IT SEEMED LIKE THE FIRST DECENT SLEEP he’d had in ages. Of course, his standards had grown significantly more lax since being on the road, but even so you could scarcely deny – Again, a boot tried to separate his ribs. Again? Jurtan Mont tried to think back into the immediate past. Something must have roused him far enough out of sleep to kick his mind into gear. Could it have been the same foot? And if so, whose foot was it? “Come on, get up already.” The voice was unfamiliar. Jurtan cracked an eye and craned his neck around. The shaggy figure with its unkempt beard that loomed over him in the predawn murk was not one he recognized either. But his warning sense hadn’t given him an alarm, and he hadn’t been robbed and strung up in his sleep. “Who are you?” Jurtan said. “Who do you think I am?” the unfamiliar figure said irritably. “Shoulda slipped a knife through your belly instead of just a friendly boot. That might sharpen one thing about you once and for all, since I’ve just about given up on your mind.” The figure might be new, but Jurtan was well and fully intimate with the irritation. “Max?” Maximillian the Vaguely Disreputable, looking more than ever like his sobriquet, grunted down at him.
“Five minutes, then we exercise.” Jurtan piled out of his bedroll. It was chilly out in the air, but at least the dew hadn’t frosted over on his face. “How long do we have to keep doing this for? How long until we get somewhere?” “Never fails, does it,” Max muttered. “Awake for ten seconds and the first thing he does is start to complain.” “But we aren’t just going to keep traveling forever, are we? When do we get to someplace we want to be?” “We are someplace.” “No, I mean -” “So do I.” Max raised an eyebrow and directed his gaze meaningfully over Jurtan’s shoulder. When they’d stopped after dark the previous evening they’d gone just beyond the line of trees that marked the margin of the road before settling themselves down. During the night, Jurtan had rolled up against what he’d thought, in the gloom of sleep, was a hard tree. It wasn’t a tree. It was a low cairn of stones, with a small signpost on top. He went around to the front and squinted at it. The arrow-end of the sign pointed ahead down the road in the direction they had been traveling. The legend on the sign read “PERIDOL.
” Jurtan grunted. “It doesn’t say how far.” It did seem like they’d been traveling forever. “How long has it been since we slept in a bed?” “Day before yesterday.” “Really?” Well, okay, maybe. Still, it had to be more than two weeks since they’d made it out of the swamp; maybe as much as a month. If Jurtan had had anything to say about it, they’d never have gone into the swamp in the first place, especially since all they had to show for it was a sack of moldy papers neither one of them could read. Of course, if Jurtan had anything to say about anything, he’d be anywhere at the moment but out at five-thirty in the morning on some nameless road in some useless countryside on the way to somewhere he had not the slightest interest in arriving at. With a maniacal self-improvement freak. Jurtan was still surprised Max didn’t make the horses do calisthenics right along with the two of them. To his credit, if you were in a positive frame of mind, you could note that Max never sat on the sidelines just calling instructions to Jurtan. Jurtan scowled at his own thought as he laced his fingers together behind his back and began his first ten-count of creaking his way over backward. That wasn’t a positive at all; all it meant was that Max pushed both of them as hard as he pushed himself. “What do you think you’re glaring at?” Max said, finishing his own back-bend, holding it, and then moving his upper body up and over in a slow lithe curl that culminated with his nose touching his thighs and his arms pointing straight ahead of him behind his inverted back. “Why do we have to do this every day?” Jurtan grunted a moment later, coming back upright and pausing before doing the whole thing over again.
