Subterranean Press Magazine: Spring 2013

The Seafarer by Tobias S. Buckell

The ten soldiers stopped their several days of running at the edge of the red stone cliff and looked out in awe over the gray ocean. A hundred feet below them the waves thudded against the rock and they inhaled the salt spray that slowly drifted up as a fine mist.

None of them had ever seen the ocean before.

“Hard to believe that we fought toward this for so long,” Alej said. “And are only just now seeing it.”

Even after they had stopped fighting, and started running, he had suspected he would never live to see it.

Horza, who had refused to edge any closer to the precipice with his chief, grunted. “We don’t have much time,” he said. “That scouting party will catch up to us.”

Alej looked back. His men, in their dented and battered armor, stood scattered in a loose line from the coastal road to the edge of the cliff.

“So few of us,” he lamented to Horza. “But I guess we were the lucky ones.”

Horza spat. “That bitch was a god-gifted fighter,” he said. “And Koraquan never stopped underestimating her abilities.”

That bitch. Trust Horza to both insult and pay respect. They’d joined Koraquan’s army, lured by the promise of a return to greatness. The Hundrapeans would rise again. They were told that they would swoop down on the city of Paika. The entire coast, Koraquan said, would be theirs.

The ruler of Paika had taken that city by force herself. She had led armies and destroyed many men, and Koraquan was just the latest in a long list of her enemies. She ripped their army apart thrice. Each time no less savagely than the one before.

There was a reason, Alej thought, that they called the ruler of Paika The Executioness.

By their last battle, Alej had become chief of the small band of men that had walked across snowy mountain peaks to join Koraquan, swept up by the promise of loot, battle, and glory. He’d barely managed to keep most of them alive, back against back, when their lines had been overrun.

They’d fought a bitter rear guard retreat.

And then they’d voted to leave. One of the many bands of stragglers deciding that Paika wasn’t worth it.

The Executioness was too strong.

It was the northern wilds and hunger again for most of Koraquan’s followers. Deadly bramble and icy tundra. Maybe even the wilds of the mountains.

But Alej took his men west, sneaking through The Executioness’s lines where no man dared. They’d been spotted and chased. Now, exhausted, they were close to the end.

Alej turned and faced his men. “Thank you for choosing me as your chief, but I hope you find your true lives, now. Hurry and strip off your armor.”

They helped each other unbuckle breastplates and armor. They threw them all over the cliff, with their Hundrapean swords after them. Anything that would identify them as Hundrap was swallowed by the ocean.

“The walled city of Rusajka is further west along the road,” Alej said. “It’s best if we split our coin and food now…”

“Horses!”

They’d mistaken how long it would take for the scout party to catch up. Four of the Executioness’s ax-women swooped down on them. Without a word they all scattered, dropping packs for speed.

Orke, large and unwilling to give ground, stood in place and screamed at one of the women. He was spitted on the end of a quickly thrown spear. He fell, and the food and coins in his pack spilled out onto the ground.

Alej ran for the protection of the rocks, then skirted them for the forests away from the road. The horses wouldn’t follow him in there, he knew, for fear of bramble.

#

Alej approached Rusajka through the forested northern slopes. Bramble grew everywhere in them; sometimes it was hard to tell what was bramble and what was underbrush.

Let just the faintest brush of bramble tickle you, caress your skin, and you could die. The deep sleep would come for you, and you would likely waste away.

Accidentally let a clump of bramble touch you, and you died.

But it was better than being caught without a sword or armor by the Executioness’s patrols.

The southerners claimed bramble was the result of magic use. But in the north, they called it Selvka’s Curse and said that once, the great God Selvka enjoyed looking through the mirrors of his halls in the afterlife. Every mirror looked back down at human lives, which entertained him greatly. But generation after generation the world’s wickedness inflamed Selvka until he could stand it no more, and he cursed the world with bramble.

Some northerners swore magic had no effect on bramble, and that it would continue to plague man due to their wickedness.

Maybe, some admitted, there was more bramble around areas that used magic. But it was only because those richer areas were sinful and wasteful, and Selvka punished them more.

Alej had once believed it was Selvka’s Curse.

Until his first southern battle. One where majistras cast spells and helped heal the wounded. After the first attack of Paika he’d woken up to see bramble dripping from the eaves of tents, and had to carefully step around it on grounds that had been completely clear the night before.

Alej crept slowly out onto a road and looked about, then risked using it for the last half mile of his approach to the city. He kept glancing over his shoulder as he walked toward the walls of Rusajka.

#

Rusajka was a blocky, walled city that jealously protected a great deep harbor cut into a cleft in the rocky coast. Alej paid the entrance fee in what little coin he had on him to the unimpressed guards. Now he would have to find a job of some kind or starve.

He could see why this city remained independent. Even with the Executioness’s growing armies to the east, it would be hard to break these ancient, thick walls.

Rusajka traded with small towns to the north, and farms just outside its walls. Though judging by the stench in the air, fishing was one of its larger industries.

There were worse smells, Alej knew. His stomach growled with hunger whenever he passed food.

He spent two days wandering the city, looking for work among the thousands of shoved together inhabitants. He slept on the streets. His cloak kept him warm enough, despite an occasional chill wind.

To the west of the city’s docks shanties clung to the rock cleft, but there was no work to be found there. Alej stared at the thin beggars lying alongside the streets and winced.

On the third day Alej walked the docks, accepting polite declines as he asked after work among the forest of masts. There had to be fifty boats tied up to these wooden piers, he thought, with another thirty at anchor.

“Hey! You!”

Alej turned. The woman shouting at him wore a large, floppy hat and a furred jacket. She had a dagger strapped to her waist, and ragged leather boots. Her face was reddened from the outside air.

“Yes?” he answered.

“You’re looking for work?” she asked. Close now, he could smell salt, leather and wood polish on her. Her forearms were wiry, her skin brown, and five earrings jangled in her left lobe. She wore five or six golden bracelets on each wrist.

“I am looking,” Alej confirmed.

The woman looked him up and down. “Know how to swim?”

Alej considered that for a second, thinking about a river crossing in full armor, when his foot had slipped and the water had enveloped him, trying to drown him. He wasn’t sure about working on a ship, or at sea. But the knot in his stomach told him he had no choice. He needed to eat. “Not well. But I haven’t drowned yet.”

