Then, finally, they heard the noise of oars, and saw the ferryman on his boat, crossing the Sunless Sea for them. He maneuvered close to them, tossing a rope to anchor it onto a stalagmite, with the precision and ease of long experience.
"Tokens," said a voice past caring, a voice whose every moment of existence was a passing drudgery.
They got out their tokens, which allowed them past the other checkpoints. He held out a withered hand, and she got a glimpse of a face that was basically wrinkles on a skulllike face. She shivered.
"Very well. Get in. And don't dawdle."
Her party and herself hustled into the ferry. There was room for maybe ten people altogether, including the ferryman. The rope was retrieved, and the ferryman started punting for the far shore. He seemed tireless but morose. She and her fellows couldn't think of much to say. It seemed almost a sacrilege to talk down here, amid small lapping of the waves.
The ferryman, from long practice, caught an undertow, and they sped along much faster than she expected. In an hour or two, the Bright City, Apaalalta, was much nearer. All the buildings seemed to shine with the same moonlike phosproresence. Behind Apaalalta a massive column arose, reaching between the floor and the ceiling of the massive cavern, where a gigantic stalactite and a gigantic stalagmite met ages ago. She could see balconies and windows cut into that column, and she wondered who lived there. As they grew closer, she could make out individual details in the glowing city. She could see the three walls, like concentric rings, around the hill where Dahnmaya's palace resided. To one side was Dun Sagin, a collonaded building where Sagin spoke to the high masters of their art. To the left of the palace was a grand bazaar, and beyond that were houses and hovels where the people of Apaalalta live.
One of her companions cleared his throat. Speaking to the ferryman, he tried to strike up a conversation,
"How long have you been doing this?"
No! Don't disturb him. Don't let that living skull speak! she thought. It will be like conversing with a corpse.
"What?" she said, startled out of her silence. Her companions were equally startled.
"Donalgard is my name," he breathed, and his voice was a whisper that echoed. "Perhaps you read it in history books. I was the last Governor aboveground after Dahnmaya had to leave the sunlit lands for the underlands. It was I who lost to the rebel troops and was forced to flee underground, losing Dahnmaya the last of the aboveground empire his fathers held for thousands of years. I had hoped to be given an unending lifespan, as Dahnmaya and the lady Nightflame have been granted. Dahnmaya knew this...that is why I accepted that post in those desperate days." The lapping of the water against the boat was the only other sound she heard as Donalgard paused for breath.
"I was brought before Dahnmaya, and he was gentle in voice rather than yelling...always a bad sign.'So you lost me the land of my forefathers, did you, Donalgard? I expect you think I will kill you for such an offence.'
"I said, 'Dread Lord...'
"'Why, Donalgard, you have no need to fear. Killing you is the last thing on my mind. Really.' He laughed, and his laughter was crueller than his wrath. 'Ahhhh, me. Sagin and I are about to grant your desire of unending life.'
"They shackled my feet to this boat. Then Dahnmaya came up and said,'It will give me a great deal of pleasure to see you rowing through the centuries, bringing people to my palace...which, thanks to your incompetence, is the only thing I have left of the glorious empire of the Cathurias. The empire I swore to preserve out of the ashes the dragons a'flying left. The empire I swore to preserve when my elder brother died.'
'From the Bright City's shore to the far end of the Sunless Sea. That is your task. Forever.'
"That was the last word I heard from him. Ever. He gestured, and his shadow came and enveloped me. So cold! It was like an iceknife had pierced me. After that, I did not die, yet I could feel weaker as the years went on, and my wrinkles grew, and my face became like a skull. Sagin Shadowfather is more powerful than Zaer Deathbringer. I had lifespan unending, but only enough youth to do my dreary task. Sometimes I feel his eyes on me, from the high palace before the Great Column, as I row out to reach the new arrivals."
There was silence. There were high spires in the Bright City that she could make out from the boat, where wampyrs were housed. Sounds of an actual city began to be heard, rather than the deathly near-silence they had gotten used to. As they drew nearer and nearer the glowing buildings, which filled all the tremendous cavern with light, Donalgard breathed a weary sigh,
"Forever is a long time to be a'rowing."
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