Scimitar War: Chapter One

Search for Truth

Huffington lay awake in his bed, considering his assignments from the emperor. Kill the pyromage; that was straightforward. The boy had immolated the emperor’s flagship and all aboard her. Death was the only option. The seamage, however…More was going on with Cynthia Flaxal than met the eye. Huffington felt like he was looking into clear water ruffled by a breeze, the details distorted. One needed to slip beneath the surface to perceive the true picture. He was good at that.

The quiet click of the door latch, the scuff of a boot across the floor, and Huffington was instantly alert. He was billeted in the servants’ quarters of the seamage’s keep. The intruder seemed not to have disturbed any of his roommates, their slow, deep breathing unchanged.

The dark figure bent over him. Huffington sensed its arm being raised, and his reflexes took over.

“Blimey, mate!” Light from the newly uncovered lantern gleamed off the dagger at the marine’s throat. The wide-eyed corporal backed away from the bed. “Little touchy, ain’cha?”

“Sorry,” Huffington said, though he wasn’t. He sheathed his dagger and sat up. This room had no natural light, so it was impossible to tell whether it was day or night, but his body knew that it was not yet dawn. His mind leapt intuitively to the reason for the disturbance, and his spirits sank. “Master Upton?”

“Uh, yes, sir. Captain Donnely sent for ‘im, and ‘e sent for you.” Huffington could see the corporal make his own presumption regarding Upton, the emperor’s spymaster, and Huffington waking with a dagger in hand. “Said to have you meet ‘im on the pier.”

Huffington half considered refusing the summons, but relented. Though he had gained the upper hand in his last encounter with Upton—refusing to reveal how he intended to carry out the emperor’s orders—only a fool would continue to bait that bear. Huffington was no fool. Sighing, he levered himself out of bed and began donning his clothing. “Did he say why?”

“There’s been a murder, sir,” the corporal said, one finger working at the neckcloth of his uniform. “The Master of Security is to investigate.”

That stopped Huffington cold, halfway into his waistcoat. “Murder? Who?”

“One of the night watch, sir. The captain will show you.”

“Right.” He finished buttoning his waistcoat, tucked his dagger into the sheath sewn into the vest’s lining, put on his spectacles and reached for his shoes. “Thank you, Corporal. I’ll be there in a moment.”

“Very good, sir.”

The man saluted and left him to finish dressing. Huffington pulled on his shoes, trying to quell an uneasy thought: Had Tipos or Paska finally taken matters into their own hands? The natives had been furious when the admiral impounded the Flothrindel and refused to relinquish it to them so that they could search for their abducted kinsmen.

The stars were fading overhead as Huffington exited the keep, but the mountain shadowed the beach and bay from the first light of dawn. He could just make out the dark shape of a longboat pulling across Scimitar Bay, the coxswain’s muffled voice and the steady cadence of oars disturbing the fragile silence. By the time he reached the pier, Upton had climbed from the longboat and was walking toward him.

“Master Upton.”

“Mister Huffington,” Upton said coolly as he looked around. “Ah, Corporal. Where…”

“This way if you please, sir.” The marine whom Huffington had nearly killed turned on his heel and led them toward the shipyard dock, where a crowd of soldiers had assembled. To his relief, Huffington saw Flothrindel bobbing gently at the end of the dock.

Huffington waited until the marine was out of earshot before asking, “May I ask what service I’m expected to render here, Master Upton?”

Upton glanced sideways at him, “Given your background,” he said quietly, “I thought that you might be able to assist me in determining what happened.”

“Make a hole, lads! Make a hole.” The corporal pushed back the murmuring crowd to reveal a dismal scene. The sodden body of a marine lay on the dock, his lifeless eyes staring straight up at the lightening sky. Water soaked the boards around the corpse and dripped quietly into the bay. Huffington swallowed, not in reaction to the body itself—he’d seen death in many forms—but in an involuntary sympathetic response to the sight of the gaping hole in the man’s throat.

