Stories IndexFiction IndexCatalogue and CommisionsArt GalleriesSend feedbackNext

 

The Third Stone

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter One

 

 

A swarming cornucopia of color, sound and smell existed within the sprawling docks of the Port of Kava. Nothing compared to the flamboyant activity so much as a spring unity carnival, with all it's hordes of flowers and gaily outfitted lovers singing praises to the benevolent spirits of nature. Kava experienced perpetual spring. It was situated on the western coast of the great continent of Khell, just below an equatorial line that ensured year round temperate weather. It was the last western port before the Cape of Chaze and the irregular currents that swirled about the southern tip of Khell. Sailing was dangerous up that peninsula past the kingdoms of Agbar, Sarrageta, and Parmale. Beyond those were the sparsely populated lands of Uvar that held little lure for merchants.

Now North up the western coast of the great continent - that was another matter altogether. The waters were kind and the trade lucrative. A sailor could make his fortune among those ports. A ship might never have to leave the safe, established routes of Western Khell and still make a fine life for itself and it's crew. A daring captain with a ship worthy of long ocean voyages might find a quicker passage to wealth by simply crossing the waters of the Desharr sea. There he might reap the exotic wealth of the dark continent of Danar, where precious metals and jewels abounded.

So the rumors went.

Kava Port made its reputation as a center of spices and rare powders, medicines and potions brought out of the temperate forests that covered much of its inland territories. A fine city sat overlooking the vast docks. A city that owed the entirety of its wealth to the bounty its wild lands offered. Its people were small of stature and dark of skin. A great number of Kavian natives toiled on the docks, hurrying here and there, working the warehouses or the shipyards, manning the uncountable stands and booths offering every trade item imaginable. If it came down the coast from the twelve other major ports north of Kava, then it graced the port market.

The lady stood out among them. She was a head taller than most native Kavian women and her hair a beacon of fire crowing a face pale and delicately made. A lace scarf and cap sat primly in place above her smooth brow and trailed beaded tassels down her back. Her robes were silk and of a multitude of colors and her arms were bare, save for various bracelets and bands that spoke of wealth and prestige. Two guards followed discreetly in her wake as she moved through the teeming docks. Heads turned to follow her passage, faces either envious of her obvious wealth or admiring of her beauty.

Her destination was the squat, sandstone building that housed the Dock Master's offices. It sat on the street facing the sea and before it spread a forest of masts and riggings that bobbed gently upon placid waters.

Her slippered feet touched the weather-grayed planking of the front walk and one of her guards hurried forward to open the doors. The lobby was a small bare room, crowded with seamen. The smell of sweat was sour in the air. Conversations were exchanged in yells as a dozen men tried to carry out business at the same moment. Two windows were open out of six and haphazard lines formed before them.

The lady tilted her head in distaste and scanned the faces in the room. She motioned to one of her men and he moved into the press, bending to speak to one man, then another. Finally he approached his mistress with a smaller man at his side. The bearded newcomer had a face lined by years of harsh sea wind. His dress was moderately well to do, with a fine black coat over tan trousers and shiny black boots. A captain's ring adorned his left ear, the ritual indication that this was a man who owned and sailed his own ship.

"I'm to understand you're looking to hire a ship, lady?" His voice was a croaking whisper with a far northern slang. She inclined her head, studying him from beneath her lashes.

"I've need of a ship to make a sea crossing to Vahnatu. I've specific needs. Three cabins of a comfortable nature. Privacy is a must. If you choose to make arrangements for cargo, I've no problem, save that I have a need for haste and wish departure within a day's time."

"The Seastag has the finest accommodations for passengers you'll find at this port. Privacy I can assure you. Although to leave at such short notice, it'll be a journey with no cargo and expensive because of it."

"I've little care of the cost."

The captain thought a moment, eyes barely visible behind the folds of skin around them. "Three thousand gold, in advance and we can leave with the morning tides, Lady."

She graced him with a pleased smile. She had not expected to find her ship so quickly. She prepared to grant the wizened little caption with the ultimate gift of her handshake, when a loud, outraged voice broke above the din in the room.

"Lying bastards. We had a deal."

Heads turned, conversations lulled as ears strained to hear the details of an argument at the head of the line. A young man stood with his hands braced on the edge of the counter, facing down a brown skinned, tight faced clerk.

"I've a shipload of produce going to rot on your docks that this office contracted me to deliver and now you say you've no use for it?"

"The port of Kava has purchased goods from another source." the clerk's voice was strained with the effort of civility. "The price was better and we are under no obligation to purchase what we do not wish."

