clabbus had told her as he climbed into his own boat on the dock outside the Phibby Inn. And nodding to Gorlen he’d added, “You make sure she does.”
In the other boat were two men Clabbus had pulled almost bodily from the inn, hide hunters with sour faces, who had sneered but finally acceded to his threats. Gorlen and Taian had stood at his shoulder among the crowded tables of the inn. All the hunters gathered there to drink hot plapioc must have known why Clabbus had come, but these two had been the least pleased of all to see him.
Taian and Gorlen had watched them scull ahead, guiding Clabbus’s boat away from the inn. The moment they cut round a corner, she’d leapt down into a docked boat and signaled him to follow.
“I don’t trust him with them!” she said. “Are you coming?”
Gorlen gave an instant’s thought to the owner of the boat she was untying, but figured that she knew the customs of Dankden far better than he. He jumped in beside her, losing his balance as she shoved away from the dock and toppling into the bottom of the boat; there he stayed, for the most part, while she tracked the hunters. Gorlen peered up at the roofs passing by, at the dripping caves and tottering ledges. A bit of polished stonework would have stood out like an entire golden palace; this was no place for a roving gargoyle to hide.
Thus his visit to Dankden advanced his larger mission nothing; but it didn’t trouble Gorlen that he had delayed his search for the sake of another. At least the dark stoniness of his hand was not spreading; in fact, although he couldn’t be completely certain, he imagined that it had receded slightly, leaving a bit more flesh around his wristbones. This gave him some solace, but he was pleased to remain with the beautiful Taian in any case. She was strong and proud, and much to his liking. He stroked his stone hand with cold fingers of flesh, wondering if he might reduce the blackness still further tonight – until nothing remained but the tip of one finger. How many times had he reduced the gargoyle’s affliction to one or two digits, and then, in a moment of recklessness, of greed or indulgence at the expense of another, felt the cold creep up in an instant and claim his hand again, threatening to swallow his forearm?
He was not a true gargoyle; he could not survive as a being of pure stone. If ever the blackness touched his heart, he would die in an instant. Until he found the mineral beast who had thus cursed him, he must take care at every step to consider his motives, and never give in to so many of the whims that every other man obeyed without consequence. It would have been one thing if the stone were directly linked to his own true heart, his conscience, his soul – whatever one might call it. He would then have had a truer guide to his actions; he would have known in advance that he was disobeying his deepest nature. But the blackness was a gargoyle’s flesh, and responded in a gargoyle fashion to his acts. While generally the gargoyle conscience overlapped with his own, it was ultimately alien, unpredictable, unfathomable. Deeds he considered worthy might earn him another inch or two of blackness, while an act any human might have ruled treacherous would cause the blackness to recede.
He felt that in helping Taian he helped himself, and so far his stony hand had not hinted otherwise. If he could play a large enough role in freeing Jezzle, perhaps his fingers would freely wriggle again – he might actually pluck the eduldamer for her pleasure tonight, instead of strumming it so brutally! He might stroke Taian’s cheek with skin as soft as hers, instead of icy adamant.
Suddenly the boat darted sideways into an alley. Taian grabbed the corner of a slimy wall and clung to it, peering back into the street.
Gorlen crept up beside her. In the ever narrower streets the wind was largely cut off, except at certain intersections where it whirled the rain about as in a hurricane. He could see, not far off, both boats drifting.
Clabbus brought his coracle closer to the hunter’s boat, and one of them stepped in beside him. They appeared to be pointing at one of the buildings just ahead. The man alone in the hunter’s boat looked slowly around, until he was about to look directly at Taian and Gorlen. She pulled on his sleeve, and they ducked back out of sight.
“This must be the spot,” she whispered. “Unless the halfbreeds come to meet them, they’ll have to dive. I should have gone with my father –should have insisted. If he goes down, he leaves his boat in their care. They’ve already proven they can’t be trusted.”
“Perhaps we should announce ourselves, then,” Gorlen said.
“He would be furious if he knew we’d followed!”
“If it would free him to dive, it might be worth the risk. I don’t trust those two, either.”
Taian put a finger to her lips, then slowly peered around the wall again.
Almost immediately she ducked back.
“They’re coming! Quick!”
