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Chapter Twelve

"I think those two look like our best bet, Andrew," Honor said quietly. It was the morning of their second day of watching Camp Inferno, and she lay in the fork of a tree four meters above the ground while she peered through her binoculars. LaFollet hadnt liked the notion of letting his one-armed Steadholder climb a tree, and he didnt like the notion of her turning loose of the tree trunk to use her one working hand to hold the binoculars to her working eye, but she hadnt given him much say in the matter. At least shed let him help her with the climb, and now he hovered over her watchfully. And, he admitted, she wasnt really all that likely to fall. The trees here were very different from the almost-palms where they had originally landed. Instead of smooth, almost branchless trunks, they had rough, hairy bark and thick, flattened branches that shoved out from the main trunk in every direction. Rather than rise to a point, their foliage made them look almost like huge inverted cones, for they grew progressively broader as they grew taller and the individual branches grew thinner but the network of them spread wider and wider. The branch on which his Steadholder lay was fairly near the bottom of that spreading process, and it was two or three times the thickness of her own body, more like a shelf than a "branch."

Not that it kept him from worrying.

He clamped his jaws on a fresh urge to protest and looked up at Nimitz. The cat was a couple of meters higher up the central trunk, clinging with his good limbs as he sank ivory claws into the rough bark, and LaFollet had taken a certain perverse pleasure in watching the Steadholder worry over him as he hauled himself awkwardly up the trunk. It was the first time hed attempted any climbing since their arrival on Hell, and hed done much better than LaFollet had expected from watching his lurching progress on the ground. He still looked undeniably clumsy compared to his usual, flowing gracefulness, and his obvious pain still made something deep down inside the armsman hurt, but there was no self-pity in Nimitz. He clearly considered himself a going concern once more, if on a somewhat limited level, and he flirted his bushy tail with an undeniable air of amusement as he bleeked down at LaFollet.

The armsman looked away, shading his eyes with one hand as he peered at the pair of humans the Steadholder was studying so intently. He couldnt make out many details from here, but he could pick out enough to tell they were the same pair hed watched yesterday. The man was short and bald as an egg, with skin so black it looked purple, and he favored brightly, almost garishly colored garments. The woman with him was at least fifteen centimeters taller than he was, dressed in somber shades of gray and with a single golden braid of hair that hung to her belt. A more unlikely looking pair would have been hard to imagine, and hed wondered, that first day, just what they thought were doing as they moved slowly along the very edge of the camps cleared zone.

He still didnt have an answer for that. It was almost as if they were peering into the forest beyond the open grasslands, searching for something, but there was little urgency in their movements. Indeed, they walked so slowlyand spent so long standing motionless between bursts of walkingthat he was half inclined to believe their experiences here on Hell had driven them over the brink.

"Youre sure you want to talk to them, My Lady?" he asked finally, trying unsuccessfully to keep his own doubtfulness out of his voice.

"I think so, yes," Honor said calmly.

"But... they look so... so" LaFollet broke off, unable to find the exact word he wanted, and Honor chuckled.

"Lost? Out of it? Crackers?" she suggested, and he twitched a sour smile at her teasing tone.

"Actually, yes, My Lady," he admitted after a moment. "I mean, look at them. If they knew we were out here and were searching for us, that would be one thing, but they cant know it. Or if they do, theyre the most incompetent pair of scouts Ive ever seen! Walking around out there in sight of the Tester and everyone and staring into the woods" He shook his head.

"You may have a point, Andrew. After all, a stay on Hell would probably be enough to drive anyone at least a little mad, although I doubt theyre as far gone as you seem to think. But that isnt really the reason I picked them. Look for yourself," she invited, rolling over on her side to hand the binoculars up to him and then sweep her arm in an arc across the cleared area. "The only other people out there are all in groups of at least four or five, and each of them is obviously performing some specific task."

LaFollet didnt need the binoculars to know she was right; his unaided vision could see it clearly from here. Two groups of ten or fifteen people apiece were hauling branches and vines and fern-like fronds out of the jungle while another five armed with long, slender spears watched over them protectively. Another group was busy with clumsy looking wooden sickles, cutting back the grass along the edges of the cleared zone about the fence, with another little knot of spearmen guarding them, and others were busy with still more chores, most of them almost impossible to figure out from this distance. Only the pair Lady Harrington had selected werent obviously embarked on such a task.

"Not only are those two out on their own," she went on, "but theyre already headed our way. I think you and Jasper can probably intercept them about there" she pointed to where a clump of trees thrust out from the base of their hill "without anyone noticing you, and invite them up here to talk to me."

"Invite!" LaFollet snorted. Then he shook his head resignedly. "All right, My Lady. Whatever you say."

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