The wicked heroine, p.37
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.37
 

           Jasmine Giacomo

  Chapter Sixteen

  Even Sanych couldn’t wait until the caravan stopped for the night. Real Sea Pirates, here on the quest with them! Since she’d learned of the new additions to the caravan, she had been going over all she knew of their culture, little as that was, and she was eagerly looking forward to increasing her knowledge of them. These enigmatic seafaring people rarely came ashore, and they were as infamous for their sea battles and port raids as they were for their mysterious sea-culture. Sanych knew that much of what she had read was written by those who had been victims of the pirates’ attacks. She hoped to get a more balanced view; such valuable new information would be a great accomplishment for an Archivist of any age.

  The caravan pulled to a halt in the minimal shelter of a particularly high row of dunes that lay next to the raised road. Camp was set up at their base, where the wind was weakest. The wagons were left at the side of the wide road; their horses were brought down next to the camp. Fodder for them was not running low yet, but the caravan masters planned to send scouts ahead tomorrow to determine the distance to the next available foraging grounds.

  Such matters occupied the Counts’ deliberations rather frequently, since the three of them were doing the work of four men. Geret and Salvor were not so hampered, though. Sanych could tell that Geret held no love at all for the young nobleman, who was simply along for the ride, not taking up his father’s abandoned duties, nor apparently contributing to the quest in any meaningful way. She found him clever and charming, though, and enjoyed talking to him.

  A servant led the two newcomers to Geret’s camp area as the tents were being set up for the night. After several nights’ rearranging, the tents now formed a ring around a larger-than-usual fire pit, not yet lit this evening. Meena lazed on a folding stool, twining grasses into an intricate plait. Geret was lending a hand to the servants who were putting up the Shanallar’s tent.

  Sanych sat a little apart from everyone and wrote notes in a small journal. She had come to realize that while she could accurately recall events that happened to her anytime she wanted, it was still easier to remember things that were written down, even if she was the one doing the writing. Every day she summed up what she considered the most noteworthy events, using Archivist shorthand.

  As the two pirates stepped into the circle of tents being raised, Sanych, Geret, Meena and all the servants and guards in the area turned to get their first look at them. The Counts were, as usual, eating their supper while they worked in their tents, and Salvor had wandered off, apparently not interested in hearing the pirates’ tale a second time.

  The girl strode in first, ahead of her male companion. Her bearing was confident and decisive. She looked to be several inches taller than Sanych and appeared two or three years older. Framing her face were two long, oddly twined ropes of copper-bright hair, contrasting with her vivid turquoise eyes. The rest of her barely-tamed curls were a much darker red, reminding Sanych of Meena’s new hair color. The pirate girl’s skirt first appeared to be made of random colorful patches, but as she stepped closer, Sanych realized each patch was a different swatch of silk or satin brocade. Her low-cut white blouse was heavily trimmed with soft falls of lace. She wore a dazzling collection of jewelry: gold-and-turquoise banded hoops in her ears, an ornate golden collar with a dangling amulet, various styles of rings, and numerous types of bracelets. Even her boots had rows of small golden dangles down the outer edges.

  “I give you greetings, fellow travelers,” she said, stopping in front of Meena. All tent-erecting ceased, and Geret stepped over next to Meena’s chair, but the pirate girl didn’t even look at him. “I am Rhona m’Kora of the First Clan Agonbloom, of the Southern Sea Clans,” she said briskly, her Versal accented with lilts and long vowels, “and you have my thanks for letting us join with you.” The other pirate stepped up beside her. “This is my cousin, Ruel Menihuna. I bid you never say his name as ‘Rool’, for he will go away and cry, and then I will have to hurt you. It is ‘roo-ell’, or you may use my short-name for him, and simply shout, “Oi, Slave!’”

