The knife wound was like a slit along the side of Acan’s throat. It bled a lot at first, but from the way it flowed rather than sprayed out, Joa was sure it had missed the artery. The amount of blood was disquieting, but Joa forced himself to think of it as just another of the wounds Acan had collected as a boy. Joa had doctored all or most of those.
Sounds that were a cross between a mew and a growl sounded from the covered cage that had landed – upright – a few feet away. Joa pulled it towards him and removed the scarf, from which he tore a strip. He used part of the rest to make a pad to clean the wound and another to cover it. They had no water, and there was no way that Joa would leave to look for any, but Acan had put a jar of spirit wine in his hip scarf at the Smiling Fish. It was still here. Joa used most of it to clean the wound. While he bound it up, he checked Acan for other injuries, but there were none he could find.
He took off his short coat and did not miss it – it was hot and humid in the Gateworld. Folding it up, he placed it under Acan’s head, then went back to the door to pound on it, yelling as he did so. There was no answer; not even a noise to indicate he had been heard.
He came back to sit beside Acan and examined the animal in the reed cage.
It stared back at him through slanted, amber eyes. Its body was covered in long fur that was several shades of dust and dirt mixed with grey. It had a very long snout with large, wicked teeth and a pair of jutting tusks. Its legs were short and there was a long, tapering tail; wedge-shaped forepaws were edged with very thick nails the color of clay.
“What kind of creature is it?” he asked aloud.
“It’s called a Badjel.” Acan’s voice was low and a little rough. “It’s a Truffle hunter; it sniffs out Man-eater Truffles. At least, I hope it does.”
Acan, obviously dizzy, was trying to sit up, but Joa stopped him.
“You were hurt.”
Acan’s hand came up to touch the bandage and Joa could see in his eyes when he remembered what had happened. “Sa. That toad-licking bastard.” His eyes flashed to Joa. “You aren’t hurt?”
“No. When we fell through the door, I rolled back and slammed it shut. I didn’t want that man to get another chance at you. I got a bit of a bruise, but that’s all.”
“Let me see.”
“Let me see.”
Joa huffed and let one side of his robes slide down off one shoulder. Acan’s breath on his skin made his own breath hitch and the touch of the fingers exploring the bruise did not hurt but made him uncomfortable.
“The skin is not broken, which is good, because we have nothing to clean it with.”
“I cleaned your wound with some of the spirit wine you had.” Joa rearranged his robes.
Acan nodded, then stopped, wincing. “Good thinking. I have no idea where water might be in this place. Or what it might do. I’ve been told that practically everything in here has magical properties.”
“Like this, na?” Joa tapped on the Badjel’s cage. “He must have magic as he seems small for something that hunts things that can eat men.”
“I only hope he really is what I was told he is. No one on Yume has seen a Badjel for hundreds of years. This one was born outside the Gateworld and bought on the Market World.”
Joa was not eased at all by Acan’s looks. His face was very pale and he looked like he might lose consciousness again. He needed a doctor. “You lost a lot of blood. You should rest.” Joa got up and walked towards the Gateway. “Do you know how to open the door from this side?”
“It won’t open.”
“The door won’t open, Joa. Once the door has been closed, it won’t open… again for two days.”
“But surely, Lord Yual’s key —”
“Can’t open the door, once it has been opened and then closed. No one knows… why. It’s so old, it may be faulty. Or someone… once set it wrong and no one knows how to correct it. For whatever reason, once the door has been unlocked and opened, you can’t open it again for two days.” Acan’s voice was breathy and it seemed he was having difficulty.
“But —” Joa looked at the door and back at Acan. “We cannot possibly …”
He broke off as the Badjel suddenly reared up in its cage, putting its paws on the bars. Its attitude was one of listening. Then its nose started moving, taking in short, deep breaths. Whatever it smelled excited it even further. It began to whine, then made a bark that turned into a howl. It bark-howled over and over and began to lunge against the bars.
“What should I do, Acan? Should I let it out?”
