Departures and Arrivals
“Prepare to come about, Chula. Set a course of forty degrees. We’re well past the reef.”
Cynthia pushed herself off the leeward rail of Peggy’s Dream to stand upright on the steeply inclined deck and stepped out of the stream of seawater that splashed through the scuppers. She often felt like she was cheating when she used her seamage talents to weave her ships through the treacherous reefs of the Shattered Isles, but there was no sense in being careless. Her sailors were highly skilled and knew all the major channels, but they had to rely on what they could see from the surface—the black shades of water that signified coral heads, the brown of grass beds, and the clear blue of deep water. Cynthia, however, could actually see the underwater topography through her connection with the sea, and guide the ship along the safest and most direct route.
“Aye, Captain Shambata Daroo. Man de braces! Close haul de sheets! Helmsman, bring her up as she luffs, if you be pleased.”
Cynthia smiled at her first mate’s gentle but effective orders. Chula had already been an apt seaman with the outrigger canoes that his people used for travel, and had quickly developed an aptitude for sailing. In only two years, he had earned his berth as first mate of her most prized possession, Peggy’s Dream. She also liked it to an uncommon degree when he called her captain. It was a title she had always aspired to, but had thought unreachable.
“You heard de mate! Wha’cha waitin’ for? Get dose sheets in and haul de braces ’round until luffing! Do I have to do dis all meself?” Paska strode down the deck meting out less gentle but every bit as effective encouragement to the largely native crew. Her natural get-it-done manner made her the perfect boatswain. Besides, she and Chula would not be separated.
Neither her baby strapped firmly to one hip, nor Mouse hovering over her shoulder, wagging his finger and chirping his own unintelligible orders, impeded the woman’s progress or efficacy. The full-length sarong Cynthia had convinced her to wear, however, tripped her up repeatedly. All the crew wore breeches or sarongs, and the women wore brightly colored halters that at least covered their breasts. Getting any of them to wear more than a scrap of leather barely large enough to make a wallet had been a half-day chore, and all the crew were performing less effectively due to the unaccustomed garments, but visiting more civilized ports made the concession necessary.
As Peggy’s Dream came up on the wind, Cynthia looked aloft at the sails and grinned. Sailing was her favorite of all things; a symphony of dynamic forces—wind and waves and currents—exerting their will on the ship, while the sails, keel and rudder captured and directed those forces to drive them forward.
“Hard alee, now, helmsman. Jib sheets first, if you be pleased, Paska.”
“I know to haul jib sheets first, Chula! Do you t’ink I am sleeping?”
Peggy’s Dream surged forward on her new tack, her bow now pointed toward Southaven. When all was secure on the new course, Paska’s steady stream of orders waned and she came aft to where her husband and Cynthia stood beside the wheel.
“All is bein’ secure,” she said, stumbling as the hem of her sarong caught her foot again. “Blast dis annoyin’ piece of cloth! Captain Shambata Daroo, I cannot work with dis t’ing wrapped ’round me like ten tons of canvas! It is bein’ maddening! And little Koybur don’t like it! He is hungry, and cannot get his breakfast.”
“Little Koybur is doing fine, Paska,”Cynthia remarked, grinning at the baby who clutched at the brightly colored material. “Shorten it a little if it’s tripping you up, but not above the knee.”
“The knee?” Paska parted the cloth and looked down at her knees. “You got strange frien’s who t’ink knees is bad to look upon, Shambata Daroo.”
“Nevertheless, please make sure your knees, breasts and loins remain covered. Even so, we’ll be lucky if the town council doesn’t make you all stay on the ship.” She scratched at her own unaccustomed clothing and sighed. The skirt, blouse and layers of underclothes itched, and her legs felt prickly in the rising heat. She wondered how she had ever worn this type of clothing every day. She carefully descended the three steps to the main deck and took a seat on the windward bench built into the side of the cuddy cabin, leaning back to ease the bulk of her bulging abdomen.
“Can I get anything for you, Mistress?” Tim stood before her, her self-appointed cabin boy and servant, and one of her chief worries. Although he had only endured a few months of indoctrination under Bloodwind, the pirate credo had stuck, and he had transferred his loyalty to Cynthia. He looked about twelve years old, but she had been unable to discover his full name, or whether he had any remaining family. He refused to talk about his time under Bloodwind, insisting only that he never wanted to be a pirate and had never meant to hurt anybody. Cynthia sighed inwardly; some mysteries would remain mysteries, she guessed.
