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       Chernevog, p.20

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  He sat down next the fire, shut his eyes a moment to rest them and kept seeing gray, empty space and feeling the ground sway. He had done crazier things, he told himself he had: walked The Doe's rooftree on a bet—climbed any number of balconies in Vojvoda—with no wizard to steady him. It had been a sure thing, this time. Absolutely. Even with Chernevog involved. Leshys had built it.

  God.

  He shivered, let go his breath and took another drink. Sasha nudged his arm and passed him a plate: pancake and a bit of sausage.

  There was a helping for Chernevog.

  “Damn waste of good sausages,” Pyetr muttered, in no mood for charity.

  Chernevog accepted it, and the cup of tea—held the cup out to him, saying, pleasantly enough, “A little vodka if you please.”

  Choke, Pyetr thought. But outrageous behavior moved him to outrageous courtesies: a gambler's son, among rich young gentlemen, learned their manner in self-defense. He gave Chernevog his falsest smile, added vodka to his cup, saying: “Personally, I wish it were aconite.”

  Chernevog said, “Your health,” and lifted the cup to Sasha. “Is it?”

  “No,” Sasha said quietly. “I promise you.”

  Chernevog smiled, ate his supper, drank his tea and vodka along with them, said, somberly, ’‘I miss Owl. I truly do. You're very cruel, Alexander Vasilyevitch.”

  “How do you know my name?”

  Chernevog shrugged, took a deep drink.”I have my sources. I did, at least. Now I'm content to be your prisoner.”

  “Liar,” Pyetr said.

  Chernevog looked him in the eyes, over the cup rim. “Your health, too, Pyetr Ilyitch.”

  “You were talking about Owl,” Sasha said.

  Chernevog's gaze went distant. Finally it dropped to the cup in his hands.

  “I'll sleep now,” he said in a subdued voice.’‘—Good night, Pyetr Ilyitch.”

  Pyetr did not look at him; he drank another sip of his tea and vodka, and listened to Chernevog settle down next the fire.

  For a good long while afterward he held his peace, listening to Chernevog's breathing grow more regular. He thought how Sasha could as easily have poisoned the wretch.

  Sasha saying—I'm not Uulamets—

  Himself: Thank the god—

  Sasha said, “He's probably asleep.”

  “ Don't depend on it.”

  “I 'm not. Tea and wishes. And a little something extra. He'll probably have a headache.”

  “Good.” He remembered the muddy yard of Chernevog's house, none so far away, remembered unnumbered hours of hell. Eveshka crying: Kavi, don't! He made a face and took another drink, but he thought that should be his last, fearing too deep a sleep on this darkening, drizzly shore. The ground still felt as if it were swaying, every time he shut his eyes. “We should give him another one in the morning. I'll just put him on the horse like a sack of turnips. If we need him at all.”

  “The leshys had a reason.”

  “Doubling's my one small talent, remember? I doubt the leshys know that much what they're doing, where it doesn't regard trees. They don't understand us. For some reason he's waked up. For some reason something's wrong over here that has the leshys scared. —For some damn reason we haven't cut that scoundrel's head off!”

  “I know, I know, I'm thinking about that. But he's worried, loo.”

  “He's worried. Thank the god he's worried, I'm so glad to know that. I'm scared out of my skin. I'm worried about my wife, dammit!”

  “I know, I know, Pyetr.”

  “No word, nothing.”

  “Nothing.”

  He shook his head, took another drink without thinking about the jug in his hands. He was thinking about Eveshka out there

  alone in the dark tonight, somewhere on this shore, if the leshys were right; and he thought of Uulamets in his grave, as strong as he had ever been—wanting to come back, wanting his daughter, every wish and want a spell to reach out into other people's lives.

  The old man had passed some kind of legacy to Sasha—too much, Eveshka was wont to say. He sat here drinking himself to helplessness, like Chernevog, and the boy was under some damn spell.

  The bridge is safe, Pyetr, leshys made it—

  Two cat eyes opened in the dusk, in empty air—right in front of his knees.

