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The Spark: Chapter Twelve

       Last updated: Wednesday, October 11, 2017 19:00 EDT



A View of Marielles

    It must’ve rained recently because there were puddles on the bare ground I saw through the boat’s open door. The sun was shining now, though.

    We were in the landing place, where we’d have arrived if we’d come to Marielles by the Road. It looked pretty much like the others that I’d seen–bigger than Beune’s and the neighboring nodes in the Marches, but not nearly so big as Dun Add’s. The city was a sprawl of shanties a quarter of a mile up a wide gravel path, but there seemed to be solider buildings inside that rind.

    I could see twenty-odd people–some of them merchants and three or four travelers, but at least half of them just lounging around. Ours was the only boat.

    Buck hopped out past me, sniffed a tuft of coarse grass, and lifted his leg. I stepped out too, then thought of something. I moved to the side so that Lady Frances and Baga could get out if they wanted to, then leaned against my hand on the boat’s side and went into a trance.

    “Boat?” I said. “Is there another boat here on Marielles?”

    “Yes, Master,” the boat said. “The boat that was here when I came to Marielles before is still here. That boat had earlier visited Holheim while I was there.”

    Somebody was speaking to my body. I’ve got a lot of experience of working while there’s stuff going on around me, so it wasn’t going to bring me out of my trance until I was ready to come out.

    “Thank you, boat,” I said. “Can you get–will the other boat give you–the information in its log? I need to know where it’s been in order to find the lady we’re looking for.”

    “Yes, Master,” the boat said. “I have that information.”

    I thought for a moment about going off straight to find Lady Eloise without bothering to talk to people on Marielles, but I decided that we’d just go on the way we’d started. “Thank you, boat,” I said, and I let myself slide back into Here.

    “Pal, what are you playing at?” Frances said. She was pinching my sleeve between thumb and forefinger; I guess she was about to tug it since speaking hadn’t brought me around.

    I was still a bit dizzy from the trance, but I grinned at her and said, “I’m not playing, ma’am. I’m doing my job. The boat that your sister went off in is here in Marielles.”

    “Is Eloise all right?” Frances said. Her fingers on my sleeve spread; she grabbed my arm without seeming to know what she was doing.

    “Ma’am, I don’t know,” I said. “But we’re on the way to learning. One step at a time.”

    My eyes had cleared. The people who’d been on landing place when we arrived had drifted closer. A boat attracted gawkers even at Dun Add, and on Marielles there weren’t any officials to hustle them away until the formalities were taken care of.

    I let Lady Frances deal with the people. Most of them were just curious, but a few wanted to sell her something–or sell me something.

    I got offered gewgaws carved from bone (I wasn’t sure what the bone was), fresh oranges (which I bought one of, though I suspect I could’ve gotten two or even three for the copper I paid), and the virgin sister of the little boy offering shawls painted with the haloed face of a woman. I’d have clouted the boy, but he was twelve at the oldest and skinny; and it isn’t my business to decide how people in Marielles live.

    “Come along, Pal,” Frances said. “Baga will watch the boat, but I want you with me when I demand an explanation from Prince Philip.”

    “Yes ma’am,” I said. When we were alone, I’d tell her that we’d shortly know the route the boat with Eloise and her guard had taken, but for right now going along with whatever she said seemed the best plan. She was steaming again.

    Six men wearing blue berets came trotting up to us along the broad path from the town. They pushed through the spectators. The man at the head of them had three goose feathers in his beret, and the modular shield and weapon on his breast was chrome plated.

    All six of them were armed, but only the guy beside the leader seemed to me like he’d know what to do with his weapon. The others were scruffs, and two of them didn’t have shields.

    “I’m Lord Camm!” said the leader. “Prince Philip has directed me to bring Lady Frances to him at once.”

    Which meant that one of the idlers had recognized the boat or maybe Frances herself and had gone racing back to the palace. It wasn’t much over a month that she and the boat had been here before.

    “That’s good,” said Frances, “because I certainly want to see him.”

    She started up the path to town; one of the armed scruffs had to jump out of her way. Frances wasn’t very big, but neither is a hornet. She was a right determined woman, and which you could tell just by looking at her.

    I started to follow, but Baga called from the door of the boat, “Pal? Can I talk t’ ye?”

    I looked at him and called to Frances, “Milady? I’ll catch you up. There’s a problem with the boat.”

    I didn’t know what Baga wanted. I was pretty sure he wasn’t worried about the boat, which was in great shape. I knew that from the boat’s own lips. Well, you know what I mean. Baga wasn’t one to push himself into things, though, and if I called me I’d see what he wanted before I went into town.

