Black Gate Online Fiction: “The Highwater Harbor,” Part Two

Black Gate Online Fiction: “The Highwater Harbor,” Part Two

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

This is Part Two. Read Part One here.

Twilight Falls Over the Expedition

Sunset last night was an awesome sight, and I write this account by the light of my tiny deck lamp, though sunrise was hours past. To put the details of last night’s events and this morning’s happenings into context, let me describe the mood and environment in which they transpired, and of the strange half-light into which full day has been transformed.

The massive wave of the previous afternoon had originated near the Island of Ash, and this worried Gloren, who hid his concerns from the command officers. According to Gloren, the Island was subject to periodic activity which made travel in the area hazardous. When pressed, Gloren admitted that the entire ship needed to be gone before the Island’s main cycle began.

“And when will this cycle commence?” I asked as we met in our quarters near sundown, disturbed at learning such news now, days from any port. “What will this cycle look like?”

Yr Neh, visibly upset, explained that his calculations, based on historical records, indicated that the Island’s active cycle was due to restart in a year or so, but, given that the Island had obviously started early this time around, full activity could, perhaps, occur on a timescale more closely approximating anybody’s guess at all.

“Anybody’s guess? Anybody’s? Such as the guesses of the crew, which is that our doom is already upon us? Really, I’m shocked. That a highly educated cat such as yourself can have scarcely more idea of when a deadly event is going to sweep us all from the sea than a band of ignorant deck-rabble. And why didn’t you two tell me anything?”

“We mentioned the Island,” Gloren said, his tone defensive. “I remember mentioning it.”

“Omitting, I notice, the part about the deadly ash cloud.”

They looked from one to the other, sheepish, and eventually promised me that henceforth, the three of us would act as a full team, and begged me to excuse their oversight, which was due to their years of close association and habit, and not malice or secretiveness. I told them I would expect them to live up to their word.

“Now that the topic has come to secrets,” I said, pivoting the subject deftly as a sign of my renewed faith in them, “I have my doubts about Captain Fallon. Also, I found him skulking about in Taveral’s quarters yesterday. He told me to say nothing, or the ship would be lost. Those were his words to me.”

“A warning,” Gloren mused, “or a threat?”

Yr Neh, resting stretched out on Gloren’s bunk, was of the opinion that Fallon and the entire rest of the secondary crew could stand a bit of investigation. After all, he observed, his whiskers flexing in self-directed irritation, what, really, was known about the man or his officers? We’d begun this journey operating on the assumption that Captain Pelico knew Fallon well, while that wasn’t exactly the case. And why were we trusting to Pelico’s word? None of us had ever met the man, nor knew anything of his reputation.

“Maybe you could spend some time with the secondary crew tomorrow,” Gloren told the cat, who had begun to clean the long orange hair of his tail. “They’ve got another shift on deck, to relieve Pelico’s men, and give them something to do. If Fallon plans treachery, it will likely be during one of these shifts.”

Yr Neh observed that a far better time would be when the Harbor was located, and a new ship rigged to sail. The prize for duplicity could well be riches beyond measure, if the tales of the Highwater Harbor were true. Perhaps Fallon’s warning related to the ships of the Harbor. Gloren scoffed at this.

“Yr Neh, you know that the Harbor is metaphorical. Military it may have been, but the records and maps of the time clearly show it to have been a highland compound.” He turned to me, and continued to explain his skepticism. “This entire area has been transformed. The Harbor was on a low mountain, but as you’ve seen, the land here has broken and shifted since the Turning of Rains. When the Island of Ash appeared on the horizon, in the final days of Malduan, the Harbor was the highest point in the region. It wasn’t any kind of seaport.”

“So what could have prompted the title of Harbor?” I asked. “And what could the tales of ships be referring to?”

Gloren and Yr Neh shrugged as one, and the cat flexed in irritation as Gloren climbed awkwardly over him in the narrow bunk, flopping into the sliver of padding the cat had failed to occupy. The two groaned as one, the man in comfort, the cat in some sort of existential weariness. I glared down at the pair.

“Really, this is ridiculous!” I exclaimed. “We’re going to reach the supposed position of the so-called Harbor in a matter of days, assuming the Island of Ash doesn’t sweep us from the sea, and we have no idea what we’re looking for! What is the Ribbon? What is the Cipher Key? How can the two of you lay there, with these questions unanswered?”

Yr Neh replied that Gallery Hunters never truly slept, merely pursued steadily deeper intellectual questions, allowing their bodies to rest as their minds ranged far and wide. Soon after so saying, the two were snoring. Leaving them to their deep questions, I rose and left the room.

My aimless wandering led, to my complete surprise, to the quarters of Soreil, from which I heard a number of voices. I knocked, and was called into the presence of the Navigator herself, along with Taveral and Armeline. The linguist and architect were laughing at some jest, and Soreil motioned me forward eagerly.

“Aven!” she called. “We need a fourth for a game of Penekal!” Called to this high purpose, I entered. I asked Armeline no incisive questions, nor did I speak of the intrigues of the ship to Taveral. Instead, I spent the greater bulk of the evening in witty banter, and carefully gauging Soreil’s responses. Eventually, after their shared victory Taveral and Armeline bid us good night, and I watched as they left together, abandoning the two of us to the lengthy remainder of the night.

I awoke to the ringing of the shift bells by the sand girl, on the command deck somewhere far above. Soreil had arisen early, and left, allowing me to awaken on my own. Her quarters, though as small as any other on board, were a model of efficient use of space. Every nook was given over to some purpose, resulting in an astonishing amount of personal possessions and sentimental bric-a-brac. Though Soreil had told me of her recent arrival on board, I’d never have guessed it from casual inspection of her room. Arranging her blankets, and folding her bunk away, I left, tucking my shirt in as I did so, and nearly stumbling over Yr Neh, who batted at my legs in unaccustomed playfulness. Even his warning hiss was half chuckle, and he inquired as to how my night had gone.

Rather than detail my evening, I enquired as to the source of his own high spirits, to which he opened his mouth in a feline grin, sweeping his tail about in excitement. He recited a string of numbers which, to my new-wakened mind, meant nothing. My expression caused the cat to elaborate, saying the numbers were measurements, the exact distance between the metal eyelets of the Ribbon that remained spooled into a huge ball in the forward hold. This revelation, Yr Neh noted, had been reached as he slept. So saying, the cat hopped down the hatch leading to the stores level, surprisingly agile despite his large size.

