Skalen Deven Yasarin. That name alone was more than enough to take any Beinison regiment any distance. He, just like his blood relatives, was supposed to be dead, a symbol of what will happen to those who would disagree with the imperial line, commoner and noble alike. It was a different reason that had brought the Imperial Beinison Army and Navy to the shores of Baranur, but the reason did not matter to Deven. His single-minded goal was the large cog in the Shandayma Harbor, the Golden Sword, fighting the strong currents at the Laraka delta. She majestically stood against the strong current, holding out better than even the larger, sturdier galleons at her side. She was the ship that carried a number of sages, among them the venerable Lord Haurance Cinofrid, one of the greatest scryers of his day.
“I’ve got you,” Deven laughed, watching the ship from shore. “Another day … two. You won’t float well with a hole in your belly.”
He looked down at the two dead sailors at his feet. There was a sense of satisfaction that another two of his enemies were dead by his own hand. Four decades ago he would have proudly called them his countrymen, but that pride was long since gone, forever replaced with anger and bitterness. No amount of Beinison blood would ever restore his family to life and he would keep that blood flowing as long as he could, to force the Empire to remember his loss.
“Commander?” a man’s voice followed hurried knocking on the cabin door. “Commander, you’re needed on deck.”
Muriel Dainyn shifted in her hammock, letting the book she held close on her finger. “I’ll be right there!” ‘It’s the wind. It’s always the wind,’ she thought, feeling the gentle rocking of the hammock. The motion soothed her, bringing back memories of a little girl on board the merchant vessel Eastern Star many years before. She swung out of the hammock with practiced ease, again opening the book and tossing a coin between the pages to keep her place, then proceeded up on deck.
“Ma’am,” a sailor said, passing her in the long alleyway she needed to navigate to get on deck. She greeted him, but did not stop, wanting to resolve the problems above and return to her novel.
“Commander?” a new voice greeted her as she appeared on deck.
“Lord Cinofrid. A pleasure to see you on deck so early in the morning.”
The elderly man bowed, his grey eyes picking up the sparkle of the sun. “The pleasure’s all mine, Commander.”
“Commander Dainyn?” a sailor called from the quarterdeck.
“Yes?” she looked up.
“Wind’s shifting west, Commander. We need to turn. We can’t fight the current and the wind!”
“North or south?”
“You best handle this,” the sage said, noticing the anxiety in the woman’s face.
“Thank you, my lord.” She hurried up the companionway to the bridge over the quarterdeck, taking the stairs two or three at a time. “Icath?” she called the first mate.
“Can’t you handle this?”
“No, ma’am. Whichever way we turn, we’ve got Broken Beak behind us and she’s close enough that we’ll take her fore and jib in a turn.”
The woman turned and looked at Swift Sparrow, the large galleon aft of them, holding her own into the wind, too close for any fancy maneuvering.
“Damn Kaar! Using me for a wind break again! I’ve got it on my mind to knock that jib right off his deck!”
“He’s a captain, ma’am. One of Talens’ favorites,” the mate reminded her.
“And my father’s a duke … not one of Untar’s favorites. Let’s see how fast Kaar dumps in his pants.” She looked around, noticing the expectant sailors, all watching her. “Helm, hold her steady. Gennaker and mainsail down!”
“We’ll lose wind,” Icath said.
“And Kaar better move his cow, or she’ll have a broken beak for sure.”
Sailors released lines, causing the large sails to drop and the Golden Sword to catch the current. The cog slowly drifted back, the smaller sails still holding the wind and fighting the current.
“Turn back and look, Icath. I don’t have the nerve.”
The mate adjusted his cap, taking the opportunity to glance over his shoulder. “They’re watching us.”
“You’d think I was a Baranurian or something!” the woman exclaimed.
“Kaar’s an old sailor. He doesn’t think you belong.”
“Tell him I don’t want to be here any more than he wants me here,” she muttered.
“Vane shifted,” Icath noted.
Muriel looked up at the streamer over the crow’s nest. “Dropped sails in time. I’d hate to think where we’d be otherwise.”
“Pennant to stern!” someone on deck yelled.
Muriel and Icath turned to look back at a sailor on deck of the Sparrow, signalling them with a red flag. “Signal him to move back!” Muriel ordered.
“Commander,” the helmsman said, “I can’t hold her into the wind.” The rocking of the deck was long an indication of that.
“Prepare to put port lee on my order.”
“Sparrow needs to back off, or we’ll be putting her jib though our side,” Icath noted.
“Aye, sir, but if she don’t, she’ll put her jib up our poop,” the helmsman answered.
Muriel watched a man signal the Sparrow with a pennant, but no answer came back. “Drop sea anchor,” she ordered.
“Ma’am? That’ll drag us.”
“Risk, Icath. It’s all about risk. Cavalry will take a phalanx if it consists of cowards.”
“She’s falling back,” the signalman announced.
“Mizzen up, lee to port!” Muriel ordered. Sailors heaved on ropes in response and the helmsman spun the wheel to the right. “Sea anchor up!”
The Golden Sword slowly settled into the new current.
“Doesn’t make your day, does it?” Icath asked.
“Oh, it makes it, all right. Makes it all bad.”
“Not your doing, Icath. Just watch our back.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he nodded and went to the helmsman as she took the companionway down to middeck.
“Lord Cinofrid?” Muriel found the old sage looking off towards the nearing land as the ship was repositioned in the water. “I’m sorry about that scene.”
“It’s quite all right, Commander. I’m just a passenger on your vessel.”
“So am I, my lord. I’m here only for political reasons.”
“Your fame on land precedes you,” Cinofrid said, “but you shouldn’t be a commander when you’re a captain.”
“I don’t want to be a captain, my lord. I want my sword and my horse and my regiment. And an enemy to fight.”
“But you’re here now.”
Muriel flung a strand of oakum overboard. “I’m here because my father is a great captain, too old to go to war, and has dreams of me carrying his burgee into battle. I’d have been better off going with that fleet to Dargon. At least they get to land.”
“It’s all about land to you, isn’t it?” the sage laughed.
“I was born on land. I sure intend to live on it!”
“Do you know what your name means, Muriel?”
She looked up at him, a little confused. This was the first time in a month he called her by her given name. Before this it was always ‘Commander’, just like with the rest of her crew.
“It means ‘sea-bright’. I’ll bet that wasn’t an accident on your father’s part.”
“Then why did he encourage me to be in the army?”
“I don’t know that. I never met the duke,” Cinofrid answered, “but you have here a chance to be a legend on sea as well as land. This is an opportunity no one before you has had.”
“My lord, I may know the terms and maneuvers and command respect of my men, but when I eat breakfast and the ship rocks, I sure wish I was on solid ground.”
The old wizard laughed. “So do I.”
“I best get back to my tasks,” Muriel said, secretly thinking about the novel waiting in her quarters. There were few real duties to handle while waiting for orders in the middle of the bay — nothing Icath could not handle himself, except perhaps for the occasional pig-headed move by Captain Kaar or one of his officers.
“I should, too,” Cinofrid said. “I do my best work rested, in mornings.”
“I’ll walk you down,” Muriel offered, letting go of the gunwale.
They made only a few steps, when the man in the crow’s nest yelled out, “Man in the water!” Activity quickly picked up on deck, with sailors rushing to rails, looking into the sea. Muriel instinctively turned to the Swift Sparrow, expecting to see someone in the water, but the lookout yelled again, “Man in water on steer-board!”
