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"You said it wouldn't be for very long!" Tamaz screamed, tears and snot pouring down his face "You promised. You said they'd get sick of Kieran, blame him for the mess they're in, and be ready to dump him on us. Without them he'd be sunk. But they're still with him, still supporting him. They're all as close as ever, you bastard!"
"It has to take time", said Father Dalman "It hasn't been very long so far, not in real terms. We've closed them off out there, they have to keep coming forward, they can't go back".
"It's not good enough", Tamaz hissed "The other Ghoomers want Kieran here, broken and destroyed, ready to be sacrificed. We can't do anything with him if his spirit's still intact. You promised me he would be delivered to us a broken man. That the others would dump him and leave him here. How much longer does it have to take?"
"Not much longer at all", said Dalman "I promise you".
"I watch them every night, in the cards", said Tamaz, flicking his said fortune-telling cards "The fates around him are still strong. There are a lot of staves in his spread, that means he has a lot of protection, and fierce protection at that. It is a symbol of defensive aggression".
Tamaz turned on Dalman and pushed him against the card-table.
"You said it would work with Joby and the stockings", he raged "You said that would be our big Ace, that Kieran knew nothing about Joby's secret fetish, that it would destroy them. Well why hasn't it??? Likewise with this stupid plot of yours to make Ketts a saint, a living saint. With him around, who would want Kieran you said. Well Ketts is fucking dead, so look where that got us!"
"We still have one very strong Ace", said Dalman, silkily.
"When the Indigo gets here, it'll be the end of the line for them, or I should say the end of the river. They won't be able to go forward, and because of the way we've made it, they won't be able to go back either".
"Get to the point", Tamaz snapped.
"They'll want to bargain", said Dalman, triumphantly "And we're the only ones who can call the shots. They give us Kieran, and we'll let the rest out of here. After all, they're not going to want to stay are they?"
"No", said Tamaz, quietly "No one wants to stay here. That's why my kind are so desperate to get out. To do that Kieran has to be destroyed, his spirit broken, his reputation broken. We need this to work, Dalman".
"It will. We're getting there", said Dalman, putting his hands on Tamaz's shoulders "It was never going to be easy. Kieran's reputation is secure with the public, and his family have been with him for a long time. I never said they'd abandon him easily, but they will. They will".
"We've got to try harder", said Tamaz, his eyes glistening with tears "Those stupid assassination attempts on Lonts, the Joby episode, it's all been so futile so far. We don't have many Aces left. Especially now real women have been found. That's why I've gone into hiding. Nobody wants me now".
"I wouldn't say no one exactly", said Dalman, pulling open the bodice of Tamaz's dress and caressing his small, firm breasts.
"Get off!" Tamaz pulled himself away irritably "I'm sick of it here. This bloody place, with its darkness".
"It's not for much longer".
"I'm sick of this fucking tower", Tamaz ran across his sparsely-furnished bedchamber and pounded on the tiny leaded window, outside of which the darkness pressed.
"It's just until Kieran gets here. Then we'll seal him up here, and a light will go out of the world and pass to us, and it will all be ours", said Dalman, walking up behind Tamaz and reaching for his breasts once more.
"And more than anything, ANYTHING!" Tamaz roared, pushing Dalman away "I'm sick of being a girl! Of wearing these stupid dresses, of people asking after those bloody children. I want to be a boy again, like I was in Thetislog. Spending my days hunting, like a Ghoomer should. Ever since I agreed to be female too I've been caged, impregnated, suffered the attentions of that imbecile Gorth, and prostituted myself to get Joby".
"You have also had unlimited power", said Dalman "And everything you could wish for".
"I don't want it anymore!" Tamaz screamed "I want hunting. I want my friends. I want to be a BOY!"
"You can't have any of that until all this is over", said Dalman, sternly "You've unleashed the forces of light, Tamaz. And until they are extinguished, you won't get any peace at all".
Julian stood on the forward deck and cursed the distant horizon for never getting any nearer. He was having to constantly fight down his feelings of terror now. By being Captain he was responsible for the Indigo and everyone on it, and he wondered just how much longer they could continue, before he had to order them to abandon ship and take their chances on land. He knew no one wanted this, least of all himself. The Indigo was like their mother now, attached to them by an invisible umbilical cord. To desert her was unthinkable. But it was a stark fact that not only was the fuel getting low, but the fresh water too, and that was a very serious problem indeed.
