This is one section of a serialized novel presented by Black Gate magazine. It is offered at no cost and appears with the permission of Mark Rigney, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2015 by Mark Rigney.
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or current events is purely coincidental.
This is Chapter Two. To begin with Chapter One, click here.
Maer’s courage failed her before she’d reached the second floor. The sounds of battle above were over and done with, while the kitchens (littered with food and abandoned dishes) waited quietly below, but it was neither of these things that stopped her. No, what arrested her mad dash to––what? Rescue Elsbeth? Defeat the two Devoted, the church guards, both of whom were twice her size? She had not the least idea, but what brought her up short was the body of one of the clerks tumbling down the third floor stair, her white gown gashed with red. The body rolled once more, then slid off the spiraling steps to land with a horrifying thump on the rug beside Maer’s own bed.
Above, Mother Sand had found her voice and was giving orders. “Torch the place, and be quick about it. And torch that wretched spyglass first!”
Movement, boot-steps above. A lantern crashing to the ground, its glass shattering. If it was lit, which it surely was, the flame would jump to the oil…
Maer turned and fled. At the same moment, she heard Mother Sand again, this time asking, “Where’s that girl, the keeper’s girl? Find her! I want everyone here accounted for!”
There were two ways off the Spur, and two only. She could follow its hogback ridgeline up to the peaks and moors, or she could descend to the ocean via the Sea Steps. Unless she sprouted wings, no other choice existed.
Without precisely choosing, Maer fled down. Panic guided her as much anything else, but Doss was very much on her mind, Doss and his boat, Doss and his crew, Doss who was her friend. If anyone could help, it was he.
The steps were treacherous after dark, but Sister Blue was still high in the sky, and her reflected light made up for the fact that Maer hadn’t even considered stopping to grab a lantern. Or food. Or a rucksack. Or extra clothes. She berated herself with every downward step, thinking of all the things she should have brought or could have done, beginning with (hours earlier) shoving that awful Mother Sand down the steps the second she’d laid eyes on her. Then Elsbeth would still be alive, the Beacon Tower would not be afire and smoking––she could see, looking up from the first landing, that the fire had already pushed through the tower’s roof––and existence would have stayed pegged to its usual, predictable course. Instead, she was racing for dear life down a stair she would normally have avoided entirely after dark, with a wild and furious ocean foaming beneath her.
She glanced down, and realized it was not only the wave-tossed sea that would receive her at the relatively calm cove. She’d forgotten, in her haste to reach Doss, that Mother Sand also had a ship, and it stood to reason that it would be staffed, guarded. Whoever was on board was not likely to be her friend.
No time to think it out; she’d started down, and there was no going back. Down and down and down, with the waves beyond the cove booming louder with every step. No two ways about it, Sister Blue was spoiling for a fight.
As she reached the steepest points, Maer forced herself to slow. Who did she think was going to catch up with her? No one. Not another person in the world, no matter how murderous, could have followed her down at half her speed. Have a care, she told herself. A single slip and over the edge you go, and then (she almost gasped at the thought of taking such a dizzying plunge) there’d be not a single witness left. And they’d have won.
Even at a more prudent pace, the bottom came almost before she was ready for it. She was glad now she hadn’t brought a light. Just ahead, twenty paces off, stood the supplies hut, its whitewashed walls all but glowing in response to Sister Blue. Past that, the shadowed cleft beyond the Sea Steps opened wide to the cove, which was noisier than she’d ever heard it, and seething. Indeed, the water seemed to have swallowed the pier. Destroyed it, possibly, though she doubted that. Sister Blue’s rise was rare, but predictable, a known hazard. Those who’d built the stubby, modest pier had surely gauged the heights to which the Sister’s tides could reach.
Moments later, she was at the hut’s door, slapping her palm on the wood and hissing for Doss. When he didn’t immediately respond, she fumbled with the latch and pushed her way in. Doss and Cullen, the youngest of his crew, were both up on their elbows, gaping in her direction from separate, sagging cots.
“Maer?” Doss demanded. “What’s going on?”
“You need to cast off, and I’m coming with you.”
Doss flopped back on the cot. “If there’s one thing that’s not happening––”
“Mother Sand’s torched the Beacon. Come outside, you can see the smoke. I’m not kidding. Everyone up there but her and her guards––and me––they’re dead.”
