The wicked heroine, p.76
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.76

           Jasmine Giacomo

  Chapter Thirty-four

  As the final hours of their journey wound down, the same question arose in all their minds. It was Salvor who spoke it first.

  “What do you think has happened to Salience?” he asked, as the sun beat down on them in the heat of the afternoon.

  “It shouldn’t all be destroyed,” Sanych said thoughtfully. “At least part of the city’s on top of a mountain, isn’t it?”

  Gryme laughed, a rich, melodious sound. “You easterners. You have never seen the glory that is Salience, have you?” He lifted his chin as they shook their heads. “Then let me paint you the scene, please.” He shifted in his spot on the edge of the hold, and held his hands in a forward-pointing wedge.

  “Salience is the northernmost point of the continent of Eirant. All trade passes through her, in the literal sense.” He grinned and held up a finger. “The greater city is indeed on the top of the rock, where her royal gardens blossom and her wise women chant, and her night beacon shines out for all to see, and sail by safely. But the deep beating heart of Salience lies beneath.”

  His hands traced the shape of an arch. “A bower of dressed white stone marks the entrance to Salience Harbor, and within the deep reaches that lie behind it awaits the most protected port in the known world. The stone walls rise a thousand feet on either side, and meet at the very top, creating an enormous cavern. Through what can only be described as mystical means, it is as bright as daylight within, and unless one looks up to the stone ceiling far overhead, it feels as balmy and bright as any beach-side dock. And, oh, the docks! They extend in delicate, floating mazes throughout the inner harbor, and ships of all sizes, even the largest, most fantastical ships to grace the seas, can easily berth in Salience, for the width of Salience harbor, past the channel and deep in her heart, is over two miles.

  “But,” he warned, “this harbor’s riches are not for the taking, though generations of pirates have tried. The narrow channel that leads back to the docks is fraught with man-made underwater reefs, each with a single passage point. Every ship that enters Salience must follow its pilot boat, or risk spitting itself on the reefs’ defenses. The Hyndi can alter the passage points to the left or the right at will, so pirates trying to memorize the pattern are doomed to failure. Stopping to search for the passage points will only get them killed by the Salience Harbor Defense Forces. Yes, my friends, it is true,” Gryme summed, “you have not seen grandeur, you have not seen wonder, you have not seen the glory that the hands of men and women can create, until you have seen Salience.”

  Dusk fell, and the wind blew them steadily closer to Salience Harbor. A faint light appeared in the distance as they sailed past a rocky promontory.

  “That is Salience; sail for their night beacon,” Gryme told Runcan.

  As the miles fell away, Hull grew noticeably agitated, and finally he rose and stepped over to Gryme, engaging him in a short conversation that no one else could follow. As Salvor watched, Gryme’s expression blanked into neutrality, and he nodded thoughtfully to Hull’s words. After a short reply, he stood and made his way to where Geret and Salvor were both sitting.

  “Gentlemen,” he said quietly, “I pray you listen with more than your ears.” He met their eyes with a serious expression. “My companion Hull has a plan, and for everyone’s safety, I suggest we implement it.”

  “A plan for what?” Geret asked.

  “For slipping into Salience unnoticed.”

  Geret opened his mouth, and Salvor elbowed him in the ribs, making him cough. “What would be the benefit of this plan?” the nobleman asked Gryme.

  The man looked uncomfortable. “Certain aspects of our story have been left out, for your protection,” Gryme whispered, carefully revealing his left wrist to them so that none but they could see. The iron ring he wore was a manacle; its broken chain contained a single twisted link. Just as the worst possible thoughts were beginning to pass through Geret’s mind–Desperate convict? Escaped slave?–Gryme added, “And for mine.” He let his sleeve fall again.

  “Do you require our assistance?” the prince asked.

  “I do not require anything of you; you have already been more than generous,” Gryme said with a wide smile. “However, as you observe, my travails are not at an end. My esteemed colleague speaks a few words of many languages, and some I dare not utter. I cannot ask for your assistance, my friends, without endangering you.”

  Salvor pressed his lips together. “Then tell us the plan for Salience, and we will see what can be inferred from it.”

