The wicked heroine, p.48
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.48

           Jasmine Giacomo


  Sanych brought her gear over to the wagon with difficulty. After she’d dropped her satchel for the third time, she looked ahead toward the wagon in exasperation and saw Meena embracing Rhona, laughing and crying at the same time. Sanych’s jaw dropped.

  “What’re they on about?” Salvor asked with an air of disinterest, pausing beside Sanych. His glossy dark hair was loose about his face, and his usually prim vest was unfastened and hung open, revealing his magenta shirt.

  “Meena is her great-great-grandmother.”

  “So it’s a hello and a goodbye all at once? Bad timing there.” Salvor tsked and frowned at the hugging women. “On the other hand,” he said with a flourishing gesture, “I have retrieved these lovely blooms for your viewing pleasure.” He smiled and held out a small bouquet of tropical flowers. “To celebrate our departure.”

  “Oh, this must be heaven’s doorknocker,” Sanych exclaimed, taking the bouquet and examining a golden-hued orchid with a distinctively shaped lower petal. She gingerly fingered its loveliness and examined the other flowers in the bouquet.

  Salvor chuckled at her single-mindedness. “You’re so different from any other girl I know, Sanych. I like that.”

  Sanych stopped studying the flowers and looked up at him. “You do?”

  “You’re one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met,” he said, hazel eyes dark in the faint pre-sunrise glow. “I hope we can get to know each other better aboard ship.”

  Sanych smiled up at him. The first oranges of the sunrise clouds were reflected in the sheen of his black hair, and she decided he really was rather handsome, as men went. “I’d like that.”

  “Good; let me help you with those,” he smiled, indicating her bags. He carried them to the waiting wagon. Sanych brought the remaining bag and handed it to a servant, who loaded it on top for her.

  Rhona and Meena had left, talking constantly to each other, and Sanych felt a pang of jealousy. She might have been the one to seek out the Shanallar, but she’d never be as important to Meena as her own flesh and blood.

  Salvor eyed her distant look. “I think we’re about ready to run for it; you ready?”

  Sanych snapped back to the present. “Yes, I think so.”

  “Let’s get to our horses.” Salvor looked around at the campsite. The last supplies and equipment from tents and breakfasts were being loaded for Yaren Fel. The people who were returning home to Vint were taking their time. Looks of anger and jealousy emanated from the nobles who were being excluded from the quest. “We don’t want to be murdered for our places in the caravan, do we?” he asked with a grin. He put a protective hand on Sanych’s back as he escorted her to their mounts.

  There were several minutes of confusion as the much-curtailed caravan reorganized itself in motion, but they were on the road when the sun first shone its bright rays over the horizon.

  Geret and the Counts were busy all morning, encouraging the riders and wagoneers to keep a fast, steady pace. Meena was deep in conversation with Rhona and Ruel. That left Sanych and Salvor to keep each other’s company. As they talked, Sanych found herself wondering why Geret disliked Salvor so much. The young Vinten lord was clearly well-traveled and educated. The urgent hours passed swiftly for her, and she was surprised when Salvor touched her hand and pointed ahead to the imposing stone wall that bounded Yaren Fel.

  “We’re here,” he said quietly, all trace of earlier good humor gone. Sanych took her cue from his sober expression, eyeing the fifty-foot walls of dressed dark red stone with an air of caution.

  The main gates of Yaren Fel led directly to the tropical city’s heart, including the Inner City itself. However, the caravan was headed for the Dock Gate down by the sea. The road that led to the sea ran hard against the enormous wall for the entire mile between gates.

  The shortened caravan swung onto the wall road and approached the Dock Gate as it sloped to the ocean. As they rode, Sanych noted that for all the guards she had seen manning the walls at their approach, only a few were looking outward. The rest were preoccupied with the explosive situation within the city itself. Geret rode ahead to speak to the gate guards as the caravan slowed near the gate, and was pleasantly surprised to see the emissary woman he’d sent out ahead to the ship’s captain this morning. She nodded to him and spoke to the guards, and they gave the command for the sturdy metal-bound doors to be opened.

  Once the caravan was through the gate, the full scope of the port of Yaren Fel was made clear in a single glance across the gentle slope before them.