In the hut, which stank of brine and rot, it was very dark indeed, but by their movements, she could tell that Doss and Cullen had exchanged a look, and that neither one had heard anything but conviction in her voice, the shocked, clarion ring of truth. Doss swung his legs to the floor and fumbled for his boots.
“If this,” he muttered, “is your idea of a lark…”
“It isn’t. I’ll get the oars.”
The oars were easy enough to find, but the rowboat, despite having been dragged to high ground during the unloading of Doss’ supplies boat, was now bobbing in an eddy––had the water been this high, ever?––and required a boat hook to haul it into reach. She’d just gotten her hands on the gunnels when Doss appeared beside her.
“Why? Why kill everyone? Why set it on fire?”
“Does it matter? Right this second?”
“How do you know you weren’t followed?”
She scoffed. “Of course I’m being followed, but how fast do you think two men in armor, plus a priest, can get down that?” She waved a contemptuous hand at the towering black cliffs. “Now are you going to help me with this rowboat?”
He grabbed her by the upper arm, all trace of levity a long-gone memory. “You listen to me, Maer. I don’t know what’s happened up there, but when it comes to boats, I give the orders. No questions asked. Anyone who can’t live by that goes over the side.”
“Are we clear?”
Seizing the prow with both hands, Doss hauled the rowboat halfway up what little remained showing of the cove’s stony shingle. “Cullen, you first. I’ll row.”
As stocky, taciturn Cullen bundled himself into the stern, he said, “Might take us both.”
And it did. No sooner had Doss put his oars to the water than the crisscrossing waves slapped the rowboat ninety degrees to the side, and when he tried to correct, they shoved a different way, pushing them backward. “Cullen!” Doss said. “Up here with me!”
With Maer in the prow, the two men sat side-by-side on the middle bench and strained away, one oar each, battling for every clean pull. “This is not,” Doss said through gritted teeth, “how I like to take my rest!”
Maer kept her eye on the senator’s ship. Its sails were furled, that was easy enough to see, thanks to the many lanterns and torches lighting her decks. Discounting drawings in a book or two, the senator’s was the largest ship she’d ever laid eyes on (at least since early childhood, before she’d come to live on the Spur, and those memories had become fuzzy, unreliable). The only thing that kept the senator’s ship from looming like a mountain was the Spur itself, rising up behind like a towering wall.
Her reverie was cut short by a bucking wave that sent her chin smacking off the gunnels. She yelped, and felt with a hand to test the wound. There’d be a bruise come morning.
She looked up, to the top of the Sea Steps. Yes, far, far above, and descending at a slow, steady pace, she could see two lit lanterns. The figures that held them were too distant and dark to make out, so the lights looked like a pair of fireflies, dipping along in a loose, swinging dance. Two lit lanterns: why not three? The priest plus her two guards, that should have added up to three. Either they were one lantern shy, or perhaps––the thought thrilled her, though it also left her feeling thoroughly guilty––perhaps one of them hadn’t made it out.
Higher still, smoke trailed across the sky, obscuring the face of Sister Blue. That, she decided, was bad luck indeed. If only the wind had gone the other way, the smoke, together with its source, might not have been noticed by any watchers in the cove. Instead, whatever watch the senator’s ship had posted would be wary now, on high alert. They’d be keeping a closer eye on the shore, and on the supplies boat.
Sure enough, she heard shouts from the senator’s ship, orders barked. The lamps, which had been fixed, were in motion now, carried by men swift with newfound tasks.
“Hurry,” Maer said. “Hurry!”
Only one lamp burned on the Southwind, and she saw no movement on her deck. If anything, the Southwind seemed to be drifting away. Then, all in an instant, two rebounding waves working in opposite directions brought the rowboat and the Southwind nose to nose. Doss yelled for her to watch her hands (she’d been gripping the gunnels) and the next thing she knew they were alongside. Cullen shipped his oar and grabbed a dangling rope. Maer seized hold of a second. Choppy water and all, it was child’s play to abandon the rowboat and slip over the Southwind’s low-slung sides; in moments, all three were aboard.
“Felson,” muttered Doss, as he rolled to his feet, “where in the deep is Felson?”
