Read an Excerpt
A Sunset Warrior Novel
By Eric Van Lustbader
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Eric Van Lustbader
All rights reserved.
It floated in his mind like a scented jewel. An island; an oasis in a turbulent, flashing stream. Life in a shifting void where there should be no other presence.
Soft and sensual; dusky, alive with a meaning more than inflection. Crimson letters, a brand of fire written across the heavens of his mind.
Ronin sat up, peered into the darkness. The creakings of the ship cradled him; the gentle sighing of the endless sea. The squat brass lamp swung on its chain. Dimly, from above, he heard the watch bell chime.
Imperceptibly, the gloom softened.
He got up. His eyes roamed the small cabin. Then, startled: 'But you cannot speak. This is a dream.'
I called you from sleep.
He turned slowly in a circle. The berths in the sloping bulkhead, the narrow shelves, the basin of water, a glint of the ocean's phosphorescence reflected through the porthole burnishing the brass compass. Splash of the creaming water.
'Where are you?'
He moved to the closed door. The tiny glow from the spangled night played along the muscles of his naked back.
In your mind.
He pulled open the door.
'Who are you?'
I—do not know.
And he went swiftly down the companionway, silently as a cat, to her cabin, to meet her.
By the time he came on deck, it was already midway through the dragonfly watch. He went up the aft companionway to the high poop, crossed to the stern rail. His dark green sea cloak whipped about his legs in the pre-dawn breeze. High aloft, the thick white canvas of the sails, faintly luminescent with incipient light, cracked; the yards creaked as the ship ran eastward. Behind them, the night shrank back as if in terror from the pearl light of the nascent sun. Their wake was black.
There was already some movement around the fo'c'sle hatch, but he ignored it, staring fixedly out to sea, contemplating the vastness upon which they rode.
'He spends precious time up there.' The voice came from behind him.
A tall, thickly muscled figure approached him. Deep hazel eyes flashed.
Ronin turned from the rolling sea.
'Are all navigators like you, Moichi? Sleepless and ever vigilant?'
The wide, thick-lipped mouth split in a grin, the white teeth made more startling by contrast with the rich cinnamon skin.
'Hah! There are none so fine as myself, Captain.'
'You mean none so foolhardy as to venture out into uncharted waters.'
The smile did not fade as the tall man brandished a sheet of rice paper.
'This Bonneduce, he gave me the chart when he hired me, Captain.'
'Your rutter is thick with the details of all the lands to which you have sailed. Yet there is no mention of Ama-no-mori.'
Moichi put his hands into the wide cloth sash banding his waist, looked down at his high shining sea boots.
'This Bonneduce, Captain, he is your friend, am I right?' His bearded head nodded. 'Well, should he lie? This chart says there is an island called Ama-nomori towards which'—here he made a swift sign across his chest—'the Oruborus willing—we sail.' He glanced up. 'I have sailed to many ports. Captain; seen things so strange that I tell them now as tall tales, sitting around a warm hearth in the public room of a tavern in some flyblown port of call, half-drunk, while everyone laughs and compliments me on my imagination. Have faith, Captain—'
There came a soft cry from aloft as the lookouts changed with the watch. The rigging swung to the men's weight.
'Hey, you see that sight, Captain?' He pointed for'ard to the first pink crescent of the sun climbing over the flat horizon. The color floated to them, tiny scimitars on the sea's surface. 'Long as I see that come cormorant, I know that all's right.'
He made a sound not unlike an animal's bark but which Ronin had come to know as the navigator's laugh.
'Let me tell you a thing about Moichi Annai-Nin because I like you.' He paused for a moment, scratching his long nose. 'I knew you were no captain when first you set foot on board this ship. You love the sea, yes, very much, but your time upon it is short, am I right?' His dark head bobbed. 'Yes, well there is no shame in it, you see. You are a man; I could see that too as soon as I saw you, and now, sixty-six days later, I know I was right.'
The sun spilled its strange flat light over the expanse of the ocean, lending it a dazzling and illusory solidity. The topsails began to burn bright. He squinted into the pink rising sun.
'Now most navigators want one thing more than all else: silver. It makes no difference to them where they sail, nor who their masters are, but only if the cargo is valuable. For the dearer that is, the fatter their percentage when they make port.' He slapped his broad chest. 'I am different. Oh, I will not lie to you and say that I do not enjoy my silver for most certainly I do.' The bright grin came again, ivory cast in dusky granite. 'But I live to fill the rutter with facts and without new lands to sail to, it does not grow. I tell you truthfully, Captain, that when the Bonneduce showed me the chart, I cared not one whit for the Kioku's cargo. "Let the captain, whoever he may be, care for the cargo," I said to myself. To sail a fast schooner to an unknown isle; to turn myth into reality; the chance of a lifetime!'