  The enormous, international port section of the city folded around the most western point of the continent, a slender arm of land that jutted into the sea. The Yaren Fellows, as its denizens were called, had tamed the rocky jut of land and smoothed it into an enormous wedge-shaped network of docks and warehouses. As far as anyone in the caravan could see, the land within the Docks District was covered with scurrying men and women clutching belongings, crowded wooden walks, and large storage warehouses being emptied at a frenetic pace. It seemed everyone wanted to get out of Yaren Fel today.

  The seas–the Southern to the left and the Middle to the right–met each other beyond the furthest point of Cyrmanti land, and were tamed by a series of jetties. A heterogeneous swarm of ships moved about serenely on its surface, from the smallest pleasure craft and fishing junks, to swift local merchant ships that plied the coasts with their full-bellied sails and tubby hulls. They had pulled away from the docks in all directions, only to be replaced by others whose captains were willing to risk a revolt for extra gipp from fleeing passengers.

  But one ship dominated the entire port, sea and land alike. It lay berthed against an enormous dock that was built nearly half a mile out to sea. The ship’s upper decks and mastworks broke the horizon even at that distance, as if it were a crowned king of the sea, and all other ships were paying homage and going about its royal business.

  The Sea God awaited.

  “You know of the Sea Gods, Sanych?” Salvor asked, unable to tear his own eyes away from its magnificent sight.

  Sanych looked out at the enormous craft in awe and murmured, “The Sea Gods are built in the Eiranti country of Kazhbor by the Czet’roiy Dynasty. They’re over five hundred feet bow to stern and two hundred abeam. Either nine or ten masts, depending on specifications, with the tallest ones reaching far over two hundred feet. Loading capacity is approximately thirty-five hundred marine tons. Four decks nearly the full length of the ship, with a minimum crew of six hundred and fifty sailors–”

  “Thank you, Sanych, I get it,” Salvor laughed. “You’re smarter than me. You don’t have to rub it in.”

  “–and they can carry a small city’s population–sorry.”

  “No, I understand. They’re magnificent. The numbers just make them more so. It’s literally a floating city. Did you know they grow their own food crops on board and carry a live herd of cattle? Of course you do,” Salvor said, as he saw her expression. They both laughed. “Do you know everything about everything, Sanych?” he asked.

  “If I did, would I be on this quest?” Sanych returned in a teasing tone.

  Salvor watched her for a moment, then smiled slowly. “Then I shall make it one of my goals to try and find things you don’t know.”

  “You will?” Sanych asked, unsure of his motivation.

  “So that I can teach them to you, and not feel a complete moron.”

  “Ah,” laughed Sanych. “Then it’s a deal. I would not want such a fine lord of Vint as yourself to feel foolish, especially in the presence of foreigners.”

  “Your loyalty to Vint is admirable,” Salvor said, nodding in mock seriousness, and Sanych laughed again.

  The caravan train trundled down the wide road, dock houses and import stations lining both sides. The colorbearers proudly rode at the head of the line, their Vinten flags snapping in the freshening breeze. Even those fleeing for their lives stopped and stared, if only for a moment, at the caravan trai

  Geret rode behind the flags, trying his best to seem princely. Rhona and Ruel caught up with him and began speaking urgently.

  “Prince Geret, Rhona and I need to get out of this city. If we were recognized in this fear-plagued environment,” Ruel said, “they’d kill us.”

  “We need to know if our Age Quests have been completed to your satisfaction,” Rhona added, with a quick glance around. She pulled her newly-traded-for blouse close around her neck, bare of the golden collar she’d traded for it.

  “Why didn’t you ask me before we arrived at the city, then?” Geret wondered.

  “We were so caught up with Meena…” Rhona looked back toward her ancestor, now riding up from among the wagons, where they had been talking all morning.

  “Then we didn’t want to run off and have the wall guards spot us,” Ruel added.

  Geret nodded. “I understand. Your quests are complete. Take those horses as far as you need to. I hope you make it back to your Cl–family safely,” he said.

  “Thank you,” Ruel said, meeting Geret’s eyes. “For the quest, and for saving Rhona.”

  Geret smiled. Ruel turned to Rhona and said, “I’ll find us a way out,” and started to fall back, letting his horse get lost among the caravan wagons. Rhona nodded to him and stayed behind for a moment.

  “I have to ask, because no one ever answered me: where are you going, ultimately?”

  “We’re going to Shanal,” Geret answered. His eyes were drawn to the Sea God that awaited them.