“Steer-board?” Muriel turned back to the side of the ship she was just on. There was no trace of anyone in the water. She neared the gunwale, looking into the water.
“Commander?” the mate appeared at her side. “What do we do?”
“Where is he, Icath? I can’t see a thing!”
“Right there,” he pointed to some debris in the water about quarter league distant.
“But that’s just some planks … a broken crate?” the woman squinted to see better.
“You need to work on your sea-eyes,” the sailor laughed. “That’s a man.”
“He looks dead,” someone announced.
“No he’s not,” someone else yelled.
“Lookout?” Icath called up. “What’s the word?”
“Alive, I think — he’s holding on!”
“Commander?” Icath turned to the woman again. “Should we get ‘im from the drink?”
“He’s probably Baranurian.”
“Get him, before Kaar sees him. He might be important.”
“And if he’s not?”
Muriel looked at the nearing debris and the man she could now make out holding on to it. “If not, we’ll see. We can always throw him back.”
“Baear, Marbin, get that man out!” Icath ordered.
Two men scrambled for the davit extending over the bulwark from midship. Some others moved a gangplank into position to aid their efforts.
“Arm a couple of men, just in case,” Muriel told the mate.
Icath barked out more orders, taking charge of the rescue. The debris was going to pass relatively close to the ship and no effort to move it was needed, but it would not be close enough to make the rescue easy.
“Commander,” Lord Cinofrid approached the ship’s captain, “if you would, take notice of Captain Kaar and his crew.”
She looked over her shoulder at the Swift Sparrow, no more than one hundred feet off Golden Sword’s port. The galleon’s crew stood on deck, watching the events unfold on her ship, Dasgant Kaar in the forefront, arms folded, a scowl on his face.
“Someone go for a swim?” Kaar yelled, noticing Muriel looking at him.
“The cook went fishing!” she yelled back.
“I’ve tasted your cook’s work, Captain Dainyn. Leave him for the sharks!” The men around Kaar laughed.
Muriel turned away, looking at her men work.
“Won’t you respond?” the sage asked.
“No. He’s not worth it,” she said, trying to show more interest in the action on the other side of her ship. “Besides,” she sighed, “I don’t know what to say.”
“It’s not what you say, but how you say it,” Cinofrid advised. “Don’t let him intimidate you.”
“Ma’am, Broken Beak’s circling ’round,” one of the sailors said, indicating to the galleon having raised mainsail and started around the cog’s bow.
“How much longer?” Muriel asked. “I don’t want Kaar to see what we’re doing. Icath?! What’s going on?”
“We almost got him,” Icath called back. He had stepped over the bulwark and was holding on to the backstay, to keep from falling. Below and around him sailors cast lines in attempt to secure the debris.
“Hurry it along,” Muriel said. “Kaar’s getting too curious.”
The mate glanced up at the galleon, making a wide circle, now half way to the cog’s bow. “Baear, just pull him in. Don’t worry about the planks.”
Muriel looked at the sage, then at the Swift Sparrow. The galleon had indeed deserved that name, having gone most of the way to her ship’s bow in such a short time. She fought the easterly wind, making the turn and that gave a few more moments for the sailors attempting the rescue. All they needed was just a few moments longer.
“You’re a competitive woman, Commander,” Cinofrid laughed. “I see why you like war.”
“I don’t like Kaar and the more I can make his belly ache, worrying about what it is I caught, the better I’ll feel.”
A line on the davit broke, snapping from broadside and flying into the mainmast, where it tangled on the mainstay. “Hold him up!” Icath yelled.
“Helm to steer-board!” Muriel called, ordering a turn into the wind. The ship moved to the right slowly, blocking the Sparrow’s view of the rescue.
“All right, just hoist it up,” Icath called down. “Don’t bother with the raft.”
Men heaved on the ropes strung overboard and brought up a plank on which sat a wet sailor, holding on to a semi-conscious man. Two sailors swung the davit in, locking the gooseneck that supported it in place.
“Move him to the carling,” Muriel instructed, knowing that would take her catch completely out of sight of the Sparrow. “Icath, wrap it up!”
The ship’s physician leaned over the rescued man and started checking his condition. A group of sailors gathered around them, all trying to get a good look at their catch, obscuring their captain’s view as well as their own.
Icath Taryl assisted the last two sailors on deck as the Swift Sparrow made her way around the Golden Sword’s bow, Dasgant Kaar leaning on his ship’s jib, looking at the crowd on deck and the debris in the water. Icath saluted the large captain as the ships again closed. “Good day to run circles around cogs, Captain.”
“What’d you catch, Taryl? Your cook or a shark?”
“Shark caught the cook, sir. We didn’t get much.”
Muriel entered the cargo hold, where the rescued man was placed, away from the prying eyes of the Sparrow’s curious crew and captain. The man they rescued was alive and well, although rather beat up and tired.
“A day or two rest and I expect he’ll be as good as new,” the physician speculated. “He took some water, but he’s in good shape.”
“Thank you, doctor,” she answered, studying her catch. He was a tall man, maybe a little better than six foot, with blond hair and bright blue eyes. His clothes were torn from what must have been a struggle that forced him into the water and she suspected that he was not a peasant. “I’ll call you if there’s anything else, doctor.”
The physician nodded and left.
“Wait outside,” Muriel instructed the two armed guards who followed her down on Icath’s orders. “No one comes in. If I need help, I’ll call you.”
“Yes, Commander,” the men answered and left.
Muriel approached her prisoner. He lay, still dripping water, on a platform built of crates with supplies. As she approached, he tried to sit up, but she motioned for him not to. “What is your name?” she asked, speaking in Benosian. There was little chance the man would understand, but it was her native tongue and the one she felt most comfortable in. There was no indication the man understood. That could only mean he was not on her side in this war.
“Are you Baranurian?” she asked in the local tongue. It seemed like he grasped some words, but not enough to make sense of them. That surprised her somewhat, but she did not give up. “Do you speak Galician?” she asked in the only other language she knew.
The man forced himself up on his elbows. “I am Galician,” he answered. He took a deep breath and lay back down, obviously too exhausted to support himself. “Where am I?”
“You’re aboard the Golden Sword of the Royal Beinison Navy. What is your name?” Seeing the man was not Baranurian, Muriel relaxed a bit. He was not as big a threat as she feared he might turn out to be, and she was curious what he was doing out in the bay, so far from his homeland.
“My name is Rien Keegan,” he answered. “I’m very grateful for your help.”
“I’d have thrown you back if I thought you were Baranurian,” she said.
Rien turned his head to look at her upon hearing that. “There are sharks out there.”
“There’s a war out there.”
“Does life mean so little to you that it can be disposed of so easily?”
“An enemy’s life? Sure.” Muriel sat down on a crate across from Rien, studying him.
“Well, I guess we all feed on death in one way or another,” Rien answered, turning his head away from the woman.
Muriel glanced up at the beam that ran above him, that his eyes had to be locked on. “What makes you say that? What do you do?”
“I’m somewhat of a scholar.”
“A scholar?” She examined his form. There were two types of scholars she met. The fat ones who sat on their rumps all day and complained and the skinny ones, who sat on their rumps and complained just as much. This Rien Keegan looked nothing like a scholar. He was well muscled, well tanned and clearly weather-worn. “You don’t look much like a scholar.”
