Storeys from the Old Hotel
By Gene Wolfe
Orb Books Copyright © 1995 Gene Wolfe
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780312890490
Storeys from the Old HotelThe Green Rabbit from S'RianC
APTAIN TEV NOEN TOOK OFF HIS GILDED DRESS HELMET and scratched his shaven head--not because he was puzzled by the sight of two of his best hands nailing up a placard at the mouth of Rat's Alley, but because it had occurred to him that the placards might be ineffective, and he had not yet decided what to do if they were. He had composed them himself that afternoon, and Ler Oeuni, his first mate, had lettered them with sweeping strokes of the brush.
JOIN THE LEVAR'S NAVY! THE GALLEASS WINDSONG
IS NOW ACCEPTING RECRUITS! THREE COPPERS A DAY PROMPTLY PAID AT EVERY PORT! AMPLE FOOD, DRINK, AND CLOTHING, AND GOOD TREATMENT! SIGN TONIGHT AT THE BIG TREE! FIVE COPPERS WHEN YOU SIGN!! PRIZE MONEY COULD MAKE YOU RICH!!!
It was a simple appeal to self-interest, and Noen wondered whether sounding the trumpets of Liavek and Her Magnificence, as most captains did, would not have been better. He thought not. In his experience, recruits did not care about such things.The hands drove home their final nails with resoundingwhacks and turned to face their captain, touching their foreheads with all fingers. Automatically, Noen replaced his helmet and returned their salutes. "Good work. Now we'll rejoin Lieutenant Dinnile and see if these have brought anyone yet." Recklessly he added, "I'll buy you each a tankard, if there's a good hand already."The sailors grinned and took their positions like proper bodyguards, the woman ahead of him and the man behind him. Noen tried to recall their names; they pulled the first (that was, the rearmost) starboard oar--Syb and Su, of course. Each wore a sharply curved cutlass in a canvas sheath now, although the hammers they carried would be nearly as effective.He himself was far better armed, with his sword and double-barreled pistol. Not that swords or "villainous saltpetre" should be needed for the drunken sailors of Rat Alley, or its cutthroats either--Naval officers were notoriously savage fighters and just as notoriously broke.If they were attacked, it might even be possible to carry the fellow--undamaged, Noen hoped--aboard Windsong.
There he would sign on or chase a sack of ballast to the bottom."Why, if we were attacked by fifty or so ...""Sir?" Su looked over her shoulder at him."Talking to myself," Noen told her brusquely. "Stupid habit."There were always the judges. A judge could pardon an offender willing to enlist. And judges did
pardon such offenders--for well-connected captains, and for captains who could offer rich gifts in return. Not for Tev Noen, to be sure.A rat scampered across Noen's boots, and he kicked it. It sailed past Su's head, and in the darkness of Rat's Alley someone swore and spat."Good 'un, sir," Syb whispered diplomatically.Noen had recognized the voice. "Is that you, Dinnile?""Yes, sir, Some filthy devil just flung a rat at me, sir."Inwardly, Noen damned his luck. The story would be all over the ship by morning, and such stories were bad fordiscipline. Aloud he said, "Officers who leave their posts have to expect such luck, Lieutenant." Or perhaps they were good for discipline after all, or could be made to be. Syb and Su would be the cynosures of the main deck, and he himself shouldn't come off too badly."I didn't leave my post, sir." Dinnile's brass breastplate gleamed now in the faint light. He spat again and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "I got 'em.""Got what?""Fifty-two rowers, sir. You said not to take no more, remember? No use payin' more than's authorized."Noen squinted at the dim column that trailed after Dinnile in the dark. "You got fifty-two in a couple of watches?""Yes, sir! They come together, sir. They're nomads from the Great Waste." Dinnile halted before his captain and touched his forehead. "There's been a drought there, they say, so it's worse than usual--cattle dyin', and all that. They come to Liavek to keep from starvin', and somebody that saw one of Oeuni's placards sent 'em to us."Noen nodded. It seemed best to nod in the face of Dinnile's enthusiasm. "That's a piece of luck.""For us and them--that's what I told 'em. We'll sail tomorrow with full complement, sir."Noen nodded again. "They're strong enough to pull an oar, you think?" Dinnile was not the most brilliant officer in the fleet, but as a judge of what could be extorted with a rope end, he had no peer."Give 'em a little food and they'll do fine, sir. They spent their five coppers on ale and apples and such at the Big Tree, sir. And I promised 'em, too, a good feed when we get to the ship.""Right," Noen told him. Anything to keep them from deserting on the way. "We'll go with you."Away from the beetling structures of Rat Alley, there was more light, and Noen counted the recruits as they filed past. Forty-nine, fifty ... he held his breath ... fifty-one, fifty-two. Then the pair of crewmen he had assigned to help Dinnile. Allpresent and accounted for. It was beyond belief, too good to be true. For a dizzy moment he wondered if it were his birthday--could he have forgotten? No. Dinnile's perhaps. No. Or--of course--one of the nomads'. What better luck could the poor devil have than seeing himself and all his friends fed and safe aboard the Windsong
?Or what worse?Noen asked one of Dinnile's sailors if there had been fifty-two exactly."Oh, no, sir. More like to a hundred, sir. The Lieutenant picked out the best, and let them sign."Let them sign! It was a night to remember.
