The ring of eman vath, p.5
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       The Ring of Eman Vath, p.5

           Hal Emerson
 

  Chapter Five: The Great Ship

  Samson stood on the deck of Longrider, imagining the layout of the Archipelago. The map was a memory, one of the many drilled into him by his father. He scanned the reefs and shoals, charting the course home and taking into account the wind, the tide, and a hundred other factors for which a ship’s captain was responsible.

  Home was Gol, a large island not far from the last of the fishing villages that lined the coast of the Peninsula, just in sight of where the foot of the Windy Mountains met the water of the Shining Sea. They were in southern waters now, near Howa – they needed to catch the northern current before the sun set and the tide turned.

  Gol was one of the largest islands in the Archipelago, and it was located the farthest north and east, save for a number of tiny scattered islands that were barely more than shoals. West of Gol was Hana, and Typr, and then nothing but the vast expanse of the Shining Sea all the way to the continent of Idan, where ruled the Empire of Charridan, the ancient enemy of Aeon.

  Samson knew all that, and yet he didn’t. He knew it as one knows that the sun rises and sets even without understanding why. It was a fact of life that needed no understanding, simply comprehension. The Archipelagans did not chart west – they traded through Caelron and Laniae. He thought of the west only ever as a place that no one went – the way a practical man might think of the night sky: admiring the beauty, but never really wondering what makes the stars shine.

  Samson’s world revolved around Longrider. It had to. As the youngest Clan Captain in a century, he had been forced to immerse himself fully in the world his father had left him. Johan Seastrider had been one of the most renowned fishermen of Gol before his death of the wasting disease, and it was well and widely spoken of that Samson had both the skill and the drive to become his successor. With the help of his mother, clever and indomitable Marlyene Seastrider, Samson had been placed in his father’s fishing fleet when he reached the age of fifteen, the age of manhood in the Archipelago. He’d been given command of his father’s old ship, choice of his own crew, and the chance to prove himself.

  Many spoke of how much he resembled his father: the same bronze skin and sea-blue eyes of traditional Golish stock, well taller than most men, and with the straight-backed posture his mother had bred into him. He had broad shoulders that would continue to fill out as he grew, and he was quick, both with hands and feet, and had already earned a reputation as a fearsome fighter with spear and staff.

  He had younger brothers, eleven and thirteen, and a younger sister. It was the tradition in the Archipelago for the men to set sail in the boats at dawn and to return with the setting sun, and when Samson was given his own ship he made it so that both of his brothers were there to learn from him, as he had learned from their father. The women of the family stayed home and ran the business, keeping the books and corresponding with the mainland should the need arise. Samson’s sister was tutoring under his mother, though she was barely ten.

  “Samson!” roared Jolly, the first mate, “we’ve got a catch!”

  Excitement raced through him as the crew rushed for the netting thrown over Longrider’s portside rail. All thoughts of sailing home abandoned, he shouted orders to ship the oars and pull in the catch. The men at the netting began to heave.

  “Hold the line there!” he cried out, but shouts of dismay echoed back, and he saw the edge of the net, full to the brim, begin to slip.

  He abandoned the wheel, throwing a knotted rope over the top grip to keep it in place, and rushed down the side of the galley to where his youngest brother Solom was struggling. He lunged and grabbed the net, picking up the slack.

  “Hold it!” Samson cried again. “This is our haul for the day – if we lose it, we come back empty-handed!”

  He helped Solom firm up his grip and then heaved with the rest of them. They’d had no luck all day and only as a last ditch effort had they cast their nets here off the coast of Howa. It looked as though they’d dropped right in the middle of a school of herring as they rounded the edge of the coast: the net was halfway out of the water and it was already clear that it was as full as Samson had ever seen it.

  “There’re too many!” cried Jolly. The first mate was a big bear of a man that had worked with Samson’s father, and his support was one of the reasons Samson had Longrider at all. “We have to cut it loose, Sammy!”

  “Not yet!” Samson called back, matching the bigger man shout for shout. “Shuffle toward the center, they’re concentrated there – get oars under them for leverage – don’t let up, we need the haul!”

  The men rushed to obey: oars were pulled from the locks that kept them immobile while the galley was rowing, and one, two, three of them were shoved into place beneath the struggling fish. The hardy island pine began to bend under the weight, threatening to break, and with cries of alarm two of the men dove back to the slipping net and grabbed handfuls, while the others levered as hard as they could. The oars held the net where it was, but it was a stalemate: the crew could not pull the net up any further.

  “Jayboy! Lop!” Samson shouted. “Throw your weight around!”

  The two biggest men – widest, not strongest – moved to the oars, pulling back on the net with all their strength as they went, going hand by hand so as not to let go any slack. Then, when they were finally in place, they switched with the other crewmen and threw themselves against the heavy pinewood handles.

  The oars bowed dangerously in the middle where they met the wooden side of the ship, but they held, and with the added leverage the net began to rise. A ragged cheer went up among the crew that was largely strangled by their exertion, but Jolly’s voice managed to cut through the jubilation:

  “Captain! We’ve got sharks!”

  Fulking blood and tears, this is why you don’t fish off of Howa!

  Samson let go of the net and rushed for the far side of the line, toward where Jolly was straining with his side of the net. The first mate was motioning frantically astern with his head, and Samson changed tack and headed in that direction. His bare, calloused feet found their way easily across the wet deck, and as he went he grabbed with his foot one of the short fishing spears that lined the oar-docks and flipped it up into the air. He snatched it easily as it rose to chest height, and then dove up and over a tangle of extra netting, rolled, and came back to his feet on the far side of Longrider.

  “Hurry – hurry!”

  Using his long body, Samson leaned out far enough over the side to see the sharks – two of them, with what might be a third not far behind. If he hadn’t known what to look for he wouldn’t have seen them: they were covered in rough blue-green skin that blended into the water almost perfectly.

  Chameleons. Fulking chameleon sharks. Just our fulking luck.

  They were already circling beneath the half-submerged catch, trying to get at the suspended fish as the crew struggled to pull the haul up and over the side. It was perfect for them – all they had to do was swim up and bite.

  “Jut! Tek! Throw me two more!”

  The men reached down to the oarlocks nearest them and pulled out spears, which they lobbed toward Samson haft-first. The ship had begun to list to port now that half of the catch was onboard, and those who could be spared in the effort of pulling the net up inch-by-inch rushed to the starboard side to help balance out the weight.

  “Keep pulling!” Samson shouted. He lunged back over the port beam and sighted carefully with the first of the short spears. It was made of fire-hardened ash and tipped with a hooked metal head meant for stabbing and twisting. A thick rope had been threaded through a hole at the base so that it could be reeled back in after it was thrown. Iron- and steel-tipped spears were hard to come by – if he lost one his mother would never let him hear the end of it.

  Kill, don’t wound.

  The first shark surfaced beside the madly flapping herring, and Samson lashed out. The hooked tip sliced through the blue-green skin, and Samson deftly twisted and pulled. Red filled t
he water, obscuring everything so that it was impossible to see what had happened to the bleeding shark. Samson frantically scanned the water as the net continued to inch upwards, waiting for his next chance.

