Alyster Juell saw the two civilians heading for his ship and strolled down the gangplank to make sure they didn’t even think of coming aboard.
He wasn’t concerned that they might try to sabotage Checkmate. His ship was safer in the naval shipyards than anywhere else in Denalay, and the perimeter guards only allowed people through if they had good reason to be there. But he didn’t want them seeing his ship except from the outside.
Most of his crew was enjoying their last night ashore, but he could deal with civilians himself. He stopped halfway down the gangplank and looked them over. A man and a woman, so naturally he spent a little more time studying the woman.
She tilted her head up to meet his gaze, and the last light of the afternoon picked out brown eyes in a fine-boned face.
“Captain Juell?” she said.
A pleasant voice, feminine without being at all shy. Actually, she sounded so direct that if not for her smile, Alyster would have wondered if he was being served legal papers. “Yes.”
“It’s good to meet you.” Nothing about her was obviously striking, but he liked the way her smile extended to her eyes. Though it was odd; he’d never seen her before and yet she reminded him of someone. “My name is Miri Tayes, and I represent the Endworld Beacon.”
The man beside her cleared his throat. “The Endworld Beacon, Captain Juell. It’s a daily publication informing the people of Endworld about both local and national events. Oh, and I’m Wilian Dalfort.”
Events, Alyster thought. Of course, they were there about the race.
If Miri Tayes was discomfited by his silence, she didn’t show it. “We’ve heard there will shortly be a race involving both Denalait ships and a Dagran schooner.” Her gaze went to his ship. “How confident are you that Checkmate will win?”
Whereas Alyster had previously felt look-but-don’t-touch about the ship, now he wanted to cross out the looking part too. Endworld was the most easterly city of Denalay, where the mainland and the world—as landbounders knew it—ended. And its people wanted to read about a race affecting none of them, which made no sense. Did he need to know about the weather in Knockwood, or the price of wheat in Dagre? No, he did not.
“Do you have proof of your identity?” he said.
“Of course.” She wore a blue coat that stopped at her knees, and she slid her hands into both pockets. The one came up with a folded paper and the other with a notebook. She gave him the paper.
Alyster read the document, which stated that Mirande Tayes was a reporter in the service of the Endworld Beacon, the general public and the truth, probably in that order. “Mirande?”
“My friends call me Miri.”
Alyster studied the seal and signature at the document’s end, which seemed real enough. He had no idea who Erek Rimald (Editor) was, but he couldn’t see the Tureans going to such elaborate lengths for a deception that would gain them very little. He handed back the document.
Miri opened her notebook. “As I was saying, how confident are you of victory?”
It was a strange question. If she had been a Turean spy, Alyster would have expected inquiries on the internal workings of Checkmate, but why would anyone care how he felt? Perhaps she was working up to the relevant questions.
“Very confident,” he said.
Miri scribbled in her notebook. Alyster kept his face expressionless, because it hadn’t occurred to him that she would write down everything he said, and he realized he needed to be even more careful. To his dismay, Wilian produced another notebook and started to sketch the ship. He debated calling for the perimeter guards, but everyone in Triton Harbor would see Checkmate soon. The ship’s exterior wasn’t a secret.
“Good to know,” Miri said, “since this is quite a different kind of ship from the others. Do you have any concerns for your crew’s safety?”
“Given that steam engines have been known to malfunction,” Wilian added.
Alyster wished he had ordered the gangplank pulled up when he had seen these two. “The Admiralty authorized my commission and the race, so I’ve no doubt the Unity is aware of both. Was there anything else?”
Miri’s smile faded, though the bright curious look in her eyes did not. “Yes, Captain, one final question. Which of your fellow competitors do you consider your most serious rival?”
It wasn’t an obviously dangerous question and yet there was no safe answer. Alyster knew the Denalait ships Wrack and Mistral, but he didn’t want either of their captains to think he was intimidated by them. The Dagran ship and her crew were an unknown quantity, but he would have scuttled Checkmate rather than elevate a Dagran to the position of his most serious rival.
He parried the question. “It’s too soon to say. A great many things can happen on the way to Snakestone.”
Miri’s pencil scratched, and Alyster wanted to bid them both a good evening to see if she would write that down too, but before he could do so she put her notebook away. “Thank you for your time, Captain,” she said, “and best of luck in the race.” Wilian nodded, and the two of them left, hopefully for the checkpoint gate.