  Gryme smiled gratefully. “This ship is as swift as a dolphin, and nearly as light as a feather. All that I said about Salience’s reefs is true, yet Hull believes they will not actually reach high enough to damage this craft, due to its extremely shallow draft. He believes we may slip inside in the night, so swiftly that we will evade both pursuit and attacks from the Defense Forces.”

  Geret and Salvor exchanged a look. “And then what?” Geret asked.

  “Then, he simply wishes that he and I will go his way, and you will go yours,” he replied, emphasizing the word his.

  “Do you share his enthusiasm for his way?” Salvor asked.

  “Assuredly not,” Gryme said, with a tiny shake of his head. His expression spoke of fear and caution. “My continued association with him will prove terminal for me.”

  Salvor squinted, his eyes darting over Gryme’s shoulder. Geret’s eyes widened, but he managed to keep his mouth shut.

  “As my breathing continues,” Gryme murmured, “so does his obliviousness that I’m aware of his plan.”

  “I understand. As for his plan, you are amenable until the point of parting ways?”

  “Very much so. Being unnoticed in such a large area will make it easy for one to disappear,” Gryme said, and his dire intent toward Hull was clear.

  “What if there’s damage to the harbor from the quake ripples?” Geret asked.

  Gryme paused, pursing his lips. “I think that will work in everyone’s favor, should there be such chaos. Do you think this plan can be done?”

  Geret’s heart pounded. He resisted the urge to peek at Hull, to see if he was looking at them.

  Salvor noticed his visible tension. “Geret, you may be good at pranks, but it takes a dissembler of my caliber to handle this.” He stood and walked over to Hull and gripped his forearm companionably. Hull gripped Salvor’s in return, puzzled. Salvor smiled, looking convinced by the man’s idea, and told him, “We like your plan. We will follow your orders.”

  A wide grin split Hull’s face, and he nodded happily, gabbling in his foreign tongue.

  Gryme stepped up beside them both. “He says he knew you could be trusted to see things his way.”

  Salvor grinned and nodded.

  Runcan handed the rudder off to Hull then, and after rummaging in the hold for a few moments, slipped up beside Geret. Handing him a slice of smoked fish to eat, the Count murmured, “Just because he speaks our language does not mean he tells the truth.”

  Geret nodded silently, as if in thanks for the food.

  They sailed closer to Salience. As the bright beacon on the cliff grew brighter still, Hull spoke. Gryme translated, “Look for the white stone arch. We will turn there.”

  The Cuttleboat drew closer, and Hull sailed them as near as he dared to the shore of the rising cliff. Yet there was no white stone arch. A worm of worry squirmed in Geret’s belly.

  “Look!” Sanych pointed from her customary resting place.

  A silent, dark vessel lay ahead, at anchor in the dimness, and Hull steered the Cuttleboat quietly around it, trusting to the small vessel’s natural camouflage.

  They silently passed the sentry ship, barely daring to breathe. As they swung back in from the sea, they could see a few tumbled white stones of immense size. They lay half a mile ahead, on the sand and in the surf, where small waves foamed at their bases. A few intact stones still remained on their rocky perch at the foot of the cliff.

  The Cutt
leboat slowly passed the stone blocks. Some of them showed faces that were carved in deep relief and inset with colored stones, which all appeared as shades of grey in the night. Just past the blocks there was a wide water channel, and Hull swung the tiller over, angling the Cuttleboat into it. With a few gestures, he ordered that the ballast nets be cut loose from the boat. As the weight below fell away, the Cuttleboat rode higher in the water, feeling more unstable at the mercy of even the small channel waves.

  Geret murmured, “There’s the other side,” and pointed across a wide expanse of water to the other foot of the fallen arch, where other stones lay cracked and tumbled. Even further in the distance, another sentry ship slept at anchor.

  “Did the quake ripple really destroy the arch?” Sanych asked.

  “Shh,” cautioned Hull.

  Geret leaned over the edge of the boat and looked down into the warm sea. He thought he could see several white gleams in the murk below. He glanced up to the air above him, shivering with relief that he hadn’t been here when the arch fell.