Ler Oeuni touched her forehead as he came aboard. Noen touched his own and said, "We'll put off for Minnow Island as soon as Dinnile has the new hands at the oars.""There's a bit of night breeze, sir.""Under oar, Lieutenant, not under sail." Oeuni was sailing officer (and gunnery officer); Dinnile rowing officer. Ordinarily it would be best to spare the rowers as much as possible, but the new hands had to be taught their job, and the sooner the teaching began, the better--tomorrow they might have to ram a pirate.Noen mounted to Windsong's
long, lightly built quarterdeck and watched Dinnile shoving the new hands to their places, most to forward oars from which they would be able to watch the trained rowers at the aft oars and would be caught up in the rowing rhythm that was almost like a spell. "See that there's at least one experienced hand at each oar, Dinnile.""Aye, aye, sir." The tone of Dinnile's response managed to imply that the instruction had been unnecessary."Do they speak Liavekan?" Noen cursed himself for not having found out sooner."Some do, sir. Some don't.""Then talk
to them. They've got to learn, and quickly.""Aye, aye, sir.""Foreigners?" Oeuni ventured to ask."Nomads from the Great Waste," Noen told her. She would have to deal with them, after all, as they all would. Eventually, she would have to train them to reef and steer."They're subjects of the Empire, then."Noen shook his head. "They're not Tichenese, if that's what you mean. And whatever they were, they became subjects of Her Magnificence when they signed with us."Dinnile had pushed the last of the nomads into place. Noen cleared his throat. "Listen to me, you new hands! I'm Tev Noen, your captain. Call me Captain Noen. This is Ler Oeuni, our first mate. Call her Lieutenant Oeuni. Lieutenant Beddil Dinnile signed you--you should know him already, and the petty officers you'll learn soon enough. You'll be treated firmly on this ship, but you'll be treated fairly. Do your best, and you'll have no cause to worry."You've been promised a good dinner tonight, and you're going to get it. There are navy kitchens at the base on Minnow Island, and they'll have hot food for you." It was probably better not to tell them they would not be permitted to leave the ship, that the food would be carried on board. "When I give the order 'out oars,' watch the trained hands and do as they do."Noen glanced at Oeuni. "You may cast off, Lieutenant.""Stand by to cast off!" she shouted at the sailors stationed fore and aft. They leaped onto the wharf. "Cast off!"A few moments more and Windsong
was under way, her oars rising and falling awkwardly, but more or less together, in a beat as slow as the timesman at the kettledrums could make it.A fresh wind touched Noen's cheek as the dark wharves and warehouses of the waterfront vanished in the night. Little cat's-tongue waves, the hesitant ambassadors of the lions in the Sea of Luck, rocked Windsong
as a mother rocks her child."Not so bad," Oeuni said.Noen answered with a guarded nod. How hard were a nomad's hands? Not as hard as a sailor's, certainly. These men would have blisters tomorrow, if the wind failed, and--On the main deck, Dinnile's rope end rose and fell. There was a shout that sounded like a curse, and the flash of steel. Dinnile's big fist sent someone reeling over the next oar. Something--a knife, surely--clattered to the deck. Noen called, "Tivlo! Bring that to me." Tivlo was the petty officer in charge of the mainmast. "Dinnile! If he's conscious, put him back to work." Attacking an officer was punishable by death, but Noen had no intention of losing a hand this early.Tivlo handed up the knife, hilt first. Its blade was curved and wickedly double-edged."We'll have a shakedown as soon as we tie up," Oeuni said.Noen nodded. The cresset burning atop the highest tower of Fin Castle was already in plain view. The nomads would need their knives to cut rope and do a thousand other tasks. But they would need nothing more, and there was no telling what else they might have.Oeuni had lined the new hands up and hoisted lanterns at the ends of the main yard when Syb came to the quarterdeck, touching his forehead. "What is it?" Noen asked."About Su and me, sir.""Yes?""You promised us a tankard each, sir, if there