  “God!” He scrambled back against the canvas, before he recognized the small shadowy nose that appeared next, with the outline of a round belly.

  “Babi!” Sasha said. “Thank the god—Babi. Come on, Babi... ”

  “Vodka, Babi.” Pyetr unstopped the bottle, tipped a little into empty air.

  The eyes vanished. The vodka splashed onto the ground.

  Sasha said, “He's upset.”

  “He got a good look at our company. Dammit, Babi, come on back, it's all right!”

  But Babi did not come back. There was nothing but the crackle of their small fire, the occasional spit of a water drop as it dripped off the canvas into the embers.

  ‘‘Babi probably had a terrible scare,” Sasha said.”He's probably not far from us, right now. He may not have been, all along.”

  Sasha was trying to cheer him. Pyetr sipped from the jug, set his jaw and stared into the fire thinking-No, dammit, he refused even to think about losing Eveshka. He refused to think how they might have been tricked from the beginning, and how, after the small inconvenience of dying, Ilya Uulamets might have something in mind for them after all-some spell he might have put onto the boy, to bring them all here when he was ready—

  But there was Eveshka, for one very major point of resistance in any such scheme: Eveshka had fought lifelong for independence from her father, she had made most of her young mistakes dying to get free of Uulamets, and she would never be taken in by him now. Sasha argued that, by what was written in his book, Uulamets had never been a truly bad man—to which he had retorted: He was too smart to be bad. He wanted his way—and as long as he got it he was a perfectly wonderful man.

  Uulamets had wanted Sasha, too. The old man had taken Immediately to Sasha, said to himself, Aha, here's a likely, trusting lad—

  So we go find him, Pyetr thought. Which gives Uulamets his daughter, his heir, and his enemy all in one basket... And where does that leave me?

  But, he argued with himself, Sasha won't see the old thief do me in. Neither will Eveshka. He'll have to take me with whatever deal he wants to make with them—and won't the old man hate that?

  But what deal? What do wizards want, when they're not scared of causing storms and bringing the tsar down on them?

  A man could get a headache thinking about wizards. He asked Sasha, whose firelit, pensive face was hazing more than it should in his vision, “You didn't give me any of that damn stuff, did you?”

  A look of wide brown eyes. ‘‘No. Of course not.”

  Sometimes Sasha scared him. Sometimes he thought, I haven't got a chance. The boy can do any damn thing he wants. Someday he will.

  God help us all.

  Pyetr lay down on his side, tucked up like a child, forgetting his blanket. Sasha got up and spread it over him, threw their other canvas over Chernevog, then sat down and pulled his own blanket about his shoulders.

  He did wish Babi would come back. But Babi was not answering him any more than Eveshka was, and he was becoming increasingly anxious about trying. What Chernevog had said echoed disquietingly off his recollections of what Chernevog had written, with no ulterior motive—that hearts were dangerous to have when one dealt with magic, because magical creatures could understand hearts: it was wizards' intentions they could not fathom: and wizards could no more fathom them. Babi was one thing. Something like the vodyanoi was quite another, and leshys did things for reasons that made no sense. What such creatures wanted was very, very different from what people would want—or at least from what good people would want.

  He would not write that in his book. He wanted no more writing about magic in his book. He wanted not even to think about it, except—
>
  Except there was something in common about their difficulties lately, and that, magically considered, argued for a common source of their troubles, a single kind of wish.

  Whatever it was, it scared Babi, and absented Eveshka, and now that they were out of the silence where they might perhaps speak to her—kept her silent, absolutely cut off from them in a way he did not want to admit to Pyetr, not until there was no choice. He still hoped—but he grew more afraid with every assault he made on that silence, afraid that something unwanted might suddenly track him down the thread of that wish. He had no idea why he felt that way, or what it meant beyond a childish fear of bogles and bumps in the night, but that was the case.

