The wicked heroine, p.75
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.75
 

           Jasmine Giacomo

  Chapter Thirty-three

  After an uncomfortable night huddled atop the basalt monolith, everyone crawled out from under the muddy cloth that Salvor had found for their blanket, into the bright morning sun. They climbed down the monolith and slogged to the broken halves of the Kazhak, as Geret explained his plan more fully. Salvor and Geret plundered the wreckage for anything of use, from flint and steel to a spare topsail and lugger yard to replacement swords from the armory. The expressions on their faces when they exited the ship’s crushed sections said more than words; the sailors who had been killed inside the ship had not been easy to let lie.

  Her practicality struggling through tears, Sanych suggested they burn the ship’s halves as a memorial, as well as to prevent predators and disease from disturbing the dead. Geret and Salvor agreed without hesitation. They retrieved the remains they’d found the day before and respectfully laid the bodies inside the Kazhak’s hull.

  “It’s too wet to burn,” Runcan said. “Let’s wait. If we find others while we’re searching for supplies, we can bring them in as well.”

  The best thing that happened on that first day, as the southern sky turned hazy brown from Heren Garil Sa’s ashy cloud, was that the spring began to bubble fresh water again. Sanych was overjoyed and drank straight from it, slaking her thirst and rinsing her long hair out for several minutes.

  Memories of her stolen time with Salvor yesterday felt alien now. The persistent reality of the waves’ devastation, the unearthly dimness of the sky, made her feel his kisses, his love, had been washed away as well. Would they find moments as peaceful as those, ever again? Only if we live that long, Sanych thought, as she rose to her feet in the mud and hurried back to tell the others about the spring.

  When he learned they didn’t need to drink mango juice all the way to Salience, Geret re-entered the crushed cargo hold, looking for the old expedition water skins. They were mostly mangled, their crates shattered. He retrieved several dozen, which Sanych filled at the spring, checking them all for leaks.

  Sanych, as the person most familiar with local edibles, assumed the role of food provider. She walked to and fro across the muddy flats and up into the hills past the Kazhak’s broken hull. She found plenty of fruits, tubers and stranded fish, but didn’t see any signs of local inhabitants or survivors.

  The men lugged supplies from the devastated Sea God, argued over how to rig the sail, or whether they wanted two, and decided that the cuttlebone needed to be shaped and weighted if it was to sail properly.

  On the morning of the second day, the survivors took some time from their building and gathering to honor their lost friends, companions and countrymen. Geret and Salvor started fires in the two halves of the enormous ship, fueling them with oil-soaked bolts of cloth, and dashed out to safety, joining Sanych and Runcan at a safe distance.

  “Rest well, friends,” Count Runcan said, over the increasing roar of the flames. “Rest well. Vint has lost good souls, but we will remember you.”

  The smoke billowed from the cracks of each section, streaming between the crushed planks, obscuring the mast stumps and shattered decks. As the conflagration grew, the group moved back, avoiding the heat on an already scorching morning.

  The fire patiently claimed each successive deck for its own. The entire wreck was ablaze, and the wind of the firestorm howled past the small group who watched. Enormous tendrils of twisting flame raised into the sky with the fervent heat. The wind blew so fast that it screamed through the ship’s planks.

  Sanych gasped, sickened.

  “It’s just the wind; no one’s alive in there,” Salvor said, putting an arm on her shoulders.

  “No, look,” she said, pointing at the fiery monstrosity. “It looks like a Deep One, made of fire. I-I can’t watch.”

  She whirled around, stomach queasy. Now that she’d drawn the comparison, the others could see it, too, and they were no more comforted than she.

  “Let’s get back to work,” Geret grated. “We’re not dead yet.” He turned and walked away. All day, the Kazhak blazed, and when they woke the next morning, massive embers were all that remained.

  Four days after the quake ripples struck, the Cuttleboat was ready to set sail. Now a trimmer fifty feet in length, with a single mainsail and a simple tiller aft, she looked like an organic ship that might come to life. Slung beneath her keel were two cargo nets of ballast, as she had a tendency to wobble with every tiny wave. The center hold area was full of food and water skins, and had a collapsible shelter cobbled together of decking, in case of storms.

  It was muddy, hot work, but once the boat was afloat, even Salvor was impressed.

  “I do believe this idea might work after all, Geret,” he said, after the ballast had been adjusted. “You do know how to sail this thing, don’t you?”

  “No. I assumed Sanych would know how,” Geret responded, and waited until Salvor’s expression turned to trepidation before grinning at him and adding, “Come on, it can’t be that hard. Steer with the tiller, follow the shore, sail into Salience Harbor. Easy as falling down.”

  “Do you think Meena will be waiting for us in Salience Harbor?” Sanych asked quietly.

  Geret, Salvor and Runcan exchanged glances.

  “It is possible,” Runcan said kindly.

  “Let’s put to sea,” Geret said grandly, wading out into the shallows. Everyone clambered aboard the makeshift boat. Geret and Salvor raised the sail up the mast, pulling in concert, and Runcan watched it fill with wind while he moved the tiller stick back and forth, getting a feel for the vessel’s steering capability.