    “Look,” Baga said when I got up to the door, “that guy whose leading the soldiers?”

    “Lord Camm?” I said.

    “I never caught his name,” Baga said, “but I’ve seen him. He was the boatman who came for Lady Eloise. He wasn’t but there and gone on Holheim and I was trying to get this old girl–”

    He patted his boat. I’d never thought whether it was male or female.

    “–back in shape to carry Lady Frances, which took me a month. But I saw that boatman and it was this Camm. I thought you’d want to know.”

    I looked after Lady Frances and her escort vanishing into the town. I wondered if she’d even missed me.

    “Thank you, Baga,” I said. “I surely did.”

    I clucked to Buck and we set off after the others at a trot.



    I was expecting what looked like a palace, since Marielles’ ruler was a prince. When I got into the downtown, I wouldn’t have been able to tell which of the buildings was the right one except that some of the people who’d gone off with Frances and the soldiers were still waiting to get in.

    It was two stories of rust-colored brick with stone transoms, just like the buildings on either side of it. There were bars on the upper-story windows, but that was standard on both sides of the street.

    Instead of guards at the entrance, there was a fussy little man seated behind a sloping desk with a ledger open on it. He’d been passing the locals in with just a tick on the left-hand page, but when I got to him he sat up straight and said, “And who might you be?” in a tone that sounded more like an insult than a question.

    “I’m Pal of Beune,” I said. “I’m with Lady Frances.”

    The fellow sniffed. “All right then,” he said, writing out an entry on the right-hand page.

    Buck stayed close by my left knee as we went in, like he usually does when we’re in a crowd. I suppose if I’d been thinking about it, I’d have left him in the boat with Baga. That hadn’t crossed my mind, though.

    “Hey, you can’t take that dog inside!” the clerk said. I ignored him. I didn’t guess he was going to try conclusions with me, and if somebody else did, well, I’d deal with whatever came up.

    Beyond the anteroom was a set of stairs going up to the right and a short hall into a double-height room where I saw the people I was following. The fancy chandelier didn’t put out as much light as the windows in the roof cupola. Even with about fifty people standing in it, the room didn’t feel crowded. I moved up behind Frances at the front so I could look over her shoulder. Lord Camm was on her right and the other fellows with weapons close by.



    Instead of a throne, there was a polished wooden table. The young fellow sitting behind it had wavy blond hair and a bushy moustache. He didn’t have a beard, though. A beard would’ve helped with his weak chin.

    The woman was on the other chair behind the table. She was a stunner with dark hair and the whitest skin I’ve ever seen on a human being. She was beautiful, but I would call her pretty or even attractive except in the way a leopard is.

    She seemed to me older than she was trying to look. She was sure older than the man.

    “Well, Lady Frances,” the blond man said, “I didn’t expect to see you back in Marielles so soon. Have you brought my dowry?”

    “I’m still looking for my sister, Philip,” Frances said in that fractured croak of hers. “Since the boat that took her off Holheim is here, I think this is the right place to start. Don’t you?”

    “I told you on your previous visit that the boat hasn’t returned to Marielles,” Philip said. His voice started out high-pitched and got even squeakier as his face turned red. “Nothing has changed since then!”

    “I now know that the boat is here!” Frances said. “That’s changed! What have you done with my sister?”

    “I’ve been told–” Philip said.

    “You’ve been lied to or you’re a liar!” said Frances. She was really something when she got started. “Where is my sister, Philip?”

    Philip had gotten angry, but he was now slanting back in his chair as if he thought Frances was going to come across the table at him. I didn’t think that, but it might’ve crossed my mind if it’d been me she was shouting at.

    “Lady Frances,” said the woman, “we’ve been polite to you thus far, but if you’re going to shout your nasty delusions–”

    “Ma’am?” I said, loud enough to stop her. “It’s not a delusion. Our boat has talked to the boat that took Lady Eloise. It’s here, and I guess I could find it in a day or two. Less if y’all would give me a bit of a hand.”

    The white-skinned woman stood up. I’d thought of a leopard when I first saw her, and she was a really angry leopard now. Her face didn’t look a bit pretty.

    “Camm, get that commoner out of the room if he can’t keep his mouth shut while his betters are talking!” she said.

    Camm turned and put a hand flat on my chest. I grabbed him by the wrist as he started to shove. He yelped and jumped back. I stopped twisting but I didn’t let go of him until I was sure he wasn’t going to push the matter.

    “That’s rich, Hellea!” Frances said. “You calling someone common? You’re a common whore!”

