During the days that followed, Musa made more votive offerings, practiced the rites ordered by the priest, and watched his goods as they were delivered to the Bordeklu, a ship belonging to Maladro, beloved of Kondaro, a shipowner whose ships were permitted by the sea god and his priests to sail the Eastern Sea.
At last, the day arrived when Musa himself boarded the ship and set sail past the headland of Norlar.
As the ship was warped out of the harbor, Musa took stock of his fellow passengers. Among them were a slender, handsome man named Ladro, who had been on many previous voyages to the land of the East, and Min-ta, a native of the eastern continent, who was returning from a trading voyage to Norlar. There were several others, but they kept to themselves, seeming to radiate an aura of exclusiveness. Ladro and Min-ta on the other hand, were more approachable.
Surely, thought Musa, these two can teach me a great deal of the land I am to visit, if they will.
He walked over to the rail, where the two stood, looking out over the shoreline. The ship was coming abreast of the great temple of Kondaro.
"It's the most prominent landmark on the island, isn't it?" Musa commented.
"What?" Ladro turned, looking at him curiously. "Oh, yes," he said, "the temple. Yes, it's the last thing you see as you leave, and the first when you return." He paused, examining Musa. "This is your first trip?"
"Yes, it is. I've always traded ashore before this."
"But you finally decided to visit Kneuros?"
"Yes. I've dealt with a few traders who had goods from there, and their stories interested me."
Ladro smiled. "Romance of the far places?"
"Well, there's that, too," Musa admitted, "but I'm interested in some of the merchandise I've seen."
"There's profit in it," agreed Ladro. "How long have you been trading around Norlar?"
"This is my first trip. I'm from Karth, in the Galankar."
"You mean you were never in Norlar before?" Min-ta joined the conversation.
Musa shook his head. "I left Karth for the purpose of trading east of the Great Sea."
"Unusual," mused Min-ta. "Most traders work between Tanagor and the mainland for several years before they try the Sea."
"Yes," added Ladro, "and some never go out. They satisfy themselves with the channel trade." He pointed. "We're getting out to the open sea now, past the reef."
The ship drew away from the island kingdom, setting its course toward the vague horizon. The day wore on, to be replaced by the extreme blackness of night. Then, the sky lit up again, heralding another day.
The ship's company had settled to sea routine, and the traders roamed about their portion of the deck, talking sometimes, or napping in the sun. Musa leaned over the low rail, watching the water, and admiring the clear, blue swells.
He raised his head as the door of the forward cabins opened. A priest, followed by a group of slaves, went up to the raised forecastle. Under the priest's direction, the slaves busied themselves putting up a high, crimson and yellow curtain across the foredeck. They completed their task and went below.
Again, the door opened, and a procession, headed by the chief priest, slowly mounted the ladder to the forecastle. Each of the three priests was followed by his slave, who bore a crimson casket. The curtain closed behind them, then the slaves came out and ranged themselves across the deck, facing aft.
"I wonder," said Musa, turning to Ladro, "what ritual they are performing."
Ladro shook his head. "The less a man knows of the activities of the priests, the better he fares," he declared. "Truly, on a great ship, curiosity is a deadly vice."
Musa nodded to the stern. "I see that one of the priests is not at the bow."
"That is right. One priest always remains by the steersman, to ward off the spells of the sea demons." Ladro paused, pointing overside. "See," he said in a pleased tone, "here is an envoy from Kondaro."
Musa's gaze followed the pointing finger. A huge fish was cruising alongside, gliding effortlessly through the waves, and occasionally leaping into the air.
"Yes. So long as a kontar follows a ship, fair weather and smooth sailing may be expected. They are sent by Kondaro as guardians for those ships he especially favors."
At a call from the priest in the stern, two sailors appeared, carrying chunks of meat. As the priest chanted, they tossed these overside. The great fish rose from the water, catching one of the chunks as it fell, then dropped back, and the water frothed whitely as he retrieved the other. He gulped the meat, then swam contentedly, still pacing the ship.
"Suppose someone fell overboard?" Musa gazed at the kontar in fascination.
Ladro and Min-ta exchanged glances.
"If one is favored by the Great One," replied Min-ta slowly, "it is believed that the kontar would guard him from harm. Otherwise, the sacrifice would be accepted."
Musa looked at the clear water, then glanced back to the spot of foam which drew astern.
"I don't believe I'll try any swimming from the ship." He backed slightly from the rail, glancing quickly at Ladro and Min-ta, then looking away again.
He suddenly realized that he had exceeded his quota of questions, and that he could get into trouble. He had noted that most of the ship's company appeared to know the other traders aboard, even though some of them hadn't been to sea before. Min-ta and Ladro were obviously well acquainted with several of the ship's officers. But he, Musa, was a stranger.