I followed via the ladder and together we entered the forward hold. Our arrival was the cause of consternation to Hold Master Pamani, who turned from a close inspection of the curving outer wall of the hold. For a moment surprise mixed with a flare of anger, and I imagined that this was the look of someone engaged in something she didn’t want others to see. This particular look of guilt, furtive and fleeting, was becoming familiar to me while on board this ship. In a flash, she nodded perfunctory greeting to me, ignoring Yr Neh, and pretended to complete some inspection of the bulkheads before taking leave with a farewell she imagined to be polite.

Yr Neh and I stared after her, but the cat, excited as he was, had apparently missed the significance of the woman’s actions. Instead, he waited for her to be well and truly departed before continuing his explanation of his numerical series. The key insight, he said, was in the relationship of the numbers in the sequence. Yr Neh and Gloren had been led astray by the theory that the Ribbon deployed and controlled the sails on a ship. The sequence of the Ribbon’s eyelets, spaced as they were, had proved the idea wrong: it wasn’t part of any sailing vessel.

I was only half listening, facing the wall Master Pamani had been so intent on. Its curving surface was formed of stout wood planks, their gaps filled with watertight grouting, and faced with faint sigils against water damage and swelling, the same that decorated every plank on board. I placed a hand flat onto this surface, imagining the power of the sea just beyond.

Yr Neh called my attention back to the Ribbon, which loomed on the other side of the Hold, the tremendous ball only partly lit by the lone lamp Pamani had left behind. Yr Neh had tugged down the end of the silken band, and spread a part of its winding length around the floor, the inset metal shapes glittering and clinking on the floor as the remainder rolled within its bindings. The cat paced the length of it, saying that the mathematical sequence of eyelets was an elegant one, that, should it be graphed out in three dimensions of space would describe a parabolic spheroid much like an egg, though one fashioned in a winding, looping manner. When wound over the tremendous oblong he could see within his mind, he continued, the Ribbon’s metal-clad eyelets would match perfectly where they overlapped. The arrangement formed a series of long loops equally spaced around the circumference, for what purpose the cat could only guess.

I agreed that his discovery did indeed seem to rule out the Ribbon’s use on a ship, and didn’t it seem odd that Master Pamani had acted so strangely? I bent, having stepped on a hard and rolling object on the slowly rocking floor. It was a wooden peg the length of my finger, of the kind used by shipwrights and barn builders, but which sported a metal-clad end terminating in a prong with an angled tip, like a simplistic key. I held it up, noting how the weathering ended abruptly on the opposite tip, and how new the main section appeared.

“What do you make of this?” I asked Yr Neh, who glanced up from the Ribbon, but looked down again without comment. Turning back to the wall that had so engaged Pamani, I traced the pegs along one edge, quickly finding an empty hole. But rather than insert the peg I held, I looked across the length of the slat, seeing the companion peg on the other side of the board. On a whim, I reached up, gripped the rounded end of the mounted peg firmly, and twisted. It turned with a click.

“See here!” I called out, glancing about to make certain Pamani hadn’t chosen this moment to return. But the Hold Master remained absent, and Yr Neh had continued to ignore my discovery. I held the second peg up, and repeated my exclamation, but Yr Neh’s response went no further than to cock an ear in my direction. Offended at the cat’s lack of regard for my discoveries, I dismissed him in turn, letting my regard rest on the pegs in my hand that had, in truth, not been pegs. I worked my way down the first rank of them, running down the wall to my left, gripping and twisting each peg in turn and without further success until, near the bottom, one rotated easily, and came out of its socket, revealing a metal-shod end like the other two. The entire section of wall shifted ever so slightly, giving the sudden impression of a thin veneer. I released the remaining corner, and the entire section of hull-wall came away, the bottom edge clattering to the floor, revealing an inset section behind.

“Yr Neh!” I exclaimed. “Look at this!” But, to my consternation, the cat spared my discovery the most cursory of glances, and then turned away once more, moving along the Ribbon on the floor with rapt interest. I gazed at him for a moment as he moved, tail swishing, from metal eyelet to metal eyelet, the intensity with which he ignored me strange and unsettling. Beyond him, the huge ball of the Ribbon rolled slightly, tugged this way and that against its restraints by the motion of the ship.

I moved the false panel aside, revealing a bank of tiny wooden doors just beyond, each hinged with bright brass, and held shut with a tiny brass clasp. My initial attempt at shifting one of these delicate closures met with failure, as the tiny metal arm refused to budge. A more vigorous attempt fared little better. “Well, these aren’t opening easily,” I commented, turning to Yr Neh in the weak hope of engaging some interest. To my continuing and evolving surprise, he focused on the small hatches, and, even from where I stood, I could see the intensity of the effort, his sides laboring, and nostrils flaring. Ears flattened, the cat took a tentative step toward where I stood, followed by others, each more of an effort than the last. Concerned, I watched in silence. Finally, I could stand it no more.

“What is it, Yr Neh?” I asked, my voice betraying my growing worry. If there was danger here, it wasn’t evident to me. The cat sat at my feet, eyes fixed on the latches, tail whipping from side to side. At length he stood upon his hind legs, gingerly resting his forelegs onto the low ridge of the hull, peering at the hidden doorways. Without warning he reared back with a shout of alarm, quite startling me, and I stumbled back, knocking the false panel to the floor of the hold. The clatter proved too much, and Yr Neh bolted, his claws digging furrows in the stout wooden planks of the floor. As I recovered my wits, I could hear the cat continuing up and away. And yet, my senses revealed no threat at all.

My own heart hammering in my chest, I studied the small hatches at close proximity, to discern what Yr Neh’s keen eyes might have seen. At this range, tiny sigils were visible, inscribed on the fine metal of the latches and hinges, and more on the wood of each tiny door, one centrally, another under the closed latch, and a third to one side, where the latch might rest were it to be successfully slid aside. Yr Neh’s flight had unnerved me, for whatever threat could shake such a stalwart cat as he was certainly not to be taken lightly. Of course, if doom loomed so close, his wordless withdrawal had left me to my own devices, and so my dread was tempered with some small amount of irritation at being so abandoned. With this frame of mind, I committed the tiny runes to memory as best I could, putting my training in heraldry to good stead, and proceeded to re-attach the false panel. It was during this last task that I discovered the large sigil inscribed in the wood back of the false hull, a duplicate of the tiny central symbol of the hidden doors, yet surrounded with others. With this new mystery foremost in my mind, I closed off the secret panel, and returned above decks, hoping to speak with Gloren.

Actions Are Taken, and Schemes Advanced

The morning light filtered through the gray cloud cover, the bright light of day piercing the strange sky in bright lances. The bright, clear blue to the north and east was indeed the condition of the wider world, while the ship moved slowly through waters shaded by a persistent local gloom. The sailors moved about their duties in subdued fashion, glancing at the dreary sky overhead and muttering to themselves. As I passed among them, their consideration transferred to me, and their muttering increased. My sense of impending peril was amplified in turn, and I climbed down to the bow deck over the forespar where Gloren was to be found during the days, watching the lost cities of the Sea of Streets drift past beneath the prow.

