Black Gate Online Fiction: “The Highwater Harbor,” Part One
By Aaron Bradford Starr
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Aaron Bradford Starr and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by New Epoch Press.
Art by Aaron Bradford Starr
Our Luck Turns
While not exactly fugitives from justice, Gloren, Yr Neh, and I have found ourselves fleeing from various legal entanglements better resolved in our absence from West Rotthe. Arising, as they will no doubt prove, from unfounded allegations of sundry flavors of negligence, we agreed last night that the best course would likely be to take some form of long journey, far from the misplaced grievances of the Viscount of Amberle and his vengeful wife. This course has recently been made more attractive by the distribution of descriptive posters and pamphlets in the high-society markets, and the announcement of monetary awards for our return. Thus we have spent an entire fortnight amidst the grueling existence of the merchant class, and the lower tradesmen of bail-about maritime enterprises.
Our fortunes, it appeared to me, had struck a nearly solid rock bottom, through which no further drop was possible. More recent news, of our possibly being summoned back to the Gallery of Days for a formal review and potential penal action, made the bedrock of our situation tremble, and Gloren and Yr Neh had taken to efforts at disguise, which, I am ashamed to say, I quickly emulated. And so, with Gloren’s light hair stained black, and Yr Neh’s orange and white fur dulled to gray with the simple application of fireplace soot, we’ve wandered about with the low classes for the last few days, looking for some method of removing ourselves from the ongoing imbroglio among the high-society set.
This evening, however, as Gloren hunted among the warehouse district for some useful temporary employ, Yr Neh and I crisscrossed the markets, debating the best course. The cat perched as he usually did with Gloren, claws firmly ensconced within the flesh of my shoulder. His considerable bulk weighed on me as the day progressed, as did his short temper, which was poorly influenced by the rendering of his image on the reward posters we’d seen uptown.
His opinion was that truly skilled artisans would never be reduced to petty illustration work such as this, and further, that considerable crime in the portside districts could be laid at the feet of such poor draftsmen as well, given how their ill-constructed likenesses on wanted posters allowed fugitives to roam free.
“They doubtlessly draw their product based on verbal descriptions,” I told him, “and untrained observers are prone to grievous error. Anyway, the public just needs a few particulars in order to finger a suspect.”
We’d seen others get harassed in our place, unfortunates whose resemblance to one or another of us was cursory at best, being, at its most accurate, the combination of two men and a cat. Though the cat was brown and sleek, and had protested loudly, we’d seen the trio bundled off for further identification. But our debate was soon interrupted by a man whose interest in us went beyond the casual.
Holding a set of the inaccurate posters in one hand, he proceeded from one merchant to another, stopping people on the streets, looking for leads, asking if anyone had information. I felt Yr Neh stiffen in alarm. The cat hunched down, his claws slipping through the fabric of my tunic to find purchase closer to bone. He tucked his head near my ear, averting his face from the man down the street, although he was now heading away from us. Yr Neh’s tail thumped nervously against my shoulder, the wide plume of fur undiminished by the protective coloration he’d adopted. His nose was wet and cold in my ear.
Quickly, Yr Neh explained that the man, whom he called Taveral, was a former partner, who’d worked with Yr Neh and Gloren on a project or two some years before. He would be certain to recognize Yr Neh, especially as the man was clearly hunting them, and would see through the weak disguise of fireplace ash. Worse, Taveral’s insistent questioning would make others more likely to recognize us as well.
“Whatever could he want with us?” I asked, worried that there might be unknown entanglements, legal or otherwise, reaching forth from somewhere beside West Rotthe. After a moment’s thought, Yr Neh relaxed somewhat, and assured me that, whatever Taveral wanted, it was most certainly not in regard to anything untoward. As proof of his conviction, the cat hopped from my shoulder and sent me on ahead, commenting that Taveral wouldn’t recognize me. Yr Neh would await whatever good news was forthcoming, I was assured, in a nearby alley.
While my academic training had been light on the finer points of stealth and urban stalking, I feel I handled the approach rather well, coming up behind the man undetected just as he was crossing between the scrap vendor’s district and the vile dens of the second-day fish sellers. As he moved beneath a wide arch, I closed in, grabbing his collar and hauling him bodily into the nearest nook between buildings. With a surprised shout of protest his only defense, we were under cover from prying eyes before anyone took notice. I shoved him forward and away, as I imagined an unrefined thug might do, and had an accusatory finger at the ready when he turned to face me.
“What’s your business with Gloren Avericci?” I growled. His eyes widened, and he held up a hand to forestall any violence I might be planning.
“I mean them no harm,” he stammered. “I have an offer to make, but I have to find them in a hurry! Do you represent them?” he asked, fumbling with the posters in his hand. Quickly, he rifled through the sheaf, and then, reluctantly, settled on one labeled, in large letters, Aven Penworthy. Instantly, I understood his hesitancy to attach the image on the poster to me.
“Let me see that!” I snatched the sheet from the man, holding it up in disbelief. The man depicted in the drawing was narrow-faced and sullen, entirely different from my own well-formed visage. And a wide mustache drooped over his sneering mouth like a that of a pampered merchant, whereas my own was well trimmed and neat. The eyes, beady and malevolent, showed nothing of the innate spark of curiosity and intellect for which I am known. “Why, this makes me out to be a common brigand!” I objected.
Taveral looked askance, rubbing his neck where I’d chafed it with his collar. “It is a mystery,” he ventured. “Still, if you’ve satisfied your violent impulses, perhaps you can take a message to Gloren or Yr Neh for me? Time is short, and if we can leave on the tide tonight, I’ll be all the happier.” He glanced at the posters that remained in his hand, showing a sneering caricature labeled Gloren Avericci, and a bitter, sulking cat under the name Yr Neh. “If I’m not mistaken,” he continued, “they’ll be happier, too.”
Yr Neh’s chuckle made us turn. I saw, with some consternation, the cat arrive from the street, chortling at the poster which hung limply from my fingers. I wadded it up, and Yr Neh sat and began washing his face, the deep gray of the ash seemingly unaffected by his efforts, so fine was his fur. The cat’s wariness had been assuaged by Taveral’s words, and the cat agreed that Gloren and he might indeed be open to the idea of a sea voyage, and the longer the better. His sensitive ears, it would appear, were well-attuned to the sound of opportunity.
Thus assured that Taveral meant no harm, Yr Neh and he proceeded to the inn where the man had taken rooms, and I was sent by the cat to the warehouse district, there to retrieve Gloren.
