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Ithaka, or The Moons of Jupiter

Chapter Text

Northwest Smith sat in the Golden Floor teahouse, almost unnoticeable in a shadowy corner, curled in local style on one of the rug-strewn benches that lined the narrow walls, rather than on one of the chairs more prominently positioned to the front for the benefit of the few foreigners who had call to visit the port city of Izmar. Outside the teahouse, the dry and burning desert air hung almost still, disturbed only by the heat haze rising from the golden sandstone walls and flagstones of Izmar, its squares and streets now empty in the relentless noonday sun. Even the narrow, twisting alleys were near deserted: shadowed and dark they might be, but they offered no true respite from the heat. In truth, it was little cooler within the dimly lit teahouse than outside its door, in the great square dominated by the statue of Abukir, now shimmering in the heat, and added to the prevailing heat, the fashion was for a tisane served almost boiling, but the years adventuring between the deserts of the Martian drylands and the sweltering heat Venus had inured Smith to such things, and he had not bothered even to loosen his spaceman’s leathers. His Venusian companion naturally cared still less, and lounged quite at ease beside him, sipping occasionally at the tea, his lip curling in distaste at its resinous, slightly bitter taste. Smith himself thought it not dissimilar to the taste of rosemary, and found it stirred in him that faint longing for Earth which had never quite left him, for all he knew that he himself had chosen to set his feet on a path that must perforce lead to his frequent exile.

A visitor would have found it hard to believe that Izmar had been a seaport many long centuries before it had become a spaceport, or that the sea still lapped no great distance outside its sun-baked walls; certainly no hint of cool sea breeze passed through its massive gates or disturbed the dark robes of the solitary figure who now emerged from one of the many crooked alleys, and started round the sun-baked square, skirting the central stature. For a brief moment he paused, mumbling a quick prayer at the customary shrine set low on one wall, and then he turned his steps unerringly to the unassuming doorway through which Smith and Yarol had passed some 40 minutes previously.

His entry caused a brief stir in the torpid quiet of the teahouse, for his robes marked him as a priest of Asar, one of the chief gods of Izmar and widely worshipped across many of the Jovian moons. He was was no longer young, for all he still stood straight and walked with the briskness of youth, and his hair, no doubt once the fiery red of his race, was now the colour of drifting ashes. His voice, however, when he spoke, was still deep and rich, as dark and sweet as the Izmian wine for which the city is so justly famed (but which, to the frequent distress of visitors, is consumed locally only on occasions of great religious significance).

“The good is made manifest in your appearance,” he intoned in ritual greeting, before smiling appreciatively at Yarol’s angelic blond beauty and adding “and perhaps most particularly in yours: it’s not often we see a Venusian in these parts.”

A waiter hurried over with more tea, asking anxiously if there was anything else he could do to make the honoured priest more comfortable, and there were a few minutes of introductions and polite small talk before Maroun, for that was the priest’s name, approached the topic of their meeting.

“I do not know if you know anything of our early history and foundation”

Yarol shrugged. “You have a large statue of your founder right outside this tea shop - we could hardly have missed seeing it.”

“Yes, Abukir, may Asar the ever-beautiful grant him eternity. But how much do you know of him?”

“Not much,” Yarol admitted. “I can’t say I’ve made a study of Poseidon’s history. As far as I recall, he hoped he’d have more success extending his empire by sea than he’d had by land, so having an excellent natural sea port, he founded Izmar and made it his capital. Other than that, only that he didn’t live very long to enjoy it - he was stung on the ankle by a sea snake while walking along the shore and died in agony. I think his successor did quite well out of the whole maritime empire plan, though. But how does that involve us? If you want to set up a sea snake eradication project at this late date, I don’t think you have the right men.”

“Well, no, I don’t think that would be quite appropriate, particularly as snakes are sacred to Asar, so I expect I might be criticized for that.”

Yarol raised his eyes at that. “So when you say ‘Asar grant him eternity’ you mean he was killed by one of his god’s sacred creatures?”

“One may retain one’s youth only by not growing old: for Immortals that means one thing, for us, another.”

“Suddenly I’m less keen on you complimenting my looks.”