  A fin sliced the surface, and he struck again. The hooked end of the spear caught in the skin this time, and he wasn’t fast enough to jerk it free. With a fierce twist, the spear was wrenched from his hands as the second shark changed direction, a motion that caught the rope on a metal hook halfway up the rail and snapped it clean in two. The shark disappeared into the waves, trailing the spear behind it. Samson did not have time to mourn the loss; he picked up the next spear, clutched it tightly, and watched with wide eyes for the next sighting. The blood clouding the water had begun to thin, but the waves from the coast and the shadow of the ship cast by the setting sun behind them still obscured his vision.

  Come on… just give me one more chance…

  Movement – he struck, twisted, and pulled.

  There came a strange sucking sound as the third shark was yanked up and out of the water, then a solid thwack as it thrashed against the side of the ship and managed to free itself. Samson grunted as the spear slipped from his hands; the shark fell back into the water, trailing the rope behind it. He grabbed the rope and tugged it with sharp jerk, twisting the spear in further, and then let go. The thick line flew out as the shark darted away, but soon enough the slack was gone and the rope rang out a note like a well-strummed lute as it was pulled taut. The line jerked and jumped and then fell slack as the shark managed to free itself, but not without producing another cloud of swirling red blood about a hundred feet off the port side. Samson pulled on the rope and felt the weight of the spear at the end, still attached and waiting to be reeled back in.

  There came a cheer from the crew, and Samson saw the bottom of the net lift out of the water and knew they almost had it. If they could get it out of the water, they could get it on the ship.

  “Get that catch on board!” Samson yelled, still scanning the waters. “Longrider hasn’t missed a haul yet!”

  Another cry went up, and Samson saw the fire of competition light in his men’s eyes and drive out some of their exhaustion. The arms of the burly men strained their shirts to the point that the muscles looked ready to rip through the fabric, and veins stood out along necks and foreheads all across the galley. He held his breath as the net continued to inch upwards, and then the last shark came again for a final try.

  He saw it happen in an instant that was both too short and extraordinarily long: the ripple of the water, the swirl of motion, the fin breaking the surf, the lean, striped body flying toward the net.

  He hefted the final spear and threw it like a dart, straight toward the lowest part of the net. The already wounded shark leapt at the same time the spear flew, and the metal tip caught the creature straight through the gill. There was a huge splash as it re-entered the water, and then Samson was hauling on the line, pulling with all his might.

  The shark, once again submerged, spun and raced away, panicked by the huge shaft of wood stuck through it, but it wasn’t strong enough this time to disengage. Samson pulled with all his strength, the rope burning his hands even through his thick gloves as he refused to let go. A haze of savagery had descended upon him, a red mistiness that had him by the throat: the shark was an adversary now, and he would beat it.

  He heaved on the rope, wrapping the excess length around a nearby spar in order to narrow the distance. The shark continued to thrash with the strength of mortal panic, but it could not free itself. The water was red with blood, the shark churning it madly as it tried to escape.

  Samson let out a huge bellow of effort and managed to wrap the rope once more around the spar, then again, and once more again. His whole world narrowed in on the task, to the point where he couldn’t see or hear anything else happening around him. He heaved again, and this time the shark was so close that it was pulled up and out of the water, where it struggled mightily against the side of the ship, nearly as long as Samson was tall. He reached back into the ship blindly and by dumb luck came across one of the clubs used to bludgeon fish. He hefted the heavy piece of wood, lunged out over the side of the ship, and swung the club into the shark’s head, where it connected with a sickening crunch.

  The creature went limp.

  Samson, gasping for breath, threw the club back over his shoulder and then hauled the shark up and into the ship inch by painful inch. It landed on the deck in a wash of salt, sea, and blood, and then it twitched and shuddered. Samson snarled, his blood hot, and reached over to pull the spear from its gill. He swung it around, raised it high, and then rammed the metal hook into the creature’s already flattened head. It gave one final twitch, and then lay still.

  A ragged cheer sounded all around him, and he looked up to see the crew shouting and roaring with primal pride. The net full of herring had finally made it over the side, and the men were standing around it, exhausted but exhilarated. Samson raised the spear over his head and shook it, shouting out a wordless cry of triumph, and the others echoed it back to him.

  Jolly came forward and clapped him on the back, beaming widely. Samson let the spear fall as the men set to work with their clubs subduing the fish. He could barely raise his arms, and he was covered in blood, sweat, and seawater.

  “Pull the other spear in,” he said hoarsely to Jut, and then, to the crew at large, “Blood and tears, let’s go home.”

  They laughed at his exhausted pronouncement, and more than a few voiced their agreement. As soon as they’d secured the catch, the crew manned the oars and they moved out around the coast. There they caught a northerly wind in their sails and stowed the oars, moving easily up through the Archipelago with the setting sun on their left, passing other fishing ships as they went and calling back and forth with the crews. Samson let Jolly take the wheel and laid out flat on the deck to rest, as did a number of the crew once the course was set and the lines secure.

  It was a clear summer day, one of the last they would have as fall crept closer, and the sunset was particularly beautiful in shades of orange and red and deepening purple that set the sky aflame. From his place on the deck, Samson watched it as his eyes inched closed in weariness, until he fell into the untroubled sleep of youth.

  When finally Gol appeared on the horizon, Jolly roused him. It was the captain’s job to steer the ship into the harbor – a tradition upon which Samson’s father had adamantly insisted. He took the wheel as the men took their positions at the oars. Longrider was a ship of true Golish origin – a combination of the galleys that let men move against the wind and the wider karrs used by the mainland fishing villages, giving her a strong body that widened amidships and then tapered to a sharp, maneuverable point. Her clinker-make made her light and fast, while the skeleton design that was her backbone made her large enough and strong enough to support full loads of cargo.

  She was by far and away the pride of Samson’s life.

  The island of Gol rose from the water before them in the light of the setting sun. The tall pines that framed the bluffs gave the island extra height, and the heavy cliffs of granite that buttressed the harbor from the cutting wind that whipped south and west off the sea and against the coast stood tall and strong as always.

  They maneuvered up and around the edge of Twil and then followed the tide through the narrow harbor mouth. The two guard towers, one on either point of the headland, watched them pass, and the men manning them called a welcome greeting home. Samson waved in acknowledgement and then opened his mouth to call out orders to head toward the docks, but stopped mid-action.

  There was a Great Ship in the harbor.

  He had never seen one before, but there was no mistaking it. The flags flown from the three masts were the red and green of Caelron itself, and there was no other ship that could be so breathtaking. Its size boggled the mind – Longrider, a large vessel, looked downright small beside such a shining feat of nautical engineering - and Samson could not begin to gue
ss at the skill it would take to maneuver a full-sized galleon like that into and out of the harbor. The lines were perfect, and the wood of the planking was so smooth and even that the hull looked carved from a single tree. The off-white canvas sails were tied down for the night, but he could not help thinking about how they would look stretched out against the perfect blue of a summer sky.

  The voice of Samson’s younger brother Solom spoke from near his elbow:

  “What is that?”

  Samson tore his eyes away to look down; Solom’s dark face was slack, and his hazel eyes openly showed the same sense of wonder Samson himself was feeling.

  “It’s a Great Ship,” he said slowly, turning back, this time eyeing the galleon more critically. There was an empty space for a small rowboat on the upper deck, and barely a handful of crewmen were visible onboard, winding ropes and tying down the ship for what looked like a long stay.

  He scanned the shoreline and saw the missing rowboat tied up at the dock. The road that led from the dock inland went through the merchant port and up to the city of Gol itself, located in the island’s interior, and Samson knew this must be the final destination of the new arrivals. No delegation from Caelron would come to Gol on a Great Ship to trade with common merchants.