A Company Forms
We returned to Taveral’s rooms near dusk, as the commercial bustle of the dockyards was subsiding, and the warehouse district’s crush of people slackened, allowing me to finally track down my quarry. Gloren was disheveled and dirty, the result of merely being in the vicinity through the surprisingly hot hours of the autumn day. His hair, normally bleached to greater or lesser extent by the sun, had been darkened with foul chemicals as part of his disguise, and was far longer than his wont due to his recent extended hobnobbing with the upper class of Rotthe, who wore their hair in distinctive topknots. While our current status was testimony to how badly that had turned out, it had given Gloren a boon as a fugitive, since he now wore it hanging, straggly, in his face, his bewhiskered cheeks and chin effectively transforming him into one of the inferior caste that manned the docks and waterways.
His ill humor was lightened considerably by my news, and he rushed from the warehouse district toward the meeting place, hesitating only while considering his appearance, and my observation that his current state might give the wrong impression. But he overruled me.
“I’ve known Taveral for years,” he said, pressing on toward the meeting. “He knows that being a Gallery Hunter sometimes requires disguise. No need to worry about first impressions with him.”
However, as we entered the inn, and drew stares all the way up to Taveral’s room, I felt my misgivings growing. This was not an establishment, thank goodness, where Gloren’s current persona blended well, and we drew more scrutiny than I was comfortable with. But Gloren ignored the silent critique, asking about Taveral’s room, and mounting the stairs with a nod of thanks. I followed behind, unable to meet the eyes of those in the front room.
On entering Taveral’s suite, though, my misgivings were borne out in their entirety. The man was not the only person at the table with Yr Neh, who had been miraculously restored to his normal pristine state, his orange and white fur gleaming. Next to the cat sat a tall, refined woman of obvious social standing, her upright demeanor and clear gaze bespoke good breeding and considerable education. I was later to learn that this was Lady Armeline, a noblewoman of Far Rotthe. Lady Armeline’s auburn hair had the sort of clean luster favored by the upper classes, and her forbidding manner went well with it. She and Yr Neh were finely matched in both coloration and disposition, and made quite the handsome pair. On Taveral’s other side a large, imposing man leaned against the table, his sun-darkened features betraying a curious mix of strong, almost imperious will, subtle amusement and wit. His name, it was revealed to me later, was Captain Pelico.
Gloren paused just inside the doorway, drawing himself up short to consider the situation. I stepped gamely into the breach.
“May I introduce Gloren Avericci, Hunter for the Gallery of Days,” I said with a token flourish. “And I am Aven Penworthy, his Chronicler.”
Gloren, without waiting for the proper counter-introductions (from whom these might be delivered being unclear), stepped forward. “I hear you need my assistance, Taveral.” He then favored the lady Armeline with a nod. “And, my lady, I see you and Yr Neh are catching up on old times.”
Taveral gestured to the empty seats, and slid a weathered book across the table to rest before one of them. Gloren, drawn in irresistibly, sat, examining the book carefully before opening it.
“Is this genuine?” he asked, his keen eye clearly seeing more than my own untrained gaze. Taveral nodded, while Yr Neh fluffed his whiskers forward in amusement.
“I’ve had craftsmen construct the Ribbon. We need Yr Neh to interpret the book’s diagrams and math,” Taveral said. “And we need you to unlock the Harbor gates.”
I kept my silence at this, and Gloren simply nodded, as if this were the sort of request he was used to entertaining. “You heard about my discovery in the Circlet Sea, have you?” he asked. Taveral leaned forward eagerly.
“The Cipher Key,” he said. “Is it a code? A secret writing system?” These were the questions of an academic, a man driven forward by a quest for the knowledge lost to time, or hidden by nature’s own vanity from the minds of most.
“A means to unlock the ships themselves?” the large man asked. His words revealed his interests, and I knew him then to be a martial man of the sea, perhaps a freebooter captain, or a commissioned officer not above profitable ventures on the side.
“A mapping coordinate system,” offered Lady Armeline at the same time. “A secret route to one of the most powerful southern fortresses of the Old Kingdom.”
Gloren chuckled, sitting back and looking at the eager trio. He glanced at Yr Neh, and then at me. “It is a puzzle,” he offered. The seaman sat back, looking Gloren over appraisingly. The noblewoman frowned, turning his words over in her mind, searching for multiple meanings.
“We’ll need a second crew,” Gloren continued, “if you’re thinking of recovering a ship from the Harbor. And someone you can trust to lead them.”
The noblewoman and the seaman exchanged a glance and a nod, a cold, calculating look passing between them. In that instant she reminded me of the scheming, plotting courtiers that had recently turned so treacherously on Gloren, Yr Neh, and me. I began to doubt the wisdom of this particular escape from our troubles.
“I’ve got just the man,” said the Captain. “Someone whom I’ve known for years. I’m certain we can persuade him to join us.”
Misgivings Amid Progress
I write this aboard ship, by the fading lights of the South Harbor of West Rotthe, more concerned than ever for the direction this venture has taken. Under cover of falling darkness, Gloren, Yr Neh, and I rendezvoused with Captain Pelico and the others at the barred doors to the merchant’s docks, where we were admitted in a quiet huddle, passed through by a wordless exchange of coin with the gatesman. Minutes later, as we approached the longboats that would take us to the ship, a second group was admitted in similar stealthy fashion. As Gloren and I arranged ourselves in the boat, this group greeted the Captain quietly, weathered seafarers of unusual type, being well shaven, clean-clothed, and not nearly as fragrant as sailors invariably are.
Their leader, a lean, hawk-nosed man introduced to us as Fallon, greeted Pelico as an equal, and I detected, in his quiet, clipped tones, something less than collegial feeling. Still, he agreed readily enough to whatever terms still needed to be hashed out, and the second group settled into another longboat, taking with them the meager possessions of a hardened crew.
Without further delay, we cast off, and the two longboats were rowed out to the larger harbor area, and alongside a tall-masted military cutter which displayed, even in the darkness, severe damage of a nature consistent with naval battle.
Without any formal hailing, and without light beyond that cast by the moon, we boarded the towering deck by way of a rope ladder, Yr Neh riding placidly on Gloren’s shoulder, his fur gleaming in the moonlight. More rapidly than I would have thought possible, the silent crew had unfurled the jibs, raised anchor, and the night’s wind soon had us heading out from the mooring area, and toward the open water. With a few words of thanks, and another silent payment, the harbor pilot handed control back to the ship’s helmsman, boarded a small boat, was lowered over the side, and was gone. In moments our departure was complete, but the feeling of an escape from captivity was diluted by my doubts.