  “Oh!” Rhona uttered, following his gaze. “I’ve heard of that place; it’s in some of our legends. Treasures, dragons, powerful wizards. The Sea God is for you, then?” Geret nodded, and she smiled enviously. “Very shiny. Even I’ve never been aboard one. Our fleet could probably catch one, but it’d blow us to the deeps before we saw a wink of swag. My mother’s ship Harbinger is a fine vessel, with more long-haired skulls than any other Clan Prime has, but even her galleon is mere krill to a Sea God. You know, I hear they carry their own complement of concubines,” she smiled lasciviously at him, then laughed at his open-mouthed speechlessness. She closed his jaw for him and said in farewell, “Safe voyage to you. I hope you find what you seek.”

  She pulled her hand from his chin, and he found himself catching it. Rhona looked at him expectantly.

  “I’ll miss you,” he said simply.

  Rhona blinked, then smiled. “And I you, in a few days when my saddle sores heal up. Travel safely, Geret of Vint.” She pulled her hand away slowly, drifting back with her horse into the jumble of wagons.

  Wondering if he’d ever meet any Sea Clansfolk again, Geret turned to look at the caravan’s destination.

  Just then the emissary to Captain Galanishav rode up. With Geret’s permission, she began explaining to him and the Counts the process of loading half a mile out to sea.

  “Why is the dock so much longer than any of the others?” he asked.

  “The sea floor is very shallow here. The draft of the ship is deeper than the other vessels, and its rudder is very large. Apparently it can’t turn quickly either. That’s the closest they could bring it to shore, while still letting it return to the sea easily.”

  “I’m just glad to see the ship hasn’t left without us,” Geret said.

  “The captain is holding you to your word about abandoning any unloaded cargo at dusk. He was pleased with your understanding of his concern for his ship, though. I think he’ll be more than willing to assign additional men to the loading. Although, as you see,” she nodded ahead to the large contingent of soldiers guarding the entrance to the large dock, “his men have their work cut out for them.”

  Geret watched as a family of six was allowed past the guards, belongings carried in the arms of even the youngest boy. They trotted quickly along the dock, staying to the very center.

  “He’s taking on refugees to fill the empty berths, since we’ve shortened our complement by so much. I wonder if he’s even telling them where we’re headed,” Geret mused wryly.

  They arrived at the long dock, where the Sea God loomed even larger, like a floating mountain, forested with masts. Geret spoke to the well-armed men on behalf of his caravan. Once they realized who he was, and that his caravan’s passage had been paid in advance, they were much friendlier. Several of them began to organize the caravan wagons into a more efficient loading order.

  The loading process began. The wagons were not unpacked, nor were they rolled down the dock itself; the width of the dock was for foot traffic, and to ensure structural integrity in rough seas. Instead, the wagons were rolled onto a ferry barge, two at a time, and ferried right along the side of the dock, until they reached the Sea God. Geret and the Counts, along with Meena, Sanych and Salvor, rode over on the ferry with the first wagons.

  Beside them, on the dock itself, a few more refugees struggled with armloads of belongings. Geret’s brown eyes grew meditative as he watched them, while everyone else’s eyes were glued to the amazing vessel. When one of the young men dropped the top three boxes off the stack he was carrying, Geret made a giant leap to the dock and picked them up for him. The Counts quickly argued and called to him to return to the barge, but Geret merely shook his head and walked with the refugees.

  As the barge reached the ship, the group stepped onto the dock again. The Sea God towered over them like a wooden castle. They all craned their necks back to look at how high the masts loomed. Exclamations of amazement followed, and even Meena said this was the finest Sea God she’d ever seen.

  Geret and the other young men reached them shortly, and the prince handed off the boxes to one of the crew and rejoined his companions.

  While the cargo from the first two barges was loaded through a lower hatch and settled in the cargo hold, Geret led his group up the passenger gangway, which entered the ship’s hull at an angle and reached the dock right above the cargo area. Regular, round openings in the hull all along the length of the ship a deck above them sported fine bronze cannons, causing Geret to reconsider the chaos behind them from the ship captain’s point of view. As they passed through the hatch itself, the thickness of the hull made Sanych murmur aloud.

  “This must have taken an entire forest to build,” she said, looking around the vast interior.

  They entered a large foyer. Supports, thick and strong, yet intricately carved into gleaming pillar designs, were at every corner of the walls and corridors. A wide, curving staircase with an ornate banister led up to the next two decks, accessible through heavy doors inset with numerous thick glass panes. The staircase exited onto the top deck through a small stair house, and it continued below to the lower deck as well. On the walls in the foyer and down the corridors were occasional murals and tapestries of sea adventures and exotic locales.