“If you intend to grow old,” Maroun pointed out, “you have chosen a strange career.”

Yarol grinned at him, the brief flare of his smile lighting his face. “Well, I don’t intend to die yet. We also don’t intend to starve: do you have in mind some job more suited to our abilities?”

“Indeed. You must understand, Abukir’s rule was not unchallenged even when he was alive, and as soon as he died one faction, disloyal to his memory, took the opportunity to rebel: they were defeated, but their leaders fled, later allying themselves with another kingdom with whom we were at war. Both we and they survive to the present day, although of course we are now a republic, and the enmity between us has remained undimmed - it is with them that we subsist in an uneasy state of undeclared war, as you doubtless know, given the business that brought you here. What I imagine you may not have realised is the depth and long standing nature of the dispute.”

“I can’t say I’d given it any thought; but how does a priest come to be involved in such things? I thought Asar was chiefly concerned with the joys of life, not with war.”

“I am a patriot,” Maroun said simply. “But I’m not just talking about another another shipment of arms, no. We cannot survive forever in this stalemate of indecisive skirmishes, both sides relying on outdated weaponry smuggled piecemeal past the Patrol, the constant threat of trade embargoes by those who seek to interfere in that which should be our own concern only: we may be a small country, but we are a free one still, and will settle matters with our neighbours as we see fit. No, what we desire is a weapon that will end things once and for all time, and that is what we have found. Bring it to us and you will be heroes, acclaimed as the saviours of Izmar.”

“Will we also be paid?” Smith asked practically.

“Seven thousand gold dollars, upon delivery.”

Yarol stared dubiously at his untouched tea. “Does Izmar have so many saviours and heroes, then, to judge them at so low a rate?”

Maroun shook his grey head. “We are a poor country, though not,” he added pointedly, “one ill-supplied with other gunrunners. Besides, it is far more than you could hope to make from your regular cargo, and at less risk too: the normal suppliers are riddled with spies, and the routes you must use increasingly well patrolled even when those who sold you the merchandise do not hasten to sell you out in turn. Returning from a new and unexpected direction you will with any luck pass unremarked. Let us say we will also supply a trade-cargo to give cover for your outward journey: all that you can sell it for will be yours as well.”

Yarol hesitated, his dark eyes caught Smith’s pale ones; Smith nodded almost imperceptibly, a bare twitch of his head. “All right: just throw in some of that wine of yours as well, let’s say twelve crates, and we’ll do it.”

Smith tried hard not to wince at that, for twelve crates of Izmian wine was no small value, and the offer as it stood was far more than he had hoped to profit from even two or three more runs to Izmar, but to his carefully hidden relief, Maroun consented with only a trace of visible reluctance and they had before them the prospect of an easy, well paid job, requiring no more of them than a profitable jaunt to Io.

§

The view spread out below the Maid as she turned and banked high above Io must be accounted one of the wonders of the solar system, albeit one uncomfortably reminiscent of Hell, for much of Io is lit not by the reassuring lights of city and civilisation, but by the fiery glow of its volcanoes, and by the eery destruction they create: not only the volcanoes themselves make gashes of blazing light, but between them lie huge lakes of red lava, dully glowing, and around them vast floodplains of still liquid rock, sparking and flaring with random lights. It is as well, however, that the pilot not be too taken with this vast vista of flame and slag, especially on the descent from the upper atmosphere, for at any moment there may shoot up huge plumes of sulphur, towering spectacularly some 300 km above the surface, a sight unrivaled on any world, or, as Yarol put it, a hazard to shipping.

Settling neatly down at the spaceport in the valley below Argol, they made arrangement for a secure berth for the Maid and then tried with less success to arrange some transport up to Argol.

“Pharol take me! You mean we are expected to walk?”

Smith gazed with equal disfavour out the rock-strewn plain stretching out to the foot of the steep crags to which the city clung. “That’s what they say - anything metal they try to use outside is as good as destroyed in a few weeks - quite corroded away.” And leaving the shelter of the spaceport, it was clear at once that this would be so, for although the first momentary impression of anyone who steps out from the stale, processed air of the port must be of the rotten stink of sulphur, which hangs so heavy in the air as to be almost palpable, it takes only a few breaths to become aware of an acid sting which pricks the throat and the eyes alike.