“Here, sir,” the first mate announced, hurrying up from the hold. “What’s going on?”
“Weigh anchor, you and Cullen. Where’s Varney?”
The first mate shook his head. “Sick as a dog. It’s Sister Blue, he says. Too much to think about.”
“Too much to think about?”
Felson shrugged. “Too many waves.”
“The idiot. I’ll give him waves to think about.”
Looking supremely annoyed, Doss hurried into the hold. Cullen, with an apologetic shrug in Maer’s direction, followed Felson toward the anchor winch. Left to her own devices, Maer looked to the Spur. What she couldn’t see from the shore, with the cliffs directly above, was clear enough now. The whole Beacon Tower was on fire, and the Beacon Lamp was sputtering like an enormous candle with a sooty wick, shooting out sparks and coughing smoke. If the keeper’s log books were correct, that lamp had been lit every night without interruption for three hundred and four years. Tonight, on Maer’s watch, it would soon go out.
She heard a shout, but not from the Southwind. She looked to the senator’s ship, and at once spotted a landing boat being lowered over the side. It hit the water with a heavy splash, and in no time, men were swarming down ladders to reach it. Armed men, too; she could see metal winking in the torchlight.
She whirled and spotted Doss half-dragging the wavereader up from the hold. “They’re coming!” she yelled, pointing across the cove.
Possibly Doss heard her, possibly not; the wavereader was mewling in his ear, hanging on his shoulder. Either way, Doss shoved Varney away and rounded on Maer.
“What exactly do you have in mind?” he demanded. “Set sail? In this?”
“They killed everyone,” she pleaded, and pointed again. “Don’t you see? The men in that boat, they’re coming for us next.”
“Are they? And how do I know they’re not coming just for you?”
Too shocked to reply, Maer simply stared, tongue-tied, and Doss, sounding less convinced now, went on, saying, “It might be you they want, you and you only. So what if I just handed you over, what then, hey?”
He grimaced. “No, I suppose I wouldn’t. But we won’t last a half hour in that,” and he jerked his head toward the cove’s outlet, where enormous waves were bursting in, one after the other in a fierce, Sister-driven cascade.
From the stern, Felson yelled, “Anchor’s up, sir!”
Doss eyed the landing craft at the other ship, gauging the distance––Maer’s estimate was two hundred yards––and called back, “Felson, raise the main sail, double-quick.”
Varney immediately protested. “Captain, we can’t go out there, we can’t!”
Now it was Doss’s turn to point to the landing craft, already pushing off from its patron ship. Three pairs of oarsmen set to; three sets of oars struck the angry water. “You see that?” Doss said. “That looks like death to me. I say we take our chances on the water.”
“Sir, the ocean, on this night––even thinking about it, I can’t begin to tell you––”
“Then don’t. Help, or get out of the way.”
For Maer, the next minutes were an agony of waiting. She knew small boats well enough, craft she could paddle herself, but she had no idea how to be helpful on a tub the size of the Southwind, and her crew, Doss included, were far too busy to teach her. The sails seemed to inch upward, and even when they were raised, they refused to catch the cove’s swirling breeze. All the while, the soldiers in their rowboat slid closer, sometimes forced sideways by the crazed currents, but never losing ground for long.
Even as they worked, Doss and Felson kept shouting commands, and Cullen and Varney fumbled in the dark and spray, trying to enact them. At last the Southwind slid forward, but it wasn’t enough. The landing craft was almost upon them; Maer could see they’d be alongside in seconds. The rowers were hauling the oars in martial time, the steersman was shouting in a furious cadence, and the four church guardsmen in the prow, helmets glinting even in the low light, had their hands on sword hilts.
“Doss!” she screamed. “Get a bow! Shoot them!”
“A bow?” His reply was incredulous, half drowned by the noise of the flapping sails and the churning waves. “Who by Fengreth do you think I am?”
Frantic, Maer turned in time to watch as the soldier at the very front, bearded and gap-toothed, tugged his sword from its scabbard, waved it at her, and ordered her to stand her ground.
God above, Maer thought, for she’d never seen a sword drawn, not in anger, not with lethal intent, they’re really coming to kill me.
