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Chapter Forty-Six

The ruined city, 1880

Crawford took the last of the water he had drawn from their supplies and poured it over his head, rinsing away the soap. It was a relief, he thought, no longer to feel quite so filthy in his own person. His clothes, like those of his friends, had seen better days, and no matter how he applied soap and water to them, the ring of grime about his collars could not be completely removed. He regarded the shirts and collars he had washed with a weary satisfaction, however, knowing well that they would dry quickly in the great heat, and he would not have to put dirty clothing on his clean skin. He was very glad to have had the thought that some at least of their clothing should be packed away to stay clean and unfaded for their return to New London, as it would be most unwise to look as if they were fresh come from an extended stay in the desert should the soldiers think to ask after any such men. He was satisfied also with the mindless repetitive nature of the task of cleaning his apparel, as it served to distract him from his growing dissatisfaction with their search. His joy at finding the ornate golden artefact designed to solve a code had dwindled as it became clearer and clearer that it was no use without the discovery of the texts upon which it was meant to be used. Those inscriptions that they had heretofore found were by no means encoded, he thought. Though they were in a tongue that had died with the ancients who had constructed the city, the relationship of that tongue to its distant and modern descendents was apparent with a little work. "Such inscriptions are in a code of only the most accidental nature," he thought, "constructed of time and antiquity. Ordinary study would prove enough to break them and reveal their meaning, if I had but the time to expend on such effort!" He sighed, smiling ruefully at the sense of regret such a thought engendered in his breast. "When did I become an antiquarian in truth?" he thought. "Schuldig is right to mock me."

"At last you see my wisdom," murmured Schuldig, having crept up silently. He laughed at how Crawford tried to cover his startlement. "How you have grown accustomed to me, to show your reactions so! You must have been deep in thought to not see me coming, Crawford."

"If I tried to foresee every occasion on which you would be rude or would mock me I should be exhausted," smiled Crawford.

"I am ahead of you once again, Herr Crawford," said Schuldig cheerfully. "I am already exhausted. When we have returned to civilisation I shall submerge myself in a proper bath filled with hot water, with none of this poor caustic stuff you thought economical - there shall be only the finest Castilian soap scented with violets, and towels so thick that one might sink into them and be lost. I may never get out of this aforementioned bath, I warn you now."

"Then I can save money by not buying you those towels," smiled Crawford. "Have the others come back from their hunt yet?"

"No," said Schuldig, settling down beside him. "It will be fully dark soon - unless they can see as well in the night as the dov they will surely return. Nagi is still cleaning the ever-increasing collection of small things he is taking from the tomb. He is such a little treasure-hunter! We are quite alone," he said. "Look into the future for me."

"Cross my palm with silver," said Crawford with a laugh. "Shall I tell you that you will meet a tall, dark and handsome man?"

"Tall and dark I've already met," said Schuldig evilly. "Handsome would be a most diverting novelty. No, I want to know if you have seen anything more clearly about the outcome of all of this, what shall befall all of us when we leave this place. Do not shake your head and try to elude my request! Look more closely, for me." He laid a hand on Crawford's hair, which the last heat of the day had by now almost dried. "Let me see as well."

"I can try," said Crawford in a warning tone. "But I have seen nothing different than I have previously told you."

Schuldig leaned against him, putting his hands firmly upon his friend's head. "I am ready," he said. "Show me this tall, dark, handsome man."

Crawford breathed deeply, letting his vision and his mind swim away from their anchors in the present, seeking knowledge of the future. An insistent image of Farfarello returning from the hunt, bearing with him one of the native wild sheep had to be pushed aside, then there was a brief and glittering succession of images of the city they explored, followed only by the desert, wide and unbearably hot. Unutterably melancholic loneliness suffused Crawford, and he knew he was lost and alone. "You are not alone," came Schuldig's voice, as Crawford tried to force the vague impressions to form a picture in his mind. He saw an indistinct image of Schuldig, though he was unclear as to whether it was a vision of his friend, or some workings of his ability that gave visual form to the mind reader's current presence within his thoughts. No sooner had he attempted to make more distinct the image of his friend than he found himself alone once more, with the reason for his melancholy made clear to him. Schuldig was gone. He opened his eyes as nothing else became clear to him.

