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       Chernevog, p.28

           C. J. Cherryh

  Sasha sat down hard where he stood, with the half-empty salt jar in his arms, white dust blowing across an empty deck and melting in the puddles of water the vodyanoi had left.

  He shook, great tremors that knocked his knees together and made his teeth chatter.

  Close, he said to himself, very close. He hoped Missy was all right out there, and that Babi was with her.

  Most of all—he hoped Pyetr was all right; but he dared not think about Pyetr now, dared not, please the god—he dared not.

  But—he thought, recalling that darkness he had touched when he had sought Pyetr—the shapeshifter until now had taken the shape of dead people, not the living; and Pyetr had not answered him.

  His teeth kept rattling. He told himself it was magical and it would damned well take any shape it wanted, that anything else was only coincidence, only what they happened to have seen it do.

  The greater danger had been in reaching out like that. Ho dragged his mind away from it, he wondered instead after Missy, wondered, still shaking, where she was.

  Quite far away and knee-deep in water, as it seemed. He reassured her: it was safer near him. He wanted her to come back now, the bad things were gone; he wanted Babi to make sure she got here safely—but Babi arrived quite suddenly on the deck, a formidably large Babi, a very angry Babi.

  “Go see about Missy,” he murmured. “It's all right, the River-thing's gone.”

  Babi did not go at once, Babi marched over to the shattered rail and Sasha wanted him to stop. “See to Missy,” he said again, wishing Babi, strongly, and Babi went this time without looking over that edge.

  Sasha hugged the salt jar against him and stood up, still weak in the knees, still thinking about the shapeshifter and its tricks, and leaned against the deckhouse. The wind blew pale salt across the starlit deck and the sail flapped and thumped against the willows.

  He wanted to know Pyetr's state of mind, he could not for a moment help himself—it was his heart at work, in the convolute way he had to think of such things. He dragged himself back from that thought and tried to tell himself what he had felt from Pyetr had not been the dark that death was. He had felt that dark silence many times, many times, if he went eavesdropping on people in their sleep—sometimes one overheard dreams and sometimes just a confusion no different than ghosts—

  Another shiver came over him, a sudden chill, a breathing at his nape. He looked across the deckhouse roof to the stern, fearing to see Hwiuur's massive head rising out of the river.

  But there was nothing more substantial than a sudden chill, us if the wind had skipped around his shoulders and whipped mound into his face. It spun around and around him, touching him with cold.

  Pyetr? he wondered with a heart-deep chill. Surely not.

  The cold spot passed through him. Not Pyetr—thank the god, no. It left him weak-kneed and short of breath and shivering so he had trouble hanging on to the salt jar. He asked it, teeth chattering:”Who are you?” and waited for some manifestation, Nome pale wisp in the night.

  But there was nothing. He stood there looking into the dark, not entirely sure he wanted to hear from it again—and felt an overwhelming anxiousness.

  “Master Uulamets?” he asked whatever-it-was. “That's you, isn't it? Misighi said to look for you.”

  It had shaken him worse than any ghost yet. He was all but certain now what it was—if it remembered its own name. He sensed its anger with him, and that was something he could not help at all—that he was profoundly glad this ghost was dead and Pyetr was alive.

  “I'm sorry,” he said carefully to the dark, aloud, because it was easier to shepherd spoken words down a single, careful path. “It's not that I'm glad you're dead, understand, I never was. I'm not now.”

  But it was hard to lie to a ghost, and he was terrified, now that he had found it. This one knew what to touch. What to ask. It had lent pieces of itself to him it might want back with a claim he might not resist—and he needed them and Pyetr did, desperately, this ghost having no love of Pyetr at all.

  The boat groaned. There was the soft sound of water. He wanted the ghost to show himself, he wanted it to behave itself and forgive him that he did not want it alive and could not trust it. Uulamets had never encouraged trust. Quite the opposite.

  He only knew he was supposed to take the baskets out of the deckhouse. All of them. Now. Immediately.

  As wishes went it seemed harmless. He was not sure it was at all sane. But he pushed the door open and started dragging baskets out onto the deck.

