ISBN: 9781301817627 (EPUB), 9781491217160 (Trade paper)
Excerpt ©2013 Michelle M. Welch
He almost fell when he stood up in the boat. He almost fell into the water and drowned. Wide, deep water, as far as the eye could see, wide enough that he could imagine there was no homeland behind him, no refuge ahead of him. The water would surely soak through the planks of the boat, seep through the cracks between them, and pull the boat down into the depths. Orwyn could do nothing to stop it and he wasn’t sure whether he was afraid or relieved.
The sun was blinding. The sail that caught the wind in a tall triangle did not cast enough shadow for Orwyn to hide in, and he felt his skin burning. His lips were already cracked and split, his hair windblown and caked with salt. He itched, and he could not reach any part of himself to scratch. Not that it mattered. He was cursed, that’s what they all said, and to be cursed apparently meant to be sunburned and itchy.
At first he tried to scratch himself with his hands, clumsy and blunt as they were inside his gloves. The men in the boat had put them on him, wrapped the cuffs tight and secured them with buckles so Orwyn could not get them off. Then, when the heat and the sun and the vastness of the sea had driven him mad, when he would do anything to get away from them even if it meant throwing himself to the sharks, Orwyn had stood up in the boat and tried to capsize it. The sailors had lunged at him, caught him and tied him to the thwart where he sat, his arms at his side and his legs made fast to the bench. He couldn’t scratch at all now.
If only he had thrown himself a little bit farther. When he drifted in the heat he dreamed that he had actually fallen over the side, that he was still falling through the waves and currents of the water.
Voices shook him awake before he could reach the ocean floor. “Dirty weather up ahead.”
Owyn’s eyes cracked open. The sun was missing, and a gray sky shed something like cool onto his tortured skin.
The other sailor laughed roughly. “Shame we can’t take the gloves off this one. He could freeze us a wall of ice and keep the storm away from us. Or pick the boat up out of the water and float us in the air up above it. Hey!” The rough man turned and kicked Orwyn’s shin. “Can you do that, magician?”
Orwyn wanted to say no but his voice did not work, stopped up with pain and fury too hot to shout out.
Hours – days? – later the storm broke. The sailors shouted and scurried over the boat, tugging at ropes and the sail and the rudder and all manner of things that Orwyn didn’t understand. Each time a wave lifted the boat Orwyn imagined it would toss him out, despite his bindings, and he would fall. But he only fell back into the trough of a wave, the boat with him.
Then some gust of wind tore a rope out of a sailor’s hand, too fast for Orwyn to see until he felt the wet lash around his arm. He was sure a shark had bitten him until he blinked enough to clear the rain from his eyes and looked down at his arm, his hand free of blood, and free of its glove. The rope had caught the buckle and ripped it loose.
This was his chance. Now, while the sailors were too busy to see him or stop him. He could unravel the ropes that secured him with a touch, jump up from the bench, thrust his hand out at one man’s back and stop his heart between his ribs. With a wave of his arm he could turn the falling rain into a torrent that threw the other man into the water, helpless and numb, arms flailing at nothing as he fell.
But the moment he imagined the man falling, Orwyn collapsed in the boat. He could not imagine anyone falling without remembering his sister. Can you do that, magician? He couldn’t do the one thing he should have done. They said magic was a curse, but they did not know how he was truly cursed.
“On deck, there! Two sails on the larboard quarter!”
Tomas Daybreak climbed up the rigging, following the lookout’s cry. He paused at the maintop and stood on the platform, pulled out his glass and looked into the west. At this height Tomas could barely see the hint of white marring the seam between the blue sea and the blue sky, but the ships were on course to intercept the Alabaster and they were sailing fast.
Tomas gripped the telescope hard to steady his hands. He was going to see action and he was going to see it while filling the first lieutenant’s post. For a long moment he wasn’t sure whether to laugh with excitement or tremble with dread and misery. His humors rarely knew which to choose. Then flags unfurled on the distant ships’ mastheads and he heard the lookout shout above him. “North Bishopric colors!”
Tomas threw his hand out for a backstay and slid down the taut rope to the deck, landing with a shock. Voices chased him as he ran aft, the foremast hands muttering among themselves. “Northmen, blow them out of the water – Can’t, the treaty still holds – Damn the treaty, lot of liars, they are.”