The road passed at first through a dull landscape of grey rubble, scarred from the blasting required to build the port, but as that fell away behind them, the plain rocks began to be encrusted here and there with crumbling patches of dry, yellow-white sulphur, or darker orange beads and tears where it was still trickling from the stone like amber; gradually these spread and joined until it seemed almost as though the landscape were caked thick with salt, dyed in places with long stains of orange. Randomly scattered and concealed between the rocks were fissures, which would emit at any moment gusts of foul-smelling steam, and below them were sticky pools of molten brimstone, glowing an orange so deep as to be nearly red.

The land at first seemed barren, but sometimes they noticed little red or orange creatures scuttling away on many legs, disturbed by their passage, or black scorpion-like things poised stationary on the little jagged rocks, with tiny blood-red stingers; sometimes, too, what seemed a small patch of yellow would take wing and reveal itself a flock of some delicate, flittery thing that seemed too frail for such a harsh land. Only as they approached the mountain foot was there sign of any larger life, for it was here the road from the port met up with various paths from the sulphur mines upon which much of the wealth of Argol depends, and the final section of the journey was in the company of almost a hundred returning miners.

They were a fearsome sight, the miners: seven or eight feet tall and muscular, with thick, hard skin that would make even a Martian drylander’s seem soft, their long hair and their beards a profusion of wiry curls the colour of cooling lava, the heavy tramp of their feet as they marched in line like muted thunder. Each carried his day’s work in massive panniers slung across his broad shoulders and as they passed you could see even their near-impervious skin was marked all over with the scars and brands and acid burns of their dangerous trade, for not only the scorpions and wild beasts of the Ionian desert await the incautious wanderer, but the sudden plumes and jets of acidic smoke and boiling geysers that spray up without warning; then too, the largest and most prized formations of sulphur are to be found submerged in near-boiling pools, or on the steep and treacherous slopes of the crater lake - the desert plain below Argol being itself the remnants of a massive volcano - and the central lake, like some other surrounding pools, is not of water, dangerous only in its heat, but of the strongest acid.

The city of Argol looks of a piece with the mountains, its walls being formed from huge blocks of local stone, of such inhuman size they seem more some natural feature, carved only by the elements, than the work of deliberate art. Within the walls, the city itself is built of the same stone, and though the buildings are on a somewhat smaller scale, they all extend down into the living rock, so that half the city is hidden underground in a network of caverns part natural, part created.

The main market is mostly above ground, in a complex of halls near the main gate, and it was there Smith and Yarol were to meet their contact, although they saw no reason to seek him out before they had found a very satisfactory price for their cargo of wrought silverware and the prized Izmian wine (excepting only those bottles they had reserved for their own pleasure). Their contact, an Ionian by the name of Berrat, seemed at first sight a monstrous figure, tall even for Io, with a voice more suited for shouting through a storm than for conversing, and an imposing visage - heavy browed, with the hard, iron-grey teeth of his people and a disconcertingly long tongue, like that of some dangerous leonine creature; he proved, however, an amiable though talkative man, who set to showing them around with all the dedication of a guide expecting a generous tip. Indeed no effort of either Smith or Yarol to interject any question about the actual purpose of their meeting met with even the slightest success: Berrat’s loud, rumbling voice overrode them, and their tour continued firmly on, uninterrupted.

“And these are called netjer - they’re quite white on the tree you know - I should say shrub, really - and hard as anything. We soak them with a kind of salt, which turns them this pinkish colour you see and softens them a little. Here, let me buy you a bag - you’ll find them quite invaluable - if the air here troubles you just peel one of these and suck it and you’ll be better in no time. And over here you can see our famous cloth - not dissimilar at all to your Earth linen, except much tougher of course - no other fabric will last as well. And this is some of our bronze-work - do note the delicate etching. That’s what I’m involved with, making the acids we use for it. I expect you’ll be wanting to see the furnaces now, where we forge the bronze and iron?”