I found myself irritated to find Taveral there, sketching as usual when not at work with the precious documents in his stateroom. Yr Neh was not there, and to my questions, Gloren pointed up into the forest of rigging behind us, and I caught a glimpse of orange among the geometric confusion of mast and line, the white tip of the cat’s tail riding high in the breeze. To all appearances, Yr Neh had not only recovered his equanimity, but had found a store of high spirits. From where I stood I could see him lean forward into the wind, the white fur of his breast fluttering, eyes narrowed in contentment.

“Something’s not right,” I whispered, trying to keep my words from Taveral, but the man was a mere arm’s length away, and looked up, assuming the confidence of my tone and bearing was meant to include him. Gloren glanced at me just long enough to take in my demeanor, then returned his gaze down, into the water. But unlike Yr Neh’s strange detachment, Gloren was clearly focused on my words as I spoke, and his casual bearing was a ruse for any who might be observing from afar. To aid in this deception, I schooled my features to calmness, and related the event and discoveries made in the hold, and Yr Neh’s inexplicable reactions.

“There were sigils, you say?” Gloren asked, casting a glance at the linguist. “Taveral, you studied some of the Hundred Visible Mysteries at the Academy, didn’t you?”

“Only in passing,” the man demurred. “Can you replicate the lines?” he asked me.

“The forms, yes,” I said, “but the links within are lost on me.” Thus excused for my crude rendition, I took up his sketch pad and on a new sheet transcribed the runes I’d committed to memory. Taveral’s eyes focused on one immediately, his brows knitting.

“This,” he said, pointing, “is a ward against attention, but it’s focused by this form here to being directed specifically to cats. These other runes seem to attract each other, which is why having one on the latch and one on the door would effectively lock it. This last looks like just a variation on the lock sigil.”

“And these?” I asked, inscribing the ever-present sigils I’d spotted all over the ship’s interior. One, Taveral assured me, was a standard sigil against water damage, while the other, he explained with a small correction to my drawing, was a ward against rats, also standard on every ship of any size. With his alteration, I could see how both warding sigils, versus cats and rats, had a similar basic design.

“Could these anti-cat sigils be errors?” I asked. “You see how small an error can change one of these designs.”

“Maybe,” Gloren said, facing back out to sea. “Taveral, I’ll need you to go down to the hold later on, and take a look at them yourself. Aven, you can show us where this hidden panel is.”

Taveral and I were exchanging nods when a word from above, spoken from a crewman on the foredeck, drew our eyes. It was something innocuous, a sound made to draw attention, and I had just a moment to see the pressed and proper dress of one of Fallon’s officer’s, a man with much to do during shifts such as this, when Fallon’s crew took over for a single turn of the sand.

In an instant, though, my eyes affixed to the shiny golden bauble he held out, dangling with a knotted strand of cord, feathers dangling from them. I heard Taveral gasp, and then the officer casually tossed the strange item overboard, where it fluttered for a moment before diving below the surface, dragging my gaze along with it.

Here I must be clear, for my memories are strange to look back upon. My gaze had been pulled unnaturally by the glinting metal as it sank into darkness, dragged by the glimmer as if by threads of iron wound through my skull. But even so, this compulsion was shattered in a moment by what I saw there, in the deep waters to port, and the medallion continued, forgotten, into the deep. It seemed as if I beheld the most attractive form beneath the waves, a woman gliding through the water as if borne by the very currents, more clearly visible with every passing moment. Bare-skinned and gleaming, her pale flesh and taut muscles seemed to vouch for the health and well-being of those who dwelled beneath the surface. I stood, unable to so much as glance away. Taveral’s astonishment mirrored my own, and he quickly picked up his sketchpad, drawing furiously as the woman glided quickly past to port. To Gloren’s voiced astonishment I found no response, and I followed Taveral as the linguist struggled under the rail and back up to the foredeck, his charcoal stick working with a vengeance. I merely fought to keep the amazing woman in view, her beauty and sensuality captivating and irresistible.

We moved among Fallon’s crew with only half a mind, both struggling to keep up with the undulating form while the crewmen merely watched us, wordless, none of them turning to see what had so drawn our attention. I pointed, but couldn’t voice any words to urge them to look, to see what I saw. Instead, I pitied them their lost opportunity as I rushed past, desperate to see more, a plan coming into my mind to join this woman under the waves, to plunge headlong into the sun-dappled deeps, and swim as she did among the wondrous lost palaces on the Sea of Streets. As we clambered onto the command deck, and shoved past the gathered officers, I felt a grip like steel clasp my arm, arresting my progress but allowing Taveral to continue as he climbed over the tiller box and onto the aft rail near the rudder, dropping his sketch pad and charcoal to better use both hands. As I watched with indescribable envy, the linguist stepped over and, with an admirable dive, plunged out of sight, a faint splash sounding from below.

As I turned on my unwanted captor, sure it was Gloren who had frustrated my hopes, I found myself staring instead into the eyes of Captain Fallon, and their intensity struck me with a force that broke my attention at last from the swimming vision I’d been so intent on. But the sounds from the water behind the ship drew my eyes, the horrified screams and frothing water, violence strong enough to make the wheel shudder in the Helmswoman’s hands, battering the rudder behind the ship.

“Man overboard,” Fallon whispered.

With that, he released his grip. Taveral’s sketchpad was shoved into my hands by an officer, and I was roughly prodded from the command deck, tracked by the wide eyes of Soreil and the sand girl, looking up from her chart desk. As I climbed down the ladder to the main deck, a true alarm was being raised, but without much hope. Gloren led me forward once more, and together we looked down at the sketchpad on which Taveral had recorded the vision we’d been pursuing. But the page showed crazed, winding loops, with tiny leaf-like fronds and the delicate pattern of water ferns. I stared at the image, shuddering, returning to my rooms to write this account, and recover my wits.

An Investigation

Following my harrowing morning, and a brief meeting in our small room, Gloren, Yr Neh, and I set out to determine the root of what had happened, and so we spent the remainder of our day. As those two worthies rest behind me on their bunk, I write this to the sound of their snores, which serve, this night, as a source of comfort equal to the bolt we’ve thrown on our narrow stateroom’s door, a defensive measure we’d never considered before this night.