“Why leave now?” I asked Gloren as we sat in the only spot on the deck seemingly not of continuous vital importance. “Surely the morning tide would have been a safer time. And with the benefit of sunlight over a new moon…”
Gloren detected my disapproval, and shook his head. “Beggar’s bread, Aven,” he replied. “We must accept the opportunity that’s presented itself, even if it is far from ideal.”
“Far from ideal?” I repeated. “We’re sneaking away from a harbor in the middle of the night! Who is this Captain Pelico? Look at the condition of this ship! And who is the second man, Fallon, and his crew?” I looked over to the silent men who moved around the deck, carefully examining the lines and rigging, expertly avoiding those on duty who responded to indecipherable orders from the command deck, where their leader stood, consulting with Pelico. Taveral and Armeline were visible near the front rail of this upper deck, staying out of the way much as we were.
“Well, the ship doesn’t look in danger of sinking,” Gloren began, rubbing at his light beard. “That’s something. And this second captain is obviously an acquaintance of Pelico’s. And, to be honest, if we’ve all got reasons to sneak away, why question such a neat solution? Our uniform desire to avoid official scrutiny is the sort of luck that really shouldn’t be investigated too closely.”
“I assume you’re going to explain the goal of this sudden expedition?” I said. Gloren cast an involuntary glance at Yr Neh, and the two gave the impression of squirming in discomfort, although they sat with schooled nonchalance.
Yr Neh assured me that fortune had indeed smiled upon us, and that Taveral’s book likely contained the last pieces of the puzzle that had led Gloren and Yr Neh into the Sea of Streets years before. Specific details were surely scattered throughout that text, unrecognizable to modern readers lacking Gloren’s specialized knowledge, yet vital to winkling out an exact location of the Harbor. That first fruitless search for the Highwater Harbor was not to be repeated this time, if Gloren’s intuition was correct. Lost somewhere in the unmappable, treacherous area that separated the southwestern seas from the boundless ocean beyond, the Highwater Harbor was the subject of many Rotthean tales, described at great length and with wild inconsistency. The one staple of each telling was the marvelous, gem-keeled ships that sailed above the waters.
This technical marvel was never explained, except in the modern terms of the Hundred Visible Mysteries. But, while everyone knew that the Mysteries were unreliable around the open water, and educated folk knew that the lost kingdom of Malduan had known nothing of the Mysteries in any case, still, the legends never varied about the fact of flight, and the gemstone keels. Specifics such as the Harbor’s location might never be the same twice, but most placed it somewhere far to the southwest of Rotthe, in a land now lost beneath the waves. An area of geological anomalies, according to the ancient records from before the Rains. A land of bubbling pools and foul-smelling geysers that had been transformed by the forty years of the Rains into the shallow Sea of Streets.
That the ancient landscape was unfriendly and mercurial had been proven on Gloren and Yr Neh’s first journey to the area, when they brought news that the Island of Ash was active once more. This mountain, rising in a steep-walled cone from beneath the waves, was a feature unknown in the times of Malduan. Whatever process had created it, the Island was angry and dangerous at intervals of years: a Turning or more of silence, followed by a few years of increasing activity.
“But doesn’t that mean the Island of Ash is still active?” I asked. “If you saw activity a couple of years back, won’t it be far greater now?”
Gloren laughed, light and unconcerned. “Of course not,” he said. “I’m sure it’s long since gone quiet.” But the way Yr Neh looked away, and studied his paws, spoke volumes. As I write this in the near darkness, the dread I felt upon hearing these words returns to me.
I continue this account from the dubious comfort of what must, for me, pass as a stateroom during this journey. It is, in truth, a narrow slot between the coops and the pantry. While the coop is empty of fowl, the odors of its former inhabitants remain, leavened only by the brine wafting up from the pickle barrels in the pantry opposite. I suspect this narrow room was, at one time, a meat locker, given the hooks that decorate the ceiling and walls, some of them mere handspans from the upper bunk, which, like the lower, folds away when not needed, but must fold downward, given the proximity of the hook-studded ceiling. This arrangement would feel familiar and comfortable, I suspect, to any who have spent time in a prison cell, as would the austere attempt at privacy afforded by the narrow door and lone writing table at which I now labor. Still, the hooks serve some useful purpose, as I have hung my travel pack on one, and an oil lantern hangs from another, next to a water bucket. The chamber pot, however, I have left beneath the table, propped against the rocking motion of the ship by my left foot.
Gloren and Yr Neh share this space with me, but are, as I write, absent, holed up once more with Taveral, getting the details of his translation work on the book that guides them. Taveral has secured for himself a small stateroom adjacent to the map room, and the three adjourned to this more spacious compartment soon after we proved ourselves clear of the harbor. I followed along last night, listening to their arcane discussion, until an officer of the Captain entered, effectively snuffing all thought of academia from my mind.
Navigator Soreil is a woman of diminutive build, her dusky coloration complemented by her sun-bleached hair. Her manner, it appears, is to drift into a group without fanfare, and then insert sharp observations and astute comments at will. Her quick consultations at the map table, assisted by a young waif in the form of the sand girl, provided an efficient, purpose-driven counterpoint to the speculation and musing of the three males so close by, and I found myself drawn to her easy competence. Her directions to the sand girl lacked the brusque manner I’d assumed ruled on seagoing vessels, and the child seemed to truly like her superior, taking down headings onto a clay-filled boxlet with a long, sharp stylus. My attention to the girl’s careful work drew the Navigator’s notice, and I soon felt her gaze appraising me.
“She writes well,” I said.
“A man of letters, are we?” she asked. “I’d assumed you to be a man of action.”
“Action without knowledge is of no consequence,” I replied. Her eyebrows rose.
“So, you’re a man of consequence, as well?”
I demurred. “I merely record the actions of those who are,” I answered, indicating Gloren and Yr Neh, who were debating some point of verb conjugation with Taveral. Her eyes narrowed in a mischievous fashion. She ruffled the sand girl’s hair, and held up the tiny hourglass that hung from the girl’s belt.
“So, the sand girl keeps strict time,” she said, “and the Captain gets credit for a well-run ship?”
I smiled. “It is the way of the world.”
“So it is. At least until our appointed duties end, and we can work toward our own goals.” She straightened, sliding the rolled charts slowly back into their proper slot, letting her eyes find mine. With a nod of farewell, she drifted out, her assistant trailing after her. When, later, the sand girl signaled the shift’s end, I left the map room, leaving the three scholars to their work.