Smith was about to deny any such interest, having rather lost patience with the unexpected tour, when he saw the nervous, imploring look on Berrat’s broad face, sitting strangely on his fearsome looks and quite at odds with his apparently affable manner; seeing that, he obediently expressed a desire to be shown round them at once.

The furnaces were kept below ground, in some of the system of caverns beneath the city.
The tunnels between the entrance to the cave system and Berrat’s workplace were dark, save where gouts of red flame danced up from cracks in the walls and floor, the heat enveloping them and drenching them in sweat; indeed, these were the so-called furnaces - the natural volcanic heat of the planet being put to use by massive Ionian smiths, wearing eyeguards and gauntlets and little else in the oppressive heat. Deeper into the mountain, the glowing red light was supplement by a more eery blue as gasses vented from the ground and instantly burned, making drifting phantasms of cyan fire, which Berrat laughingly dismissed as nearly harmless, but which Yarol and Smith, lacking his thick Ionian hide, prudently avoided. At random moments the passages would fill with choking, sulfurous steam, stinging the eyes and burning the throat, but a few instants later they would clear again and it was possible to continue. Between the heat and the smoke and the incessant clamour of the smithy, which echoed deafeningly even when it had fallen well behind them, it was a relief to reach the gates to which Berrat was headed, and to pass beyond them into a cooler and quieter set of caves.

Berrat closed the gates behind them and smiled, the tension leaving him as the locks engaged. “We can speak freely here, without being overheard - this entire area is carefully restricted, under direct control of the Ofilindi himself,” - the Ofilindi being the chief scientist of Argol, and a member of its ruling Council, “and everyone here reports through me. We have been working on this project in strict secrecy, under the guise of developing new methods of acid etching.” He nodded a broadly built young Ionian in an untidy lab coat. “This is one of my assistants, Marr. He will help show you around.”

Berrat led them proudly over to a large and complicated contraption of metal and glass - tubes and pipes and nested jars all tangled together - one end of which was positioned over a foul smelling and fiery vent. A safe distance from the vent was placed a bench with many carefully sealed boxes, jars and vials, all labelled in some sort of code.

“We take various substances and throw them into the fire, like so - Marr, demonstrate for our guests - then the smoke combines with the sulphur fumes (and certain other gasses found only here, about which you needn’t trouble yourselves) and is caught in this bell. You will see here the pipes that funnel it away until it condenses out here, and there you have it - that’s all there is to it. Only fifty barrels of this and you could wipe out everything - absolutely everything, right down to microbes - across thirty-five or forty thousand square kilometres.”

Smith stared at the deceptively plain liquid with something akin to horror.

§

Berrat having recovered from his earlier nerves and shown them his work with proud assurance, he clearly considered his part done, and he handed them over to Marr to be dined and lodged for the night, while he himself remained behind to oversee some delicate work he could not trust to subordinates. Smith was still very quiet, thinking of the ease with which an entire country might be destroyed, and Marr took this as a challenge to Argolid hospitality, firmly shepherding them to a lively bar where he knew one of the waitresses, and setting himself to dispel Smith’s disquiet.

The bar, unlike so many Smith knew, filled with hard-eyed spaceman, wary and sharp-gazed even in their pleasures, was instead the preferred resort of the cavern workers, who threw themselves whole-heartedly into the night’s entertainment, with no care to keep their back to a wall or to watch who entered and who left the bar; a hint of violence there was, certainly, an undercurrent of drunken ferocity running through the room, but it was simple and unpremeditated, with no thought of consequences and no one sitting hand on weapon. The wait-staff weaved to and fro through the crowded room, quite unconcerned, pausing now and again to speak with a favoured customer, as unworried by their volatile patrons and those same patrons had been earlier in the day surrounded by the violent dangers of the caverns.

Marr’s friend Gawry came by often with fresh drinks, stopping briefly to joke with Marr or just to lean against the back of his chair, fondly stroking his hair. The women of Io are striking, even if not beautiful, tall as the men and strongly built, but fairer, with milk-white skin that could almost rival a Venusian’s in colour, and somehow the pronounced features of their race give them the look, not of bestial fierceness, but of some ancient statue, terrible and imposing both, gazing unmoved across eternity.

