ISBN: 9781301297436 (EPUB), 9781491241042 (Trade paper)
Excerpt ©2013 Michelle M. Welch
There were two children walking across the desert. A boy and a girl, with great heavy vessels suspended from bars across their shoulders. The boy might have been twelve, the girl a few years older. She had a scarf wound about her head, which made it hard to see her face and judge her age. They kicked up great clouds of dust as they walked, the boy more deliberately, but even the girl’s more careful step stirred the dust into choking drifts. It was so very dry, as if rain hadn’t touched the place in ages, as if the wells the children were walking toward were impossible, as if water had forgotten them. Lizards and insects had forsaken the landscape; it had been miles since the last tree grew, the last scrub of brush. It defied imagination that anything could live there. Orwyn lay beneath the dust and pretended he was dead.
No one in the long, scattered line of thirsty-looking people had seen him. Orwyn watched them silently: the men and women both scarved, children swaddled in dirt, walking across the unfathomable desert with their jars and jugs. They trudged with slow feet and bent backs, and those who made the return journey, walking in the opposite direction with even heavier burdens, wore no satisfaction on their faces. They looked even more worried for the precious drops that spilled from the rims of their vessels, shining for an instant like falling shards of sun before striking the carpet of dirt with an inaudible splash that Orwyn could almost feel in his hiding place. He shivered as he felt that movement echo through him and he pulled the dust closer around his parched body.
It’s not true, Orwyn thought as the earth trembled minutely under him with each drop. There was no well at all, no source of water in the desert. The people must have been magicians, casting light and movement to torment him.
Then he saw the magicians, the real magicians.
Loriene had told him, as they rowed to Gbahn from the ship they had escaped, about the Gbahni soldiers, the Vihn Ani. They fought with two swords and with magic. They were not to be approached when their hands were bare, not to be allowed in arm’s reach or in blade’s reach. Orwyn was not, absolutely not, to take them on. He’d scoffed at her when she’d spoken, so severe, so certain she must be taken seriously. He’d scoffed and spat at her a little from a mouth wet with the excess of mercury he’d been given by the ship’s surgeon. But when he saw the magicians he forgot his scorn, as quickly as his mouth had dried out in the drought of the desert.
The magicians were shrouded in red scarves, their backs crossed with glinting steel, and their heavily booted feet seemed to make the earth tremble. Orwyn hadn’t really thought that Loriene was telling the truth about the Gbahni magicians. Orwyn was the greatest magician in the Archipelago – so powerful that leaders feared him and lesser magicians had imprisoned him. To see such power in this strange place took him aback. To see the Vihn Ani force the dusty people, the dirty children, trembling, to their knees, filled him with revulsion and envy.
The throbbing of the earth was not caused by the footsteps of the Vihn Ani, though. Orwyn frowned as he realized it, his dried lips cracking under his cover of dust. There was noise in the air, the toneless music of drums. He’d seen the strange shapes earlier, vast cylinders standing on four wooden legs like weird clay insects. They were strung across the desert, thicker near the cities and the river. He hadn’t given more than the slightest thought to what they were. Loriene always walked with her head down in the blowing dust and probably hadn’t even seen them. But they were drums, Orwyn could see now, suspended horizontally on stands as tall as a man, their huge round skins pointed toward the cities and their bodies toward the expanse of the desert, that an unseen wind tapping on their surfaces might project the sound across the earth.
At that sound the men got to their knees and lowered their heads. Orwyn laughed, short and dry. They were praying. They thought they knew God here. The women did not kneel but stood with their heads bowed, fidgeting their hands inside long sleeves that were tied in knots at the end. Red headdresses circled through the line of people, the magician soldiers making sure the faithful were praying as they should.
The boy rocked back and forth on his knees, fretting as if he couldn’t remember his prayers, and his sister leaned over his shoulder to whisper urgently. She straightened and fell back as one of the soldiers neared, the windblown folds of her scarf not fully hiding the flushed fear on her face. She had something to hide. Orwyn narrowed his eyes against the sand to look at her more closely. She plucked at one of her sleeves, a knot that had loosened, threatening to expose her hand. With a flick of his finger Orwyn pushed a thread of wind toward her and fluttered the sleeve, turning up the hem of the long shapeless garment she wore as it passed. Her face went blank with horror, her fingers hung bare in the wind for an instant before she clutched the fabric up from inside her sleeve, and her eyes closed as a man in a red scarf passed before her. The boy trembled even more and clenched his hands tightly with the dread of unspeakable punishment.
When Orwyn was his age he plunged his body into the icy waters of arctic streams to stop its growth, to keep off the maturity and the magic that threatened to overtake him, to keep from becoming cursed. Orwyn watched the children tremble and drank in anticipation as if it were a flavor that colored the air.