Before he could stop her, she reached over and squeezed his upper arm, then pinched his chest. She smiled. “You seem strong. If you’re willing to work hard, I can use you aboard my ship. You’ll work the bellows. You won’t get paid much, but you’ll have a bunk of your own and two good meals every day. You look the sort that could use both. What do you say? We accept all tribes on our ships, stranger. We are a world of our own. There are worse places to make a life. We set sail for the Southern Isles once a year, and come back to Rusajka three months later.”

Alej nodded. “My name is Alej,” he said. “I am new to Rusajka, I don’t know anyone here.”

“Yalisa,” the woman said. “Welcome aboard.”

Alej looked at the water out behind her and automatically took a deep breath, as though he were about to dive in.

#

Sabina was the name of Yalisa’s ship. Alej, along with several other grubby men from the shanties, had gaped at the size of the ship from their bench on the rowboat.

Two hundred feet long, he guessed. And so tall. The masts towered up into the sky, and what looked like thousands of lines and netting draped from crossbars far overhead.

Alej wasn’t scared of heights, but seeing those masts rock, he realized that working in the bellows would be safer than clambering up those nets, like some of the sailors were doing.

Whatever the bellows were.

Yalisa, as she’d hinted, was the actual captain of this ship. When they got aboard she began to give orders with the casual expectation that they be followed. Everyone nodded and ran to.

A tiny shrimp of a man called Osilte showed Alej his bunk. It was a cubbyhole built into the side of the ship, with a curtain that closed it off for privacy. Four cubbyholes stacked on top of each other in columns, so that thirty crewmen could sleep in this forward section of the ship.

“Put your things in the locker beside your bed,” Osilte explained. Then grinned. “If you want a lock, I can rent you one for some bronze pieces. Silver to buy one.”

“I have no coin,” Alej said. He took his pack and pushed it into the bed, then drew the curtain aside. “I own nothing of value.”

“A true tragedy.” Osilte pulled a lock out of his pocket. “You can owe me. Pay me back when the quartermaster gives you your wages.”

“I don’t like debts,” Alej said. “That was how I ended penniless and hungry, walking the world.”

“Your loss.” Osilte pocketed the lock with a scowl. “Well then, let me take you to the heart of the ship.”

They walked through tight, confined spaces, and then around a galley area where the smell of fried fruits and turmeric made Alej’s stomach rumble. He hadn’t eaten in far too long. He was weak.

Osilte opened a door, revealing a massive water tank made out of glass.

At first, Alej wasn’t impressed. He had assumed sailors needed plenty of water for their long trips. Much like any army. He hadn’t known that glass containers this massive even existed, but he assumed it had been made by magic.

Then he stepped further inside.

The tank held hundreds of gallons of water. But it was one of three tanks, he saw. Copper pipes ran from tank to tank, with spigots along the way.

Leather bellows allowed teams of workers to vigorously pump water from tank to tank. Water continuously moved through the tubes.

The first line of pumpers sucked water from pipes that came out of the hull. They were taking in ocean water, Alej realized.

The first tank, brass bands gleaming in the lamplight belowdecks, bubbled and boiled with a purple fire that reached up through the glass itself and into the water. The air around it smelled faintly of magic: neem and parchment, old ink.

A man pedaled a spinning bronze disc by a leather strap connected to gears that creaked underneath him as he sweated away.

“This is the hydromorpheum,” Osilte said. “Sabine makes water for the flotilla. Sweet and fresh, and drawn from the infinite supply that we are always floating in.”

Then he pointed to a set of bellows that fanned the purple flame activated by the bronze disk. “That is your station.”

The man pumping and squeezing the giant paddles of the bellows motioned him over. Alej grabbed the surprisingly soft leather handles and squeezed until his back protested.

Osilte chuckled as a set of bells rang. “That’s the start of your watch. Keep pumping, when they sound again, you will be done.”

Alej pumped the bellows for several minutes. His wrists started to ache and his back began to seize. And he was still dizzy from hunger.

When he looked up to wipe the sweat away from his eyes, Osilte was gone. A foreman yelled at him to get back to the bellows.

Alej gratefully released the bellows four hours later as someone stepped in to take over. His fingers burned and he couldn’t stand straight.

When he stumbled back to his bunk, the curtain had been opened and his pack ransacked. The dirty rags were scattered all over his bed, and his cloak missing.

Osilte stepped out from behind a thick post in the center of the room. “How horrible,” he said with false concern. “Some ill-blooded sailor has decided to see if you had anything of value. It’s a shame you didn’t have a lock.”

For a moment, Alej considered trying to break Osilte’s face. Or smashing it against the thick post he’d stepped out from behind.

But working the bellows had left him weak, and he was still hungry after three days of fasting.

“There are many dishonorable men in the world,” Alej said.

“That there are,” Osilte said. “I must agree. By the way, bellowsman, tonight the western winds will blow and it will be cold. You shouldn’t go on deck unless you have something warm to wear. Best to stay inside, where it’s nice, warm, and safe.”

Alej watched Osilte leave with narrowed eyes.

#

There was a rhythm and a routine to hard work, one that Alej was well used to. Digging for sieges. Practicing with a sword. Using a sword.

But four straight hours of pumping strained even him.

Not enough to break, but close at first.

By the end of four days his hands had blistered, then healed, then developed calluses. His muscles hardened after the end of the first full week, and he stopped panting.

But he was fed. And had a place to sleep. And that was enough.

With his first pay from the quartermaster, Alej caught a ride to shore to purchase a new cloak and a lock. Osilte was the second in command for the ship. It would not pay to end up in a fight with him.

As much as he would have liked that.

#

After yet another shift, well into the middle of his second week, Alej climbed the wooden stairs to the deck. The sun made him blink, but was welcome and warm.

At the front of the deck he threw a bucket overboard and pulled it back up using the rope attached to its handle. It brimmed with ocean water.

Alej pulled his shirt off and dumped it over himself, enjoying the bracing feeling. He would dry off in the sun and find a game of dice at the port side of the boat.

“Well now,” said a familiar voice.

Startled, Alej opened his eyes to see Yalisa smiling at him. He hurried to pull his shirt back on, but she held up a hand. “In the Isles men usually don’t bother to wear a shirt in the heat. Everyone up here is always bundled up, I forget what a well-muscled man can look like. What are the scars from?”

Alej pulled his short on anyway. “A mistake,” he said.

Yalisa chose not to ask more about it. “I’ve seen you help row when going to shore, you’re capable. You’re also a cool-blooded man, which I need.”

“Cool-blooded?” Alej asked.