"We had a contract!!" the young captain yelled, slamming a fist into the frame around the window. "I want to speak to your supervisor."

"Sell your merchandise elsewhere." the clerk suggested acidly. "That's what my supervisor will say. Save us all the time and take the advice now."

"You oily, little, brown maggot." The irate captain showed every sign of crawling right through the window. The clerk signaled hastily and port official guards marched in from the sidelines, pikes held ready in their hands. The young man looked at the assortment of sharp tipped points and rethought his action, taking his hands from the window sill and jabbing a finger at the clerk instead.

"This is not over."

The clerk merely smiled. With a curse the captain whirled, pushed past the men behind him in line and stalked towards the door. The lady watched the interaction with interest, then stepped away from the old captain she had been bargaining with and into the path of the very angry young one. He tried to step around her, his attention focused firmly on the exit out of the place that had so caused his agitation. She moved slightly to block egress and his eyes seemed to regain some hint of rationality as he realized that someone was deliberately obstructing his path. He took a breath, then another and fixed the lady with an impatient glare.

"My name is Tiana and I'm looking for a ship."

The young captain blinked at her, focusing more on her face than her words.

"Well, how wonderful for you." he tried to get past her again. There was much about him resembling an animal trying to escape capture. The lady smiled, revealing perfect white teeth. The captain paused, looking twice at her and at her rich attire.

"You're looking for a ship?" he repeated slowly, as if he hadn't heard her right the first time.

"I am. Captain. . .?"

"Theodonis. Of the Luck."

"Wait a minute!" The captain of the Seastag said indignantly, glaring at the younger man accusingly. "The lady and I were about to strike a bargain."

Theodonis of the Luck was having a hard time taking his eyes from Lady Tiana's heart shaped face.

"No more." the lady said.

"The luck's a coastal barge compared to the Seastag. You'll get not the comfort you're used to on his tub."

That drew the young captain's attention from the lady. He tilted his head and smiled coldly at the older man. "She could run circles around your floating brothel of a boat, Siris. And make a voyage in half the time and at half the price."

The old man ground yellowed teeth and stepped up to Theodonis of the Luck who was half a head taller and two decades younger. "Why you slick tongued little pirate. "

"That's a nasty rumor." Theodonis' smile grew cat-like and content. "But, you would know, wouldn't you, being a connoisseur of the black market yourself?."

The lady held up a hand, gesturing sharply with ringed fingers.

"As entertaining as this bickering is, I've made my choice. Captain Theodonis. If you've room for five passengers and a ship worthy of a voyage to Vahnatu, then name your price, for I've little time to waste on these shores."

He looked back to Tiana, again caught off guard by her beauty and the imperious tone of her actions. One could see the calculations running through his head. He opened his mouth, then shut it, then finally cast a sidelong look at his fellow captain and said.

"I'd bet anything that out of the generosity of his black heart Siris here was willing to take your passage for somewhere around three thousand pieces of gold." At Siris's wince, the young captain's smile grew broader and more charming. "I'll take you on for a mere two."

"Done." the lady said with a negligent wave of her hand. "I'll want to leave with the morning tide. Will you be ready?"

"I will, if you will." Captain Theodonis grinned, watching Siris's back as the old man stormed away, grumbling and cursing to himself.

"Oh, I will be." The lady dismissed him with a nod of her head, gathered her men and retreated from the stale confines of the port authority. When she was outside and once more breathing the fresh sea air, the bolder of her two henchmen leaned forward and inquired.

"My Lady, why did you forgo the most elegant of passenger ships for a merchanter vessel which is sure to have little in the way of amenities for your voyage?"

"Oh, I think the amenities will be just fine, Darak."

When he looked at her blankly she curled her slim arm through his overly thick one and explained. "Did you not see our young captain? I think a voyage spent in company with that will be a voyage I might remember with a certain . . . delight."

Her hulking companion nodded, as if such an explanation should have occurred to him earlier. His lady, after all was a woman of particular and often elaborate tastes. But what did one expect from a mistress of the arcane. Sorceresses were of a whole a peculiar lot.

* * * *

 

"Wing! Wing, where by the four spirits are you?" Theo came bounding up the narrow plank and onto the weathered deck of the Luck. He bellowed out the name of his first mate, leaping the steps to the quarter deck, then scampering back to the main deck and shouting down into the open pit of the cargo hold. The only face that peered up at him was the pale, blinking and very hung over countenance of his Bosman, Adella from where he lay sprawled in the thigh high pile of rigging at the foot of the main mast.