I moved along the narrow passage, turning corners at intervals. The inner world of a large sailing vessel is surprisingly vast, a densely-wound maze of darkened corridors, dim lanterns, and creaking wood. On every surface, maintenance sigils were inscribed, strange markings made by the shipwright’s own professionals in that Mystery. The power of these runes was maintained by some member of the skilled staff, or sometimes by a specially educated officer. The sigils I recognized were, for the most part, standardized runes against wood rot and fire, but there were others, many running in an unbroken band along the walls near the floor. The weakening effect of the surrounding water on these artifacts of the Mysteries required constant repetition in order to be effective.
As I passed close to well-oiled double doors, I paused at the sounds of argument beyond. One voice, angry and insistent, had a threatening growl to it that drew my attention, even through the stout wood of the doors, and the elaborately carved sound-dampening runes I recognized from my Academy days. The other voice was softer, but in tones that hinted at smug rejoinder rather than reconciliation. As I passed by, the angry voice came close, his words obscured. Without further warning, the doors were wrenched open, and a figure strode out, running headlong into me. For a moment we struggled there, until the other got hold of himself, and steadied me. I recognized the dark gaze and sharp features of Fallon, the second sea captain, who’d been brought aboard with a skeleton crew to pilot whatever ships we could find at the Highwater Harbor.
With curt words of pardon, the man swept onward, disappearing around a nearby corner, leaving me to stare after him. I was joined, after a moment, by Captain Pelico, who smiled in a grim, unfriendly way, his features shadowed by the dull orange glow from his quarters.
“There goes one temperamental man,” he said.
“I hope his dissatisfaction doesn’t spread to his men,” I answered. “Three to one odds aren’t enough to stave off disaster.”
The Captain chuckled. “Oh, I trust Captain Fallon’s sense of restraint. He’ll cause no trouble for us, rest assured.”
I let my gaze drift past him, and into his quarters, which were awash with a steady illumination unlike any oil lantern I’d seen. “You’ve known him long?” I asked.
The Captain looked at me intently, and then back to where Fallon had passed from view. “Long but not well,” he replied. “Close friendship between us has proven difficult.” With a nod of good night, he returned to his quarters, and closed the door behind him. The glow leaking beneath the doors was snuffed out moments later. I continued on, hoping to reach the command deck before the shift change had been entirely completed. Even in my hurried state, however, I found myself disturbed at the disharmony between the two captains.
When I finally emerged into the open air, the crew getting off shift had already finished relieving themselves over the rails, and now sat on the precarious sideboards, legs dangling, pipes glowing. These men and women were a slovenly lot, shiny with sweat and awash with bitter aromas. Passing by on my way aft, I became suddenly thankful for the background fragrances of my narrow room belowdecks, and lack of proximity to the sailor’s quarters.
I hung back from the knot of people on the command deck, watching as Soreil went through final consultations with the First Mate, and others I didn’t know. One of these, a severe, close-faced woman, rested her hand on the shoulder of the sand girl with the easy familiarity of a mother, while a thin man with long receding hair stood, arms crossed, listening.
“Pamani,” the First Mate continued, “I’ll also be taking charge of the repair logs, so if you could forward our stores records to my quarters?” The woman, evidently the Hold Master, nodded brusquely. The First Mate continued. “And Macey, we’ll be needing a lot of sigil work on the new foredecks, and the hull patches. Tell me what sort of group you’ll need for the scaffold work, and I’ll give them to you.” Macey nodded, running a long-fingered hand through his limp hair. This, then, was the professional sigil crafter, although he didn’t give the impression of one gifted with a liberal education. “Soreil,” the First Mate concluded, “I’ve already set the forward watch for tomorrow. When will you expect to need the extra lookouts?”
Soreil noticed me, then, and inclined her head in my direction with a slight smile. “We won’t be entering the Shallow Seas for days yet,” she replied to the First Mate, “but keep a hazard watch, as these waters are filled with isolated towers and such.” The First Mate concurred, apparently unfazed by the thought of the dangers of running into the unbreakable towers of the Pre-Rain kingdoms, which lurked just under the waves, some of them mounded high with examples of modern maritime bad luck.
The meeting adjourned, and I approached, my gaze fixed on Soreil. But I was intercepted by the Hold Master, Pamani, who addressed me preemptively. “Penworthy, is it?” she asked. I smiled modestly.
“I am indeed,” I said, gratified by this unsought recognition. “You’re familiar with my work?”
“Not in the least,” she said, her thin lips frowning, brow creased. “I’ve no time for the foolishness of the modern university system, nor the letter-bound elitists it churns out into society. I need you to deliver a message to your master, Hunter Avericci.”
“He’s not my master, as such,” I responded, flustered, but she cut me off.
“Tell him the Ribbon has been secured in the forward hold,” she said. “Can you manage to remember that?”
I bristled at both her words and tone. “That and much more, I assure you,” I replied. If my professional ethic didn’t forbid it, I would have vowed at that moment to paint her in the most unforgiving of terms in this written account! Soreil, with a soft chuckle, passed close, on her way to the hatch leading below decks, and onward to her quarters.
“So the sand never frees some of us, it seems,” she said. Mouth firm with irritation, I watched her descend, and then turned and rushed back down to the map room, to deliver the cryptic message and get on with my evening.
A Secret Withheld
Taveral, Yr Neh, and I soon stood in the forward hold, watching as the Ribbon struggled against the bindings that held it secure against the motions of the ship. On seeing such an unusual and unique item, some of my irritation evaporated, though I still felt less than my accustomed amount of interest in such things. The beautiful noblewoman, Armeline, wasn’t present, resting, as Yr Neh reported, after her evening bath, during which the cat had conversed with her at length about the architectural heritage of the Shards. I noticed the subtle reaction of both Gloren and Taveral to this report, and felt a bit better with my lot.
Still, the Ribbon itself dominated the conversation in the hold. It was, according to Taveral, a single unbroken band of the finest undyed Tyndelian silk, glossy and smooth, and, when examined, it proved about as wide as my hand, but very thick and strong. The exact length of it was difficult to estimate, being wound into a single massive ball, like those made by knitting women to keep unruly yarn from snarling, yet taller than we were. According to Taveral, the length of the Ribbon was just over four thousand feet, should it ever be fully unfurled. At intervals, metal eyelets of various shapes pierced the Ribbon’s narrow width, and these varied openings glinted in the lamplight. It was held in place mostly by a confusion of knotted cords securing it to the floor and walls, and these relaxed and pulled tight with the motion of the ship.
“What is it for?” I asked. Taveral shrugged.
“That’s part of what we’re trying to determine,” he said. “Its dimensions are specified in the text I’ve translated, and cost me a fortune to create. I think it’s for the rigging of one of the Harbor’s ships. But Gloren doesn’t agree.”