  He squinted and managed to make out the shapes of people leaving the rowboat. He caught the silver flash of armor and the dark gleam of tempered sword hilts beneath sea cloaks the red and green of Caelron. Once disembarked, the dozen or so figures disappeared into the lower merchant city, out of the wind and spray of the surf. They were heading in the direction of the Road, which was hidden back among the oak, cedar, and pine carefully grown and cultivated for shipbuilding.

  It had been years since an official envoy had been sent to the Archipelago – Samson had been alive then, but young enough that he could remember almost nothing. Men from Caelron often sailed through the Archipelago to trade, of course, and even sometimes docked at Gol for the night, but this was different. There had not been Viretorum on the shores of Gol in many years, and never in Samson’s memory a Great Ship.

  He wished, not for the first time, that his father was still alive.

  “Run out the oars and pull into the fishery dock,” he told Timlin, the coxswain, who beat time on the oar drum. The man nodded his graying head and called out the order, changing the beat with the practiced ease of a longtime sailor. Tym and Runi, the other two runner boys that worked with Samson’s brothers Solom and Selor, tied down the sail, and soon Longrider was sliding easily into the safety of the dock.

  “Samson!”

  He lifted his eyes and saw Horas the Fishmonger rolling up to them. The man was nearly large enough to sink a rowboat, but what he lacked in fitness he made up for in greed and business acumen. With the sharp eyes of the Clan Heads to keep him honest, he had set up Gol as the most prosperous island in the Archipelago when it came to the fishing trade. Which meant, of course, that he was the richest fishermonger on any of the islands – a fact confirmed by the gleam of his gold tooth when he smiled, which he did often and freely. Most knew him simply as the Fishmonger. It was a title he had embraced.

  “How’d you do?” Horas called, his big booming voice carrying easily up to Samson. He reached up and smoothed back his black, oiled hair unnecessarily. A single large diamond ring glittered on the smallest finger of his left hand.

  “See for yourself,” Samson said with a wide smile, gesturing behind him. The man strode forward, mopping a handkerchief over his sweating baby face, and mounted the gangplank to peer over the port beam at the deck of the galley.

  Samson took great pleasure in watching Horas’ piggy eyes bugle in their sockets. The men of the crew saw it too, and they laughed openly and in good humor as they readied the catch for unloading. Already there were lesser members of Horas’ outfit approaching with large carts and barrels into which the fish would be placed, packed, labeled, and shipped.

  “Is that – is that a shark? A chameleon shark?”

  Samson looked back and saw Jolly and Jayboy hefting the thing into sight, and it was only then that he realized how big it was. He couldn’t really believe that he’d been the one to pull that monster out of the water.

  “Aye,” Jolly said with a smirk. “Captain is a right piece of work, he is. Lets us pull up the catch of the day while he hunts sharks with nothing but a hook-spear and a club!”

  Horas looked from the haul to the shark to Samson, then strode forward and clapped his hands on the captain’s shoulders, squeezing tightly. Samson bore it out – distasteful though the merchant could be, he was almost like an uncle.

  “Blood and tears, Sammy! I haven’t seen a haul like this since your father!”

  Samson grinned widely at the compliment, and the smile spread among the crew. Horas turned away and called for his workers to hurry up with the barrels, his look of eager excitement almost childlike in its intensity. It was one of the qualities Samson liked about the man – greedy bastard that he was, he cared little for sentiment and less for the dead, but he loved a good story and his compliments were always genuine.

  “By the Sailor’s sandy bulge, how’d you even get that many on board?”

  “Never mind that,” Samson said, getting down to business before Horas could get his enthusiasm in hand. “What matters is that they’re fresh – we caught them just this afternoon off the side of Howa. If we get them salted and packed now before the day is out, you can sell them tomorrow and – ”

  “Aye, and fetch a damn good price,” Horas said, his mind catching up with Samson’s and then running far ahead. “You went to fish off of Howa? You’re bloody lucky you got anything – no wonder you had shark trouble!” He eyed the boy shrewdly and then sighed. “Sometimes it’s a damn shame I like you so much.”

  Samson grinned again. “But you do – so don’t try to cheat me, old man.”

  “Old man! Now see here, there’s no reason to add insult to injury!”

  “Stop stalling while you try to work the figures – I want double the normal commission.”

  “What?! Sammy, my boy, are you trying to ruin me? Now I know you’re an old friend, and of course your father was a friend, but that hardly entitles you to run up the price like that on a poor old merchant like me!”

  “Poor?” Samson snorted. “Is that a new ring? What happened to the ruby one? And the sapphire as well? Do you have them sorted by day of the week or do you just wake up each morning and pick one that suits your fancy?”

  The crew laughed heartily, and even Horas’ workers chuckled. Horas himself smiled indulgently, and Samson knew he had him. “Double for the haul,” he insisted. “It’s bloody well worth two days as it is, we barely got the net over the side. Standard commission for the men – five each, ten for me and Jolly – and I’ll let you have the shark too. Chameleon meat is tasty, but think about what you’ll get for skinning the thing. You do it right, that skin is perfect for some highborn lordling from the Peninsula who wants a fancy sword hilt, say, or boots, or even a rich blacksmith who wants a stylish sander. You give me double and it’s yours right now – so long as you tell everyone which ship got it for you.”

  Horas was quiet for a moment, squinting through his piggy eyes at Samson, and the young captain felt his heart beating quickly in his chest. He knew the price was good, and he knew Horas knew it, and knew Horas knew he knew it, and that was as far as the bargaining needed to go most of the time.

  “Done,” the man said, holding out his hand. Samson grabbed it fiercely and there was another round of laughter and smiles from the men, who had just made twice what they usually did for a day’s haul. “But I’ll tell you what – I want that shark skinned and ready to go by tomorrow afore that Ship leaves. Chances are there’s one such lordling on board who might want the sword handle you mentioned. You convince Jolly to take care of it himself and there’s an extra silver in it for both of you.”

  Samson’s eyes widened. He held onto the fishmonger’s hand and took a step clos
er. They both looked toward the Great Ship and then back at each other.

  “Who’s on board?” he asked quietly.

  “Don’t rightly know,” Horas said too innocently. “But let’s just say they looked important – and let’s just also say that a ship like that doesn’t come all the way to Gol for fresh-caught herring. There’s a man with them – more of an older boy really, but he’s in armor and he’s got a sword – wearing a signet ring with the crest of Malineri himself. He’s not some well-born lordling – he’s a fulking royal.”

  Samson’s mind whirled into action. A signet ring with the personal crest of the King of Caelron – that meant a direct relative. A young man… there were a few nephews and cousins at court, but chances were that meant the visitor was –

  “Prince Rewlyn,” he said aloud.

  Horas shrugged in a ‘who knows?’ sort of way, but his smiling eyes gave a clear confirmation. Samson nodded and turned back to the ship.

  “Jolly!” he called out. The first mate came, his bare feet transferring him easily from ship to dock in a single bound. The little knitted hat that he always wore to protect his shiny bald head jiggled as he walked, and he wiped his hands on his thick gray sailor’s shirt before reaching out to shake the fishmonger’s hand. He turned to Samson and lifted an eyebrow at him.

  “Captain?” he said easily, the way he had always addressed Samson’s father.

  Samson explained about the shark. Jolly agreed. He was one of the older men on Gol who had been around long enough to know a little bit of everything, and if a task had anything vaguely to do with the sea or creatures from it, the chance was good that he could more than handle it. Samson’s mother had put it more bluntly: “Jolly picks up skills the way a dog does fleas.”