Theo squatted next to the disgruntled old man, shaking at one thick shoulder excitedly. "Wake up, 'Della. Up. Where's Wing? We've got to get the crew back."

"Back?" the grizzled old seaman complained. His breath smelled of the cheapest of Kavian ale. From the other odors arising from him he had expelled a good deal of it in his clothes. "We just got here, lad. Port authority's not after us, is they? Don't need to be banned from another port."

"No, no, no. 'Della I've got us passengers. High paying passengers. Ship needs to set sail with the dawn tides."

"Are you crazy. We've no cargo in our hold."

"Two thousand gold pieces."

The bosman rubbed grit from his eyes and blinked at the very eager face of his captain. "Two thousand. For passengers?"

"Enough to cover the cargo Kara port stuck us with twice over. Find the crew. Get us provisioned for a sea journey to Danar this afternoon. I've got to find Wing."

Adella glanced over his shoulder at a creaking of the plank leading up to the deck. "Look no further, lad."

A giant lumbered up the gangplank, broad shoulders supporting two fair sized barrels of what was most likely brew of an intoxicating nature. Bristles of white blonde hair barely concealed the skin of his head and a finer sprinkling of the stuff covered his chin and the visible flesh of his chest beneath a dirty, well patched gray shirt. Eyes that were sharp and blue fixed on Theo as the smaller man descended upon him, hands gesturing even before he began to speak.

"Wing, I've taken passengers. A lady and her entourage. We'll need to clean out my cabin and yours to make extra passenger room. Adella's going to gather the crew and provisions. I've got to find the charts for a north west sea passage to Vahnatu. Two thousand, Wing. Two thousand on this."

When Theo paused to draw much needed breath, the big man carefully interjected a question. "Did you sell the produce from Thalon?"

It was a dour let down to Theo's exuberant mood. Adella had staggered up behind him and he too waited to hear the answer to that all important question.

"No. They bought it from someone else. If we get half of what we paid for it, we'll be lucky."

"We had a contract." Wing pointed out somberly.

"Tell it to Kava Port Authority." Theo snapped. He found it hard to meet either of their gazes, a personal guilt over the failure riding hard behind his elation at their new found luck. He was the captain. He was the one responsible for buying and selling the merchandise they carried. He was responsible for their reputation at port and between this fiasco and the dreadful misunderstanding at Agbar, the good name of the Luck was beginning to become a little frayed.

"I'll find a buyer for the cargo this afternoon." he promised, running a hand through sweat dampened hair, casting an apologetic look at his first mate, who hardly ever held any of his failures against him. It helped that his mate was also his best friend and had been since they both had been out of the cradle in the vast and unforgiving streets of Agbar Port. A fine combination they had always made, lithe, energetic Theo who was the talker and the planer of great deeds, and hulking, quiet Wing who would back him up to the end. People might take Theo lightly, might think him an easy target, but never with Wing at his back. Not as much as they used to at any rate.

"Find as many silks and pillows as you can. She's a lady and has fine tastes. Maybe I can find us some cargo for the trip. Spices. Teas. What's in demand in Vahnatu?" He wondered past Wing, talking more to himself now than his crewmen. He heard Adella plodding down the gang plank after him, muttering about the unfairness of a liberty cut short. He trusted the matter of the accommodations to be taken care of by Wing by the time his passengers arrived as well as the inspection of the ship. His first mate would also have the appropriate charts out for him when he returned. Wing, in his slow methodical way was a stickler for details that Theo tended to overlook.

Down the sea front street, he went, where small taverns and brothels were squeezed between import export establishments, and the larger, bulkier structures of warehouses. At any given time a hundred or more vessels might grace Kara Port's docks, and of those there were crew to accommodate, with either food, accommodations, companionship or the various trinkets sailors might purchase to amuse themselves during a long voyage. The shops of Kara thrived on the sea and the business the sea brought to them. The Luck's home port was Alatar, since Agbar had barred her from it's docks, but Theo had always counted Kara as his favorite. For the food, for the smell of spice that always wafted through the docks, overpowering even the stench of bilge and for the people who were quick and intelligent and mostly honest in their dealings, Kara Port Authority being excluded from that judgment.

He found a dealer that he knew was not too picky about the quality of his merchandise as long as the price was cheap and sold the pallets of produce sitting on the pier beside the Luck's berth at a sinful amount. He didn't even cover the cost of the initial purchase. Dreadful. Absolutely dreadful. His father was probably churning in embarrassment in his watery grave. But, he pocketed the money and dutifully continued down the dock to a small export company that specialized in spices and teas.