We were joined in our sleuthing by Armeline, whose reaction to Taveral’s fate was predictably one of distress, but not to any great depth. Whatever her feelings toward the fallen linguist many have been, they clearly hadn’t evolved far enough for his sudden horrible death by sea-creature to move her to tears, and her concern seemed to peak with a burst of morbid curiosity as to the details.

These particulars we went over while gathered in Taveral’s former quarters, after briefly getting permission from Captain Pelico. The Captain himself seemed reluctant to bring the matter to any formal resolution, as there were no witnesses beside the two of us, no evidence beyond our accounts. He seemed entirely unwilling to consider Fallon’s involvement in murder, but, visibly uneasy, he relented enough to grant license to investigate. To my mind, his permission seemed overly reliant on Armeline’s accompanying us, and this set my overworked mind into a flurry of speculation, until I chided myself, demanding greater control of my overwrought emotions. The crew watched us with open hostility, placing all of the unusual circumstances and happenings of this journey firmly with us.

Once ensconced in Taveral’s room, we covered the basic outline of what had happened on deck. Gloren, perhaps mirroring my own thoughts, failed to mention the strange events of the morning in the forward hold. Yr Neh and I followed suit, the cat with an evident strain of relief.

Still, Gloren, Yr Neh and I were eager to begin, hoping to put to rest just one of the unanswered riddles that had begun to plague this voyage. Once the motive for Taveral’s murder was discovered, we could resolve the issue by the simple expedient, I admit to hoping, of tossing captain Fallon and his entire crew over the side. “Let the sea-kelp puzzle over the man’s mysteries,” I remember saying. There were plenty of mysteries remaining aboard even without him.

We began conducting a top-to-bottom exploration of Taveral’s room, focusing special attention on the desk that had drawn my attention during my first covert search two days before. I mentioned this incident to the others, proposing that perhaps the secondary Captain had felt some infatuation with Armeline, and the day’s events had been his way of eliminating a romantic rival. To this, Armeline reacted with scorn.

Fallon? Ridiculous! And Taveral and I had nothing beyond the most professional of relationships!” She seemed so offended by the idea that I apologized and withdrew it, but, to my mind, she began to search the desk with a greater urgency. For all of my watchfulness of the woman, it was Gloren who spotted her eventual duplicity, gripping her wrist in a flash, revealing the thin sheaf of papers she’d nearly secreted amid her loose blouse. Snatching them away with a triumphant cry, Gloren opened the packet up and stopped, his face betraying frank astonishment. Unresisting, he allowed her to pluck the papers back.

Shaking his head, Gloren waved for her to return the packet. “Though I had not realized Taveral was such a skilled artist,” he insisted, “I can’t allow you to remove that entire packet unexamined by us.”

“Not a chance!” Armeline snapped, glaring from Gloren to me, and, for good measure, including Yr Neh as well, who sat impassively on the desktop. Gloren shook his head in scorn.

“Oh, come now! I’m familiar with the particulars, if you remember!”

“And wouldn’t you like to refresh your memory!” she sneered.

“Very well,” Gloren replied, “let Aven examine them. None can doubt his dispassionate academic training.” Before I could object to this characterization, Armeline did it for me.

“Don’t get me started!” she replied. “My stateroom’s right next to Navigator Soreil’s, you’ll remember. Dispassionate academic training, ha!”

Gloren cast an approving look my way, but gestured to Yr Neh. “It will have to be the cat, then. Not even you can deny that he is entirely unshockable, in this respect.”

With a glance at where the cat sat, cool and remote, cleaning a paw with careful attention, Armeline relented, and Yr Neh accepted the entire stack into his teeth, and, retreating to one side of the bunk, the papers facing away from the rest of us, began an inspection of the individual sheets. His appreciative demeanor and remarks about the quality of the workmanship of the drawings themselves were tolerated, but when he began to comment on how Taveral had indeed captured the way Armeline’s skin caught the light of an oil lamp, or rhapsodizing on the fine musculature of her back, the noblewoman began to be less approving. Finally, when Yr Neh cocked his head to one side, and asked about some evident tattoo, her patience ended, and she snatched the entire pile back. With a glare around the room, satisfied we had searched every drawer and cubby, she excused herself and took her leave.

Gloren and Yr Neh chuckled together, the cat commenting that he had been wondering how they’d get the woman out of the room, and Taveral’s compromising sketches had been opportunity and artistic bonus all in one. The linguist, the cat maintained, had been a talented artist, his skills far more evolved than they had been years ago at the Academy of Viron.

“Could his skills with the Mysteries be similarly advanced?” Gloren asked. Yr Neh, reminded, perhaps, of the occurrence in the hold this morning, shifted an ear uncomfortably; he maintained that perhaps they could have. Who else, he reasoned, would have cause to restrict him from examining the tiny cubicles hidden in the walls? He hopped back to the floor, batting aside papers until he’d uncovered the folded wanted posters of the three of us. Taveral had been working toward our recruitment for some time. Who could know how far his preparations had gone?

“That would mean that the Hold Master, Pamani, could have been about to stumble on that hidden panel when we interrupted her this morning,” I said.

“How could a member of the crew not know about an alteration to the hull?” Gloren asked. I answered that Pamani and her husband, Macey, the ship’s Sigil Master, had only recently taken on with Captain Pelico. “And how do you know this?” Gloren asked.

“Soreil told me,” I answered, to which he nodded. I continued. “She herself has only been with Pelico for a few seasons.”

“Hunting pirates,” Gloren supplied. I nodded. Moving slowly, deep in thought, Gloren began setting the room back in order, closing the drawers and stacking the many papers of the deceased linguist tidily on the desk, after taking the Harbor book for himself, and Taveral’s translations of the old manuscripts. “Even though we can’t translate the rest of it,” he explained, “it’ll be of interest to the Gallery of Days.”

Yr Neh, standing on his hind legs, nodded, pushing closed the tiny drawers over the writing surface. One he pushed in repeatedly, but it refused to stay flush with its fellows. Hooking his paw over the lip, the cat pulled the drawer back open and peered inside, then yanked it completely out, letting it clatter to the desk while he reached in, sweeping the interior with extended claws. Eventually he fished from the back another small sheaf of papers, which we gathered to examine with renewed interest.

The first was a certificate from the Naval Academy of West Rotthe, making official the appointment of one Darrem Fallon to the rank of Admiral of the Circlet Sea, and command of the Navy of West Rotthe. The next was a crew certification, listing the officer roster serving under Admiral Fallon in his duties of ridding the Circlet Sea of its scourge of piracy. Among them, I recognized the names of several of Fallon’s current officers.

