After Frix and the rats had gone, Hisvet gazed at the Mouser for the space of a score of heartbeats, frowning just a little, studying him deeply with her red-irised eyes.
Finally she said with a sigh, “I wish I could be certain.”
“Certain of what, White Princessship?” the Mouser asked.
“Certain that you love me truly,” she answered softly yet downrightly, as if he surely knew. “Many men — aye and women too and demons and beasts — have told me they loved me truly, but truly I think none of them loved me for myself (save Frix, whose happiness is in being a shadow) but only because I was young or beautiful or a Demoiselle of Lankhmar or dreadfully clever or had a rich father or was dowered with power, being blood-related to the rats, which is a certain sign of power in more worlds than Nehwon. Do you truly love me for myself, Gray Mouser?”
“I love you most truly indeed, Shadow Princess,” the Mouser said with hardly an instant’s hesitation. “Truly I love you for yourself alone, Hisvet. I love you more dearly than aught else in Nehwon — aye, and in all other worlds too and heaven and hell besides.”
Just then Fafhrd, cruelly clawed or bit by the kitten, let off a most piteous groan indeed with a dreadful high note in it, and the Mouser said impulsively, “Dear Princess, first chase me that were-cat from my large friend, for I fear it will be his blinding and death’s bane, and then we shall discourse of our great loves to the end of eternity.”
“_That_ is what I mean,” Hisvet said softly and reproachfully. “If you loved me truly for myself, Gray Mouser, you would not care a feather if your closest friend or your wife or mother or child were tortured and done to death before your eyes, so long as my eyes were upon you and I touched you with my fingertips. With my kisses on your lips and my slim hands playing about you, my whole person accepting and welcoming you, you could watch your large friend there scratched to blindness and death by a cat — or mayhap eaten alive by rats — and be utterly content. I have touched few things in this world, Gray Mouser. I have touched no man, or male demon or larger male beast, save by the proxy of Frix. Remember that, Gray Mouser.”
“To be sure, Dear Light of my Life!” the Mouser replied most spiritedly, certain now of the sort of self-adoring madness with which he had to deal, since he had a touch of the same mania and so was well-acquainted with it. “Let the barbarian bleed to death by pinpricks! Let the cat have his eyes! Let the rats banquet on him to his bones! What skills it while we trade sweet words and caresses, discoursing to each other with our entire bodies and our whole souls!”
Meanwhile, however, he had started to saw again most fiercely with his now-dulled coin, unmindful of Hisvet’s eyes upon him. It joyed him to feel Cat’s Claw lying against his ribs.
“That’s spoken like my own true Mouser,” Hisvet said with most melting tenderness, brushing her fingers so close to his cheek that he could feel the tiny chill zephyr of their passage. Then, turning, she called, “Holla, Frix! Send to me Skwee and the White Company. Each may bring with him two black comrades of his own choice. I have somewhat of a reward for them, somewhat of a special treat. Skwee! Skwee-skwee-skwee!”
What would have happened then, both instantly and ultimately, is impossible to say, for at that moment Frix hailed, “Ahoy!” into the fog and called happily down, “A black sail, oh Blessed Demoiselle, it is your father!”
Out of the pearly fog to starboard came the shark’s-fin triangle of the upper portion of a black sail, running alongside _Squid_ aft of the dragging brown mainsail. Two boathooks, a small ship’s length apart, came up and clamped down on the starboard middeck rail while the black sail flapped. Frix came running lightly forward and secured to the rail midway between the boathooks the top of a rope ladder next heaved up from the black cutter (for surely this must be that dire craft, the Mouser thought).
Then up the ladder and over the rail came nimbly an old man of Lankhmar dressed all in black leather and on his left shoulder a white rat clinging with right forepaw to a cheek-flap of his black leather cap. He was followed swiftly by two lean bald Mingols with faces yellow-brown as old lemons, each shoulder-bearing a large black rat that steadied itself by a yellow ear.
At that moment, most coincidentally, Fafhrd groaned again, more loudly, and opened his eyes and cried out in the faraway moan of an opium-dreamer. “Millions of black monkeys! Take him off, I say! ‘Tis a black fiend of hell torments me! Take him off!”