“You didn’t buy a lock from Osilte?” At Alej’s nod she smiled. “Yes, well, usually the big ones like you take a swing. Osilte was a street fighter in the shanties of Rusajka, and he fights dirty. He doesn’t look it, but I usually end up with a broken bellowsmen who never again makes the mistake of clashing with my second in command. He’s not too sure about you, doesn’t quite have you figured out in his mind.”

“If you know about the locks, then will you make him give me my cloak back?” Alej asked.

Yalisa snorted. “Do you have any witnesses that can swear they saw him take it?”

Alej shook his head. “No.”

“Then let it go.” Yalisa pulled him close. “I am going to promote you, Alej. I need a messenger rower. Are you interested?”

This was not a hard choice, Alej thought. It would break his back less than the bellows. “I am.”

She handed him a flask. “This goes to the captain of the Akkadevi. And only to him. Do you understand?”

Alej nodded. “I understand.”

“We’re having trouble preparing for our sail south,” she grumbled. “Jijabai‘s hydromorpheum has failed. Mine is the only that works in the entire fleet, now. I should be happy about the leverage that gives me. But no captain wants to risk sailing south with only one in case it breaks.”

“Can’t you fix it?” Alej asked, surprised.

“Do I look like a majistra to you?” Yalisa snapped. “Go deliver the message.”

#

Alej rowed Yalisa’s message to the Akkadevi.  He’d never been aboard, and as far as he knew it wasn’t one of the three ships with a hydromorpheum inside.

Yet it was too large to dock in the harbor.

“Ho rower! Toss your painter up!”

He turned in his bench, shipped the oars, and threw the bow rope, the painter they called it, up at the man on the deck.

Alej tucked the message flask in his waistband and climbed up the ratlines tossed over the side of the Akkadevi‘s hull.

A strong hand helped haul him onto the deck.

Alej delivered the flask, and while the captain was composing a reply, he wandered the deck looking for a dice game, or card game.

Instead, he saw his cloak.

He stepped forward and spun the man wearing it around. “Tell me where you got that cloak!” Alej demanded. And found he was facing Horza.

Horza’s jaw dropped. “Alej!”

“Horza!”

“I almost threw you overboard,” Horza shouted as they embraced. “I’m glad I waited to see what fool grabbed my cloak.”

“I thought it was mine. Someone stole it.”

They laughed, delighted to find they were still alive and had escaped The Executioness’s patrol.

Horza leaned close. “Come with me, I have something for you.”

They descended into the depths of the ship’s holds, walking past barred rooms. Alej didn’t pay attention to them until a tiny hand reached out and grabbed his sleeve, startling him.

“What is this?” he shouted, leaping back and looking inside.

A child of seven or eight years looked back at him. “I want to go home,” he said plaintively.

Horza raised a hand. “It is not what you think. They are Paikan acolytes.”

“Paika fell to the Executioness.”

“Yes, but Paikan missionaries hail from the Southern Isles. They believe if they can teach enough northern children to abstain from magic, that maybe we can rid the world of the bramble’s curse.”

“But they’re not here of free will?” Alej asked, as they walked past the rows and rows of children.

“Some are taken by warriors. Some are sold by their parents. Others seek the Paikan monasteries for a chance of a better life. None of them are abused. That is why I’m on this ship. I guard them. No sailor may touch an acolyte. Come on, keep moving, this is boring.”

Alej glanced back as Horza pulled him along.

“You know who else is on these ships?” Horza asked.

Alej forced himself to look forward. “Who?”

“Jarka and Kvet made it to the city and also found work aboard the boats. Jarka as an oarsman. Can you believe that? He can’t swim! He’s terrified he’ll fall over. Kvet, you know he can cook?” Horza laughed.

“Cook?” Alej could only think of Kvet and his bow, and the satisfied grunt one heard whenever Kvet aimed true.

Horza lived in a small guardroom at the end of the cages with three other guards. He opened a thick trunk and pulled out a large bottle of wine. “You must try some. It’s very, very good.”

“Horza, I still have to row back and deliver a message to my captain.”

“Just a little bit. You can still row with some fire in your belly,” Horza said, poking Alej in the stomach.

“A cup,” Alej said, looking at it fondly. “For all we’ve been through together, yes?”

Horza pulled out wooden cups. “For all we’ve been through.”

He poured a sloppy cup’s worth, and Alej drank it.

Damn, he thought. It was good wine.

#

Rowing back taxed his abilities. He stopped at the wrong ship once. Maybe twice. His memory failed him in mysterious patches.

But back on the Sabine Alej tied up and slowly hauled himself up the ratlines.

He fumbled his way along the deck, looking for the hatch and stairs down to the bunks, but couldn’t find it.

Eventually, giggling, Alej curled up in a pile of thick, barnacled anchor ropes and fell asleep, warm and content, holding the message flask in a close hug. He’d deliver it when he woke up.

It had been good to see Horza again.

Horza had seemed happy, he thought, falling asleep.

A face full of cold, harbor water jerked Alej awake. Yalisa stood over him, holding the bucket. “Where is my gods-damned message?” she demanded.

Alej stood up, sputtering and wiping his face. Osilte stood just behind Yalisa, his face pinched and angry. And maybe a little bit satisfied.

Alej patted his waistband, but the flask wasn’t there.

“It must be in the tender,” he said. “Let me go look…”

“You were drunk, and you lost your message,” Yalisa snapped.

“And on your very first trip as a message rower,” Osilte added, voice dripping with scorn.

Alej frowned. He’d been drunk. But he hadn’t lost the flask. That didn’t sound like something he’d do. He could have sworn he’d had the flask.

“No,” Alej insisted.

“No, you weren’t drunk?” Yalisa asked, danger in her voice.

“Yes, I had too much wine. I met an old friend on the boat, and we shared cups. Something I will not do again,” Alej growled. He focused on Osilte. “But I do not lose things in my care unless they’re taken from me.”

Yalisa cocked her head. “When you first came here, asking for work, you told me you knew no one in Rusajka. That you were alone. Now you drink with old friends.”

“He fails you, and he is a liar,” Osilte said.

Alej was hungover and angry, and snapped, “I do not lie! Horza and I fought at Paika. I didn’t know if he had lived until I saw him tonight. He saved my life enough times I wouldn’t refuse a drink with him. And as for the message,” Alej stepped forward, but not too quickly, and pointed at Osilte. “I wager all I own in this world that he knows where it is.”

Yalisa stepped between them. “He does know where it is.”

Alej’s eyes lit up. That bastard!