Marr himself proved to be like Berrat: garrulous and friendly, and quite unlike the first impression of his predatory face and bull-like build. Like Berrat also it proved impossible to turn him off the path of his chosen subject, and he would no doubt have done a better job of diverting Smith if he had not kept circling back to talk about about the very subject of Smith’s unease, the dreadful weapon. There seemed less risk than there might have been in discussing the matter so openly, since the noise in the bar was near deafening, and nothing they said could have been heard more than a foot or so away, but it was not a happy choice of topic: Smith would have preferred to put it from his mind; Marr was chagrined and humiliated to realise he was far less valued as a team member than he had thought - for apparently there had been some technical problem with the weapon, a need for a certain ingredient not available in sufficient quantity, which had obviously been solved, since they had been able to sell such a quantity to Izmar, but without mention to Marr, who did not even know whether a larger supply had been found or if some alternative had been developed; and Yarol, who was at least interested in how the thing actually worked, had considerably less interest in consoling Marr’s injured self-importance. The evening was therefore not such a success as it might have been, and Smith was relieved when he managed to make his excuses and leave, though it was some while before he fell into a restless sleep.

§

He seemed to be walking down a deep gorge, over-towered by sides so steep as to almost lean in, as though they might fall and crush him at any moment. From somewhere in the distance he could hear a great bellowing, echoing and re-echoing until it was impossible to tell whether it came from ahead or behind; instinctively he reached for his ray-gun and was reassured to find it in its accustomed position. Farther on he went, and somehow as he went the darkness grew ever deeper, until it was not some mere absence of light, but a solid, muffling thing, muting not only his sight but the sound of the inhuman bellowing and the peaty smell of the earth beneath his feet; farther still and the air itself seemed too thick for breath, clogging his throat and pressing almost tangibly against his skin.

The unseen ground beneath his feet twisted unevenly, threatening to trip him at every step, and it took every scrap of will he possessed to force himself onwards; only he knew somehow, obscurely, that he must keep going, though to what end he didn’t know. Then at last he saw a faint far-off red glimmer ahead of him and felt a faint hot draught of air touch his face; gradually he realised too that the ground was softer, no longer covered in a scree of jagged stones, and that this was because he was now wading through a sea of ashes.

Suddenly the ground convulsed with a great roar like thunder and a glare of painfully bright light, in which Smith could see for one dreadful instant the walls of the gorge begin to crumble above him, before he was buried beneath their collapsing weight.

He awoke, or it seemed to him he woke, to a bowl of cool water being pressed to his lips, and a soothing, wordless murmur that both promised comfort and disturbed some faint memory of disquiet. For a moment his dazed mind told him it was Gawry who tended him, but then he saw it was some other, who had only the vague look of her, no more really than the same colouration, although there was something familiar about her he couldn’t place.

“Rest now,” the woman said softly. “Nothing can reach you here.”

“But where is here?” Smith asked, pushing aside the water and struggling to sit up, for all that it set his head throbbing unpleasantly.

“This is the Two Mountains, where no one comes, and no one leaves save by the path you walked, which is the path of fire.”

“You mean I have to go back the same way? It was bad enough the first time.”

The woman laid her cold hand on his head, driving back the pain. “Foolish man - you would not survive a second such journey. I did not think to see you survive even the first: none but the gods themselves may pass this way, and even they do not pass me.”

Smith could not have said why her words struck him with fear, for she looked no more than an Ionian woman like any other, and quite unarmed, yet such was the certainty with which she spoke that he couldn’t doubt her. She sat straight and regal before him in the near dark, clothed from the waist down in some black stuff as stiff and darkly gleaming as armour, and quite naked above, save for the heavy chains and necklets of barbaric jewellery wound and clasped about her, fashioned to portray all manner of wild beasts, tusked and clawed and fanged.

“Why do you even think of leaving? You are part mine already, and even had you the strength to depart along the way you came, there is something in you that longs to remain here with me: although you walk the way of gods, you are still a man and therefore weak before me.”