was a hand signed.""So I did." Noen bent over the quarterdeck rail. "Would you as soon have the money?""No, sir. Perhaps, sir ..." The words trailed away. Hands were forbidden the quarterdeck, except upon order. Noen said, "Come up.""Thank you, sir!" Syb mounted the steps. "I thought it might be better to speak more private-like, sir. Su and me--well, her folks and mine live here on the island."Noen shook his head. "I can't let you go ashore. We'll be sailing at dawn, and perhaps before dawn.""Sir ..."Noen knew he should cut the man off, but there was something in his face that forbade it. "Yes?" he asked."Let us go just for this watch, sir. If we're not back whenit's over, you can put us both in the irons. It's not to drink or nothing like that, sir.""What is it for?""They're fisherfolk, sir. It's not no easy life, sir, and now we've got our pay, and ...""I see," Noen said."A prosperous fishing village, sir. That's what they call it, those that don't live there. It means they've generally got enough to eat, if they fancy fish, and maybe enough to mend the boat or buy the twine to make a new net. But it's a terrible hard life, sir."Noen began, "If I gave you leave, I'd have to give it to others who have just as good a--"He was interrupted by a touch at his elbow. It was Dinnile, now officer of the watch. "A sojer, sir. Got a letter for you."When Noen had carried the note to the binnacle light, he announced, "I'm going ashore, and I'll want bodyguards. Syb, you and Su did well enough last time, Dinnile, see that they're issued cutlasses.""For goin' ashore on Minnow Island, sir?" Dinnile was utterly bewildered."You're right," Noen told him. "Their sheath knives should be enough, and there's no time to waste."Fin Castle rose from a rocky headland at the easternmost tip of the island, where its great guns commanded the principal entrance to the harbor. Noen dismissed his "bodyguards" at the castle. "I'm going in to see Admiral Tinthe. I don't know how long I'll be, but when I come out, I expect to find you waiting here for me. Understand?"They muttered their aye-ayes, touched their foreheads, and hurried away.Noen needed no guide to direct him to the admiral's chambers. High in the keep and facing south, they permitted Uean Tinthe to scan the Sea of Luck. As Noen climbed stair after weary stair, he wondered how often the old man did so, and when he would decide the price of his view was too high.Noen's knock brought a gruff invitation. He ducked fromhabit as he entered, conditioned by Windsong's
low cabin. Admiral Tinthe was in his favorite spot by the window; beside him sat a distinguished-looking woman of middle age."Captain Noen, Serkosh," the admiral said, returning Noen's salute. "Noen, Serkosh the Younger."Noen bowed. "A great pleasure, Lady."She nodded stiffly."Told you to be ready at sunup," Tinthe continued."Yes, sir.""You're undermanned like the rest. I can send you a scant half dozen.""Windsong
has a full complement now, sir," Noen said.For an instant, the admiral studied him. "Sailors?""Landsmen, sir."Admiral Tinthe turned to the woman beside him and winked. She smiled; he had been a handsome man once, and traces of it still remained in his scarred old face. "Recruiting practices," he told her. "Best left to the young ones. Best not to know too much.""All signed in due form, sir," Noen told him. Inwardly, he blessed his foresight in inspecting Dinnile's roster book."Good. Sail you will. Course south and a point east. That's the best of them, and your crew's earned it for you."Noen forbore asking what made it the best. "Pirates, sir?"The admiral shook his head. "You'd better hear the story. Know what you're up against. Tell him about the green rabbit, Serkosh."The woman said, "Perhaps you might ask him to sit, first."When Noen was settled in a chair, she continued, "I am a jeweler, Captain. I own the Crystal Gull--possibly you've seen us? We're situated near the Levar's Park. The next time you've need of a gaud for some young woman, perhaps you'll stop in.""I'd like to," Noen told her, "if I had the money."Serkosh nodded. "And if your mission is successful, you will. I've promised to pay twenty thousand levars to the captain who returns the green rabbit to me."Noen said nothing. It was a fortune, a prize