A last-moment wave spun the landing craft, leaving its prow and not its starboard gunnels adjacent to the Southwind, and delaying any attempt to board. Maer, desperate, found a pile of fishing net at her feet, and she lugged it into her arms and hurled it at the guardsmen. Had the net been any larger, she’d have managed no more than to drop it over the side, but luck was with her: it was a spare, and not full size. It landed directly atop the nearest of the four Devoted, and he stumbled into his companions, arms up and struggling to free himself. The landing craft glanced off the Southwind’s port side before any of its occupants could recover long enough to grab hold, and at the same moment, a friendlier wind at last filled the supplies boat’s sails. With a lurch, the Southwind slid away, aiming with purpose toward the mouth of the cove, and leaving the rowers in its wake.
Doss appeared at Maer’s shoulder. “Well done,” he said. “But. Out of the frying pan…”
Ahead, the open ocean was spilling through the gap with a hurricane’s fury. As the Southwind surged closer, Maer had the impression they were making for the base of a choppy, broken waterfall.
“What are our chances?” It was Doss who spoke, to Varney. Maer hadn’t heard the wavereader arrive. No surprise; it was hard to hear much over the surf.
Varney’s every word was resigned. Darkness or no, Maer could tell he was pale as a salt lick. He said, “If we could make it to open ocean, we’d be all right. It’s not windy enough for really big swells. But by open ocean, I mean a mile out, maybe more.” He shot a meaningful, fed-up look toward Sister Blue. “This close in, as long as she’s in the sky, we won’t last long.”
Doss glanced aft, and Maer could feel him recalculating, considering surrender.
“There’s a second cove,” she said, terrified that he might at any moment drop sail and turn the boat around. “The other side of the Spur. If we could make that…”
“No straight way. Too many rocks. But I’ve done it rowing, on my own. Can’t be more than a few hundred yards.”
The two sailors exchanged a look, and Doss drew a long breath. “Can we last that long?”
Varney didn’t answer.
“Well, then. Maer, get below.”
“But I can help! I at least want to see––!”
“Maer, I told you once. There’s one captain on a ship, and only one. Get. Below.”
After taking one last look at the crashing waves––so close now they were soaking her with spray––she set her jaw and raced for the hold. Down the steep wooden stairs she went, and just as her feet touched the floorboards, the Southwind slammed into the first breaker, and Maer, in near total darkness, went flying. She got her hands up in time, but even so, the shock of landing (against what, she didn’t know) stunned her. Before she could even think about regaining her feet, a second wave hit from the side, and she rolled, running into a chair that banked away from her and vanished in the dark.
The only thing she could see was the entrance to the hold, a sort of square, half-lit from above and with a few steps visible below it. She tried to use that to get her bearings, but then water came pouring through in a foaming rush, and as she scrambled to get out of its way, a third wave socked the boat from its opposite side, and she cracked her head hard, blinked once in what surely would have been comical dismay had she been able to see herself, and collapsed to the floor.
Vashear woke to find himself facing a sheet of hot, playful flame. He felt sore all over, and dizzy. Where in the Circle was he? It was incredibly warm, boiling, even, and he was lying on his side, and there was a man sprawled ahead of him, a man now being licked by the flames but not moving. A man not in full armor, but with shoulder plates and a sagging shirt of shiny chain, the ceremonial kind. Vashear thought about this. If the man wasn’t moving, and he was on fire––which he most definitely was––then he must be dead. He was fairly sure that he himself would move in a hurry if he were on fire––and then it occurred to him, in a woozy, distant way, that he would catch fire if he didn’t shift himself, and quickly.
He propped himself on one elbow and groaned. His upper shoulder, his right, didn’t feel good at all. He rotated his head––God, had he ever had such a headache?––and gave his shoulder and arm a proper inspection. What he saw left him nauseous and frightened. He’d been gashed to the bone with something, something sharp, and he was bleeding freely. In fact, now that he was focused, he could feel that his entire chest and abdomen were wet, warm, and sticky. Blood was pooling beneath him, and as he blinked, more blood flowed from his temple down over his right eye.
Been in a fight, he decided. And apparently he hadn’t won.