Smith found himself reaching out, almost against his will, to touch her: by some strange reversal her flawless skin was cool as marble, but the heavy bronze chains were warm. Around him in the darkness the quiet, comforting murmur seemed to grow and swell, catching up and echoing the rhythm of his heart. Without thinking, he ran his hand up to tangle in her thick hair, which seemed to move almost of its own accord, winding round his wrist and up his arm; with a sudden thrill of horror he recognised the murmur at last for what it was: the sound of scale moving against scale, and the hissing of serpents.

Throwing himself back he grabbed for his ray-gun and held it before him with trembling hands, while above her what he had taken to be her hair fanned out in a twisting mass of little snakes, their fanged mouths gaping wide and their little tongues tasting the air with obscene eagerness. Now at last he saw the resemblance, and though she was not of the race that still haunted his dreams with terrible longing, there was a similarity enough to fill him revulsion and desire alike.

As he stared at her it seemed as though his vision cleared and he could see her as she truly was, the inhuman coldness of her eyes, the coiling nest of snakes, the stiff black stuff sheathing her hips which he had taken for clothing and saw now was glossy chitin: a scorpions body merging smoothly into the unnatural flesh of her waist. The massive tail arched up and over her head, half hidden in the shadows, but not so hidden he could not see the telson, a drop of venom clinging to its tip, pointed straight at him: like those of the little scorpions on the path to Argol, it was red, the only touch of colour on the black body. The droplet of venom swelled slowly in size, quivering a little before it fell, dripping to the floor where it at once hissed and sputtered, eating into the stone with vitriolic hunger.

Somehow the sudden movement, drawing his stupefied gaze for a moment away from the monstrous creature, brought him back to himself, and he held his gun more firmly, his only possible means of salvation, and sent a desperate gout of cold blue flame spraying across her body. Where it struck her heavy, wrought jewellery, the fire was repulsed, scattering every which way in an explosion of sparks, and it had no effect at all upon the scorpion tail, sliding as harmlessly across it as water; even upon her cold white body it seemed at first to leave no mark, and surely at any moment that great stinger would strike out at him, or she would fall upon him with the eager serpents of her hair - but then at last her skin began to peel and split where the flame played hottest, sloughing off in ashy flakes, and with a knife-edged scream which would haunt Smith’s dreams until the day he died she seemed to fracture open like breaking stone, boiling blood welling up from her core and fountaining out from each rupture, until it formed a great river flowing every all about, steadily submerging everything in its viscous flood. On and on the swelling river flowed, drowning everything beneath its path, filling the entire world with blood.

The reddish morning light was already pouring into his room when Smith arose: his head still throbbed dully and he had just made a private resolution to avoid drinking with Ionians in future and was about to set out in search of breakfast when there was a sharp rap upon his door. Outside stood four men, one of whom addressed him in formal tones, requesting he accompany them. They were lab assistants by their dress, though Smith could see at once from their bearing that they would have been as happy to take him with them by force as by persuasion: no lab assistants stood with such military straightness, nor would have kept such close watch upon his gun hand.

They escorted him briskly through the hostel halls and down into the darkness of the caverns below, stopping at last to unlock a small door, unmarked and out of the way, behind which lay no doubt a cell or interrogation room. Instinctively, Smith straightened his back, his face blank, ready to face whatever might lie within. To his surprise, the door revealed only a plain flight of stone stairs, spiralling back up towards the daylight.

“You’re to go up alone,” the tallest of his guides informed him.

Smith eyed the stairs dubiously: it was hardly likely they intended merely to let him free. “Where do the stairs go? I thought outsiders were forbidden to enter this area?”

The tall guard, who seemed to be the spokesman of the group, looked surprised. “To the office of the Ofilindi, of course. He has summoned you.”

The stairs circled up and up for several minutes, their higher reaches pierced by little apertures letting in the light. At their top was another door, as plain and unmarked as the first, and beyond it a room, no more than medium large and simply furnished with little more than a desk. The Ofilindi himself stood beside a small window overlooking the valley; to his left was the desk, on one corner of which Yarol was perched, unconcernedly peeling one of the netjer. He gave Smith a sidelong glance as he entered, and Smith was instantly heartened to have his comrade at hand. A little to one side stood Gawry, with the same straight posture and measured gaze as the guards, her expression cold. Opposite her was another door, identical to the one through which he’d come; behind it he could here the tramp of boots and a scuffling sound.