“Maybe a pillow, Tim. Thank you.”
“Yes, Mistress!” He darted off down the companionway, quick as a cat.
She stared out at the beautiful expanse of sea and sky, pale blue above, deep blue below, and both flecked with white. Quietly she thanked Odea for granting her dreams, then frowned when she considered the unforeseen problems that had arisen from her blessings. Her troubled relationships with the egocentric mer and with the stubborn Feldrin Brelak soured her new-found success and put her on edge. Life might have been simpler if she had only been a mistress of ships, but the magic of the sea was in her blood and she would never give it up.
“I believe you are correct, Mistress Flaxal,” Ghelfan said as he sat down next to her, resuming the conversation they had started earlier as if only seconds, not hours, had passed. The half-elf shipwright smiled up at the rig as the ship pounded to windward, spray lashing its foredeck. “Further increasing the size of this design should be workable, although the aesthetics would suffer.”
“I haven’t even tried to fathom a four-masted schooner yet, Ghelfan. Too much on my mind to even consider it.”
“Ah, your dealings with the mer?”
“That, and other things.” Cynthia patted her abdomen and suddenly felt like bursting into tears—not an uncommon occurrence of late, though she usually managed to do it in privacy. “I don’t know if I’m ready to be a mother. I’m still so new to being a seamage.”
“Trust me,” he said, patting her knee and favoring her with an inscrutable smile, “no one is ever truly prepared for parenthood. Life is often a trial, Cynthia, but the joys we gain far outweigh the pains.”
He rose from the bench and strode forward without another word, leaving her to think on her trials, joys and pains.
Far astern of Peggy’s Dream, and deep below the waves, Chaser, the mer scout, followed apace. Unbeknownst to Seamage Flaxal’s Heir, a mer always shadowed her travels. Although Chaser usually enjoyed his journeys as her clandestine chaperone, this time he took his duty even more seriously than usual. As her birthing hour drew nigh, the mer had increased their vigilance; they could allow no harm to befall Seamage Flaxal’s Heir or, more importantly, The Heir held safely within her belly. Before Cynthia Flaxal came to them, they had long been without a seamage, and before that, her father had been far less amenable to their wishes. They could not risk losing the opportunity to help raise a new seamage, to shape The Heir’s upbringing to make certain he would look even more favorably upon the mer. With this heavy responsibility in mind, Chaser flipped his tail and shot forward.
Camilla lowered her spy glass as the sails of Peggy’s Dream dwindled in the distance and smiled as she took in the vista. She could see far and wide from atop Plume Isle, but this place offered her more than a vantage point. Blessedly, it provoked no memories of Bloodwind; he had never taken her here.
She raised the glass again and turned a slow circle, sweeping the horizon. To the south, Fire Isle trailed a column of smoke into the air. The volcano erupted irregularly, but about seven out of every ten days, the sky above it was darkened by day and glowed orange by night. Toward the west, several native dugouts floated over the outer reef, and with the glass she could see the skinny youths diving and retrieving fish, lobster, turtles and giant clams. Beyond them, a fat galleon worked its way south under an impressive spread of canvas, smashing through the seas on her way toward the Fathomless Reaches at the south end of the Shattered Isles. It was not a Flaxal ship, and was too far out for Camilla to read the name, so she silently wished them a safe voyage and swept her glass northward.
Another splash of white, this one farther inshore, caught her attention. It was a small ship, about the size of one of Cynthia’s two-masted schooners, but with smartly stacked square rigs and tightly drawn jibs over a gold-painted hull with flashy blue trim. The design was like no merchantman she’d ever seen before; the sail area seemed excessive for such a small vessel, and the deck was cluttered with unfamiliar contraptions.
She lowered the glass, rubbed her eyes and looked again.
As she focused the glass, the ship made a slight westerly turn to avoid a reef, and Camilla knew instantly that this was no merchantman. The high bulwarks were studded with six open ports, behind which were mounted ballistae. Another row of six ports on the lower deck were closed. Four deck-mounted catapults rounded out the weaponry. As the ship turned, Camilla noticed the gold and blue pennant of the royal house of Tsing fluttering from the mast.
“A warship!” she said, nearly dropping the glass with her surprise. “What in the Nine Hells are you doing in the Shattered Isles?” As if in answer to her question, the small warship corrected her course as she rounded the reef. Her bow pointed directly toward Plume Isle.