He often wrote in his log that he didn't know how he would cope, if it weren't for Adam. On the surface Julian might appear the stronger of the two, with his swaggering, autocratic ways, but it was Adam's strong streak of individualism and innate kindness that had always been the making of him. And he desperately wished his abominable real family (in biological terms) could see this now and accept it.
They had certainly never accepted Adam. Julian remembered how his mother's eyes would bulge and the veins on her neck stand out at the mere mention of Adam's name. Julian had always longed to ask if she disapproved of Adam for having a homosexual relationship with her son, or because he was the offspring of the dreaded Hon. Letitia. Julian's mother hadn't simply disapproved of Letitia's drinking and wild spirit, but (although she would never have admitted this) she hated her because she had been born with a title. Whereas Julian's mother had had to marry to acquire one.
It was all so silly really, it always had been. But then the lives of the English aristocracy had always been shot right through with silliness, and a ridiculous reverence for petty rules and regulations. None of which mattered in the slightest. The only function they had served had been to make their empty lives seem worthwhile in some desperate way.
Julian had adored inflicting Adam on his family for weekends. He remembered how they had all tried to rein in their hysteria at his close proximity, and how Adam (endowed with his mother's rebellious streak, as well as a little of his father's bullying) had enjoyed tormenting them. But then it was all too easy to do so. You only had to order the wrong drink after dinner to do that. And so Adam had ordered whisky-and-coke, vodka-and-orange, brandy-and-Babysham, and on one memorable occasion "that blue cocktail that looks like loo cleaner", in other words the commonest, naffest drinks he could think of, just to wind them up. With his high-octane individualism, Adam was more of a true aristocrat than they, with their absurd obsession with Doing The Right Thing, could ever hope to be.
The Hon. Letitia would be very proud if she could see her son now (it was best not to think of his father's reaction). Adam was living the kind of life she should have done. Having adventures, surrounded by adoring younger people. Whereas Julian's parents would still be frosty and disapproving. He would never have earned their approval, not ever.
He sighed and went below, wishing that some sign would appear and give him an idea as to what he should do next. When he got to the quarterdeck he found Adam hurtling towards the saloon, where yet another fight was in progress between Lonts and Toppy. Lonts had decided that today's ritual humiliation for Toppy should be a bloody nose, and now they were both rolling around on the floor, kicking and pounding at each other. Adam was yelling at them to stop, but to no avail.
"Stop it at once!" Julian cried and cracked the whip.
It had the desired effect of making the two boys both spring to their feet. Toppy's nose was bleeding profusely, and there were spots of blood on the front of his shirt. Lonts didn't look at all repentant, in fact he was scowling at Toppy with a great degree of viciousness.
"You can both go and wait in my cabin!" Julian roared "Go now!"
The two of them sidled out sheepishly. Julian proceeded to pour himself a drink, and then imbibed it leisurely.
"I can't help feeling it's my fault", said Adam "I told Toppy he had to start standing up for himself".
"About bloody time", said Julian "He can't go through life the way he is".
"What are you going to do?"
"Give them both a bloody good hiding".
"It's the only way", Julian protested "I have always maintained that boys should be thrashed daily, it does them a power of good. And it's the only language they really understand".
"But Lo-Lo has to be persuaded to accept Toppy".
"He won't. Not ever. They're too different. Lonts is too honest, everytime he tries to be deceitful, he fails at it miserably, whereas with Toppy it's a natural art-form".
"Then what are we going to do with them?" said Adam.
"Discipline them severely everytime they fall out".
"Trouble is, I think it's Lonts's fault", said Adam, sadly.
"I know", Julian laughed, fondly "He has your passion. Whereas Toppy would have fitted in well with my family".
"What have your family got to do with it?"
"Just a train of thought".
"But Lo-Lo's got to learn to accept Toppy, the boy is one of us now. You even have Toppy in bed with you".
"I don't think Toppy's a bad kid", said Julian "But I prefer Lonts's spirit. Still, I'd better go and sort the little perishers out. You'd better be standing by for when Lonts has hysterics".