so great it stunned the imagination."You're aware, I'm sure, that there was once a city called S'Rian on the hill overlooking our bay."Noen nodded."Occasionally--very occasionally--something is discovered there. I do not say something of value, because they're very seldom of value; but something of interest to collectors and antiquarians. Perhaps once a year. Perhaps less. Do you understand?"Noen nodded again."Such things are invariably brought to me. My reputation for honesty is second to none, and I pay the highest prices--often a good deal more than the item is worth."Noen said, "I'm certain you do," trying his best to keep any note of sarcasm from his voice."Such a find was made last winter by men digging a well. It was--it is--a crouching rabbit carved in jade." Serkosh used her hands to indicate the length of the rabbit, then its height. "About half the size of a living rabbit. The size of a very young rabbit, if you wish to think of it so.""I understand.""We often have to hold such things for years. In this case several noble collectors were interested, but we had not come to an agreement about terms." Her face hardened. "Three days ago, the rabbit was stolen from my vault."Noen asked, "Someone broke in?"Serkosh shook her head. "It seems the thief was an employee. My assistants are allowed to enter the vault. My apprentices are permitted to enter when accompanied by an assistant. Nothing else was taken. That suggests, to me at least, that the thief supposed that the absence of the rabbit would not be noticed, as the absence of a diamond--"Tinthe cleared his throat.Serkosh glanced at him, then back to Noen. "Your admiral and I differ in our interpretation of the crime, though we areboth determined that the thieves be brought to justice. He will give you his own view, I feel sure."Noen said, "A jade rabbit the size of a rat isn't worth twenty thousand levars."Serkosh shook her head. "Of course not. But the security of the Crystal Gull is worth much, much more. If we are robbed successfully just once, there will be a hundred more thieves eager to try. But if you, Captain, can intercept the ship carrying the rabbit, it will be seen that the thieves were not
successful."A massive brass telescope stood on the admiral's work table. He picked it up, sliding its jointed sections in and out. "There's something more, I'm afraid, Noen."Serkosh exclaimed, "That absurd story!"Tinthe closed the telescope with an audible click. "Absurdity doesn't matter if people believe it. And they do--maybe I do myself. Know what a magic artifact is, Noen? A magician puts his luck into something. The thing's magic then, and it doesn't matter if the magician lives or dies.""And this rabbit--" Noen began.Serkosh cut him off. "Nonsense! I had it tested by a competent professional. He conjured it, instructed it, burned incense, sacrificed, did everything! It's no more magical than your shoe."Tinthe smiled and opened his telescope again. "But there's a rumor it is."Noen asked, "What is its function supposed to be, sir?""Nobody knows. Or anyway, nobody agrees. Brings you women. Brings women children. It's a rabbit after all. Should be something like that, eh? But there are S'Rians living in the city. You probably know that. And they say it's magic. Serkosh's magician said he found nothing. Suppose he did, returned it, stole it himself by magic?""I see, sir.""Or suppose it brings women. Would he tell? Or would he think it his own doing? Suppose it's wealth. He got a good bigfee. And you'll get twenty thousand if you bring it back here, Noen. That's wealth, wouldn't you say?""Do you know it left the city on a ship, sir?"Tinthe nodded. "We thought it might. That's why I had every ship here make ready. Report reached the Guard tonight. There's a lip in Old Town. Always is. Zhironni,
big carrack, sailed yesterday. Probably making for Ka Zhir, though we can't be sure." Tinthe leaned forward. "Noen, maybe the rabbit's a magic artifact. If it is, and the Zhir get it ...""I understand, sir.""Wish I had a magician to send with you. I don't. We've got them looking for the rabbit, but no one available to go to sea." The old admiral hesitated. "Serkosh's professional may be on board--the Guard can't find him. All this under seal, Noen. Very much so."