“What does one look like?”
“What does one do?”
Rien looked at her, understanding the question. “Books are perceptions of the past, by people who experienced and recorded it. Most accounts are biased by what those recording them believed personally, or what they were paid to believe or write. History isn’t just a story from the past, a few faded words on parchment or a legend passed from father to son. What we do now, we do because someone else did so before us and the way we can learn about ourselves is by studying ourselves. We are all reflections of our past.”
Muriel smiled, trying to hide the smile from her prisoner by looking away. “You’re a philosopher.”
“I’m a scholar who doesn’t look for answers in books. If we stop exploring life today, who will write the books about modern life that future generations will want to read?”
“What are you looking for in Baranur?”
Rien did not answer for some time. “Everyone’s. The west coast of Cherisk is where Fretheod fell. It’s where the world was reborn.”
“Is that so?”
Rien shifted on his crates. “Just tell me I’m crazy and leave it at that.”
“All scholars are eccentric,” Muriel answered. “I’m more interested in why Baranur now. And why the river?”
“Perhaps I should ask you why Baranur now and why the river?”
“I have my orders.”
“I have my research. I told you why Baranur. This is the west-most part of Cherisk. As for the river …”
“Yes?” Muriel asked after a prolonged pause.
“Let’s just call it bad timing.”
“You were attacked?”
“A man with a sword.”
“A man with a sword. He did not tell me who he was fighting for.”
Muriel stood up. “You look like someone who can defend himself.”
“Not against an armed opponent,” Rien sighed.
“Those are the fortunes of war.”
“There are no fortunes in war.”
Muriel frowned. “You best rest. I have other duties to attend to. I will have food sent to you shortly.” She walked to the door, pausing as she heard a struggling gasp behind her.
“Who are you?”
She turned to see Rien sitting up on the crate. He was slouching forward, holding on to his ribs. “I am Commander Muriel Dainyn, captain of this vessel. My physician said you’re merely bruised. You will be fine in a few days. I will have him mix something for your pain.” She waited a moment longer, then turned and left the hold, giving the guards outside instructions to feed the prisoner and wait.
She returned on deck and finding a remote spot along the bulwark, leaned on the rail and watched the sea. This self-proclaimed scholar she caught did not strike her like what he claimed he was. He was fit, tan, strong. He could be a scholar, but she had a feeling. He just did not seem the type.
“Commander?” the first mate’s voice disturbed her contemplations.
“Right here, Icath.”
He leaned on the bulwark by her, looking down to where the water licked at the hull below. “How’s our fish?”
“He claims to be Galician … and a scholar.”
Muriel shrugged. “He speaks Galician. Better than I. But I don’t know the first thing about scholars.”
“He’s pretty fit,” Icath said. “Didn’t strike me like a book lover.”
“Why was he in the drink?”
“Said someone attacked him.” Muriel turned, placing her back against the rail. “Anyone here speak Galician?”
“Can’t say. Lord Cinofrid, perhaps. He’d tell you if our fish’s a scholar.”
“He has more important things to do than question my prisoners,” the woman answered. “Let’s not forget why he’s here.”
Icath nodded. “You’re right. But I forget why we’re here sometimes.”
“Broken Beak backed off. Kaar hasn’t been on deck since the rescue.”
“Watch him like he watches me, Icath. I don’t trust that man one bit.”
“Nor I, Commander. If it were up to men like him, you’d have no place in the service of the Emperor.”
“Yes, I would. As a rug.”
Icath turned to look at her. “Those are harsh words.”
“I know Kaar.”
“I’ll watch, ma’am.”
Muriel turned back to the water as the mate left, reviewing the talk she had with her prisoner. Could he be a Galician scholar? ‘Keegan’ — was that a Galician name? She kicked at a loose bulwark board.
After the evening meal, Muriel told the guards to bring the prisoner to her on deck, then stay at a distance and watch. She wanted to give him a sense of security and a chance to tell her his story again. She did not have to wait long. Moments later, the two guards reappeared with the scholar and led him up to the fore of the ship.
“I understand you’re feeling better,” Muriel said, looking him up and down. She had not mistaken about his build. He was tall and well muscled, not like any scholar she had ever met.
“Much better,” he smiled, sitting down on a crate. She noticed him wince as he changed positions.
“My physician informs me your shoulder and ribs are sore, but there is little bruising.”
“Lucky twist,” Rien answered. “Very lucky, indeed.”
“How did it happen?”
He let out a deep breath. “I was making my way into town, when a man confronted me at the edge of the docks. He drew his sword and …” Rien looked up. “You’re going to make me tell this story until you’re satisfied it does not change.”
“I have to be careful in a war.”
He nodded. “The man didn’t say anything. Just drew his sword and started swinging. I was able to thrust my pack before me and it took the first hit, but he cut it, and his sword caught my sleeve. His second blow was to my side. I suppose that having caught in my clothes, the sword twisted and the flat of the blade pushed me over into the river. I must have been stunned, because the next thing I knew, I was holding on to driftwood, being battered against the side of your ship.
“I wish I could tell you who that man was. I wish I knew myself. I’ve met my share of brigands and robbers, but this was the first man who was unwilling to talk.”
“You always try talking to those who draw steel on you?” Muriel asked, amused.
“I try. Sometimes it works.”
Rien looked up. “This is hardly an interrogation.”
“You’d rather I interrogated you?”
“No, please …”
“Then amuse me by telling me a story.”
“I …” Rien paused, thinking. “I guess it was three or four years ago. I was in Lederia, in the highlands, when my horse’s path was blocked by a fallen tree. I got out of my saddle to lead the animal through the brush, when two men appeared from it, both holding swords. I had the feeling they would take my money, but I did not expect they would take me as well.
“They wanted my horse, I imagine, because they went through great efforts to be gentle with it and …”
“I thought I heard Galician speech,” Haurance Cinofrid appeared from the darkness. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I love the language. It has words for things we build sentences to describe.”
Muriel frowned. She had agreed with the sage that he would intrude on their discussion and evaluate her prisoner, which he did right on time, but she wanted to hear the rest of the scholar’s story and the sage’s interruption quickly removed any chance of that happening this night.
Rien glanced at the old man, looking him up and down. He was a grey-eyed, grey-haired man in his sixties, appearing somewhat brittle, but rather agile for someone of his advanced years.
Muriel stood up. “Lord Haurance Cinofrid, Rien Keegan.”
Cinofrid approached. “You’re the man who was pulled from the water this morning.”
Rien stood up as the sage approached and greeted the man in the traditional Benosian greeting. The old man responded in kind, a little surprised.
“You’ve been to our lands?” he asked, letting go of Rien’s arm.
“I am familiar with some customs, my lord.”
“I wish I could say the same about Galicia, but your borders are closed to most foreigners.”
They all sat down again. “My Lord King is a man of old beliefs of family and privacy.”
“I understand your Lord King is an ancient man,” Cinofrid noted.
“He is an old man, but far from ancient. His isolation gives birth to many rumors.”
“So I can imagine.” The sage fell silent for a moment, casting a glance at Muriel. “I’m not interrupting, am I?”
“Not at all, my lord. I was being entertained with scholarly tales.”
“You are a scholar, then?” Cinofrid asked.