Alyster returned to the deck, but he remained watching until he was certain they were gone. He wasn’t sure why he felt unsettled, because if those two had been spies, they weren’t very successful ones. Maybe it was the prospect of thousands of people in a distant city knowing too much about his ship.
Though he did some quick calculations and decided that even if Miri sent word that night, a carrier pigeon would take at least a week to reach Endworld. By then the race would be underway and nothing she’d written could cause problems.
Except it wasn’t just her writing. Alyster noticed women, noticed their looks in particular, and the shape of her face was familiar. Had she been in the shipyards before, in different clothes? He didn’t think so.
Oh, to hell with her. He had more important things to see to. The last of their supplies would be taken aboard in the morning, so he ordered the gangplank lifted and an early supper sent to his cabin. He ate alone except for the cat, which strolled in to curl around his legs, and despite the sounds common to any harbor—the slosh of waves, the creak of timbers, the shriek of gulls—the ship seemed very quiet.
He wished he could feel closer to it. To her. But given the choice, he would never have picked Checkmate for his first command.
He’d wanted a steamship, for certain. While he’d practically grown up beneath twenty wind-billowed sails, steamships had their advantages. No more being becalmed, no more tacking into the wind. What he’d longed for, though, had been a magnificent warship which would sail into the Iron Ocean to finish the Turean pirates off once and for all.
What he’d received from the Admiralty was a fifty-foot-long craft with a steam-driven paddlewheel, a sleek little vessel made for speed. Alyster wouldn’t have taken her within ten miles of a battle.
The pirates were losing the war, but their leader—a woman called Jash Morender, who had fought his brother five years ago—held them together and spurred them on. Alyster remembered her ruthlessness, backed up by tactics other captains would never think of. Defeating such an enemy would be the high point of anyone’s career, but he’d need a warship for that.
Even Checkmate’s name wasn’t one he would have chosen. The fighters of the fleet flaunted names like Hawk Royal and Wildtide, while his ship was named after a position in a board game. He wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d had a giant chesspiece for a figurehead.
But the race would help. Checkmate was fast enough to compete with the likes of Mistral, and a prize of two thousand golden eagles would make him feel much warmer towards the ship. He stretched out on his bunk, thinking of what he’d buy—a new kithar and a house near the chalky cliffs and a silver pocket watch like the one Captain Solarcis had shown off a week ago. Oh, and he’d do something special for his family too. Maybe give his nephew a pony, though if the boy was anything like his mother, he’d prefer a shark.
Relaxing, he closed his eyes and allowed the sway of the ship to lull him to sleep.
“Well, that went better than I expected,” Wilian said.
Miri smiled. “Compared to Captain Vanze refusing to speak to us? It did and no question.”
They had eaten their supper by then, so she wrote up her account of the day’s discoveries while Wilian, seated on the other bed, finished his sketch. On their limited funds for traveling expenses, they couldn’t afford separate rooms, but over the week it had taken them to sail to the island called the Greater Horseshoe, they’d grown used to close quarters.
“The Dagrans are the ones I’m looking forward to meeting,” she said.
“Miri,” Wilian began, “if you don’t mind, perhaps I should speak to them first. They have strange ideas about women, don’t they? Might think you’re being all forward and disrespectful if you question them.”
“Good idea, and I don’t mind at all.” Her editor had paired them up because Wilian, seven years her junior, was learning the trade, and it was clear he looked up to her. “We can rehearse before we meet them.”
He smiled and went back to his work. Miri continued to write.
The sole steamship in the race, Checkmate, sports two chimney-like funnels as well as a single mast and is moved by a giant wheel at her stern. Her master, Captain Juel, stated—
Wait, was that the correct spelling of his name? She wished she’d thought to ask, but his manner had been so off-putting. In stark contrast to his appearance, but she wasn’t going to think of that now, if ever. She had to finish her work.