The proprietress took up a good deal of the tiny space inside the front room. Her impressive bulk was fitted behind a wide desk scattered with ledgers. Along the walls were shelves crammed with figurines and various odd items. Her private collection, though much covered with dust. A delightful botanical smell permeated the offices. Theo took a moment to inhale as he stepped into the small room.

The proprietress looked up from her work and her face creased into a fleshy grin.

"Captain Theodonis, where have you been keeping your handsome self? You've not stopped by to see Blera in ages."

"The life of a sailor, Blera. Never the time to do all the things one would really wish to do. You are looking ravishing today."

"Ah, with that tongue and that face, you're like to make an old woman perish of heart stroke."

"Old woman? Never."

Blera waved a hand at him in admonishment, though her round cheeks acquired a rosy hue. "What do you want, scamp?"

Theo rested a hip on the corner of her desk, forgoing the chair that sat at an angle before it. Expensive wood and well crafted. Blera made more of a profit in her dealings than one would think to look at the cramped confines of her outer office.

"I'm off to the Darklands. What's in demand over there this time of year?"

The woman tapped her fingers thoughtfully on her ledger. "What port?"

"Vahnatu."

"Fruit teas. Perfumes. Markell and Danen spices. Medicinal herbs, such as Keenan, Juva, Pershepine and the like. "

Theo mentally calculated his limited funds. He could have five times what he did and still barely fill a corner of the cargo with those items. It would make for a quick journey, so lightly weighted. He wondered if the lady Tiana would offer a bonus for an exceedingly rapid crossing.

"Two crates of tea. An assortment of herbs. Fruit wine, if you have a case."

She named a figure. He named another. They bargained for a while, until a mutual number was agreed upon. Blera always played fair with him. He always went out of his way to bolster her ego.

"Bring back some Danarian silk." she suggested to him as he prepared to leave. "I've a market for it."

"It'll look lovely on you." he countered, making her blush once more.

He felt good about the purchase. Herbs and teas were plentiful in Kava and sold at a good price. In Vahnatu he could triple his investment. He made the rounds of the dockside bars on his way back, looking for any stray members of his crew. Adella must have already cleaned out the taverns, for the only man of his he found was his ship's cook and surgeon, as Collin stumbled down from an upstairs room with his arm around the shoulders of a dockside whore. With a leer and a smirk from the whore, he disengaged the sailor from her side and guided the very drunken cook out of the tavern.

"Wha's wrong?" the red head bobbed from side to side, as if the man were standing on the deck of a rocking ship.

Theo carefully explained, expecting the groan that followed. Collin's sea legs did not work at all in the throes of a hangover. And he was very likely to have one on the morrow. There was going to be a fair amount of leaning over the rail once they got under way.

Theo could see the sluggishly moving figures of his crew from the dock as he hauled Collin towards the ship. Trust Adella to know where their favorite haunts in this port were. Wing was up the main mast, checking the furled sail and the ropes binding it to the yard. They'd had a problem with the yard arm two voyages back, when the harsh winds of a coastal storm had strained it to the breaking point. He'd been forced to replace it at Thalon, but the work had been hastily done and cheap, and Wing had kept a suspicious eye to it ever since.

Collin staggered off towards the lower deck, and Theo approached the main mast and stood looking up that impressive height at his mate's silhouetted figure.

"All hands aboard?" he called up.

Wing paused in his crawling about the rigging. "Most all. "Della will find them before morning."

"He'd better." Theo said. He climbed below decks, threading his way down the narrow corridor that ran between the passenger cabins. There were four, besides his own quarters, and two of those were used for storage. The door to the captain's cabin, at the aft of the ship was open. the room was surprisingly clean considering the shape he had left it in upon his departure this morning. His personal storage locker was secured, and Wing had moved the rest of his things out, probably into the chart room, where he had hung a hammock in the past to make room for paying passengers. Wing would bunk with the sailors down below.

Sure enough, in the chart room his things had been neatly stacked in a wall bin, and the appropriate charts for the North West Sea passage had been laid out on the slanted table. The port spilled enough natural light into the small cabin to forgo the lighting of the oil lamp that swung on a hook over the table. If truth be told, he had never made a sea voyage during the short years he had been captain of the Luck. He'd ridden them as mate under his father but never piloted the course himself. It didn't worry him particularly. Theo, if nothing else, had a great deal of faith in his own abilities. He knew the course. Up the coast to Flamora and then west, following the swift currents that would sweep them directly to the shores that Vahnatu perched upon. A week's journey to Flamora, and maybe twice that across the Desharr to Danar. Not even a full month and he'd have earned gold it would have taken him two coastal runs to gather.