"What," said Schuldig, "do you mean by 'gone'?"

"I don't know," said Crawford unwillingly.

Schuldig's lips thinned in displeasure, and he took a firmer hold upon Crawford, closing his eyes. "I shall apologise later," he said, and then Crawford gasped in pain as Schuldig tore, as it seemed to him, the information he desired from his mind. "I'm sorry," said Schuldig consolingly. "It's faster than you trying to think your way through the vision and then trying to explain your conclusions to me."

"I know," said Crawford, wincing. "If only it could be both efficient and painless! I'm sure you could be more gentle." There had been times Schuldig had acted so with him and not left him with the beginnings of an awful headache, he mused.

"I will be so in future," promised Schuldig, a look of utmost concentration upon his narrow face. "At least you do not see that I shall die," he muttered. "Just that I am gone."

"It may simply be that I could no longer see your image in my mind - not everything I see comes to pass," said Crawford, wondering if he would somehow anger his friend so much that Schuldig would attempt the long journey back by himself. "Don't you dare leave. I need you."

"Of course," said Schuldig. "It would be difficult to win free of our masters if you did not have me to rely on. Do not think you shall be rid of me so easily. I am hard to kill and apt to long outstay my welcome." He looked up as Nagi called out in welcome, and drew Crawford's attention to the returning Farfarello and Micah. "One vision at least is come thankfully true, Farfarello has brought us our dinner, as you saw." He looked in sudden fierceness at Crawford. "You saw him return - why did you not see Micah?"

"I don't know," said Crawford with a frown. "I had previously been thinking of the necessity for their hunt to be successful, and had hoped that the killing of beasts might be as calming to Farfarello as the killing of men. No doubt that narrowed in the vision somewhat."

"No doubt," said Schuldig evenly. "Do you ever see him in your visions? I cannot read his mind, you cannot foresee what he will do, Nagi can only at some times say what he is feeling. Micah is a most obscure fellow, is he not?"

"Oh," said Crawford uneasily, feeling that if he moved too much his head would split asunder, "it means nothing. He has told us what the effects of his training were - you cannot be saying that you believe he may hide himself from all our various abilities?"

"A very convenient effect," muttered Schuldig.

"And so I hope it will prove for us, once we have returned to Earth," said Crawford. "I thought you had given up this petty suspicion and grudge, Schuldig." He seized his friend's hand, continuing, "You and I were not friends at first, and see how dear we are to one another now - think about Nagi also. He didn't like you at all when we first found him, and now he is as fond of you as he is of me."

"Next you will be asking me to believe that Farfarello and I are friends," interrupted Schuldig.

"You cannot disguise your love for him from me," said Crawford. "Why whole hours may go by these days without either of you driving the other into a rage!" He looked seriously into Schuldig's face, continuing, "So it will be with Micah. I know it. He is still new to our company, but treat him as a friend and he will become one in truth. He wants to be free as much as any of us, Schuldig. Let us give him that."

"Huh," said Schuldig, shrugging. "And if my sister dropped suddenly from the sky after all these years how would you treat her?"

"As my own dear sister," said Crawford.

"If she'd been in their keeping you would do better to be wary of her," said Schuldig. "Pah! Do not listen to me in such a mood, Crawford. I am a suspicious fellow, and your bewildering vision has not improved my humour. I seek only to distract myself."

"You have not been quite yourself these last days," said Crawford. "You cannot keep your mind on any task for long and continually seek distraction. What is the matter with you?" A horrid thought crept into his mind that perhaps Schuldig had contracted some malady peculiar to mind readers that had worn at his mental faculties.

"No," said Schuldig dismissively, then paused. "Well," he went on, "perhaps I am more easily distracted than usual. I think it may be the emptiness of this place, Crawford. This is the longest I have ever been away from numbers of people - you and Farfarello have been taught to erect walls within your minds to at least keep some of your thoughts to yourselves, Micah is a blank wall. The only person I can hear without expending effort is Nagi. I have been eavesdropping on you and Farfarello every chance I get." He grimaced, gesturing vaguely. "It is hard to explain. I'm used to trying to keep people's every little thought out of my head, not suddenly wondering if I have gone deaf! Doing all manner of distracting things, being with you when you have let down the barriers in your mind like now and I can hear your thoughts without even trying to - it's calming."