But the soldier did not spare a glance for the girl with her disheveled clothing, hardly a look at the boy swaying on his knees. He passed with his muffled boots and his swords and crossed a stretch of desert to the next person, an old man far at the edge of Orwyn’s sight. With his scarf drawn up against the blowing dust, he was only distinguishable as an old man by the fact that his back was still bent after he had set his jar upon the ground. He was not kneeling. He raised his voice as the Vihn Ani neared him, shouting something in righteous anger. The soldier snapped a response, an order. The old man stood and defied it. The boy and the girl cautiously risked a glance behind them to look at the disturbance, and others did as well. Along the line there was the sound of scraping steel as swords were drawn. Orwyn did not look at the swordsmen. He watched the first soldier approach the old man, closer and closer, peeling off his glove as he walked.
Orwyn was the greatest magician in the Archipelago. He had sunk ships, he had raised cannons from the water, he had threatened to shake the pillars of the Prefect’s hall in Arland. There was no one who did not fear him. But he had never laid a hand on another person. He had never moved their blood in them, never stopped its course through their hearts, never spilled it. He didn’t even know if he could. He let his eyes close and pulled the dust more thickly around him before he saw the old man fall to the ground.
He did not hear the wind as it shifted his cover of dust, did not note the sun as it curved on its harsh course downward, did not watch the people leave. He did not see whether the boy and the girl got their water or if they were turned back where they had come from, thirsty. Orwyn lay in the dust and squeezed his eyes until the pain was too great to bear, but nothing could banish the image of the old man’s death at the magician’s hand. His eyes sprung open to a darkening sky, he had let his dust-shroud fall away, and still he saw the blood spilling from the old man’s mouth.
He flung out his hands to pull the sand back. It came not as a shielding blanket, but in the form of a body, hovering over him, hands pulling at his clothes, mouth fastening over his to feed him and suck his will from him. A figment, a memory, penetrating through to his skin, stirring hunger that he did not want, hunger he had tried to starve out of himself – Nevere. Years he had lived in the tower room of the palace in Arland, its most powerful magician, tormented by a slave woman. He had learned to resist Nevere in time, refusing her food and her touch, and she was dead now. But he molded the figure of her over him and let it drown him in dusty memories because it was less terrifying than what he had just seen.
“Orwyn!” a voice cried.
He clenched his eyes shut again. If he did not move he would not be seen, he thought, still holding the sand body over him. But Loriene was not so easily fooled: she had seen him use the trick before, and she was a good hunter. She had hunted and killed eight men.
“There’s a village a few miles from here, near the river,” she said, stepping carefully around him, searching for a variance in the shadows of the sand. “We should be able to see it before it’s fully dark. I saw some children walking that way. Children are always more willing to help us, give us something to eat, some supplies.” Her footsteps slowed, deliberate and measured, and her sword hardly creaked as it swung on her hip. “I think I’ve got enough of their words now to get them to understand us. If I could get a scarf I could almost pass for one of them, my face is so brown with this dust.” She rasped out a laugh. Orwyn didn’t think laughter suited her. “But I can’t imagine why they came out here to draw water, if their village is close to the river.”
“The river is too low,” Orwyn said. He didn’t know why he was answering her. “Because of the drought.”
Loriene knelt down beside the position he had betrayed with his voice. “How much of their language have you learned?”
Enough to know that the old man was killed because he wouldn’t pray, Orwyn thought but didn’t say. Enough to know that he was a dissident and the boy and the girl probably were, too. “There are Vihn Ani here,” he said.
“I know. I saw them as well.” Loriene’s hand went to the hilt of her blade, the other one flexing as if the very mention of the soldiers made her hungry for a second sword. She had fought the Vihn Ani. The sailors on the ship had talked of it, eyes wide in awe, and she had trained them to fight with two swords. Orwyn looked at the hilt clutched within her hand and wondered when she’d gotten that blade, how and where from. She hadn’t been armed when they landed on the shore. Then she held out her free hand toward Orwyn under his dust. “Come on. We have to go.”
Nevere’s dust-hands slipped into his clothes and dissipated. Loriene was solid against the dim light, unmovable. He hated her for it. “Why?” he uttered. “Why are we doing this?”
She leaned close to the place his voice had come from. Her voice was hard and sure as if she believed the answer. “To survive.”
He could push himself down into the dirt, he thought, force its layers to part for him and bury himself up in them, where Loriene and her stubbornness could not reach him, where he would never be found again. But he let the thin blanket of sand drift and thrust his bare hand into Loriene’s. No sane person would touch a magician’s ungloved hand, stripped of the barrier that would block his power, but Loriene did not flinch. She leaned back and leveraged her weight and made him stand, and led him toward the unseen village.