“Ah, there you are, Master Upton.” Captain Donnely rose from where he knelt beside the body and gestured for Cape Storm’s surgeon to do the same. The captain flicked a glance toward Huffington, then regarded the spymaster once again. “We’ve got a nasty bit of business here. About forty minutes ago, the sentry taking over the watch found blood on the dock, and fetched the corporal and a lantern. They found Yarel here on the sea bottom beside the dock. The location of the wound suggests that his throat was cut, but my surgeon here questions that.”

“It don’t look like no blade cut that I ever seen,” the surgeon declared.

“Unfortunately,” Donnely concluded, “we can’t really tell what was used. From the look of it, some bloody big fish got to him before we did.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Upton said as he leaned closer to the body. The crowd shuffled a bit closer, and Upton glanced around and grimaced. “Captain, please instruct your men to move away, and tell them to have a care where they put their feet. They are treading on evidence. Mister Huffington,” he continued without a breath, “a light if you please.”

“Back off, everyone,” Captain Donnely ordered. As the soldiers retreated, Huffington took a lantern from one of them and placed it on the dock near the body.

The spymaster crooked a finger, beckoning, and Huffington knelt beside him, the damp boards of the dock cool under his knee. The sharp smell of blood wafted to him from the clotted pool farther along the dock, but the body itself seemed abnormally clean and rather sterile, a consequence of being in the water, he supposed.

“Clear the way for the admiral!” called the corporal. Sailors and marines parted and snapped to attention.

“Captain Donnely!” Admiral Joslan huffed as he pulled down on the hem of his uniform’s waistcoat. His face was still puffy with sleep and a wild strand of white hair strayed out from under his hat. “What exactly happened here?”

“Master Upton is examining the scene, sir,” Donnely replied. “Hopefully he will come up with some explanation.” The admiral’s only reply was a discontented snort.

“Your thoughts, Mister Huffington?” Upton asked.

Huffington looked back at the unfortunate marine. The wound in the man’s neck, while not particularly deep, was ragged and torn; not surprising, considering that he’d probably been submerged for several hours. Barracuda and other scavengers commonly patrolled these waters. It likely hadn’t been a shark; too much of the body remained. The wound was not particularly deep, but the main arteries had been severed, and the trachea had been torn. He pressed on the corpse’s stomach and noted that no water issued from either the trachea or mouth. Upton had unbuttoned the marine’s uniform jacket, and the mail shirt beneath glittered in the lamplight, obviously well cared for. The neckcloth was relatively clean below the wound, but the man’s shirt beneath the mail, protected from the cleansing water by the tightly buttoned jacket, was stained crimson.

“He was dead before he hit the water,” he concluded, “and it wasn’t a blade that killed him.” He stood and looked at the broad bloodstain, pointing at the center of the dark mass. “It happened there, and the body was flung into the sea. His pouch is still on his belt and full of coin, so it wasn’t robbery.”

Upton stood up slowly and wiped his hands on his coat.

“What do you mean, not a blade?” the admiral asked with a frown. “And, Master Upton, what is the count’s secretary doing here?”

“Mister Huffington has had considerable experience with such matters, Admiral.” He quirked a sly smile even as Huffington caught his breath. “He worked closely with the Tsing constabulary prior to entering the count’s service, so it seemed prudent to ask his opinion.”

Huffington carefully exhaled as he listened to Upton’s lie, and wondered if the spymaster sought to beholden him with threats to reveal secrets about his past. That trap, he resolved, he would not get caught in. But for the time being, he would play along.

“And, since I concur with all he has said so far,” Upton continued, “I suggest we listen without interruption.”

The admiral huffed and Captain Donnely narrowed his eyes, but Huffington saw the surgeon turn away to hide a smile.

“Though the wound’s been corrupted, its shape and depth show that it wasn’t a lateral cut to start with,” Huffington explained, uncomfortable at the center of attention. He drew his thumb across his own throat in illustration. “A cross cut to the neck is usually bone deep but narrow, whereas this is shallow and was probably ragged even before the fish got to it.” He rose and walked over to the pool of blood.