But Yalisa held up the message flask. It had been tucked into the back of her waistline. “He knows where it is because I am the one that found you passed out in your own vomit clutching it, and removed it to read it. And I’m the one that ordered him to come up and help me throw you off my ship. Osilte is good at those things. It’s why I keep him around, even though he can be a bit rough on crew.”

Osilte smiled. Alej bit back his anger.

“You shouldn’t have taken you him off the bellows. He is not trustworthy,” Osilte said.

“I know,” Yalisa snapped. “No need to repeat it.”

But Osilte stepped forward and leaned over to her with sudden smile. “He claims he fought at Paika,” he said, conversationally. “We can prove that lie easily.”

Yalisa looked sideways. “If you wish, Osilte.” She folded her arms. “Have your fun with him, then throw him off the ship.”

Osilte left, and returned with two wooden practice swords. He threw one over to Alej, who caught it and shook his head.

That was the wrong thing to do. His pounding headache almost overwhelmed him. The deck shifted far too much.

“I left that life behind me,” Alej said.

“Prove your words!” Osilte demanded gleefully.

So this was where Osilte figured he would get his chance to abuse him, Alej thought. The man looked overjoyed for his chance to beat on a hungover Alej.

Alej hadn’t fought or practiced in many long weeks.

Well then, Alej thought as he moved the wooden sword in a quick pattern to get a feel for it, we’ll see what still remains.

Yalisa stepped back, her arms still folded, and Osilte snapped forward.

Damn, but he was fast. A viper with a stabbing wooden sword that kept whipping through the air at Alej.

Alej had never been particularly fast. It took everything he had to keep out of the damn thing’s way. Every parry required him to struggle to get his eyes to track the sword.

He hit and shoved Osilte back, to gain space just to think. It had been a long time since Alej had fought hungover.

Osilte stared at him, panting slightly. Alej’s muscles were warming up, and old instincts trickling through him.

Alej might have lost his place on this ship and might be facing hunger on the streets of Rusajka again. But Osilte was going to regret stealing his cloak, Alej thought.

Oh yes.

He stepped in, swords striking, and then kicked Osilte’s feet out. The small man stumbled, reached out to balance himself while still parrying, and Alej grabbed his extended hand.

Then he yanked him close and smacked Osilte in the face with an elbow while still holding off the wooden sword.

As Osilte staggered back Alej raised the sword to crack Osilte’s shoulder. Every time that man would hold something in his arm, he was going to remember Alej with a twinge.

All this had taken half a single breath.

“Stop!” Yalisa shouted.

Alej pulled back, and the blade only smacked lightly into Osilte’s shoulder.

They both regained their balance, Alej swallowing a hint of bile that crept up the back of his throat and blinking blearily, Osilte holding his nose.

“Am I a liar still?” Alej demanded.

Osilte pulled out a piece of cloth and held it to his nose. “You don’t fight from trained moves. You learned those things the hard way.”

“You’re lucky he chose not to take a swing at you over the lock, then,” Yalisa said.

Osilte grunted. “If he can repeat that stunt, then maybe he should work for the our shipsguard, not the bellows.”

Alej tossed the wooden sword at Osilte’s feet. “That life is behind me,” he said. “I would go back to the bellows if you feel you can’t trust me as a messenger rower. If you keep me. But I won’t pick up arms.”

Yalisa unfolded her arms, still eyeing Alej thoughtfully. “Go sleep off your hangover,” she finally said. “We will talk later.”

#

Osilte threw a polished sword, scabbard, and a shirt of mail onto Alej as he lay sleeping in bed. Alej scrambled awake and jumped out, knocking them all to the floor with a clatter. “Those days are behind me,” Alej blinked as he looked down at his feet.

“I was there, I heard you,” Osilte said. “And here is Yalisa’s promise. We are meeting the Majistra of Rusajka and we need more bodyguards.”

Alej leaned against the wall, struggling his way to fully awake.

Osilte grabbed him by the elbow, digging his fingers into the meat of his arm. “When the Executioness took Paika we lost our best port. The Executioness doesn’t like Paikan missionaries. And hates the flotilla as well.” Osilte looked around and lowered his voice to a whisper. “The Majistra here allows us to dock, but he extorts us with fees. Fees to cut down wood, overpriced instruments, and food. Only the water is free, and we are down to one hydromorpheum. He bleeds us.”

“Are you sure he isn’t a long lost brother of yours?”

Osilte struck Alej hard over the back of the head. Alej stumbled and spun.

That was enough. Beating the piece of filth with a sword hadn’t taught Osilte a lesson, but now Alej would destroy him.

Osilte danced back quickly. “Touch me, soldier-boy, and you will end up hungry and on the street again.”

Alej snarled, but stopped himself.

“Look,” Osilte said. “Yalisa wants you to do this just once. She says you owe her for your drunken antics.”

Alej picked up the chain mail and threw it at Osilte, hard enough to make the man stagger back and grunt.

“One time, for one mistake,” he said. “But I’m not wearing that. If I fall in I’ll sink to the bottom of the harbor and drown in that.”

#

Ten men surrounded Yalisa and two other captains for the trip up the stone steps to the foot of Rusajka’s heart: the inner keep that towered over the harbor.

Thirty of the Majistra’s guard escorted them up through the main banner hall, large enough to fit any of the largest ships of the flotilla inside. The masts would even fit underneath the tall stone arches.

The meeting took place in a great room with an oval table, large enough for ten to sit at.

One of the guardsmen sat and picked at his fingernails with a knife. A showy move, which, combined with the pointedly long wait before the Majistra arrived, was to remind them who was the petitioner, and who ran this city.

Osilte glowered at that. “Look at how he treats us.”

The Majistra and Mayor of Rusajka, Chandak the Defender, arrived finally after an hour’s wait. A fine cape of spun gold billowed behind him, and he’d wrapped his hair in green silks. His beard was oiled, and he smelled of fresh spices.

“So,” he said, once the captains sat down. “You have come to beg for my help. And yet, for so long you have refused to let me sell any of your ships water, little Yalisa. And now, it appears you can’t even maintain your own magics. You have rebuffed and insulted me for so long it will not be cheap to get my affection back.”

Yalisa’s lip curled. “We pay you well for timber. We agree to buy all our stores and supplies through you. What more can you demand of us?”

Chandak’s eyes gleamed. “You will give me a fifth of all your payments from the Paikan missionaries for delivering their acolytes.”

The other two captains jumped up. “You pirate,” one of them shouted.

“Tell us the price you want for the repairs in gold. We will pay it,” Yalisa said calmly.

But Chandak wasn’t interested.