“No. No, don’t… let it…” Acan collapsed, unconscious again.
The Badjel’s cage fell over then tumbled over as the animal kept up its frantic efforts to escape. Even the sturdy reeds of which the cage was made began to snap under the onslaught, and finally broke. The Badjel, with a feral light in its eyes wiggled and pulled itself from the wreckage of its cage and dashed away, dragging behind it what appeared to be a long lead. Joa saw the lead and threw himself on it, grabbing at the corded silk, but it did not tighten. Instead, it lay loose on the ground. The Badjel disappeared into the billows of fog.
Joa pulled on the leash, coiling it until the end, with its undamaged fastening, came into his hand. “It must not have been attached,” he said. He looked at Acan, whose bandage was now soaked with his blood. Two days without supplies, Acan injured, and now the Badjel – their Truffle hunter – gone. This hunt was not going well.
“I had planned to pick up my pack on the way to the Gate, but those foreigners made being able to run quickly more important. At least we have what’s left of the spirit wine. If we use it sparingly, it may last. We can do without food for a couple of days.”
Acan sat still as Joa finished re-bandaging his throat with strips from the remnants of the cage scarf. The edges of the knife cut were a little red, which worried Joa, though he said nothing, since there was nothing to be done about it.
“You still want to look for the Truffles.”
“I do.” Acan grinned that insufferable grin. “We don’t have anything else to do for two days, do we?”
Joa rolled his eyes. “I suppose not.”
After a while, and with a little help, Acan was able to stand and walk. “Let’s just follow the road for a while. The air will get a little clearer as we go farther in.”
“You’ve been here before?”
“Taking a message to the Ambassador on the Market World. The lord who was supposed to take it didn’t want to go, so I volunteered. Knowing the Daitoh’s need for rare ingredients would probably be my best bargaining point, I wanted to know as much as I could about the Gateworld.”
Joa snorted. “You’ve been here more than once.”
“What makes you say that?” Acan’s attempt at an expression of innocence was one Joa had seen too many times to count.
“When you want to know about something, you don’t stop until you know everything you want to know. Even if learning it is dangerous.”
“I knew you would lecture me, and we both know it wouldn’t stop me. So you would just worry. No sense in that, so I never told you.”
Joa made a fist and held it under Acan’s nose. “If you were not injured, I would injure you now.”
Acan barked a laugh.
“How many times then, Acan?”
“Have I been here? Mmmm… I would say seven, but this is my first time hunting magical ingredients. And that would be a lot easier if the Badjel hadn’t run off.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t move sooner.”
“And get in the way of those busy claws? I’m thankful you didn’t. Two of us injured and this Truffle hunt would likely be over.”
Joa glanced at Acan, but did not say what he was thinking – the odds that the hunt was already over were great.
As they walked on, the air did thin as Acan had said it would. Though it was still misty, it was possible to see more of the landscape: more greys, dull greens and browns. There were tall, thin plants that tended to cluster together and mounds of dirt that might be mistaken for hillocks, covered in a mossy, spongy growth. All of the plants seemed to be similar to ones Joa knew in Yume, but not one of them was recognizable as something from home.
Joa suspected that Acan wouldn’t be able to walk a great distance so soon after being injured, so he kept an eye out for likely resting places. When his friend’s steps began to slow, he picked out a grassy space and declared that he needed a break because he was no longer used to such exertion.
“You are not fooling me, Joa,” Acan told him, but allowed himself to be helped to sit. Joa had helped him to remove his short coat some while ago and then added it to his own coat to make a compact bundle, tied with the Badjel’s leash. He tossed it onto the grass and eased Acan down to lay his head on it.
“How is it?”
Acan made a minute shrug. “The wound throbs, but isn’t otherwise painful. I only wish I didn’t feel so tired.” He took a short drink from the spirit wine jar and offered it to Joa, who took only enough to wet his mouth.
“Can’t be helped. You lost blood and nothing’s been done about it.” Joa looked up. “I can’t see anything that might be the sun. How are we to tell time in this place?”