“We’re already in shape. Okay, maybe I wasn’t when we left Roosing Oolvaya but I am now, so -” “You’re in shape now? Good, then we can go on to the next level. There’s no standing still in this outfit.” Max tilted backward again and Jurtan reluctantly followed. Max had already told him that standing still meant going back; that was aphorism number tenthousand thirty-three. Thirty-four? If Max tossed him another Rule to Live By today Jurtan thought he’d … well, it wouldn’t be pretty. It wouldn’t be so bad if Jurtan’s music sense didn’t seem to agree with Max. Well, it might be as bad physically, but at least he wouldn’t have to accept the fact that his own body was in league against him too. He didn’t care at this stage if something was good for him or not. So what if he actually did feel better than before he’d met up with Max and Shaa? Great, he was in touch with his body, he had muscles and supple joints, his coordination had improved and he had a new repertoire of skills. All this had done was give him a new appreciation of the under-recognized appeal of sloth as a lifestyle. A flugelhorn honked querulously at him from the back of his head. That was another thing – what was the good of an extra sense that spent most of its time editorializing? Anybody who had a conscience had to be used to having it tell its owner what it thought of them, but Shaa (who was supposed to know about things like that) had never heard of one that orchestrated its critical commentary with multi-part harmony and a comprehensive palette of tonal colors. Of course, the standard wisdom on consciences was that they concentrated on reactions to issues of right and wrong, weighing in with a compulsion to do right and feelings of guilt if you violated a previously recognized ethical principle. What a conscience wasn’t supposed to do was step out proactively, jumping in with helpful hints and suggestions of its own when it hadn’t been asked to do anything more than shut up.
In fact, shutting up was the one thing Jurtan’s sense had thus far refused to do. On the other hand, Jurtan wasn’t complaining, especially now that he’d reached an accommodation with his resident talent. In the old days of all of several months ago, his musical accompaniment had been jealous to a fault. Back then, as soon as Jurtan had heard music from outside his head – music that someone else was actually playing – his eyes would glaze and his mind would grind to a useless stop. Eventually he’d come back to consciousness with a blank gaze and no idea where he was. Sometimes he’d even be jerking and kicking, too, or worse. It had been pretty embarrassing, and sometimes kind of dangerous as well. After all the training and the practicing, though, that didn’t happen anymore. Max finally called a halt. Jurtan felt tingly and fully wrung out, but of course the day was really just starting. Back in the grove of trees and parallel to the road was a stream. The horses eyed Jurtan suspiciously as he eased down to the water; they hadn’t quite forgiven either Jurtan or Max for their experience in the swamp. Max had been eyeing the horses back. For Max’s own part, the look on his face implied he’d been considering whether he was going to continue viewing the horses as part of the team, rather than as a source of ready cash or, in a so-far unexperienced emergency, as dinner or lunch. The horses and Max had for the moment fish-eyed each other to a standstill.
Nothing snapped at Jurtan out of the water, and a quick splash took some of the edge out of his own snappish mood. He was almost back to their small camp when he saw the strange device standing near to the shoulder of the road at the edge of the treeline thirty paces or so west, in the direction of Peridol. “What’s that?” said Jurtan. It certainly wasn’t another signpost, unless it was pointing the way to a place you couldn’t get to on a horse, and not a place merely across the ocean either. One of the trees, a small sapling really, had been stripped of its side branches, leaving little more than a wooden rod protruding upward from the ground to the height of Jurtan’s head, a rod with a prominent root system still anchoring it to the ground. A carved icon had been strapped to the top of the tree facing the road and was doubly secured there with a peg. Jurtan couldn’t make out any details of the carving since a wisp of ground fog was still clinging to the icon in a soft glow. “Better stay away from it in that state of mind,” Max called over. “Stay away from what?” muttered Jurtan. “I’m not a kid.” Ignoring the sudden blare of discordant brass and the familiar snare-drum roll that usually warned him when something worth paying attention to was about to happen, he aimed a kick at the pole. Without quite knowing how it had happened, Jurtan found himself for a brief instant hanging upside down in the air, where he had been dragged when something that felt like an enraged beehive had latched onto his foot and lashed it up over his head. Then he was sprawled out on the dirt fifteen feet away, at the end of a five-foot furrow, with his face covered with mud and his leg throbbing and tingling as though Max had had him exercising for three days straight without a rest break. Jurtan got an elbow under him, wiped dirt out of his eyes with an equally filthy hand, and spit loam out of his mouth. Max was standing nearby looking the shrine over with a professional eye, but from a prudent distance.