At that the black kitten raised up, stretched out its small evil face, and bit Fafhrd on the nose. Disregarding this interruption, Hisvet threw up her hand at the newcomers and cried clearly, “Greetings, oh Co-commander my Father! Greetings, peerless rat-captain Grig! _Clam_ is conquered by you, now _Squid_ by me, and this very night, after small business of my own attended to, shall see the perdition of all this final fleet. Then it’s Movarl estranged, the Mingols across the Sinking Land, Glipkerio hurled down, and the rats ruling Lankhmar under my overlordship and yours!”
The Mouser, sawing ceaselessly at the third loop, glanced to note Skwee’s muzzle at that moment. The small white captain had come down from the afterdeck at Hisvet’s summoning along with eight white comrades, two bandaged, and now he shot Hisvet a silent look that seemed to say there might be doubts about the last item of her boast, once the rats ruled Lankhmar.
Hisvet’s father Hisvin had a long-nosed, much-wrinkled face patched by a week of white, old-man’s beard, and he seemed permanently stooped far over, yet he moved most briskly for all that, taking very rapid little shuffling steps.
Now he answered his daughter’s bragging speech with a petulant sideways flirt of his black glove close to his chest and a little impatient “Tsk-tsk!” of disapproval, then went circling the deck at his odd scuttling gait while the Mingols waited by the ladder-top. Hisvin circled by Fafhrd and his black tormentor (“Tsk-tsk!”) and by the Mouser (another “Tsk!”) and stopping in front of Hisvet said rapid and fumingly, still crouched over, jogging a bit from foot to foot, “Here’s confusion indeed tonight! You catsing and romancing with bound men! I know, I know! The moon coming through too much! (I’ll have my astrologer’s liver!) _Shark_ oaring like a mad cuttlefish through the foggy white! A black balloon with little lights scudding above the waves! And but now ere we found you, a vast sea monster swimming about in circles with a gibbering demon on his head — it came sniffing at us as if we were dinner, but we evaded it!
“Daughter, you and your maid and your little people must into the cutter at once with us, pausing only to slay these two and leave a suicide squad of gnawers to sink _Squid_!”
“Yeth, think _Thquid_!” the Mouser could have sworn he heard the rat on Hisvin’s shoulder lisp shrilly in Lankhmarese.
“Sink _Squid_?” Hisvet questioned. “The plan was to slip her to Ilthmar with a Mingol skeleton crew and there sell her cargo.”
“Plans change!” Hisvin snapped. “Daughter, if we’re not off this ship in forty breaths, _Shark_ will ram us by pure excess of blundering energy or the monster with the clown-clad mad mahout will eat us up as we drift here helpless. Give orders to Skwee! Then out with your knife and cut me those two fools’ throats! Quick, quick!”
“But, Daddy,” Hisvet objected, “I had something quite different in mind for them. Not death, at least not altogether. Something far more artistic, even loving — ”
“I give you thirty breaths each to torture ere you slay them!” Hisvin conceded. “Thirty breaths and not one more, mind you! I know your somethings!”
“Dad, don’t be crude! Among new friends! _Why_ must you always give people a wrong impression of me? I won’t endure it longer!”
“Chat-chat-chat! You pother and pose more than your rat-mother.”
“But I tell you I won’t endure it. This time we’re going to do things my way for a change!”
“Hist-hist!” her father commanded, stooping still lower and cupping hand to left ear, while his white rat Grig imitated his gesture on the other side.
Faintly through the fog came a gibbering. “_Gotterdammter Nebel! Freunde, wo sind Sie?” (“Goddam fog! Friends, where are you?” Evidently Karl Treuherz’s Lankhmarese dictionary was unavailable to him at the moment.) _
“‘Tis the gibberer!” Hisvin cried under his breath. “The monster will be upon us! Quick, daughter, out with your knife and slay, or I’ll have my Mingols dispatch them!”
Hisvet lifted her hand against that villainous possibility. Her proudly plumed head literally bent to the inevitable.
“I’ll do it,” she said. “Skwee, give me your crossbow. Load with silver.”
The white rat-captain folded his forelegs across his chest and chittered at her with a note of demand.
“No, you can’t have him,” she said sharply. “You can’t have either of them. They’re mine now.”
Another curt chitter from Skwee.
“Very well, your people may have the small black one. Now quick with your crossbow; or I’ll curse you! Remember, only a smooth silver dart.”
Hisvin had scuttled to his Mingols and now he went around in a little circle, almost spitting. Frix, smiling, glided to him and touched his arm but he shook away from her with an angry flirt.