He leaned elbows on the table, staring out of the round porthole at the grayish expanse of a neighboring clipper. The Luck was badly in need of a graving. And lying her a ground to burn off old filth was costly. Might as well parcel a seam while he was at it, have the old girl overhauled right if he'd an extra thousand in gold to pay for it. Have it done in the shipyards at Petrice, where the price was high, but the craftsmanship impeccable. Wing would like that. Wing had been whining for have her recaulked and pitched for a year now. Perhaps, just perhaps, the duplicity of the Kara Port Authority, was a boon to be thankful for. The Luck was long overdue for some bit of good will from the spirits.

* * * * *

The lady Tiana of Vahnatu arrived with dawn, appearing on the docks before the Luck only marginally before Theo's hastily purchased cargo. The majority of it was stowed in the hold when the lady and her party called for permission to board the ship.

Theo had gone to the trouble of donning his best captain's vest and his newest pair of trousers. The small gold circle of his captain's ring peeked shyly forth from beneath newly washed hair. He felt very much the need to impress the lady with both himself and his ship. He stood at the end of the ramp and welcomed her aboard. She was as splendid as he recalled, in sea green robes, her fiery hair spilling out from beneath a jeweled skull cap of the same hue. It took some effort to tear his eyes away from her in order to regard the rest of her retinue. The same two hulking body guards, one easily the size of Wing, the other only marginally smaller. They carried her personal baggage, which was relatively light, considering her apparent taste in fashion and obvious wealth. The coach that spilled them forth was off loading a few more sealed trunks that she would no doubt want stored in the hold with the rest of the cargo.

A lady's maid followed the body guards, clutching a bag to her breast and casting wary glances about the ship as if she feared it might sink as soon as her weight touched deck. Another female servant held carefully to the arm of an elderly man, helping him navigate the incline of the plank.

Tiana stood at Theo's side, holding out an arm for the old man when his feet finally made the security of the deck. Limply, he allowed her to hook her elbow through his. His eyes were haggard and drifting and he seemed little interested in the present situation.

"My father, Master Pyphin." she said. "He'll need a room for himself and his nurse. He's very ill."

"Nothing," Theo asked cautiously. "contagious, I hope?"

"Only the rigors of advanced age." The lady sighed, patting the blotched, wrinkled hand of her sire. "I fear that his time is near, which is part of the reason for my haste to return home. I trust we will be leaving shortly?"

"Of course. Let me show you to your cabins."

The two body guards shared the one cabin, while the ailing Master Pyphin and his stern faced nurse took another. The lady and her maid, Theo settled in his own quarters. She looked about in satisfaction, finally turning to grace him with her smile.

"It will do. Privacy is of great concern to me and mine. I trust the crew does not often access the passenger section?"

"Only in direst emergency, Lady."

"There is a lock on this door, are there locks on the others?"

"Umm, no, but there are hooks on the inside, if you need them, but I assure you this crew will not intrude upon you in any manner."

"Your word is fine and good, but I'd prefer the locks. The hooks will do."

He didn't know quite what to say in response to that, so merely nodded in agreement of her wishes. Her maid was a quiet presence by the door. The woman's frightened eyes made him nervous. He felt the desire to assure her that the Luck was indeed seaworthy so that she might relax.

"On the matter of payment. . ." he started and Tiana silenced him with a smile and a wave of the hand. She snapped her elegant fingers and the maid dug in her pouch and hurried forward, a heavy bag of clinking coin in her hands. Tiana took it, momentarily hefting the bulky little bag, a speculative look crossing her face. Then she placed the bag in his hands, her own slender fingers brushing his own. It was a whispery, silken touch that lingered longer than a mere transference of funds should have accounted for.

"Two thousand." she assured him.

He nodded, finding it a little hard to breath with such a fortune weighting down his hands and the vivid recollection of her fingertips on his knuckles. Her eyes flickered over him, as if she had never bothered to examine him before. "I trust it will be well spent."

He stared soundlessly, feeling as if he'd rather suddenly acquired an overwhelming sunburn.

"For a speedy journey. I do hold you to your word on that." she amended

"Of course. My thanks, Lady. I should leave you to settle and see about getting under way."