The third and final paper in the hidden cache was a drawing. Skillfully rendered, it showed an oblong crystal, suspended from a fine chain, some small beads held in positions along its length by winding gold wire. The entire work was colored with bright inks, notations along the edges of the drawing in Taveral’s careful hand, though in no language I’d ever seen.

All three papers had, in their corners, what appeared to be, on first glance, a droplet of sealing wax, but bright as gold, an intricate pattern stamped into it, and binding to the paper an arrangement of tiny, colorful feathers. Each of these mysterious seals was identical.

Gloren and Yr Neh studied these strange additions with interest, and Yr Neh declared them to be amulets, binding the three documents together somehow. He nosed the drawing, turning his head this way and that, considering the object depicted: an additional amulet, purpose unknown. The papers, Gloren mused, were often rumored at, and yet here was proof that the rumors were true: West Rotthe had indeed bound its officers to its cause.

“If Fallon was corrupted,” Gloren said, “he’d need a way to nullify these oaths as an officer. If you’re right, Yr Neh, these amulets freed him to take up a far more lucrative life of piracy.” Since their successful clearing of the seas so long ago, West Rotthean efforts at naval security had been plagued by a wave of hunters turned buccaneer, though usually not of so high a rank. Fallon’s defection might well have proved the undoing of the entire recent naval campaign.

“Whoever made these amulets perhaps made the one that ensnared you this morning, and drew your attention to the sea-ferns,” Gloren said. Yr Neh disagreed, reminding us that it had been Fallon himself that had saved me from the fate of Taveral. Though he may well have freed himself of domination by his country’s navy, Taveral’s death was a targeted affair, as my being spared indicated.

We stared at the hidden documents for a moment longer, then Gloren closed them into the book. As we took our leave, Gloren urged us to be vigilant.

A Notable Day and Night

This morning we passed under the Arch of the Western Gate, and Gloren immediately began close consultations with Soreil, the helmsman, and the others of Pelico’s crew responsible for establishing our course. The Arch marked the ancient pass that linked the military garrison at the Highwater Harbor to the dangerous trade routes further south. The Arch was a natural formation, a band of rock rising high into the sky, an unbelievable edifice that, should it choose the moment we passed beneath to finally succumb to the waves, would crush us in a blink. But so vast was this span that we sailed underneath the apex without incident, the tallest masts passing close by but still missing the underside of the arch. The questing fingers of those brave few who ascended the highest masts reached unsuccessfully toward the colossus. The strength of this tremendous band of stone had withstood whatever process had folded the landscape around it in recent centuries, and yet I felt an irrational relief that none of the sailors could brush it with so much as a fingertip while we passed below.

At the Arch, the canted cityscape of the haunting Sea of Streets ended, and the passages that hemmed us in were of undressed rock, alternately a handspan beneath or above the waves, creating a mottled vista of dark unmoving stone and rippled steely water far into the distance. The area had been, in the time before the Rains, a military compound of tremendous size, surrounded by five fortresses and a maze of patrolled routes, securing the Harbor from approach and its many military secrets from prying eyes. This entire landscape had, at one point, towered over its surroundings, but now whatever had evened out the topography had humbled it, creating the wrinkled countryside below the waterline, folded like a complex cloth, while the Island of Ash rose higher and higher. Even so, the structure of the Arch had survived, though shot though with tremendous cracks. Clearly, it had resisted disintegration, but not by much, and would one day complete the process of dissolution that had claimed the entirety of Malduan, the Kingdom it had once towered over. Soon the sharp details of the natural bridge were softening behind us, fading into the ever-present gloom. The clouds spilling out from the Island of Ash to the south widened further overhead with every passing hour.

Now our search for the Harbor would begin in earnest, for, with the landscape in such disarray, ancient guides to location must be treated as suspect, even where they could be unambiguously understood. Thus most sails were struck, and the ship proceeded under the power of the narrow jibs off the bow. I spent the morning making idle observations, but was otherwise unproductive.

Gloren sat near the side-rail, distracted and moody. He’d spent a brief time in the small hours of the night within the forward hold with the Ribbon, seeking out the false panel I’d found. Yr Neh and I had slept through his departure, but I’d awoken at his return, thinking a crewman might be sneaking in to do us harm.

“I found the panel,” he’d reported to me as Yr Neh snored without pause. “I couldn’t open the hatches, though, and didn’t linger. Hold Master Pamani might not be able to think about them any more than Yr Neh could, and I don’t want her running screaming from the hold should she find me there with the panel open. That would be the final drop in the cup, for this crew. They’re still rattled from the rogue wave, and the Island of Ash isn’t helping their state of mind.”

“If you don’t think it’s a danger to the ship, then whatever contraband Pelico’s smuggling is not our problem,” I said. “Those panels were there before we sailed.”

With a rueful nod that spoke volumes about his reluctance to let a mystery lie unanswered, Gloren relented and went to his bunk at last, and his unsatisfied expression remained in the morning.

The Island of Ash, visible now as a cone on the southern horizon, has continued its opaque discharges, and, near noon, fine silt began to fall in tiny flakes which, on investigation, proved to be composed of the fine ash that gave the island its name. A detail was formed to sweep the fine accumulation from the decks, and keep lines, rigging, and other surfaces clear. Those of us that could retreated belowdeck, while those needed above tied cloths over their noses and mouths and pressed on.

I wandered the passages, passing the officer’s mess where some of Pelico’s men ate, preparing for their own turn above decks that evening. To my delight, I saw a tired, dusty Soreil, and sat with her and the silent, ash-coated sand girl, her dusty hourglass slowly draining on the table before her. After pleasantries, during which Soreil ate, I asked the woman what she knew of amulets. She shook her head.

“Not a thing, I’m afraid. Why?”

“Well, I was in need of someone who might have some experience with them, and, seeing how Navigators are traditionally acquainted with this particular Mystery, I thought…” I was uneasy, aware, as I spoke, that my words might easily be taken as a challenge of her professional credentials. But Soreil merely cocked her head toward the sand girl.

“The only Amulets on board, as far as I know, are the sand glass and the shift bell, and these were given to me by my father.” She indicated the hourglass before the sand girl, and the triangle that rested on the table next to it. I turned my attention to the girl, with whom I’d exchanged not a word since coming aboard. My experience with young children being limited, I wasn’t certain how to proceed. What, I wondered, was there to speak of with someone who had no scholastic training at all? This was the same vexing question that kept me from long conversations with chandlers, farmers, artists, and, for that matter, most other members of the lower classes.

“We’ve not been properly introduced,” I began, wondering how she would respond to polite conversation. I struggled to remember when children began to speak. Surely sometime before their fifth year? The sand girl, to my untrained eye, seemed well past that, perhaps as old as eight or nine. For a moment I suffered silent panic. If she was too young, what sort of tantrum might I have unknowingly triggered?