  The rest of the deal was squared away quickly enough, and Horas paid the money up front as the fish were loaded into the barrels already prepped with salty brine to preserve them. The Fishmonger’s men worked quickly, and the easy back and forth between them and the Longrider crew was the uncomplicated banter of men who had been around each other for years and seen times both bad and good together. Likely as many of the dockworkers had been sailors in their younger years as the current sailors had fathers who were dockworkers. The cycle for a man of Gol was simple: the young sailed the seas until injury or age slowed them down; the middle-aged stayed on land to work the docks as they fathered the next generation; and the old kept the books for the wives and the sisters who ran the larger business.

  When the ship was squared away and Samson had given out the days’ wages to the crew, he began to make his way up the dock with his younger brothers, both of whom were exhilarated and exhausted from the day’s work.

  “You did a good job holding the net,” Samson told Solom, ruffling his youngest brother’s hair. The boy was only eleven, and as such did not often participate in the activities of the ship, being still too small to row. He’d been made a runner, responsible for passing messages, keeping the lines tight, and scaling the mast as lookout if need be, along with a dozen other menial tasks with which full members of the crew could not be bothered.

  “My hands are going to be sore for months,” Solom said, holding them up; both palms bore ugly red burns from where the wet rope had slipped and dug into his soft skin, but his smile was intensely proud.

  “Mine too,” said Selor, holding up his own, which were more heavily calloused but still red and raw. He was a runner as well, but would not be for much longer. He’d gone through a growth spurt over the last year since he’d turned thirteen, and Samson was almost ready to make him an oarsman, or possibly even second mate if he showed an aptitude.

  “Blood and tears,” Samson said in mock exasperation, “that’s why you’re supposed to wear gloves.” He held out his own hands as evidence, displaying the fingerless leather gloves ubiquitous among the Golish fisher folk. They were heavily scarred with rope burns, and looked as though they’d seen better days.

  I need to remember to get new ones, Samson thought.

  “That’s fine for you,” Selor said, looking annoyed – he was at the age where everything annoyed him. “You already have callouses, and you’ll be sixteen in a week. You’ve been working the boats forever.”

  “Yeah,” Solom said, following Selor’s lead as he often did, “it’s a rite of pressage.”

  “Passage.”

  “Yeah! Sailors have to have callouses. And good scars too – like Janso’s shark bite.”

  “Or Timlin’s eye,” Selor said wistfully.

  “Janso almost died and Timlin’s half-blind,” Samson reminded them.

  “Well, yeah, but they’re fierce!”

  The two younger brothers continued to chatter on as they walked up the dock, and Samson listened distantly, thinking of what they’d said.

  Scars…

  It might be nice to have one, but he wouldn’t go out of his way for it.

  “How else will people know fishers from dockers?” Solom was saying.

  “Right,” Selor affirmed. “We want people to know we’re fishers, like dad was.”

  “I mean, Horas doesn’t have any scars, you know? But I’d rather be Timlin without an eye than Horas with all the dockers.”

  “Yeah. Who wants people to think you’re a stupid docker? They’re worthless.”

  “Selor!” Samson broke in sharply, his tone suddenly authoritative and cutting; his younger brother flinched. They stopped where they were, and a group of crewmen walked by. One or two slapped Samson on the back, and he nodded in recognition of the praise. At sea he was a Captain, but in Gol, ever since the death of his father, he was something of a communal nephew. When the men passed on, he turned back to Selor and continued, his smile turning to a scowl: “I don’t want to hear you say anything like that again. Father would never have let you. He’s the one who always said that everyone has a place and a job – no one’s better than anybody else. Dockers work hard just like fishers do. And some day, when you’re too old to pull on oar all day, you’ll be one. Father would have been one if he hadn’t died.”

  He took grim pride in managing to speak that last sentence without faltering.

  Selor looked ready to argue, but he took in Samson’s expression and appeared to think better of it. Samson took a deep breath and pushed it out quickly, trying to ignore the fact that he completely agreed with his younger brother. Why would anyone want to stay on land when they could be out on the open sea? But he knew his father had been a wise man. Everyone said so, at least.

  “And Horas – under all the blubber, he’s a good man. He keeps an eye out for us and he was one of father’s best friends. He’s greedy, but I think maybe all people have one bad thing about them. At least he’s honest about it.”

  Selor and Solom both watched him for moment, saying nothing in response. Solom’s youthful brow was furrowed as if this new thought was one that troubled him, and Selor was trying very hard not to look impressed, affecting a kind of nonchalance that involved slouched shoulders and an awkward strut. How he managed to strut while he standing still, Samson did not know.

  He grimaced and ran a hand through his thick dark hair, turning away and catching sight of the Great Ship again as he did.

  Prince Rewlyn.

  “Who do you think came?” Solom asked, following Samson’s gaze.

  “I’m not sure. Come on.”

  They passed through the merchant dock, the part of Gol that covered the beach around the harbor. It was packed to bursting with shops and stores that were closing down for the night, and the three brothers wound their way through the streets to merge with a swelling crowd that was tramping up the central slope of the Road toward the actual city of Gol.

  There was only one real road on island – one that had been paved and smoothed long ago – and as such it was referred to simply as “the Road”. A series of smaller streets and alleys made of simple hard-packed dirt and bearing names like “John’s End” and “Fisher’s Row” branched off of it at odd an
gles, but they were little more than afterthoughts.

  The brothers moved with the crowd past the cobbler and Smynt’s Smith Shop, and began to ascend the first and steepest slope. There were switchbacks and side passages along the way, as well as lookout posts at every turning that were normally unmanned. It had been many years since Gol had been invaded; indeed, many years since any of the islands had been. The Peace between Charridan and Aeon spread as far as Laniae and Calinae, and the Archipelagans had no urge to break it; they were traders, and war was bad for business.

  And yet that day the lookout posts were manned.

  Guards stood in position at every turning, straight and tall, their leather armor oiled and shining. Their spears – which still bore the look of the traditional fishing spears of Gol, though converted for battle – were tied with knots of blue and silver cord, the colors of the island. Samson was not the only one to notice: he could tell from the subdued murmurs of the ascending crowd that they too had taken note.

  They rounded the final bend in the path and approached the Granite Doors.

  The Doors were two massive granite sheets that narrowed the Road until it was barely wide enough for two carts to pass abreast. It was said that they were the site of a fierce battle that had taken place between the ancestors of Gol and one of the more powerful southern isles, Lainoq. Lainoq had gone to war with the other islands of the Archipelago when the isles were young, and it had conquered many of its smaller neighbors. When finally it had turned its eyes toward Gol, it had sent an invasion force through the harbor and up the Road to the city itself. Though the men of Gol fought long and hard, the Lainoq warriors were fierce, and they pushed the defenders all the way up to where the Doors now stood.

  That much was easily known – it was set down in official books of record that one could see and read and understand, both in the Longhouse of Gol and the Library of Var Athel, where all official history was kept – but the rest was speculation. All that was factually definite was that there had been no Granite Doors when Lainoq invaded, and yet here they stood, and had stood since that day. The legend went that a Golish shaman, untrained but powerfully skilled, had sacrificed himself using the deepest of his arts in order to save Gol from destruction. As a result, the granite that made up so much of the island had shifted and surged, and the wide pass that had once let people roam freely from the harbor to the higher slopes had been closed off by high walls through which only the Golish could pass. The Lainoq army was cut in half when the Doors formed, and with renewed vigor the Golish pushed the Lainoq invaders back and then climbed the heavy mountain sides and flanked them, driving them all the way to the harbor and routing them completely. Their power broken, peace was forced – the same peace that still reined in the Archipelago.