“What did you think was going to happen?” Max said. “It’s an active offering to an active god, looks like the Protector of Nature. Whoever set it up obviously had the concept a little vague, since they mutilated a tree to do it instead of just honoring something green in its natural state, but I guess the Protector wasn’t being too picky that day either, or maybe she was just hungry. You’re just lucky it didn’t call an enforcer.” Jurtan dragged his head free of the dirt and sprawled up to a sitting position. “You wouldn’t have let me get near it if it would have set off something real bad.” “Oh, you think so,” said Max, “do you.” “Not if it would have called attention to you, no I don’t.” The kid was probably right but that didn’t mean Max had to let him know he knew it. Give him an inch and, well, who knew where you’d end up. Max gave Jurtan a hand instead and pulled him to his feet. “Get yourself put together again while I finish breakfast. We still have some eggs from that last village.” Even in his newly reinstated morose mood, Jurtan had to admit that one of Max’s other talents was knowing how to make the most of cuisine on the road. With some decent food inside of him and after his second bath of the morning, Jurtan was also more willing to take a longer view of his situation.
He was prepared to acknowledge that the pace Max had been setting since Iskendarian’s swamp was by no means a killing one even if it wasn’t downright leisurely. They’d been in and out of several countries and city-states since then, wasting a fair amount of time talking and hobnobbing in towns and farms. They’d even made a few outright side trips to check out local legends or hot spots, and in one case to visit a ruined castle where Max had climbed a toppled mound of wall-stones festooned with moss and trailing ivy to declaim several stanzas of ancient poetry. Far too many stanzas, if you asked Jurtan, who had never been a big fan of high literature. When you added it up, though, you had to conclude that they’d been staying on back roads and avoiding the larger thoroughfares. On the more traveled routes there would have been more people who might have remembered them, Jurtan figured, but there would also have been more excursionists to lose themselves among. On the other hand, the smaller towns they’d been through wouldn’t see ten visitors in a year, so they’d most likely remember the two of them if anyone asked. How much did Max really want to shake The Hand off their trail? Something else Jurtan had learned was how to think and work at the same time. While he’d been mulling Max’s plans and intentions back and forth he’d succeeded in getting the area cleaned up and the horses packed; more skills Jurtan couldn’t recall wishing he possessed. At least sitting on a horse all day was no longer a more drawn-out form of one of Max’s tortures. Jurtan was almost at a stage where he could say he felt comfortable with riding. “No,” said Max. Jurtan paused, one foot in its stirrup and halfway into the saddle. “What?” “We’ve been pushing the horses enough. Let’s give them a break today.
” Jurtan let himself down to the ground. They hadn’t been pushing the horses, they’d been virtually coddling them. What was Max up to? This bit with the horses wasn’t the only strange thing this morning, either. “Why are you wearing that beard and that grubby disguise?” “Practice. “ If there was anything else Max didn’t need, it was practice in deception or dissimulation, which meant his answer this time had meant about as much as any of Max’s answers ever did. “If you told me what was going on I could help,” Jurtan volunteered. “Oh, you could, could you?” “What do you have against me, anyway?” Jurtan mumbled. “I thought apprentices were entitled to some consideration.” “They probably are. Are you coming or not?” Max had led the other horse onto the road. Jurtan grimaced and dragged his horse after him. Something was up, though. Max wasn’t usually quite this testy, especially in the morning; he liked getting up early, and seemed to hit his stride right around the time the sun came out. Maybe Max did need practice. Max was always suspicious, but this morning he was out-and-out on edge.
Something was putting him especially on his guard. Max had produced a floppy, wide-brimmed hat of a piece with the rest of his ratty disguise. It was ratty only in appearance, though, not in effectiveness. If Jurtan met this fellow on the street he wouldn’t give him a second look, except perhaps to make sure there was enough of a buffer space around to steer clear of him. As the trees thickened around them and the amount of morning light reaching them through the canopy of leaves declined, Jurtan thought he saw a pale pink glow begin to peek from beneath the brim of Max’s headpiece. Max settled his hat more firmly. While his hand was in place next to the brim, he slid his fingers underneath it and adjusted the control matrix above his right ear. Camouflage, Max thought, camouflage and subterfuge, always hiding one thing behind another; what a world. If we didn’t have all this magic running loose, struggles of power and battles of will, it would probably be a much nicer place overall. But on the other hand it probably wouldn’t. People were people and power, after all, was power. The enhancement disc in front of his right eye firmed and Max’s overlay-view of the scene ahead of them settled down. Off to the left on the trunk of a tree was a squirrel. Between its bark-colored fur and the gloom of the lighting level it was all but invisible to the unaided eye, even once Max knew where to look. To the disc, though, painting the squirrel’s body heat in a glowing orange, it might as well have been under a spotlight