One of the captains slammed the palm of his hand down on the table, and city guards reached for swords.

Alej tensed.

But Chandak saw the movement and waved a hand. The city guard relaxed.

“Go back to your flotilla,” Chandak said. “You need a city to land at. If you give me this portion, I will supply your ships, I will help you repair your magical machines. You will have a partner. It’s a dangerous world out there. I’ve changed our little understanding, and you are not in a position to really negotiate, are you captain?”

And then Chandak dismissed them.

Yalisa watched him leave with disgust on her face. “He is no partner. He wants the fleet for himself.”

Alej looked at her. “What happens if we can’t repair the other hydromorphea?”

Yalisa sighed. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “We will have to make dangerous choices, then. The Majistra may yet end up owning us.”

#

On the way back, Yalisa looked back at the city. “When you live on land, you will always have to deal with your neighbors. If they cast spells and choke your windows with bramble, it becomes your problem. You will have to stand it, or negotiate with them, or maybe just kill them out of general frustration.”

“And it’s different with you?” Alej asked.

“Yes. We can always move. We are free people. We have our own nation in every little hull. We take who we want aboard, and go where we want when our neighbors becoame too dastardly. It’s time to sail, Alej. It’s time to sail.”

“Sail where?” Alej grunted. “The Southern Isles?”

“No, we still need working hydromorphea. What we need is a new port. We need to fix our hydromorphea, negotiate for better supplies. It’s time to head further west up the coast and find a better port.”

“And what about me?” Alej asked.

“Stay, if you wish,” Yalisa said. “But I will be the one that decides your role on our ship.”

Alej glanced back from his oar at the Majistra’s guards. If they recognized him again, alone and without a weapon, he wondered how they would react.

He kept pulling as he mulled that thought over.

#

The flotilla sailed at the end of the same day, and Alej with it, despite his worries about the dangers of the wide ocean. Ship hulls were scraped and decks tied down and tidied. Anything that might come loose inside the ships was secured. Miles of lines were checked over and coiled in neat stacks.

Ships sounded horns and flew departure signal flags from the masts. The red and yellow striped flags whipped in the wind as men hauled and cranked sails up into place.

The great, triangular wedges of yellow material shook, then billowed full of air until taut.

The anchored flotilla broke free and sailed from the harbor in clumps and staggered lines. Then the docked ships, pulled free by rowboats, shook their own sails out and followed.

Yalisa stood at the high rear cockpit of the Sabine. She looked back over the railings at the docks.

“They’re watching us leave,” she said, satisfaction in her voice. “I’ll bet Chadak didn’t truly expect that.”

“In a week we’ll be in Zebari,” Osilte said to her. “They should be more than happy to take our coin. And we should have left for it six months ago.”

Alej walked to the bow, thinking about the first time he’d seen the ocean, and how far it had stretched. Now that everything was stowed and the ship’s sails were up there was less for him to do. He could stand by the rail and watch the water foam and bubble past.

Osilte startled him by appearing just behind his left side. “Scared of the ocean, soldier-boy?”

Alej said nothing.

“We’ll mostly be within sight of land,” Osilte told him. “There are islands and rocks to steer clear of, but we’ll mostly follow the coast west.”

“Mostly?” Alej couldn’t help himself.

“If it looks like there’s a storm we’ll head for open ocean,” Osilte said. “Don’t want to get caught near the coast in a bad one.”

Alej nodded, and then turned green. “I…” he leaned over the side of the ship and threw up violently. Osilte started laughing.

Dazed, Alej looked back at him while spitting sick out of his mouth. “I don’t understand, I’ve been living aboard for weeks. How can I be seasick?”

“You’re out on the real ocean now, not sitting in a harbor. Now we’ll see whether you are truly man enough to be on a ship,” Osilte smirked.

#

Alej spent the next two miserable days clinging to the side of the rail. He kept his new cloak with him and slept on the deck rather than risk going below. Better to tough it out in the open air without making a mess he would have to clean up.

He paid no attention to whether he could see the coast or not, and didn’t worry much about anything else.

But eventually the sea sickness passed and he could walk around the Sabine again. And eat.

In small portions at first.

By the fourth day Alej felt like a human being once more. And that was when the storm caught the flotilla.

The white line of furious wind and water came from the distant horizon and far out at sea. It bore down on them so fast they barely had time to shorten their sails, or ‘reef’ them.

Alej saw the ship across from them failed to do the same thing in time, and the fabric exploded into tatters almost immediately. The entire ship faded away in the white intensity of the howling squall.

For a day Yalisa and her crew struggled to keep the Sabine sailing as close into the wind as they could manage. The waves smashed the bow of the ship and swept constantly over the decks, terrifying Alej. It felt like the ship spent as much time under the ocean as it plunged into the waves as it did riding on top of their crests.

When the storm broke, Alej saw the flotilla scattered to all points of the horizon. Two ships lost their masts and floated dangerously close to the ragged rocks of the coastline, saved only by the short duration of the storm and the large canvas bucket sea anchors they’d thrown over their bows to keep from being blown too fast toward shore. Sabine had managed to get several miles further out to sea, but now Alej understood why Osilte didn’t like being close to the coast.

On the distant coast a battered hull lay dashed against the rocks. One of the ships had failed to hold its own against the storm. Alej stared at it until Osilte yelled at him. “Get down to the hydromorpheum. Now.”

Alej frowned. He was back to pumping bellows. But they had enough water in their tanks. The last thing the ships needed after a storm was water.

But when he entered the hold he saw the shattered pieces of glass, and could the rotting stench of magic gone wrong made him gag.

The fleet could no longer make its own water.

“We need to salvage what we can,” Osilte said. “Don’t break anything more than we’vre already lost.”

#

They sailed into the harbors of Zebari with their pennants flying and all the crew on deck, eager to see the new city.

It was larger than Rusajka, but not as impressive. There were no towering walls and turrets. Zebari sprawled lengthily along the low coastline. Shacks clustered the shoreline, and the rocky beaches were dotted with wooden fishing boats and drying nets.

“Yalisa wants you as a rower,” Osilte said. “There will be shipsguard going ashore with us, will you row?”

“I’ll row, but I won’t join the guard,” Alej said, still looking out at Zebari.

“Yalisa says to bring your sword. You will be a rower, but even a rower might need to defend themselves if things turn bad on the shore.”

“And what’s the difference between a rower with a sword and a shipsguard?” Alej asked.