  A crewman approached and smiled warmly, used to seeing expressions of surprise and wonder. He wheeled a large scroll around until he found the assigned quarters for Geret and his large party. He began to apologize profusely to the prince for the riffraff that would be sailing with them, but Geret glared at him coldly.

  “Have a small group of the refugees assigned to my personal table every meal,” he said, and when the crewman gulped and agreed, Geret moved past him without another word.

  The Counts stayed behind to organize the quarters assignments with the servants who would be arriving momentarily.

  Sanych caught up with Geret in the long corridor and handed him a strip of parchment. Light filtered down from above through groupings of slender, pale yellow glass cylinders set into the ceiling, giving the illusion of dim sunlight.

  “What’s this?” he asked.

  “Our room assignments, from the crewman. I thought you might like to know where you’re going.”

  “Oh.” Geret shook his head, silently berating his quick temper. “Thank you.”

  They located their spacious rooms. Meena said they reminded her of Sanych’s rooms back at the Temple. Salvor commented that they seemed small to him, and
Geret glared at him and kept his mouth shut with effort. Soon, they headed to the upper deck.

  The top deck of the Sea God was flat and smooth, a vast expanse of pale yellow wood occasionally inlaid with dark paneling to indicate sections that were off-limits to passengers. The wide, dark roof of the steering shelter, sculpted to allow the wind to sweep past, rose toward the stern, housing the ship’s wheel and the captain’s charts. The wide central staircase had its own large stair house, domed in a geometric glass pattern favored by the people of Kazhbor. Dotting the deck in measured distances were other smaller stair houses leading down to other sections of the ship.

  The wind was incredibly strong at this height, coming in off the ocean from the southwest. Even though they were half a mile out to sea, they could still make out the confused anthill of motion that covered the Dock District. The wagons were making smooth trips to the cargo hatch, and files of the Counts’ servants were trailing their way down the enormous dock. Nearly every one of them hailed Geret with smiles from below as they climbed the gangway. Some cast worried glances back at the docks area, and others showed immense relief to be entering the ship at last.

  Salvor caught sight of a single small sloop that was angling toward the Sea God rather than out to sea. He watched it approach for a moment, then exclaimed, “Wisdom’s head! That’s Rhona and Ruel!”

  “Where?” Meena asked, leaning out. She spotted the small sloop and put her fingers to her lips, letting loose with a piercing whistle that lilted and trilled across the distance to the smaller craft.

  Several moments later, a returning whistle reached their ears, and Meena laughed aloud. She walked along the rail and followed the sloop’s progress as it passed the Sea God’s bow and tacked south-southwest out to sea. More whistles flew through the air, garnering her strange looks, but she had eyes only for the two crew members of the stolen sloop.

  She watched her family sail away for a few minutes after they were out of whistle range, then returned to Geret, Sanych and Salvor.

  “Little scamps, stole that sloop and bolted,” she said with a fond smile.

  “But, don’t the refugees need it?” Sanych asked.

  “They told me they gave away all the rest of their jewelry to pay the refugees on it to go board other ships. They didn’t threaten them; they just wanted the sloop. How’s that for progress?” Meena grinned. Salvor and Sanych exchanged odd looks, and Geret chuckled.

  “Did they say anything else with those whistles?” he asked.

  “Yes. But it was just for me.” Meena closed her eyes for a moment and savored the memory of the pirates’ last message to her.

  “I’m glad they got away safely,” Geret said, and Meena nodded, smiling.

  Two hours passed. Crew scampered on the deck and up in the forest of masts and rigging, making ready to depart at their captain’s notice. Other passengers strolled along the rails or stared back at the shore as well, grateful to be out of that chaos. Eventually, Meena turned from the array of sights at the rail and looked across the immense surface of the Sea God itself.

  “What do you see, Meena?” Sanych asked, glancing at the expansive deck.

  “It reminds me of—”

  The boom of an enormous explosion reached the ship, and all eyes turned to look back at Yaren Fel. A great fiery cloud roiled up from the Inner City, turning dark within seconds.

  “Folly! What was that?” Geret exclaimed, squinting at the city in shock.