Day had dawned with a weak breeze that soon died, leaving Windsong's
triangular sails flapping against their masts. Noen had ordered them furled and put the oars out. A few moments ago Oeuni had cast the log, and now her face was grim. "A scant two knots, Captain.""They'll get better," Noen told her."They'd better, sir."Though the air was dead calm, there was a nasty chop; the galleass, long-bodied, narrow-waisted, and shallow-keeled, rolled in it like a belaying pin. The new hands were sick at their oars. Dinnile had four sailors filling buckets and swinging swabs, and Windsong
left a trail of filth behind her that would have done credit to a garbage scow.Noen squinted at the horizon, then at the sun. "Oeuni, how much do you know about magic?""Not enough to make sailors of Dinnile's recruits.""We'll do that. How long would you say it would take a good magician to raise a wind?""You're serious, aren't you, sir? I have no idea. I supposeit would depend on the size of the wind he wanted--longer for a storm to wreck a ship than for a zephyr to cool a garden."Noen nodded to himself. The wind had been gentle yesterday when the Zhironni
sailed--a big ship wouldn't have gone far on those light airs; and now Zhironni
was probably as becalmed as they were. Worse in fact, because they were at least making two knots. A carrack would be drifting with the current. Perhaps Zhironni
had no magician after all."Look at that! You served on one once, didn't you, Captain?" Oeuni was pointing aft. Barely visible, the triplebanked oars of a trireme rose and fell like the wings of some enchanted bird."Yes," Noen said. "They must have got under way a good deal later than we did." That was a little consolation at least. He turned away to look at his own ship once more. Like most galleasses Windsong
had only a single oar bank; but five rowers pulled each of her oars. Four rowers, or three, Noen reminded himself, when the crew was understrength.With his telescope trained on the trireme, he tried to guess how many of its oar ports were empty. How beautiful she was! They had put up the mast, and it pointed to the heavens like a single white arrow.But why? A trireme under oar normally shipped its mast, laying it flat in two cradles on the narrow storming deck that ran all the way from the quarterdeck to the gun deck on the forecastle. And why did it look so white? Could the captain of the trireme, still far behind him, see something he could not?He turned to Oeuni. "You're supposed to be keeping a weather eye out, Lieutenant.""Yes, sir." Her face puzzled, she scanned the horizon."Try northward," he advised her.She squinted, shading her eyes with one hand."We're in for a blow, Lieutenant. A carrack's wind."And a soldier's, as it proved, a wind that blew from dead astern and sent Windsong
flying under reefed sails, pitching as if to shatter her flimsy hull each time her great bronze ram smashed into a wave."Pass the lard bucket, Lieutenant Dennile! The new hands will need it.""Tev Noen," Oeuni asked at his ear, "what are we after?"Surprised, he stared at her."I know, the Zhironni
, and the rest is secret instructions. But what if you're killed? I'll be in command, and I won't know what our objective is." Her hand touched his, as if to remind him of how desirable she was.He knew what she was offering him, and he knew he must refuse. The price of love bought with secrets would be his self-respect. He said, "I'll try to tell you before I die, Lieutenant," and she turned away.Another watch, and stinging hail pelted the ship. Noen pulled the hood of his sea-cloak over his head, wondering if he should have his steward bring his helmet. They would be fighting soon anyway; he could feel it. Armor might save an officer's life, but it endangered it as well. Many a captain, many a lieutenant, had gone to the bottom weighted with armor. Noen found that he was thinking of Oeuni drowned, helmetless, the green sealight shining on her shaven head, arms and long legs tossed in death's parody of swimming. Oeuni whom he would never possess, drawn down to the dark by her cuirass. Ler Oeuni lost.The lookout in the maintop shouted something that was blown away by the gale. Noen went to the quarterdeck railing. "Lookout! I can't hear you!""Sail! Point to starboard!