Her master, Captain Juel, stated he is “very confident” of victory. However, he acknowledged that many potential problems could arise en route to Snakestone Isle, in Dagran territorial waters. Famous for the remains of the Tree of Knowledge, Snakestone Isle supposedly—
A knock interrupted her, but Wilian was up at once. “Message come in for you, sir,” a servant said. Wilian shut the door and frowned down at the sealed paper. “It’s from the Beacon but it’s addressed to me.” “Oh,” Miri said, puzzled. She couldn’t think why Erek Rimald, a stickler for the chain of command, would send word to a reporter-in-training. Unless…
No, that couldn’t be it. That wasn’t going to be it.
Wax cracked and Wilian read the message. Maybe it was bad news for him, about an illness in his family. Miri knew that was an awful thing to think, but in her sudden fear she couldn’t help it.
His face went immobile, unblinking, as he lifted his head. “This…” His voice was so hushed that the word sounded like a sigh. “This says you’re half-salt.”
A cold, leaden weight slid down her throat into her belly. Say something, she thought, but her mind felt as blank as he looked.
“Is it true?”
An opening. There were no obvious physical differences between pirates and Denalaits, so she could tell him no, of course not. Except it would be Erek’s word against hers, and she didn’t know what else he might have written, if he’d included any evidence. The thoughts flew through her mind in seconds, but that pause was enough. Wilian looked at her as if he had seen her naked—and had turned away in shock and disgust.
“Erek was going to feature all of us in a special issue, so he wrote to your parents, and he says your father was a…” He crumpled the paper.
Miri couldn’t reply. She had known about that project of Erek’s—the People Behind the Paper, he’d called it—but she had assumed he would talk to her uncle’s family, whom she’d grown up with. All of them would have lied to protect her. Instead Erek had gone straight to the source, even if that meant writing to people in two other cities, and she knew exactly how her mother’s husband would have answered.
That he had left his wife, that he had nothing to do with either her or her daughter, and the reason why.
This is it, then. She felt strangely calm. Her life as she knew it was over, but that was too great to take in at once, so she found herself wondering about small things such as whether she would be paid at all for her last month of work.
“You lied to us all this time.” Wilian’s voice was no longer quiet. “You ate with me, talked to me, pretended to be just like us—”
“What does he want you to do about it?” Miri cut in.
The sharp, practical question seemed to stem the tide. Wilian’s face was flushed, but when he answered he sounded calmer as well.
“You’re to go back to Endworld,” he said. “I have authorization to finish the work here.”
Miri didn’t think she would arrive at Endworld in chains or hustled ashore by armed guards, but she no longer had employment. Worst of all, the debacle would be written up and distributed to thousands of people, humiliating her family.
At least there was one thing to be grateful for—her mother was Denalait, making her a full citizen, so the worst sentence Miri could face under Endworld law would be a few months in prison. Her uncle, a cautious man, would never have raised her if the penalty for hiding half-Turean blood had been more severe. And once she was released, she could pick up the pieces and try to start afresh somewhere new. She just had to live through the next half-a-year first.
Looking away from her immediate future, she started to tell Wilian she would return to Endworld as she had been ordered. She couldn’t go anywhere on an island, and she certainly didn’t intend to try swimming to the mainland. Except the sight of him silenced her. His eyes were glassy in a face that looked masklike.
“My father was a sailmaker on Redhorse.” He spoke as if telling her a story. “When she went down, they got three of the crew alive. He was one. They forced a tube in his mouth—”
Miri found her voice. “Wil, I’m not them. I didn’t do anything to your family.”
“—and poured seawater down his throat till he died. You’re not them? Maybe not, but if we see one rat in a corner, we put bait down. Because even one is too many in a house.”
Unity. Her mouth went dry, but she forced herself to get up. Should she leave the room and stay away till he calmed down? But if he was talking about his father’s murder, how long would that take?
Before she could say or do anything, Wilian headed for the washbasin. Miri sighed, allowing herself to relax. He was just going to splash some cold water on his face. She took her coat down and slipped her arms into the sleeves, thinking a long walk would still be most advisable, but at least he wasn’t talking crazy any more.
He turned and something in his hand gleamed. It was the straight razor he’d shaved with that morning.
“Wil?” She didn’t recognize her own voice. “What are you doing?”
He took a step towards her, the stropped-sharp blade still in hand.
“Are you mad?” She wanted to scream for help, but her throat felt so tight she could barely speak.
He closed the distance between them. She pulled a chair before her, but he pivoted and lashed a heel out. The kick struck the chair so hard that wood cracked, and the impact drove her against the wall. Wilian grabbed the chair with his free hand, yanking it away, and she had one glimpse of flashing steel as the razor came down.