“You really can’t, although there is something that approximates night here. Damn it. I think Lord Yual would have let me go for my pack. If only that damned foreigner hadn’t interfered.”
“Then how will we know when we have to be back at the gate?”
“We’ll count the number of nights. And if we are a little late, we’ll just have to wait until they open the door again.”
“What kind of creatures live in this world?”
“No one knows for sure anymore. Most of the scrolls and paintings were destroyed. The remaining scrolls tell of various strange animals: large, carnivorous beasts bigger than a dog, the Man-eater Truffles, some insects as big as palanquins, and even possibly a type of human.”
“Human?” Joa was shocked.
“Who knows? And there are occasionally raiders – people who bribe their way through a gate to hunt for magical ingredients. That’s one of the benefits of being exiled to the Market World as Ambassador – the bribes.”
“Does the Daitoh know?”
“He knows or suspects. But it’s not something he can do much about.”
“Acan – do you know where to find the Truffles and what they look like?”
“Everything I could learn leads me to believe they are in what passes for a forested area in the Gateworld. It’s nearer the gate to the Market World than to Yume, so another half a day of walking at the pace we went today. As for the Truffles, the best description I could get is that they look like dried dark fruit, only much larger, and with teeth. They live in underground burrows. And who knows what they eat when there are no humans.”
They were silent for a while and in that interval they heard what sounded like the cry of the Badjel far in the distance.
“Damn animal. I paid a lot of sen for him.”
“Then why did you say he was a friendship gift?”
“Obviously, the girl never told her uncle or sweetheart about the money. Those two and the others never complained to Lord Yual that what I paid was too little or offered to trade back. If I had to guess, I would say that she planned to leave her family and that her leave-taking was arranged for tonight. She probably told them that I seduced her and tricked her out of the animal so they would all run out in a fury and she could make her escape on one of the foreigner Ether ships. A good plan and clever. Why should I ruin it for her? Anyway, by now they probably know the truth of it.”
Joa rubbed his temples. “You. You are an idiot.”
“But a chivalrous one, na?” Acan grinned. “Why don’t you sleep a bit, Joa? I’ll be awake a while. Then I’ll take a turn.”
Joa pretended to look doubtful. “If you’re sure…”
“Very well, then.” Joa curled onto his side and put his head on his arm. He stayed that way just until heard Acan’s light snores. Permitting himself a slight smile, he turned over and put his hands behind his head while he contemplated their situation.
The bad? They were trapped in the Gateworld for the next couple of days without supplies except for half a bottle of spirit wine. Acan was injured. They had no weapons other than Acan’s sword and short blade. The animal Acan had gone to a lot of trouble and expense to acquire to help them find the Truffles was lost to them. They still had to find the Truffles. And subdue them. The good? Acan had not been injured more severely. They had half a bottle of spirit wine. They were together – together as they had not been in years.
Joa turned on his side to look at Acan’s profile, watched his chest rising and falling. It had been long since he had had this view of his childhood friend. Until this moment, Joa had not realized how much he had missed Acan’s company, his voice, even his insufferable grin. Though he had not wanted to acknowledge it, it had hurt deeply to think he and his friend had drifted apart or worse, that Acan had been avoiding him.
He had known from early in their lives that Acan, as the son of the Lord, was destined for a different life from his own as a retainer’s child. Someday, Acan would be expected to swear fealty to the Daitoh, marry a Lady, and manage his domain. Joa had accepted that more than a decade ago, so why did seeing Acan again in this time, this place, make him feel both nostalgic and sad?
Maybe it was that, as separated as they had been since Acan had moved to Court, the expected path of his life could take him even farther from Joa?
But both Joa’s father and Acan’s father remained close friends, though Joa’s father had been a retainer and Acan’s father was the Lord. Thinking about it, Joa realized that might have been because both his mother and Acan’s had died. There were no other children and both men had declined to marry again since they had heirs. Both Lord Akash and Joa’s father had enjoyed exploration and risk-taking ventures and had spent much time away from home.