Out of the cabin and down the narrow way, all the time thinking of the lady's promising smile and the touch of her hand. He couldn't get those eyes out of his mind. Green. Green like the lushest temperate jungle over the white sand of a pristine beach. Being a young man of pleasing features, he was not unschooled in the come hither looks a woman might toss the way of a man she held interest in. The fine and lofty lady in his cabin had eyes that fairly screamed invitation. But, paying passengers were not to be dallied with. That was a firm and long standing rule of the merchanter class. There was always the possibility it was his imagination and a very great longing for just such an invitation, that made more of her touch and pleasant demeanor than there really was. Probably just being polite.

He kept telling himself just that as he reached the upper deck. He went aft, to where the many spoked wheel stood and where Wing was giving last minute instructions to the sailors that would work the rigging when they were under way. His crew, which a good third of had been his father's, were nothing if not efficient in their duties, hung over from a too brief liberty or not. Wing announced the ship as fit as she would ever be. The ropes were unhitched from the dock and the Luck pushed off, gliding slowly into the deep waters of Kara harbor. The currents took them out until the shore was nothing but a thin line on the horizon, then Theo called for the sails to be unfurled and they caught the north wind that would sweep them up along the coast of Khell.

The Luck's passengers did not show themselves for the remainder of the afternoon. Collin wavered onto deck, looking green about the face and proceeded to the stern rail to disgorge his supper. When he'd finished emptying his stomach into the sea, he made his unsteady way aft, and sat on the steps leading up to the wheel. Theo, who had set his course and now did little more than observe the workings of his ship and the glittering play of the sun on the watery ripples around them, cast a wary grin down at the man who served duel functions as cook and surgeon. Collin was a northerner. His pale skin and pronounced cheeks claimed origins in the deepest of the northern colds. He was a little soft around the middle, a side effect of his passion for cooking, but it was offset by his lanky limbs and big hands. His feet were impossibly large, and more often than not lacking in any hint of grace. He never failed to blush when the crew teased him about what other over large appendages a man with feet and hands the size of his might have. But, Collin was a gentle soul, at heart, and never took offense, and coincidentally enough he had a fair following of regular women who waited for his return to each of their ports. One suspected it was not his mild manner that held them so enthralled.

"It's a cruel, cruel thing, you're doing." Collin moaned, balefully staring up at his captain.

"Aye." Theo agreed. "but the profit will be worth it. She paid in advance."

Collin arched a brow. "She? I don't remember you mentioning that, or did you? A lady is it, we're carrying all the way to the Darklands. I hear tales that only women of more than natural influences have free reign to go where they will there."

"More than natural influences? Collin you listen to too much gossip in those brothels you frequent."

"No. No, it's fact. Danar is so embroiled in the slave trade that they keep their free women under lock and key just to keep them safe. The only ones bold enough to travel freely are those well able to defend themselves."

Theo shrugged, shifting his position against the rail. "No matter, sorcery is a legitimate trade, last I heard. Her gold was of a solid, mortal nature and that's what counts."

"I suppose so." Collin swallowed weakly. "I'll tell you plainly, though, if they're expecting lunch today, someone else'll have to make it. If I step foot in the galley, there'll be a nasty mess to clean up."

"You'd think, after all this time, you could handle a bit of ale, Collin." Theo complained. "You've been at this longer than I have. "

Collin declined to answer, lowering his head instead to his hands in the clear indication that the conversation, for the moment was over. It could only be hoped that by the end of the day, when it came time for dinner, that the cook would be in better shape.

The day went well. The winds were behind them with eager purpose, keeping the sails full until the moon shined silvery and full behind a sparse feathering of clouds. At the rate they were going Alatar would be reached by tomorrow and Thalon was only three days beyond that. Another two and they would reach Flamora where the westerly currents were strongest.

Dinner was late. Collin had dragged himself to the galley eventually, when he'd nothing left to puke up, and managed to prepare a plain stew. It along with biscuits was the only fare crew and passengers alike were offered when the dinner bell rang.

Theo and a few others on duty remained on deck while the rest of the Luck's crew retreated to the galley. Men returned to deck in ones and twos, with bowls of stew in hand, to eat under the clear night sky. Eventually Wing came up and relieved Theo at the wheel. He was more exhausted that he would have thought, considering that it had been a relatively easy day. Perhaps it was all the imaginings of the lady below decks that had made him overtired. He gratefully sat down at the galley table and let Collin ladle stew into a bowl. It was watery and tasteless, not one of Collin's better efforts. From the dour expressions of the other sailors at the table, it was a shared opinion. He ate it anyway. Pushing the bowl away when he was done, Theo leaned his back against the wall and stared at the cook as Collin idly stirred the remaining stew.