  Ruel gave his shorter cousin’s arm a shove. “That’s ‘Sir Slave’ to you, wench,” he grinned. Sanych’s eyes were drawn to him, and she took in his white shirt and knee-length berry-colored pants above new-looking dark leather boots. His hair was neither as bright nor as wildly curly as Rhona’s; waves of a dependable dark brown curled about his forehead, and the hair of his crown was pulled back into a tail that dangled down to his wide, lacy collar. Even his eyes were more sedate, a cool storm-blue. “Forgive my cousin Rhona, I beg you,” Ruel said, looking at Geret. “She’s a bit full of herself, which is why we’re here.”

  “Is not,” Rhona contradicted, brows frowning in denial.

  “Welcome to our caravan,” Geret responded politely, ignoring Rhona’s retort. “I am Geret Branbrey Valan, leader of the expedition and Prince of Vint. This is Meena, my guide, and Sanych elTiera, Archivist and recorder of our journey. Please stay with us for supper and tell us about your quest.”

  “Oh, shiny. I could eat.” Ruel grinned. He fetched over a couple of stools from in front of the nearest tent. He sat on one and set the other beside him for Rhona, who took it without acknowledging his kindness. Sanych frowned, and Geret schooled his face to stillness, but Meena snorted in amusement.

  Geret waved the servants back to work, grabbed a folding stool and sat down near his guests. “If you don’t mind, please tell us how you came to be off your ships. I’ve never met a Sea Pirate. I’ve never even heard of one being ashore, and here there are two of you. Where are you going?”

  Rhona squared her shoulders and grinned. Ruel merely rolled his eyes a bit and nodded his head in her direction.

  “We’re on our Age Quest,” Rhona said, chin high. “And we are not Sea Pirates. We’re of the Sea Clans. There are many pirates at sea who aren’t of our culture.”

  “I didn’t know that,” Geret said.

  “What’s an Age Quest?” Sanych asked, seeing that there was much to be learned from listening to the conversation. She scooted her stool closer and mentally tucked away the tidbit about the preferred way to refer to Rhona’s people.

  Rhona transferred her gaze to the younger girl. “When Clan children are deemed ready by their parents or guardians, a quest is presented to them, as a challenge of readiness for full adulthood. Every child receives the same quest, but each quest is different.”

  “Except ours,” interjected Ruel. Rhona glared at him. “Well, it’s true. Our birthdays are so close, and with Rhona’s heritage, everyone demanded I go on her quest with her. I didn’t get my own.” He shrugged a shoulder. “But I’m used to that.”

  “Isn’t her heritage yours?” asked Meena.

  Ruel laughed mirthlessly. “Not at all.”

  “But, what’s the quest?” Geret asked. “How can they all be the same, and yet different?”

  Rhona shifted, adjusting her skirt, making sure attention was back on her again. “Clan children are sent ashore. They have to spend time with the first person or people they meet, and do what they’re doing. The idea is to get us to open our minds to another way of life, here on land, and take what we’ve learned back to sea with us when the task is completed.”

  Meena, Sanych and Geret exchanged glances. None of them had been present when the Clansfolk had talked to Salvor on the road.

  “What did Salvor tell you we were doing?” Geret asked.

  “He was the tall man with the black braid?” Rhona asked, her warm tone of voice expressing her appreciation of Salvor’s looks. When Geret nodded, she replied, “He said your caravan was bound for Yaren Fel. He said he’d leave it to you to explain any specifics you wanted us to help you with along the way.”

  “What can you do?” Geret asked with genuine curiosity.

  “Well that’s not really the point, is it?” Rhona asked tartly. “We’re here to learn about you.” Geret blinked at her tone of voice, and Ruel nudged his cousin’s elbow.

 
“What?” she asked him.

  “You’re doing it.” His voice was a bare murmur.

  “Doing what?”

  “That thing you told me to nudge your elbow if you started doing.”

  Rhona’s eyes widened. “He’s just a…oh, scuttle it! I’m so used to…I wasn’t thinking.” She turned back to Geret. “Just be patient. I’ll figure out how you work.”