"Is that all?" asked Crawford.

"I hope so," said Schuldig. "I've heard some tales of horror concerning what may happen to mind readers should they succumb to mental weakness." He stood, pulling Crawford up with him. "Come along, let us walk off your headache and then come back to see the fate of that unfortunate beast once Farfarello has tried to cook some of it. We'll think about what you saw and see what conclusions we can come to." He smiled wickedly, though Crawford could see it was not as genuine as usual, saying, "I'll be far more gentle with you in future, a man of your advancing years should not be subjected to such ardour."

* * *

Schuldig stared disconsolately into the fire, fighting down the urge to throw the food he had just been given to the dov. He was very tired of the meat that Farfarello and Micah had procured, and wished that the cool room in which the well was located had never been found, for the meat had stayed good there far longer than it could have otherwise been expected. "I have eaten it roasted, and fried, and boiled," he thought in irritation, "And not once has it been palatable! I could almost long to be as Farfarello and know only that I ate, without ever tasting the food! What I would not give for a proper meal, served on fine china and eaten with implements of silver!" He glared as Farfarello offered him another slice. "Oh, give it here," he said ungraciously. "I must eat something after all." It was tough and chewy, and Schuldig pretended both to his friends and to himself that he was annoyed only with the unpalatable state of his dinner. No one paid him much attention, which served only to annoy him more. "Bah," he thought, doing his best not to glare at the others, "do they not know how impolite it is to ignore a fellow? Why Crawford has not spoken to me for almost an hour!" Indeed his friend had been, both before and during the whole of dinner, utterly absorbed in conversation with Micah, a fact that served only to annoy Schuldig still further, for while he had done his best to be polite to the man could not think of him as a friend, no matter how he tried. "A man must be allowed dislike some people," he thought. "We do not needle at each other, that must be enough for Crawford." He frowned as Crawford laughed at something Micah said, a feeling of hot fury rising up within his breast.

"What is it?" asked Nagi, putting a hand upon his arm. "Are you all right, Schuldig?"

"I am perfectly well," he said shortly. "Do not fuss so, Nagi." He sighed as Nagi drew back, his little face annoyed and hurt. "Silly child," thought Schuldig, then, ruefully, "I shall find some way to cheer him up later. Oh, I will go quite mad if I am left out here to cook in the desert with these people for much longer! Pah, I cannot see what is so funny about what he says, Crawford, for you to laugh at his talk again." Schuldig paused, his hand extended to take a last slice of the meat upon which he wished to vent his annoyance, a dull feeling of shame creeping over him. "Oh," he thought. "I am acting as Nagi used to when Crawford's attention was taken from him. I am a jealous fool, and all this time I have thought Crawford to be more jealous than I!" He sat silently, recalling the recent times when it had seemed to his friends - and even to himself - that he had acted queerly, and his shame deepened to know how he had sought to attract attention to himself. Impulsively he reached out and embraced the squirming Nagi.

"Ah!" ejaculated Nagi, "you'll make me drop my food!"

"Where do you put it all?" said Schuldig in a joking tone, hoping to be forgiven his earlier slight. "You are such a thin little lad!"

"Huh," said Nagi, "you're a fine one to talk." He squinted in concentration, thinking then clearly and distinctly, "It is your fault I can think of nothing but food!"

"You do not have to strain so," thought Schuldig, laughing silently. "I can hear you quite well. And there are surely two thoughts in your mind: food and treasure!" He let go only when a little smile began to play about the edges of Nagi's mouth, and the lad seemed quite to have forgot his hurt. Then he paid close attention to Crawford and Micah, seeking to discover what made them laugh so.

"The frog!" cried Crawford. "I had forgotten it till now!"

"Frog?" said Schuldig, seeking to insinuate himself into the conversation.

"We found the largest frog we could," said Micah, "a fine yellow and green gentleman with a powerful and deep voice, and we smuggled it into the house. Bradley, being by far a more evil child than I, proposed that we should hide it in his mother's bureau. Her maid was the one to discover it, and we were lucky indeed that her screams covered our laughter!"