All at once the door was thrown open and Berrat was shoved unceremoniously into the room and the door shut behind him. Gone was the nervously affable figure of the previous day, and the confident showman demonstrating his wares: Berrat now was staring wide-eyed with fear, his hands trembling as he tried to straighten his outfit, trying desperately and quite failing to look professional and unconcerned.

The Ofilindi glanced round at each of the four in turn, before settling his gaze on Berrat. When he spoke, his voice was deceptively mild. “Are you selling us all out for money, or did you aim merely to humiliate and discredit your own countrymen? When I chose you for the project, honouring you above all your colleagues, I thought only of your undoubted ability, and the good reports I had heard of your character. How did we come to be so mistaken about you? If you had planned merely to steal and sell for your own profit the product of such costly and time-consuming labour, it would be a terrible thing, but perhaps comprehensible, if you were lost to all honesty and pride - but to do this, to steal not only the work of your countrymen but also their good name and reputation, perhaps for many years to come, I cannot begin to understand.

“You above all, as director of the project, must know it cannot work until we secure a steady source of kursu: at present there is no possible way to create fifty barrels, or even one. I do not know how you convinced Izmar to pay so much for an untested weapon - I can only presume they were desperate, or fools to a man - but if you think your position is better because you were selling only a fake then you are as much a fool. At best, we distance ourselves from your action, but risk word spreading that we require kursu, driving up the price and difficulty of obtaining it when some suitable supplier is found, and inviting the interference of outside authorities before we are in a position to discourage them; at worst, it will be assumed you acted with our blessing (as I find you have taken some pains to make it appear) and that it is the policy of Argol to sell unreliable and malfunctioning products.

“I saw you once as my protege, perhaps even one day to ascend after me to this position, and yet you throw away your future, and your country’s good name, for nothing better than money?”

It was a strange thing, but Berrat, hints of whose fear had been palpable even before his discovery, and who had been frankly terrified at his arrest, seemed to find some hidden depth of courage, or perhaps he had been afraid for so long that he found when the worst had come to pass that he had no fear left. However it was, he had stopped staring and trembling and now faced the Ofilindi straight on, his face illuminated by the reckless unconcern of those with nothing left to lose.

“What do I care about money? Where would I go to spend it, I who have loved Argol all my life? I hoped to humiliate you, and destroy your credibility forever! If there was anything I could do, anything at all that might discredit this accursed weapon I would do it, whatever the price. How can you stand there and talk calmly of such destruction? That speech you made last week, the tide of prosperity you said you will bring to Argol: it is a tide of blood! Whole countries will choke and die, poisoned by our work, the land made barren and strewn with corpses.

“I made sure word of the sale would get out, and all would know Izmar had purchased it at great price, believing that they did so reliant on your word, and the word of the Council. There is nothing you can do to me that I will not gladly suffer, if there is any chance my actions will upset your plans.”

The Ofilindi looked almost amused for a moment. “Nothing I can do? I doubt you will speak so casually of suffering gladly by the time my men are done.” His face clouded over again, settling back into a pensive frown. “The question is how may your error be best repaired? Izmar would have furnished a not unsuitable demonstration, if only we could make the quantity required, which is perhaps after all not so impossible as you had hoped - kursu is rare, but valuable only for its rarity and the ridiculous stories people like to tell about its properties, and if we could only find a supply, we could probably secure enough for our needs, funded in part, if need be, by the fortune you abstracted from Izmar in payment.”

He turned to Smith and Yarol. “I have heard of you, and it is quite providential that you should be here: the supply of kursu on the open markets is very small but quite steady, so it seems reasonable to assume there is some reliable source of it; find that source and secure as much as is possible for us and I will pay you triple what Izmar offered, on top of which you will of course get your original payment on delivery to Izmar. Otherwise I fear the best way for us to save face will be to make you our scapegoats: doubtless you realised the value of the weapon you were transporting and decided to steal it to sell elsewhere, meeting some tragic end before the sale could go through, your cargo lost along with you.”