He had already observed that the priesthood of Kondaro was not averse to a quick profit, and that they placed a low value on the lives and possessions of others. He had dealt with tribes ashore, who had the simple, savage ethic: "He is a stranger? Kill him! Take his goods, and kill him."
Ashore, he had protected himself during his many trips by consorting with other traders of good reputation, and by hiring guards. But here? He remembered the remarks made by Kerunar back in Manotro.
"When I face the thief or the bandit, I prefer to have a weapon in my hand."
Slowly, he collected himself, and looked back at Ladro and Min-ta.
"If you gentlemen will excuse me," he apologized, "I have some accounts to cast, so I believe I'll go to my quarters." He turned and went below.
As he disappeared down the ladder, Ladro turned to his companion.
"Of course," he said thoughtfully, "if all goes well, this man will be most favored. But if the Great One shows signs of displeasure--"
Min-ta nodded. "Yes," he agreed, "I have heard of strangers who excited the wrath of Kondaro." His eyes narrowed speculatively. "Those of the faithful who keep watch on such unfavored beings are rewarded by the priests, I am told."
Ladro nodded. "I believe that is correct," he agreed. "We should be watchful for impiety in any event." He stretched. "Well, I think I shall take a short nap before dinner."
Below, the traders' quarters were cramped. There was a small, common space, with a table, over which hung the single light. About the bulkheads were curtained recesses, sufficiently large for a bunk and with barely enough space for the occupant to stand. Musa closed the curtains, and sat down on his bunk.
Of course, he had no proof. There was no really logical sequence to prove that the situation was dangerous. There was no evidence that his fellow voyagers were other than honorable, well-intentioned men. But he simply didn't feel right. He pulled his wooden chest from under the bunk, opened it, and looked through the small store of personal effects.
There was no weapon. The law of Kondaro forbade the carrying of those by other than the priests and their slaves. His attention was attracted by a glitter, and he picked up the small amulet he had bought from the peddler in Norlar. Slowly, he turned it in his hands.
It was an unusual ornament, strangely wrought. He had never seen such fine, regular detail, even in the best handicraft. As he looked closer, he could not see how it could have been accomplished with any of the instruments he was familiar with, yet it must have been hand made, unless it were actually of supernatural origin.
He remembered the urgent seriousness of the peddler's attitude, and he could recall some of his words. The man had spoken almost convincingly of powerful protectors, and Musa could foresee the need of such. He found himself speaking.
"Oh, power that rests in this amulet," he said, "if there is any truth in the peddler's words, I--" He paused, his usual, hard, common sense taking over.
"I'm being silly!" He drew his hand back to throw the ornament into the chest. Then, he felt himself stopped. An irresistible compulsion seized him, and he dazedly secured the amulet about his neck. Feeling sick and weak, he tucked it into his garments. Then, still moving in a daze, he left the cabin and returned to the deck. He did not so much as try to resist the sudden desire.
The breeze made him feel a little better, but he was still shaken, and his head ached violently. Little snatches of undefined memory tried to creep into his consciousness, but he couldn't quite bring them into focus. He turned toward the rail, and saw Min-ta still there.
"Well," commented the easterner, "your accounts didn't take long."
Musa smiled wanly. "It was stuffy down there. I felt I had to come up for some air."
Min-ta nodded. "It does get close in the quarters during the day." He pointed alongside.
"We are favored still," he said. "Another kontar has joined us."
Two of the great fish paced the ship, gliding and leaping effortlessly from wave to wave. Musa watched them.
"We must be favored indeed."
"Yes." Min-ta smiled. "May our favor last."
Musa's head still ached, and the glints of the sun reflected from the water made it worse. He looked aft, to the faint line where sky met water. There was a low line of clouds. His gaze traveled along the horizon, and he noted that the clouds seemed a little darker forward. Still, he felt uneasy, and alone.
"See what I meant?"
"Ooh! Yeah. Yeah, I see. What a backlash that was! I've got the grandfather of all headaches, and I won't be able to think straight for a week. Wonder how Musa feels--But I got results, anyway."
"Yes. You got results. So did I once, when I tried something similar. But I'll live a long time before I try it again. How about you?"
"Don't worry. Next time I try to exert direct mental control on another entity, this planet'll have space travel. Wonder if some klordon tablets'll help any."
"Might. Try one, then let's get busy and scatter a few more communicators around that ship. Be more practical than beating our brains out."
As the days passed, Musa became familiar with the shipboard routine and lost some of his early uneasiness regarding his traveling companions. He became acquainted with other traders, finding them to be average men, engaged in the same trade as himself. He talked to members of the ship's company, and found them to be normal men, who worked at their trade in a competent manner. Only the four priests held aloof. Ignoring officers, sailors, and traders alike, they spoke only to their slaves, who passed their comments to the ship's company.