The flames, nudged by a sudden wind, crawled over the corpse ahead of him and dropped like waving dancers to the floorboards. Vashear scooted backward, then thought to look behind. More flames. He was in a round room, good-sized, with wreckage and bodies strewn all across it. It was sickening, too macabre to let each fresh image take hold in his mind. It was his first scene of real carnage, and totally unexpected. The only reasons senators employed guards were to ward off crazy folk or help deal with unexpected accidents: runaway mulecarts and the like. Actual fighting, actual battles, these were not supposed to be in the cards. On days when his mind was clear, when he wasn’t surrounded by death and fire, he knew he’d been given his post––a great honor in theory––almost entirely for his extraordinary good looks.
He coughed, spat blood and phlegm, and tried to get his bearings. He had the sense that he was high up, well above the ground, but it was hard to be sure, and the stink of burning hair was disorienting. The roof seemed to be open, but that, too, was on fire––a section of it, little left but weakened embers, suddenly tore away and came crashing down––and roiling smoke raced skywards through the gap. Someone had strung a jet black curtain across the room, a very heavy material, but the last of that was going up in flames, and beyond was a stunningly bright light, a light that thankfully was aimed away from him, out to sea.
It all came back, the memories like beating wings, like bats shooting out of a cave, pelting him in the face. He was on the Spur, in the Beacon Tower. He and the senator and all the rest, they’d been staring at Sister Blue, and just as he’d gotten his first proper look through the Great Spyglass, Mother Sand had––
Mother Sand. He swallowed, remembering. God above, where was Davleen?
He scrambled up, searching, frantic. There was the senator, sprawled out, her white robes just now catching fire, a horrible wound through her midsection and blood everywhere. He shook her anyway, flipped her over by the shoulder. No use. There was no one left to wake.
He understood then that he wasn’t meant to be alive, either. They’d left him for dead, and no wonder. They’d attacked her, the two Devoted, and he’d stepped in to defend, as he was sworn to do. He’d gotten in one good strike, but then––nothing. He put a hand to the side of his head and felt not just matted blood and hair but an alarming weakness above his ear, a soft spot that depressed horribly under his probing fingers. The bastards had staved in his skull!
And yet he lived.
His amazement was so total that it froze him in place, fire and all. He’d have to file a report, the one report that no senatorial guard ever wanted to file. Death of a senator. Death of a senator in his charge. He’d have to name names, describe the scene, explain that one of the Most Devout had ordered––unthinkable!––that a senator and all her clerks, not to mention civilians, be slaughtered. And then he’d have to report that he’d drawn his weapon, that he’d put it to use, that he’d almost certainly killed the dead man behind him. Reports, reports. There’d be no end to it.
The flames at the ocean edge of the room blazed higher and caught, at last, the phosporock and oil that powered the Beacon Lamp. With a crazed fizzing, a sound like a thousand bees exploding, the entire lamp flared into a brilliant conflagration, a localized brightness greater than any Vashear had ever imagined. He shielded his eyes as best he could and leaped for the stairs. His aim was true, but his balance was off, and the steps, slippery with oozing blood, offered no purchase; he skidded, fought to stay upright, and tumbled off the stairs into space.
In the instant that he left the solidity of the steps, he had two thoughts: why hadn’t the keeper ever put up a rail on her crazy curling staircase, and what would it feel like to die of falling from a great height?
The answer to the second question flew toward him at speed, and it was red, red and looming, and then proved to be red and soft. With a whumping noise that billowed sheets in all directions, he landed face-first in a hay-stuffed bed.
Soft the bed was, but he screamed anyway, and if his shoulder had had a voice, it would have screamed far louder. The pain that shot through him was so intense it refused to be isolated; it was simply everywhere, from tip to toe, all at once. He gasped, struggled for consciousness, and failed. Everything, for an instant, went black.
But then he was back, alive despite everything, and screaming all over again: the second floor was on fire, too, and so was his left boot. The flames burning through the leather had woken him on reaching his skin.
He rolled across the bed sheets, cocooning his boot until he’d smothered the fire, and trying to avoid the other half of the bed, which was itself ablaze.
Time to get out, out of the tower––and no more falling down. Time now to think about himself, not the bodies upstairs, not the whys and wherefores, not the million and one questions he hoped to live long enough to ask. Up, up! He urged himself to action though his legs felt like logs, his feet like andirons, and the pain in his shoulder was so acute, he thought he’d surely be sick.