Julian slippered them both over the back of a chair. First Lonts and then Toppy. Lonts had endured the walloping fairly silently, because he knew Toppy was going to get some of the same. Any hopes that Adam may have had that it would bring the two boys closer together, like two little reprobates being caned by the headmaster, were dashed when Lonts triumphantly exclaimed afterwards how Toppy had "blubbed" all the way through it.
"He's so cowardly", said Lonts, in a sneering voice.
"I remember plenty of occasions when you've blubbed through a hiding", said Adam, sternly "Poor little Toppy. He must wish he was back with Pendor".
"Why are you siding with him?" said Lonts, fiercely.
"I'm not. I feel sorry for him that's all. He's led a quiet, sheltered life, and then he gets hurled into the maelstrom of living with us lot. And before he knows it he's being beaten up by you, and disciplined by Julian. He must wonder what on earth he's let himself in for!"
"Do you think he's more good-looking than me?"
"Of course not", Adam retorted "Now don't be so silly, and come and help me do the dinner. We've only got packet rice and packet mashed potato tonight, so I'm relying on you to cheer everyone up whilst they're eating it".
"Perhaps we could get Bengo to do one of his acts", said Lonts, brightly.
"I think there's a limit to human endurance, Lo-Lo", Adam smiled.
Tamaz ran down the steps in the tower, tripping on his long dress a couple of times. He was sobbing, half-insane with misery. Not very given to introspection, it was at last beginning to dawn on him what a hideous loop he was in. He had gone along with the whole thing, marrying Gorth, discrediting Kieran, because it had all seemed like an adventure at the time. He had enjoyed the wealth and prestige that went with being President's Consort, and the chance to help the few surviving Ghoomers. But now it was all catching up on him so horrendously that he felt breathless with terror.
He also felt angry and frustrated. Everyone was using him. Kieran had used him to get the children and feed everyone the idea of a new generation (all of which was superfluous now), Dalman had used him to get on in the New Church, of which one day he wanted to depose Kieran as Defender of the Faith. The whole goddamn world was using him. Far from being the evil manipulator the world perceived him as, he felt he was being used and abused by everyone else.
Running down the steps of the tower he felt there was still one person who could help, and she was sitting in a room at the bottom, her back to the door. He ran into the little cell-like room, and flung himself at his mother's feet, putting his head in her lap.
"I don't want it anymore", he wept "I want to go back to Thetislog. Ever since I left there I've been caged and abused. I don't want it anymore. Make it stop!"
His mother reached out a hand, livid with wrinkles and talons, and pushed him away. She didn't say a word. She didn't have to. Whatever his suffering, hers was far greater, and she could never forget that.
When he realised that no help was forthcoming from that quarter, he ran from the room. He ran about the tower for hours afterwards, tearing at his feminine clothes. After some time of this he came to his own conclusion. And he wished he'd reached it a lot sooner. He would run away from them all.
The Indigo reached a port of call, just as things were getting highly critical. Water was being severely rationed, and food was at the dregs from the back of the store cupboard stage. And then one morning life had sprung on them again. The horizon had finally been reached.
They were at a bay dwarfed by the mountainous land behind it. In the unexpected hot sunshine (after days of grey drizzle) the pine trees, scattered buildings and sheer abundance of lush greenery made it all seem like paradise. It all looked so fresh and tidy, in a very clean Alpine kin of way. Many people could be glimpsed walking about on the steep hillside on which the community was based. Of both sexes, they were scantily-clad and seemed reasonably unthreatening.
Sunshine after incessant drizzle, mountains after flatland, people after isolation. It was heady stuff. Of course it had occurred to them that the whole thing was one of Tamaz's diabolical illusions. But the direness of the situation on the Indigo, plus the fact that they had run out of river, made such fears meaningless. They had to accept what was on offer, whether it was wholly real or not.
Preparations for "shore-leave" were made with great excitement. They were all disembarking en-masse, intending to stick fully together until they were certain what this lush new land had to offer.
"I hope they don't think we're too primitive", said Adam, stroking the stubble on his chin "None of us are much on the clean side".
"Whilst you're wearing those tight shorts you'll always look gorgeous to me", said Julian, kissing him enthusiastically.