"The poor girl," laughed Crawford. "We should have been whipped soundly for that if we had not managed to get away and claim convincingly that I had been hard at my schoolwork!"

"Well, I would have been whipped," said Micah.

"Come now," said Crawford, taking off his spectacles to wipe them clean, "for that sin we should both have been whipped if we had been suspected!" He smiled fondly at Micah, saying, "My mother worried that there were no suitable children, as she put it, for me to play with. We did well enough, though, did we not?"

"We did," said Micah with a smile, "even if my mother thought you were a little demon! Do you remember, we were planning on going to war together?"

"Yes," said Crawford, suddenly smiling no more. "You were to be my servant, I said. I'm sorry, Micah."

"We were children," said Micah easily. "We knew no better - don't trouble yourself over it now." He turned to Schuldig. "What about you, Schuldig? Were you a troublesome boy?"

Schuldig looked into the fire, telling himself that Micah was merely seeking to distract Crawford and did not mean to be unpleasant. "Not," he said politely, "that I remember."

"Ah," said Micah, "I didn't mean --"

"No, no, it is quite all right," said Schuldig, searching for some amusing story to tell to wipe the look of pity from the other man's face.

"You can remember nothing at all?" asked Micah.

"I know I had parents and a sister, and there are people I see in my dreams," said Schuldig off-hand. "I know them when I'm asleep, but I can't recall their faces or voices when I am awake. Sometimes I can half-remember a woman - and I know my opinion is that she was beautiful, though I cannot ever see her face properly. It's quite stupid, though, for I don't know if she is my mother or perhaps my nursemaid!" He laughed gaily, hating the way they all then looked at him.

"What of your childhood?" said Micah to Farfarello, clearly wishing to divert embarrassing attention from Schuldig.

"It's over," said Farfarello, "and it wasn't very enjoyable at the time."

"I'll make sure the dov are all right," cried Nagi, his desire to flee before he was in turn asked about his childhood clear to Schuldig.

"I did not mean to distress you," said Micah.

"Who is distressed?" said Schuldig with a shrug. "Our lives are as they are. Only fools weep over things they cannot change. We should speak of more profitable things," he said, "What of those inscriptions you copied this morning, Crawford?" He was delighted to see he had at last successfully diverted the conversation, as Crawford's eyes lit up and he took out a notebook.

"I feel sure I could decipher these," said Crawford. "Look, this is the sign still used before the names of deities - surely these words are gods' names and titles. This one occurs again and again."

"If you still hold to the theory that there is some connexion with the ancient temples and tombs you investigated on Earth, no doubt it is a solar god," said Micah.

"No doubt," said Crawford, "though the evidence of the art is more compelling than our theories! These people worshipped the sun, that is certain - their art, the alignment of the palace and temple toward the dawn, no doubt their texts if I could but read them - they all tell me so." He laughed at the others' indulgent faces. "And somewhere within this temple - or within this city, if we are unlucky - they have written something they do not want the common folk to read. That's what we must find."

"Whatever it is, we'll find it," said Micah. "Though I very much hope you do not make us dig over the whole city!"

"We cannot stay too much longer," said Crawford, "Unless we want to support ourselves on the way back through hunting, which would make our journey longer and more wearisome. Let us apply ourselves with greater diligence than we have used so far."

"How are we to do that?" said Farfarello in his mildest tone, thereby showing he meant it as a pleasantry. "Shall we kill ourselves in the attempt?"

"Only half kill yourself," said Crawford in like manner. "What we seek is here somewhere, and we will find it, if I have to kill every one of you to do so." He smiled as they laughed. "It grows late," he said, "and we should get ourselves up as early as possible to start work again. I for one am going to bed. Schuldig?"

"I'll join you," said Schuldig willingly, feeling that nothing would please him more than to rest.

"You never used to speak of such things," said Crawford quietly, when they were alone and Nagi had fallen asleep.

"None of us have ever had a brother appear before," said Schuldig. "It's a time for unusual topics of conversation. You are alike in appearance, you know." He felt a twinge of irritation at the pleasure that crossed Crawford's face, then told himself not to be such a child. "Good night," he said. "May your dreams be full of our success - and may they be prophetic!" He closed his eyes, secure in the knowledge that he still possessed the skill to make Crawford laugh.
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