“They’re coming here!”
Redtail and the burly warrior, Sharkbite, cruised the outer reef of Plume Isle, watching the skinny landwalker younglings swimming and diving clumsily in the shallow water.
*It is Odea’s joke that something with two tails swims so poorly,* Sharkbite signed, making the same old joke he always made when he saw landwalkers swimming. *Do you think they taste better than they swim?*
Redtail grinned with appetite, not humor, and signed in return, *They taste like sea cow, but are harder to chew.* The reply was mirthful in intent, but accurate. Mer did not actively hunt landwalkers, at least not currently, but most had tasted the flesh of men. Not all sailors lost at sea were devoured by sharks.
Sharkbite started to reply when a resonant crack resounded through the water. The two mer looked at one another, instantly recognizing the sound.
*Iron on stone,* Sharkbite signed, pointing his lance to the north. *Landwalkers have dropped an anchor on the reef!*
*Come! We will see what ship stops while the seamage is away.*
They swam northward along the reef, startling a school of yellow-tailed jacks and a stalking barracuda. They ignored the dull-witted predator and continued until they espied a thick anchor rode descending from the bow of a narrow-hulled ship. The huge iron flukes of the anchor were wedged in the rock about a hundred feet down and had not actually touched the reef, but this was still unusual enough to pique their interest. In the days before the arrival of Seamage Flaxal’s Heir, a ship anchoring among the reefs of the Shattered Isles would have been destroyed as a trespasser, but the truce forged between the mer and the seamage forbid them from attacking any ships, much to Redtail’s chagrin.
The two mer rose under the ship and immediately noticed that it was not typical of the vessels they usually saw among the islands. The hull was narrower than that of a cargo ship, shaped for speed instead of capacity. Redtail brushed his scaled fingers across the copper sheathing nailed to the hull.
*It has a metal skin,* he signed to his friend.
Sharkbite drew his bronze dagger and scratched the softer metal. *It is the red metal. Poor for weapons.*
*Yes. Let us see what type of ship this is.*
The two swam up and broke the surface for a quick look, then dove, Redtail’s suspicions confirmed.
*It is a ship of war!* Sharkbite shook his lance in impotent challenge.
*The landwalker armies come to talk to the seamage!*
*We must inform the Trident Holder! The school must decide what to do!*
*We should tell Eelback first, my friend,* Redtail signed, making the gesture for stealth. *He will know how best to tell the Trident Holder of this.* He thrust his short trident toward the southern reef, and the two mer swam off at top speed toward home. Behind them, they heard two smaller boats splash into the water from the deck of the warship.
Camilla watched as two longboats from HIMS Fire Drake, the ship anchored outside the reef, rowed from the hidden channel into ScimitarBay, escorted by several native dugouts. In each longboat, a squad of garishly uniformed soldiers sat interspersed with common sailors in matching striped shirts. Aboard the second boat, one man stood while all others sat. He wore no uniform but his clothes were rich, and his hat bore so many feathers that Camilla thought it might take flight.
She stood upon the stone pier, having changed into attire suitable for greeting visiting dignitaries. Unlike Cynthia, she disliked wearing a sarong or sparse garments, having been forced for so many years by Bloodwind to wear only the smallest and sheerest of fabrics. Instead, she found a comforting solidity in the thickly padded corset that girded her slim waist. Her dress was simple yet elegant; fashioned of shimmering blue silk, it was not formal or frilly, but beautiful and functional. She sighed when she considered the garb (or lack thereof) of her escort; behind her stood a dozen natives, men and women both, all toting enough weaponry to combat a small uprising.
Or a squad of imperial soldiers, she thought, gauging the grim men crowding the longboats. She looked over her shoulder at her entourage and grimaced.
“Tipos, don’t look so mean!” she said in the native language, swatting the tall ebon-skinned dockmaster at her elbow. “You look like you’re ready to eat them!”
“Maybe I am, Miss Camilla,” he said with a grin, his white teeth flashing like pearls on black silk. “They might be tasty!”
Camilla rolled her eyes at the chuckles from the rest of the escort and braced herself for the arrival of the imperial contingent. Gauging their dour faces, they also looked like they were sporting for a fight.
“This,” she said, smoothing her gown and squaring her shoulders, “should be interesting.”