Skwee was fumbling into his canister rat-frantically. His eight comrades were fanning out across the deck toward Fafhrd and the black kitten, which leaped down now in front of Fafhrd, snarling defiance.
Fafhrd himself was looking about, bloody-faced but at last lucid-eyed, drinking in the desperate situation, poppy-langour banished by nose-bite.
Just then there came another gibber through the fog, _”Gotterdammter Nirgendswelt!_” _(“Goddam Nowhere-World!”)_
Fafhrd’s bloodshot eyes widened and brightened with a great inspiration. Bracing himself against his bonds, he inflated his mighty chest.
“_Hoongk!_” he bellowed. “_Hoongk!_”
Out of the fog came eager answer, growing each time louder: _”Hoongk! Hoongk! Hoongk!” _
Seven of the eight white rats that had crossed the deck now returned carrying stretched between them the still-snarling black kitten, spread-eagled on its back, one to each paw and ear while the seventh tried to master but was shaken from side to side by the whipping tail. The eighth came hobbling behind on three legs, shoulder paralyzed by a deep-stabbing cat-bite.
From cabin and forecastle and all corners of the deck, the black rats scurried in to watch gloatingly their traditional enemy mastered and delivered to torment, until the middeck was thick with their bloaty dark forms.
Hisvin cracked a command at his Mingols. Each drew a wavy-edged knife. One headed for Fafhrd, the other for the Mouser. Black rats hid their feet.
Skwee dumped his tiny darts on the deck. His paw closed on a palely gleaming one and he slapped it in his crossbow, which he hurriedly handed up toward his mistress. She lifted it in her right hand toward Fafhrd, but just then the Mingol moving toward the Mouser crossed in front of her, his kreese point-first before him. She shifted crossbow to left hand, whipped out her dagger and darted ahead of the Mingol.
Meanwhile the Mouser had snapped the three cut loops with one surge. The others still confined him loosely at ankles and throat, but he reached across his body, drew Cat’s Claw and slashed out at the Mingol as Hisvet shouldered the yellow man aside.
The dirk sliced her pale cheek from jaw to nose.
The other Mingol, advancing his kreese toward Fafhrd’s throat, abruptly dropped to the deck and began to roll back across it, the black rats squeaking and snapping at him in surprise.
A great green dragon’s head had loomed from the moon-mist over the larboard rail just at the spot where Fafhrd was tied. Strings of slaver trailed on the Northerner from the dagger-toothed jaws.
Like a ponderous jack-in-the-box, the red-mawed head dipped and drove forward, lower jaw rasping the oaken deck and sweeping up from it a swath of black rats three rats wide. The jaws crunched together on their great squealing mouthful inches from the rolling Mingol’s head. Then the green head swayed aloft and a horrid swelling traveled down the greenish-yellow neck.
But even as it poised there for a second strike, it shrank in size by comparison with what now appeared out of the mist after it — a second green dragon’s head fourfold larger and fantastically crested in red, orange and purple (for at first sight the rider seemed to be part of the monster). This head now drove forward as if it were that of the father of all dragons, sweeping up a black-rat swath twice as wide as had the first and topping off its monster gobble with the two white rats behind the rat-carried black kitten.
It ended its first strike so suddenly (perhaps to avoid eating the kitten) that its parti-colored rider, who’d been waving his pike futilely, was hurled forward off its green head. The rider sailed low past the mainmast, knocking aside the Mingol striking at the Mouser, and skidded across the deck into the starboard rail.
The white rats let go of the kitten, which raced for the mainmast.
Then the two green heads, famished by their two days of small fishy pickings since their last real meal at the Rat Rocks, began methodically to sweep _Squid_’s deck clean of rats, avoiding humans for the most part, though not very carefully. And the rats, huddled in their mobs, did little to evade this dreadful mowing. Perhaps in their straining toward world-dominion they had grown just human and civilized enough to experience imaginative, unhelpful, freezing panic and to have acquired something of humanity’s talent for inviting and enduring destruction. Perhaps they looked on the dragons’ heads as the twin red maws of war and hell, into which they must throw themselves willy-nilly. At all events they were swept up by dozens and scores. All but three of the white rats were among those engulfed.
Meanwhile the larger people aboard _Squid_ faced up variously to the drastically altered situation.