“I am a scholar,” Rien agreed.
Rien shrugged. “People?”
“A historian? A philosopher?”
“A little of both, I guess. I look at life and try to make sense of it.”
Cinofrid laughed. “Puglewav, Shewu, Elepniwra … Keegan?”
“I would be honored if some day my name is listed with the greatest thinkers of Fretheod.”
“Some would call them harlequins and soothsayers.”
“What would you call them, my lord?” Rien asked.
“I’d call them men who had too much free time, whose purses grew and energies dwindled, so they travelled the lands, giving people advice. Puglewav was killed because he dared speak.”
“But he said things that are to this day the basis of our existence.”
“But was he right?”
“He was to me. He said, ‘an unexamined life is not worth living,’ so I study the lives that people lead.”
“He also said that ‘no man knowingly does evil’,” the sage pointed out.
“You don’t think he was right?”
“Certainly the men who took your money and your horse, and the one who attacked you when you entered the city were were not ‘good men’,” Muriel said.
“Oh, you’re not going to involve me in a political discussion, because that’s where this question always leads. If you want to understand ethics, you have to understand Shewu.”
“Surely you have an opinion,” Cinofrid protested.
“I do,” Rien said, “but let me assure you that it is not the same as yours. And it is different from a Baranurian you may find in this town. Even the two of you, I suspect, differ in opinions on the divisions between good and bad.”
“Good and bad are the lines that divide Gow from Amante,” Muriel said.
“And the knights of Beinison align themselves with Gow, the Protector?” Rien asked.
“Does that mean the knights of Baranur are aligned with Amante, the Masked God?” Rien went on. “Surely they don’t view themselves as following the god of criminals, executioners and gladiators!” He paused long enough to let his words sink in, but not long enough to let his audience answer. “Good and bad are the lines that divide the twins, Sanar, the Wise and Talam, the Green.”
“But they’re both gods of healing and nurture and growth,” Muriel protested.
“But one is a king.”
Silence lasted for a long span of time, disturbed only by the sound of the waves lapping against the sides of the ship. Muriel kept looking at Rien, Cinofrid off into the murky darkness of the harbor. Somewhere on deck boards creaked as sailors attended to their chores on the dark deck of the Golden Sword. A loose sail flapped in the light breeze blowing in from the south.
“I don’t understand.”
Rien turned to look at Muriel. “Think about it. It has nothing to do with what they do and everything with who they are.” He stood up as the two guards who had brought him here came back, alerted by the sudden silence. “I see my keepers are here to take me back.” He indicated to the two men as they appeared from the shadows. “Good night, Captain. Good night, Lord Cinofrid.”
He walked over to the two soldiers and let them escort him into the darkness.
Muriel remained quiet well after their footsteps disappeared below deck. She tried to make eye contact with the old sage, but failed, twice. Then, looking into the dark water beyond the ship, spoke. “Is he a scholar?”
“He asks hard questions.”
“Does that make him a Galician scholar?”
“My lord …”
“He affected you,” the sage interrupted.
“He made me think about his world.”
Muriel shook her head. “He made me think about what makes us different.”
“Then perhaps he is what he claims. Puglewav was killed for this crime.”
Muriel sighed. “He said he was not going to bring up politics.”
“By saying he would not, he did,” the sage stated. “And he knew when to take leave. He did not let the discussion fall on the morality of the war.”
“But he did let it lie with us,” the woman said. She stood up and leaned on the bulwark. “What do I do with him?”
“Give him a day or two to recover, then return him to shore, or arrange passage to Beinison on one of our returning ships, should he desire it.”
“You don’t think he’s a threat?”
“No more than I am, Commander.”
Muriel frowned. “You’re Untar’s eyes.”
“The eyes are old and tired. They don’t see as well as they used to. The army struggles more as it reaches further inland. My range is tasked.”
Muriel turned back to the sea, leaning on the ship as the little girl she used to be had. The ocean had remained much as she remembered it, except much of the childhood romance had turned to mystery of the vast expanse, and the bulwark grew smaller and less comfortable. Life had only managed to become more complex.
“You’re up early, Commander,” Icath called down to Muriel before she was completely out on deck. She paused, squinting up into the bright sunlight, holding on to the fidley for support. The first mate stood on the quarterdeck, fists on his sides, a pipe in his mouth. He adjusted his cap as the woman made her way to the upper-most deck.
“Thought you said you were going to take night watch.”
Muriel pulled a cable hanging over the toerail back on board, taking the opportunity to glance into the clear blue water.
“Broken Beak almost tore our jib off at daeg,” Icath muttered. “She must’ve gone up into the delta at night, then hurried back down in the morning. Kaar’s sitting on us like a vulture!”
Muriel calmly turned and looked at the large galleon, holding wind not far away. There were two sailors on deck watching the Golden Sword. “How close did she come?”
“Quite close. Close enough, I could smell their breakfast.”
“What were they having?”
“Maggots on rye,” Icath spat. “And salt water.”
The woman laughed. “You stayed up to tell me that?”
“Stayed up to watch the raffenrakers.”
“Take a break, Icath. I’ve got plenty of dizzy sailors as it is,” Muriel said.
“Too tired to sleep,” he answered, taking a deep puff of smoke.
“I’ve got a book in my cabin — Lives of Lords and Princes — guaranteed to put you to sleep, if you can put it down …”
“That the one you been reading?” Icath asked.
Icath shook the ash from his pipe. “I don’t like to read.”
“Either way, get off the deck. You’ve been up for a full day now.”
He nodded. “Watch the topsail. It’s been tearing loose all night. I’ve had the bowman set it twice this morning.” He paused, looking about. “Galician been very quiet. Probably still asleep. Cinofrid came up to sniff the wind. Cook said he wants to make port for new supplies. All right, all right. I’m going.” He shook the pipe out again and proceeded below deck.
Muriel watched him go, then glanced up at the topsail. She could see a corner binding flapping in the wind. “Bowman, what’s with my sails?” she called down.
“Need a fresh line, ma’am! I’ll need to restring the lines next time we put into port!”
She nodded to him. Five days since they left port and everyone wanted back already. The nod turned into a shaking of the head. “In a few days, Bar.”
He went about his business and she turned to look at the Swift Sparrow. The galleon had neared a bit since she looked at it last and standing on deck, before the castle, was Kaar himself.
“Promises to be a good day, Captain,” he called to her, in spite of the dark clouds gathering in the west. He made a few steps forward, coming up to the bulwark of his ship.
“Good for swallowing the anchor,” Muriel agreed.
“Now, Captain, is that any way to talk to a fellow soldier?”
She sighed and turned her back to him, not having anything more to say.
“Who was that fish you caught yesterday?” Kaar continued his questioning. “I understand he was out for a long swim.”
Muriel calmly proceeded to the lower deck, letting the echos of the unanswered questions remain on the wind. She went below deck, to the cargo section where the Galician scholar was being held. The two guards at the door stiffened up as she approached.
“‘Morning, ma’am,” one said.
“How’s my guest?” she asked.
“He’s up, ma’am.”
“Open the door.”
The guard fumbled with the key and let her in, waiting for further instructions in the corridor.