  Sanych noticed that Meena was laughing silently behind her hand, while pretending to scratch her nose. “What is it you’re used to?” the Archivist asked.

  “Our culture is matriarchal. The captains are women, the clan leaders are women. Women speak, and men do as we say.”

  “So that’s why you’re doing all the talking, and Ruel’s just sitting there?” Sanych asked.

  “Yes,” Rhona said, and Ruel nodded silently.

  “Well I’ll make it a priority to educate you about how our culture works then,” Geret said, “so you don’t get into trouble while you travel with us.”

  “Well, I assume you’ll protect us from that sort of thing,” Rhona said.

  A calculating look crossed Geret’s face. “Actually, I’m feeling it’s my steadfast duty to make sure you fully grasp the culture you’re here to learn about. I make the rules, and you follow them, because you came to my caravan for your quest. I’m in charge, and you’re not. Clear so far?”

  “Yes,” said Ruel.

  “But what if your rules are stupid?” asked Rhona, crossing her arms, clearly anticipating such. Sanych gasped through her nose and glanced at Geret to see his reaction.

  Geret merely leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and smiled at her pleasantly. “Then you can go home in disgrace, Sea Pirate. You want to actually work for your quest, you can stay and learn. But if you’re going to be a snotty little fool about it,” Geret pointed toward the dunes, “the ocean’s that way.”

  Rhona’s turquoise eyes widened in outrage and she stood up off her stool. Behind her, Ruel rubbed a hand over his mouth in trepidation. She took two steps toward Geret, her nostrils flaring. The prince merely sat up straight again and grinned up at her. She pointed a finger at Geret and said, “You little mudbound arsecloth of a dirt-wa–”

  Crack!

  Rhona staggered back from Meena’s full-armed slap, and would have fallen if Ruel hadn’t stood to steady her. She stared at the older woman, a hand held to her right cheek in shock.

  Meena’s green gaze blazed across the short distance between them. Geret looked incredulously at Sanych, who could only shrug and shake her head in ignorance.

  “You seem to forget the purpose of the Age Quest, little one,” Meena said, her quiet voice strengthened with the heat of anger. “Do you just barnacle onto your family’s hull, or are you actually interested in sheeting the wind? Clan m’Kora may have risen to become First Clan since last I saw them, but if you’re any example, it’s more likely that all the other Clans died off in mortification at your long-lost and not-lamented talents. Do you steal your swag from the dead?” she taunted.

  Even Ruel bristled at that insult, but he had to hold his cousin back by her shoulders. Rhona struggled to rush at Meena, who merely stood, arms akimbo and chin held high, waiting.

  “You know nothing, dirtwalker! I am the heir of Clan m’Kora! I will rule the seas one day!” Rhona hissed.

  Meena chortled, unconcerned. “Not if you don’t pass your Age Quest. And that judgment call is not one you can make. Only the one whom you take your quest to can tell you if and when you have successfully completed it. Which in this case,” Meena pointed, “is Geret. So you can do as he says, with a spirit of learning, and prove useful to your Clan, or you can get tossed back in the sea to grow a year more, and earn the deserved mockery of every Clan member in your fleet. Good luck trying to rule the seas at that point.” Meena folded her arms and stared Rhona down.

  Ruel whispered urgently into Rhona’s ear. She jerked away from him, but merely stood looking humiliated for a few moments. Then she stepped slowly to Geret and dropped to her knees on the sand in front of him, eyes downcast.

  When she spoke, it was through clenched teeth. “Forgive me, Prince Geret. I don’t want to dishonor my family. Please teach me of your ways. Whatever I have to do in order to pass my quest, I will do.”

  Geret looked up at Ruel, whose face registered relief mixed with a bit of satisfaction, and grinned at him. He reached for Rhona’s left hand with his right, and she gingerly placed it in his grasp and met his gaze.

  “Superb,” he said, a wicked gleam entering his warm brown eyes.

 
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