  Slowly they entered the shadow of the massive cavern that housed Salience Harbor, passing harmlessly over any surviving reefs below them.

  The wind pushed them into the cavern, then abruptly died down. It was very quiet inside, and so large that it did not feel like the inside of anything. A warm yellowish glow radiated from far above, giving the amount of light one would see on a cloudy winter day back home in Vint.

  Hull murmured, and Gryme translated, “Lower the sail.” Geret and Salvor complied, as Hull steered them toward the left side of the enormous cavern.

  “Something is wrong,” Runcan said to Gryme. “Where are the docks? Further inside?”

  Gryme’s brows lowered in study as he gazed ahead of them, holding onto the bare mast. He shook his head and walked aft to consult with Hull for a minute, then came forward again. “I think the wave destroyed everything. The docks extended this far, at least against the cavern wall. We will need to row.”

  They broke the hold shelter into individual boards and used them as paddles, three of them to a side. The further they entered Salience Harbor, the more surreal it felt. There was no sign of human habitation whatsoever. The usual raucous gull calls associated with previously visited ports were missing. Only the slap of the waves against the cavern walls caught their ears.

  “Looks like we won’t be catching a ship from here for quite some time,” Geret mused darkly. “Folly in a firkin.”

  “The elevator system is at the center of the back wall.” Gryme pointed, and they paddled in that direction.

  A large group of wooden fragments floated idly by the starboard side. Salvor pushed them aside with his makeshift paddle. Soon it became clear that this was merely a hint of the destruction that had ensued in the harbor when the quake ripple struck eight days ago. The back wall of the cavern was one giant ship graveyard, and as it loomed out of the dimness of the distance into full detail, the paddlers stopped in amazement. Hulls, masts, decks and miles of docks were broken together and heaped onto the wide stone dock that ran the length of the cavern’s back wall, all two miles of it.

  “Now what?” Geret asked, as it became clear that there was no one here to overhear them.

  “Look there,” Gryme pointed toward the center of the stone dock. “They’ve been working on clearing it. There’s a space open. I bet the elevators work there.”

  Everyone rowed with a will, eager to get solid ground under their feet again. Geret’s stomach clenched as he anticipated what would happen next, according to Gryme. He was still unsure whether he believed the man, and that made his anxiety worse. What if they killed Hull, only to discover that Gryme had been the true danger all along?

  They paddled up to the cleared area and pulled alongside a small stone dock that jutted out from the larger one. Gryme began handing their supplies out to Salvor and Geret, while Hull paced the dock, looking toward the elevator system, which was silent and still in the warm light from above.

  Once everyone was on the stone dock, Geret let his hand rest on his sword and tried to avoid looking at Hull. The man hadn’t been rude or threatened them in any way. Geret frowned again and looked down at his boots.

  Sanych suddenly gasped right next to him, and Geret looked up to see that Hull had stepped up behind her and put a dagger to her throat, holding her across the shoulders.

  Geret began to draw his sword, but suddenly he found Gryme’s dagger at his own throat.

  “Sorry,” the man hissed to him.

  Salvor, whose blade had already sung out of its sheath, shifted his target from Hull to Gryme, and he stepped forward, seething with anger. “We trusted you!” he said coldly, amber eyes aflame, reflecting the yellow light.

  Hull seemed confused, and as his eyes darted from Salvor to Gryme, Geret realized what was going on. But how to keep Salvor from killing the wrong man?

  “Salvor, you fool, don’t bother with me. Save the princess!” Geret shouted, looking toward Sanych.

  All eyes shifted back to her, and in the time it took for Hull to realize that Salvor’s expression was not anger, but confusion, Gryme had darted around behind his companion’s back, using Geret for cover, and had slit his throat with a swift, bloody yank. As Hull sank to the dock, writhing and cursing breathily, Gryme grasped the man’s dagger hand and held it away from Sanych. The girl flinched and ducked away, running to Salvor, who held her tightly in one arm, his sword still pointed at Gryme. Runcan loitered safely behind the swordsman.

  Salvor shouted, “What in Wisdom’s name is going on, Geret?”

  Gryme raised his hands, indicating harmlessness, and Geret stepped over between him and Salvor’s blade. “We weren’t wrong, Salvor,” Geret began.