Her arms flew up reflexively. Only that saved her from losing an eye. The edge of steel went through her coat sleeve, and a hot, biting pain exploded from her left arm. Blood spattered like red ink on the floor and across Wilian’s boots.
He wasn’t a hardened killer, though, and the sight halted him for the moment she needed to recover. All she could think of was what her aunt had told her to do to any man who threatened her. She drove her foot at his groin.
He saw it coming and twisted slightly so it was more of a glancing blow than the solid strike which would have left him curled on the floor. But it still sent him staggering back, and Miri darted through the doorway. Blood pulsed warm down her arm. She ran to the end of the landing.
“A Turean!” Wilian shouted as she bolted down the stairs. “Stop her!”
It was late enough that the inn’s common room was almost empty—from her vantage position she saw the fires had died down—but she knew everyone would rouse out of their beds. The Greater Horseshoe was first and foremost a military base, so to have a Turean in their midst would be a challenge to their security, to say the least. Wilian continued to yell, and doors flew open as people hurried out. She thought of joining in the hue and cry—the Turean went that way!—but blood had turned her sleeve to a red banner.
She took the last few stairs three at a time and collided with a maid carrying towels. The maid’s eyes went wide as she saw Miri’s arm. Her mouth widened too, in a shriek. Miri grabbed a towel and reached the door just as two men came out of the common room. She was out of the inn at once, feet almost slipping on wet stone steps that led into the street. Rain pattered down.
She ran across the street and ducked between two buildings, one of which smelled like a bakery. Crouching in the shadows, she wrapped the towel around her arm. It hurt fiercely, even if she didn’t move it at all.
Better than being dead. She got to her feet. All right, what now?
As she hesitated, the inn door burst open. So many footfalls thudded against the steps that she couldn’t count how many people there were, and their voices were muted in the rainfall. She slipped away in the opposite direction, thankful it was dark and that the blood traces she had left would be washed away.
Once the row of buildings hid her from sight, she broke into a run again, but soon had to slow down. The burst of panic that had given her strength had been momentary at best, and she was exhausted, not to mention soaked to the skin. Worse, she didn’t know where to hide. She was heading for the wall that surrounded the shipyards—it was the only route and the only place on the island she was at all familiar with, apart from the inn—but that wouldn’t offer any safety either. If she gave herself up to the guards, who was to say they wouldn’t kill her?
She had never been so afraid.
Fighting to stay calm, she felt in her pockets. Her identity papers were soaked but there. Her pen case wasn’t. It was in the room, the mahogany pen case her cousins had given her when she’d been hired by the Beacon. She did find two silver shrikes, enough for a meal and a bed, but not for passage away from the Horseshoe.
Stopping in another alley, she leaned against a damp wall, telling herself that she had lived through everything else, so she would survive tonight as well. She just needed a safe place to rest, and in the morning she would think of what to do.
The bark of a dog chopped through the rainfall.
She jolted upright. Another dog bayed, and she knew it wasn’t someone’s pet scratching to be let into the house. They were tracking her.
Even if the rain washed her traces away completely, she couldn’t take the risk of staying there. She hurried towards the perimeter wall in the distance. Worst comes to worst, she thought bitterly, I’ll throw myself into the harbor. Better to drown than be beaten or bitten to death.
A thick blanket of clouds hid everything from view and made the moon nothing more than a smudged glow, so she didn’t see the perimeter wall until she all but ran into it. She stopped, panting. Behind, the barks grew louder. She looked up at the wall. Just at that moment, the clouds parted and water-thin moonlight shone off sharp iron. Miri’s head went back until her neck cricked. She’d forgotten about the spikes that topped the wall, each as long as her handspan, and the wall itself was twelve feet tall. There were no handholds at all.
What now? There was nothing she could use to climb over it. Unless…
She tore off her coat, careless of the fresh pain in her arm as she did so, flung the garment down and emptied the pockets. The paper and coins went into her shoes, and she straightened, holding one cuff of her coat. She whirled the rest of it around her head to build up as much momentum as possible. The coat’s wool was soaked and heavy, but she set her teeth and flung it up. It landed with a soggy thump over the iron spikes.