Tomas gained the quarterdeck and shouted at a clutch of midshipmen gathered there. “Signal book! Find the North Bishopric signal book!” Small blue-jacketed bodies scattered as the boys hunted for the lead-bound book, and Tomas’s humors wavered one last moment before choosing. Sanguine courage won out. He straightened, drawing himself up tall. This was where the action would begin. Northmen might or might not be liars, but the two ships further out to sea were, he was certain. He would send them the private signal, one that their allies in the North Bishopric would reply to correctly if that was who they were. But the two ships would reply with the wrong flag, Tomas was sure, and the battle would be on.
“Where is that book?” he thundered, though there was no midshipman left on the quarterdeck to hear him. Tomas didn’t care. He would lead the battle as the captain’s second-in-command, not a sorry third lieutenant who had only passed at some admiral’s whim, advanced by sheer chance when the Alabaster‘s second was arrested for brawling in port and her first fell drunkenly through an open hatch and knocked his head, never forgetting that he didn’t come into the service as a boy from a good family, a midshipman destined to be an officer, but was pressed out of the jail at Perch. All that would be forgotten with a really smashing victory. And Captain Goodhart was the best commander in the West Bishopric fleet. Joy beat so fast in Tomas’s throat that he could hardly breathe.
Then the wind changed. The men began howling and hooting. Tomas almost shouted at them for their noisy disobedience, but as he took a breath he realized the reason for their laughter. Sweeping over the Alabaster with the wind from out to sea was the horrifying stench of burning whale blubber.
“Whalers,” a voice uttered near Tomas’s ear. Captain Goodhart had emerged on the quarterdeck, bleary-eyed from his short sleep and blinking in the bright equatorial light. “North Bishopric, without a doubt.”
“Sir,” Tomas began breathlessly. “The signal midshipman is looking for…”
“The private signal book? Why?” The captain wrinkled his nose in distaste. “We have a treaty with the North and we have to give them escort. Mister Weatherly,” he called down to the young signal midshipman, who was blustering about and tripping over chests, almost in tears over not finding the private book. “Signal the whalers to follow.” The tone of his voice curdled with a new gust of wind. “And tell them to stay under our lee.”
Tomas opened his mouth again, but his racing blood did not make him foolhardy enough to argue with his captain. His heart pounded angrily at having its excitement interrupted, but there was nothing to do but to face aft and watch the whalers stand in behind them.
It would not take long for the whalers to catch up. The patrol down the coast of Gbahn to the southern country of GanDbar was a long, slow affair, only rarely broken by combat, and Alabaster was slowed even further by the acquisition of an unexpected load of cargo and men. Two days earlier, the Alabaster had passed one of their own West Bishopric ships, a merchantman sailing away from GanDbar. She was heavy with a load of wood from those southern forests and manned by some variety of idiot that had run the ship aground on her exit from the GanDbari harbor. She had managed some two hundred miles with a studdingsail stretched along the bottom to slow the leak in her hull, but by the time the Alabaster found her she had taken on so much water the cargo was floating and her crew was soused with exhaustion from pumping hour after hour. The wood that could be salvaged was transferred over to the Alabaster, along with the majority of the merchantman’s hands. While Captain Goodhart offered passage to the officers with his compliments, they seemed to prefer rowing their own boats – and having the opportunity to revise their account of what had happened to the ship – to being escorted by a naval captain who might offer a different story to their investors.
The extra weight and the press of new bodies did not make a comfortable warship. Merchantmen had far smaller crews than men-of-war, longer watches that meant more than four hours at a time for sleep, more cabin space for sleeping in berths instead of hammocks, more space at table and fewer men to compete with for salt pork and split peas. While the navy men were used to such constraints, they were used to them in a complement of two hundred. Now they had half again as many. The grumpiness of the merchant sailors was spreading; the Alabasters were so frustrated at the crowding and the other sailors’ complaints and their basic incompetence that more than one man had been punched in the nose. Tomas only trusted two of the merchant sailors to know a stay from a halyard: an old man with one eye who had been retired from the navy for his disability, and a slim man so young he was beardless, a landman who had been at sea only a year or so. The rest were so ignorant that Tomas had found himself shooing them off the quarterdeck more than once.