  “No, lad, let me speak for myself,” Gryme said, and stepped up beside him. Salvor waved his sword blade at him, urging him to step away from his prince, whom he’d just threatened with a dagger. Gryme eased over a few steps. “It’s time I told you a bit more of the truth.”

  “I’ll say.”

  “Hull and I were prisoners of Clan Swordfish together. They are one of the Sea Clans. Ah yes,” Gryme nodded, “I see by your expressions that you know of them. Their language is Old Kroilen, which,” he nodded to Sanych, “if had I told you earlier and you had recognized it as the Clans’ tongue, none of you would likely have survived. Swordfish is not known for their mercy. Hull was one of their own. He committed some serious offense, involving a woman. I believe he spilled her wine onto her lap during supper. The Clan sold us to slave traders at sea, and the traders brought us ashore to gather food for them. Hull and I escaped the chain gang,” he held up his wrist, indicating the manacle, “and were fleeing pursuit when the wave struck; that story was all true. We would likely have been captured and killed if not for the sea washing in.”

  “How does that merit his death?” Salvor asked, keeping his sword trained on Gryme.

  “I had been captured off a Jualan voth-nai, a ship of leisure. They are used by the cultural elite between the islands of the Jualan archipelago, to the northwest of Hynd. Hull knew of this, and asked me many times, subtly, how much I was worth. I am certain he planned to sell me back into slavery, or to one of the Jualan Houses.”

  “So, you’re not Hyndi? That whole ‘give me a new name’ thing was a show?” Geret interjected.

  “I am not Hyndi, and I apologize for the deception. I did not trust anyone at that time. As for being Jualan…our politics are rather complicated, and let me just say that any Jualan who would be willing to ransom me right now would only do so for the pleasure of executing me himself. Please, gentlemen, believe me, I only meant to surprise Hull by pretending to take Geret hostage as well. I had to act fast, or the princess would have been merely the first victim of your party.

  “Geret, you have a quick mind, and I thank you profusely and with good grace; your perception allowed me to save your lovely princess, as well as myself. My most profuse apologies to Princess Sanych; I never intended yo
u harm. I had no opportunity to share more details, and could only hope for this, the best of all possible outcomes.” He put his hand over his heart and bowed his head to them all.

  Runcan spoke from behind Salvor. “He certainly does speak like a noble. He’s nearly as flowery as you are, Salvor.”

  “And I’m not a princess,” Sanych said. “I’m an Archivist.”

  “I’m afraid I don’t know that term,” Gryme said.

  “It means I’m more valuable,” Sanych said, lifting her chin toward Geret and meeting his eyes for the first time in days. Geret smiled briefly and nodded.

  “How about sharing your real name with us, then?” Salvor asked. “As a sign of good will and all.”

  Gryme paused and looked down at the stone dock for a moment, and Salvor grinned darkly. “That is fair; you have saved my life, not once, but twice. It is only right that I entrust my fate to you further. My name is Kemsil Urondarei, of the House of Jath, Keepers of the Celestial Calendar, and I am at your service, my friends.”

  “Geret Branbrey Valan, Prince of Vint,” Geret said, stepping forward and gripping Kemsil’s forearm in greeting, as if they’d never met.

  “Geret!” protested Salvor.

  “Truly?” Kemsil asked.

  But Geret merely grinned, nodding, and added, “And this charming example of wisdom is Lord Salvor Thelios.” Ignoring Salvor’s heated glower, Geret went on to introduce the others in the party by their full names.

  The issue of what to do with the Cuttleboat was the first thing they dealt with as a new, cohesive group. Sanych wanted to leave it as it was, saying it was a unique craft. Kemsil was of a mind to try and sink the thing, so no one would know they’d arrived and ask questions.

  Geret and Runcan formulated a quick plan. “I’ll take Sanych to meet the caliph,” the Count said, “and the Cuttleboat will be our gift to him. Letting him think we have such amazing craft is perhaps a lie of omission, but what wonders it will do for our reputation at court!”

  They dropped the Cuttleboat’s rock anchor and bade farewell to the trusty vessel.