On the morning of the tenth day, Musa came to the deck, to find the sea rougher than usual. Waves rose, scattering their white plumes for the wind to scatter. Ahead, dark clouds hid the sky, and occasional spray came aboard, spattering the deck and the passengers.
Just outside the cabin entrance, a small knot of traders were gathered. As Musa came out, they separated.
Musa went over to the rail, looking overside at the waves. The two kontars were not in sight. He looked about, noting the sailors, who hurried about the deck and into the rigging, securing their ship for foul weather. Close by, Ladro and Min-ta were talking.
"It is quite possible," said Ladro, "that someone aboard has broken a law of the great Kondaro, and the kontars have gone to report the sin." He glanced at Musa calculatingly.
"Yes," agreed Min-ta, "we--"
An officer, hurrying along the deck, stopped. "All passengers will have to go below," he said. "We're in for bad weather, and don't want to lose anyone overboard."
"Could this be the wrath of Kondaro?" asked Ladro.
The officer glanced at him questioningly. "It could be, yes. Why?"
Again, Ladro cast a look at Musa, then he caught the seaman by the arm, pulling him aside. The two engaged in a low-toned conversation, directing quick glances at Musa. At last, the officer nodded and went aft, to approach one of the slaves of Kondaro.
Musa started across the deck to the ladder, his heart thudding painfully. Surely, he thought, he had done nothing to offend even the most particular of deities. Yet, the implications of Ladro's glances and his conversation with the ship's officer were too obvious for even the dullest to misinterpret. Musa took a long, shuddering breath.
His fears on that other day had been well grounded, then.
He gazed at the lowering sky, then out at the waves. Where could a lone, friendless man find help in this waste of wind and water?
Slowly, he climbed down the ladder leading to his tiny cubicle.
Once inside, he again started checking over his personal items. There was nothing there to help. Hopelessly, he looked at the collection in the chest, then he got out a scroll of prose and went to the central table to read in an effort to clear his mind of the immediate circumstances.
Minutes later, he went back to his bunk and threw the scroll aside. Possibly, he was just imagining that he was the target of a plot. Possibly there was a real sea god named Kondaro--an omnipotent sea deity, who could tell when persons within his domain were too curious, or harbored impious thoughts, and who was capable of influencing the actions of the faithful.
Possibly, his opinions of the priesthood had been noted and had offended. Or, perhaps, that peculiar little device he had seen a priest studying was capable of warning the god that it had been profaned by an unsanctified gaze. Possibly, this storm was really the result of such a warning. He was sure the priest hadn't seen him, but it could be that the device itself might-- Musa threw himself on his bunk.
A deep voice resonated through the room.
"Musa of Karth," it said, "my master, Dontor, desires your presence on deck."
Musa came to his feet. Two of the slaves of Kondaro stood close by, swords in hand. One beckoned, then turned. Musa followed him into the short passage, and up the ladder. As they gained the deck, the small procession turned aft, to face the senior priest.
Dontor stood on the raised after deck, just in front of the helmsman. The wind tugged at his gold and crimson robe, carrying it away from his body, so that it rippled like a flag, and exposed the bright blue trousers and jacket. Dontor, chief priest of the Bordeklu, stood immobile, his arms folded, his feet braced against the sway of his vessel. As the trio below him stopped, he frowned down at them.
"Musa, of Karth," he intoned, "it has been revealed to me that you have displayed undue curiosity as to the inner mysteries of the worship of the Great God. In your conversations, you have hinted at knowledge forbidden any but the initiated.
"You came to us, a stranger, and we trusted you. But now, we are all faced with the wrath of the Great One as a result of your impieties. A sacrifice, and only a sacrifice, will appease this wrath. Can you name any reason why we should protect you further, at the expense of our own lives? What say you?"
Musa stared up at him. The cotton in his throat had suddenly become thick, and intensely bitter. Unsuccessfully, he tried to swallow, and a mental flash told him that whatever he said, he was already convicted. Regardless of what defense he might offer, he knew he would be condemned to whatever punishment these people decided to deal out to him. And that punishment, he realized, would be death. He straightened proudly.
"Oh, priest," he said thickly, "I am guilty of no crime. You, however, are about to commit a serious crime, which is beyond my power to prevent." He hesitated, then continued. "Be warned, however, that if there are any real gods above or below, you will receive punishment. The gods, unlike men, are just!"
Aware of sudden motion in his direction, he rapidly finished.
"So, make your sacrifice, and then see if you can save your vessel from the natural forces of wind and water."
The priest stiffened angrily.
"Blasphemy," he said. "Blasphemy, of the worst sort." He looked away from Musa. "I believe that in this case, the Great One will require the ship's company to deal with you in their own way, that they may be purged of any contamination due to your presence." He raised his arms.