"Come on!" Joby bellowed "We wanna get there and pick up some fresh water now, in case it all disappears again".
Hillyard was handed a canvas sling holding a couple of empty water containers. Large, cumbersome objects that were difficult enough to carry when empty, let alone what it would be like when they were full.
"What am I, a fucking pack-mule?" he roared "I get every crummy job that's going. It's always been the way. It was like it at the Castle and it's like it here. Want drain cleaning out? Get Hillyard to do it. Want a toilet unblocking? Get Hillyard to do it. Want a stoker? Get Hillyard to do it. Nappies need washing? Hillyard's your man. Need someone to poke the arse off you? Hillyard will always oblige".
"Hilly", said Adam "What an extraordinary time to pick to create a little scene! Just as things are looking up too".
"He's not the only one who's suffered, so he needn't think it", said Joby.
"I know, old love", said Adam "But I suppose he does have the worst job on the ship. In the old days of the British Navy the stoker's job was so dreaded that officers had to pull a gun on someone just to get them to do it".
"You've changed your tune", said Joby "Normally you say he sits down there day-dreaming all the time".
"Never mind what I've said before", said Adam, putting on his sun-hat "It's high time we went ashore".
No one objected to them mooring at the big jetty which waded out into the water. In fact they were given broad smiles by the fishermen sitting nearby with their rods, and reassured that their faithful old tub would be quite safe where it was.
"Friendly lot", said Ransey, suspiciously.
"Probably all doped", said Joby "Like everyone was in Toondor Lanpin".
"It doesn't matter to me", said Adam "I'm just tired of distrusting everyone. Let's be blissfully naive for a change".
People continued to smile at them as they crossed onto solid land. Adam marvelled at their trust, as he was aware they looked fairly disreputable. Dirty and unshaven, Julian carrying his whip, Ransey packing two revolvers in a hip and shoulder holster. No one appeared to recognise Kieran, and the only strange looks they got were some slightly bemused glances at the way Adam was holding Lonts's hand.
The locals were like everyone they had met since leaving the Village of Stairs, in that they came in all shapes, sizes and colours. The one thing they had in common though was that they all seemed to radiate good health. In fact they all glowed with it, even the old ones. Kieran and his crew felt more seedy than ever up against such squeaky wholesomeness. It was entirely in keeping with the clean freshness of the surrounding landscape.
"Must be something in the water", said Joby.
"Good job we're going to take some then", said Julian "I could do with a spot of rejuvenating".
They followed a steep woodland track up from the jetty to the main part of the village, which was situated quite some way up the side of the mountain. They scrunched over pine-cones and breathed in the scent of the fir-trees. Nearby a woman could be heard singing beautifully. If this was an illusion created by Tamaz he was laying it on thick for them. They were already aware that should the disillusionment come it would be devastating.
The main part of the village was spread widely round a large clearing in the forest. There was no road as such, or paved square, just more and more of the lush greenery. The houses were small and compact. Some were made of gleaming white stone, others were built out of precisely-cut logs. It was all so neat and perfect that it would have made the twee-ist corner of Switzerland look like a picture of urban decay.
At the present time the men of the Indigo were only interested in one thing, where to get some fresh water. At the far end of the village they came upon a pair of wrought-iron gates which led into a beautiful walled garden. The garden was filled with pink and white rose bushes, and the smell was intoxicating. At the centre of the garden was the welcome sight of a large fountain spraying fresh water.
There was no one else around so they went mad at the sight of the water. They filled the two barrels, and then stripped off and washed in the gleaming water. Everyone was so preoccupied that they didn't notice the time passing, until it suddenly went dusky, and before they knew it a man was ordering them to leave, like an over-officious park-keeper.
"We didn't mean any harm", said Julian, drying his hair on his shirt "We just wanted some fresh water".
"You must leave", said the man, insistently. Everything about him was as neat and squeaky-clean as his setting. His fair hair was trimmed and combed back into a neat tail. He wore a suit that was neat and spotlessly-clean. In fact the whole area's emphasis on neatness and cleanliness was beginning to feel unnerving.
"We're going now", said Julian, holding up a his hands as though in surrender.
"It's getting dark", said the man, insistently.
"O.K, I promise you we're leaving", said Adam, disturbed by the man's worried tone.