Osilte scowled. “You can cower away in the tender all you wish, soldier-boy, you you will carry a sword. Captain’s orders. You know how to follow orders, don’t you?”

Alej thought about the wrecked ship after the storm. “I’ll follow orders,” he grunted.

“Of course you will,” Osilte said.

#

They rowed ashore to the largest of the docks where a somewhat official procession already gathered. The city’s flags fluttered from tall staffs, and old men in black robes milled about.

More interesting to Alej were the tough-looking men in leather armor and tall, rectangular shields formed up at the start of the dock, facing a gathering crowd.

Yalisa and three other captains hailed the men on the dock as Alej and other rowers kept them several yards away.

“We’re looking to trade,” Yalisa shouted. “And for a new port. I am captain Yalisa of the Sabine.” She introduced the other captains.

“Please, come to the docks. We would love to talk about trade,” said one of the robed men.

Yalisa glanced back at Osilte. “What do you think?”

Osilte squinted. “They don’t seem worried about us, but about that crowd.”

Poor fisherman wearing rags watched them hopefully as they tied up and climbed out, and Yalisa and the captains began talking to the Majistra. Alej could hear snatches of the conversation from the tender.

“We need help with hydromorphic magic,” she said.

“Oh, we would be delighted to help you,” one of the robed men said. “Zebari once housed a great magical academy. However, we have little in the way of supplies, now. But many of our great Majistra can still assist you with whatever you have on your ships.”

“You have no magical ingredients?” Yalisa asked, frowning.

“The city has fallen on hard times. The academy was… disbanded. Our former teachers are more worried with trying to rule the city as best we can since the Mayor fled in his own ship.”

Hard times indeed, Alej thought, looking at the rag-wearing people gathering on the stony beach. Three hundred or so now thronged the seaside, watching them intently.

“We would like to offer trade,” Yalisa said. There was a hopeful note in her voice. She had to be thinking that if Zebari had fallen on hard times, they would be able to negotiate good terms. “We need wood, to repair damage to our ships and build new ones. I guess we can send out traders to seek magical ingredients, if you can help us…”

“We have no timber. I’m afraid you don’t understand our position,” one of the men interrupted. He made a sweeping gesture with his hand. “We are cut off from the other cities by bramble.”

Alej looked at the grey hills in the distance, and realized what he was looking at. Beyond the city’s edge, and the few farms that rimmed it, the land had fallen to bramble.

“We burned the forests, as it was choked with bramble. It made it easier to keep it back. But that has not stopped its march. We tried to keep the roads open, but we didn’t have enough pitch to use for fire to burn it back, and we lost the battle. We keep the farms safe, and the Majistra hunt magic users to prevent them from cursing us with more bramble. We have held on thanks to our fishing boats, but they are getting leaky and old. We take wood from our walls and roofs to repair the boats.”

Yalisa looked stunned. The captains equally so. She moved closer to the robed men. “Then what trade do you have to offer us?” she asked, puzzled.

One of the old men opened the palm of his hand. “Gold. We still have lots of gold. We will buy anything you are willing to sell from your fleet.” There was desperation in his voice.

A younger man in robes spoke up, his voice cracking. “We will be generous. If you could, maybe transport some of us. We will help you anyway we can. We will pay generously. Just please…”

He stumbled forward, and a coin purse full of gold fell forward and hit the plank. It broke open, and coins scattered. The man fell forward with a cry, trying to gather the coins up.

Alej heard a cries of suspicion surge through the crowd by the shore, and his head snapped up from staring at the shiny pieces of gold.

The crowd moved as one, shoving the shield men.

“Take us with you!” many shouted.

“Save us!”

“Show mercy. We also have coin!”

Alej moved forward and untied the painter, letting it drop back into the tender. Just as casually, he slipped back to his seat, getting ready with the oars.

“You, get to your oars,” he hissed at the two other rowers waiting in their tenders. They were staring across the dock at the scattered gold, not paying attention.

The crowd shouted angrily. They wanted access to the sailors. They shoved even harder at the shields in their way.

Then the entire crowd moved as one to ram into the shields. The men pulled out their swords and shouted, but it didn’t matter. Some in the crowd dropped, stabbed, but others stepped forward and overwhelmed them.

“Yalisa!” Alej yelled, slipping the oars out.

Yalisa leapt into the tender, almost burying the gunwhale under water. Osilte and three shipsguard scrambled in next, flopping awkwardly in as Alej began to row for all he was worth.

People were jumping into the water and wading out toward them, others swimming. Some jumped off the dock.

Alej pulled on the oars harder.

A woman reached the end of the dock carrying a child in her arms. It was no more than two years old. “Please gods take him,” she screamed, and threw the child at the tender.

Alej watched, horrified, as the child struck the water ten feet away and sank as it thrashed.

“It can’t swim,” Alej said, standing up and leaving the oars in their pegs.

He reached for the child with an oar, but ithey wasere too far away.

Osilte leapt into the water in a perfect, clean dive. He slid under water like a sea-creature, disappearing under the green.

The swimming crowd grew closer with every second, and Alej couldn’t see Osilte anywhere.

“Where is he?” Yalisa asked, standing up as well behind him. “Damnit, Alej, where is he?”

Alej, still stunned at Osilte’s actions, had no answer.

Several strangers reached their tender and clawed at the sides, trying to pull themselves in.

“Keep them off,” Alej growled, still keeping his eye on the spot where Osilte had slid underwater.

He picked up an oar to shove the swimmers back, but Yalisa grabbed his arm. “You might break the oar,” she hissed. “And then we’ll be dead for sure.”

She pulled her sword out and began clubbing heads with the pommel.

Osilte resurfaced in the midst of the other swimmers with a gasp, holding the child.

“Throw him rope,” Alej snapped. Osilte grabbed it, and Alej began to row again.

They pulled five or six men with them who refused to let go, even with Yalisa screaming bloody death at them as they pulled Osilte up to the tender and aboard with the now-screaming child.

“Mama. Mama. Mama.”

Osilte crawled to the bottom of the tender, vomited salt water, and lay on his side, panting.

Yalisa finally stopped screaming at the men on the rope. “Hold on until we’re at the flotilla, and we’ll let you aboard. Try to get on the tender and I’ll cut your fingers off,” she told them.

#

As they pulled their anchors to leave, leaky fishing boats launched from shore crowded with even more desperate refugees. The first to reach Sabine was a small coracle made out of what appeared to be animal hide and bones.

“Ho! Ship!” cried the rower.

The tiny vessel looked ready to swamp at any moment as the rower deftly moved closer to Sabine and they tossed a rope to it.