“How, exactly, did both our prisoners go missing?”
Perhaps the most surprising thing about being on a warship, Bronwin thought, was how paper-thin the walls were. Yes, she knew they were called bulkheads; the men had corrected her endlessly. She knew the bulkheads that formed the captain’s after-cabin could be taken down at a moment’s notice when the ship went into battle, the settee she sat upon struck down into the hold with the other furniture, and the four great guns that cramped the space in the cabin loosed from their bindings to join their twenty-four fellows in spitting fire and chain at some enemy who clearly deserved it. The West Bishopric ship Alabaster had twenty-eight guns. Bronwin had been on board only two days and she’d had that statistic drilled into her as if her life depended upon it.
“How did they go missing? One of them a fugitive murderer from an enemy nation and one of them a magician, and neither of them properly guarded? How indeed!”
The second voice was the ship’s surgeon, a civilian who was not bound by the same rules that bound the first speaker: some officer, maybe the purser. The surgeon could say almost anything to the captain short of telling him to go to hell and escape court-martial or hanging. Bronwin had met Mr. Swiftsong before, and did not doubt the quantity of invective that the old mercury-dispensing sawbones was capable of dealing out.
“The magician, you will remember, was deathly ill.” Captain Goodhart, at least, was able to speak at a normal tone, although it was still audible from his chart room on the other side of the bulkhead. How the navy kept any strategic secrets at all was beyond Bronwin’s comprehension. “And the murderer was not armed. There was no reason to think they would flee.”
In Bronwin’s arms there was a sudden movement. The boy sleeping there stirred, no doubt troubled by the sound of raised voices and the rocking of the ship as they moved steadily into deeper waters. Bronwin dropped her lips to his hair and breathed out a shushing sound, trying to quiet him. Vihil needed to rest: the longer, the better. He had just lost his entire family and everyone he knew.
The purser did his best to thwart Bronwin’s intentions by shouting more loudly. “There was every reason to think Loriene Whitewave would flee! We were about to return her to the East Bishopric to face judgment for her crimes. As soon as the fleet returned from the strike on Gbahn her chance at freedom was lost. And sir – I beg you to let me speak candidly – you only encouraged misbehavior by letting her teach the crew at swordplay.”
“That swordplay is the only thing that gives us an advantage against the Vihn Ani,” the captain interrupted, his voice admirably even.
“And you gave Whitewave the opportunity to win the trust and friendship of the entire bloody ship,” added Swiftsong. “Only Lieutenant Farthing kept his head about him, and you sent him away to procure supplies. The only one who would have kept an objective eye on her and you sent him running errands. The rest of the crew was half smitten with her, your second lieutenant not the least.”
Bronwin’s mouth tightened for only an instant at the mention of Tomas; no one would have noticed even if they had seen her. She looked out through the wide stern windows at the wake that stretched behind them, endless in that unbelievable expanse of sea, and rocked Vihil in her arms. The boy’s eyes fluttered behind their lids with a nightmare.
“Do you choose to make an accusation, Mr. Swiftsong? Because if you doubt any member of my crew on the suspicion that he helped Whitewave to escape, you will bring that doubt to light. This commission is too long and the ship too small for us to endure secrets and discord.”
There was silence then. Bronwin smiled faintly. It was hardly a harmonious family, these two hundred men with whom she now had to live, but at least there was a good father at the head of it. A father who was alive. Tears stung her eyes and she held Vihil a bit closer.
She knew what the boy saw behind his closed eyes. It had eroded her own sleep the night before – that fire rolling red down from the peak in the center of the island of Perch, eating everything in its path, the houses of the Gbahni refugees, the trees, the bushes, the bridges, the fishing boats, the houses on the other side of the island, the hospital, her family’s hospital… Bronwin gasped against the pain in her throat. Fire raining down at the hands of the Vihn Ani at the top of the peak, and not enough boats to get everyone off the island. She only escaped because Tomas had been there, and she had only been able to save Vihil because Tomas had brought a boat. Her composure failed her and tears streamed down her face. She could not stop shaking to keep from waking Vihil. The boy sat up and dried her face with the handkerchief she’d given him.
“Hush,” he whispered. “You should not cry. You should be happy. Today is your wedding day.”
She swallowed hard. She wanted to hold the boy tight but he would not let her now that he was awake, and when he patted her hand a last time before pulling away it was with the hand that had been burned by the Vihn Ani, still bandaged, so there would not be contact with bare skin.
“But even if we assume that Miss Whitewave affected her own escape,” Goodhart said, “it does not explain Orwyn’s disappearance. Why would she have taken the magician?”