As he stared out over the stern, watching the whalers follow, Tomas listened for the sound of some merchant sailor trespassing on those boards that could be trod only by officers. Fear that he’d have to turn one of the lubberly fools in to the bosun for flogging did not explain his racing heart, though, or the tension that made him grip his telescope so tightly his fingers were turning white.
“Ha, look at that, whalers can’t follow orders.”
Tomas spun around to glare at the owners of the voices behind him, and his frowning face scared two pimpled midshipmen into silence. As he turned back, though, he saw they were right. The closer of the two whalers sailed behind Alabaster on her starboard quarter, but the other ship was approaching on the other side, the windward side, as if to flank the man-of-war.
“Northmen,” other voices said, drifting from the rail and the waist. “Don’t even know what leeward is – Backward, they are.”
But Tomas watched the second whaler drift closer and understood why his heart had not slowed. He darted down the stair from the quarterdeck, down the hatch onto the orlop deck.
Both watches were above and the orlop was nearly empty. Tomas darted through the space between decks, opening cabin doors and hunting through chests. He’d seen the North Bishopric signal book somewhere, he was certain of it: under the gunroom table or in the galley or in the manger with the chickens. He found himself at the sail room, tugging at a door that was stubbornly stuck, more certain than ever that the book was in that very room. He banged his fist on the door and it still would not budge.
“Good morning, Lieutenant,” a voice spoke behind him. “Perhaps you’ve forgotten that it’s custom for officers to be on deck during their watch?”
Tomas reddened and turned to face Goodhart. “Sir…”
“You’re going to go on about that book, aren’t you? They’re whalers – nothing could be more obvious. They’re whalers and they’re North Bishopric.”
“But sir,” Tomas said, his heart racing so fast it set his voice to quivering. “What if they’re not?”
The captain looked at him for a moment, his face half shadowed in the poor light that leaked through the hatch above them, so that Tomas could not read his expression. Then he started walking, the fast and determined pace with which Goodhart always walked, up the stair to the main deck, through his cabins to the great stern windows where he watched the trailing ships. Tomas followed, stood over Goodhart’s shoulder, and watched him again. The captain’s face was now lit, square-jawed, eyes sharply focused, scanning from one ship to the other. What was he seeing, Tomas wondered. That wild storm of passion that made Tomas’s heart race could stir him to great things, but he did not think it was the same as the wisdom of the old captain. What was Goodhart seeing in those ships that might make him believe Tomas?
What he saw, Tomas would not find out. But the captain, never taking his eyes off the ships, said, “Call the men to their quarters. Tell them to go quietly, don’t beat the drum and don’t open the gunports, but make ready. If you find any of those merchant sailors that can fight, send them to quarters as well, and stow the rest in the hold.” Then he peered at Tomas from the corner of his eye and added, “I’ll take the watch, Lieutenant Daybreak.”
Tomas dashed out to pass the order, sprinting the hundred and thirty feet from stern to stem and back again. The Alabasters went to their battle stations with great excitement – Tomas wasn’t the only one looking forward to an action – and delight at the ruse besides. A black-haired seaman made a great show of tiptoeing to his station at the number four gun, while another shushed noisily, a loud hissing sound that rose above the hum of the wind in the rigging.
Tomas sent the younger boys down to the magazine to fill powder cartridges, along with some of the less frightened-looking merchant sailors. Most of the merchants were already on their way down to the hold and the shelter under the water line. The one-eyed man took his place behind one of the great guns, though, joining the number two gun crew, which was short due to the first lieutenant’s absence. “I can see well enough to light a match,” he gruffed, igniting the ends of the slow-burning wicks in their bucket behind the gun, making them ready.
Tomas caught the arm of the beardless boy as he passed behind. “I don’t suppose you can fire a gun.”
“No,” the boy said. “But I can fight with a sword.”
“Good. If we get near enough to board, pull one of those cutlasses hanging over the gun ports, and wait for the call ‘Boarders away.’ And stay clear of the guns while they’re firing. You get your foot under the carriage when it rolls back on the recoil, you’ve lost it.”