Muriel entered the hold, not bothering to close the door behind her. Rien Keegan lay across a row of crates he had apparently arranged himself. His arm lay across his face, shielding his eyes from the non-existent light. There was a blanket lying on the floor, at the base of the crates. Muriel paused, looking at his motionless form. “You’re in damn good shape for a book lover, Keegan.”
His arm slipped, the back of his hand slapping against the wooden deck. He quickly pulled it back up, making a fist. “Ah …”
“Don’t hurt yourself. My physician isn’t good with splinters.”
Rien brought his hand to his eyes. “I hope someone here is.”
“Let’s go on deck,” Muriel said. “Have you sniff some wind.”
She turned and walked out, pausing by the guards. “Bring us a breakfast on deck. Nothing fancy.”
She turned, watching Rien get up and follow her out. When she saw him pause to take a deep breath before standing up and try to disguise a slight limp, she felt a guilty pull at her heart. “You’d be better off sleeping in a hammock,” she said when he caught up. “There are a few in the hold.”
“I didn’t want to be presumptuous.”
“If you’re worried about imposing …”
“I already am, I know,” he interrupted. “But you haven’t offered me my freedom.”
“Where are you going to go? You’re about as deep in the war as you could get.”
“It’d be worse on the front line.”
They came up on deck and Rien paused, giving Muriel a chance to pick the direction. “Why maybe?”
“Up there they only deal with the moment,” Muriel explained. “Here I have to live with what they left me. I’d rather be at the front.”
“At the front or home?”
Muriel headed for the fore of the ship and Rien followed. “At home, but if I have to be in a war, I’d rather fight it, than watch the wounded and the prisoners and the bureaucrats.”
“I think I qualify as all three,” Rien smirked.
Muriel laughed, stopping at the very edge of the foredeck. “You do, don’t you?”
Rien proceeded to the bulwark and took a look over the side.
“It’s clean today,” Muriel said. “That’s very rare. Most days the river carries a lot of mud into the bay, making the water brown, but today Moire is at rest.”
Rien shook his head. “Looks like it’s going to storm.”
“We’ll put further out when it does,” Muriel said. “It’s a good idea to keep distance from shore in storms.”
“How far out?” Rien asked.
“Depends. A league or two. Whatever my helmsman feels comfortable with. If we catch a high wave crest, we can come down on a pretty low trough and that can crack the strake. Or worse yet, we can scrape bottom or rip the hull on rocks.”
“I feel safe already.”
A sailor appeared with a tray of food. “Where would you like this, ma’am?”
She indicated to a barrel tied down on deck.
“It is safer than other occupations.”
“Even in a war?”
“Pull up a crate,” Muriel indicated to the meal.
Rien studied her for a moment. “You always treat your prisoners this way?”
“If you’re Galician, you’re not my prisoner.”
“And I’m welcome to a hammock and breakfast?”
“Yes,” she smiled.
Rien sat down and she pulled up another crate across from him. At this point she decided to trust him a little more. Even if he did not look it, he seemed like a scholar and was rather defensive about his work. He was always polite and not once indicated desire to run or cause trouble. If his mouth was the most trouble he could be, she found him not to be a threat.
“That ship,” Rien pointed to the Broken Beak, off port, “is rather close.”
“That’s Swift Sparrow,” Muriel said, starting on her breakfast. “Her captain doesn’t know how to keep his distance.”
Rien studied the ship for a while, as they ate. “Looks like she ran into something,” he commented on the newer looking wood of the jib and the fore of the ship.
“We call her ‘Broken Beak’,” Muriel said. “A year or so ago, Kaar caught a good wind and ran her up the Royal Docks at Tasantil. Brought down a whole pier.”
“And the Emperor didn’t get mad?”
“That was Untar the First, just a few months before he died. People say he laughed so hard, he wet himself.”
Rien smiled. “Sounds like it could make a good myth in a generation or two.”
“It probably will,” Muriel agreed. “I already heard rumors that he was falling ill back then. I suspect they’re not true, though. He was a tough old man.”
“And his son?”
“His son wants to be tough. He wants to be the legend his father is.”
“Is that the reason for the war?”
Muriel stopped eating and looked critically at Rien. “Last night you said you don’t involve yourself in political discussions because …”
“I’m sorry. I was trying to lure a personal opinion out of you.”
She shook her head. “I follow my Emperor. If he orders we take Baranur, I travel on land. If he orders we war with Bichu, I will walk over water. If his wish is to challenge Veran the Bold, I will follow him through the fires of hell.”
Almost as if in response, a sudden gust of wind rocked the ship. Muriel instantly got to her feet. “Bowman, take down that sail!”
“Yes, ma’am!” a heavy set bearded man yelled back.
She sat back down, putting her head in her hands. “I don’t know where we’re going to get a new topsail …” She brushed her hair back. “Sometimes I hate this job.”
“You can’t replace your sail?” Rien asked cautiously.
“We can’t replace a thing,” Muriel said bitterly. “Our lines are overextended.” She was going to say more, but did not. Baranur’s leaders did not realize how thin the Beinison lines had become and she was not going to enlighten the Galician scholar about how much the invading force had to sacrifice to push the way it had from Sharks’ Cove to Port Sevlyn. They lost three thousand men taking the city. They must have lost a quarter that getting to Port Sevlyn in five days. “The supply ships are all in the south. Warships have to resupply the troops here. And we don’t have enough for ourselves, much less the front lines.”
“Sounds like you’re already following Untar through the fires of hell.”
“What I do, I do for my Lord.”
Rien sat back on his crate, finished with his meal. “Your lord must be a very unique man.”
Rien eyed the dagger lying on the tray on the barrel. “May I?”
“What for?” Muriel asked.
She nodded, cautious that he not trick her. He reached out and picked it up, carefully cleaned the edge and then scratched the tip over the back of his hand. A moment passed and Rien again ran the blade over his skin.
“Not coming out?”
“I can’t get myself to press it harder.” He moved the dagger again and it slipped from his grasp. Rien quickly reached for it and returned it to the tray. “Sorry.” A drop of blood ran down his fingers.
Muriel shook her head. “I’m sorry I ever doubted you’re a scholar,” she laughed.
Rien covered his hand, applying pressure to the cut. “I think I got it.”
“Good thing you kept your fingers,” Muriel answered. She paused, looking at the chain and medallion now hanging outside Rien’s tunic. The pattern looked vaguely familiar.
“Sorry about the mess.”
“Not like the first time there’s been blood on this deck. Let’s go wash it out.”
Rien stood up, the medallion swinging as he righted himself. Muriel caught it and took a closer look.
“This crest. Is it Benosian?”
Rien nodded. “Someone I used to chase gave it to me.”
He nodded again. “I told you, I travel.”
“Well, come on.”
“Ship to fore!” the lookout in the crow’s nest yelled.
Muriel turned to see the Swift Sparrow slowly turn in the water ahead of them, pointing her jib off their port. Her new course would take her only twenty or thirty feet off their port side.
“Helm to port!” Muriel yelled. “Keep our bow to them!”
The Golden Sword groaned under the shifting weight, but managed to keep her jib pointed at the large galleon, forcing the other ship to pull further away as she adjusted course.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” Muriel yelled at Kaar, standing at the bow of his ship. “We’re supposed to be on the same side!”
Kaar’s smug expression betrayed his intention to get a look at Rien.