Moichi's wide-sleeved blouse rippled in the strengthening breeze, rolling wavelike across his broad chest. He put a hand on the silver pommel of his thick broadsword, which hung within a worn tattooed leather scabbard from his right hip. A pair of copper-handled dirks were thrust into his sash. He turned his head into the rising sun, and the light fired the tiny diamond set in the flesh of his right nostril.
'This gimpy knows what he is talking about, Captain. The chart is no fake, that I can tell you, for many a forgery has been sold to me in my youth. It is my great good fortune to take this beauty to a land long forgotten by man.'
'Then it is your opinion that Ama-no-mori still exists.'
'Yes, Captain, in my opinion it does.' The deep-set eyes raked Ronin's face. 'But do you not feel this already'—he slapped his chest—'here?'
Ronin's colourless eyes at last left the roiling sea before them, swung to study the angular face with its long hooked nose and hooded eyes. A depth of strength was alive within that visage as solid as a harsh rock promontory in a fierce gale, battered but victorious.
Ronin nodded and said slowly: 'You are right, my friend, of course. But you must also understand that for me the search for this isle has been long, has forged my life into a shape totally unknown to me. Now it is almost too much to think that at last it will be over.'
Moichi's cinnamon face softened and he gripped Ronin's shoulder momentarily.
'It is the truth, Captain. You live with an idea for so long a time that, after a while, it is just that which begins to have the reality. Be careful of that.'
Ronin smiled, then cocked his head. There was a small silence.
'What was it that you said to me when you came up?'
The navigator turned his head, spat over the ship's rail.
'That first mate of yours, he spends too much time for'ard.'
'Is there something wrong with that?'
'Mates rarely go before the mast, Captain, 'cept to call a man out and administer discipline. His place is aft.'
'Then why is that one for'ard?'
Moichi shrugged his massive shoulders.
'Men at sea, they all have their particular reasons for being here. They are misfits, Captain, thus they avoid the land. No one asks questions aboard ship. As for the first'—he shrugged again—'perhaps there is something here he wishes to avoid.'
'You do not know this crew?'
'Captain, navigators rarely meet the same sailor twice. This lot must come from the four corners of the continent of man. Nothing queer about that but I cannot vouchsafe even one of them.' He crossed his arms across his chest. 'Here, I can know only Moichi Annai-Nin. And by the Oruborus, he is the only one I care to know about'—his mouth twisted into a smile—'save yourself, Captain.'
'I take that as quite a compliment.'
'And well you might,' said the navigator drily, walking off.
Ronin turned his gaze for'ard, shading his eyes from the oblate sun now plastered onto the burning white sky like a hot rice paper lantern. Lances of light shot from the moving crests of the waves. The blue was very deep in the wide troughs. Men had begun to play out lines along the starboard side, fishing for breakfast. Scents climbed from the tarred deck as the sun heated the wood: the harsh, bitter stench offish innards, the tang of caked salt, the aromatic spice of warm pitch and tar, the sour scent of stale sweat.
There came a hoarse shout and several men starboard dropped their lines to aid a sailor who was being dragged overboard by the weight at the end of his hook. They hauled on the line, in concert, singing, the quarter-rhythm coordinating their efforts, and gradually, the dripping line piled itself at their feet. Muscles jumped under sun-tanned skin and sweat broke out across their naked backs as they heaved.
A long gray-brown tentacle curled up over the starboard rail, then an amorphous lump perhaps twice the length of a man flopped onto the deck. The men, seeing it at last, stepped away from its writhing body. One shouted for Moichi, who turned from his chart and went across the main deck to where they stood. After a moment's argument, he brushed through the tight circle and, drawing his broadsword, slew the thing. Dull green blood spurted and a tentacle quivered about his high boots. Someone handed him a cloth and he wiped down his blade before sheathing it. Gingerly, as if with enormous distaste, the men heaved the bulk over the side. Reluctantly, they went back to their lines, talking among themselves in low tones.
Ronin leaned over the inside rail of the poop.
'What was it, Moichi?'
The cinnamon face peered up at him briefly.
'Devilfish, Captain,' he said. 'It is nothing. Nothing.'
'The men do not like it.'
He went back to his charts.
For'ard, Ronin could make out the gaunt figure of the first mate, a black silhouette against the low sun. His hideously misshapen face shadowed, mercifully blank now. Ronin had seen him only from a distance, as he had seen most of the men, but he knew that the man had no lower jaw and that his cheeks were deeply scarred. An accident at sea, the story went, adrift in shark waters. And by the time he had been pulled to safety—It was a miracle that he was even alive, they said.
Ronin shrugged and turned away. If the first mate wished to keep to himself and spend his days before the mast, he had no objections. The man did his job, and as Moichi had said, no one asked questions at sea.
His concern now was Moeru. Who was she? After communicating with her for more than half a watch he still had no idea because neither did she.