But to my great relief, she nodded in understanding, and shook her head. “No, not yet.”

“My name is Aven Penworthy,” I continued, wondering how far this sort of thing could go. It was much like conversing with a small woodland animal, I imagined, in that the limits of their ability to comprehend and reply were uncharted until explored in awkward verbal exchanges.

“I’m Sandy,” she replied. But of course she’d be Sandy! I struggled for continuity.

“You’ve met my companions, I’m sure? The Gallery Hunters, Gloren Avericci, and Yr Neh?”

“I don’t like cats,” she replied. I smiled.

“Yr Neh has that effect on many children,” I replied. “His charms are reserved for a select few.” Soreil snorted in laughter, draining the last of her drink and pausing to use a napkin before setting it aside.

“How long have you been Navigator Soreil’s sand girl?” I asked. Sandy pursed her lips.

“We just came aboard this past season, my parents and I.”

I thought back to my first night on board. “Your mother is the Hold Master, isn’t she?” I asked. “And your father the Sigil Master?” The girl nodded. “I saw her just the other morning,” I said. She nodded once more.

“My mother told me,” she said, but her attention was drawn at that moment to the hour glass, which was draining the final grains from the upper chamber. Sandy picked up the tiny triangular bell, and rang it with authority. The tiny bells hung about the room rang in sympathy, as did those others that decorated the masts and decks above. Those seated below rose and filed out, to begin their own shifts. Soreil rose and ushered Sandy before her, but ran a finger across the back of my hand.

“Perhaps you could help me review some charts, after I rest?” she said casually, and I nodded in as like a manner as I could manage.

Following the crewmembers from the cramped mess, I went out onto the deck, my mind trying to find the common thread in the many strange circumstances aboard. The dusky half-light confused my sense of how late in the day it truly was, and I squinted upwards to try to judge how far along on its course the sun might be. Through the ash, thin beams of sunlight shone all the way to the water, and by their shallow angle I judged it only an hour or two before true dusk. These shafts of light illuminated spots on the mirror-like surface of the sea, lending the dark surface a bright dapple that might be intriguing if not for the grit-caked squint that accompanied gazing out upon it.

The crew shuffled silently about their tasks, each made more arduous by the need to wrap their faces and protect their eyes, and the extra work of keeping the ship from being inundated with the ash that sifted slowly down upon us. From the bare masts, a forest of rigging and struck sails, came a shout, hailing me from above. Narrowing my eyes, I sought the source of this call, and eventually saw the shapes of Gloren and Yr Neh, far above deck in one of the nestlike lower stays on the foremast.

I went to the rope courses that led to the mast, and clamored up as I’d seen many of the sailing folk do. As I arrived at the first join of the mast, a tight binding wound with a tremendous band of roping, a dusty sea-going woman nodded in what I took to be surprised admiration, thinking, perhaps, that I was some desk-bound scribe. I continued upwards, crossing past the lowest boom and upwards to the stay where Gloren and Yr Neh awaited me.

From this high vantage point, the small motion of the ship, of which I had long since ceased to be aware, was magnified many times over by our height, and I found myself relieved to settle past the knee-high rail of the small platform, sparing a glance for the stay even further up, wherein rested one of the lookouts posted to keep view of the submerged hazards to either side. From here, also, I became aware of a sustained hissing, the sound of countless bits of ash sifting into the sea from above. From so far above the deck the sound was all-encompassing, and muffled the subdued talk from below into near silence. This effect, I thought, was reason enough for our strange meeting place.

“I’m worried about the expedition,” Gloren began, keeping his speech low. His eyes, the only visible part of his face past the cloth that wrapped it, showed lowered brows. His normally hazel eyes appeared almost black. Yr Neh, his head swaddled in a fine silken scarf of deep green, gave muffled agreement, but his manner showed him to be self-conscious, and I withheld comment about the scarf, mindful both of our high perch and the restricted quarters, which would provide little escape in the case of his displeasure. I nodded in agreement, and directed my words to Gloren.

“We’re making progress, for all of that,” I said. “Yr Neh will doubtless understand the use of the Ribbon when we reach the Harbor. We won’t need to linger, with any luck.”

“It isn’t luck that worries me,” Gloren said. “If Taveral was killed because of something he knew, or had learned, we could be in the same danger before we know of it.”

“Well, I still hope it was personal,” I said, “unrelated to the Harbor, or the ships there. The good Captain was eliminating a romantic rival. Tawdry, but harmless. It’s the only idea that seems to make sense.”

Yr Neh clearly disagreed with my hypothesis, pointing out that the documents Taveral had hidden in his room proved the linguist’s fatal link to Captain Fallon wasn’t a newly-arisen romantic triangle. Taveral had known of Fallon’s previous high station, and had arranged, with Armeline, for both Captains to be involved in the expedition. According to Armeline, Taveral had suggested both names together, when the need for two crews became evident: one to stay with this ship, and the other to sail the legendary ship of the Highwater Harbor back to the Gallery of Days. Gloren was needed to find the Harbor, and unlock it, while Yr Neh was essential to discover the use of the Ribbon Taveral had so carefully fabricated. As an architect, Armeline’s role was secondary, though she’d doubtless taken on the financial burdens of the expedition. But Taveral had been responsible for the gathering of the company, if Armeline was to be believed. What, the cat wondered, could the two Captains be plotting together?

I objected. “Those two squander no love between them. I’ve heard them arguing in the Captain’s quarters, and surely you’ve seen the looks Fallon gives Pelico.”

Yr Neh agreed reluctantly, having noted the tension between the two. Gloren shook his head, admitting he’d seen nothing, but, then again, he’d spent much of his time on the bow, rather than with the command staff.

“Another thing,” he said, “is that you were right when you were talking to Taveral.” To my inquiry, he continued. “When we were talking to Taveral, immediately before he was killed, you asked about a sigil. This sigil.” He drew a sign on the dust coating the mast. “You drew this sigil correctly,” Gloren said, “and yet Taveral corrected it.” Demonstrating, Gloren added a tiny line, connecting a tiny gap in the outer loop of the sign. “Taveral was right, and so were you. The sign you drew was the same one drawn all over the ship. But the correction Taveral made makes the sigil correct.”

“The sigils on the ship are false?” I asked. This was a terrible thought. The well-being of a sailing ship like this was guarded by an unbroken net of anti-water, anti-pest, and other runes, overlapping to counter the weakening effect large bodies of water had on any use of the Mysteries. Was it possible we were adrift in what was little more than a glorified boat, without the benefit of the competent sigils? The thought was chilling. “But then, who is Macey, if he isn’t a Sigil Master?”