  Once they sailed out of the bay, the sea grew rougher. Sanych hunkered down in the hold, a mere three feet lower than the surface of the cuttlebone, and sat among the coconuts. She was already seasick.

  “Four days’ sail mostly north, and we’ll be back on dry land,” Salvor sympathized, handing her a mango. “Eat; it’s supposed to help.”

  “No way,” Sanych grimaced, holding her stomach, “I don’t even want to think about food right now.”

  A half smile turned up one side of his mouth. “Then maybe you’d best not hide down here with it.” He smiled at her pained expression.

  Sanych found that staring ahead at the flat blue horizon helped ease her seasickness, so she often stayed at the front of the hold area, just behind the mainsail, and rested her forearms and chin on the rough bluish surface of the cuttlebone. Eating, sailing, and sleeping, the four sailors passed two days, keeping land no more than a few miles away from their port side.

  Every low area on shore was devastated by the quake ripples, yet all the spots high enough to be spared, whether cliff, mountain, hill or monolith, were completely untouched. It gave them the odd feeling that the sea had somehow dropped its level suddenly, and they were seeing what had always been covered, rather than new devastation. The land became more rocky as they sailed north, and there were fewer swaths of destruction each day, though the ones they did see were no less completely wiped out than their own beach had been.

  In the afternoon of the second day, Runcan, who spent most of his time at the tiller, called out and pointed to the shore ahead. A mile or so from where they sailed, a rocky spit curled up and away from the white beach, ending in a sea cliff. Geret squinted against the bright white sand next to the rocky spit and saw two people jumping up and down and waving their arms at their boat.

  “More survivors?” Sanych asked, shading her eyes at her usual position in the hold.

  “Let’s go see. Runcan, make for shore.”

  Runcan steered the tiller over and the Cuttleboat angled to port. When the two people on shore realized the boat was turning toward them, they shouted and jumped in the air and hugged each other.

  Several minutes later, the Cuttleboat eased into the shallows, and Salvor tossed over their anchor stone. He and Geret splashed to shore, while the two stranded men ecstatically ran toward them and greeted them in excited Hyndi.

  “I’m sorry, fellow
s,” Geret said with an apologetic smile, “but I don’t speak Hyndi. Any chance either of you speak Versal?” he asked, not expecting a positive reply.

  “Yes, but poorly,” the thinner man said. He had dark hair and eyes, and appeared a few years older than Salvor, while his companion, equally dark, looked several years older than he did, and had a thickening middle. “Please, will you convey us to the next city? We can reimburse you, once we arrive,” he said haltingly.

  Geret’s eyebrows rose. “For someone who speaks Versal poorly, you’ve got a good vocabulary,” he said with a grin. “We’ll take you with us. Are there any others with you?” he asked, gesturing to the shore.

  The two men exchanged an odd look, which raised Salvor’s suspicion meter a notch. Then the thinner one replied, “No, not anymore.”

  “I’m sorry,” Geret offered. “If you have anything you want to bring, best get it now. We’ve got a good wind blowing out there.”

  “All we have, you see here,” the refugee responded, holding out his filthy hands. A glint of some form of bracelet peeked out from under his left sleeve, matted with nearly as much dirt as his hands.

  “Then welcome aboard the Cuttleboat,” Geret invited.

  “What form of ship is this?” the man asked, pointing to it in puzzlement.

  Geret smiled. “I’m not really sure, but it’s getting us to Salience Harbor.”

  The four of them clambered back aboard. The two refugees took a bit longer, feeling compelled to wash off as much mud as they could from their persons before boarding such a bizarre, sea-colored vessel.

  Geret then introduced himself and his friends by their first names, and asked, “What would you like us to call you?”

  “My associate’s name is Hull. But my name is lost to me, alas. Perhaps you can provide one that will suit, for the time being,” their Versal-speaking companion replied.

  Geret frowned and looked to Sanych, who said quietly, “It’s a Hyndi tradition. Pick something.”

  Geret raised his eyebrows in surprise and turned back to the man. “How about Addan?”

  The man nodded pleasantly. “It has a nice sound. You know someone with this name?”

  “The prince of my country.”

  The alarm on the man’s face was instantaneous. “Oh no, no,” he said, waving his fingers as if fanning a candle. “I could never take such an important name. Please, something more…suited to my current station?” He gingerly held up a flap of his filthy shirt. Sanych giggled, and he smiled at her with even, white teeth.

  Geret grinned. “Gryme.”

  The man nodded. “Gryme. It does suit, and I thank you. I shall treasure your gift in my left pocket,” he said, holding his hand over his heart and bowing his head in Geret’s direction.

  They sailed on northward. Hull wordlessly offered to spell Runcan at the tiller, and over the next few hours, he showed a remarkable skill at steering. Each man drank down an entire water skin apiece within the first hour aboard, and Sanych sliced up some mangoes for everyone to eat.

  Gryme ate his mango slices delicately, savoring each piece with small sounds of enjoyment. Hull, on the other hand, crammed his mouth as full as he could get it, smiling widely and trying to chew at the same time, as he nodded his thanks to Sanych. As he wiped the juice off his chin with his sleeve, Sanych caught sight of a rough iron bracelet on his left wrist.