  “Let’s get off this dock, shall we? Before someone else shows up and tries to kill us,” Geret said, clapping Kemsil on the shoulder and heading for the elevator system. “I’d like to get home in one piece.”

  Kemsil smiled and joined him, the others not far behind. Salvor sheathed his sword, looking mildly annoyed that he wasn’t allowed to kill Kemsil for threatening Geret.

  “Feel free to stab Hull a few times, Salvor,” Geret called over his shoulder, “before you kick him into the harbor, if it’ll make you feel any better.” A few moments later Geret heard a splash and grinned.

  Dozens of elevator entrances were cut directly into the rock of the far wall, across nearly thirty paces of the harbor’s stone dock. Many were hidden from view by the mass of dead ships and docks. Of those that were visible, most had splintered wooden cages and frayed rope ends dangling into view, if there was anything visible in their entrances at all. The clearing crew had freed and repaired half a dozen of them, however, and it was to one of these that Geret strode.

  Once everyone was inside, Kemsil lowered a bamboo gate attached to the front of the elevator’s cage, then ratcheted the long metal bar into the up position.

  “How far up does this go?” Salvor asked, with uncertainty in his voice, as he gazed up into the darkness of the shaft overhead. The elevator lurched into motion, and everyone grabbed at the inner rail for support.

  “Several hundred feet,” Kemsil replied. “Lesser Salience is the bedrock that supports Greater Salience, where the Citizenry live. It is a city unto itself, carved from the living rock. We will find shelter there; all walks of life are accepted in Lesser Salience. Embraced with open arms, even.” Kemsil grinned in fond remembrance.

  “As long as no one tries to kill me, I’ll be happy,” Geret commented.

  A few moments later, Kemsil said, “It seems you are determined to head for your home, Geret, whilst I will do everything in my power to stay away from mine. And yet we both find ourselves stuck here in Salience.”

  Geret nodded and stared up into the blackness of the shaft, feeling the elevator cage rumbling upward. He hoped that someday soon, he could begin to grant himself redemption for the loss of the quest. For the hundreds of Vintens on board the Kazhak, and for the now-inevitable loss of his cousin Addan.

  At the top of the shaft, a pair of guards who were trying their best to get drunk asked them a surprised question in Hyndi, which Kemsil parried with a laughing reply. As the guards chuckled, he led the group past them, away from the enormous row of elevators.

  They followed him through the hypogeal streets of Lesser Salience, down broad curving avenues and across carven squares supported by dozens of white marble pillars. Every street and intersection had on its high ceiling the same dim yellow glow that brightened the harbor far below them. There were many denizens of Lesser Salience still out and about at the shops and taverns, and raucous laughter echoed down the alleys from nearly every direction.

  “Does this town have such a thing as peace and quiet?” Salvor wondered aloud, as they turned a corner into a broad street with only occasional light from above.

  “No,” grinned Kemsil, as he stopped and knocked at the third door on the left. After several long moments, the door opened, and a woman’s face peeped out cautiously, her curly brown hair framing an oval face set with dark-lashed brown eyes. When she laid eyes on Kemsil, she breathed a Hyndi oath and shut the door quickly. Salvor and Geret had time to exchange a glance. They heard the rattling of a door chain, and then the woman flung the door wide open and launched herself into Kemsil’s arms.

  “Kemsil!” she exclaimed, kissing him on both cheeks. He wrapped his arms around her in return, catching her waist-length curls in his hug and holding her off the ground.

  Runcan cleared his throat.

  Kemsil grinned and apologized, setting the woman down. He began speaking to her in Hyndi. After a few exchanges, she waved her hand invitingly to them all and backed into the residence.

  “We may stay with her tonight,” Kemsil said. “Her name is Anjoya, and she is a hostess. Here in Lesser Salience, that means a great variety of things, including the fact that she has a large home for conducting parties and meetings, so there will be more than enough room for us.”

  Anjoya seemed to have no end of well-appointed sleeping chambers in her home, and with a graceful gesture and a kind smile, indicated one for everyone in turn as she led them down one of her hallways. She let Kemsil translate for her, and gave him the last room on one side, next to Salvor’s.

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