  It was one of the stories Samson had most loved to hear his father tell.

  “The mainland thinks Gol small in size,” his father had said, “but no Golish man thinks so. Gol is not just the land – it is the air and sea as well. And the freedom of wind flying among the waves.”

  They stopped abruptly, and Samson was pulled from his reverie.

  The Doors were blocked. A crowd was slowly growing before them, a crowd that lined the narrow pass, milling about and peering over the heads of those in front of them. An air of excitement rippled through it, like the wind causing ripples in the sea.

  “What’s going on?” Solom asked, too short to see anything.

  Samson put a hand on the nearest section of granite wall and lifted himself up, adding a few extra inches to his height so that he had an unobstructed view. He saw straight through the Doors to the distant Longhouse, where were standing men in red and green cloaks with armor and swords, arrayed in a stately procession.

  A shiver made its way through the crowd, and then came word that the visitors were Mainlanders. The mood changed from excitement to the strange mixture of curiosity and contempt with which the Archipelagans regarded those of mainland Aeon. Mainlanders were by and large accepted – particularly if they came with money – but no king would ever rule the Archipelago, and those who came representing such a man were often regarded as guests who had put their bare feet on the dinner table. Samson had felt that way before, but he didn’t now. All he felt now was a need to know.

  Who would come to Gol with Viretorum and a Great Ship if not the prince?

  “Who is it?”

  Samson looked down at Solom’s urging and caught his brother’s hand before it could pull at his gray fisherman’s shirt. He lowered himself down, wiping away the rock dust from his hands.

  “A delegation from Caelron,” he said. The interest of both younger brothers peaked, and they began to make their way forward through the crowd, leaving Samson with nothing to do but follow, apologizing as he went.

  The crowd started to move again, and by the time they passed through the Doors into the city, an unnatural quiet had spread. The Caelron men in their red and green stood at the end of the Road before the Longhouse, where gathered the Golish clans for meetings and where sat the Clan Heads in times of crisis. There was movement, but he could not make out what was happening: all he could see were the turned backs of the Viretorum.

  A chill ran through him at the sight of those cloaks. The men who wore them stood tall and proud, and well they should: they were the best swordsmen in the entire land of Aeon. His heart thrummed inside his chest, and his palms were clammy. The air was cool against his skin, and he was suddenly aware of how dry his lips were. He ran his tongue over them.

  “Samson!”

  He jerked away from the sight of the Viretorum and saw his friend Rolin hurrying toward him. Rolin was older than he was, nearly twenty, but they had been friends since childhood, as had their fathers before them. Rolin was first mate on his father’s ship, Wavecutter, and Samson thought at first that his friend had heard about the day’s haul and was approaching to congratulate him, but the serious look on his face said otherwise. Rolin’s dark features were drawn in concentration, and the pockmarked skin of his cheeks and temples was pinched and sallow.

  “The Captains have been called,” he said quickly, motioning to the Longhouse. His jaw was set in a firm line, and his eyes were narrowed.

  “You mean the Clan Heads?”

  “No – I mean the Captains.”

  Surprised, Samson looked back at the Longhouse. The crowd had parted enough that he could see the individual knights with their shining armor and shoulders-to-feet red-green cloaks. Tall and broad of chest, they all seemed uniform, and stood with arrogant self-assurance. They had taken up position on either side of the entrance, and though they were in no way openly antagonistic, it was clear that they were at attention and watching for signs of danger. There were no weary eyes or smiling faces among them: all were alert, all were determined, and all looked ready to fight at the slightest provocation.

  “Why?” Samson asked.

  “The Great Ship – you saw it in the harbor? It came with an envoy bearing the crest of Malineri himself. It wasn’t the King, though – I don’t know who that man was walking in just now – you saw him? Oh, well he was about my height, and thin. I’ve never seen him before. But he’s got a dozen knights on shore, and I think he might be one himself. Looks like he’s got… you know… breeding.”

  Rolin sneered and glanced at Samson pointedly, and Samson realized he was trying to imply that the man was mainland royalty without saying it straight out in the presence of Solom and Selor.

  “Why would he want the Captains, though? What’s the point of calling us? Surely the Clan Heads are who he needs.”

  “I don’t know – but they sent me to find you. You’re the last one.”

  Samson paused as they approached the entrance to the Longhouse and stopped short of ascending the steps. “Do you know anything else?”

  Rolin grew even more serious, and tension crept into Samson’s shoulders. Rolin was given to laughter – his frowns were few and far between.

  “There’s talk he me
ans to invoke the Bargain.”

  Samson cursed under his breath.

  “What’s the Bargain?” Solom asked with no effort whatsoever at guile.

  “Take Solom and Selor?” Samson asked. Rolin nodded.

  “Wait! No – I want to come!”

  He left his brothers with Rolin, knowing that to engage them would only make matters worse. He heard Rolin speak to them and then heard their voices raised in protest, but he was already ascending the steps.

  The Viretorum moved into his path so fluidly that he barely had time to react. He stopped and found himself inches away from a man in burnished silver armor, holding a sheathed sword across his body to bar Samson’s passage. His heart began knocking at his ribs, and energy flooded through him. He felt the insane urge to lash out at the man, and in the back of his mind came the thought he’d had ever since he was a child:

  Could I beat a knight?

  “I am a Captain of Clan Seastrider,” he said instead, before the man could speak. Not that the man had given any indication that he would. His stoic face could have been carved from stone, and it seemed all too possible that his jaw was decorative instead of functional. But at Samson’s words, the man’s eyes flicked over him. The motion took barely a second, but Samson was sure that every detail of his appearance had been picked apart and cataloged. He felt suddenly self-conscious in his wide seaman’s trousers and gray fishing shirt, and that only made him angrier.

  “I’m a Clan Captain,” he repeated, this time more firmly. “I’m supposed to be in there. Right?”

  A hand appeared on the shoulder of the knight, and then an arm and eventually a body rounded the wide boulder of a man to reveal an officer of some sort. His armor was, if possible, even more polished than the first man’s, and a golden knot of rank attached his heavy cloak to his breastplate. He wore no helmet, and his short brown hair was graying at the temples. His face was fractionally softer than the first knight’s, but his steely gray eyes more than made up for that with a harsh intensity that bored relentlessly into Samson.

  “What ship?”

  “Longrider,” Samson replied immediately. He would not be put off balance; if the Clan Heads were in the Longhouse, then that meant his mother was in there. As the only Captain of Clan Seastrider, he had a right to be there; as a son, he had an obligation.

  The officer’s eyes narrowed.

  “Your name.”

  “Samson Seastrider,” he said, “son of Marlyene Seastrider, the head of Clan Seastrider. I was told the Captains were called. So get out of my way.”

  The officer watched him for a second longer before speaking brusquely, his tone dismissive: “You’re too young to be anything but a boy.”

  The tone of this pronouncement set Samson’s teeth on edge, and he responded automatically: “And you’re too old to be anything but a docker.”