But he held his lurching stomach in check. He made it around the first wall of flame, and dodged a second, but then another chunk of ceiling gave way, and it came crashing down the staircase, rolling and tumbling and shooting out sparks. Time to go, and fast, but as he gazed down the twist of the stair to the kitchen, the bottom seemed to zoom away in a caprice of sudden vertigo. He staggered, flailed for a handhold, righted himself. Down, he muttered, though whether he spoke aloud he never knew. Down!
One foot, one step. One foot, one step.
Nearly at the bottom.
Then the entire second floor ceiling crashed inward, melted from above by the blazing mound of phosphorock. Vashear hurled himself to the kitchen flags, yelling and flailing. As the upstairs rooms detonated in a sudden fireball, he flung himself out the door, rolled onto the grass, and ran. He nearly darted right off the nearest edge of the Spur, but caught himself at the last moment, turned southwest instead (the ship was not an option) and did his best to run for his life. Running it was surely not––he weaved and stumbled like an arthritic bear ordered to perform hind-leg tricks––but it was enough. He left the flames behind, and followed the dip of the Spur first down into its saddle, then up, up toward the moors.
Bandages, he thought, just before he passed out. He lay in a cleft between two friendly boulders, and had no memory of arriving there. He touched his sticky shoulder, explored his dripping head. Bandages. It seemed certain that if he didn’t patch himself up soon, he’d very likely bleed to death.
How did one manage to make a bandage? Or use them? How best to splint a ruined shoulder?
Bandages. Maybe in the market, come morning?
With only Sister Blue for company, Vashear slept.
Maer woke to find herself lying in half-darkness in a sloshing flood of salt water. A lantern had been hung from a hook, and by its light, she could see she was still in the Southwind’s hold. Somebody was bailing, chucking water out a porthole window one wooden bucket-load at a time. Whoever it was had his back to her, but she thought it might be Doss.
It wasn’t. As she rose onto her elbows, Felson gave her a fierce look, as if she were to blame for something horrible. He said, “Alive, are you? Thought maybe you’d drowned.”
She shook her head. “No. Where are we?”
“Your precious second cove.” He went back to bailing.
She sat up, holding her arms away from her body to try to shake off the water, but her clothes were saturated. She dripped like a sponge.
Rising carefully, her legs unsteady, Maer made her way to the stairs, clutching every handhold she could find along the way. Her whole head felt bruised, as if she’d been punched repeatedly, and she thought she’d never been so dizzy in her life. Somehow, she made it up the steps and out on deck. Yes, she was in the southern cove, larger than the landing cove, but so steep-walled that no one had ever attempted to build a wharf or route a staircase. Sister Blue was still visible, barely, on the northeast horizon, and although the Southwind was still being tossed back and forth, its motion no longer felt out of place, violently exceptional. The winds had abated to a breath, and there was every chance that by morning, the cove’s waters would be smooth as glass.
She spotted Cullen in the limited rigging, stitching up a torn sail with a whalebone needle and seal-sinew thread, and there, in the prow, sat Doss, balanced on the gunnels and staring with a vacant look at the departing Sister.
Maer went to him, cleared her throat, and said, “They won’t find us. They’ll think we sank, and even if not, they’ll assume you went back the way you came.”
Nodding, Doss said, “You do have it all figured out, don’t you?”
His lack of faith forced her to press on. “They’ll set sail for home, too, you know it. They’ve got no reason to round the Spur. No reason to even think there’s a harbor here.”
“Good to know,” he said, in a tone that suggested the exact opposite. He made no move to look at her.
She swallowed, aware that his anger, his tension, were targeted and aimed, maybe entirely, at her. She said, more tentatively now, “I can tell you what happened, up there. I can tell you what they saw.”
“Or you can shut up, and stop speaking.”
For the first time since Mother Sand had spat out her lethal orders, Maer felt tears rise. She shook; she shivered.
“What I saw,” she began, then checked herself. What had she seen? Nothing. It was what she’d heard that was so damning, so cursed. Life, intelligent life, civilized life, there was life on Sister Blue. Farms, cities! And again she heard the panicky hissing of Mother Sand, “Devoted, kill them. Kill them all.”