“Good question,” Gloren agreed, as did Yr Neh, who reminded us that the man’s wife was the Hold Master, the woman we’d seen near the false panel belowdecks. But had she been discovering the false panel, as we had, or had she been making use of it?

“This ship is in grave danger,” I said, keeping my voice low. Gloren nodded.

“The Harbor’s ship is at risk as well. Our best bet is to go to the Captain. He’s got the most to lose in this, and his ship might have been prepared to not survive the conspiracy. Whoever wants to steal the Harbor’s ship won’t want a professional pirate hunter in the water nearby.”

Yr Neh shared the opinion that we should confide in Pelico as soon as possible, and, seeing how there was nothing to gain in waiting further, given how close we were to our destination, we descended and made our way to the command deck, where the Captain stood, conferring with Soreil and the First Mate. The helmsman, from his position between wheel and rudder, listened attentively, and was consulted often. We waited for the issue to be resolved before approaching Captain Pelico, who greeted us with a wide smile.

“Soreil tells me we are nearly upon our destination,” he said, doffing his hat and shaking dust from his hair with his fingers. “And not a moment too soon, it would appear.”

Gloren spared a glance for the Island of Ash, his eyes smiling past the wraps over his mouth and nose. “We’d be best not to linger, if possible,” he agreed.

“The Island isn’t the only unforeseen danger,” Pelico noted. “Taveral’s loss to the call of the water vines was most unfortunate. I knew him well, and it is hard to lose a friend to the sea.”

“It was a tragedy,” Gloren agreed, brushing smoothly past the subject of Taveral’s death, as Pelico wasn’t likely to revisit those strange circumstances, whatever his expressions of grief. “But I’d like to go over some scenarios with you, to get a sense of how many hands will be available in the case of different eventualities.”

Pelico gave a low laugh. “Yes, of course. I’d forgotten, in all that’s happened, that reaching the Harbor is only the beginning. You need to get those ships asail!”

“Sometime tonight, then?” Gloren asked.

Pelico, looking at the rest of his command staff, gave a shrug. “The moment looks clear, so if you’ve time, we can call for food in my room, and plot out our courses.” Surprised, Gloren and Yr Neh nodded, clearly pleased. So we all headed below, leaving behind the dust-streaked sky and the descending night with relief. We removed all manner of protective clothing, wrapping them into tight wads, to contain the dust as best we could. Yr Neh passed his green scarf to me with a sniff and a sneeze.

As we approached the Captain’s quarters, however, the double doors were ajar, and from beyond, angry words could be heard, the low rumble of a man try to keep his temper in check. I couldn’t make out his words.

“I don’t know where they are,” Armeline’s voice rang out in response. “And if I did, I wouldn’t tell you!”

“What a fool I was,” the man replied, and I recognized the voice of Fallon. “I didn’t know who I was dealing with, but you have no such excuse!”

“Oh, please, spare me!” Armeline began, but cut off her words as we entered. The others were ahead of me, and by the time I came into the room, Fallon was standing off to one side, visibly angry, Armeline standing across the crowded stateroom, arms crossed, looking out the small-paned windows as if to distance herself from the group that had suddenly arrived.

“What is going on here?” Pelico asked, his voice measured, and not pleased.

“Unlike some,” Armeline replied, “I was invited.”

“I came to talk with you, Captain Pelico,” said Fallon, “and I found your stateroom door ajar.”

“You find that a lot, it seems,” I said before I even knew I had done so. The others turned an inquisitive gaze to me, but Fallon’s stare was focused and dangerous. Without inflaming the situation, I could say little to elaborate, but was spared the need to do so by Pelico.

“I apologize, lady,” he said, “but we must discuss the distribution of men when the Harbor is found. Perhaps later, we can meet at greater length.” Armeline bit off an impulsive response, and, with a glance at the three of us, nodded, and excused herself. After a moment, Fallon did so as well.

The instant the doors were closed, Gloren sat at the small chart table in the center of the room, leaning close, and Pelico followed suit. Yr Neh hopped onto the table, and I took a seat at a nearby divan. The room was rich in comparison to the rest of the ship, well furnished and smelling of wood polish and clean linen. The back wall was lined with glass-paned windows, past which the dreary ash continued to fall. Woodwork framed these windows, and continued as trim along floor and ceiling, culminating in a heavy beam forming the upper frame of the double doors. The name Pelico was incised deeply into the wood, the entire thing polished to a lustrous shine.

“Your ship is in danger,” Gloren said without preamble. “Someone has been tampering with the sigils, altering them subtly so that they may very well not work at all.”

Pelico’s face darkened at this news. “Are you sure of this?” he asked. Gloren and Yr Neh nodded. “We should have Macey in here to answer these charges,” the Captain said.

Yr Neh agreed, and would likely have demanded Fallon stay as well had not the presence of the secondary Captain in these rooms thrown the cat off his plan. He’d wanted to warn Captain Pelico before forcing Fallon to desperate measures. For, whatever was being planned aboard the ship, Fallon was involved in strange business, and wound tight in odd entanglements with the key members of our mission. Yr Neh told the Captain the general consensus we’d reached, that Fallon and his secondary crew were a growing danger.

To our surprise, Pelico burst out laughing at this revelation. “Fallon? ” he asked, as if not believing the good news his ears had unexpectedly delivered. “Oh, I think we can dispense with that possibility, my friends.”

Yr Neh and Gloren exchanged glances, trying to accommodate this reaction. “But Fallon had something against Taveral,” Gloren said, throwing our caution to the winds, “and one of his men killed the linguist. Aven, here, saw Fallon leaving Taveral’s rooms beforehand, apparently having been searching for something. He seems to have found it, given that Taveral was dead soon after. Taveral was lured with some sort of amulet, and his rooms had additional examples of that Mystery, and plans for yet another.”

Pelico waved these accusations off, his levity darkening at Gloren’s evidence. “I can vouch for Fallon,” he said. “I’d bet the life of every man on board of his reliability. In fact, given his crew has taken one out of four shifts, I already made that bet, and have won every time. He may have had some private vendetta against the linguist, but the idea that the Sigil Master is involved is ludicrous. The man’s wife and daughter are aboard, after all. What sort of mischief would he do, given the risk to his family?”

“His daughter is aboard?” Gloren asked. Pelico nodded.

“The sand girl is his daughter, and, as you know, Hold Master Pamani is his wife. Getting the three together is a boon, let me tell you! I haven’t been long with those three, but a sea-family is lucky for any ship to have. That family is of the Enkelori, who spent the Turning of the Rains on one of the Wood Havens. They’ve been on the seas since before the Rains! The idea of them harming a boat is ludicrous!”