""Point to starboard," Noen told the woman at the wheel, and vaulted the railing. Dinnile was still supervising the distribution of lard, seeing that each rower who needed it used it and that none took too much. Hands with infected blisters could not row; heavily greased fingers could not hold an oar, if rowing should be necessary again."Can they fight, Dinnile?" Noen asked as softly as the wind allowed. "Will they?"Dinnile shrugged. "I dunno, sir."One of the nomads appeared at Noen's shoulder, still rubbing his palms together. "Yes, we fight. Give us swords."Dinnile roared, "Stand to attention there!"The nomad had better sea legs than most of them, and he stood as he must have seen the sailors stand, his brown rags flapping about him.It was the first time, Noen realized, that he had looked at one of the new hands as an individual. Like all of them, this one was small and wiry--dark, though not so dark as a true Tichenese. Every line of his skull showed in his face, and Noen might have thought a candle lit there from the fire that burned in the bony sockets of those yellow eyes."Sir, we will fight. With our knives if we must. With our hands.""I think you will. Dinnile, break out the arms. Everything we've got." Noen turned back to the nomad. "What's your name?""Sir, Myllikesh."Oeuni was on the gun deck, checking Windsong's
main battery. When Noen put his telescope to his eye, she told him. "Zhironni
.""Thank you," Noen said, his voice expressionless. He forced himself to add, "Lieutenant.""You must have seen her at the docks. Fifty guns at least.""Mostly rail pieces." On the pitching gun deck, it was hard to keep his telescope trained on Zhironni
, but Noen glimpsed figures on her quarterdeck with their own lenses trained on him."And what have we got, aside from Poltergeist here?" Oeuni patted the big culverin affectionately on the muzzle. "Four basilisks and a couple of sakers. If those aren't rail pieces, what are they?""And the ram," Noen told her, shutting his telescope."Ram that? It will damage us more than it will them."To himself, Noen admitted she was probably right. Aloud he said, "Have the crew stand to quarters, Lieutenant."She shouted the order to the timesman aft. "Are we going to attack her straight out, sir? Shouldn't we give them a warning shot--"A smudge of black appeared at the carrack's taffrail, instantly whisked away by the howling wind. The boom of the gun--a long basilisk much like the two on his own quarterdeck, Noen thought--was nearly lost."Waste your powder," Oeuni told the Zhir. "You couldn't hit Kil Island at this range."Noen wondered. Zhironni
was a far more stable gun platform than Windsong.
Aft, the timesman had begun the long, fast roll that called every sailor and officer to fighting stations. The gun crews boiled out of the forecastle below the gun deck, some carrying baskets of the premeasured charges Oeuni liked, others shot and slow match. Just one of Poltergeist's big iron balls was a load for any sailor--in so rough a sea, almost too much of a load.The tompions were jerked from the muzzles of Poltergeist and the two swivel-mounted basilisks, powder and shot rammed home. (Privately Noen regretted the loss of the old system, in which the powder was poured down the gun bores from a scoop; then at least a captain could note its condition.)The gun captains had kindled their slow matches at the galley firebox; they spun their glowing tips to keep them alight in the wind-blown spray.Zhironni
's sternchaser spoke again, a bit more loudly this time. An instant later the port forestay parted with a snap. The bosun and his mate hurried forward to repair it."They're rigging boarding nets, sir," Oeuni reported."So I see," Noen told her. "We won't be going over the side anyway. Bosun! You've seen a xebec?"Surprised, the bosun turned, touching his forehead. "Aye, sir.""You know how they slope the foremast forward to give the foresail more room? I want Windsong'
s foremast to looklike that. Tighten those forestays and slack off the backstays until the masthead's raked as far forward as our ram. And I want ratlines from the deck to the masthead."Dinnile was at the aft gundeck railing, touching his forehead. "Oars, sir?""No. Just have them ready to board--old hands first." It was not necessary to tell Dinnile to lead them. He would anyway--probably would, Noen reflected, even if he were ordered not to. "Oeuni, see how that gallery overhangs at her stern? I'm going to bring us in under it. Disable the rudder as we're coming in."As Noen spoke, one of the many-paned windows of the carrack's stern cabin swung wide. The black muzzle of a gun emerged from it like the head of a snake as the other window opened."You can fire when ready."As Noen reached the lower deck, the port basilisk went off with a crash. The foremast was lurching toward the beakhead, and Dinnile had his boarding party mustered forward of the