Please let them be sharp, Miri thought and jerked the coat down hard. Cloth tore and abruptly there was resistance on the other end. The rest of it wasn’t coming down, and she knew the spikes had driven through the coat near its hem.
Gripping the sleeves, she let them take her weight while she put the soles of her shoes to the wall’s surface and began to climb. Over the barking of the dogs, she heard the coat rip, and if it hadn’t been so thick, she guessed it would have torn away completely.
She felt as though she was inching her way up. Each time she shifted her grip on the sleeves and braced her feet against the wall to do so, her heart choked her throat with terror that she would slip. Her arm throbbed. She knew she was sweating, but the rain washed that away too.
The coat ripped again, but she was almost at the top of the wall by then. Her makeshift rope gave way, and she grabbed a spike. The coat sagged against her as her fingers tightened around iron. Teeth clenched, she forced her arms to bend and one leg to lift.
The sinews in her thigh burned, but she swung her leg over the top of the wall. Shaking, she clambered up and pulled her coat free. She didn’t have time to carefully ease herself off the other side and the surface was too narrow to permit such a maneuver anyway, so she just dropped. A stab drove through an ankle, and for a moment she could only curl up in the mud, her eyes closed. Her hair had come loose as well, and it trailed heavy and wet over her face.
With an effort she forced herself up, holding on to the wall for support. If they were going to find her, she would be on her feet when they did. Her ankle wasn’t broken. She could rest a little of her weight on it. She could still move.
Which she did, away from the wall as the dogs barked and scratched at its other side. Her coat was too heavy to carry any longer, and she left the torn sodden mass at the base of the wall. She limped to the docks. The clouds had shifted again, shutting out the moonlight more securely than closed doors, but the sea murmured just ahead, and the ships sported night-lanterns that glowed through the gloom and the rain.
Ships. That was an idea. Now that she came to think about it, with Turean blood she could probably drink saltwater. She’d never tested that out, because drinking water straight from the sea was something normal people just didn’t do. But that ability might mean she could row away from the Horseshoe without supplies, if she found a boat. Of course, she would be starving by the time she reached the mainland, but dying of thirst seemed much less a possibility.
The water smelled foul—a mixture of rotting scraps, human wastes, salt and fresh paint—but she ignored that as her fingers brushed the wet surface of a mooring post. Whiskery ropes coarse as sandpaper under her fingers were tied to it, but even in the poor light she saw that all the ropes led to ships. The only boats were held fast to the sides of the ships, out of reach.
A shout far to the right transfixed her. Two lanterns made cat’s eyes in the dark, perhaps fifty feet away but drawing closer. She hurried away, wincing with every step until her knee hit something and she went down.
Biting back a groan, she pulled herself to a sitting position and stretched out a hand, wondering what she had run into. It was flat and smooth, bound with ropes… A crate, she realized. Several of them, stacked on the side of the dock.
Miri grabbed the corner of one and pulled herself up again. She couldn’t run any farther, but if the crates were there to be loaded on a ship, she could be off the Horseshoe before long.
And if the crates had just been offloaded and were to be taken to a warehouse in the morning—no, she wasn’t going to think about that. The lanterns came a little closer, though the guards seemed cautious rather than running ahead in the dark and the rain to confront anyone. That gave her a few moments more.
She ran her fingertips over the flat heads of nails hammered flush into the wood, but the next crate was only bound with rope, and she felt grooves where the lid had been slid into place. If only she had something to cut the rope with—
No, cutting it would show someone had tried to get in. She forced herself to work it free, pulling at a knot she couldn’t see, but it came loose as the lanterns began to move again. Her hands shook as she pushed the lid open. The scent of limes and straw rose into the air. She scooped out handfuls of the fruit and flung them over the side, relieved the rain muffled the splashing sounds. No time to make any more space for herself. She climbed in, pressing down on the limes, drew her knees up and pulled the lid back over her head, leaving only the narrowest of gaps. It was like being in a coffin, closed and dark about her.
She forced herself to breathe shallowly, ignoring the dusty straw that tickled the inside of her nose. Over the echoing patter of rain on the crate’s surface, she heard the guards speaking in low voices. Unity, don’t let them find me, she thought, but on the heels of that came a cynical suspicion that the Unity felt the same way about half-Tureans as everyone else in Denalay did.