Gloren sat back, deflated, and Yr Neh sagged, his tail hanging from the tabletop in dejection. “Something’s going on, Pelico,” Gloren said. The Captain stood, laughing, clapping a mighty hand on Gloren’s shoulder.

“Something’s always going on when you gather scholars together,” the man said. “Stop worrying, please. You cast my hospitality into question.”

And so, with mumbled apologies, we took our leave. But the questions continued to be debated in our rooms, in whispered conference, the three of us still half-convinced of we knew not what. As I write these words at my tiny desk, the questions in my mind swirl still.

The Highwater Harbor

I record these final events from a position of dubious comfort and safety. Having reread my journal thus far, I shake my head at how close to the truth we came, knowing now the consequences of our falling short in our conjectures. Let me record the rest of the tale, then, or at least as much as my limited stores of paper and ink will allow, in the hopes that I can finish the account later, should I survive to do so.

Gloren shook me awake before dawn the next day, tasking me to hurry and join him on deck, and, incidentally, awaken Yr Neh, who still slept on the lower bunk, the end of his tail already twitching in anticipation of being disturbed. After performing this unenviable task, and bandaging my forearm, I joined Gloren, leaving the grumbling cat to make his own way.

The dusting of ash had slackened during the night, but the sky remained a strange reddish brown. Gloren was in high spirits, consulting our notes and Taveral’s translations, peering down across the ash-tinged water, broken intermittently by numerous low abutments and prominences. These marked many of the borders of upright buildings, for here, within the encircling Sea of Streets, the landscape below the waves was still upright. Perhaps the mountain upon which the Highwater Harbor had been built had sunk of a piece, keeping the highland military outposts intact even as the seas fought to drag them further down, or tried in vain to erode them away. Maybe, I speculated, the ancient builders of Malduan had rooted the Harbor far into the mountain, stabilizing the entire thing against the motion of the landscape itself.

We’d gathered, as had become our habit, at the thin forebridge off the bow, directly above where the keel cut through the calm waters. Armeline, working from Yr Neh’s hasty estimates and measurements the cat took using Soreil’s sextant, deciphered the structure and use of the buildings just visible beneath the water’s surface, and compared them to the maps in Taveral’s book. The sun-streaked air and ash-mixed water made these necessary procedures, and, in this way, they gave nautical orders to me, which I then forwarded to the helmsman and the steerswoman at the wheel. My mnemonic training served me well in this capacity, and I delivered their instructions with a precision which hid the fact the jargon often meant nothing to me. But we proceeded apace through the brightening morning, under the slow power of a single expanse of mainsail and the wind-taut jibs, Gloren and Yr Neh exclaiming at one recognized submerged landmark after another, remembered from their first attempt to find the Harbor. Their elation was leavened by their rueful acknowledgement of how close they’d been that last time, to still return home in failure.

This process Fallon and his small crew watched from the maindeck, a knot of silent observation which Pelico’s crewmen regarded warily. The exact role they were to play in the plans to deliver the ships of the Highwater Harbor to the Gallery of Days was uncertain, and much depended on the exact structure of the boats once we discovered them. To this end, I questioned Gloren regarding his plans.

“Have you discovered the uses of the Cipher Key?” I asked him during a free moment. He lifted the pendant from his tunic and let it dangle in the sunlight, seemingly unconcerned with its secrecy now that we were so close.

“No, I haven’t,” he replied. “I’m hoping it will come clear when we arrive.”

This is the sort of spontaneous ease Gloren had demonstrated to me before. He had most of a plan, and he acted on it, not waiting to solve every attendant mystery that seemed to cling to his endeavors. His willingness to engage in obscure puzzle solving while under pressure and surrounded by those who had invested much was a kind of bravery I had never possessed. Sitting, waiting for Armeline to tell where in the route they were by the next sunken outbuilding, Gloren casually slid out plate after plate from the Key with Yr Neh’s assistance, letting the sunlight glint off the metal.

“And of Fallon?” I asked, keeping my voice low. He looked up from his musing, letting the Key click shut.

“If there’s some plot afoot to steal one of the ships of the Harbor, we’ll have to foil the attempt as it happens,” he said. “Unless Fallon knows something we don’t, he’ll be improvising just as we are.”

Yr Neh, without looking up from the sextant past which he peered, noted that Fallon would be improvising with twelve armed men, while we had one knife, a sword, and sixteen claws in total. I wasn’t certain if, in the cat’s estimation, that put us ahead of or behind Fallon. Gloren shared my puzzlement, not knowing how the cat judged such matters.

Without warning Gloren stood, looking with wide eyes to port. “Aven, order full stop. Full stop!” His voice brisk with excitement, he scrambled back up to the main deck and along the portside rail, calling for Yr Neh. The cat passed me in a bound as I climbed to the maindeck and rushed to the command deck, there to relay Gloren’s urgent instructions.

The helmsman gave the needed commands, sending crew scuttling to and fro, adjusting sail and running lines in a confusion of activity that brought us, in moments, to the requested halt, anchors lowered into the depths.

“What does he see?” Pelico asked, looking out at the placid waters off the port side, unbroken save for a few small protrusions. “Is there some danger?” the Captain wanted to know. I shrugged, and rushed back to where Gloren and Yr Neh stood, eyes almost glowing with their excitement.

“There’s nothing here,” Armeline said, peering north across the shallow waves. “The Harbor is marked by six towers.” She pointed into the water. “There’s a plateau here,” she said, “just below the water. Those things in the water aren’t submerged towers. They’re barely taller than you are!”

Gloren shook his head, lifting Taveral’s translation notes. Riffling through them, he pointed to a passage. “It says ‘The Harbor, being open for use, is surmounted by six towers’.”

The noble woman shrugged, and I was inclined to shrug with her. But I didn’t. “So?” she asked.

Gloren, laughing, tucked the Cipher Key back into his tunic. “The Harbor hasn’t been opened yet,” he said.

“But that isn’t nearly big enough to be a harbor,” she protested. “It’s barely a hundred paces across and mere inches deep, without offering any sort of protection at all! No ship could use such a small space for shelter!”

“That’s because, as I keep saying,” Gloren said, hooking his leg over the rail, “the Highwater Harbor isn’t that kind of harbor at all. It isn’t made for ships!” Without further word Gloren dove overboard, plunging into the sea. A moment afterward Yr Neh followed with a yelp. As we watched, the two rendezvoused in the ash-swirled water, and the cat climbed on Gloren’s back. With powerful strokes, Gloren began swimming.


Continued in Part Three

aaron-starrAaron 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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