The lithe rower slithered up and onto their deck.

He burst into tears when they let him onto the deck. “I can work for my passage,” he cried.

Other ships were taking on what refugees they could, but Yalisa was gritting her teeth. “We only have what water is stored in barrels. We can’t make any more. This is bad. How much further west can we go before the water runs out?”

The man they’d pulled aboard, a skilled fisherman called Chatura, looked at Yalisa in horror.

“It’s like this all up the coast,” he said. “I used to leaive further west, before I sailed. In the town of Aizawl. There they hung the Majistra,” he said. “People reported on other people for using magic. There was blood. Some sailed out from the shore and never returned. There’s nothing there for you but death and desperation.”

#

They sailed south for the open ocean once more.  Yalisa joined Alej at the stern rail, looking back at the gray, bramble-choked hills.

“I told you once that our ships were worlds of their own,” she said thoughtfully. “We make our own water, use the winds to move, catch fish, and bow to no man.”

Alej turned away from looking at the burbling wake of the ship. “I remember.”

“I think I was wrong,” she said. “Those cut off cities, those truly were worlds of their own, and we’re not that. We need good timber for our ships. Neem and parchment, brass tubes and glass and leather, and more, to create the spells that run the hydromorphea. It is good to have fresh fruit to eat, and news from traders. We are more independent, but we’re still connected. I thought we could stop dealing with troublesome neighbors, but maybe we need to figure out how to deal with them after all.”

“We’re returning to Rusajka?” Alej asked.

“Yes,” Yalisa said, with gritted teeth.

#

Later that night, while sitting outside and wrapped in his cloak, Alej heard scuffling and scratching on the deck. He found Osilte shoving a large trunk up to the railing. Without a word he joined in and helped Osilte lever it up, and over into the ocean.

It slowly floated in the direction of the desperate city.

“Will what’s in there help them?” he asked.

Osilte looked at the chest floating in the Sabine‘s wake. “Not much,” he said. “But it’s something.”

“In the east they talked about the fallen Empire of Jhandpara, and its lost glories. I never thought I’d see something like this with my own eyes,” Alej said.

“I am not your friend,” Osilte hissed at Alej, as if in sudden pain.

“I’m not a threat to you, Osilte. I don’t want your place. I don’t want your woman. I don’t even understand you. You harry me from day to day as if I’m some sworn enemy, and yet you risk your life for a child you’ve never even seen.”

“Yalisa’s not mine, or anyone else’s, to take,” Osilte said. “She can make her own choices, like any other woman, northerner. It’s the ship I am jealous for. Do you understand?”

Alej didn’t.

Osilte sighed, as if talking to a child. “One day, Yalisa will leave for a different ship. Something grander. And I will have Sabine. That is what I want. Do you understand? This ship is my world and my mistress.”

Alej thought he did.

Though the thought of serving under Osilte soured him.

#

The flotilla anchored off Rusajka’s docks at dawn.

Yalisa joined the crew at the aft railing and peered through her spyglass at Rusajka’s keep. “The Majistra’s out on his balcony. He’s waiting for us to land.”

“He’s gloating, no doubt,” Alej said mildly.

“I hope he is. Come with me.”

In the dim light of the captain’s cabin, she folded her arms. “I’m here to ask for your help, Alej.”

“You want me with a sword.”

Behind her, the aft windows streamed bright morning light, making her a silhouette. “I’ve talked to your friend, Horza. He said you were a great leader. They made your their chief, which means you are as much a captain of men as I am.”

“I became chief because so many died they had no choice,” Alej explained sadly.

“That is not how Horza sees it.”

Alej realized he was not going to be able to leave that world behind.

For a while he’d believed it was possible. Working the bellows, headed out to sea. He’d thought he’d severed a thread and was free to weave a new life.

But he couldn’t sever it so cleanly. Those things he’d tried to bury kept resurfacing. Even in this distant, different life he’d decided to try and live. It was all connected, wasn’t it?

“You want me to lead your bodyguards?” Alej asked.

Yalisa smiled. “I want you to lead the entire shipsguard, Alej. This is your kind of fight. You have more experience leading men on the ground than anyone else. Can I trust you with that?”

Alej took a deep breath. “How will Osilte feel about this?”

“It is not Osilte’s decision. It is yours.” She held a red scarf in her hand and tied it around his right arm. “Do you accept?”

Alej let out the breath as he thought about the desperate crowds rushing the dock at Zebari. Thought about open seas with no water. And the creeping bramble slowly choking western cities from the lands around them. “I do.”

#

The entire shipsguard landed in twenty long tenders, landed, crammed with armored men glinting in the sun. All one hundred of them formed up on the docks, unopposed.

Alej, Osilte and Yalisa stepped forward to meet the thirty city guard that eventually approached the end of the dock nervously.

“Majistra Chandak will allow fifteen men, and only that number, to accompany your captains to meet the Majistra,” one of the guards said. “No more.”

“Pick your men,” Yalisa told Alej.

Alej walked among the shipsguard until he found what he was looking for: Horza deep in the lines. “Who else is here, Horza?”

“Jarka and Kvet also asked to join the shipsguard when the rumor spread that you would be chief,” Horza said with a smile.

“And who told them that?” Alej asked.

Horza shrugged.

Alej smiled. “Find them, bring them and ten other men that you think will serve us well. Do it quickly.”

Within minutes Alej had a band of grim men around again. It felt strangely comfortable, like slipping into an old pair of boots.

He looked around at the remaining shipsguard, and lowered his voice. “You hold the docks,” he said to them. “Once we are inside, that is your duty.”

The shipsguard nodded.

Alej and his band detached, and allowed themselves to be surrounded by the city guardsmen. They all wound their way through the tight roads to the keep.

Inside they were ushered up the winding spiral stone staircases to one of the halls with a balcony and windows overlooking the harbor. A reminder of the singular position the Majistra had in this city.

From here they could see the entire flotilla.

Alej could see that the ships were moving closer to the docks and shore, pulled by teams of rowers in tenders. Down by the docks the shipsguard spread out, securing the roads and shore.

This time Chandak didn’t bother making them wait. He’d been waiting all day. His face flushed with anger, and there was no pretense at politeness.

“You’ve come back to beg for the right to harbor in my city,” he said. “The terms will be very, very different, captain.”

Yalisa shook her head. “No Majistra, I’m not here to beg for anything. I’m here to take your city. It’s time to change our little understanding.”