"I trust breakfast will be better?"

Collin cast a baleful glance over his shoulder. His complexion was somewhat back to normal, but puffy bags loitered under his eyes. "I'll never drink Kavian ale again. I swear it."

"Yes you will."

"I saw your fine lady."

Theo lifted a brow, and silently waited for Collin to express his opinion.

"Didn't much care for my stew."

"Can you blame her?"

"I hold to what I said earlier. I think she's a magic worker. Kerisai or Kurisar, I couldn't tell you which."

"I never realized you were so attuned to such things. Does it matter which?"

"One's the magic of purity and the other of dark things and secrets."

Theo rolled his eyes, not up to a debate over theology at this late hour. The people of Khell, especially the northern provinces were religious in their beliefs that the Kurisar sect was the only pure one as far as the summoning of magic was concerned. The people of Danar were more comfortable with the study of Kerisai. As far as Theo was concerned, one magics was as good as the other. He was not attuned to any of the minions of the four spirits, and therefore had little interest or care in the practices of those that were. It was an opinion many people of the temperate southern lands held. It was only northern Khell where conditions were harsher that men were more jealous of their religious structures.

"That hatchet faced nurse barely let me in to deliver supper to the old man. I offered my services to the lady in case he grew sicker, but she declined. I'll give you another opinion though, it's more than age that ails him. He's got the eyes of a man drugged."

"Perhaps he's in pain."

Collin shrugged. "Perhaps. I just thought you should know."

Theo sighed, nodding his understanding. He was tired, and he was just too young, he thought dourly, for his bones to ache. His knee twinged particularly when his body was worn out, an old injury from childhood. He'd twisted it so badly during a skirmish with a trio of Agbar street punks, that he'd not been able to walk on it for a week and not use it fully for more than a month. Sometimes, when his knee throbbed in the night, he still had dreams of that particular fight, how the three older boys, whom he'd taunted in the past, had trapped him in a dead end alley, and when he'd gone to climb the wall at the far end, they had caught his legs and pulled him down. He'd fallen badly on the one leg, injuring the knee, and when they saw he couldn't get up to fight they had kicked and pummeled him mercilessly until Wing who was two years older and considerably larger than all concerned had come upon them. Those three had run bleeding from the scene, and Wing, with bloodied knuckles had carried Theo all the way home. He had been eleven. Those boys never bothered him again, but the memory struck often enough, even fifteen years later.

He thought about turning back and asking Collin for liniment to rub the knee with. But, no, then it would get back to Wing that it was hurting again, and his mate would complain of him standing the day long at the wheel. Wing tended to get a little too protective.

Urchin, the galley boy was gathering empty bowls from the cabins of the passengers when Theo reached the narrow corridor. The boy nodded at his captain as he knocked on the door at the end of the hall. Theo paused, with his hand on the latch of the chart room. The door to the lady's quarters opened and the little maid peeked out, saw the boy with an armful of dirty dishes and disappeared into the room, leaving the door open. Tiana herself, sat at the desk, an oil lamp burning over head. She paused in the turning of a page, and looked out the open door. Her eyes bypassed the boy and fixed on Theo. The maid came back with tray in hand. She started to shut the door, but Tiana spoke some word Theo could not hear and rose, gliding across the room in pale, ashen gray robes. Her hair was free of any ornament or covering and sparkled all the more beautifully without it.

She glided down the corridor. Theo figured he was about to get a reprimand for such an unsavory dinner, but she smiled at him instead and laid a hand on his wrist.

"I was just reading about the moon and her phases. The view from the cabin is restrictive. Might it be possible to stroll the deck and survey her unhindered?"

The idea of untrained passengers on deck during night with only a skeleton crew on watch was not the most comforting of notions. Trip on a rope, mis-step and fall over a rail and the black waters would swallow a body whole and never spit it back up.

"Lady, I'd ask that you not do it alone."

Her brows rose marginally. "I was not suggesting that I do so alone. I do trust I'd be safe in your care, Captain."

She held out her arm, and he discovered something new about her. It was almost impossible to say no to the lady Tiana. He took her offered arm and walked her back up to the deck.

The moon perched among the stars to the north, so he took her along the outer rail towards the bow. The breeze was intermittently lazy and only occasionally ruffled the sails enough to make them billow. The gentle splash of waves against the hull was a constant. The sea was a blackness all around them, only briefly light up at the crest of this wave or that by a stray ray of moonlight.

