The wicked heroine, p.83
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.83

           Jasmine Giacomo
 

  ~~~

  Geret, Salvor and Kemsil had slipped into anonymity among the myriad harbor repairmen, at Anjoya’s suggestion. There was good pay for any man who wanted it, and though the hours were long, there would be no shortage of work for several more weeks. It was an ideal way to gauge the harbor’s eventual readiness to receive a ship of sufficient size to carry them safely back to Vint, whether a Sea God or not.

  The common halls of the harbor men in Lesser Salience were packed, the food was tolerable and plentiful, and the two Vintens easily began to pick up not only Hyndi, but swatches of several other languages, especially the coarser phrases.

  Kemsil, who had asked them to continue calling him Gryme, entertained them with his fluency in multilingual swearing, and as Salvor’s and Geret’s proficiency rose, they turned it into a drinking game: whoever created a lengthy and detailed insult in the fewest languages had to take a drink. The game caught on among the crowded harbor men, and it also managed to get Geret and Salvor laughing at the same time, which was no small accomplishment.

  One day Geret and several other divers were attaching ropes to sunken wreckage that lay at the two-mile-long foot of Salience Harbor’s stone pier. Kemsil and Salvor stood ready to haul the wreckage to the surface, using a cantilevered pulley system. A woman in silvery silk directed the divers to the pieces of wreckage, and the local men all seemed to assume she knew exactly what she was doing.

  As the signal came to raise the piece of wreckage, Salvor and Kemsil leaned into their work, along with the ten other men on the line with them. They raised part of a small ship’s keel, with a few accompanying struts, up into the air, and carefully kept tension while other men rotated the cantilever around. As the broken mass of wood was lowered to the dock, and the disassembly team began breaking it down into usable wooden sections for the harbor rebuild, Kemsil relaxed his hold on the rope and shrugged his shoulders to release the tension. Workers replaced the rope that threaded through the pulley, giving the thick end to Salvor and Kemsil and their team, and letting the multi-rope end down to the water, where the divers all swam over and took a section apiece.

  “You worry for Geret, in the water?” Kemsil asked in Versal, hefting the new rope.

  “Not much. He’s a good swimmer, and he’s not alone.” Salvor responded, his eyes drifting toward where Geret treaded water. The prince kept his eyes on the woman in silk, as she searched the harbor with a gaze that seemed to pierce its depths. When she pointed to a spot in the water, all the divers swam over and, as one, disappeared beneath the dark water.

  “You are his bodyguard, though. That must be a bit of work, with such an…adventurous young man,” Kemsil commented with a wry smile.

  “You have no idea. I spend more time saving him from himself than from anything else.”

  Kemsil barked a jovial laugh, and Salvor raised his eyebrows wearily.

  “Gryme, you laugh like you think I’m joking.”

  “I’m sorry, my friend. I meant no disrespect to your position. I am sure it is rather all-consuming.”

  “It has to be,” Salvor said heavily. “Out here, it is just us. There is no guard, no army, no diplomatic arrangement.”

  Kemsil shifted his grip on the fat rope. “You could go topside, with the Count and the Archivist,” he suggested. “I admit, I am puzzled as to why you did not.”

  Salvor closed his eyes, and a look of longing crossed his features. “What I would not give for a hot bath and a shirt that fits and smells reasonably clean,” he murmured. Opening his eyes, he focused again on Kemsil. “But alas, I must stay with Geret and sacrifice my hygiene in favor of my duty. Runcan believes that letting the caliph know that a beggar prince has washed up on his shores will heavily influence him against trading with our country, should we ever manage to get home in one piece. Sanych, however, has no official government authority, and it lets Runcan feel out the situation, using her as a focal point for possible future relations with the Hyndi. Since Anjoya was clever enough to think of hiding you here, it seemed best to hide us with you.”

  “Ah, more is made clear. Runcan is an astute advisor. Are you sure he is not secretly your king?” Kemsil smiled, and Salvor laughed.

  The command came to pull again, and the men put their backs into the effort of hoisting up yet another snag from the harbor floor, this time a tangled clump of wooden dock and thick metal framing. After it was safely lowered to another position on the wide stone dock, Salvor asked, “Why don’t you visit Anjoya? It seemed you two were quite good friends when we first met her. Have I misunderstood something?”

  “It’s not that I don’t wish to, Salvor,” Kemsil said, his face clouding. “It is a matter of accepting what is.”

  “Come now, Gryme, you can give me a bit more than that. I’ve confessed my love of hygiene to you: my dirty little secret!” Salvor grinned as Kemsil chuckled. “What is it you’re accepting? Or is it she who is accepting?”

  “Both, really,” Kemsil said. “We might have had a future together, someday. She is a lovely, capable, accomplished woman, and we have met many times over the last several years. I think the Versal term is that ‘we have an understanding’. But now that understanding cannot be allowed to grow further.” The flat denial in his voice did not fully mask his frustration.

  Salvor watched him thoughtfully for a moment. “It’s to do with why you’re hiding,” he deduced.

  Kemsil nodded slowly.

  “I won’t pry,” Salvor said. “I do have a pair of working ears, though.”

  Kemsil did not speak again until they had pulled up two more masses of sunken wood and twisted metal, both sections of large ships.

  “I am under the banns,” he said quietly, as the team of men on the rope paused to catch their breath once more.

  Salvor’s frown indicated his ignorance of the term.

  “In my country, such a ward is used to bind a man to a woman, or vice versa, prior to marriage. It is only used by the nobility, when one House is dominant over the other, or when one of them is reluctant. It is…unkind…to use the banns.”

  “You had no choice?” Salvor asked, wiping sweat from his high brow.

  “Oh, I did. I could choose either the banns, or dishonor for my entire House, and a slow, ignoble death for myself.”

  Salvor’s grin held no amusement. “Her House controls yours, then.”

  “Nearly, yes. The banns cause extreme pain, followed eventually by death, if their host is…familiar…with someone who is not their betrothed. It is meant as a form of control.”

  Salvor’s eyes widened. “It would kill you?”

  Kemsil’s mouth twisted. “No. It would kill Anjoya.”

  Salvor shuddered in spite of himself. “That is indeed unkind. Can these banns be lifted from you?”

  “Only by the House that placed them. Since I missed my own wedding, though, I doubt very much that the House of Aldib will be interested in anything other than killing me on sight.”

  “So you can’t ever be with Anjoya,” Salvor murmured. “You have my sympathy.”

  Kemsil nodded his thanks. “It is why I have chosen to stay away, lest I cause us both unnecessary pain. On top of the necessary pain; she is, as I said, a lovely woman, and I do find her enchanting. But I dare not risk her life for my pleasure.” Kemsil bit his lips, then exhaled wearily through them, shaking his head.

  Salvor blinked. “Wisdom,” he murmured, after a long moment. “It’s come to that, hasn’t it?”

  Kemsil raised his eyebrows, not privy to Salvor’s train of thought. “Sorry?”

  “Gryme, you’re absolutely right, and I realize,” Salvor looked over at Geret, again treading water, waiting for the silver-clad woman’s direction, “that there is something I need to do.” His eyes glimmered in the hazy yellow light of the enormous harbor cavern. “Do you think Anjoya might let me borrow a tub?”

 
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