Footsteps moved away. Miri lay in the stifling darkness. Her limbs were cramped and being out of the rain made no difference either, because her clothes couldn’t dry when she was curled up in such a small space. Spasmodic tremors shook her. She thought her arm was continuing to bleed, though she couldn’t be certain, and she couldn’t even move her other hand to feel for it.
She would slip out again once the search was over, though she was too tired to walk another step. Despite herself, her eyes closed. I’ll just lie here…a few more…
It was a bad sign, Jash Morender knew, that her captains had requested a meeting on her war galley. Yes, they had a good reason; they wanted to hear how the Denalait mainlanders had seized the island of Crypthouse. But Enthow Caith’s account of that loss had been devastating enough that she wished she’d heard it alone—yet she couldn’t risk losing any more of her captains by refusing them.
The worst part was the gift the survivors had apparently prepared for her. Silently, Enthow handed it to her across the table, a rolled-up parchment so long it could only be a map.
She didn’t want to open it. No good would come of it, not when the ships of the flotilla she commanded had been unable to reach Crypthouse before the Denalaits had burned it.
She couldn’t even lead her forces into battle, much as she longed to do so. Against warships able to move faster and outmaneuver them, it would be suicide, but the survivors weren’t likely to understand that. Enthow’s eyes were so empty he might have been dead himself; he had been born on Crypthouse, so no wonder he’d been chosen to deliver the gift.
The parchment rustled beneath her fingers, and it was the only sound in the room as her captains watched. Jash told herself she would not be afraid of anything, and unrolled it.
It was a beautifully drawn map showing the Denalait coastline and the Iron Ocean extending beyond that into the limitless east. A compass rose filled the top corner. There were no islands at all.
The Turean Archipelago, completely destroyed. A stone lodged in Jash’s throat. She wanted to crumple the parchment, crush it under her feet, burn it.
Instead she made herself roll it up and thank Enthow—a little curtly, but with none of the bitterness and pain showing in her voice. “More wine,” she said, and her aide hastened to fill the goblets.
Hewl Rornay drained his in a gulp as Jash set her gift aside. “Anthracite is gone too. They’re mining it down to its bones with slave labor.”
“For the coal.” Arudle Vates steepled her fingers, watching Jash over the top of them. Her war galley, Surran’s Skin, was the largest in the Turean flotilla after Jash’s own Dreadnaught, but Arudle was so heavily pregnant Jash doubted she could do more than watch while her officers ran the ship. “I’ve heard they need it for their new steam-driven ships.”
That was another thorn driven deep into Jash’s flesh. She longed for pieces or plans of what exactly propelled the new mainlander ships, the ones that needed no sails, but so far none of her spies on the mainland had obeyed her orders in that regard.
Hewl leaned forward. He was a southerner from distant Shadow Isle, where people’s extremities turned a deep brownish-black when they came of age. Hewl looked as though he was wearing a mask that extended to his ears, and dark gloves on his hands. Those hands curled into fists.
“But only three of them around Anthracite now,” he said. “Commander, we should attack. If we seize even one, we can strip it down to its bones, make the mainlanders tell us how to build more—”
“Don’t be a fool.”
The cool quiet voice came from the other end of the table, where Daxen Luliok was sprawled in his chair. He slumped lower than everyone else at the table, but Jash thought that was a deliberate disguise for his height. Turning his goblet as if to study the play of light on its surface, he finally looked up to meet Hewl’s stare.
“And you would be a fool if you attacked.” His voice was lazy too, as if he didn’t notice the way Hewl’s fingers twitched. “They’ve had more than enough time to secure Anthracite and plan their defenses.”
Jash didn’t trust Daxen, because she had a suspicion he’d drowned his former captain, and even if that man had been a drunken sot, murder was murder. But at least he would never let a need for glory or even revenge prod him into stupidity.
“Besides, we don’t need any of their ships.” He reached for a chunk of bread. “Mainlander travesties. They don’t even have sails.”
“What do you say we should do then?” Jash spoke calmly, because it was possible he might have some idea she hadn’t thought of, but he shrugged, dipped the bread into honey sauce and ate it before he continued.
“We have our own ways,” he said. “Our own methods and devices. Why do we need anything from them?”