She snatched up the pole and shoved them farther into the alley, deep into the dark, lapping recesses. A moment later, the hunter’s boat shot past, one man poling, the other looking back. Both were laughing. Gorlen waited for Clabbus to follow, but the men’s laughter faded away, and still there was no sign of Taian’s father.
The same thought must have come to them both at the same time, for even as Gorlen jumped to his feet, Taian pushed the boat forward. Once again he lost his balance and toppled – this time overboard.
He surfaced, choking, to see Taian looking down the avenue in confusion.
Paddling, he followed her eyes and saw Clabbus’s boat floating empty in the middle of an intersection. Without a moment’s indecision, she launched herself toward it.
Gorlen graciously called, “Go ahead!”
His own progress in the stagnant streets, with one hand so heavy, was maddeningly slow. Nor did he wish to abandon his boots, though they slowed him still further. It was with some surprise, then, that after kicking along in Taian’s wake, he paused for a moment’s breathing space and let his feet sink – and so touched bottom.
He stood on solid, if mucky, ground; the watercourse was no more than five feet deep; his mouth was just above water.
Standing, he called to Taian, who now stared frantically into her father’s coracle: “It’s shallow!”
Taian wheeled around in her boat, looking at the dark decayed buildings as if they could tell her something. She cupped her hands to her mouth. “Father!” she cried. “Father!”
Gorlen too began to call: “Clabbus!”
But there was no answer, and no sign of the big man swimming. Surely even a trained diver could not have stayed under for so long.
“Clabbus!” he called again.
And at that instant, he became aware of countless wet faces watching them from the buildings all around, peering out of drowned doorways, out of water-filled rooms, looking down from the dripping frames of unrecognizable piles that might once have been cathedrals just as easily as warehouses.
There was a loud in-drawing of breath, an immense choking cough from somewhere inside those ruined structures.
“Father!” Taian cried.
“So that’s who you are,” said a voice, sounding near though Gorlen could not see its source. The deep-throated coughing went on and on; and it did indeed sound like Clabbus. “Playing games, all of you, trying to sneak in by some roundabout way? This isn’t where we said to come.”
“Please,” Taian called. Gorlen edged slowly toward her boat. “It’s not him you want – he keeps to the swamps, he’s proud of his skills, he respects you and your people! We only want his son – my brother.”
“There’s plenty parents here who want their children back, sibs too,” the voice said, low and harsh.
“We didn’t harm them! The two who lured him here – they and their kind did that!”
“While you looked the other way? What is it with humans? Why should we think it any kinder of you to hunt the pure amphibians, our swampland cousins? Why don’t you go hunt apes instead?”
“There are those who do,” Taian answered, her voice sinking almost to inaudibility. Gorlen heard it because he now stood beside the boat, his left hand on its rim. He had no clear impression of who addressed them, or where the speaker stood. None of the phib faces he saw seemed to be moving; they all stared impassively, yet full of unmistakable hate.
“Excuse me,” Gorlen said loudly, though it was his least wish to draw all that amphibian attention to himself. “Perhaps, as a stranger in Dankden, a more impartial party here, I can be of some service to both sides.”
“Impartial?” said the sneering voice. “What human is impartial? You travel with hunters, the very ones who slay our children and our elders, the ones who rob our clutches to cure our flayed hides.”
“Fortune alone brought me into the gracious presence of Clabbus and his children; I might as easily have ended up among your folk, had I come into Dankden from the swampy edge of town. Nor am I completely human; I am, like you, a halfbreed.”
There were cries of disbelief from many gray-tongued mouths. Gorlen raised his right hand to silence them.
“My father was a gargoyle!” he cried. “I have all my life observed human affairs as an alien, an outcast. Only the kindest humans have welcomed me into their homes, as Clabbus has. I would speak for him and his children.”
“They are part of the corruption here! What hunter is not?”
“I cannot answer that, nor can I argue politics all night. I suggest some action be taken – some solution sought.”
Clabbus suddenly let out a groan. “Those hunters tried to drown me here, and make it look like your work,” came his muffled voice. “What other evidence do you need that I am their enemy?”
“That does not make you our friend.”