Down to the orlop deck to check on the filling of the cartridges and the stowing of the other merchant’s men, then Tomas went to the door of the cockpit. From within came a burst of hearty laughter. As usual, Mr. Swiftsong, the surgeon, was playing cards with Cleric Miles, and as usual, the cleric was winning. Tomas knocked quietly and pushed open the door. “Mr. Swiftsong, we’re preparing for battle.”
The surgeon threw down his cards with a cross humpf, making the cleric laugh even louder. “Well, that’s a stroke of luck, my dear surgeon, isn’t it? You really didn’t have anything left to bet with, did you?”
“Go on,” Mr. Swiftsong muttered, sweeping the cards off the playing surface: three sea chests stood on end and lashed together. “Get off my operating table.”
“Oh, it’s no great rush yet,” chuckled the cleric. “They haven’t even beat the drum yet.”
“They’re not going to,” Tomas told him.
Cleric Miles started up in alarm. “We’re not at stations yet, are we? I’ll have no time to give the blessing!”
“I’ve got a paper cut from one of your damned cards,” drawled the surgeon, holding up his injured finger. “You can do it now.”
The cleric frowned. For a man of the cloth, he was remarkably squeamish about blood. With several twitches of hesitation, he took a handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it to the surgeon’s cut, collecting the red drop, then laid it out on the table in front of him. He pressed his hands together loosely, blew into the space between to fill his palms with air, then held them down above the handkerchief. He cleared his throat impressively and intoned, “Great God, through this sacrifice we beg your blessings and plead for your mercy. Do give your protection to these men and this vessel as we venture upon this battle against…” He ended with a vague wave of his hand.
Tomas dropped his head a bit sheepishly, touched his palms together and the tips of his fingers to his lips, and murmured under his breath, “Do let it be.”
Mr. Swiftsong huffed shortly, whether at Miles or at Tomas it wasn’t clear. The cleric sat back, looking at his companion to remove the bloody object from in front of him, but the surgeon was already at his instrument chest, laying things out. Cleric Miles looked askance. Tomas reached for the handkerchief and balled it quickly into his pocket.
With no other preparations left, Tomas returned to the quarterdeck, an eerily quiet place after the bustle of the orlop and the hold. The officers were still and silent, watching the approaching ships. This was the waiting time, an agonizing wait, watching the other ships’ colors, waiting for them to come down, waiting for the enemy’s colors to run up. The younger midshipmen fairly vibrated with anticipation, biting their lips to keep from whispering among themselves. Tomas watched them and wondered whether he would do the same if protocol did not demand stillness of him. For the second time in one day Tomas’s passions stood at the ready, wavering, not sure whether to rise or fall.
The nearest ship had come alongside them to starboard, less than a mile away, obscurely threatening, and obviously a whaler. Her deck was crowded by the vast furnace and its stinking trypots, the cauldrons where the whale blubber was rendered. The smell was so strong even though they weren’t lit and even though the ship was under Alabaster‘s lee that Captain Goodhart himself held his hand over his nose. Two swivel guns stood on the whaler’s bows, in the vain hope that she might be able to defend herself if any rivals or pirates brave enough to stand the stench tried to attack her, but there were no other guns, no gunports in her sides. The whaler couldn’t attack the man-of-war even if she were an enemy in disguise.
Beside Tomas the captain spoke, his voice almost lost in the wind. “What are you about?” His eyes were focused on two men on the deck of the whaler, strangely hanging over the gunwale, clasping ropes in their hands and dragging them in the water. He rubbed his eyes and stared again. Tomas found he had to rub his eyes as well; his view of the whaler was so blurred it was as if there were a fog in his eyes.
Goodhart shook his head and walked to the larboard side. The second whaler was crowding sail and gaining fast, an act that could only be aggressive despite her blurry, gunless sides. “She’ll eat our wind,” Captain Goodhart said darkly. “Signal her to fall back, and give her the number one gun. Gun captains to the larboard stations. Open the gunports, load chain, and run them out.” He pressed his lips together. The taste of violating the treaty must have been bitter. “Except for the signal, no one fires until my word.”