“Then there’s the pattern of the blood.” Huffington stooped and pointed. Despite his nervousness, he was intrigued by the pattern of bloodstains, smeared though they were. “It’s easiest to slit a man’s throat from behind: it’s a natural slashing motion, the killer can surprise his victim and it’s cleaner…for the killer that is. But blood sprays everywhere—for quite a distance, really—until the heart stops. It makes a hell of a mess. But we don’t see blood all over the dock, only here, and not much of it. To my mind, that means that the killer was standing in front of his victim. That’s an awkward stroke with a knife, and the victim would certainly see it coming and try to defend himself.”

“Which he did not,” Upton interrupted, taking up the narrative. The spymaster examined Yarel’s hands, then pulled a short dagger from inside his jacket, ran the tip under the corpse’s fingernails. “There is no sign of a struggle. No broken skin on the hands, and no flesh or blood under the nails. The murderer managed to walk up to your marine, then silence him and kill him almost instantly.”

“It also means that the killer was spattered in blood, which is a hard thing to hide, sir.” Huffington started to glance away when something caught his eye. “What’s this?” he said as he stepped over the pool of blood and squatted down. He traced his finger along the outline of a partially smudged print, narrow, with five tiny toe prints clearly visible. “Look here, Master Upton; a footprint. Too small to be a man. Could be a boy or a woman. And unshod, so probably a native.”

“A native woman did this?” the admiral sputtered in anger. “What about that Paska shrew, always screeching about how I need to give them Flothrindel so they can run off to help their friends?”

“With respect, sir,” Huffington said quickly, “I don’t think it could be Paska. For one thing, Flothrindel is still here. Whoever killed your man stood right here in front of him, tore his throat out, tossed the body into the sea and just walked away.”

“Tore his throat out?” Donnely said with a grimace.

Huffington ignored Donnely’s comment and continued. “It seems to me that the most likely explanation is that not all the cannibals left the island after their attack. Maybe a few stayed, hidden in the jungle. They file their teeth. That would explain the wound and the blood pattern.”

“Preposterous!” Admiral Joslan said, disbelief painted on his piggish features. “You suggest that some woman ripped this man’s throat out with her teeth?”

Huffington shrugged and glanced toward Upton. The emperor’s master of security was looking at him with an appraising—and unnerving—gaze. Huffington dropped his eyes.

“This is exactly what he is suggesting, Admiral,” Upton said. “And again, I agree. I suggest that you send out search parties and double your guard. Let no one venture out alone, especially at night.”

Joslan looked taken aback, a glint of fear in his eyes. Huffington didn’t blame him; he hoped to never meet the cannibals who had wreaked such havoc here, but something about his own explanation bothered him. If it was cannibals, he thought, then why didn’t they take the body?

The admiral finally found his voice. “Yes, I…I agree that precautions are necessary. See to it, Captain Donnely.”

“Aye, Admiral.” The captain saluted, then turned to Upton. “Are you finished here, sir?”

“I would like to take a sketch of that print, Captain, but I think we have learned everything we can from the body. Bury your man. It may also be wise, Admiral, to spread the word among the natives. They are better acquainted with this enemy than we are, and perhaps can shed some light on this mystery.” He beckoned to Huffington, and the two of them strode up the dock toward the beach. Only when they were well out of earshot did Upton lean close and speak.

“Something is amiss here, Mister Huffington. Have a care.”

“I…always do, Master Upton,” Huffington said, eying the spymaster and trying to decide if the last had been a warning, or a threat.

Camilla drifted from sleep to wakefulness in a cocoon of warmth. Half opening one eye, she saw the bright blue sky of a new day beyond the gossamer drapes of the balcony. It was morning. She blinked and stretched, relishing the sensation of soft sheets caressing her bare skin. She felt wonderful, better than she had in days. Her sleep had been deep and dreamless.

She rolled over and smiled at the sight of Emil still sleeping beside her, snoring softly, his dark hair in disarray, the sheets thrown off sometime in the night. She watched him breathe, recalling their tumultuous lovemaking of the night before. Like the storm that had passed, their passion had been both violent and purging. She frowned at the scratches that marred his chest and shoulders, reaching out to touch them.

He stirred, eyes fluttering open, blinking to focus on her. “Mmm… morning,” he mumbled with a smile, reaching around to cradle her in the crook of his arm, her cheek against his chest. “Sleep well, my dear?”