A hatch burst open and Icath Taryl, the first mate, jumped out on deck. He froze seeing the galleon pass within grappling range and instinctively reached for a sword that was not there. “Kaar, you pull this stunt again and you’re going to have burning tar on your deck!”
The galleon’s captain let out a laugh. “I don’t think your meager crew could handle the assault of my men. Swim with the small fish, Icath — your own captain’s more your size. You girls have a lot of growing to do.”
The tray the morning meal had been served on went flying over the water, impacting the hull of the Swift Sparrow with a loud clank.
“I should add,” Kaar yelled as the distance between the ships grew, “your captain, Icath, even throws like a woman …”
Muriel Dainyn adjusted her hair, watching two sailors stretch two torn sails on deck. The strong morning wind made their task harder, but they managed to pin the two stretches of cloth under a pair of crates.
“Figure we can make a whole sail out of this, ma’am,” one of the men guessed. “Be pretty heavy, though.”
“It’ll have to do,” Muriel said. “At least we didn’t lose any of the big sails.”
“Lost some rigging,” the sailor complained.
Muriel walked around the stretched out sails, wondering where she would find their replacements. The rigging was easy. There was probably a league and a half of strong rope in the hold. They could re-rig the ship if they wanted, but sails were hard to find in the middle of a war. She looked up at the mast from which the wind of the previous night’s storm tore the rigging, pulling down and tearing a folded sail. It was really no one’s fault. Just bad luck.
She turned to face the first mate.
“We took a little water, but no more than in the belly of a good drunk. No hull damage and the deck is fine. We got off easy for a storm like that.”
“Where am I going to get sails, Icath? Yesterday it was one. Today I need two.”
“We can try for a trade,” he tilted his head towards the other ships in the bay.
“For what, Icath? Rope?”
“We can ask Talens for sails in exchange for rigging. Say we’ll give ‘im enough rope to hang everyone left in Sharks’ Cove.”
Laughter sounded from the men on deck. “We’ll even do the work, if he gives us a few days at a tavern,” someone yelled out.
Icath glanced up to the quarter deck, where the yell came from. “Aren’t you supposed to be rigging?”
“Gallows are just as easy, sir!”
Muriel looked at her first mate and laughed. “You’re losing.”
“I don’t mind a little bantering with the men,” he answered. “And something tells me they enjoy it, too. You should join in.”
Muriel shook her head. “I should find us some sails.”
“Why don’t you ask Lord Cinofrid?” Icath suggested. “He might know the right people.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Muriel said. “He’s really been making more use of us than we of him. I think I will call on him.” She cast one last glance at the men patching the torn sails and went below deck.
Haurance Cinofrid’s cabin was a small hold to the aft of the ship. It held food and water on long voyages, but here, not far from shore and a town ready to offer produce, it was a comfortably large room for the sage to do his work in relative quiet and safety. She paused at the door and knocked lightly. She knew the sage to be at work this hour of the morning, but he had never turned anyone away.
No answer came to the knock, but the unlocked door cracked open and Muriel entered the hold. The sage sat at the table that was brought in for him, a large wood bowl of water before him. Two candles burned on the table, casting gloomy shadows on the elderly man. He was deep in concentration.
Muriel paused for a moment, wondering if she would disturb his work, but then closed the door behind her and approached the sage. There was a faint image in the bowl. A forest and a damaged city wall. For a moment she thought she could see people moving along the wall, but the picture paled.
“Sit, Commander. I’ll be with you in a moment.”
She looked at the sage, sitting in his chair, unmoving, eyes tightly closed. He sensed her?
The image in the bowl cleared up. From above green trees a hill could be seen. An army stood on that hill. A small force. The enemy’s force. The standard that flew before the troops was of the Kingdom of Baranur and next to it flew two others. Muriel could not identify them. The image once again flickered, pulling away from the hill, across the forest, letting the picture blur as everything passed by at a rapid pace. The candles blew out.
Haurance Cinofrid opened his eyes.
“Gateway?” Muriel asked.
He shook his head. “Closer. Much closer …”
“Where did they come from?”
“Up north, perhaps. Our scouts missed them, but they’re few in number. They’re not a threat. They’re caught between our forces in Port Sevlyn and the army at Gateway. I will inform the local commander to send a messenger to Port Sevlyn …”
“I wish I could be there …” Muriel sighed. “It’s so hard knowing what’s happening out there and not being able to take part.”
“There are plenty of battles here, Commander,” the sage said. “Resistance in the town, a citizen army building in the south, Captain Kaar …” He smiled sadly. “I sense there is more, but I can’t see it. Something watching me … another sage, perhaps. The enemy can see me …”
“You’ll be perfectly safe on the Golden Sword,” Muriel assured the old sage. “The sailors are skilled and our few troops are well trained.”
Cinofrid nodded. “I don’t fear for my well being on your vessel, Commander.”
“I am glad,” Muriel answered. It was time to talk business. “I hope I didn’t interrupt …” she said, knowing well enough that she did intrude on the sage’s work.
A kind smile spread on the sage’s face. “Your interruptions are always a pleasure. What can I do for you, Commander?”
“When you’re out there, looking around,” Muriel indicated to the bowl, “you wouldn’t have happened to spot a sail or two I can have?”
Cinofrid laughed. “A sail?”
“Last night’s storm damaged ours,” the captain explained. “We have no spares.”
“Is it serious?” the sage asked, his expression now somber.
“Not really. It’s just the topsail and the skysail,” Muriel explain. “They’re small sails, but they do help.”
“I haven’t paid much attention to sails, I’m afraid,” Lord Cinofrid answered. “I know there are none in the forest.”
“Well, I was hoping you’d know …”
He shook his head. “War and sails are your aptitudes.”
“Well, I guess you help me once and I expect you to help me with everything,” Muriel started to rise.
“Do you mean lord Keegan?”
“The one man in this city who can’t hold a knife.”
“He visited with me last night,” the sage said. “I was meaning to tell you. During the storm I couldn’t get my work done and he couldn’t sleep. I ran across him and his guards in the corridor and we struck up a conversation. He’s a most interesting man.”
“I’m surprised my men let him out of the hold without checking with me first,” Muriel frowned.
“With a loop of bandages on his hand, in addition to his customary groaning, he did not seem like a threat to me.”
“What did you talk about?”
“His travels, Baranur, Galicia. He holds many interesting opinions. To a philosophical aspirant such as myself, he’s a fountain of ideas. He’s lucky it was you and not Captain Kaar that picked him up.”
“Commander,” Icath Taryl approached his captain, talking quietly so the other men on deck would not pay attention. “Last time Broken Beak passed by, they tossed this on board.” He held out a rock, with a piece of string and a rolled-up sheet of parchment.
“They’re throwing rocks at us now? Where’d they get a rock?”
“Read the note.”
Muriel took the scroll from the first mate and unrolled it. Black ink, somewhat runny from the heavy humidity, cursively covered two short lines. “Captain Dainyn, we must meet. Dasgant Kaar.”
“If I didn’t value the parchment, I’d tell you to throw it to the sharks.”
“You won’t meet with him?”
“What for? He hasn’t done anything but insult me and endanger my ship for the last month.” She glanced at the Swift Sparrow, holding sail not far away. “Give me that.” She took the rock from Icath.
“What are you going to do?”
Muriel walked to the stern of her ship and studied the galleon. A few moments passed and the galleon neared. Kaar and two other men appeared on deck. Kaar seemed anxious.