    Philip was standing also, but he didn’t seem to have much useful to say. I was keeping an eye on the guys in blue berets, especially the one who maybe knew what he was doing, but they were waiting till they knew better what was going on.

    I didn’t put my hands in my pockets, but I was ready to do that in a hurry. It was more or less an accident that my shield and weapon were in the jacket I’d put on when we reached Marielles. I hadn’t been wearing it during the voyage, and they were still there from when I’d boarded.

    “We don’t have much rank on Beune,” I said, not quite so loud as when I was breaking in on Hellea, “but I guess I qualify as gentry back home. Lord Camm, if you want to come out to your jousting ground, we can settle this like warriors.”

    I didn’t have any idea what was going to happen after I spoke. I said it because it was true and it was what came to mind. If Camm was going to threaten me with his weapon, he needed to know that I was willing to dance to that tune.

    The hair along Buck’s spine was up. I was the only fellow in the room with his dog present. The tall warrior at Camm’s side glanced at Buck and put his hand on Camm’s arm, pulling him back just a hair. He knew what’d happen if they started something with me now.

    Hellea snarled something in Philip’s ear, keeping her eyes on me. In response, Philip squealed, “Lady Frances, you are no longer welcome in this court! Please take yourself and your companions off Marielles immediately!”

    “I’m not going until–” Frances said, then gulped as I pulled her backward with my left hand.

    “Ma’am,” I said, “we’re leaving now. Turn around and get out, and I’ll be out behind you. Now.”

    She looked up at my face, then said, “I’m going,” in a softer voice than she usually used. I let go of her and started backing out.

    The fellow holding Camm’s arm grinned at me. I thought of Duncan and wondered what this guy’s story was. Nobody came after us, but I didn’t relax till we got to the boat and I told Baga to close the door.



    Even before the door closed, Lady Frances turned to me and said, “Master Pal, if you think I’m going to give up the search for my sister–”

    “No ma’am, I don’t,” I said, “and–”

    “–just because–”

    “Ma’am, hush!” I said. “Talk to Baga or talk to Buck or talk to yourself! I’m going to find out from the boat where your sister is.”

    I sank down onto the floor cross-legged. If I’d had to I’d have gone into my room and locked Frances out, but her face got quiet again and she nodded.

    “All right,” she said. I was already slipping into my trance.

    “Good afternoon, boat,” I said. “Can you retrace the route of Lord Camm’s boat between here and Holheim?”

    “Yes, Master,” the boat said. “That boat made seven stops en route.”

    The projected schematic didn’t mean anything to me, but presumably it would to Baga. Or it did to the boat itself, which might be good enough.

    “It may be of interest to you that at this point…,” the boat said. A bead on the track gleamed brighter; it was the third one up from Holheim on the left end. “The boat dropped two of its life pods, as directed by the boatman.”

    “What?” I said. “Life pod? You mean the rooms? Can the rooms come off the boat?”

    “Yes, Master,” the boat said. “It’s a safety feature. The pods will recycle wastes and support their occupants for the future indefinite. Depending on the pods’ condition, of course, but Camm’s boat indicates that both of the pods dropped were in 80% condition.”

    “Thank you, boat,” I said. “I’m going to discuss what you’ve told me with Lady Frances. Ah, you can take us straight to the place the pods were left?”

    “Yes, Master,” the boat said. Then it said, “Master? The other boat is impressed with the repairs you have made to my structure. A machine cannot be envious or even wistful, of course; but that boat notes the contrast between my condition and the condition to which it has degraded.”

    “I’ll…,” I said. I stopped to think through what I meant to say. “Look, boat. If we get through this all right and find Lady Eloise, I’ll come back for Lord Camm’s boat. If I can–if Camm lets me or however it works out–I’ll do what I can to bring the boat up to speed. But you know, there’s a lot of ifs and it’s just me, not Guntram. All right?”

    “If the boat had human emotions, Master,” the boat said, “it would thank you. So would I.”

    I came out of my trance, but I kept my eyes closed for a moment so that nobody’d start talking to me before I was really awake. Buck must’ve noticed something, because he stuck his nose into the angle of my left knee and started burrowing.

    I opened my eyes. “Ma’am,” I said, “it seems like your sister got put off the boat at a node off the Road. She’s in her room–”

    I patted the one beside where I was sitting.

    “–and the guard’s with her besides, so she ought to be all right. I figured we’d go find her right now.”

    “Yes,” said Frances. “We’ll do that.”

    And then she leaned over and hugged me, which was about as big a surprise to me as if Buck had started speaking.

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