“Wonderfully, thanks to you,” she said as she snuggled into the heat of his body, tracing her fingertips down his chest. She craned her neck to look up into his sweet face, his eyes so filled with adoration that she wanted to weep with gratitude. Here in his arms, she felt safe as she never had before. Safe…and loved. She touched the scratches and frowned apologetically. “Sorry about those. I got a little carried away.”

“It’s nothing, my dear,” he said, drawing her close and running his fingers through her hair. “Battle scars…”

“Battle scars?” she said with a smirk, tickling his ribs until he twitched and laughed. “Seriously, though, thank you for indulging me last night. I needed it.” She held him close, kissing his chest. “I feel better, whole again, finally.”

“Mmmm. It was my pleasure.” He ran his fingers through her hair, and she pressed herself tight against him. Sudden desire welled up from deep within her, setting her skin alive with tingles of pleasure.

You make me whole, Emil,” she whispered, looking up into his eyes. “How can I ever repay you?”

“Oh, I’m sure you can think of something, my dear.”

She laughed, and then did.

Paska glowered at the imperial marines who stood guard at the doors to the keep’s great hall, and bounced little Koybur on her hip to quiet him.

Beside her, Tipos flashed her a warning with his eyes. Rumors of the soldier’s death were flying like leaves in a hurricane. It would not do to aggravate Admiral Joslan now; this was the first time he had actually sent for them.

It will be different when Shambata Daroo returns, she thought, adamant that the seamage and her husband would return, though others thought it less than likely. Cynthia won’t let this admiral push her around.

Admiral Joslan had claimed the great hall as his center of operations and conducted all his business here. The long table that had been the site of so many pleasant meals was now strewn with papers and charts, letters and scrolls. As usual, the admiral sat at the head of the table, a silver tea and blackbrew service placed within reach, and his everpresent steward hovering nearby. To the admiral’s left sat Count Norris and Miss Cammy. Paska breathed a silent sigh of relief; Miss Cammy was looking better every day. This morning her cheeks had some color and her eyes were less sunken, though she didn’t look very happy.

It took Paska a moment to realize what was out of place. Count Norris’ secretary, Huffington, stood not by his master, but at the Admiral’s elbow next to a short man whose blank features shone like a mask, concealing secrets she was certain she didn’t want to know.

“Admiral,” Paska said, keeping her tone amiable, “you be sendin’ fer us?”

“I did.” He indicated two empty chairs across from Camilla and Norris. “Thank you for coming. Please have a seat. Would you care for anything? Blackbrew, tea?”

“Not’in’ fer me, t’anke,” she said, sharing a covert glance with Tipos as he declined the offer and they took seats; the admiral was being cordial, which was not like him at all. “Dis about dat soldier who was killed?”

“It is.” He raised a hand toward Huffington and the other man. “This is Master Upton, the emperor’s Master of Security. You know Mister Huffington. They are investigating the death, and they thought you might be able to shed some light on the subject.”

“We don’t know not’in’ ‘bout it, Admiral,” Tipos said, quelling Paska’s outraged reply with a tap on her leg under the table. “If you’re t’ink one of oua people—”

“I am not suggesting that any of your people had anything to do with it,” the admiral interrupted, “but we have questions that we hoped you might be able to help answer.”

“Questions?” Paska asked, arching her brow. “What kinda questions?”

The admiral opened his mouth to answer, but Master Upton stepped forward. “Admiral, if I may explain.”

“By all means, Master Upton,” the admiral said, reaching for his cup. Paska noted the distaste in his voice and his flushed features. The admiral did not like this Master Upton. Then again, as far as she had seen, the admiral didn’t like anyone.

They listened to Upton describe what they had discovered about the marine’s murder, the strange wound, blood pattern and lack of robbery or other injury. He spoke without a hint of emotion, but his eyes bored into them as if to catch any movement or glance that might suggest guilt. His gaze made Paska shudder; this man didn’t miss much. When he finished his recitation he showed them the sketch of the bloody footprint they had found and looked expectantly at them.