  The insult went over the man’s head entirely, but the tone was clear enough. His eyes narrowed, but Samson continued on before he could reply. “This is not the mainland,” he said pointedly. “This is the island of Gol, and you have no sway here. If I wish to enter the Longhouse as a Clan Captain, you cannot stop me. If you don’t believe me, try to do it.”

  The man’s eyes flicked up over Samson’s shoulder to the watching crowd, clearly weighing the situation. Those gray eyes flicked back seconds later to Samson’s face, but revealed none of the thoughts behind them. Samson’s heart was crashing furiously against his rips, and the blood was singing in his veins. A growing part of him wanted the man to refuse.

  I could do it. I could take him.

  “Let him through,” the officer said abruptly. The first knight reacted to the command immediately, backing away and turning to the side. Samson walked past without another word, trying to ignore the way his arms and legs were slightly shaking as he moved.

  He passed into the Longhouse without so much as a backward glance, but he could feel eyes on him, and he had to suppress the urge to shiver. Hot resentment flared up in his gut, and an uncharacteristically prejudiced thought crossed his mind: who were these Mainlanders to think that they could keep a man of Gol from walking anywhere?

  He passed through the ornately carved archway and into the high, narrow Longhouse. There was the usual honor guard of Golish spearman just inside, a half-dozen men dressed in long gray cloaks over simple leather armor, and they nodded to him. The captain of the guard looked past him and sneered at the Viretorum.

  The Longhouse was a high-arched single room that had once been the center of the village, where all had slept, ate, and lived when first the island was settled. Now it was a meeting hall, and tapestries and decoration adorned its walls, though it still retained the smell of wood smoke and old, spilt spirits. Two long tiered benches lined either side of it, and they were often full of common men and women who came to observe important meetings. Today they were empty. The only people in the room were at the very end of the hall, around the dais where once had sat the chieftain’s chair, but where now sat the seven chairs of the Clan Heads.

  Samson spotted his mother immediately, in the chair second from the left, and moved toward her, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. The other Clan Captains, all of whom were men, were already present and standing behind the chairs of their Clan Heads, all of whom were women. For some clans there were three or four Captains; for some, like Seastrider, there was only one.

  A young man stood on the speaking platform, addressing the gathered Golish folk. He was tall and fair, with high cheekbones and long dark hair pulled back by a slim golden band that sat easily at his temples. His armor was that of the Viretorum and he wore it as one of them, with the casual arrogance of a man who had been trained to handle himself. And yet, Samson thought, he could not have been more than seventeen.

  “There has been rumor of a new force in the Northern Isles,” he was saying. His words came out high and clear, ringing through the room in a clean tenor that was sharp and crisp like fresh rain.

  A few of the Clan Heads shifted when they heard this, and Samson felt his mother tense in her chair, though he could not see her face. He was the only Captain for his clan, though Solom and Selor would join him when they reached manhood, and as such he stood directly behind her.

  “I know it has been a long time since the last Caelron envoy visited your island – ”

  “Eleven years, Rewlyn,” groused Cole Catchpole, the oldest Catchpole Captain. “And that was a courtesy visit at best.”

  Prince Rewlyn swallowed as inconspicuously as possible, clearly having hoped that such a thing had been forgotten. His voice still rang out calm and assured, though. “Yes – too long. Now is the time to renew old alliances between old friends. Gol has always been a valued partner to Caelron, both in trade and ideals – ”

  Cole Catchpole snorted, but Prince Rewlyn continued as if he hadn’t.

  “And it is my hope, as well as the hope of King Malineri, that in the face of this imposing threat we can re-forge the bonds of that friendship, and have between us once more an alliance.”

  “If Caelron is so interested in re-forging our alliance,” said Cole to rueful chuckles, “why is it that your knights felt it necessary to set themselves on the doorstep of our city seat and search me – a Captain of Gol – as if I were a common mainland serf?”

  “There are no serfs on the mainland,” the prince said. A number of Captains barked out open laughs, and though the Clan Heads had more restraint, there was open incredulity on more than one of their faces as well.

  “But that is not why I am here,” Rewlyn continued quickly. “I apologize for my men – they should never have taken such liberty – ”

  “If you cannot even control your own men,” croaked Symal, Clan Head of the largest clan, the Wavewalkers, “what makes you think that if we sent our sons with you you’d be able to keep them safe?”

  “I can control my men,” Rewlyn said quickly. It was clear to Samson that the meeting was quickly getting away from him, and clear too,
it seemed, to the prince. “But that is not why I’m here.”

  “Then speak about why you are here,” growled the oldest Clan Head, Emory Catchpole, Cole’s wife, who was backed by her husband, two sons, and three grandsons.

  “I bring news of a gathering,” Prince Rewlyn said slightly too quickly, rather obviously glad to be back on track. “Of the Viretorum, the Sorev Ael, and many others. Men from Caelron have been sent all across the land of Aeon to request aid.”

  “Aid?” Emory Catchpole cackled, leaning forward her ancient head and eyeing the young prince with her single remaining eye, which gleamed a dazzling blue. “What aid can great Caelron need from us lowly islanders?”

  “You are, and have ever been, our superior in the naval arts – and we entreat your help, as we once did.”

  The low muttering that had filled the hall suddenly broke off, and the Longhouse went eerily silent. Prince Rewlyn looked ready to say more, but as the silence descended, either his natural political instinct or some part of his courtly diplomatic training told him not to. He shut his mouth and watched them each in turn, shifting his gray eyes, bright with shrewd understanding, among them all. Finally, it was Emory Catchpole who again broke the silence:

  “It is not often that we hear flattery from Mainlanders,” she said softly. She still affected an air of disinterest, but Samson could not help but notice that she was watching the prince rather too intently, one eye or no.

  “Perhaps then it is the fault of the men of Caelron that we have not more often found the necessary humility in us to state what is true,” Rewlyn said smoothly. “For that which is true cannot be considered flattery, but compliments due one friend from another.”

  Another silence fell, and then Emory Catchpole began to cackle low in her throat. The cackle grew louder, a sound like kindling catching fire, and then it leapt to the other Clan Heads and also the Captains, who openly guffawed. Prince Rewlyn smiled as well, a self-conscious and ingratiating smile that said openly that he knew he’d laid it on rather thickly. This only added to the mirth, and the whole council was soon howling with glee so that the thick tension that had filled the room was suddenly dispelled as if it had never been.

  “Very well!” Emory Catchpole cried out, cutting through the din. “Very well. Tell us what it is you want. If you want an alliance, that’s just words – or words on paper maybe, but paper dissolves in salt water, which is most of what we have here. Tell us what you want, young prince, and, if you tell us true, we might consider it.”

  Prince Rewlyn opened his mouth to speak, then paused. Something flickered behind his eyes, and he seemed to come to a decision that he’d been putting off.

  “We need your captains and your ships,” he said. “We need to invoke the Bargain.”

  The blunt statement fell into the pooling silence like a heavy stone, and was swallowed up with no ripples. None of the Captains protested; none of the Clan Heads so much as lifted an eyebrow.

  “And what,” Emory Catchpole said slowly and with great intention, “would you need our ships for?”

  “To lead our men,” he said. “To lead them north.”

  None of the Golish folk responded, and so the prince continued.

  “We would confront these invaders. We would go to them in force and ascertain the purpose of their presence. If they are here in peace, then both Archipelagans and Mainlanders can greet them together – as allies. If they are here for war, then we can go as one to battle.”

