[Picture and Prose by Lawrence Whitaker]
The hornet barge was a sleek, stylized vessel carved from the black sabrewood tree native to Imrryr. The entire hull was carved from a single trunk, intricately crafted by Imrryr’s expert slave shipbuilders, and then equipped with two smaller skiffs that slotted into berths on the starboard side of the ship. The whole vessel was shaped to resemble the dragon hornet; a six-winged insect unique to Melniboné that proliferated in the north of the island during the balmy summer months. Few ships of this style had ever been built and it was possible that Lord Salamir’s Hornet Barge was many centuries old.
Slaves laboured through the night to repair the ship and outfit it for its next voyage to Ryfel. The mast was repaired and damaged portions of the two decks replaced. Time precluded the craftsmen from using sabrewood and so panels of stout oak were used instead, the dark brown of the wood contrasting sharply with the ebony of the original timber.
Designed to carry a crew of fifteen the Hornet could be sailed with as few as three. Today, it would sail with six: Bōdric, Edvund, Adralat, Myluk the slave-warrior and two further slave-warriors who had also been trained in the arts of seamanship. Bōdric, Edvund and Adralat watched the final preparations from the private quay that was separated from Imrryr’s main harbour by a cunning assembly of walls, buildings and warehouses. This private harbour was large enough to berth a battlebarge and the small ship looked strange floating in the immense harbour, dwarfed by the expanse of the quayside buildings. “It should have a name,” Edvund remarked. “It’s bad luck not to name a ship.”
“How about ‘Titanic II’?” Adralat suggested. The Melnibonéans ignore him. The human shrugged. “I suppose not.”
“Hot Needle of Inquiry.” Bōdric said after deliberating for some time. Edvund smiled; trust his brother to want to name a ship after a notorious implement of torture.
“I like it,” Edvund said. “It fits with our mission.”
Bōdric stopped a passing slave who was bringing wine for the ship’s stores and took one of the bottles. He walked down the quay and to the ship’s prow. He raised his voice so all could hear: “In the name of Her Most Serene Highness, the Empress Sathril the Eighth, Queen of All Worlds, I name this ship Hot Needle of Inquiry.” Taking the bottle by the neck he slammed the body of it against the hull; the glass shattered and pale golden wine spilled over the wood. He dropped the broken neck of the bottle into the water. “May the Lords of Chaos watch over her and may the souls of her enemies be damned for all eternity.” He turned back to his comrades. “There. It’s named.”
“Bravo, my brother.” Edvund said. “A fine ceremony.”
“A waste of good wine, if you ask me,” Adralat muttered.
“No one did, human.” Edvund said. Adralat simply smiled and shrugged. “One thing though, Bōdric.” Bōdric scowled.
“What? Did I miss some important piece of trifling etiquette?”
“No,” Edvund said cautiously. “I just wondered if it was wise calling on the Lords of Chaos to watch over the vessel.”
“Of course it is,” Bōdric snapped. “Who else would you call upon?”
“A fair point.” Edvund conceded.
They watched the remaining preparations together in silence. The slaves brought aboard food and clothing of the coarse type favored by the humans of the southern continent. Finally the sail was fitted to the newly repaired mast and the overseer in charge of the outfitting approached them.
“The ship is ready my Lords,” he said. “All is equipped as His Serene Highness Prince Quire requested.” Edvund nodded his acceptance and the overseer departed, leading away his team of slaves.
Something cause Adralat to glance around and his eye was drawn to a slender tower, built to resemble the curving tusk of a great mastodon, not far from where they stood. Half way up the graceful spire was a balcony and on it, watching the preparations, were the Empress Sathril and her consort, Prince Quire. Bōdric noticed the staring Adralat and followed his gaze. “In Slortar’s name Adralat, avert your eyes!” He snapped. Adralat dropped his head.
“She is radiant,” he said. “Truly radiant.”
“She’s the Empress of Melniboné and as likely to cut your balls off for the sheer fun of it,” Bōdric hissed. “So don’t be impertinent.”
“Curious, isn’t it,” Edvund said, “how much interest the Empress is displaying in our preparations. I wonder what makes the safety of Lord Salamir so important? The whole family was disgraced, I’m sure of it. If it was punishment, then being sold into slavery is the ultimate retribution, and so it cannot be that. The Empress must want something from, or of, Lord Sathril. And his daughter.”
“Perhaps our beloved Empress wants Coru-Dro to share her bed,” Bōdric mused. “I’ve heard she enjoys the company of both men and women.”
“And you called me impertinent,” Adralat whispered. Bōdric did not hear him.
“Did you meet her, brother? When you visited Salamir’s estates?”
Bōdric shook his head. “No. I was entertained only by Salamir. He was courteous but aloof. Sullen, almost. He didn’t talk much.”
“No hint as to what disgraced the family name?”
“None. Whatever it was, it happened a very long time ago. But the emperors… they have long memories.”
“I have heard,” Edvund said, “that the memories of all emperors past can be entered through the Dream Couches. That is how every new emperor is trained to command the Bright Empire.”
Adralat looked up. “Through dreams?” He asked. Edvund nodded. “Fascinating. It must be that dream magic is understood by your people.” Edvund laughed.
“Oh my dear, poor, uncultured friend. Our people are the masters of all magic. Why, we have forgotten more about magic than most cultures will ever know.” Adralat ignored the condescension.
“Have you ever experienced these dream couches?” He asked the brothers.
“No,” Edvund said. “Only the most favored of Imrryr’s society are accorded that privilege.”
“Ah, a shame,” Adralat said. “Perhaps, though, if we are successful in finding Lord Salamir and his daughter, it might make for an apt reward.”
The two Melnibonéans exchanged amused glances. “You really are the strangest example of a human I’ve ever come across,” Edvund said.
“I take that as a compliment,” Adralat replied, and offered a mock bow.
“She’s gone.” Bōdric added and glanced towards the balcony. Only Prince Quire remained; he was watching the three on the quay intently. Then, he nodded, as though giving assent for something and disappeared into the tower.
Bōdric sighed. “I think that means ‘Get On With It’. We should, at least, make a show of leaving.”
And so the three collected their belongings from the waiting slaves. Myluk joined them onboard and busied himself by instructing the other slaves in the ways of the Hot Needle of Inquiry. The steersman and Myluk dropped the sail and prepared to be blindfolded as a Sea Maze Navigator came aboard to take the ship through the treacherous labyrinth protecting Imrryr, and out to the open ocean.
Below decks, the three fastened their blindfolds across their eyes.
“What will we find in Ryfel, I wonder?” Edvund said.
“Only the Lords of Chaos know,” Bōdric replied, “and I’m willing to bet drinking money that if Pan Tang runs Ryfel, they won’t be far away.” Silence descended across the Hot Needle of Inquiry as the boat slid into the cavernous tunnels of the Sea Maze, the only sounds being from the oars of the pilot tug boat and the terse instructions of the Sea Maze navigator.
This would be an interesting voyage…
To Be Continued…