  Geret asked Gryme how he and Hull had come to be on the shore. The man gave a quick glance toward Hull, then looked back at Geret. “Hull and I,” he began, gaining Hull’s attention, “were being pursued. Our lives were at risk from the men chasing us. It was the sea god’s own providence that the wave came and washed us all away as we fled their arrows. When the water put us back down, our pursuers were nowhere to be found, and we were finally free of pursuit,” Gryme said, thumbing the bracelet on his left wrist through his shirt cuff.

  “You’re very lucky, then,” Runcan said, nodding to Hull with a smile. The man smiled back jovially.

  “Why were they chasing you?” Geret asked.

  Gryme ran a finger along the bridge of his nose and replied, “I think such stories are too dull for such a stunning summer day,” he said, and though his words were halting, his tone was clear. Geret nodded and moved on to other topics.

  That evening, Hull spoke to Gryme in a language none of the others recognized, and Gryme translated, “He says he wants to steer through the night, to get us to Salience more quickly.”

  “That’s very kind,” Runcan said, nodding to Hull, who stood by the tiller.

  “Go ahead,” Geret said, gesturing, and Hull sat down and continued steering, turning his gaze to the newly emerging stars.

  “What language does your friend speak?” Sanych asked. “I’ve never heard it before.”

  Gryme looked at her, a warning in his dark eyes. “It would do you no good to explain, I’m afraid.”

  Sanych frowned in puzzlement, and caught a silent glance from Salvor. She nodded to Gryme and let the comment pass.

  Everyone else got as comfortable as they could in the hold, but Salvor whispered to Geret, “I’m staying awake. We don’t have any idea who that man is.” Geret nodded and shifted over by Sanych, while Salvor propped himself up in a corner opposite Gryme.

  “Who do you think these men are?” Geret whispered to her in the darkness, as they lay on their backs next to Runcan, with an extra sail over them all for shared warmth.

  “Not sure. They’re so different. The things Gryme knows…he seems well-traveled, educated. Hull…not at all.” She felt Geret nod beside her.

  “But he seems to have been born steering ships.”

  “Pirate?” Sanych guessed, her voice so low Geret nearly missed it.

  Geret shrugged. “Why would he be with Gryme, then? Did you notice they both have a bracelet on their left wrist?”

  “Yes.”

  “I wonder if they were chained together…”

  Now it was Sanych’s turn to shrug in the dark. The humid breeze of the sea gently caressed them.

  Before Geret could stop himself, he blurted quietly, “Do you love Salvor?”

  Sanych stiffened beside him, and he clenched his teeth and winced, wishing his brain had been paying better attention to his mouth.

  “I…don’t know,” Sanych finally replied.

  “I’m sorry,” Geret whispered quickly. “None of my business.”

  Sanych rolled her head in his direction. “I probably love him more than you do,” she whispered, her voice smiling.

  “I’m pretty sure that, of everyone on this boat, Salvor is the last person I’d love,” Geret grinned back, turning his head as well. The starlight painted Sanych’s cheek a glowing blue, faint in the moonless night, and her pale eyes glimmered like star shine. Geret blinked, realizing how attractive Sanych was. His eyes drifted to her smiling lips.

  Wisdom, I want to kiss her.

  “Geret?” Sanych whispered hesitantly, a frown marring her smooth forehead.

  He took a deep breath and leaned over to Sanych, pressing his lips gently against her warm ones. She gasped quietly through her nose and pulled away, and Geret winced again, and silently cursed himself for a fool. He quickly scooted back to his spot and stared at the stars overhead, pressing his traitorous lips shut.

  “Folly,” he whispered, “I’m sorry.”

  Sanych didn’t reply.

  Between the kiss and the mysterious strangers on board, it was a long night for everyone.

  Runcan took the tiller back at first light so Hull could get some sleep. When Sanych woke, she watched the shore until she recognized a landmark–a natural stone pillar–that had been on Captain Galanishav’s charts. Only then did everyone relax around the strangers.

  The next afternoon, as he sat forward of the mainsail, watching the sea skim beneath the bow, Runcan came to sit by him, leaving Salvor to take a hand at the tiller.

  He cleared his throat. “You know who you are, even though it is our secret at the moment,
he said quietly.

  Geret nodded, anticipating a conversation about Gryme and Hull.

  “Don’t you think she is even more aware of that than you are?”

  “Wisdom,” Geret muttered, closing his eyes. “Wasn’t as quiet as I thought, was I?”

  Runcan smiled slightly and shook his head.

  “Well, that makes me another kind of fool, then, doesn’t it? She won’t even look at me. What should I do?”

  “Give her time. I won’t pretend I can order out your feelings for you, nor hers for her. That is the bailiwick of the young and the emotionally in tune, and I am neither,” he smiled sympathetically. “I only suggest that you keep in mind the next five years or so, and let your actions now be toward an end you wish to achieve thereabouts.” Runcan nodded, looking wise, and let him alone again.

  Geret sighed. What if I don’t know what I want five years from now? At this rate, I won’t even live that long.

 
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