Why did Sister Blue matter? Why did those unreachable neighbors matter so much?
Her thoughts winged to the Spur’s little temple, hers to maintain, a site she’d last visited perhaps two days before, although it now seemed like years. It had been built beneath a clean, dry overhang of rock, inside of which some keeper from time out of mind had set the Twins, the rough clay figures of the Man and the Woman, each standing in the shape of an X, arms up and out, legs splayed, and conjoined at foot and hand. She remembered, too, the words of the prayer she’d offered, a stock opening known to all throughout the Circle Seas and the Six Lands. We thank you, Lord, we who are made in your image, we who are your only children, we who are your imperfect gift to all creation…
The words, even unspoken, stuck in her throat. In a flash, she understood.
Even though she hadn’t uttered a sound, Doss turned and got a look at her. “What?” he demanded. “What by God is wrong now?”
“The mail pouch,” Maer said, her voice quavering. “Is it on board? Tell me we didn’t leave it in the hut.”
“The mail pouch? Fengreth, girl, what’s got into you?”
“We have to deliver that mail. We have to read it!”
“Oh, we have to read other people’s mail, hey?”
“Elsbeth was trying to tell others, people who wouldn’t be able to see, I’m sure of it!”
“Where is it?”
He slapped her, not hard enough to knock her down, but hard enough to stagger her, and she froze, one hand to her stinging face, more surprised than hurt. Doss rose, fuming, glaring.
“You weren’t worth it,” he said, and he spat onto the deck. “Not one bit.”
“We almost went down once, twice, three times. I thought we were all lost, every one of us. And look around you, little Maer of the Spur, Maer of the Beacon. You can hear Felson, you passed him on the way up, and there’s Cullen, doing the best he can with that sail. But do you see Varney? Do you see my wavereader?”
She quailed. She didn’t have to look around to know she wouldn’t see Varney, that no one would ever see Varney again unless the sea, for its own inscrutable amusement, saw fit to roll his body ashore.
“I’m down a man,” Doss went on, bending low to set his face right against hers. “Thanks to you, I’ve lost my wavereader, and if you’re wrong about your priest, and that boat full of church guard prigs––if they do come looking––I’ll have lost the rest of my crew, too, and very likely myself. So before you go yapping anymore about the mail, understand me. You weren’t. Worth it.”
Far out to sea, Sister Blue kissed the horizon, journeying on, spinning away, readying herself for another two years of sunlit, starlit absence. Maer, watching her make her exit, found herself whispering, inaudible even to herself, “We thank you, Lord, we who are made in your image, we who are your only children…”
“What’s that?” Doss was demanding, as if from an infinite distance, some place far too removed to worry much about. “What by all the Circle Seas are you mumbling?”
A secret, Maer thought, though she didn’t say so aloud. She knew a special, dangerous secret, and soon (if she had anything to say about it, if she could work up the courage––if, if, if) so would others. The whole world, if possible. And she’d begin with those to whom the keeper had written, the names in the mail pouch. They would hear the secret first, and with luck, one of them would help her. One of them would help her know next what to do.
What other choice did she, or they, have?
End Chapter Two
Read the third installment of In the Wake Of Sister Blue here.
Mark Rigney has published three stories in the Black Gate Online Fiction library: ”The Trade,” “The Find,” and “The Keystone.” Tangent called the tales “Reminiscent of the old sword & sorcery classics… once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I highly recommend the complete trilogy.”
Away from Black Gate, he is the author of the supernatural quartet, The Skates, Sleeping Bear, Check-Out Time, and Bonesy, all published by Samhain and featuring his semi-dynamic duo of Renner & Quist. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Unlikely Story, Betwixt, Black Static, The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review, Realms of Fantasy, Witness, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Talebones, Not One Of Us, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and many more. In other work, Rigney is the author of the plays Ten Red Kings, Acts of God and Bears, winner of the 2012 Panowski Playwriting Competition, as well as the non-fiction book Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets and a Classic American Musical (Gallaudet). Two collections of his stories (all previously published by various mags and ‘zines) are available through Amazon, Flights of Fantasy, and Reality Checks. His author’s page at Goodreads can be found HERE, and his website is markrigney.net.