#

Chandak laughed, taken aback at the total turn in conversation. But Alej didn’t laugh at all, he was still eyeing the situation outside.

“You told me you would wait longer before telling him,” he hissed at her.

She crossed her arms. “Majistra, you inherited this city. Your father hung the mayor from the battlements and took control. And yet, you’ve always believed the great walls of Rusajka and your own city guard left this city protected. But you’ve let the defenses facing the sea become overrun with shops, and shacks. It’s no longer protected from the sea. And now my shipsguard hold it.”

Yalisa pointed out the great windows of the keep.

Alej ground his teeth. She’d told him, in the cabin of her own ship, that she’d negotiate with the Majistra as long as she could.

This was not negotiating.

She was goading the damn man.

“We are not really isolated, Chandak. I learned that. And if we’re not disconnected from the land, then we need to control a port. We need to deal with you Majistra, instead of running from you.”

“Are you mad? I have five hundred city guard, captain,” Chandak said, bewildered. “You have a hundred shipsguard? You are outnumbered in this room alone two to one.”

Alej had the hand on the hilt of his sword. Ready.

“Chandak!” Yalisa snapped. “Look out your windows and tell me what you see.”

Alej looked at Osilte. Are you ready?

Osilte nodded.

Alej pointed at Horza, indicating that he should move his men up between Yalisa and the city guard. He also caught Kvet’s eye, and jutted his chin at the door. They didn’t want more city guard coming in. Kvet sidled off.

Jarka tilted his head at the city guard. A question. Attack now? Alej shook his head, but put his hand to his sword. Get ready. He pointed his thumb at the Majistra.

Jarka understood.

Alej was relieved to see the city guard as confused, or at least as stunned, as Chandak was.

Chandak turned to the windows, as had everyone else. Alej glanced out again.

The ships being towed into shore by rowers had beached themselves. City guard, merchants, and peasants watched from the shops and roads as people slid over the bows by ropes.

More ships raised their sails and brazenly tacked for shore at high speed.

“You are being invaded, Majistra. From the sea,” Yalisa said. “There are more ship people armed with cutlasses than city guard. And we already have your docks and beaches. When was the last time you fought a battle face to face, Majistra? I doubt you even know how.”

Chandak turned back, lips quivering. “Kill them! But save her.”

Kvet slammed the door shut, startling the city guard, who looked over at him.

The shipsguard unsheathed their swords and attacked, armor clanking and swords sparking. Even with surprise on their side, though, Alej knew he stood a good chance of losing here. His men were experienced.

But numbers still mattered.

He let Osilte run in front of him to attack, and then looked for Jarka.

Jarka had held back, as Alej had wished. They nodded at each other and then together smashed through the city guard, barely watching their own backs and leaving Yalisa unprotected by the window.

A bold decision, if they failed.

They didn’t engage the guards, just parried them long enough to move past them.

Someone screamed, and then stopped with a wet gurgle. But Alej kept his focus on his target.

Chandak raised his hands, blue light glowing from them as he realized Jarka and Alej barreled straight for him and ignored all else. “Do not think of touch me…” he started to threaten in a high pitched scream, and Jarka’s sword flashed so fast it was almost a magic of its own.

Chandak’s left hand tumbled to the ground. Blood and blue light splashed from the severed wrist and pooled on the floor. The Majistra screamed and clutched his useless arm, trying to stop the gushing.

“City guard halt!” Alej shouted in his deepest, most authoritative command voice. The tableaux of butchery in the room froze, men looking back at him, refocusing.

Alej had his sword to Chandak’s throat, who crouched on the floor, mewling and clutching his bloody arm.

“Drop your swords,” Alej growled, in a voice that said he expected nothing less. “You have nothing left to fight for. Chandak isn’t able to offer you a job anymore, and your life will be wasted.”

A panting Osilte staggered back to rest on a table. Blood dripped from a bad wound under his arm. “Does he surrender?” he asked.

Alej looked down at Chandak. “Do you wish to fight to the death, Chandak, or surrender and gain your life?”

The Majistra looked up, his face an unhealthy pale. He shivered. “I surrender,” he said in a tiny voice. “I surrender.”

#

Yalisa helped Alej take Osilte to the top of the keep, where he looked out over the city with a smile. City guards had surrendered their weapons, and shipsguard had spread throughout Rusajka.

A few small fires burned here and there, where some had refused and fought the shipsguard, but it was over.

They had taken Rusajka.

“I saw this view once as a boy,” Osilte said. “From this very spot. My great uncle was the mayor of Rusajka, and after Chandak killed him my family was banished to the shacks after he took all our gold and houses.”

“So you thought to rise to the keep again,” Alej said. “And take revenge?”

Osilte shook his head. “I told you what I seek when we were at sea, soldier-boy. I left all that behind. I barely remember that life. What I remember most is the shacks, and knife fights for my life. Stealing and murdering and blood. When I joined the shipsguard and Yalisa took me as her first mate, I got a new life. I’m a sailor, Alej. I have no interest in land.”

“I’ve given Osilte the Sabine,” Yalisa said. “The captains have elected me to be the captain of Rusajka, and I accepted.”

“I see,” Alej said. He looked down at his armor, the sword, and sighed a little.

Yalisa moved closer. “I know you wanted to leave your sword behind, Alej. But I had to have the best arms I could get. With you and Osilte by my side, I knew would triumph.”

“You trust me too much,” Alej muttered.

“I’m a captain, Alej. I know how to spot a good man,” Yalisa laughed. “We will need a new captain of the city guard, Alej. Will you continue to be my captain?”

Alej was tired of blood. But he liked to lead good men. And he didn’t want to go back to the bellows, or working for Osilte on the Sabine. He thought about the thick walls he’d seen while coming into the city.

This would be a secure place. Few of his men would ever die facing an enemy from behind those walls. Not even The Executioness in the east could breach these walls, he thought.

He’d never be seasick again.

There would be good food, and housing. A house instead of a tiny slot of a bunk and a locker for his belongings.

There would be a place in the world for him, and people who depended on him.

“I’ll be your sword,” he told her.

Osilte threw a tight bundle wrapped in oilskin at his feet. “Now that I know you’ll be leaving my ship, I have a gift for you.”

Alej slipped the knot open, and unrolled his cloak. The one he’d first arrived in Rusajka with. He laughed. “Thank you, Osilte.”

He wrapped the cloak around his shoulders and looked out over the cobbled streets of Rusajka. It was good to be on land again, even if it did feel like it was still swaying a little bit.

This, he thought, could be a place where he belonged.

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