On the way back to the ship the Knights stopped in Beorn’s office to get directions to their destination. The dwarf pulled down a dog-eared chart and spread it out on a workbench. His stubby finger indicated a tiny spot marked in green. “That’s the island where Seasar’s tribe lives. The sauroids got some blasted unpronounceable name for it, but we just call it Lizard Rock.”
Elric leaned over the chart, staring at its crisscrossing lines and complex formulas with interest. “I thought you said there were hundreds of sauroid tribes on different asteroids on Heraup.”
“Thousands. So what?”
“Well, any of their asteroids or islands could be called Lizard Rock. What makes that one so special?”
Beorn gave him a sour grin, “They pay on time.”
“Kinda important to us all, wouldn’t ye say?” Beorn grunted. He turned back to the chart. “Lizard Rock is bigger than this place, lots bigger. So gravity there works just like on a normal planet.”
Jon nodded, “We’re familiar with that. It’s this artificial stuff that’s new to us.”
The dwarf shrugged. “Maybe so, but that’s not the point. Ye won't be able ta tie up at the edge the way ya do here, or at Harpel. Ye’ll have ta land, and that’s not as easy as it sounds.” He looked hard at them. “Especially if ye’ve never done it before.”
The Knights exchanged a worried look at that.
Aaren had a sudden thought on a different matter. “Why do the sauroids need somebody to fly a ship for them? Why can’t they do that themselves?”
“Because they get confused in space,” Beorn rumbled.
Elric frowned at him. “What do you mean?”
The dwarf shrugged. “It’s got something to do with their eyes, the way they focus or whatever. They get lost and confused and go off course.” He dismissed it and turned back to the chart.
“Look over here,” he continued. “This is the course ye’ll want ta follow ta get there.”
Katrina elbowed Elric aside and leaned over to examine the spiraling track Beorn was indicating. As the new navigator, it was her responsibility to lay in the course, but with only a few lessons under her belt and no experience plotting a course through high winds, she almost wished that Altman was back. “How accurate is this?” she asked nervously.
“Seasar made the chart,” Beorn replied. “He should know, he’s made the trip on hired ships several times.” She bit her lip and copied the course layout onto a sheet of paper, sketching quickly.
“Ye’ll have ta make allowances fer the time of day and the wind speed,” Beorn continued. He pointed to the formulas on the outer edge of the chart. Katrina nodded and continued taking notes.
Elric saw that it would take her some time to get it all and drew Beorn aside. “What is Lizard Rock like? What should we expect? And how do we find Seasar?”
“What are ye, an adventurer or a sage?” the dwarf grunted.
“They’re perfectly legitimate questions,” Jon objected. “If he hadn’t asked them, I would have.”
“Yeah,” Horace added. “We’re going into a completely unknown situation. We’ve got a right to know as much as possible before we go.”
“I ain’t got all day,” Beorn grumbled. “So it’s gonna have ta be short.”
“Look who’s talking about short,” Horace snickered. His chuckles were cut short when Aaren elbowed him sharply in the ribs. “Ooof!”
“I’ve only been there once,” the dwarf said, ignoring the big fighter. “It’s about as swampy a place as ye’ll ever find–”
“I thought you said it was called Lizard Rock,” Elric interrupted.
“Ye want ta hear this or not?”
“We want to hear it.”
“Then shut up.” Beorn glared at the slender mage until he dropped his eyes in embarrassment. “No more interruptions. It’s called Lizard Rock and it’s swampy,” he said vehemently. “It’s also hotter than the jungles of Carrzulm. There are zillions of snakes and creepy crawlies, they got crocodiles in every pond and river, and more mosquitoes than ye can swat.” He paused thoughtfully. “Plus the ordinary sorts of monsters ye might expect to find in a place like that,” he added.
“What about finding Seasar?” Elric ventured meekly.
“It all looks the same from the air,” Beorn shrugged. He got up and headed out the door. Just before he got there he stopped and grinned at their expressions. “The place ain’t all that big, just land where the chart tells ye and go barging around, ye’ll find him.”
They stared after him in stunned silence.
“Go barging around?” Jon croaked in dismay. “We want to find somebody and he says ‘go barging around’? What kind of directions are those?”
“The best kind!” Horace crowed. “We’ll go barging around and anything that attacks us isn’t Seasar!” He whipped his sword out and danced a little jig around the room. “Real adventure at last!” He laughed and made another circuit of the room.
Jon’s expression was so pained the rest of them broke into laughter. Even Aaren overcame his melancholy long enough to chuckle once or twice.
Katrina draped a friendly arm over the rogue’s shoulder. “Come on Jon, it’s what we all wanted to do to begin with. Let’s have a little fun, okay?”
“A little fun?” he yelped. “We’ve been barging around ever since Taeljurm. Are you out of your mind?”
“It’s the only game in town,” she told him. “Better get used to it.”
Mira was slumped at the small table in her cabin staring moodily into space when a soft knock at the door startled her. She jerked upright. “Who is it?”
Aaren’s muffled voice answered, “Me.”
Striving to keep her voice level, she sat up and straightened her tunic, smoothing it out. “Come in.”
The door opened. He came in and sat at the table with her.
She watched him silently.
He returned her gaze.
It stretched out painfully, both of them thinking desperately, trying to figure out how to start the conversation. Several times one of them would open their mouth . . . and nothing would come out.