“Because our science isn’t winning the war.” Kier Safrage, the captain of Needledance, turned to her with one hand raised. “No offense meant, Commander. I know of your achievement with brain coral.”
Jash nodded. No one needed to thank her for that; she’d done it for the islands, even if she was reluctant to take such a risk again. But Kier had a point. The mainlanders could never match Turean science, but that science was all to do with living things. The Tureans had a natural affinity for reshaping flesh, growing it where it did not exist, coaxing it into new forms.
What they did not have was a similar talent for the unliving, for making intuitive leaps that turned metal and glass into strange new creations. Once she had dredged up the fragments of a new kind of Denalait vessel sent secretly into the Iron Ocean and had taken them to Scorpitale. It had taken all their resources and nearly four years to put the pieces together, to deduce how they worked and then to make something similar. She couldn’t afford any more such projects.
Kier cleared his throat. “Commander, I think the time has come for a decision no one here is likely to thank you for.”
“What’s that?” Jash supposed she should be grateful any such unpleasantness would be spoken by him rather than her, because she seemed out of favor enough as it was, but she just felt tired. Why were so many of her captains like that? They showed a flash of intelligence, and then it vanished as they crawled into their shells like mollusks.
Kier placed both hands flat on the table, as if laying down all his cards. “Open negotiations with the mainland.” There was a harsh sound of indrawn breath, though Jash could not have told where it came from, and a chair scraped back. Arudle Vates got up, clasping her hands beneath her swollen stomach, and went to the window. Hewl’s lips peeled back from his teeth.
“You’re fortunate we’re in the commander’s meeting room, Safrage,” he said. “On the deck of Heart of Salt, I’d have killed you for that.”
“On the deck of Masterless…” Daxen looked Kier up and down, then pointed to Hewl, “…I’d have put you off on his ship.”
No one laughed, and Kier’s gaze went around the table in a challenge. “So you want to fight? Down to the last man?”
“We will be killed anyway,” Enthow said flatly. “Whether we fight or not. You asked what we needed from them, but the real question is, what do they need from us? Nothing.”
Nothing. The word fell into the room, and spread out as if to fill it. Enthow had lost so much that clearly his priority was just to survive long enough to pick up the pieces, but Jash couldn’t let his despair affect the others. She started to speak, but Arudle turned from the window first.
“How far are they now?” she asked.
“The mainlanders?” Hewl said.
“The ones you sent into the Sheltered Ocean, Commander. Is there any hope of calling them back?”
Everyone turned to look at Jash, and Hewl spoke as though repeating words in another language. “Sent into the Sheltered Ocean?”
It wasn’t the first time Jash had been reminded of the strange powers manifested by islanders of the Vates clan, and it was definitely not the first time she’d wanted to strangle one of them. That had been her news to impart. Worse, there would be no need to call Ralcilos and his crew back if Arudle had foreseen victory—and whatever she had seen, they couldn’t be communicated with any longer, much less summoned home. They had to be past Cape Claw by now, rounding the tip of the great peninsula to enter Denalait waters.
“I have been planning this for years,” she said as she got to her feet. “I knew the time had come when I heard of a race from Triton Harbor to Snakestone Isle, off the southern coast of Dagre. One such steamship will compete in it.” The mainlanders were so overflowing with resources they could play at racing, when her people didn’t know if they would see another year.
Daxen sat up straight. “You sent a ship into the Sheltered Ocean to seize that vessel?”
“The kind of ship they will never see.” One look at her aide and he unrolled another sheet of parchment to show them the new vessel. Then the plans were studied intently and whispered over while Jash took advantage of the respite to finish her wine. The iron link in the goblet—a sign of the broken chain symbolizing their freedom—touched her lips.
“This couldn’t hold more than a dozen people,” Daxen said finally.
“It holds thirteen,” Jash said. “Ralcilos Phane commands nine of the most trusted among my crew, plus an engineer. Kaig Coltrode is with them too.”
“Kaig Coltrode?” Hewl grimaced. “I know him—he was the oarmaster on Dauntless. He left his position six years ago and as far as I know hasn’t stepped on a deck since. I heard he was hiding in Conger Cove.”
“He was living in Conger Cove under my orders, with a Denalait child. They’ve taken her as well.”
“A Denalait child?” Daxen’s brows came together. “A hostage?”