Tiana stood at the bow rail and stared up at the moon. Her hair curled about her shoulders, tendrils moving with the wind. Theo stood beside her, trying not to stare at her perfect profile and doing it anyway. She was a perfectly manicured creature. He had yet to figure out what had made her choose his little clipper over the larger, more luxurious Basques that she had been dealing with. There was a meticulous look to the way she dressed herself and managed her affairs that suggested she was not a woman prone often to whim. Collin's predictions came back to plague him and he wondered if she were also prone to sorcery.

"It's a hunter's moon tonight." Tiana spoke. "Let all prey beware it's silver light."

"It's a sailors moon, as well." he added. "The tides are always good when she shines full upon us."

"Hummm." she turned to pierce him with her stare. "You've a fine ship, Captain Theodonis."

"Theo." he said. "Theodonis was my father."

"And was he a sea captain, too?"

"This was his ship."

"Ah, I'd wondered. Dead now?"

He nodded, visualizing the last flash he'd seen of the man who'd sired him. A pale form caught in the fury of a monsoon wave, swept away into an ocean as black as this one tonight.

"I'm sorry about dinner." he said on impulse to kill the images. "Collin is usually a better cook. He's a wonderful cook actually, just not when he's hung over. I promise you better fare from now on."

She waved a hand as if it were on no import. She had latched onto a train of conversation and she kept at it.

"You were born to a sailor, then. Have you been at sea all your life?"

"Actually she was a tavern wench." He cast a wry smile her way, all the while wondering why she might possibly want to know. "My father wasn't forced to take me to sea until she died. I was thirteen."

"Oh. Death is often the precipitator of momentous events."

"It wasn't that momentous."

"For you it was."

She had a way with words. She could have stood there babbling nonsense, and with the moonlight on her face and her soft fingers on his arm he would still be entranced. It was the height of rudeness, but he had no power to tear his eyes from her. He stared and she smiled as if she had achieved some victory.

"I was born in a fortress overlooking the sea." she said. "I looked at it all my life, but never ventured it's waters till recently. I think I envy you, so intimate connection with her."

Her fingers trailed up his arm to the rolled sleeves of his shirt, then back down again. He vaguely recalled feeling like this the first time he'd lain with a woman a fair number of years gone by. It was hard to remember the merchanter's code of avoiding affairs with paying passengers. Very hard.

"Why did you pick the Luck for your passage when the Seastag would have carried you in more comfort?" It was not a question he would normally have voiced.

Tiana wet her lips and leaned close, as if dozens of prying ears were poised nearby. Reflexively he bent his head to catch her whisper.

"I had a feeling and I always trust my feelings."

When Theo appeared on the deck the following morning, the ship was steadily making progress with the wind again in her sails. As he had expected they passed Alatar sometime in the early hours of morning. He was rightfully pleased with the sailing. The spirits of the air were being particularly kind to the Luck this trip.

Wing was at the wheel, holding a long range conversation with the lookout in the cradle above the main mast. When he noticed his captain's approach his broad face creased into a frown. Theo's hackles rose. Wing did not usually frown his morning greeting.

"Problem?" he asked, scanning the horizon himself for something that might have alerted the lookout.

Wing shook his head somberly. "Fishing vessel to the east. No problem."

Theo looked that way but from his vantage could make out no speck on the land ward horizon. "All right." he said carefully. "Then why do you look like pirates are surrounding us?"

If possible, Wing's expression grew even heavier. "You're making a mistake with the lady, Theo. She's paying passenger and not to be dallied with."

Theo opened his mouth in disbelief, then snapped it shut when indignity began to sit in. There was no place on earth that gossip spread so fast as on shipboard. "I think I know the code."

Wing merely looked at him. Theo let out a hissing breath and shouldered past the big man to stand at the aft railing. Wing had been on watch last night. His eagle eyes could not have missed their little moonlight walk, or how close she had stood with him at the bow rail. Any other crew on deck would have seen the same. Spirits knew the presence of a woman on deck was enough to put a hold to all active duty.

"Give me credit for a little sense." he said coolly, without turning to meet his mate's eyes.

"When have I not?" Wing answered softly. Theo glanced over his shoulder, contrite, but Wing had already started down to mid-deck. Later, he thought. Later he'd find out just how far the rumors of he and the lady had spread.

 

Stories IndexFiction IndexCatalogue and CommisionsArt GalleriesSend feedbackNext