“I only wish . . . for all of us . . . peace. That we may live together. I swear I’ll do my part to stop the illegal traffic in halfbreed hides. I am not without some influence in Dankden.”
“That is so,” the speaker replied. “Why do you think we were so pleased to have your son delivered to us?”
Gorlen stepped away from the boat, his black hand in the air, mud sucking his boots from his feet. Well, let them go. He felt more agile barefoot, and he had the feeling he was going to be in liquid for awhile.
“Take me,” he said. “Let me visit the boy. Let Clabbus and his daughter, who are more familiar with the workings of the hide trade in Dankden, go back among their people and confront your murderers. I will be your hostage, with Clabbus’s son.”
He caught Taian staring at him; he could not read her face, but he could feel something happening to his hand . . . a spreading tingle where before he had felt nothing.
Not now! he thought.
He quickly shoved his hand beneath the water, aware that some discussion was going on in the ruins around him. Clabbus’s voice was part of it. Finally he heard the hunter say, “Of course I swear it! I would do so even if you did not hold my boy.”
A moment later, Clabbus emerged from the shadows, sloshing toward the boats.
Taian poled toward him, knelt and put her arms out; he was covered with waterweed and mud, but didn’t bother to rinse himself. He clambered in quickly, embraced her, and turned as if it were an afterthought to Gorlen.
“We’ll have you out soon,” he said. “Thank you, Gorlen.”
Gorlen started to raise his hand in acknowledgment, but saw as it broke water that the blackness had already receded halfway toward the first knuckle of his thumb. He was doing far too good a job.
“I’m grateful I can help,” he said, keeping his hand down.
Clabbus tossed a looped rope to his coracle, drew it in and tied the two boats together; then he seized the pole and started moving away from the intersection, down the avenue that had brought them here. Taian stared back, white faced, as if she were in shock. “Be brave!” she said.
The rain was worsening. Gorlen wiped it from his eyes, left-handed, and blinked around him into the gloom, so poorly lit by swinging lamps. He waited for some one or all of the amphibians to move, to walk forward out of the shadows and seal the bargain. Instead, cold fingers clutched abruptly at his legs, his arms, his shoulders; swarming over him from all sides, they drew him under, giving him scarcely time to draw a breath. He should have known they moved faster underwater.
Thoughtfully, they brought him up for air every now and then, though never as often as he would have liked. He willed himself to relax, to let them drag him unresisting, to save his breath until he felt them rising, when he prepared to gasp as large a lungful as he could. The worst part of it was that gradually the liquid grew thicker and thicker, until they were dragging him through mud. It closed on his chest, as if he were being squeezed, and he could never quite breathe as deeply as he needed to.
And then panic began to overtake him, so that he could no longer keep himself calm, but began lashing out and trying to hold himself above the surface for longer periods – though his struggling simply made it harder for him to get the air he needed. Finally, they held him under far too long. His struggles mounted until, sparks exploding in his eyes, he began to lose consciousness.
It was then that he felt rain on his face, washing the mud away, and he sucked in a desperate draft of air; and then another, and another.
He opened his eyes and saw above him the intricately tangled silhouettes of plants. The phibs were towing him through water, among enormous looming trees. It was not only rain that washed him, but water pouring from the leafy canopy. Between breaks in the leaves he saw breaks in the clouds, and once again the night seemed luminous; at least, that is, until the swamp grew denser and closed in from above.
He supposed they were wise not to keep him in the town; for all he knew, Clabbus’s words might simply spur the hunters of Dankden to a genocidal frenzy, send them poling down en masse to the watery ghettos, descending on all the wet lairs they suspected of holding treacherous halfbreeds, to relieve them all of their hides. . . . Gorlen’s life wouldn’t be worth much as ransom at that point, nor Jezzle’s.
Without warning, they dragged him under again. He went down sputtering, coughing up the bit of air he’d chanced to have in his lungs. This time they were definitely pulling him deep down; he didn’t know how he could hold out. Then they shifted their grip on him, pushing him up, up into air – but this was a stifling atmosphere, clammy and oily, with a rotten edge that smelled as though the swamp were spoiling. He struck out with a hand and felt a muddy bank; they shoved him onto it. He lay there without moving, blinking to see if he could find any trace of clouds or stars – but the sky was black as a cave.