“Ship’s lines don’t have these eyelets,” Gloren explained, running a finger over the polished metal of a circular opening. Through the tiny gap, I could see part of another eyelet, this one triangular. Scattered along the visible portions of the Ribbon, the eyelets seemed to be in several different shapes, and I couldn’t get a good sense for how widely spaced they might be. They seemed random.
Taveral’s book, added Yr Neh, as if reading my thought, had provided an index of the spacing of these metal fittings, and the cat would be working in the coming days to determine what the relationship between them might be. Armeline, he added, was of the opinion that the Ribbon had nothing to do with a ship’s rigging, being far too elaborate and decorative. She held out the possibility of a cultural or ritual use, which might have been lost in the centuries since the Turning of the Rains had buried the old world in a blanket of waves.
“I suppose,” allowed Gloren. “But think of the intervals of these shapes.” He held out the end of the Ribbon, from which hung a stout metal clasp that could clearly secure to its opposite end. “Taveral, look at the index, and tell me how many of the first twelve eyes are triangular.”
The linguist, at a loss, shrugged helplessly. “I didn’t bring the book,” he said, but nodded. “I’ll go and fetch it.” Gloren and Yr Neh waited in silence as he rushed from the hold, and then sprang into motion as soon as they safely felt they could.
“Keep an eye out, Aven,” Gloren said, reaching into his tunic to fish out a large pendant on a golden chain. Yr Neh leapt up onto the side of the huge ball of wound silk, climbing to the upper surface and gazing down at where Gloren reached for the Ribbon’s end once more. Gloren tossed the pendant up to the cat, who caught it with a paw in the same way, I imagine, that cats had at one time swept birds from the air. Flattening his considerable mass onto the Ribbon’s surface, Yr Neh trapped the chain beneath himself, freeing his paws for what appeared to be a delicate operation on the pendant. His efforts brought forth a series of clicks, though I could not see the results. Satisfied, Yr Neh let the chain slip free, where Gloren caught it once more.
From where I stood by the doorway, I peered inquisitively at the device. “What is that?”
“It’s the Cipher Key,” Gloren replied.
“I thought you said it was a secret writing system!” I objected.
“No,” Gloren corrected me, “Taveral suggested it was a secret writing system. I simply said it was a puzzle. Which, as you’ll see, it is.” So saying, he held the pendant to the first eyelet of the Ribbon. I could see that the Key had sprouted a razor-thin plate of metal, round like the outer case, with an inner section cut away, showing a hexagon of silk through the gap. Even from where I stood, I could see that the design didn’t appear to match the Ribbon’s eyelets. Gloren checked a number of other possibilities, then carefully pressed the plate closed, and tossed the pendant back up to Yr Neh. After another nimble moment of work, the cat dropped the Cipher Key down once more, a new plate revealed. Gloren went back to his comparisons, while I kept watching the passage to the foredeck hatch for Taveral’s expected return.
I found myself considering the sigils inscribed into the water barrels at the end of the corridor, doubtless to help in staying fresh for the journey, and noting the fresh wood amid the weathered planks of wall and floor, more signs of recently repaired damage. These new sections of wood were free of the lines of protective sigils that marched across the older areas. I hoped that their lack didn’t impede the functioning of the whole system.
I looked back into the hold, where Gloren had just tossed the Key back up to Yr Neh, and noted the additional stocks of wood piled up against the opposite wall of the dimly lit space, ready for use elsewhere. Cases of tools were neatly stacked beyond, doubtlessly in some arrangement prescribed by naval tradition.
“What happened to this ship, anyway?” I asked.
“According to Taveral, Captain Pelico is a pirate hunter,” Gloren replied, catching the Key once more. “He was in South Rotthe for drydock and repairs, but apparently couldn’t refuse the offer Armeline and Taveral made. Hence his assistance to us.”
I felt a wash of relief. Our own legal complications hadn’t, after all, lowered us into consorting with freebooters, but rather had led us into a contract with an honorable fighter for civilization on the high seas, albeit one who wasn’t above a bit of opportunistic contract work. This made Soreil’s association with the Captain a legitimate profession.
At that moment, Taveral opened the hatch, and proceeded down it, hindered by the volume he held. I waved to Gloren, who snapped closed the Cipher Key and had hidden it beneath his tunic by the time the scholar had entered the hold once more.
The three then resumed the debate that had been going on all evening in the map room. Unable to add anything, I listened for a while, thinking perhaps to preserve some of the argument for posterity, but must, in this record, admit that it was roundabout and obtuse, and not of any general interest. The only conclusion reached was that of my patience, when I finally bid the three a good night, taking my leave.
I made my solitary way back to the narrow room that was to be my home for the journey. Exhaustion pressing down on me, I slid cautiously into the upper bunk, wary of the room’s many meat hooks, which swung close overhead, stirred by the ship’s endless motion. Lulled by their soft jangling, and soothed by the creaking, shifting sounds of the great vessel in which I was ensconced, I slept. Gloren and Yr Neh returned, slept, and rose before I awoke, the only sign of their presence a shifting of blankets on the lower bunk. If yesterday was any indication, this journey is to be a quiet, if busy, affair.
The Island of Ash
The past days have left little of note to record. During the two daylight shifts, three men act as lookouts, alerting the helmsman to the dangers of the occasional tower or fortress so near to the surface. Soreil is busy during these hours, continually moving about the deck, taking depth and speed measurements, and sending the sand girl back and forth to the Map Room for this or that chart.
I have spent much of these days either on the sunwashed deck, enjoying the salty spray of the sea and the warm breezes from the southwest, or down in the map room. There Gloren has compiled a mass of sketches based on the translated accounts of the text Taveral has been laboring over. Meanwhile Armeline converts passages into likely architectural drawings, so we might more easily recognize the Harbor when we find it. Yr Neh grows ever more irritable, his tail thumping restlessly against the tabletop as he stares introspectively into the middle distance. His head has been filled with geometrical work relating to the possible shapes of the Harbor’s ships, based on conjecture about the Ribbon, and the patterns of its metal fittings.
Whenever Taveral and Armeline leave the map room, the cat and Gloren huddle together, comparing notes privately, and bringing out the Cipher Key, to see if any of its many internal leaves hold a new clue. During one such interlude, I finally examined this object firsthand.
Outwardly, it is something like a large brass locket, finely etched with swirling patterns. Nested among these whorls are recessed pegs, flush with the surface, which can be depressed independently with a tiny enough tool, and this is where Yr Neh’s claws have come in so handy. Depending on the combination of depressed buttons, a different key slides out of the locket, each razor-sharp by virtue of their very extreme thinness. The number of different panels the Key seems capable of producing appears infinite, but Yr Neh assures me that the Cipher Key contains only a few score of them.