  The fear of an answer might prevent one, as effectively as the leshys could—that might be the reason; or it might be his own wishes saving a young and naive wizard from disaster. His thoughts kept going in circles like that—but he equally suspected that what Pyetr called his damnable worrying, laid on thick over the years, might be the protection that had saved Pyetr's life in the early stages of this trouble, a web of wishes that had not let a shapeshifter lead Pyetr to disaster in the woods, and that had gotten them to the leshys before Chernevog got loose altogether. Pyetr might ironically be the hardest of them for someone else's magic to get at, after all, seeing he had had two wizards anxious as hens over him for years.

  Perhaps the wizards involved had worried too little, after all, about themselves.

  One assumed, most particularly, that Eveshka had been taking care of herself; one assumed...

  But Eveshka had grown increasingly fey and difficult as the years passed, had worried Pyetr and worried over Pyetr so very passionately that Sasha could see now, increasingly since Pyetr had been alone with him, that Pyetr was—

  Was—finally—the man he had left Vojvoda with, a Pyetr, however distressed, all of a sudden thinking again about what would do and how he would deal with things instead of, inevitably, always, what 'Veshka would think.

  That idea scared him. It scared him terribly. He thought: What did she do to him?

  He thought: 'Veshka's been scared all along. She wanted so much to make Pyetr happy... but her running off into the woods, her tempers—

  She was so terribly scared about using what she knows.

  Magic, rusalka magic, not wizardry.

  God...

  Both of us have kept our hearts.

  17

  There was a terrible crash, the boat hit something, the tiller bar jolted. Eveshka caught at it, looked up in a fright—in dark, in woods, with branches sweeping over the bow and breaking against the hull and the sail. She wanted the boat free, wanted some way left to extricate it from its predicament before it lodged itself where even wizardry could not back it out.

  But her father was there, whispering, “It's all right, it's all right, daughter, This is as far as the boat will go.”

  “Where?” She saw nothing but shadowy trees, willows weeping into the water, a black tangle that ensnared the boat so completely she had no hope of freeing it. She wanted Pyetr with her—and desperately wanted Sasha—for the merest selfish instant, with the most terrible feeling that she might not see them again. She was going deeper and deeper into something that, in the night and on a strange shore, seemed to have no shape and no end, and if she had gone willingly at first, for Pyetr's sake— now she was no longer sure she had a chance at all. “Where are we going?” she asked. “Papa?”

  Like a small child again, angry and betrayed.

  “Don't doubt,” her father's ghost whispered. “Haven't I taught you better than that?”

  He was very real in the night, a shadow, a substance, against a curtain of black willow boughs. The boat moved slowly, its bow entrapped. That was real, too.

  Her father's shadow-shape changed then, seemed to sink and flow away from her.

  “Pupa?” she said, and found herself alone, standing on the deck of a boat shrouded in willows.

  “I never could advise you,” the ghost whispered from some distance. “That's a dangerous way to grow up, girl: you always assumed the right course was opposite my advice. You called it freedom—but you were still taking your direction from someone else without understanding it. Haven't you an idea of your own, daughter?”

  “You never gave me a chance to know what I wanted!”

  “You never could tell my wishes from yours. So you fought everything, even your own good sense. Do you understand now? You'd better.”

  “Papa, you're not making sense!”

  “I can't stay. I can't—tell you—the most important— Dammit!”

  “Papa?”

  She could hear the creak and groan of the boat, the sighing of the leaves, the water breaking against the hull.

  Nothing else.

  “Papa, why did you bring me here? What do you want me to do, for the god's sake? —Damn you, papa, come back!”

  The willows sighed together. Finally something else was there, a sense of direction, an ominous significance in the dark heart of the woods.

  Magic was there. She knew the feel of it, subtle and quiet and dangerous, wanting her to leave the boat, come ahead. It assured her of her safety, it offered her—

  God, she had left the house with the feeling of something wrong, she had thought she was going to deal with the leshys, but nothing after that had gone right. Papa showed up and papa left her here, papa said she had a baby and she had had no sense HI all of it happening until he had said that. She had not thought of children: she was so young in her own eyes, and she had never planned for children. But it seemed one had happened, all the same, and her whole life was moving at someone else's whim, the way papa had done to her and Kavi had tried to do.

  Now an unplanned-for child did it, her own damned stupid fault.