Paska looked to Tipos, who shrugged. “Dere’s no kinda animal onde islan’ to kill a man like dat. And dat footprint…”

“The footprint suggests that a woman,” the admiral said as he squinted at Paska, “killed this marine.”

“Admiral!” exclaimed the count.

Paska’s anger flared. Grabbing the cup in front of the count, she dashed the liquid to the floor, stepped in the puddle, then stamped her foot onto dry stone. “Dere!” she fumed. “Dat’s my footprint. I didn’t kill nobody!”

Paska’s footprint was longer, wider, and flatter than the sketch. She sat back down, glaring at the admiral.

“We were not,” Upton said with a glance toward the fuming admiral, “suggesting that it was one of the local natives. But perhaps some cannibals remained on the island after the attack?” He raised his eyebrows speculatively.

“Coulda been one of dem,” Tipos agreed. “If a woman jus’ walk up to de man, he might not suspec’ ‘til too late. But de cannibals don’t just tear out t’roats. Dey use clubs and such, too, and wouldn’t jus’ leave de body. We could look ‘round. Oua people probably bein’ betta at trackin’ in de jungle dan you, we might—”

“But before we help you wit’ dis,” Paska interrupted, nudging Tipos under the table, “what you willin’ to give us in trade?”

“Trade?” Joslan said, a flush of anger suffusing his face. “I’m not going to barter with you. I would think that you would want to help find the killer for your own safety’s sake.”

“Wasn’t one of oua people was killed, Admiral,” Paska said. She fought not to scream at the foolish man. This was the only chance they had to get what they needed, and she had to play it just right. “If it was one of dem cannibals, and dey be hidin’ somewhere in de jungle, you neva gonna find dem. We maybe find dem for you…if you give us Flothrindel.”

“No!” the admiral barked, rage flowing from him like a wave. He banged his hand on the table, rattling all the cups and saucers. “I will not give you Flothrindel or any other craft! That is final!”

“Den you don’t need oua help dat much.” She stood, and Tipos followed suit. “Sorry, Admiral, but dat’s da deal. We track dis murderer down, and you give us Flothrindel. Maybe afta you lose a few more men, den you come talk to us.”

“I could have you both clapped in irons for treason!” he seethed.

“And how dat gonna help you?” she asked, shaking her head at the empty threat. “You got so many men, maybe you not miss a few more.”

She nudged Tipos, then turned her back on the admiral and strode out of the room. They left unmolested, and she relaxed, whispering sweet nonsense to Koybur to calm the boy’s fussing.

When they were well down the corridor, Tipos murmured to her in their own language, “That was dangerous, Paska.”

“Yes,” she agreed, looking at him and shrugging, “but it was the only thing he was going to listen to.”

“The natives of this island are not your enemies, Admiral!” Camilla insisted. She reflexively picked up her teacup, feeling its warmth through the delicate porcelain, and raised it to her lips. The smell was nauseating, and she set it down again untasted. “You should consider Paska’s offer.”

“It’s extortion!” Joslan snapped, his face still flushed and radiating more heat than the teapot. She could see the pulse hammering at his temple. “I will not be blackmailed into giving them the means to bring their entire tribe down on us.”

“You can’t expect them to help you when you won’t help them, Admiral,” she reiterated, though she didn’t really expect him to back down now. Before Paska and Tipos were summoned, she and Emil had tried for an hour to make the man see reason, and he had stonewalled their every attempt. The vein at his temple pulsed strongly, and she felt like she could almost hear his pounding heart. She licked her lips unconsciously. “They only desire to free their kinsmen.”

“So you say,” Joslan countered, draining his cup. The steward refilled it. “Well, we are not without resources of our own. I daresay Master Upton and his people will be able to track down this fiend. Am I not right, sir?”

“Unfortunately, Admiral, woodcraft is not my forte.” The little man shrugged. “I will certainly accompany any search parties, but in such terrain and dense growth, I hold little hope of success.”

Camilla didn’t like Upton; she liked him even less than she liked Huffington. The two were cut from the same bolt of cloth; they saw too much, always lurking and spying, like rats in the dark. She remembered the skittering claws in the dungeon and shivered.