The longboats docked with military precision, and two natives caught the lines they were thrown and cleated them off without mishap. The first to mount the pier was a sergeant-at-arms bearing a long sword at his hip that no sailor would have worn for fear of being tripped up, and moving with the stiff inflexibility that bespoke of either infirmity or a heavy burden.
He’s wearing mail, she realized with a shock as he was followed up by his equally stiff brethren. They all are! Good Gods, if any of them fell in, they’d sink like stones! Armor seemed like poor protection if it killed you for a simple misstep.
The emissary debarked from the second longboat, followed by two servants bearing packages and several small chests. He strode to the fore, clicked the heels of his polished boots together and doffed his hat, sweeping it in a broad arc as he bowed from the waist before Camilla.
“Mistress Flaxal, I presume. I am Count Emil Norris, of His Imperial Majesty’s Ship Fire Drake, emissary and spokesman for His Imperial Majesty, Tynean Tsing the Third.”
“Pleased to meet you, Count Norris,” Camilla said, stepping forward and extending a hand. He surprised her by stooping to kiss it, his bristly moustache tickling her knuckles. She smiled at the gesture, noting that his jet black hair was not so dark at its roots, and thinning considerably. The man was older than he appeared, and wished to hide the fact. “Unfortunately, I am not CynthiaFlaxal. She departed for Southaven this very morning. My name is Camilla.”
“Departed?” He looked at her like she’d slapped him. “But I’ve―My apologies. I was told that she lived here.”
“You were told correctly, Count Norris, but she does go on excursions occasionally.” She turned and gestured toward the impressive edifice of the keep, carved out of the living rock of the slumbering volcano that had birthed Plume Isle. “Please accept my hospitality in her stead. She plans to return in a fortnight. If you cannot stay that long, please let me assure you that I will relate to her our every word in the strictest confidence.”
“You are her confidant?” He extended his elbow for her and escorted her through the group of natives. She did not miss the nervous glances he cast at the ebon-skinned folk. His entourage and the squad of soldiers followed in close order.
“I am her friend,” she said, cringing as Tipos and his friends followed along on each side of the orderly column, staring at them menacingly. “I am also her business associate, and handle the commercial details for the Flaxal shipping line.”
“Very good, then. We have much to discuss, but I doubt that we will be disposed to stay more than a few days. The emperor expects a report from me by the month end.”
“I am interested to learn what warrants a visit from a warship.”
“The Fire Drake is merely a precaution, Lady Camilla. These islands are rife with cannibals, though I did not know that any resided here in ScimitarBay.”
Camilla coughed out a laugh, then recovered her composure. “Let me assure you, Count Norris, that my friends here are not cannibals. They live here because they knew Cynthia’s father, Orin Flaxal, and there is a bit of a… well… a mystique about her among them.”
“Well, if you say they are harmless, then I will trust you.”
“Oh, make no mistake, Count, they’re not harmless. Not by any means!” She grinned at his raised eyebrows, thinking that Tipos might actually have known what he was doing in his small show of force. “They’re as friendly as any, but they’ve been fighting for survival against less civilized natives all their lives. Oh, and please give my compliments to the captain of the Fire Drake. He was quite correct to anchor outside the reef. I will have a pilot assist if you wish to bring her into ScimitarBay.”
“I believe the captain has orders to keep the ship outside, for safety reasons, but I will relate your compliments.”
“Thank you, and tell him to have a care where he places his ground tackle. Sand or rock is fine, but damaging coral is not a good idea in the Shattered Isles.”
“Why is that?” he asked, raising one eyebrow in apparently honest curiosity. “I am not a nautical man, but from what I understand, it is very good holding to place an anchor in coral.”
“That it may be, but the mer do not take kindly to having it torn up by ships’ anchors.”
“The mer?” His laugh caught her off guard, both in its volume and derisive tone. “Why would anyone have a care what merfolk like or dislike?”
“Trust me on this, Count Norris,” she said, fixing his eyes with hers and painting on her most ingratiating smile. “When a thousand of them swarm over the side of your ship in the middle of the night to seek retribution for the damage you have done to their home, you will care.”
“I will inform the captain,” he said with a curt nod. “It is our furthest wish, of all things, to provoke the… uh…” he lowered his voice and leaned close to whisper, “aboriginal folk.”
The two ascended the palace steps in silence, each thinking that they had a great deal to learn.