Except for lessons and some other duties, Joa and Acan had mostly raised themselves, much to the dismay of the Manor servants. They had been given guidance by their fathers, but also a lot of freedom to adventure within the confines of the domain. Each had been the most constant part of the other’s life. Once Acan was Lord and married, there could still be friendship, but there would be limitations on it. And there, Joa realized, was the problem.
Joa was still part of House Loha, even a member of the family by the decree of Acan’s father. Acan would want him back at the domain. Would probably want Joa to work with him on the business of running the fief. They would see each other all the time. Joa would still have a place in the domain. But — it would never again be just the two of them. Never again would Joa have all of Acan’s attention, or be the only one by Acan’s side. The place closest to him would be held by someone else.
Joa was startled to find his cheeks wet with tears. He wiped them away with his sleeve, wonderingly. Then he looked at Acan again and recognized his pain; he finally understood what it meant – it was a discovery that filled his heart and then crushed it. He was in love with Acan and probably had been since before their fathers died.
When he awoke, it was from the light touch of Acan’s fingers brushing aside the loose hair that covered his eyes and softly calling his name. He sat up quickly.
“Easy, Joa. Move carefully.” Acan was holding out the leash that had tied together their short coats. Joa blinked at him, then followed Acan’s gaze to where the Badjel was sitting with its head cocked, regarding them with its slanted, amber eyes.
“It came back.”
“It did indeed, though I don’t know why. But since it did, let’s not lose our opportunity. You have a better chance of leashing it again than I. I’m a little lightheaded right now.” Joa looked at him with concern, but Acan waved it away. “Let’s get the Badjel leashed.” He handed the woven silk cord to Joa, who took it slowly and just as slowly leaned towards the Badjel.
The animal stuck out a pink and brown tongue and licked its nose and shifted its front paws. Then it yawned. Then it walked right over to Joa and sat still as he fixed the lead to the collar. It seemed to smile at him and Joa was emboldened to put his hand out and caress its head. To his surprise, it leaned into his hand and panted happily, with the tip of its tongue hanging out from the side of its long snout, which was wet.
Acan laughed and lay back on the makeshift pillow. “Well, it’s not exactly wild, is it?”
Throwing the handle of the lead over one hand, Joa scooted over and felt Acan’s face. It was hot and he was perspiring freely. A fever, which meant the wound was infected.
“Acan,” Joa started.
“No.” Acan turned his head to look at him. “I will not go back to the Gate and wait until the door opens. The Badjel came back. I will continue this hunt.”
“No. And again, no. I cannot lose to the Daitoh. I will not. This is too important to me.”
Joa felt both annoyed and dismayed. “What could be that important? What could you lose?”
Acan looked hard at him, then closed his eyes and sighed. “Everything. Everything worth having.”
Joa felt a pressure against his hand. It was the Badjel, seeking attention, which Joa gave it absently. He was at a loss in the face of Acan’s vehemence and he wondered just what everything worth having could mean.
The Badjel looked up at him and closed his eyes. Something between a growl and a hiss seemed to come from him, but to Joa it sounded more content than annoyed. Joa’s hand moved over the Badjel’s collar and the silver decoration caught his eye. He brushed some of the animal’s long hair out of the way to see it better. At first he thought the design, which curved and swooped, was merely pleasing to the eye. But the longer he looked at it, the more it looked like writing to him.
His hand slid along the length of the leash, which was also decorated in what looked to be the same design. The characters, if they were characters, were confusing. They seemed familiar but Joa could not quite read them. He felt he had seen them, or something like them, before. But where?
Acan chuckled. “Good thing none of the insects as big as a palanquin found us last night. I turned out to be a poor watchman.” He opened the spirit wine jar and took a small drink, then offered it to Joa, who pretended to drink, and handed it back. “We likely slept the ‘night’ away. We should get going.”