He had picked her off the streets of Sha'angh'sei, sick and starving, and he had saved her. On impulse, out of instinct, call it what he might. The fact remained that, from that moment, their fates were joined. She became, in her convalescence, at Tench?, the guardian of the strange root which, according to the apothecary who had been its custodian, had been the catalyst in the creation of The Dolman many eons ago. The same root which Ronin had eaten in the pine forest north of Kamado, the yellow citadel, and in so doing had been reunited with Bonneduce the Last and his more than animal companion Hynd.
And she had followed him north from Sha'angh'sei in pursuit of the Makkon, to Kamado, to the forest of the Hart of Darkness, waiting patiently, mysteriously for him, riding with him across the burning continent of man, to the port of Khiyan while, behind them, the last battle of mankind raged before the high walls of Kamado. Dumb Moeru, who could not speak yet now could form words in his mind. She was not from Sha'angh'sei or its environs, her features had not the characteristic cast. And although he had discovered her among the refugees of the fighting in the north who daily streamed into the streets of Sha'angh'sei, she was hardly a peasant for her hands were delicate and uncallused.
She could tell him nothing for her memory had fled her, whether from a direct blow or from shock and extreme exposure or from something else entirely he had no way of knowing. She remembered only Tencho, Kiri, Matsu—and Ronin. Who she was and where she had come from remained a mystery. Yet there seemed time now, while the Kioku plowed the vastness of the ocean in search of the isle of the fabulous Bujun, on this long voyage to the end of his quest, to discover Moeru's past.
It was an enigma he wished to unlock, yet, too, he longed to know the fate of those locked within the great stone citadel of Kamado; whether the forces of man were holding their own against the rising tide of the human and unhuman hordes of The Dolman. Had Kiri as yet returned from her mission in Sha'angh'sei to unite the feuding Greens and Reds? But, above all, had the four Makkon at last appeared on the continent of man. Two he already knew had been together. When all four united, they would summon The Dolman again to the world of man. Then surely Kamado would fall.
The bronze bell chimed the mid-watch and he was brought breakfast: strips of raw white fish, skinned and cleaned, and a portion of dried seaweed.
He turned at a sound, saw Moeru reach the poop via the aft companionway. She wore wide cobalt blue silk pants and a quilted jacket, bottle green, embroidered with leaping fish. As she moved across the deck to join him, illumined by the morning sun, he marvelled once more at her satin beauty. Her high cheekbones, accented by a rather sharp chin and large blue-green eyes, the colour of a far-off soundless sea, almond-shaped and tilted, were veiled by her long dark hair as the salt breeze filmed it about her like a fine rain. She seemed strong and fit. How different she was now from the frail mud-soaked woman he had lifted from the rutted streets of Sha'angh'sei. As she stopped before him he saw that she wore the slender silver chain with its centre flower—what was that blossom called?—which he had given her last night. A Bujun artifact that he had plucked from a dying man in a dismal alley in Sha'angh'sei, and which, later, amongst the Greens, had almost cost him his life. He was unaccountably pleased that she wore it.
Yes, came the sound in his mind and he started in spite of himself.
He called to a sailor who brought her a plate of food. For a time he watched her eat.
'Tell me again what happened,' he said abruptly.
She lifted her golden face to him, her eyes catching the sun, turning white, then black as her hair caught up with the motion, shadowing her.
When I called to you in the night.
'Not before.' He wondered if this was a question.
She drew a wisp of hair from in front of one eye with her first two fingers and he thought: Matsu, a wild uneasy cry in the night.
Moeru stared at him for a moment, a blank, curiously opaque look. Then she blinked as if she were trying to remember a stray thought that had just crossed her mind. She steadied herself against the roll and pitch of the ship.
What did you say?
No. Otherwise I would have called to you sooner. Surely.
'I expect so.' Turning from her to throw the scraps of his meal over the side. He did not turn back but continued to stare into the glinting enigmatic face of the water.
Moeru went back to her breakfast but now her eyes studied him with some deliberation.
For'ard, the bosun ordered men into the shrouds to unfurl every centimeter of canvas to the stiffening wind. The sun went behind a cloud and the air turned abruptly chill. Then its white face emerged and the heat returned. Farther off, patches of shadow stained the sea, mirroring the passage of the clouds racing across the sky.
I cannot read your mind, if that is what you are thinking.
'I did not really—'
No. Of course not. She devoured the last slice of fish.
'All right. It did cross my mind.'
I saw Moichi kill that thing that the men caught.
'The devilfish.' Noted her change of subject.
He slit its belly, did you see? Because they are viviparous. He made certain that the babies died too.
'How would you know that?' He was genuinely curious.
I—do not know.
'Have you ever been to sea?'
It seems that I have, yes.
'Perhaps then your people are sailors.'
Excerpted from Dai-San by Eric Van Lustbader. Copyright © 1978 Eric Van Lustbader. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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