  He paused and looked among the faces of the gathered leaders, but did not seem to find what he was looking for. He tried again: “In either peace or war, it is important for us to work together in this. You sail the Shining Sea farther than any but the Great Ships, and while they are powerful, you are knowledgeable. We in Caelron know this – my brother, King Malineri, knows this.”

  His next words came out with a twist to them, as if they were distasteful.

  “My brother is not our father. I am not our father. Our father was… not the ruler some of us wish he’d been. But my brother rules now – and he has respect for the Archipelago, and hopes to build back up the old alliances, to make Aeon a land once again strong and prosperous as it was after the Peace was first made. That is why we come to ask you to uphold the Bargain – ”

  “Have you yet made contact with these newcomers?”

  The prince, taken aback by the interruption, recovered well enough and turned toward Clan Head Finner, addressing her directly despite the daunting look on her already daunting face.

  “We have not,” he said, “but we are worried that even now we do not have enough scouts in the water to detect a possible force sent to our coast – ”

  “And who do you hope these scouts will be?”

  “As the men of Gol know the Sea better than those of Caelron ever could – ”

  “Enough, young one.”

  Though Emory Catchpole had spoken, it was clear that she had simply echoed the sentiment of all the Clan Heads. Samson looked around the half-circle created by the seven chairs and saw grim looks on many of the Clan Captains’ faces and regret among the Clan Heads.

  “We will not go to war,” she said. “Not even the Bargain can change that.”

  Prince Rewlyn looked ready to protest, obviously under the impression that she just needed further convincing, but Emory Catchpole raised a hand with a sharp jerking motion that cut him off before he could start.

  “We will not go to war,” she said again. “The Bargain was struck long ago when the Peace was made, and we honor its terms. We shall never harm Caelron is any way, nor allow Caelron to come to harm through our inaction; just as you shall never harm Gol, nor allow Gol to come to harm through your inaction. We are not one nation, but we are… allies. Despite our differences.”

  Prince Rewlyn stood stock-still, his young, handsome face blank even though Samson was certain he was panicking inside.

  “These newcomers have not disturbed us,” Emory Catchpole continued, spearing the prince with her single eye, blue like lightning in the dark. “If they are, as you say, in the north near the Floating Isles, then they are no concern of ours. They are out of our waters, and out of Caelron’s; the Bargain does not apply to them.”

  “You cannot mean that,” Rewlyn said, his diplomatic mask cracking to reveal slivers of incredulity. “If they inhabit the Northern Isles, they may pose a threat to all of us. If we are not proactive, then there may be no chance – ”

  “Do any other Clan Heads object to my opinion?”

  Emory Catchpole turned to the others, ignoring Rewlyn completely now. She often spoke for the Clan Heads, and was by far the most respected, but she by no means had power over the other six. A stubborn, independent streak ran through all the men and women of Gol, and you did not become Clan Head without a healthy double dose of it.

  But this time, there was no dissension: one by one, all of them, even Samson’s mother, shook their heads slowly from side to side. The vote was unanimous: Gol would have no part in any northern expedition.

  “We thank you for your kind words,” said Samson’s mother; he recognized the ritual words of farewell, and it was clear that, Mainlander though he was, Prince Rewlyn did too.

  “No, wait – please, I entreat you – ”

  “Entreat us tomorrow and the day after for seasons to come, but our answer shall remain unchanged,” Emory Catchpole said. Samson caught the smallest hint of regret and sympathy in her voice, but she nodded to Samson’s mother again, bobbing her iron-gray hair and shaking the heavy shawls that wrapped her head and shoulders.

  “We thank you for your kind words,” Samson’s mother began again; as the youngest Clan Head, the opening and closing words were hers. “But we the Clan Heads of Gol, the representatives of our people, must decline your offer. We wish you safety in your travels, and a fair wind to bring you home.”

  The Clan Heads stood as one, and the Golish guards came even with Prince Rewlyn, three on his left and three on his right. None of th
em touched him, but it was clear that they were there to escort him out. He still looked ready to protest, his back straight and his brow furrowed, but he wisely decided not to. With the guards flanking him, he left the Longhouse, moving as though in a bad dream from which he hoped to wake.

  The Clan Heads waited until he was gone, and then they all stood as one. The formality of the situation melted away, and the Captains greeted each other and muttered about Mainlanders while the Clan Heads began leading them from the hall.

  Samson’s mother turned to face him.

  She was just past the age of fifty, but aside from the few streaks of gray in her light brown hair and a light dusting of lines around her mouth, she looked far younger. She’d been stunning when she’d wed Samson’s father and was still regarded as a great beauty by most on the island, particularly the older men.

  “How was the haul?” she asked with a smile. Somehow she already knew.

  Samson smiled back, but he knew it didn’t touch his eyes. The refusal they had given Rewlyn had taken the joy out of him.

  Surely there would have been no harm in scouting alongside the Great Ships.

  Marlyene Seastrider saw through the smile, and she held out a hand to him. “Come,” she said. “We’ll talk at home.”

  He followed her from the Longhouse, tired from both the day’s exertions and the sudden drain of watching the clans reject the prince. Outside, the crowd was parting before the prince and his escort of Viretorum, and Samson felt again a rush of heat as the long cloaks billowed out behind them.

  “Come,” his mother said, unable to hide the scowl in her voice.

  He followed her and was grateful when she took the lead. As soon as they stepped from the platform in front of the Longhouse, men and women of the Seastrider clan mobbed them, asking for details. Each required a response, and his mother, always ready with a calming word and somehow able to speak individually to every member of a crowd, took the brunt of it, allowing Samson to follow stoically along behind her.

  The Seastrider clan was old – their blood was the ancient blood of Gol, stretching back to the first landing, and only the Wavewalkers could claim the same. All the other clans had risen to replace the original bloodlines that had died out or joined together along the way. Samson knew that his mother feared the same fate for them. The Seastriders were small, and though they’d intermarried with other clans to increase their number, still they had dwindled. In each clan, the children of those named Clan Head went on to become Clan Captains and Clan Heads in their own right, representing their clan in the island government. All of the Seastrider families were related in some way, and all of course had ships and captains of their own, but those of the First Family were those that bore the responsibility of leadership.

  Father always said having three sons was the best thing that could have happened to mother. With three of us, there’s a chance to increase again.

  The thought was not a comforting one, though. Already his mother was pushing him toward marriage, parading young women before him at every family gathering, and he wanted nothing to do with it. He wanted to sail, like his father; he would wed the sea if he could, and never look back.

  He tried not to think of what his father would have said about Prince Rewlyn’s petition. He found he hated to think that his father would have agreed with his mother.

  Why does it bother me so much?

  They made their way finally through the worst of the crowd and headed in the direction of their family home. It was old – so old that it had been added to by each successive generation for years without count. Sections had been torn down and remodeled, doors had been converted into walls, extra rooms had been added, expanded upon, and even relocated, and the end result was the largest and most noticeable house in the entire Seastrider section of the city. It was unlike even most of the other First Family houses – chaotic and yet ordered, like choppy sea waves all pushed in one direction by a strong wind.

  They ascended the smooth granite steps that led to the door, his mother still fending off questions from various clan members that had followed them.

  “You’ll know more tomorrow,” she kept insisting. “We will meet as a whole island in the Longhouse – already the Clan Heads are planning it. Please, wait until then. Yes, everything is fine. No, the ships will not sail, that has been decided.”

  Finally the door closed, and that was the end of it. Samson breathed a sigh of relief and allowed himself to lean back against the entry wall, the smooth wood, made so by years of scrubbing and whitewashing, cool and soothing.