  The third he pulled out— —'Veshka's book—here. Oh, god-He wanted light. Or something did. He rummaged feverishly in the deckhouse, looking for the lamp they kept there—managed, with many false efforts and desperate wishes, to get the thing lit, while the cold swirled about him and through him. He set the fluttering light down inside the deckhouse door and gathered the open book into his lap, tilting it until he could see the last pages written. He read, first:

  I don't know what to wish about the baby. Papa would say you can undo anything but the past...

  Draga threw herbs onto the fire and sparks flew, a cloud of stars whirling up the chimney. Draga said, ”Many things pass boundaries: not all are changed. Wood and water and iron go into the same fire. Each behaves differently. Does fire frighten you?”

  “No,” Eveshka said.

  ‘‘You'd put your hand into it? “

  “I could,” Eveshka said.

  Draga reached into the fire and gathered up an ember. Eveshka thought, It's the same as reaching into the fire—she's wishing the heat away as fast as it comes. But she's very good,

  Draga closed her fist about the coal, so there was nowhere for the heat to go. —Where is it going? Eveshka wondered. Can she wish it back into the fire?

  “I'm not wishing it anywhere,” Draga said, and opened her hand. The cinder had become black. It still smoldered. There was soot on Draga's hand. “That's the very simple difference between your wizardry and mine. Your wish would be very modest and constant, very fussy, and if someone said your name you might burn yourself very badly, mightn't you? Because you'd lose your spell at the first pain, and you might not be able to restore it. But real magic doesn't bother to figure out a clever way to hold the fire. It ignores nature.”

  The ember began to glow again, and burst into fire in the middle of Draga's hand.

  “That,” Draga said, “is magic.”

  “A straw actually does as well,” Eveshka said, with Pyetr's stubborn pragmatism: her mother was pushing her, undermining her way of doing things, and a straw was better, not least because it did not tempt one to throw wishes about carelessly.

  “Wishes just don't matter. That's the thing, dear, you don't have to be that careful. If you make a mistake you can retrieve it.”

  “ Don't eavesdrop, mama!”

  “You don't want me to know certain things?”

  “I'm not your echo, mama, and I like my privacy, thank you.

  And what happens if you do make a mistake? What happens if you don't understand what else you're wishing?”

  “That part is the same. There are consequences. Only some of them happen here, in the natural world.”

  “Can magic find them out beforehand? Reliably?”

  “Some of them.”

  “Then it's damned stupid, mama, doing anything of the sort.”

  “Shhh. You raise a rainstorm. Do you know every leaf that falls? The law is that leaves will fall. Which leaf is meaningless to know. What you care about is that the rain come—and stop in due course. The difference is scope, dear.”

  “My husband is no leaf, mama!”

  “Neither is that baby.”

  “I don't know that I want a baby! I don't know I want one at all”

  “The one you don't want, dear, is the one you and Kavi might have had. Or the one you and Sasha might have had. This one is manageable. But not, considering your enemies, the way your father managed you.” Draga shook ash from her hand. That was
all that remained of the ember. “Does it matter in the magical world that a bit of wood burned? No. And yes—if it makes you understand what's essential, it's of extreme consequence there and here. There's no reason by which that bit of wood should have that value. But it may.”

  “The value isn't in the wood,” Eveshka said doggedly, “the answer isn't in the smoke.”

  ‘‘That's Malenkova, did you know that? She used to say that.”

  She had thought it was her father. She had thought so many things were only his.

  Draga said, “The value of a piece of wood, dear, is wherever a sorcerer assigns it. That's the important thing. You can vest a value in a thing... put a spell on it, if you like. You command a thing to be of a certain value. Or state.”

  The fire was out. There was no light. Suddenly it burned again, as if nothing had happened.

  “That wasn't a trick,” Draga said. “It happened. Do you believe me?”

  “If you can do it you can make me believe you did it, don't you? So it makes no difference. I'll grant you did. Why did you do it?”

  “You do sound like your father. I did it because I wanted. Because I can do it.”

  “Well, why bother with fires? Wish yourself tsarina of Kyev. Wish yourself a dozen handsome men to wait on you and rings on all fingers...”