  Salvor was shaking his head, jaw slack. “That was bad. Whatever it was. Look.” The group followed Salvor’s pointing finger and watched as the masses of refugees on the docks fled the enormous licking flames within the Inner City’s wall. They streamed toward any ship still at the docks. Two more explosions, less dramatic but more terrifying, followed within a minute. The guards at the land end of the Sea God’s dock were quickly overwhelmed, and a mass of fleeing humanity pelted down the half-mile dock. Some fell into the sea along the way, buffeted by the crowd.

  Those already aboard the Sea God exclaimed and pointed, or covered their mouths in fear and shock. No one could look away.

  A loud wooden scraping sound came from nearly directly below, and Sanych looked over the rail and exclaimed, “What are you doing? Stop! Put it back!”

  Geret looked down. Crewmen had pushed the gangway out of the ship; it now lay across the dock, at the feet of several would-be passengers who were frightened and verbally insistent. He thought he even recognized caravan master Brem among them.

  Thumps carried from the berth deck, indicating that the entry hatch was being sealed. Sanych continued to plead for them to open it again, along with a growing crowd of people on the dock below, until Meena pulled her from the rail and sat her down forcefully against it. The older woman knelt before her and took Sanych’s face in her hands.

  “Stop, Sanych. It’s too late. The captain’s made his decision–I know it’s horrible–” Meena grasped Sanych’s frantic hands as they slapped at her.

  The Sea God began to drift with the current.

  Geret met Salvor’s eyes. The young noble might be a prig, but he was raised in the same culture as Geret was, and at this moment, Geret admitted he trusted Salvor more than any other man on this ship. “Stay with them,” he ordered. Salvor nodded assent and casually put a hand on his sword. The Thelios family crest upon its pommel winked in the sunlight.

  Geret turned away and stalked off to find Captain Galanishav. He soon learned, however, that no amount of demanding would sway the man. Galanishav sported the sandy beard sans mustache that distinguished Kazhbor men from sailors of other seagoing nations. His short stature did nothing to hide the steel in his spine when it came to his beloved ship, however. He would not be budged.

  Geret protested angrily and for quite some time that several of his wagons of supplies had been abandoned at the docks, as well as an unknown number of his countrymen. But Galanishav was having none of it.

  “You, my kind prince, do not understand the ways of the mobs. I have seen, in my life, three panicked mobs rush for ships, for one reason or another. It is not anything I would wish to force upon myself again. There are plenty of other ships for them, and they may flee the city in other ways. They do not need my Kazhak to save them. This is my final word, and you must accept it, yes?” Amber sparks fairly flew from the man’s eyes. “Beside that, you know it takes two hours to dock this ship, yes? Our sails will be aloft and filled soon, and we will be under way. It is a long journey to Shanal. I suggest you accept my decision, unless you would care to pilot us across the seas yourself. No? Then good day.”

  His mind in turmoil, Geret strode back down from the bridge deck at the ship’s stern to where he’d last seen Sanych, Meena and Salvor. Only Meena remained. She turned at his approach and gauged his mood by the look on his face.

  “You knew he wouldn’t do it,” she offered, the wind whipping tendrils of her dark hair across her face and ruffling the short collar on her jacket.

  “I had to try,” Geret grated, clenching his jaw in impotent frustration. “Those are my people. I said they could come.” Geret pointed toward the dock, tiny now in the distance, and saw the mob clustered on the deck. Some of them had desperately tried to swim after the ship, but there was no way they could catch the Kazhak. The enormous vessel was just beginning to belly into the wind, now that its sails were raised on all nine masts.

  “You did everything you could, Geret. No one should ever expect more of you than that.”

  But the troubled look did not lessen on his features. “Where are Salvor and Sanych? I asked him to look after you both.”

  “Sanych was pretty distraught. She may be a living wonder with that memory of hers, but she’s still only fifteen. He took her below to her quarters. I told him to, if it’s any consolation. If you hadn’t noticed, I can look after myself just fine.”

  Geret’s brown eyes raised to Meena’s green ones, and she saw the agony in them. His fine adventure was falling apart, leaving him ree
ling, struggling to remain in charge of whatever remained of his quest.

  “Come, princeling,” Meena said, taking him gently by the elbow. “I think you’re looking off the wrong side of the ship.” Meena led him forward as the ship slowly turned with the wind, and as the Kazhak slid past the westernmost tip of Cyrmant and out into the wide, beckoning sea, Geret stood with her as she pointed ahead to the west.

  To Shanal.

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