“Throw like a girl, do I?” Muriel yelled when the gap between the ships narrowed significantly and flung the rock at the men on the other ship. The missile impacted solidly with one of the men with Kaar and flailing his arms in surprise, he tumbled backwards.
Brushing the dirt off her hands, Muriel turned her back on the speechless crew of the Swift Sparrow and retreated to mid-deck. “You know, that felt good,” she confided in Icath. “I wish I had another rock. Who did I hit?”
“I think that was their physician,” the first mate answered. “You know Kaar will be mad as all hell over this.”
“He started it.”
Icath chuckled. “There was one dry rock in all of Shandayma and you just threw it away.”
“I wish I had another,” Muriel muttered again.
“Ma’am, sir?” a sailor walked up to them. “A man on the Sparrow just plunged in the water. He’s swimming this way.”
“Was it the one I hit?”
“I don’t think so, Commander.”
“I’ll check on him,” the first mate nodded.
Muriel watched the two men leave, then sat down on a crate anchored down on deck, watching other sailors gather at the steer-board of the vessel as the swimmer was pulled on board. Through all this Icath stood behind the men, arms folded, a furrowed brow, the corners of his mouth giving his normally stern expression a tinge of evil. ‘He’s as mad as I am,’ she laughed to herself.
The Swift Sparrow held sail at a respectable distance, having backed off after Muriel flung the rock. There were plenty of men on deck watching the rescue. A half dozen or so held spears and a few more stood by the sails. It was obvious they were worried about the man coming on board.
When the swimmer finally appeared, Icath stepped forward. He said something and the man answered. “You talk to me!” Icath yelled. The man obviously refused.
Icath folded his arms, studying the man for a long time, then turned and looked at his captain.
Muriel nodded for the man to be brought to her. He was dressed like an officer and arrogantly pushed his way between the sailors gathered on deck, following Icath. A full but neat beard hid his expression as he made the short distance across deck.
“He refuses to talk to anyone but you, Commander,” Icath reported.
Muriel set her jaw. “You will talk to my first officer.”
“I was sent to talk to you.” His voice was deep, sea-worn.
“Who are you?” Icath demanded.
“Answer him,” Muriel said after seeing the answer was not going to come.
“Lasiel Browin, pilot of the Swift Sparrow.”
Without warning, Icath spun, delivering a roundhouse punch to the man’s jaw, sending him down on deck. “Keep your distance, fish kisser, or I’m going to break your neck!”
Muriel cast a stern look at her first mate, but said nothing. A pair of sailors helped the man up.
“What did you want?”
He wiped the blood from his lip, turning his back to Icath. “Captain Kaar sent me to ask that you come talk to him about urgent matters.”
“I have nothing to talk to Kaar about.”
“I am to stay here until you are done, to ensure your safe return.”
“What does he want to talk to me about?” Muriel demanded.
“I can’t say,” Lasiel answered.
“Try.” Icath’s hand clamped on the back of the helmsman’s neck. “Say it, or you’re not walking off this ship alive.”
“I don’t know. I am here to tell you that it’s urgent … very urgent, in fact.”
Muriel glanced at Icath. “What do you think?”
He let the helmsman go. “Kaar must be pretty sore at you by now. And so’s half his crew.”
“Captain Dainyn’s safety is guaranteed,” Lasiel assured.
“I’ll talk to him,” Muriel said. “Go signal him.”
The mob of sailors on deck accompanied the man to complete the task and Muriel turned to Icath. “I want you to grapple that ship and not let go until I’m back. And I want a spear detail on deck. Everyone who’s got a sword wears it. Keep Lord Cinofrid and the Galician below.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Icath said and rushed away.
Muriel watched Lasiel signal the Swift Sparrow to approach and the two ships again neared.
“Hold her steady,” Muriel yelled to her own helmsman. “Let them do all the work.”
A pair of grappling irons came over the gunwale, then a pair more flew in the other direction, securing the ships to one another. It took a long time to narrow the gap between the vessels. When the commotion settled down, Muriel approached Kaar, who stood on his ship, a mere hand’s reach away.
“What did you want?”
“Come on board.”
“We can talk this way.”
“I want you to talk with someone else. I don’t want him on deck.”
Muriel glanced back at Icath and her men holding the pilot of the Swift Sparrow.
“No tricks,” Kaar promised. “Please.”
He extended his hand and she accepted it, first stepping across the gunwale of her ship, then the gap between the vessels and finally over the bulwark of the Swift Sparrow. Kaar did not release her until she was safely across.
“I wanted you to talk with my first mate,” Kaar said as they left the Golden Sword behind them. “Or rather, he wanted to talk to you and I felt it was important that he does.”
“He could have come on deck, or swam over himself,” Muriel said. “This charade you’re creating is pointless.”
“You will understand,” Kaar said. He escorted Muriel below deck to a large well lit and decorated stateroom where two other men waited. One Muriel immediately recognized as the man she hit with the rock. The other she did not know.
As Kaar and Muriel entered, the two men stood up and greeted their guest.
“My first mate, Aldyn Kile Nephlan,” Kaar introduced the tall muscular man Muriel did not know, “and my physician, Lord Reuus Merramnez.”
“I am sorry, my lord,” Muriel sighed as the physician faced her.
“Think nothing of it, my lady.”
“Please, sit down,” Kaar indicated to the chairs around a table that took up most of the room.
Muriel chose her chair and the other men settled around her. Kaar sat at her side, his first mate directly across from her and the physician next to the first mate, opposite his captain.
“That man you fished out two days ago,” Kaar said, “could you tell us who he is?”
“That’s all you brought me here for?”
“We suspect you may not realize who he is,” Aldyn said.
“He is a Galician scholar,” Muriel answered. “I didn’t believe him, but he had a long talk with Lord Cinofrid and if the Sage believes him, that’s good enough for me.”
“Your scholar,” Aldyn frowned, “is a Baranurian soldier.” He paused to let Muriel express her disbelief.
“Don’t frown, Captain,” Kaar advised. “Hear him out.”
“Your scholar,” Aldyn continued distastefully, “and I have somewhat of a history. About ten days ago I was in the city, with some of the men. We had two days in port and wanted to relax. We went to a tavern and spent the day there and headed back in the evening. Just short of the docks, we were assaulted by two men and a woman. The men with me were killed. A man and the woman probably died. The survivor was the man you fished out.”
“I don’t think so,” Muriel shook her head. “He hasn’t been in town that long and he knows nothing of fighting.”
“He knows plenty of fighting, I assure you,” Aldyn said. “The men I was with could swear to that, too, if they could. Perhaps a face to face confrontation would prove it to you? I’ve been careful to avoid showing my face on deck.”
“You’re mad,” Muriel said. “He doesn’t even speak Baranurian!”
“He speaks Baranurian,” Aldyn said, “and if I’m right, his Beinisonian is rather good, too.”
“I don’t think so,” Muriel turned to Kaar.
“All the proof we have is two dead sailors and my first mate’s story. I doubt he killed those men himself. When our men returned to the site of battle to pick up the bodies, it was a rather grisly scene. I have no reason to question the story.”
“All right,” Muriel agreed, “if I let you on board and give you a chance to talk to this Baranurian warrior, will your anxiety be relieved?”
“It would,” Kaar agreed. “And I won’t bother you again.”