  “Don’t stay there,” his mother snapped immediately, bustling past him. “Come to the table – you need to eat.”

  “I’m not hungry,” he said, but he knew it was no use. He was a captain on Longrider, but just a son in his mother’s house.

  He ate woodenly. Solom and Selor were there as well, no doubt dragged home by Rolin, but they ate quickly and left, bantering among themselves and all the while shooting envious and put-upon looks at Samson in recompense for abandoning them. Samson, for his part, ate without tasting a single bite of his dinner. It was solid fare – fish and grain, with good wine cut with water – but it tasted like ashes. He could not understand it. He should feel elated: he had brought home the biggest catch of his life, seen his first Great Ship, and had even confronted one of the Viretorum, a knight of Caelron, and attended a meeting of the Clan Heads.

  Why do I feel… drained?

  “What’s on your mind?”

  He looked up and realized his mother had already finished her food, rinsed her simple wooden bowl, and returned to the table to watch him. Her eyes were bright, and though she seemed tired from the day, her gaze was clear and there were no shadows beneath her eyes.

  “Nothing,” he said in an offhand way.

  “Tell me,” she said, her voice stronger. “You’re the only Seastrider Captain – you need to talk to your Clan Head.”

  “Sometimes I’d just like to talk to my mother,” he muttered, but not loud enough for her to hear.

  “What?

  “Nothing,” he said, pushing away the resentment that had risen from nowhere inside him. He suddenly had the urge to run from the house – to race down to the docks, board Longrider, and sail away. He felt constricted, bound by something he could not see and against which he could not push back.

  “What’s on your mind?” she asked again, and he knew she wouldn’t let it go until he said something.

  “I don’t think you made the right decision. With the prince, I mean.”

  His mother nodded as if she had been expecting this and waited for him to continue. Unclenching his jaw, feeling as though every word was being pulled from his mouth like a tooth, he continued.

  “What if he’s right? What if there is a force in the Floating Isles? Then it doesn’t matter about the Bargain – it doesn’t matter if Caelron’s in danger, we might be in danger.”

  He stopped and swallowed hard, not looking at her eyes. He hated himself when he was here. This wasn’t home, Longrider was.

  He tried to push that thought away. His father would not want him to think like that. Things happened in life that you did not want to happen – his father had known that best of all. Johan Seastrider had not wanted to be Clan Captain, had not wanted to take a hand in politics, but he had assumed the post because he’d had to, because he was the only direct Seastrider descendant left. He’d told Samson before he died that he’d found happiness even though he hadn’t expected it, and that he hoped Samson would follow him and find the same. And now he was gone, and all that was left was the ghost of his words, haunting Samson’s mind.

  What would he say if he could see me now?

  He gritted his teeth and forced his spine to straighten; he rolled his shoulders back like the Captain he was supposed to be. He looked his mother in the eye and mentally crushed the craven thoughts of running like a swarm of pesky insects.

  This was his life. This was his responsibility.
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  “I don’t understand why this doesn’t fall under the Bargain,” he said, his voice smoother now, his thoughts composed. “There might be a force there. They might be a danger – or if not, maybe they’re traders like us. Maybe they’re children of the Shining Sea like we are – and shouldn’t we be the first to greet them?”

  His mother leaned back in her chair and sighed. She shook her head slowly as the sound of the other children drifted in from the other rooms of the house. Samson’s mind went to them: Selor and Solom who would someday be Clan Captains too, and his sister, Inelle, who would be Clan Head. Maybe then…

  “Because Mainlanders always want more than they say they do,” his mother answered finally, watching him with a considering look.

  “But why refuse him outright?” Samson asked. “I still don’t understand. The fishing season is almost over – once autumn comes the sea will be hard to sail, and the winter storms mean we’ll be in harbor most days. Why not sail north with them? The storms are less there, and they’ll need our help if what he says is true –”

  “What he said is not true,” his mother interrupted, and the tone of her voice was one he knew well: this conversation was over, and she was about to have the final word. “You have not dealt with them as I have. They are a nation of king-worshipers, and they learn lies at their mothers’ breast. If their king asked them to lie, they would do it. If he asked them to invoke the Bargain and gain our trust for deceitful ends, they would do it. It is who they are. They put all else below and their king above to absolve them of thinking and responsibility. Do not let your good heart cloud your judgment, Samson. Never trust a Mainlander.”

  She fell silent, but the bitterness with which she’d spoken did not fade as quickly as the words themselves. It hung in the air between them, and Samson heard much more in it than she was willing to tell him. Something he had heard before.

  He almost asked her about it – the words came to the tip of his tongue and he almost let them fly. All he had to do was mouth them and they would come sliding out, as easily as fish through water. But he swallowed them back instead, leaving them unsaid. He thought again of Longrider and knew that, somehow, if he asked the question he would be irreversibly a man, a Captain to a Clan Head, and he could not bring himself to take that step.

  He said instead something mollifying that he could not quite remember. She was satisfied by it, though. He made his excuses – he was tired from the day, needed sleep, would be up early – and then headed through the oddly spaced and shaped rooms of the house toward his bedroom. Past nets and weaving stations, past his mother’s desk, past what had been his father’s workspace, where he’d carved and smoothed the wood he’d loved so much. No one had entered that room since his father’s death except to clean it.

  He ascended the ladder set in the back wall of the last room. It took him to the upper level of house – to his room. The room he had grown up in. Though he was Clan Captain, he had yet to move into one of the larger bedrooms on the ground floor. The attic room was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter, but it was his, and when he needed time to think he retreated there and lay in the hammock strung in the far corner opposite the window.

  He went there now, and looked out over the city of Gol as it slowly fell asleep. The house was on a rise, and he could see all the way from the Doors to the Longhouse and even to the distant Wavewalker section. The large oil lanterns strung between the taller houses were being doused, but only every one in three, leaving just enough light for the late night stragglers to make it back home. The moon and the stars were out that night; there was a hint of clouds, but only on the horizon. In the dying light, he could see the last of the crowd going home for dinner and sleep. Shouts and cries drifted up to him, made incomprehensible by distance, and part of him wondered what it would be like to be one of those little dots of people. What would it be like to live a different life?

  His thoughts drifted to the prince.

  He said he wasn’t like his father.

  He did not know why that thought was so important, but for whatever reason it was the one that had stuck with him. His mother knew Prince Rewlyn’s father – everyone knew of King Hulin, the King to Prove the Islanders Right. The safeguards put in place by the witch men of Var Athel – “meddlers” his mother called them, “meddlers that should leave the world working as it does” – had kept Hulin from turning into the tyrant he’d threatened to become, but only just.

  He’d had two sons who’d survived him: Rewlyn and Malineri. They were different, or so rumor said. Malineri had already reformed what his father had corrupted, and the Sorev Ael advisor he’d chosen was supposed to be famous for mercy and compassion.

  But did that compassion extend to dark-skinned Islanders? And what of Prince Rewlyn?

  He said he wasn’t like his father.

  He tried again to push the thought away. Simply because he’d seen the look on Prince Rewlyn’s face and thought it honest did not mean it was. He had also seen a glint of shrewd cunning in those gray eyes, and the prince was from the Mainland court, where lying was taught to children.

  He rolled over, telling himself he needed sleep. But those gray eyes seemed to watch him, even in the darkness behind his eyelids.

 
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