The Black Ship

The Black Ship

Diana Pharaoh Francis

October 2014 $16.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-5-461

Book 2 of The Crosspointe Novels

 
Our PriceUS$16.95
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

Back Cover Copy

Banned from the sea by a vindictive master pilot and cast out of Crosspointe’s Pilot Guild, Thorn believes his life is over—until he’s conscripted to serve aboard the rogue ship Eidolon, which is pitch black, a shadow in the night, and sails with an unknown purpose.

Thorn finds himself pilot to a mutinous, wreck-cursed crew, taking orders from an insane captain, and battling not only the terrifying magic of the sea, but also a traitor to whatever secret mission the Eidolon serves. The saboteur is desperate to stop the black ship from making port even if that means killing every soul aboard.

Certain his kidnapping and duty on the black ship is no coincidence, Thorn must find a way to survive long enough to get the answers he needs. Who destroyed his life?And why?

 

Diana Pharaoh Francis has published Trace of Magic, The Horngate Witches series, The Crosspointe Chronicles, and The Path trilogy. She holds a Ph.D. in Victorian literature and literary theory, and an MA in fiction writing. She’s been teaching for more than fifteen years, and now writes full time as well as teaching for the M.F.A. in Creative Writing program at Western Colorado State University.

 


Reviews

 

"A terrific high seas adventure the equal of any C.S. Forester swashbuckler.” – SciFiGuy.ca

"4 Stars. It’s a high-seas adventure with descriptions so vivid you may feel seasick while reading the second book in the Crosspointe series, which also works as a stand-alone.” – RT Book Reviews

 


Excerpt

 

Chapter 1

SYLBRAC ROSE EARLY. It mattered not that he’d been out late the previous night at the Blood Oak, his favorite tavern on the docks. It was a place no other Pilot would ever set foot inside, which Sylbrac considered its main attraction. Nor did it matter that he’d put away the better part of three bottles of wine all on his own. He disliked slovenly habits and kept a disciplined schedule regardless of his indulgences. He dressed with the aid of his valet and ate a sturdy break­fast of eggs, bacon, buttered potatoes, and strong cream tea.

As he ate, Fitch purred in his lap, gleefully kneading sharp claws into his thigh with the smug superiority that came with knowing there would be no retaliation. Sylbrac manfully ignored the pain. Interfering with the black cat’s fun would only result in a snarling bite or bloody scratch across the back of his hand. Nor was that the worst of it. Fitch would then compound her revenge by shredding Sylbrac’s favorite waistcoat.

After breakfast, he went for his usual ramble along the headland, leaving Fitch curled up on a cashmere blanket before the fire. He walked quickly, nearly running at times, up the steep path and along the edge of the cliffs. He loved the briny scent of the sea, the whistle of the wind in the twisted pines along the shore, and the sibilant siren song of the water.

The sun was a glowing lemon peel, gilding the black waves gold. He climbed up onto a jutting tor. The wind cleared the last vestiges of his head­ache. He breathed deeply, gazing out at the horizon. Frustration coiled with anticipation in his intestines. The excruciatingly long month of Chance was over, and riggers were scrambling to get ships ready for sailing. He’d get his assignment within a few days and would lay on deck before the month of Forgiveness was half over.

His fingers flexed. It couldn’t come soon enough. He squatted on the jut of rock, his gaze flicking to the Pale. The string of wards protecting Crosspointe hung like fairy lights a quarter of a league offshore. They were entirely green now, the color of new grass, the color of safety. Not too long ago, they and the identical string of tide wards beneath the waves had burned bitter blue. The twin strands of wards protected the island from sylveth, a majickal substance that unraveled in tangled knots throughout the black wa­ters of the Inland Sea. The smallest drop of sylveth could turn anybody or anything into spawn. From rope to children’s toys to spoons—anything could transform into hideous creatures culled from the nightmares of the insane. They were alike in only their mindless hunger.

Hordes of spawn had been known to raven through the waves and forge onto the land like seething masses of maggots picking clean a carcass. They’d keep eating right up until a knacker gang wearing special protective gear was sent to kill or capture them, or until they were eaten by the even more frighten­ing monsters inhabiting the depths of the sea.

But the kiss of sylveth was not always a curse. Some lucky few were granted gifts, as slight as beauty and as vast as... as vast as stepping out among the stars.

He drew a deep breath, smelling the brine, the wet of the clouds and a faint biting tang of wild majick. The wards stifled his ability to feel the waves and the ever-shifting landscape below the waters, the senseless twisted cur­rents, the massive Koreions and the gluttonous vescies, and the tantalizing curls of sylveth.