Tomas dashed below, elbowing past the carpenter who was taking down the bulwarks that separated the captain’s cabins, to take his place behind the three aftermost guns. Through the stern windows Tomas could see the approaching whaler: a long ship with a crowded deck, blurred and naked sides, and two more curious men leaning over to trail ropes in the water. Far down to Tomas’s right came the bang of the signaling gun. And they waited for the whaler to fall back or stand on, for the captain to give them some word.
Then the blur that obscured the ship’s sides fell away like a wave, like mist, replaced by sixteen flashes of fire.
For a split second Tomas was amazed at the ruse: using the mist to conceal the guns on an Eastern man-of-war and make her look like a Northern whaler. Then he realized how the mist must have been made. Men around him realized the same thing and they began to shout in terror. “Magicians! They have magicians on board!”
Men were falling back from their guns, boys dropping flannel bags of powder. A bucket of slow match was kicked over and Tomas stamped on an ember that landed near his feet. The ship wheeled sharply to larboard and scattered the unprepared sailors.
“Back to your stations!” Tomas roared over the chaos. “Hold fast! I have no fear of magicians. They need to have their hands on what they work – they can’t turn the Alabaster to paper, they can’t sink us. The ship is the Dawnchaser, I’ve fought against her before, her captain’s flesh and blood. Back to your guns, before they reload!”
From the bow a voice shouted out, “Number one gun, fire!” And the explosions chained, gun upon gun, the entire broadside aimed at the enemy warship. It was a slow broadside and inaccurate, but Tomas’s second gun cut the rigging on the mainmast and his third splintered the wheel. The instant after the final gun fired, Alabaster swung back around, turning her stern to the disabled enemy and leaving her behind. Above him Tomas heard the crash of round shot smashing the quarterdeck rail, and through the stern windows he saw the rest of the enemy’s shots go wide and fall in the water.
“Starboard guns!” came the order, and the gun crews hurried across to the other fourteen stations. They were quick now, energized by the disabling of the Dawnchaser, cheering as the opening ports revealed the second warship, guns run out and East Bishopric colors flying. “I know her,” a sailor’s voice cried. “That’s the Devout, magicians or no magicians!”
The fire and the smoke came, impacts shaking the Alabaster and raining splinters from above, and before the smoke cleared the enemy ship began to move closer. Alabaster fired one more broadside before their target was too close. Devout‘s captain knew Goodhart’s reputation; he would rather take his chances fighting hand to hand than let Goodhart cut his rigging to ribbons. The Devout came close, fast, and collided. “Boarders away!”
Tomas seized a cutlass and ran up the stairs, buoyed by a vision of himself on the enemy ship, cutting through to her mainmast and striking down the colors. But the captain’s voice cut through his fantasy. “Daybreak! The flag!”
A hot piece of chain had frayed the rope that ran up the West Bishopric flag, and the red and white banner was slipping from the masthead. For it to fall would be interpreted as surrender. Tomas’s breath caught in his throat – he couldn’t disobey his captain, his moment would be lost, it would be Goodhart who took command of the Devout and ordered her colors down. Swallowing hard, he dropped his cutlass and grabbed hold of the loose ropes, seeing the captain hurry away to board from the corner of his eye.
When he was finished splicing there was little left to be done. The two magicians had been captured at once, their gloves forced back on their hands and their wrists bound to belaying pins in the rail on the larboard side. Alabasters had climbed into the rigging with small arms to keep watch over them and to shoot down the few Devouts who were still fighting. The deck of the Eastern ship was so crowded by the furnace and the trypots that few Alabasters had space to board at all. Tomas climbed halfway up to the maintop and clung to the ratlines, nothing for him but to watch and feel his heart sink.
The beardless boy was one of the boarders who had gained the enemy deck, and Tomas focused all his attention on the boy’s progress to stay the sinking of his humors. The boy struck down one, two, three men, working aft toward the quarterdeck, climbing up the stairs. Tomas took in a sharp breath at the breach of protocol and heard a shooter in the rigging above him gasp, “The lubber has some stones on him!”