“We have nearly seven thousand men in our armada. I daresay there are some with tracking skills.” Joslan scrawled a note and handed it to his steward. “Give that to Captain Donnely for Commodore Henkle.”

Ah, the brute force and ignorance approach, Camilla thought as she shifted in frustration. Emil had been right about this man; not a subtle bone in his body. Joslan was a warrior, and though skilled in his trade, he had no guile whatsoever.

“Such an approach will put your men at risk, Admiral,” Upton warned.

“I agree,” Emil said. He patted Camilla’s leg under the table to calm her. Instead, she trembled with a thrill of sudden and unexpected desire. She forced it down, trying to focus on his words. “You have lost one man, Admiral. Risking more in an attempt to track down the murderer on unfamiliar terrain is ill-advised.”

“Yet we must do something,” Joslan insisted. “A man has been killed; a lack of action shows weakness, inviting another attack.”

Idiot! Camilla thought, slipping one hand under the table to grasp Emil’s. It was warm…so warm.

“This was not an attack, Admiral,” Upton said, “at least not in the military sense. It was an isolated incident, and may have been motivated by any number of things. Simple precautions should preclude further incidents. Private Yarel was killed because he was alone and the murderer was able to silence him before he could raise an alarm. It would not have occurred if he had not been alone.”

“It might not have occurred,” Joslan said, glaring at the master of security. “We will double the guard as you suggested, but we will also hunt the culprit by other means.” He pushed his chair back and rose. “May I say once again how pleased I am to see you well and safe, Miss Camilla.”

Camilla stood and accepted his proffered hand. “Thank you, Admiral.” She repressed a shudder at the sweaty clasp, the slick film of exudate redolent of meat and blackbrew. His pulse beat against her palm as he brought her hand to his lips. Oddly, she thought she could sense a faint flutter in its cadence, a flutter that would eventually kill him, unless something—or someone—else killed him first.

An image flashed in her mind—blood gushing from an open wound, sweet and hot, cascading down…Her attention snapped back to the here and now as he released her hand, her own heart pounding in her ears. Despite the cold terror of the hallucination, she managed to smile at the admiral. She had thought her nightmares of blood were over, soothed by Emil’s gentle love. But now, as she took Emil’s arm, she wondered, What the hells is wrong with me?

“Enough, Cyn.” Feldrin’s huge hand rested on her shoulder, solid as stone, comforting. “Comin’ on eight bells, and the first dog watch is ready at the sweeps.”

She opened her eyes and looked up into her husband’s concerned face, his dusky skin stark with the light of the afternoon sun lowering in the sky. “I’m really not that tired. I could go longer if…”

“Nay, lass. You take enough on yer shoulders doin’ the day watches with the sun so bloody hot. Let the crew take the night. Come on.” She let him pull her up from her seat beside the cuddy cabin, then twisted and stretched out the kinks that had settled during the long day. The ship’s bell chimed eight times, and Horace called the watch change. Feldrin cast a casual salute to his stalwart first mate. “The deck’s yours, Horace.”

“The deck is mine, Captain,” he said, returning the salute with a grin. “And the crew’s compliments and thanks to you, Mistress. We made good miles today.”

“My pleasure,” Cynthia said as the steady cadence of the coxswain’s chant began, and twenty-four sailors began pulling long strokes with the twelve sweeps.

She relinquished her connection with the winds, and the sails went slack. Feldrin smiled up into the rigging as his crew pulled in the flapping canvas, and held out his arm to her. She took the support and accompanied him below, though she maintained her bond with the sea and kept a steady pressure on the hull of Orin’s Pride. It took little effort, and that much more water would pass under their keel before Cynthia finally succumbed to sleep. What her husband didn’t know, she figured, wouldn’t hurt him.

“How’s Kloe?” she asked as they entered the cuddy cabin and negotiated the steps.

“Hungry as usual,” he said with a grin, “and fussy, which is normal in babies, I’m guessin’.”

“I’ll feed him before supper, then.”