Old Hisvin shook his fist and spat in the larger dragon’s face when after its first gargantuan swallow it came questing toward him, as if trying to decide whether this bent black thing were (ugh!) a very queer man or (yum!) a very large rat. But when the stinking apparition kept coming on, Hisvin rolled deftly over the rail as if into bed and swiftly climbed down the rope ladder, fairly chittering in consternation, while Grig clung for dear life to the back of the black leather collar.
Hisvin’s two Mingols picked themselves up, and followed him, vowing to get back to their cozy cold steppes as soon as Mingolly possible.
Fafhrd and Karl Treuherz watched the melee from opposite sides of the middeck, the one bound by ropes, the other by out-wearied astonishment.
Skwee and a white rat named Siss ran over the heads of their packed apathetic black fellows and hopped on the starboard rail. There they looked back. Siss blinked in horror. But Skwee, his black-plumed helmet pushed down over his left eye, menaced with his little sword and chittered defiance.
Frix ran to Hisvet and urged her to the starboard rail. As they neared the head of the rope ladder, Skwee went down it to make way for his empress, dragging Siss with him. Just then Hisvet turned like someone in a dream. The smaller dragon’s head drove toward her viciously. Frix sprang in the way, arms wide, smiling, a little like a ballet dancer taking a curtain call. Perhaps it was the suddenness or seeming aggressiveness of her move that made the dragon sheer off, fangs clashing. The two girls climbed the rail.
Hisvet turned again, Cat’s Claw’s cut a bold red line across her face, and sighted her crossbow at the Mouser. There was the faintest silvery flash. Hisvet tossed the crossbow in the black sea and followed Frix down the ladder. The boathooks let go, the flapping black sail filled, and the black cutter faded into the mist.
The Mouser felt a little sting in his left temple, but he forgot it while whirling the last loops from his shoulders and ankles. Then he ran across the deck, disregarding the green heads lazily searching for last rat morsels, and cut Fafhrd’s bonds.
All the rest of that night the two adventurers conversed with Karl Treuherz, telling each other fabulous things about each other’s worlds, while Scylla’s sated daughter slowly circled _Squid_, first one head sleeping and then the other. Talking was slow and uncertain work, even with the aid of the little Lankhmarese-German German-Lankhmarese Dictionary for Space-Time and Inter-Cosmic Travelers, and neither party really believed a great deal of the other’s tales, yet pretended to for friendship’s sake.
“Do all men dress as grandly as you do in Tomorrow?” Fafhrd once asked, admiring the German’s purple and orange garb.
“No, Hagenbeck just has his employees do it, to spread his time zoo’s fame,” Karl Treuherz explained.
The last of the mist vanished just before dawn and they saw, silhouetted against the sea silvered by the sinking gibbous moon, the black ship of Karl Treuherz, hovering not a bowshot west of _Squid_, its little lights twinkling softly.
The German shouted for joy, summoned his sleepy monster by thwacking his pike against the rail, swung astride the larger head, and swam off calling after him, “_Auf Wiedersehen_!”
Fafhrd had learned just enough Gibberish during the night to know this meant, “Until we meet again.”
When the monster and the German had swum below it, the space-time engine descended, somehow engulfing them. Then a little later the black ship vanished.
“It dove into the infinite waters toward Karl’s Tomorrow bubble,” the Gray Mouser affirmed confidently. “By Ning and by Sheel, the German’s a master magician!”
Fafhrd blinked, frowned, and then simply shrugged.
The black kitten rubbed his ankle. Fafhrd lifted it gently to eye level, saying, “I wonder, kitten, if you’re one of the Cats’ Thirteen or else their small agent, sent to wake me when waking was needful?” The kitten smiled solemnly into Fafhrd’s cruelly scratched and bitten face and purred.
Clear gray dawn spread across the waters of the Inner Sea, showing them first _Squid_’s two boats crowded with men and Slinoor sitting dejected in the stern of the nearer but standing with uplifted hand as he recognized the figures of the Mouser and Fafhrd; next Lukeen’s war galley _Shark_ and the three other grain ships _Tunny, Carp_ and _Grouper_; lastly, small on the northern horizon the green sails of two dragon-ships of Movarl.
The Mouser, running his left hand back through his hair, felt a short, straight, rounded ridge in his temple under the skin. He knew it was Hisvet’s smooth silver dart, there to stay.