  “I could do that.”

  “I prefer my husband.”

  “I've had one, thank you.” Draga dusted her hands one against the other, wiped the soot off with a towel. “And of course you're right, nothing's that easy. My little business with the fire was showy—but a straw is better, with a little wish in help it, and ten handsome servants might be nice, but then, I've help when I need it.”

  “What help?”

  “Oh, him or her, whatever suits.”

  “A shapeshifter?” Eveshka was appalled.

  “Dear, you won't have a dvorovoi or a leshy anywhere near you if you do magic. They don't like demands on them. A shapeshifter's one of the most selfless creatures you'll deal with if you're careful what you let it be. You have to be very stern with it. And you have to be aware there are creatures that aren't at all selfless, and they'd very happily take any situation and turn it to their advantage. You have to learn your way in magic— and the wizard who's very likely to find serious trouble, my dear, is the one who's doing magic without knowing what he's borrowing from, because a good many of your silly, childish spells are, truly, borrowing from something outside the natural.”

  A rusalka had no trouble understanding that: Eveshka bit her lip, clenched her hands and tried not to remember that feeling, that flood of life into death—

  “ A wizard-child does it—and there are always creatures ready to help, unless he's guarded.”

  “I knew one that wasn't guarded! He had no help. And he's not a sorcerer.”

  “Sasha's very unusual. But Sasha burned his parents to death. Did you know that?”

  “He told me.”

  “So he did make a mistake. It scared him out of doing magic at all until your father got his hands on him. He's very innocent. His wish was not to do harm. And the strength of the innocent in magic is like the strength of children—naive and terribly dangerous.”

  “ How do you know about him?”

  “I have my sources. I even know what wanted him. It still does. And of course he'd be very foolish to deal with it. You never deal with the one that wants you most. You deal with Something just a bit stronger—and you have to be very stubborn. You can smother a gift the way your young friend did; but it's very unusual for a child to do the right thing. Usually they don't. Horn in an ordinary situation, they can do very dangerous things—and very many fall right into the magical world and become—the god knows what. If a child is being attacked—” Her mother caught her hands in hers and held them so tightly the bones ground together, pain she opened her mouth to protest, but her mother said, “As you were attacked, dear. Kavi wanted you dead and you wouldn't die. You fought back as hard as a wizard could fight, you fought him by wanting your life so much... so much... you pulled at everything in sight, like someone drowning—”

  “I did drown, mama!” The pain was nothing. The image scared her. It reminded her—

  “You can drown in magic or you can strike out and swim, clear, you don't have to draw on the natural world. There is a place to get everything your wizardry can use—the right way. It was your fathers damnable teaching that made you a killer. You wouldn't do what was reasonable, no, you followed your father and you ended up Kavi's creature—say what you will, Kavi was using you; Kavi's wishes have been, even while he was sleeping, and he'll go on using you, against everything you want for yourself, unless you listen to different advice.”

  Listening to anyone's advice frightened her. There had been so many lies.

  “Kavi has your husband in his hands,” Draga said, and squeezed hard, while cold panic swept over her. “Don't wish! Listen! Sasha's run, he's had to, he's completely out of his element. He can't help your husband at all, he's in danger himself, and there's precious little he can appeal to, unless he does resort to magic—alone, untaught, and with your father's ideas to cripple him. I can't reach him. You're the one who has a chance, but you've got to listen to me now, daughter, you've got to believe for once in your life someone is telling you the truth.”

  Something had happened, Pyetr had no idea what, except it meant they were ahorse again, riding in the dark—he had opened his eyes by firelight with the side of his face stinging and Chernevog holding him painfully by the arm, saying, “Get up, get up, pack up. Move, damn you!”

  He still had a wobbly, hollow feeling from that sudden waking, he still had no idea what had put fear on Chernevog's face or what hour of the night it was, but a dream kept coming back to him that Sasha had called his name in profound distress, just before that waking; and he doubted Chernevog would tell him anything but lies.

  But Chernevog said, as they rode, ”Your friend's found something, or something's found him.”