“Not before you’ve had some water and a nibble. You’ve been outside all day.” He diverted her to the galley and called for the cook. “Water and a biscuit fer the nursin’ mommy, if you please.”

“Straight away, Captain!” The man bustled around the galley and produced a large pewter mug and a plate with two ship’s biscuits and a wedge of white cheese. “I saved a bit o’ that last wheel o’ cheese for ya, Mistress. It won’t keep and there’s not enough to go around for the whole crew, so you go ahead and eat up. Yer still eatin’ fer two.”

“Thank you,” Cynthia said without argument. They were on short rations, since they had the combined crews of Orin’s Pride and Peggy’s Dream aboard. She’d supplemented their stores with fish, easily caught using her seamage skills, but they were still short. She sat on the hard wooden bench, took a bite of biscuit; it was dry and tasteless, and she had to take a sip of water to wash it down, but it filled the void in her stomach. The cheese was better, so soft and creamy that it melted on her tongue. How long had it been, she wondered, since she’d enjoyed—really enjoyed—a home-cooked meal? She washed the bite of cheese down with another sip of water. “How’s the water holding out?”

“Not good,” Feldrin admitted. “Not enough for the seven days it’ll take us to raise Plume Isle. Might have you whip up a downpour tomorrow.”

“Happy to.” She ate mechanically, knowing she needed it, but feeling ashamed that she received the extra rations while others went hungry. The least she could do was provide water, though coaxing up a shower took time away from propelling the ship. Well, if they were going to stop for a while, perhaps she could kill two birds with one stone. “I’ll do a bit of fishing while I’m at it.”

“Which brings up somethin’ I been meanin’ to ask you about; how’re yer fishy friends doin’?”

Cynthia glanced curiously at her husband. Only days ago he had been prepared to condemn the entire mer race; what was his concern with them now? Perhaps Kelpie’s aid in their escape from Akrotia had shown him that not all mer were intent on her destruction.

“They’re tired but well enough. Considering that Tailwalker and Chaser were the only two mer to survive that we know of, I think they’re just happy to be heading home.” She could see from the look on his face that he had more on his mind. “Why?”

“Just wonderin’ how you planned to handle them. With Eelback dead, and him bein’ behind the whole plot to make war on the emperor’s ships just to put you on the spot, there ain’t much left fer you to be mad about.”

“You think I should talk to Broadtail?”

“Maybe not right off, but maybe send word back with Tailwalker that you don’t plan on smashin’ their home to rubble anymore.” He shrugged his massive shoulders. “Might smooth tensions a bit.”

“A truce?” She finished her snack and washed it down with the last of her water. “I’m not sure if the emperor would like that, after they sank his warship.”

“Well, that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish, love.” He rose with her and returned the empty mug and plate to the galley, nodding his thanks to the cook. “But dealin’ with His Majesty might be easier if you can use peace with the merfolk as a bargainin’ chip.”

“Not a bad idea,” she said, following him out of the galley and toward the aft cabin. “I never thought of you as a politico, Feldrin.”

“Just one of my many charms, lass,” he said with a smile as he ushered her into the cabin. They were greeted by a sleepy seasprite and the grunting protestations of a fussy baby, which to Cynthia’s ears was the most glorious sound in the world. “He’s all yers. If you can make him happy, an emperor should be easy!”

“Oh, Kloe,” she cooed, sitting beside the squirming infant and lifting him into her lap. Mouse perked up and fluttered to her shoulder, grinning down at the baby. “What? What is so upsetting? Are you hungry? Okay, then.” He squirmed while she fumbled open the buttons of her blouse, lifted her chemise and let him suckle. He immediately stopped fussing. Mouse made a face and flew out of the skylight hatch.

“That’s my boy; only got one thing on his mind,” Feldrin said with a huge grin. “Seriously, though, Cyn, we need to figure out how to deal with the next bunch of warships that come down to visit.”

“You mean besides surrendering and begging forgiveness?”

“Well, that might be a good start, but I was thinkin’ of what to say to keep our necks out of the guillotine.”

“That, dear, will indeed be the hard part,” she said, holding her son close. She wondered what would happen to him if his parents were executed for treason.

Scimitar War: Chapter Two