At first, the use of the Cipher Key, and the riddle of the Ribbon had kept the cat merrily calculating, compiling, and comparing. As the days have passed, however, and our work has produced neither an obvious use for the Cipher Key nor a clear function for the Ribbon, the cat’s good humor has evaporated.
“How can you be certain the Cipher Key has anything to do with the Harbor?” I asked Gloren late one night, as I laid in the upper bunk. Yr Neh swayed in a tiny hammock to one side, near the room’s only porthole, snoring loudly. From the lower bunk, I heard Gloren sigh.
“Because I once found a journal,” he replied, “written by the last Commander of the Highwater Harbor. In it, he distinctly mentions that the Key is needed to unlock the power of the ships stationed there. He feared a coup, some disloyal underling or other. I couldn’t tell, exactly, because he used an old form of Rotthean court speech, which I guess is fortunate, since the writing of the lowlands is basically unintelligible today, unless you’re an expert.”
“Like Taveral,” I said.
“Yes,” he replied. “In fact, I sent the journal to Taveral by way of a fast cutter, but the ship was set on by pirates, and lost.”
“Someone needs to scour the Circlet Sea clean again,” I said, by way of sympathy. In the forty years since the area had been purged of pirates by the Grand Armada, the waterways had grown complacent, and then increasingly dangerous once more. West Rotthe had, a few years previously, begun a new campaign, but these efforts, from all reports, had suddenly been abandoned, or radically scaled back. Captain Pelico and this very ship had, it would seem, been a part of this naval campaign, but the entire affair seemed a far cry from the glorious Armada of forty years earlier. The Captain’s willingness to put the effort aside in order to go on this voyage was disturbing. My feelings came out in my questions, which were equal parts curiosity and needling.
“So,” I summarized, “we have a Key we can’t use, a Ribbon we don’t know how to use, are looking for a Harbor we can’t yet find, which we may not recognize when we do find?”
Gloren grumbled in grudging agreement, then continued. “On the bright side, though,” he said, “legend says there are flying ships there, and the journal seemed to agree.”
“Which we may or not recognize or understand,” I returned.
“They’ve got keels cut from huge gemstones,” he persisted.
“Which, as you’ve repeatedly said, may be entirely fictional.”
“Let’s hope so,” he said. “The Gallery of Days wants artifacts, not riches. And I wouldn’t want to sail a huge gemstone all the way back to the Shards, anyway. Not past Rotthean waters, even if we were flying above them.”
“So what happened to the commander who wrote the journal?” I asked. “Was there a coup?”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “He mentions massive clouds of dust coming from the south, which may have been the beginning of the mountain that’s now called the Island of Ash. But it doesn’t sound as if there was a coup. There wasn’t time. The last ten entries are about a persistent rainfall that never seemed to slacken, and how the lowlands were visibly flooding.”
I swung my head over the edge of the narrow bunk, in awed wonder. “The Rains?” I asked. “The journal described the opening days of the Turning of the Rains?” Gloren nodded, and I lay back, amazed at the loss of such a document. If this were the sort of disappointment a Gallery Hunter learned to live with, I was more than content to be a mere Chronicler.
Dawn saw us up and on deck, summoned urgently by Soreil, whom fate had conspired to keep at a distance through these last days. Now, though summoned urgently to the command deck, it seemed fate had not relented. From the main deck, the concerned knot of officers was evident, their cool and professional demeanor not completely masking the flurry of charts and navigational aids they were employing. Even this, however, was not fully enough to capture my attention, and my eyes drifted time and again to the southern horizon as we made our way across the ship.
The first light of dawn was broken into deep red bands over the water. Towering clouds loomed, as if the ship were heading for some colossal coast, a featureless gray cliff rising sheer from the water over the horizon, dwarfing even the most precipitous seaside cliff of the Shards. The center of this massive cloud glowed a baleful orange, lit by some source close to the sharp black line of the water’s edge. Even this distant danger, however, was not the main concern for the men swaying in the lookout posts in the masts far overhead. Their shouts, filled with maritime jargon, detailed the positions of the many towers that pierced the waves, visible signs of the city rising from the sea’s shallow floor. For each visible hazard, I knew there would be many more visible to the lookouts, lurking just below the sunlit surface.
If Gloren and Yr Neh found these developments alarming, they gave no sign. Their single glance to one another betrayed nothing to me, and, upon our arrival among the officers, their placid bearing was an obvious reassurance. The Captain stood unshakably, but the helmsman’s motions and orders to rudder and wheel were clipped and nervous. Soreil, working at a side desk, checked the course continuously against a chart, using the incoming reports of their speed and bearing that the crew generated without pause. The sand girl rushed to deliver a roll of charts, and nearly stumbled over Yr Neh, who hopped up to the rail, his attitude reproving. The girl returned the look, hurrying past without pause. To one side the secondary captain, Fallon, stood watching, his own First Mate mute beside him. The two monitored the command group with the intent gazes of predatory birds, as if waiting for signs of weakness to make the best use of their own strengths. Near Soreil, the sand girl relaxed, and stared through the glass bulb of her hourglass, the trickle of sand within resting either on the southern horizon, where the Island of Ash stood hidden by clouds, or on Yr Neh, who sat on the rail, the stiff breeze billowing his white and orange fur.
“We’ve reached the end of our chart’s reliability,” said Pelico. “From here on, we’ll need some sort of bearing, at least once a day. And, after the Sea of Streets becomes more dangerous, considerably more often than that. I assume you’ve pinpointed the Harbor’s location somewhat, these last few days?”
Yr Neh, hopping to his accustomed perch on Gloren’s shoulder, assured the man that he’d plotted out a likely course that would guide them for some days to come, and would be able to stay comfortably ahead of the ship’s progress.
“The Southern Trade Road is what we’ll be following,” Gloren explained. “Before the Rains, it supplied the Harbor’s needs. The only problem should be in compensating for the motion of the Road in the seven hundred years since the Rains stopped.”
“What sort of motions?” the First Mate asked. Gloren gestured at the narrow tower jutting from the waves as it passed by to starboard.
“These buildings,” he explained, “are shifted slightly from where they once were. The Island of Ash, I believe, is a result of this movement of the land below the water. Or perhaps it is the cause. But whatever the reason, the buildings of the Sea of Streets are far more disjointed. You’ll see.”