“A pilot. She’ll steer our vessel.” And do what she’s told, or Ralcilos will take a hand. Maybe a foot too.
There were more murmurs, but when Hewl said, “This could work,” Jash knew they had swung back on to her side. She let herself feel the chair’s back against her shoulders as she relaxed.
“Of course it will work,” she said. “A steamship meant to win a race would be swift, so once it’s seized it can be brought to us at all speed.”
Daxen’s eyes gleamed as if he envisioned commanding such a prize himself. “Even if it doesn’t tip the balance of war in our favor, it will be a blow to mainlander morale. For a ship of theirs to vanish in their own waters—they’ll never forget it. Or live it down, if the Dagrans hear about it too.” He grinned and raised his goblet. “I salute you, Commander.”
“This isn’t something anyone could have expected,” Kier agreed. “I—I still think—”
“No.” Hewl punctuated that with a fist to the table. “We will never bow to them.”
“Do you know what negotiation is?” Kier snapped.
“Do you know what the Unity is?” Jash cut in. “Because I do. That can’t be negotiated with.”
“Why, Commander?” Daxen spoke quietly, but somehow she didn’t like that any more than she had the thud of Hewl’s fist or Kier’s raised voice. “What is the Unity?”
A mouth that takes all things into itself, a mouth that grows larger and hungrier the more it’s fed, was how a Denalait defector had put it, but if she blurted that out, she would sound either mad or gullible. “It is power,” she said instead, “and people who have power have no need to make bargains with others.”
The talk turned back to the steamship and the race. Kier was considerate enough to point out that she had no way to know if her plan would succeed unless a steamship entered the Iron Ocean flying a broken-chain banner. But thankfully Jash had other plans for an attack on the Denalait whaling fleet, which was still made up of sailing ships and which followed the predictable migration patterns of whales.
Her captains drank again and settled on their strategy for the whaling fleet. Finally the gathering broke up, though Jash told Arudle Vates to remain once the others had left. Her aide closed the door behind him, and Jash got up, looking down at the woman’s belly.
“Does that really show you the future?” she said.
Arudle blinked. “This child was fathered by our greatest prophet. Did you think it would have none of his ability?” “And all of his madness.” Jash felt herself smile, and knew her expression would be worse than her words. Her smiles were not unattractive, because her mouth was generous and it softened the strong line of her jaw. But her eyes didn’t change, because she never smiled when she was happy.
“Nion is dying,” Arudle said, as if Jash hadn’t even spoken. “We wanted his bloodline to continue.”
Jash didn’t know how closely the woman might be related to Nion Vates. She didn’t want to know, because it would be a breach of etiquette to rebuke such a thing. Just because certain customs would never be tolerated on Scorpitale didn’t mean they were equally wrong on Hag’s Hill, and she had a feeling that if she called the child an abomination, Arudle would retort that she was a fine one to talk about making abominations.
“I’m surprised he was even capable of fathering a child, after his injuries,” she said, “but that’s another matter. Does it show you visions?”
“Oh yes,” Arudle said placidly. “One of the captains you called to your table will betray you.”
What? Jash was too stunned to speak. Before she could collect herself, Arudle went on.
“And we will not win a war against the mainland, even if we seize that ship. You don’t need my child to tell you this, Commander.” She got up, awkwardly. “You know it as well as I do.”
Jash touched the twin shortswords she wore, one at each hip. The hilts were wrapped in leather worn soft with long use, but they were still reassuringly solid as her fingers closed around them.
“I won’t abandon hope any more than I will my homeland.” She struggled to keep her voice calm. “The land we colonized first.”
“One day, we’ll all abandon it,” Arudle said. “Burn the settlements and plow salt into the ground. Gather every sloop and skiff and war galley, and sail into the Shoreless Ocean. Better that than the Denalaits. One day, we won’t have a choice.”
“Until that day, we do.” Jash took a step towards her. Arudle retreated to the door and felt for the handle without ever looking away from Jash. She turned it and was gone.
Alone, Jash finally burned the map she’d been given, the gift of despair. Until that day, I’ll sacrifice anyone to keep our home, she thought as she watched the map darken and distort. Kaig and Ralcilos and the Denalait girl knew that too. They knew if they couldn’t take the steamship, they could never return.
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