Swiftsong answered in his sour voice, “Why not ask the last person who saw them both?”
There was a turn, a creak, and a door opened behind Bronwin. She sat upright, stiffly, holding her breath. Vihil jumped to his feet and hid impulsively behind one of the guns. Bronwin clutched her hands together and tried not to tremble. She was not going to hide. She would face the captain’s questions. But the footsteps that entered came not from the chart room but from the captain’s sleeping room on the other side.
“Miss Westcost,” said Lieutenant Cableman. “They are ready for you.”
So her inquisition was going to have to wait, Bronwin thought, standing and smoothing her dress. Even the surgeon wouldn’t interrupt a religious ceremony. She stepped through the door that the third lieutenant held open for her, wavering a little as the ship rose on a steep wave. Cableman reached for her elbow to balance her. She moved further into the little cabin and Cableman closed the door behind them.
There was a gun even in the sleeping cabin, roped tight to the hull between a chest and the neatly stowed roll of canvas that must have been the captain’s hammock. The only ways into the great aftermost cabin where the captain entertained were through his chart room or his sleeping room, and his sleeping room was so tidy it might have been an empty storeroom. Lieutenant Cableman held on to Bronwin’s elbow longer than was strictly necessary. She cleared her throat as loudly as she could and said, “Thank you, Lieutenant, I have my footing.”
After a moment the man released her. A roll to the side threw Bronwin a step in his direction but he did not move at all, unaffected by the ship’s motion and not giving ground to allow her any space. His face was very close to hers, his eyes unblinking, his sour breath moist on her face. She wanted to check his teeth for rot. “Is this your first time at sea, Miss?” he uttered at length.
The ship tilted in the other direction and Bronwin took a step backward. “In a ship like this,” she answered. “I’ve been on small boats on the coast before, though.”
Cableman stared at her mouth as she spoke, not seeming to hear the words coming out of it. “And you’re not seasick. Hmm. Some new sailors are in such bad shape the first time they put out to sea that they would do anything, give anything for just a little relief. Anything at all.”
With another roll the lieutenant let the motion carry him toward her until he was nearly touching Bronwin, and she felt the bulkhead at her back. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, looking down and trying to sidle away. But Cableman put a hand on the bulkhead, blocking her escape. Bronwin looked up sharply, fixing his eyes, willing him to move back and prove it was an accident.
“Well,” he said finally, dropping his voice even further. “We should not keep you from your groom. You must be very eager.” He pushed himself back and opened the forward door, preceding her out.
It took all her might but Bronwin forced off her trembling and stepped out on deck.
The sun was wildly bright on the water, with an array of snowy canvas stretched out overhead. Bronwin squinted in the face of the Alabaster‘s crew, all shaved and dressed in their best uniforms, lined up in neat rows facing aft. At the break of the quarterdeck, at the foot of the hazardously shallow stairs that led up to the highest deck on the ship, a small altar had been erected, covered with flowers that were more or less fresh. It stood in the sun, in front of the wheel. The ship’s master, Mr. Woodbridge, nodded pleasantly at Bronwin as she emerged, not taking his hands from the spokes. Easy for him, she thought briefly. He was in some kind of middle place on the ship, not an officer and not a lesser seaman, going about his vital business of navigation and almost invisible as he did it. No one had him under a glass. And he got to stand in the shade.
Bronwin smiled a little tightly, folded her hands over her churning stomach, and stepped out into the blinding light.
“Ah, there she is!” cried a voice from the altar. “Our bride!”
Cleric Miles was a round, red-faced man with a sanguine personality and too much fondness for wine. He held out his hands and gestured Bronwin toward her position in front of the altar. There, for the first time since stepping out of the cabin, she saw Tomas.
He was dressed in his blue jacket, gold cords at his shoulders to indicate his rank, brass buttons in a shiny line down the length of the opening. His hair was combed and braided and tied neatly with a black ribbon halfway down his back, his white shirt was starched and his neckcloth tied in a perfect knot, his sword in its polished black scabbard hung from his polished black belt, his white canvas trousers were ironed with a crease that was stubbornly sharp in the humid autumn air. And his eyes were fixed on some distant point over Bronwin’s shoulder, cold and empty.
Bronwin had witnessed Tomas’s melancholy before, had seen it turn him into something immobile and unfeeling, an illness she knew no preparation for. Never before had she been at its mercy when she needed him. She ground her teeth to keep the tears from erupting again, and when the cleric bade them join hands, she lifted hers quickly and took his from the air where they hung limply. “Oh, Tomas,” she murmured as Miles addressed the crowd with some loud and celebratory words. “You’ll be no help to me at all.”