Just when Mira thought she would scream if it lasted another second, Aaren took the plunge. “About Heraup . . .” He hesitated, then took a deep breath. “We’ve, the rest of us that is . . . we’ve decided to go.”
He searched her face for any sign of encouragement, but her expression was carefully blank. He pressed forward gingerly, aware he was treading on thin ice. “It’s not right for the group to split up like this, some here, some there.”
Her eyebrow lifted. “I agree.”
“It’s bad for morale . . . and . . . it’s bad for me.”
The eyebrow lifted even higher this time.
He colored slightly but the mood of self-revelation held and he continued, eyes level with hers. “You’re more than just a friend or an adventuring companion or a shipmate. You’re the woman I . . .”
She leaned forward. “The woman you . . . what?”
Aaren cursed inwardly. This wasn’t the right time for this! How did he manage to get himself sidetracked like this? This wasn’t what he’d come here to talk about!
“The woman I . . . what?” she repeated patiently.
Lord of Light be with me, he prayed silently.
He summoned up his courage and raised his head. “The woman I love and want to marry,” he said firmly. He stifled the urge to say more and sat quietly waiting for her response.
It was a long time coming.
Outwardly she was calm but inside a storm was raging. By turns, she was ecstatic and furious. Part of her said he was using her emotions against her, holding out marriage as a bribe, a reward for going to Heraup. Another part of her dismissed the idea as ludicrous, Aaren would never stoop to that level. He wanted to marry her because that was the natural, next step.
They’d been friends for so long their feelings had blossomed into love, on her part as well as his. Now he wanted them to get married. What could be more normal?
And yet . . .
. . . what if it was a bribe? What then?
She examined him carefully. He was sitting as if carved from stone, waiting for her reply.
No, that wasn’t true.
There was a slight trembling here and there. Not much, but just enough to be noticeable if you were paying attention, evidence of the tension within him. Her heart went out to him then and she almost gave in to the impulse to say yes, but something held her back.
“Your timing is a little strange,” she finally ventured in neutral tones. “Why did you wait until now to ask me?”
“I hadn’t meant to bring it up at all,” he said seriously. “I was only going to talk about Heraup. It was just an accident.”
“An accident!?” She was on her feet, eyes blazing with sudden fury.
The blood drained from his face. He jerked up, hands held out. “No! I didn’t mean it like that–”
“You asked me to marry you by ACCIDENT!?” she screamed at him, not giving him a chance to finish. She swung a lightning fist and caught him full in the face. “You no good, rotten, horrible, monstrous . . . m-m-monster! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!” She hurled herself at him, swinging wildly.
He stumbled back from her insane attack, fending off her blows as best he could. They were raining down on him fast and furious in a staccato drumbeat. Within seconds his lips were split, both eyes were blackened and his ribs were sore and aching from her repeated pounding. He backed into the door and groped blindly behind him for the door handle, one arm held up to block her fists.
He found it, at the same instant three bodies hit the door from the other side, hurling him forward. He cannoned helplessly into Mira. She fell heavily, his armored weight landing on top of her with a bone-crushing impact. She lay stunned for a moment, blackness swirling around her. Then hands were picking them off the floor, her vision steadied and she looked around. The rest of their friends were crowding into the cabin, swords drawn and ready for what they’d assumed would be a life or death fight. They were looking anxiously around for the enemy they’d expected to find.
Then they saw Aaren’s face and Mira’s knuckles.
Katrina's expression slowly congealed in disgust as the truth of what must have happened became apparent. She slammed her replacement sword back in its scabbard. “Of all the stupid things to do,” she hissed furiously. “Don’t you have any sense?” The group paused uncertainly, not sure who her words were aimed at. She didn’t bother to enlighten them, she just turned and left.
The others relaxed, straightening up from their fighting stances. They put their weapons away and examined the two combatants. Aaren and Mira had composed themselves by now, their expressions stony. Blood ran freely down Aaren’s face and Mira’s knuckles were bruised and swollen.
Elric shook his head sadly. “What’s going on with you two?”
“Yeah,” Horace growled. “I thought you were in love or something.”
They flinched but said nothing.
Jon began tapping his foot impatiently. “Come on. What’s going on here?”
Aaren’s voice was cold and remote, like icebergs colliding in some frozen, northern wasteland. “Nothing.”
Mira echoed him like a zombie. “Nothing.”
Their friends were incredulous. “You gotta be outta your minds. You look like a couple of cats that have been going at each other tooth and nail. Now come on, spit it out – what’s going on?”
Before they could ask any more questions, Aaren turned away and walked out, heading up the companionway toward his own cabin.
“I’ve changed my mind,” Mira said, raising her voice. “I’m going to Heraup after all.”
Aaren’s back stiffened then he continued, slamming the door behind him.
Jon, Elric, and Horace turned to Mira, flooding her with questions. But although they begged and pleaded, they couldn’t get another word out of her. They finally gave up in frustration and backed out of her cabin, slamming the door with a bang.
As they vanished into their own cabins and silence fell over the ship, the door to a small storage closet next to Mira's cabin opened and Taanen slowly emerged. He looked around cautiously, a sly grin crossing his face. On bare feet, he hurried quickly to the cabin he shared with Marak.
He had good news to tell his master. And . . . with the right nudge, he could get his master to use the news at the worst possible time, resulting in his death at Mira’s hands, leaving Taanen as the only heir to Marak’s position and fortune – after Illene met with a slight accident, of course.
He smiled to himself. Oh yes, he had very good news.