“Is it harder than this to navigate through?” asked the helmsman. “I’d heard the Sea was like a forest of towers, rising from the seawater.”
“Then you’ll be happy to know,” replied Gloren, “that the Sea itself is much easier than this to navigate through, if you can hold a straight course, and turn quickly. The main reason people don’t come here is that there’s nothing out here at all. Not reason enough to run the risks the Sea of Streets offers, anyway.”
“Until now,” Fallon said. The command staff turned to him, Captain Pelico visibly displeased.
“Of course,” said Gloren. “Until now.”
As he turned to go, Gloren smiled to the Captain. “It’s also a place that frightens superstitious seafarers easily,” he said. “Your men are bound to have their legends and stories about the place, and some of them might turn out to be true.”
The others watched as Gloren and Yr Neh went to the bow, to aid in navigation, and so missed the calculating gaze Fallon and his cadre cast after them.
The past days have been a morass of events, proving this expedition to be a means to many different ends, not all of them compatible. But I must be concise, and set down the sequence of these doings, and record the thoughts that have come to me, as distressed as I have become.
To be clear, our passage through the melancholy Sea of Streets was marked, at first, by intense curiosity and wonder, and I spent the bulk of our early days along these routes on the narrow bow deck with Gloren and Yr Neh. The water here defied the low, racing clouds, and the stiffening wind, maintaining a crystal clarity to an astonishing depth. Through these waters the ship slid, carefully negotiating the hazards below them. But, while the sunken cities of Malduan were a persistent and common hazard, well known to seamen, the buildings of these Streets were of a nature to send a thrill of dread through the three of us, and rumbles of discontented fear running through the crew.
The watchers in the nests high above the water had to be determined by lot, with the loser among the sharpest-eyed taking the shift. This seemed a foolish way to assign such a vital task, but I held my tongue as long as I could. Finally, I chanced past one of these lotteries as it occurred, and overheard the sailor’s superstitious mutterings. Seeing their fearful glances at the water, I shook my head.
“Come now,” I chastised them. “How can sea-folk like you fear mere buildings? There are more of them, certainly, and they may be oddly positioned, but their nature is the same as that everywhere under the water.”
“It isn’t the towers and spires we fear,” one of the men said, “it’s those that live within.”
I snorted. “Oh, come now. Not more stories of dogs and horses, I beg of you.” I waved my hand at the shifting waters beyond the rail to show my contempt for their fears of these semi-mythical creatures, the ancient companions of mankind that had supposedly taken to the water during the Turning of Rains and never come back. The sailors glanced from one to the other, the loser of their lottery heading for the mainmast.
“Just hope you don’t see for yourself, landsman,” he said in passing. “It’s more than buildings in that deep.”
I remember looking out, then, at the buildings that marched beside our hull, and suppressing a shudder of my own, for all my bravado. For these buildings didn’t reach straight up from the depths, as was the normal custom of such lost habitations, but rather grew from the sides of the deep chasms through which the ship moved. Doorways and windows stared up at us as we passed, and towers jutted horizontally toward the buildings on the opposite wall, unaffected by the severity of their angle. It was as if the cityscape had been erected on a vast plate, which had split along natural faultlines, buildings still intact, tilting inward to form the walls of a sunken labyrinth. Armeline was one of the few to show excitement at these strange sights, and she would sit with us for hours, intent, filling page after page with architectural renderings; a far preferable personality than the aloof noblewoman she normally portrayed.
The waters revealed schools of brilliantly colored fish, and strange forests of plant life where the sea floor came within view. Aquatic vegetation wound about the buildings, but did not blanket them, as one who had never seen any of the drowned cities would expect. For the stone was clear of all manner of plant life, and gleamed whitely through the waters, untouched by the years beneath the waves. The contrast with the occasional prominence of natural rock that jutted from the sea floor was striking.
When Armeline wasn’t nearby, Taveral would take her place, sketching the flighty fish as well as he could, expressing as he did so a secret childhood longing to be a naturalist. It was as he was doing this on the morning of the second day among the Streets when he asked, of nobody in particular, what was known of Armeline. Yr Neh and Gloren exchanged a silent glance, and the cat saved himself from comment by cleaning his fur.
“You seem to have made adequate introductions with each other without my help,” Gloren allowed, turning back to the wonders of the deep. “This voyage says a lot about her estimation of your capabilities.”
“I’m not looking for that sort of esteem from her,” Taveral said with a sigh, letting his sketch pad slide from his thigh, the charcoal sticks to clatter and roll on the pitching wood. “She’s a woman who’s difficult to get to know well. I approached her about this entire affair for the wrong reasons, I fear, and now I’m trapped relating to her as a comrade, which, I admit, was not my intent. But she’s unshakable in her focus, out here!”
“She’s a very focused woman,” Gloren hedged, leaning further forward than was necessary, far out over the water. “Very… ambitious.”
“You’ve known her a long time, then?” Taveral asked.
“I wouldn’t say known, exactly,” Gloren replied. Yr Neh excused himself, shuddering with suppressed mirth, explaining that he’d be of far more use in the mast lookouts. Taveral turned to me.
“Well, then, Penworthy,” he said, “what’s the story, then? Am I going to be stepping on toes, here? Is there someone else she’s fixated on? The good Captain, perhaps?”
Startled, I shook my head. “I really wouldn’t know. I’ve never met her before.”
“Aven has only been working as my Chronicler for a short while,” Gloren supplied, suddenly smiling, “but he’s a good judge of character. What do you say, Aven?” he asked me. “Is the Lady a match for our scholarly friend?”
I cleared my throat, straightening a bit on the rolling forebridge. “Since my opinion is so highly esteemed,” I began, “let me say that Armeline is somewhat complex. Obviously she and you share a certain intellectual bent, but she doesn’t reveal much of her opinions, which is common among those raised in an active court. I’d guess that, whatever her attractions, your current lack of means would make you a dalliance, at best.”
Taveral looked wounded at this, but Gloren just burst out laughing, spreading his hands wide. “Ah, the curse of the purse. The bane of academia!”
Taveral set his drawing tablet down, frowning. “I don’t see the mountain from which you look down on me, Gloren. Last I heard, you were scrubbing cobblestones in Ravanon.”
“Waxing them, actually,” Gloren replied. “And I laugh from recognition of your circumstances, not contempt. But believe me, my friend, if the Harbor rests where we believe it to be, our fortunes may change yet. Potential shines brighter than coin, as you well know.”
Standing, Taveral leaned on the rail to the foredeck, looking back across the length of the ship to the command deck. “She’s talking to Captain Pelico now, and Fallon,” he mused. “Perhaps I could arrange a meeting around suppertime.”