mainmast. Looking at him, Noen realized the burly mate must be as frightened as he was, but like himself would rather die than show it. "Good luck, Beddil," he called. Then, "A place ashore!" It was something one said; the "place" was the grave, which could never be mentioned directly."A place ashore," Dinnile responded cheerfully.The port corner of the quarterdeck exploded in a cloud of splinters. "Steersman!" Noen yelled. "Port a point. We're coming in the back door."The steersman's "aye, aye" was strangely muted; when Noen reached the quarterdeck, he saw that a splinter had laid her cheek open, baring white molars in a misplaced grin. One of the starboard sternchaser crew was ripping up her shirt to staunch the bleeding.The sternchasers would be no use in this fight. He sent the rest of their crews to join the boarding party.The two sakers had already been shifted to the port rail. They would not be able to fire without damaging Windsong
'srigging until they were very close, he thought, but they might get a chance then.Oeuni's hail came faintly from the gun deck. "She's luffing!"Noen nodded to himself. Zhironni
would try to turn in order to present her broadside to her attacker. But imposing though they were, carracks were notoriously unhandy, and now the wind made every plank in her towering freeboard work against her.Dead ahead, a leviathan rose from the sea, golden-scaled, with eyes like pale moons and teeth like the blades of cutlasses. Poltergeist fired with a roar that shook the ship, and the giant fell backwards in a welter of blood. Noen braced himself for the shock when the ram struck its body, but there was none; it had sunk too quickly, or perhaps disappeared.Somehow the culverin's roar had reminded him that he had not yet wound the wheellock of his pistol. He got out the key and did so. A pistol with a tight lock was always dangerous, and if the lock were wound too soon, the spring might break or lose its strength. But shapes like horned Kil were clawing at Windsong'
s racing sides with crimson hands, and it seemed to him that the time to wind it had come."Magic," a crewman at one of the sakers wailed."Illusions," Noen told him, shouting against the whistling wind. "He hasn't had time for something new."Poltergeist and the gun-deck basilisks went off together; Zhironni
's rudder flew to bits, and ragged holes gaped in her transom. An unlucky roundshot cut through the boarding party, leaving a dozen hands writhing on the reeling deck. They were close now, so close Noen could see the dark faces of the gun crews through the sterncastle windows. He fired at one, not with much hope of hitting him, but because it was bad tactics to permit your enemy to fire without being fired upon.Zhironni
's stern loomed above them. Noen felt they were hurtling toward a cliff, and it was no magical illusion, but the effect of the carrack's sheer size. The sakers banged like hammerblows, scouring Zhironni
's sterncastle windows with harquebus balls and scrap metal. Noen shoved his pistol back into his belt and grabbed the quarterdeck railing.The ram struck with a shock that nearly knocked him off his feet. Only weakly braced by its angled backstays, the foremast snapped, fell against the carrack's stern, slipped, miraculously caught on the gilded moulding. As Dinnile's boarding party swarmed up the ratlines, a Zhir with a petronel appeared at the taffrail. Noen fired the remaining barrel of his pistol at him, shouted for the sakers' crews to follow, and leaped to the maindeck.The ratlines were slack and thus hard to climb, lying almost against Zhironni'
s stern gilding. Shattered window casements hung in shreds of iron, glass, and lead. A dead man slumped over the breech of one of the sternchasers. Noen hesitated, hardly daring to believe his eyes, put one foot on the gun muzzle, then the other. Half falling, he caught the window frame and swung into Zhironni
's stern cabin.Outside, it had seemed impossible; but it was there. A circular, inlaid table was bolted to the floor in the center of the cabin; on it a small jade rabbit slid restlessly with the rolling of the ship, confined by the table rim. Only when he reached for it did Noen see the delicate girl who sat in shadow beside the cabin door."It is mine," she said. "But it could be ours."The rabbit felt as cool as any river-washed stone."There are many isles--" She had risen and was coming toward him; her fingers toyed with a white rose. "--even in this little Sea of Luck. And there is the ocean beyond. We might master an isle and rule there together." Her face had a delicate beauty that made Oeuni and every other woman Noen had ever seen seem like a man. No, a beast.The cabin door flew open, kicked by a nomad with a knife in one hand and a cutlass in the other. Noen said, "This woman is a prisoner, Myllikesh. Take her to our ship and put her in the wardroom. See that's she's