They got back into the village square, and the man shut the gates behind them firmly. It was only as they were about to leave that they realised Toppy was still in the garden, and was standing on the other side of the gates, wailing like an abandoned child.
"Oh get him out", Julian sighed.
"Get Toppy out!" Lonts cried, hysterically "Get him out! He could be trapped in there all night!"
Adam was very gratified to hear Lonts showing such concern for Toppy's welfare, and said to Julian that this was a very good sign indeed.
"Never mind all that", said Julian, looking round him nervously "It's time we were back on the Indigo. I don't know why, but I don't want to be out here after dark".
Toppy was let out, amidst much sobbing on his part.
"You were going to leave me behind", he said, tearfully.
"No we weren't", said Julian, shortly "Now let's get moving".
"We wouldn't have forgotten you, Toppy", said Lonts, taking the boy's hand.
"Oh Jules, isn't he a little love!" Adam exclaimed.
Julian was too preoccupied to give his customary retort of "you're a fool, Adam". Lamps were being lit in all the cottages, and it was a noticeable fact that everyone in the area were scurrying to their houses. Julian led the way back down through the woods, with the others following on behind, Hillyard and Ransey carrying the barrels in the canvas-sling between them.
They didn't meet anyone on the journey back to the jetty. The villagers had all vanished into their respective homes, and the only sounds that could now be heard were those of the bats flying through the tree-tops. Julian had never felt so nervous in his life, and he was glad when they had all reached the Indigo once more.
Another dreary supper of packet mashed potato was eaten when they got back, although Hillyard promised he would do some fishing tomorrow morning i they were to stay on another day.
"Of course we're staying on! Where else can we go?" said Julian, slamming into his cabin.
Finia pulled a face, but followed him in. The rest of the group broke up soon after and everyone went to their respective cabins. Adam went in to wish Julian goodnight, as was his custom, but came out again soon after when he realised what a foul mood his old friend was in.
"What's the matter with him?" said Ransey, who was sitting on the saloon sofa, and thanks to the lack of a door these days, had overheard the terse exchange.
"Worries of leadership", said Adam, sitting down next to him "I really can't blame him. This whole place doesn't seem real, and unless the river gets back to normal, we're stuck here. No going forward. No turning back".
"I know, but he doesn't have to carry it alone", said Ransey "I'm a professional, I won't let any harm come to us if I can help it".
"Oh Ransey, you're such a sweetie-pie", said Adam, and he had kissed him on his cheek before he knew what he was doing.
"You haven't done that in ages", said Ransey, squeezing Adam's hand "I've missed it".
"I'm always surprised you're still with us", said Adam "You should've set up home with Dolores in No-Name. She's just your sort".
"The two specs-wearers together you mean?"
"You could do a lot worse. She's sensible, in a non-boring way, thoughtful, kind. Just what you need after what those hideous Ghoomer hags did to you".
"Oh I'm too old for all that now".
"Nonsense!" said Adam, robustly "No one's ever too old to fall in love, well that's what I believe anyway".
"What have I got to offer her though?"
"Not a lot in a material sense I suppose. But she could move in here with you. You could both have this room", said Adam, enthusiastically "When we get back to Toondor Lanpin we could have a new door put on, and Hillyard could make you a proper bunk. Oh it would be wonderful! She would fit in so well. Even Julian likes her".
"I can't see her wanting to live in this sardine tin with all of us though", said Ransey "It'd be different if we were still at the Castle. Bags more room up there".
"Yes, it's a shame about the Castle", said Adam "Sometimes I miss it too. We did have to so much space up there".
Ransey suddenly kissed him. Properly. It was a quietly confident kiss, one from a man now at ease with himself after many years of inner turmoil.
"I'm sorry", he said, eventually "I couldn't help it, you always look so lovely. You don't look a day older than you did when I first saw you in Lixix".
"Oh Ransey, you're so kind", said Adam.
"Y-y don't mind?"
"Not at all. Although I'm not sure what to do next for the best".
"Go to bed with Lonts?" Ransey smiled.
"I think I should", said Adam "We don't want Julian coming in and catching us, do we? He's in enough of a state as it is".
"Goodnight Adam", said Ransey, softly.
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