On the Devout‘s quarterdeck a lieutenant spun to face the boy, his mouth contorted on the verge of making an angry scold. Then the boy called out in a ringing voice, “Vann Breakwater!” The lieutenant stared, and a hint of recognition sparked in his eyes. He threw down his fighting cutlass and drew the fine officer’s sword from his belt, then bent down to the body of a fellow officer at his feet and pulled a second sword, which he tossed hilt-first toward the boy. The boy caught it, discarded his cutlass, and stepped into a classical fencing master’s stance.
At the mainmast Captain Goodhart swung his blade and cut the flag rope, and the blue and gold of the East Bishopric fell. Alabasters and Devouts alike, conscious of that signal even in the heat of battle, stepped back. Those too distracted to note the striking of the colors were interrupted by the sharp whistles of their shipmates. It was an offense to keep fighting after the end of the battle was called; it was ungentlemanly. Men nervously shuffled into groups of their own nation, lowering their weapons and catching their breath. But two fighters did not drop their swords. The duelists on the quarterdeck fought on, and the sailors were too entranced to stop them.
The beardless boy had spoken true: he could fight with a sword. He was doubtless the best fencer Tomas had ever seen, better than the man who had taught Tomas, better than Captain Goodhart, better than the Eastern lieutenant, although not by much. The lieutenant had bulk and age in his favor – Tomas wondered how on earth the boy had learned as much as he had before he was even shaving. But the boy was driven by some great passion; the lieutenant had done something to gravely offend him and the boy was fighting for his honor.
“Must have killed his father,” the shooter above Tomas uttered.
Yes, that was probably true, Tomas thought. He wondered what it would be like to be so driven. He had never known his father.
A collective gasp caught Tomas’s attention back. The lieutenant had struck hard and the boy was down, bleeding from the right arm. Alabasters hung forward in their rigging, on tiptoes on the enemy deck, watching the endgame. The Easterner laughed a strange and uneasy laugh, hesitated, then raised his sword and lunged forward. At the last instant the boy switched the blade to his left hand and thrust upward. The strike was true. The lieutenant stumbled, staring down at the boy and at the sword in his ribs. He fell to his knees, driving the blade further, dropping his face close to the boy’s. And the boy said something, quiet and wind-drowned although all the sailors leaned forward to try to catch those words. The lieutenant’s eyes widened, then glazed. The boy threw him off, and fell back. A great cheer went up from the Alabasters but the boy lay still.
Tomas was late again. By the time he gained Devout‘s quarterdeck, hoping to pick the boy up and take him back to Mr. Swiftsong, someone else had already carried him away. Tomas looked around for something to take hold of so he wouldn’t go back to the Alabaster empty-handed, when he was suddenly grabbed by the wrist. He looked down at a shaking hand and an arm blotched with purple spots, and looked up into the face of an Eastern sailor, staring at him desperately. “Please,” the man said, stinking breath carrying his voice out of a toothless mouth. A large wound cut across his cheek, inflamed and wet although it did not look like a new injury. “Our surgeon’s dead.”
“Alright,” sighed Tomas, thinking that this was not what he’d hoped to bring back. “Give me your dagger and come with me.”
Back in his surgery, Mr. Swiftsong took a single brief look at the Easterner and grumbled, “Scurvy. Get him out of here before he breathes on someone.”
“Scurvy isn’t catching,” Tomas protested.
“No? Then how does it spread through ships so fast?” The surgeon motioned to his assistant. “Get him out,” he said, and the young mate nervously took hold of the Easterner’s arm, holding his other hand in front of his face as he pulled the man out of the cockpit.
“Now, where was I?” Swiftsong muttered. He frowned at Tomas and went back to his operating table.
Tomas looked down and saw the beardless boy, unconscious, his right arm cleaned and stitched, and the surgeon was starting to wrap a bandage around it. He was not the first one to have treated the boy, apparently. A larger, older bandage encased the boy’s entire torso. “What’s that?”
The surgeon gave him an impatient look. “I don’t know yet. I would have examined it if I hadn’t been interrupted.”
The little crowd of other patients and spectators in the cockpit gathered as close as they dared to watch Mr. Swiftsong cut the bandages around the boy’s chest and peel them back, layer by layer. They watched, waited, and sucked in their breath all together when the layers came off. The surgeon betrayed nothing but his usual frown, and said in a bland voice, “Your beardless boy appears to be a woman.”