“Kaar, you’re not going to bother me again either way.”
“Let’s get it over with,” Muriel got up. “If I know Icath, he’s boiling tar to throw at you by now.”
The three men got up and followed her back on deck.
“I’ll go over alone,” Aldyn said to Kaar. “I’m sure there’ll be no risk. There are plenty of sailors on the Sword.”
“Be careful nonetheless,” Kaar instructed. “We’ll cut the cables so it doesn’t arouse the Baranurian’s suspicions … if that’s all right with you, Captain Dainyn?”
“Perfectly all right,” she responded, stopping at the bulwark of Kaar’s ship. “What kind of an idiot docks steer-board?” she paused, looking at Icath, across the gap between the ships.
“We did, ma’am.”
She shook her head and started her climb. “We’re having a guest join us, Icath. Don’t hit him.”
The first mate offered his captain help getting across while other sailors aided the man following her.
“Icath Taryl,” Muriel introduced her first mate, “Aldyn Kile Nephlan, first mate of the Swift Sparrow.”
“Cut the lines,” Kaar barked an order from the deck of his galleon.
“Release their grapples,” Muriel ordered her men.
“What’s this about?” Icath asked. He nervously took out his pipe and started stuffing it with tobacco.
“Your fish is Baranurian,” Aldyn said. “I’m here to prove it.”
Icath skeptically folded his arms.
“They’ll leave us alone after this,” Muriel told him. “That alone is worth it.”
“And you just took his word for that, I’ll bet,” Icath muttered.
Muriel’s expression darkened, but she did not respond. “Let the pilot go,” she yelled to her sailors. “Helmsman, pull us away, fore to current!”
The Golden Sword slowly turned in the bay’s current, facing the delta of the Laraka and the tall winding spire above the keep in the middle of the river.
“What’s Cinofrid doing on deck?”
“He was curious,” Icath explained, “and getting him to go below is like asking the wind to turn.”
“Sage,” Muriel called the elderly man over. Both he and the Sparrow’s pilot made their way over to her.
“My lady,” the sage bowed. “It’s a pleasure this morning.”
“It’s a pleasure every morning, my lord. I was wondering if you still believe that the man we caught is a Galician scholar.”
“Having discussed the arts of philosophy with him, I have to say he’s very learned — and opinionated — and seeing he only speaks Galician, I can’t imagine him to be anything but. I stand by my initial statement.”
“This gentleman here,” Muriel indicated to the first officer of the Swift Sparrow, “believes he’s not.”
“And never having seen this man, what do you base your claim on?” the sage inquired.
“But I have seen this man before. I met him in battle ten days ago.”
“Then he will recognize you if he sees you?”
“That’s what I hope to show.”
“Do you just want him brought on deck?” Muriel asked.
“It would probably be easiest,” Aldyn agreed.
“Marbin, bring the Galician up here,” Muriel ordered one of the sailors.
“Right away, Commander.”
Lord Cinofrid sat down on a crate. “This will be an interesting display whether you’re right or not.”
“I’m right,” Aldyn eyed the sage. “I know I’m right.”
Icath sat down by the sage. “Do you care to wager, my lord?”
“I suspect we’ll be wagering on the same side,” the sage leaned over in mock whisper and both men laughed.
“Why don’t you start talking to him and I’ll walk over then,” Aldyn suggested. “I don’t want to give him the advantage.”
“Go,” Muriel nodded and he departed, leaving her with Icath and Cinofrid and Lasiel, the galleon’s pilot.
“Listen,” Icath said to the man standing by Muriel, “I’m sorry for punching you. That was out of line.”
“It’s all right. We’re all a little heated now,” Lasiel said. “We all follow orders.”
“You hit him?” the sage asked.
“Right on the jaw,” Icath agreed.
The sage shook his head.
“It’s fine, my lord,” Lasiel said. “It was a heated moment and I was pretty pigheaded myself. I’ll get over it. The teeth are fine.”
“They’re coming,” Icath warned.
“Commander?” two sailors stopped by the group, Rien between them.
Everyone turned to the scholar. “Good morning, Keegan,” Muriel said in Galician. “Take a seat.”
“Commander,” he greeted her cautiously, then did the same with Icath and Cinofrid. When Icath stood up, he sat on the crate as instructed by the woman captain.
“Rien Keegan, Lasiel Browin” Muriel made the introduction. “Lasiel is with the Advocate General,” she went on. “We have to ferry him down coast and when I mentioned your adventure on the docks to him, he wanted to know about that man you fought.”
“He fought me,” Rein corrected.
“Any description would help,” Muriel said.
“He wore a helmet,” Rien said thoughtfully, “but he had a light brown beard …”
“Would you be able to recognize him?” a voice sounded behind Rien.
Rien stood up and turned, his eyes narrowing at the site of the Swift Sparrow’s first mate. The expression on his face betrayed a glimmer of angry recognition.
“… Because I recognize you!” the man yelled in Beinisonian and grabbed Rien’s tunic, pulling him close. “And once again, it’s just you and me.”
Rien’s arms instinctively came up to break the other man’s hold on him, but Aldyn gave him a shove.
“I don’t know you,” Rien struggled to sit up on the deck.
Icath and Lasiel helped Rien up, but did not release him.
“I don’t think anyone here believes that,” Aldyn said. He again took Rien’s tunic in his fist and pulled the supposed Galician forward, against the grip of the men holding him. Rien grimaced as the chain of his medallion tightened around his neck. “You ambushed and killed my men,” Aldyn went on. “In cold blood, with no mercy. You will answer for these crimes.” He gave Rien a rough shove, tearing his tunic and the chain around his neck, letting the medal fall. “You will pay.”
The medal fell to the deck, spinning about for a moment, echoing the words.
“You!” Cinofrid suddenly stood up. He almost tripped on the folds of his robe, stepping away from the crate. “You’re the one!”
A small flame danced on the deck, around the now still medal and a circle of mist rose around it.
A cloaked figure shifted in the settling darkness, letting the wind wrap the black cloak around the body, with just the very bottom of the hem playing with the wind. Waves in the bay steadily licked at the pier, producing occasional groaning sounds from the wood.
The man chuckled. It was done. It was done at a terrible cost, but it was done. It was both for justice and victory.
“Deven?” another figure came on the pier. The man was tall, dressed in light armor and wearing a sword. His long blond hair blew in the wind, offering no resistance to the elements. “Deven?”
The cloaked figure turned. “You saved the ship.”
“Our deal was for the sage.”
“It was for all of them. You liked the woman.”
“I learned the enemy had heart and soul … even the sage.”
“You don’t know the enemy.” The cloaked man turned back to the waves.
“It’s time to go, Deven. We did all we could. Adrea’s dead. You had your revenge and I had mine.”
The cloaked man turned again. “Death no longer satisfies me. There is nothing I can take from them to make them feel as empty as I do. There is nothing that they have that’s as valuable as what they took from me.”
The armored man reached out, holding a medallion on a chain out for the other. “It’s over for now.”
The cloaked figure moved near, accepting the offering with a pale hand. “This symbol will yet burn in the hearts and minds of those who defied it, of those who had not the courage to stand up for what was right. The empire will bow to the name Yasarin.”
A distant flash of lightning cut across the now dark sky somewhere off in the distance and a rumble of rolling thunder suppressed the sound of the surf.