“That’s the spirit,” Gloren said, facing the oncoming waves once more, staring down into the chasm between the upturned houses, the light shining brightly through the clear water. With a word of farewell, Taveral clamored back up to the foredeck, working his way toward the command deck at the aft of the ship.
Gloren glanced back at the retreating figure. “Just our luck,” he murmured. “Taveral needed no further incentive to take more than his share.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “He’s a friend of yours, isn’t he?”
Gloren only half-nodded. “Perhaps. But Taveral is someone who does what he imagines he must to get his way. Consequences for others aren’t something he’s overly worried about.”
“Like Armeline herself,” I mused. Gloren’s look to me was surprised, and not pleased.
“Maybe they have more in common than we thought,” he said. “Best to keep an eye them, when you can.”
Thus lost in a maze of twisting interactions, I navigated the belowdecks corridors heading toward my rooms some hours later. As fate would have it, I passed nobody except for sun-dried and fragrant crew. These few spared me the briefest of nods, which I returned. Though these folk were coastal dregs and dockhounds washed to sea, their skills kept the ship sailing true, and I supposed I owed them some respect for not allowing us to flounder against the submerged buildings so close to either side of the hull.
At Taveral’s door I paused, alerted by some furtive sound from within. Considerations of what they might mean, given our last conversation, almost sped me along the passage, the better to respect the man’s privacy, and that of whomever shared the cramped stateroom with him. But the shifting, papery rustle led my mind’s eye in other directions, and I hesitated, hand raised to knock. Before I could do so, the door opened, and there, startled, stood the secondary captain, Fallon.
Before he could speak, a klaxon began ringing abovedecks, and the footfalls of the crew sounded from all sides. Fallon pressed me back against a nearby bulkhead, and leaned close, obscuring the swinging lamp on the opposite wall.
“Say nothing,” he growled, “or the ship is lost!” Before I could respond, he turned, rushing toward the nearest hatch. Unsettled, and somewhat alarmed, I stood, unsure of what to do. The commotion from abovedecks demanded attention, but the door to Taveral’s quarters, left ajar and swinging with the motion of the boat, called more loudly still.
With my foot, I casually widened the access, and stepped through. Like the other rooms, Taveral’s was very tight, but, unlike mine, gave no indication of a past utilitarian purpose. Indeed, the room was worked in carved wood, and the bunk was deep and comfortable, the writing desk featuring drawers for storing paper, quills and a glass-lined inkwell with a brass-hinged cap. The far wall was adorned with a bank of narrow drawers, one of which was ever-so-slightly ajar. Recalling the papery rustles from Fallon’s own search, I proceeded to open these one by one, quickly cataloging their contents. One, which I examined further, contained large folded papers. The first of these was a completely inaccurate depiction of Gloren, followed by another of Yr Neh. These were the wanted posters that had dogged us for these last days in West Rotthe. Having already seen these, I replaced them, and checked the next drawer. Translation logs, and cross-lingual dictionaries. The next, however, contained the book which Taveral was working to interpret, and this I paused to leaf idly through, wondering what the linguist could have had that would interest the silent Captain Fallon. But the internal stresses of such skullduggery, combined with Fallon’s cryptic words and the unusual motions of the ship, quickly drove me from Taveral’s quarters.
As I snuck out of the room I had to fight to keep my feet as the floor began to pitch to an alarming degree. The entire ship leaned hard to port, tipping precipitously, the cant detectable from belowdecks most obviously by the lanterns which leaned away from the walls at steep angles, and rolling against the opposite side. Shouts and activity of every kind could be heard from above, and I felt a wave of panic at the idea of capsizing with me trapped in the dark warren beneath the main deck. I stumbled, and, crawling and scampering on all fours, fought toward the hatch.
It was here that I encountered Pamani, the Hold Master, and her husband, the thin and bead-eyed Sigil Master Macey, bracing themselves with their legs, as if nothing the ship might do could displace or alarm them.
“It’ll be the rigging, for sure,” Pamani was saying, “so go to work on that tonight. I’ll get below and secure the-“
She cut herself off as she saw Macey’s eyes look past her to me. Standing straighter, I caught my balance at the ladder to the hatch, and we stood there, silence between us. As Pamani turned to face me, I struggled for composure, seeing how the two were concerned only with the orderly maintenance of the ship, whose existence would, evidently, continue long enough for routine maintenance.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Navigational error,” the Sigil Master snarled, his voice reedy in the way of those who speak rarely. His hostility toward Soreil put us instantly on opposite sides of civil discourse.
“Ha!” I retorted, as if the idea of Soriel making a mistake were ridiculous. “Professional jealousy aside, my good man, I would think-“
But what I would think was to wait, as I was bowled bodily from my feet at that moment while the other two shifted rapidly, fighting to stay upright, our travails accompanied by various crashes, thuds, and tearing sounds from all quarters. Shouts from the command deck rang out. Regaining my feet, I left the couple and clamored through the hatch.
As I stood watching, great walls rose to port and starboard, lifting free of the sea, water pouring from every window and door, plants gleaming in the air, trading the far horizons for jagged cityscapes aimed at us from either direction. Ahead, a bridge broke the surface, dashing from the water with a speed that would have broken the ship in two, had we been astride it when it did so. But I understood our true situation quickly enough: the walls had not risen at all, but rather the entire surface of the sea had dropped mightily, and the ship now sat at the bottom of a tremendous trough. The shouts of seamen, and pointing fingers directed my attention further ahead, beyond the stone bridge.
I had a moment to perceive a great hill of water heaving itself from the south to spill in a sheet over the exposed ridgeline and rolling toward us down the alleyway of the streets, rising even higher than the walls to either side, before we were lifted powerfully from below. As we rose, many of the crew fell to the deck, driven by the force of our ascent. The water carried on beneath us, and I heard the crew shout out as one in alarm. As the sea returned to its previous level, and the tremendous wave continued into the distance behind us, I gathered my wits, and attended to their urgent shouts.
Far to the southwest, where the Island of Ash had stained the horizon with a red cloud for days, a solid pillar of black now rose high into the sky, and dimmed the afternoon light. For once the unschooled mutterings of the seafolk all around me expressed my dismay perfectly.
END PART ONE
Continued in Part Two
Aaron Bradford Starr currently maintains an underground base of operations in a volcano under Cleveland, Ohio. Within it, he monitors the progress of two young apprentices with his enigmatic and intriguing wife. A single nonhuman creature resides alongside them.
Aaron’s first published story was “Mortal Star” in Black Gate 8. Author photo by Idit Zehavi.
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