The sodden air made exertion more costly and both Acan and Joa had let their outer and inner robes slide off to hang over their hip scarves. Even so, their faces were wet with perspiration and Acan’s was red, the redness extending down his neck. Joa suspected the fever was worse.
“How do you manage to look so good while being so miserable?”
Joa turned to look at Acan and sniffed as though he found the flattery unconvincing. In his opinion, the sandal was on the other foot. Without his robes covering his chest, Acan’s lithe muscularity and smooth skin were nicely displayed. There were a few scars that looked recent and more scars than Joa remembered his friend having. He thought back to the last time they had shared a bath as boys and he had seen Acan naked. Suddenly, he felt his cheeks flaming.
“What are you thinking about, Joa-piin?” Acan’s insufferable grin was back, though surrounded by sweat droplets and damp, dark hair.
Joa did not answer, but looked ahead to where the Badjel walked. Knowing what he now knew, he found all of his thoughts of Acan had taken a different turn. One he had no intention of sharing.
For his part, the Badjel seemed unbothered by the humidity, even with his long fur. His tongue hung out and he panted, but his amber eyes remained bright and interested. He was leading the way with the leash taut but not strained.
“Look at him,” Acan said. “He even looks happy.”
Joa fanned his face with one hand, glad of the change of subject. “What else do you know about this place, Acan?”
“Not a lot, though I read every scroll I could find about it. It’s been here since before the Cataclysm. No one knows its origins or how or why it connects to the Market World. You know there are other gateways on other planetoids—”
“Everyone knows that.”
Acan grunted. “You would be surprised, I think. In any case, all of those gates connect to the Market World and not to each other and no one knows why.” He pulled a leaf from one of the bushes. “Another thing no one understands is why what grows in the Gateworlds have magical properties.” He dragged an arm across his face, wiping away the sweat in his eyes.
“I have heard that magical ingredients can grow outside of the Gateways.”
“Yes, but no one knows if they grew outside first or in the Gateworlds first and then came outside.”
“What about the Man-eater Truffles?”
Acan’s answer was slow and his voice sounded weary. “Very rare. In the scrolls I could only find one drawing and that was of a dead Truffle that had been preserved for study.”
“Does the specimen still exist?”
“No, just the drawing. Apparently, at the time that the Daitoh’s ancestor decided to abandon the outside worlds, he ordered practically everything that could cause curiosity about them or the Gateworld destroyed. What’s left is hard to find.”
“How the scholars must have wept.” Joa imagined the beautifully displayed calligraphy of his school and how he would feel if it all were burned. Not just the work of the recent masters, but those that were part of the school’s lineage; calligraphic paintings that were hundreds of years old.
“Indeed. Although there is some evidence that many of scholars were destroyed as well. There seems to be a strong streak of insanity in the Daitoh’s family.”
Acan chuckled quietly. “He can’t hear me, Joa.”
They had crested a hillock and before them was the beginnings of the forested area that Acan had mentioned. It appeared as a dark green vegetation overlaid with ribbons of the foggy Gateworld air. It looked both thick and wide and Joa experienced a sinking sensation when he thought of trying to find what they were looking for within it.
The diffused light seemed to catch on a few things here and there, which might be reflections from a creek or a river. Certainly, the ‘trees’ of the forest would not have grown so thickly here, were there not a readily available source of water.
The whole picture seemed both tantalizingly familiar and unreal and Joa wondered what an artist or poet would make of such a landscape. It was ancient, and it looked every bit of that, paralleling the past of Yume all the way back to before the Cataclysm that had helped to create it. The Cataclysm – what must that have been like to live through?
The Badjel danced sideways, then sat and licked at a front paw. The light caught on his leash and collar and picked out the silver, making the characters stand out. Suddenly, Joa knew where he had seen those characters, written in that style. Moreover, he thought he could now read them. Excited, he turned to Acan. His friend was swaying where he stood, a hand on his forehead, his eyes too bright. Then he slumped forward and was still.
To be continued…