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That was the merfolk. Half human, half fish, half mad. Except they, too, were refugees with tales of black water and annihilation weighing their memories. Perhaps they'd known exactly what they were doing.

Shemsen sank until the water changed. Heavy, cold, yet tangy with salt, it was the richest water he'd ever drawn across his gills. He knew that had there been light, he would have been able to see to the bottom. If there had been light…

The darkness within Umberlee's Cache went beyond an absence of light. There was silence, too, in Shemsen's ears and in those sensitive places along his flanks. He couldn't tell if he was drifting up, down, or sideways.

Malenti!

A woman's voice, beautiful and deadly, surrounded Shemsen, and checked his movement through the water.

Malenti, why are you here? Why do you disturb me? Does the Shark not hear your feeble prayers?

Shemsen gathered his wits, but the Sea Queen didn't need his words. She flowed into his mind and took answers from his memory.

Shemsen had told the truth to the mermen two days earlier, just not all of it. Sahuagin had ambushed his patrol. The sea elves were outnumbered and they were doomed, yet Shemsen fought with them until it was just him and two sahuagin left. It had been a better showing than he'd expected from the likes of Peshhet. One of the remaining sahuagin was a yellow-tailed priestess.

When she gave him her full attention, she knew. By Sekolah's grace, the priestess had recognized Shemsen for what he was.

Malenti!

She had the god-given power to compel him and, because he'd rather die a free-willed man than a priestess's plaything, Shemsen had thrown down his weapon.

Why had he fought them, she'd demanded, and Shemsen had answered defiantly that she was not from his village, his baron, or his prince. He owed more to the enemies he lived among than to a stranger. She demanded the name of his village. Shemsen spat it out along with the names of his baron and prince.

'Prince Kreenuuar chose poorly,' the priestess had said. 'He became meat and all those who followed him became meat. You serve Prince Iakhovas now.'

Shemsen hadn't recognized the name, which meant little, except that Iakhovas wasn't a sahuagin name, not even a malenti name. He couldn't easily imagine a prince with such an unseemly name, until he thought about Prince Kreenuuar's fate and the black cloud.

'Choose wisely, malenti!' the priestess had said, threatening Shemsen with the shark's tooth amulet she wore against her chest.

Had he truly believed he'd escape his malenti fate? Sekolah had called up the sahuagin to magnify His glory. He'd called up the malenti to magnify the sahuagin. Shemsen could serve this new Prince Iakhovas and his priestess freely… or he would serve as a spell-blinded thrall. Pride that only another malenti might understand had raised Shemsen's elven chin, exposing his soft, unsealed throat as he clasped his hands behind his back in submission.

The priestess accepted Shemsen's wise choice, adding only slightly to the wounds he'd already borne. She'd reminded him that he was a spy, then asked what he knew about Waterdeep.

'Prince Iakhovas comes to teach those who dwell on the land a lesson about the sea. We are charged with finding a safe passage for a single surface ship and fliers. How do we counter these defenses?'

The priestess had pointed at the shimmering beacon and with no further persuasion Shemsen had told her how the power she wielded with Sekolah's blessing could destroy it. Shemsen did not add that one surface ship and all the sahuagin-crewed fliers in the sea would not be enough against the might of Waterdeep. He doubted the priestess would have believed him. One of the few traits sea elves and sahuagin shared was a bred-in-the-bone disdain toward magic, and it was magic that fueled Waterdeep's greatest defenses.

Shemsen thought he'd done well, serving the unknown prince without truly betraying the cold water harbor that had become his most unlikely home, but the priestess hadn't finished.

The ship and the fliers aren't all. Prince Iakhovas commands a second army…'

Many years had passed since Shemsen's survival had depended on his ability to read emotions from a sahuagin's rigid face, still he would swear-even to the goddess as She ransacked his memories-that the priestess feared the new prince's second army, and feared the prince even more. He'd begun to wonder what he'd do if she'd demanded that he swim away with her. Death, he'd thought, might be a wiser choice than serving a prince who put that kind of fear in a yellow-tailed priestess.

In the end, she hadn't asked him to make that choice.

'Prince Iakhovas commands the attack in eleven days' passing. There will have been a festival?'

Shemsen had nodded, and wondered how many other malenti were spying in Waterdeep. 'The Eve of Fleetswake. The harbor will be thronged and drunk. A good time for a surprise attack.'

'Of course,' the priestess had countered, reminding Shemsen of the contempt properly shaped sahuagin directed at malenti. 'I will wait for you here as the sun sets after this Fleetswake, and you will guide the second army into the harbor. Fail me, and Sekolah will find you-in death. He will find you and bring you to Prince Iakhovas.'

The memory echoed hi Shemsen's mind, overriding the scenes that followed: the destruction of the beacon, the feast on fallen comrades. He'd been gone too long. His gut rebelled against the taste of sentient flesh. He'd chosen to die rather than serve Prince Iakhovas. Yet Shemsen had not told the whole truth to the mermen, nor spilled his conscience to the harbor guard. With the priestess's dire threats swirling hi his memory, Shemsen had come here, to Umberlee.

Umberlee showed no mercy. With blinding, numbing speed She unraveled the strands of Shemsen's life back to the hatchling pools and the garden where he'd learned what it meant to be malenti. She compelled him to relive the black-cloud night in such detail that he cried out and lost consciousness. He recovered with the strange name, Iakhovas, vibrating in his skull and a thumb-size conch shell hung before his eyes, glowing with its own light.

Take it.

Shemsen needed both hands to grasp the goddess's token, but as soon as its warmth was against his flesh the darkness was lifted. He saw himself in a chamber of wonders: of gold and gems enough to sate the greediest pirate, of weapons to stir the blood of any warrior, and magic of the most potent sort. In the corners of his eyes, Shemsen saw life, men and women stripped naked and helpless. He closed bis eyes, but the images lingered.

Ask no questions, the goddess warned. You will do as Sekolah expects. You may guide the priestess, her prince, and his army to the harbor's heart with My blessing. Fear not, you will know the moment to reveal My gift. You will lead them to Me, and I will reward them.

Then come to Me yourself, malenti, for your own reward.

Return to me.,

A man's mind was never meant to hold the voice of a goddess, much less Her mirth. The insensate blackness returned. Shemsen awoke in his own niche, his own hammock. Eshono hovered beside him, a lantern in one hand and a wad of kelp in the other.

'Shemsen? Shemsen? You've given us all a scare. Tell me you know me.'

1 know you, Eshono,' Shemsen whispered. He tried to rise, but lacked the strength. 'How long?' he asked. 'How did I get here?' His last clear memory was of the Cache and Umberlee's voice in his head. Seizing Eshono's wrists, Shemsen hauled himself out of the hammock. 'What day is it?'

'The harbor guard found you days ago, drifting near the docks.'

'Days!' Shemsen shivered, and not because of the cold, outgoing tide flowing past their niche. 'What day is it?'

'You've lain here like the dead for six days, and you'd been missing five days-'

'The day, man! Tell me what day it is. Have I missed Fleetswake?'

Eshono tried to pull away, but Shemsen's strength was already returning.

'It's Fleetswake morning, Shemsen. The offerings were made last night. Umberlee is placated for another year and Waterdeep is drunk with celebration.'

'It's not too late… I must go.' He released the sea elf and realized, belatedly, that he was naked. 'My garb! Eshono, was I like this when you found me?'

Вы читаете Realms of the Deep
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