  She had hardly even wished against the possibility, and babies did happen, given a chance. She was in a terrible situation that she now began to think had never been what she had believed—and papa-Papa steered her into this dreadful place, lectured her on making up her own mind and then ran off somewhere. Papa wanted, papa wanted, and her whole life turned on his wishes—and then he told her to choose. It was not Chernevog she had to deal with after all. Papa wanted this baby. Papa wanted something, and maybe it was good and maybe it was bad, one never knew with him— But a wizard-child was a disaster to her and a terrible danger to Pyetr. It was the end of their lives the way they had hoped to live them. No, dammit, someone had wanted this baby. It could not happen, it could not wreck her life this way, unless someone had wanted it against her wishes. “Papa,” she said, while the willows whispered against the deck and the hull, and tears spilled from her eyes. “Papa, damn you, what are you doing to me?”

  Often enough in his life Pyetr had waked ashamed of himself, and more than once dimly surprised to be alive, knowing he certainly had not deserved to be—both of which were the case at this gray edge of dawn. To his profound embarrassment he had the vodka jug still in his arms, and poor, faithful-to-duty Sasha had fallen asleep sitting up, with a book in his lap and a pen in his hand—while Chernevog slept wrapped in their canvas, not so far away.

  Pyetr capped the inkpot, took Sasha by the shoulder, saying, “It's me, lad, go to sleep,” and, laying the book aside, pushed Sasha back among the blankets for whatever proper rest he could still get.

  He kept a wary eye on Chernevog, stirred up the fire and heated up a few sausages and the rest of the water for tea and shaving, by touch, in the dark of the dawn. He did not want to push the boy this morning, no matter his own fever to be off. Just shave, take his time, no use breaking their necks in the dark—no matter that he had this most uncomfortable cold knot in his stomach that breakfast was not going to warm, no more than the vodka had cured it last night; and no matter that he feared 'Veshka was in some dire trouble: if it was Uulamets they had now to deal with, then 'Veshka herself was in no danger und that trouble would certainly wait for them: it had waited all those years. If it was something more than th
at, then resting was Mill the wiser course this morning: it was foolhardy and it was useless to her to walk into it too tired to think.

  Speed when it counted and deliberation when needed: he much feared otherwise he had lost his edge, forgotten the lessons of a misspent youth and grown—well, to admit the fact, soft.

  He had come to rely too much on wizards and not enough on his own wits, that was the trouble. Sasha himself said that wizards were most susceptible to wizardry and magic (which seemed, the god only knew why, from Chernevog's view and lately from Sasha's, to be two different things). They were prone to delusion, and someone in this company had to use his head.

  Nature and magic. Moving pebbles, Sasha said. This pebble, by the god, did not intend to be easy.

  The tea boiled over, hissing in the coals: he nicked himself on the chin and grabbed for it.

  “Damn!”

  He burned his hand and the tea spilled. Sasha came out of the blankets, asking, “Pyetr?”

  “Just the damn tea boiling over.” His chin stung, his finger was throbbing from the scald. He took a stick and fished the pan out of the sodden embers. “Sorry. There's sausages. No tea.”

  Sasha scrambled to his feet, looking at the lump of canvas where Chernevog was sleeping.

  One hoped, at least, that he was sleeping. Pyetr looked that way with sudden misgivings and a scalded finger. “Well, if that was his best, he's lost a bit. And it's no tea for him.” He sucked on the burn, shook the hand. “Hell, boy, accidents do happen, don't they?”

  ‘‘They shouldn't,” Sasha said.

  Pyetr looked at him.

  “Not against me,” Sasha said.

  Pyetr nodded toward Chernevog. “Think it's him? Think we ought to make another batch of that tea?”

  “I honestly don't know.”

  “Have your sausages. His can go begging. We'll load him on with the baggage.”

  “Not my doing,” Chernevog said, from the canvas across the fire. “I could plead I wasn't awake. But your clatter makes it unlikely.”

  “Tea,” Pyetr said.

  “Poison me and be done, damn you.”

 
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