  He wanted to know, dammit, he could not help wondering, and Chernevog said, holding to him,

  “He's upstream from us. He went back toward the house and doubled back east and north following the river—looking for Eveshka, I'm sure: it's what he hopes to do I can't figure—or how much he understands of anything he's doing.”

  That was a question. Like ghosts, it came at him with fewer distractions in the dark. Pyetr bit the sore spot on his lip and tried to tell himself he had not felt Sasha wanting him, nothing was wrong, that Chernevog was worried was the best thing in the world, and if Chernevog wanted him to make guesses what another wizard would do, Chernevog had to be desperate.

  “You felt it,” Chernevog said. “You know he's in trouble.”

  “I don't know that,” he retorted, “but if you are, that does me good, Snake.”

  Chernevog made him think of shapeshifters then, and his thoughts jumped to Uulamets' likeness, the creature trying to lead him—


  —east. To the river...

  “My old servant,” Chernevog said. “But slippery. Damned slippery.”

  He remembered Sasha saying—the vodyanoi had corrupted Chernevog, not the other way around.

  “Corrupted me?” Chernevog asked, and shifted his seat as if that idea had truly startled him. “Corrupted me, god, no!”

  Pyetr thought, And you aren't, Snake?

  Chernevog said nothing for a moment, and shifted his hands to Pyetr's shoulders, both, too friendly for Pyetr's liking. Chernevog's presence was very quiet for a moment—enough to make a man's skin crawl, and Chernevog:

  “Be still.”

  “Be still, hell.” He gave a violent shrug, remembered Vojvoda for no reason, remembered 'Veshka, remembered the river and Babi and Sasha and planting the garden, all so rapidly he knew he was not recalling these things for his own reasons. He grew alarmed—and got the notion—while it was weaving its way through his thoughts he realized it was not his either—
that Sasha's safety might rely on his willing cooperation.

  That's a damned lie, he thought, but he could not make himself absolutely sure of that. He thought—if it were true—

  If it were true—

  Chernevog said: “If Sasha thinks the vodyanoi's corrupted me, then he's mistaken what he's dealing with. He's terribly, dangerously wrong. And so might Eveshka be. You don't deal with a creature like Hwiuur. You don't.”

  He did not understand, except that no one in his right mind would trust the vodyanoi for anything. He thought, Sasha's not a fool.

  “Sasha's not wholly a fool. But Hwiuur's a great liar. He'll try to frighten you. And if you're going to deal with magic, Pyetr Ilyitch, you don't deal with something like him—god, you don't.” He put one hand on Pyetr's back, said, quietly, compelling his attention, “Forget about my corruption. It has nothing to do with anything. I'm wanting him to hear you, right now, for whatever you want to tell him, Pyetr Ilyitch.”

  He thought, It's a trap, it has to be.

  But immediately it seemed Sasha wanted assurance of him and quick as that he wanted Sasha not to trust the vodyanoi, to make no bargains that did not involve Chernevog's guidance

  No! Pyetr thought, but he doubted anyone was listening to him any longer—he knew Sasha was worried about him, and Chernevog was anxious to find Sasha before Sasha made any bargain with anything, because he needed Sasha, he was afraid Eveshka might have slipped into something that would make her—

  He could not think about that. He could not even imagine Unkind of thing trying to shape itself in his mind, Eveshka would never do that, but Eveshka had never wanted to kill anybody either.

  Then for no reason he could think of, and very frightened, he was sure Eveshka had conceived a baby, and that it was his, and that nothing was safe or sure in those circumstances. When? he wondered, and, Why not tell me? He was wounded, and fearing she was running from him—but he decided then Eveshka was not, she was concerned for him—

  She wanted him the way Draga had wanted Chernevog, nothing to do with his own good.

  That was not so. No. And of a sudden he was aware of Sasha wanting his whole attention, of Chernevog behind him again it had seemed otherwise for a moment, as if Sasha and Chernevog were face-to-face—Sasha saying, in words he could almost hear, Pyetr, listen to me, don't listen to him, it's very dangerous for you to listen to him.

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