well treated."The nomad pointed to the rabbit with his cutlass. "Sir, move away your hand."Noen picked up the rabbit."Sir, I do not desire that I kill you. But you must give that to me.""You knew what it was," Noen said. "That was why so many of you signed on. You heard it had left Liavek by ship, and you knew our ships would be sent after it."Myllikesh took a step nearer. "We told your stupid Guards of this ship, so your ships would be sent. Sir, I can kill you most easily before your sword is out. Put the rabbit down."Noen did.The girl said softly, "Do you know its secret, brave man of the wastes? Tell me."Myllikesh turned to her, eyes flashing. "Yes, we know! Long ago our fathers were driven from S'Rian, but we remembered. Friends told us it was found, and we came!""Tell me. Now you will be a king." Her great eyes were fixed on Myllikesh; Noen was surprised at the pain that gave him."I am a king! Now I shall rule a rich land." The nomad laughed. "Rushing streams for us. Fruiting trees and fields of wheat! A great mage made this so S'Rians might have such a land, though the city was lost. But it was left behind, lost too. You must throw it down. That only! Then even rocks and sand will blossom."The white rose flashed forward and vanished in the nomad's chest, then reappeared a red rose. He gasped and dropped his cutlass.Noen hit the girl in the face with the twin barrels of his empty pistol. She staggered backwards; when she struck the canting cabin wall, she was an old man who grasped a scarlet dagger.Myllikesh was half out the cabin window, one hand pressed to his wound, the other clutching the rabbit. Noen caught him by the neck and wrist, and the rabbit fell from his hand,tumbled down Zhironni
's towering stern, dropped between Zhironni
's bow, and splashed into the sea.When it touched the water, it seemed to bounce--the upward bound of a hunted hare who tried to sight its pursuers. It struck the water again running, jumping and skipping from wave to wave, racing across the restless sea as if the sea were an upland meadow.Behind it, seals lifted sleek heads and a thousand dolphins bowed. The sea itself grew dark with the tiny creatures on which the smallest fish graze, and the great whales; fish surged in silver shoals, swirling and leaping everywhere after the rabbit for as far as Noen's eyes could follow it, until the sound of their swimming entered Zhironni
's timbers and filled the cabin like the humming of bees."Wasted," Myllikesh whispered.Noen thought of Syb and Su, of the unpainted fishing cottages on Minnow Island and the wretched shacks on Eel Island. "No," he said. "Not wasted."But the rattle of the last breath was in the nomad's throat.
's taffrail, Zhironni
seemed a seaworthy ship. Her mainsail, maintop, and mizzen were all drawing, and though she listed a bit and the twin streams of water spurting from the lee side showed where Dinnile had prisoners at work on the pumps, Noen decided Zhironni
might well limp back to Liavek even if they met with squalls. A captain's share of prize money was a full quarter. That would not come to twenty thousand levars, he thought, but it might come close. Even damaged as she was, the big carrack should be worth sixty thousand at least."Rekkue!" he called to the midshipman of the watch. "Make signal: 'reduce sail for night.'""Aye, aye, sir.""Tivlo! Reef the mainsail. We don't want to lose her in the dark.""Aye, aye, sir!"The big triangular mainsail dripped. It was a great advantageof the lateen rig, Noen reflected, that the crew did not have to go aloft to take in sail or let it out. Some of the hands Tivlo was directing had been Myllikesh's nomads; some were former slaves from Zhironni.
Rekkue told him, "Zhironni
acknowledges, sir."Noen nodded. "I'm going below to write my report. In my absence, you're officer of the watch. You're to call me if anything happens. Anything,
understand? Call me at the end of the watch and I'll relieve you so you can get some sleep.""Aye, aye, sir." Rekkue touched her forehead.She would be an officer soon, Noen thought. She was fit for one already. As he went down the steps to the lower deck, he decided to announce her acting promotion to third mate in the morning, if everything went well that night. He ducked automatically as he entered his cabin, pulled out his chair and seated himself before his little writing desk.Ler Oeuni said softly, "I hope you don't mind, sir."He spun around. She was in his bunk, her face, her bandaged arm, and one bare shoulder visible above the blanket."It was lonesome in the wardroom with Dinnile gone," she whispered, "and I wanted to tell somebody how brave I was."When he had kissed her, she added, "I'll bet you were brave too, Noen."Copyright © 1988 by Gene Wolfe Continues...
Excerpted from Storeys from the Old Hotel by Gene Wolfe Copyright © 1995 by Gene Wolfe. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.