Sylbrac rubbed his calloused hand hard over his jaw. He’d been too long ashore, watching the Pale fade from green to blue and back to green. For a few terrifying hours it had shut down altogether, though he’d been entirely unaware of it at the time. During Chance, the violent winter storms whipped the sylveth out of the waves and into the air, turning the wards blue. The only safe place was inside the Pale. Everyone took refuge on Crosspointe until Chance passed and the sylveth settled back down into the water in thick, heavy skeins. Only then did the sea once again become navigable. For a special few, anyhow.

Though the Inland Sea was still incredibly dangerous to sail, a good Pilot evened out the odds considerably, able to sense the rise of hull-ripping knuckle­bone weirs, the opening of boreholes, and the sudden uprisings of mountains from the depths. With a hand on the majickal compass installed on every ship, a good Pilot could read every chaotic change in the seabed and the waters and direct his ship on safer headings. Sylbrac was an exceptionally talented Pilot. But he was still dirt-bound, and with each passing moment, his hunger to be free of the obdurate island and return to the sea where he be­longed intensified. The need was becoming painful. Given the choice, he’d gladly spend his entire life on the waves and never set foot on the ground again.

The craving swelled and became blinding. For a moment he swayed for­ward. He caught himself with one hand and then pushed to his feet and climbed down off the tor.

He was too restless to return home, and instead walked down into Blacksea.

The town girdled a forested cove. It was picturesque, with exclusive shops and quaint whitewashed houses made of brick and timber. Large manor houses shouldered through the trees in rising ranks along the low ridge sur­rounding the town. Pilot homes. Below, a dozen coastal ketches lay at anchor in the harbor. They were painted white with crimson striping down the rails and wales. Banners floated from the tops of the masts, while crews bustled on deck, readying for sail. Smaller pleasure boats filled the marina. None had compasses or Pilots and none of them ever went beyond the Pale.

The air was redolent of wood smoke and baking bread, and the damp wet from last night’s storm. The scents of pine, tar, and salt overlaid it all. A dog nosed along the edge of the road and a pair of squirrels squabbled beneath a leafless lilac bush. Sylbrac strode briskly. His gaze slid over the shadowy hol­lows in the doorways and between the storefronts with their white window frames, blue shutters, and gingerbread trim. Nothing seemed out of place. His gaze darted up alleys. He zigzagged slightly to allow himself to glance obliquely back along the street behind him. No one followed. Not that he expected it, but the habits of survival were not soon forgotten.

Just beyond the Exchange, Sylbrac turned up Petal Avenue. At the end was a boxy rust brick building with white shutters and doors. Over the doors hung a wooden cutlass with the words for bravery and honor carved deeply into the wooden blade. A brass plate beside the door said merely torsby and sons. Sylbrac went eagerly inside.

He entered into a wide, shallow foyer. The walls were painted green with a wood wainscoting the color of molasses. Three of them were lined with racks containing hundreds of swords of every design. The last contained daggers. Torsby was a master sword maker, the finest in Crosspointe. People came from all parts of the Inland Sea to purchase his blades, and he was eccentrically choosy about whom he allowed to do so. Sylbrac was privileged to own three of Torsby’s swords and five of his daggers.

He went through the archway on the far wall, down a wide corridor into the spacious gallery beyond.

Broad windows overlooking the winter skeleton of an overgrown garden ran the length of the back wall. The gallery was divided into three sections by low barriers topped by brass rails. On the far right and left were two small enclosures, each thirty feet across. Within them, three circles of different sizes had been painted on the floor in yellow, each divided into quarters. Round racks of wooden and iron practice swords stood in the corners. Beside them were bins of padded and unpadded cross-staves and a variety of targets. On the walls were rows of hooks holding gambesons of varying sizes. Also hang­ing on the walls were hobbles, wrist, waist, and ankle weights, and an assortment of other training blocks and tackle. Two pails of powdered clam­shells hung on posts on either side of the practice areas and a rack of small towels circled the posts above.

The central section was far larger than the other two, being four times as wide. It also contained a series of concentric practice circles painted different colors, but was otherwise the same in appearance. The place smelled of bees­wax, sweat, and leather.

Two women sparred in one of the smaller enclosures. They’d been at it a while and were breathing heavily. Sweat gleamed on their cheeks and fore­heads. Will, Torsby’s youngest son, poked one of the women in the thigh with his staff, then rapped the other on the calf, all the while rumbling out instruc­tions.

"Fair morn, young Thorn.” The elder Torsby sat on a bench against the wall, running a soft cloth over the blade lying flat across his thighs. His griz­zled hair hung in lank curls to his shoulders, his bald pate covered by a round leather cap. His doughy nose was red, his cheeks rough with stiff gray bristles. He eyed Sylbrac sardonically from beneath his shaggy brows. "Been expectin’ ye.”

Sylbrac’s black brow lifted. "Were you?”

"Aye. In a foul mood, too. Looks like I was right.”

"Been reading tea leaves, have you? Does this mean you’ll be putting up a booth at market day and start telling fortunes?”

"None such. ’Tis merely that ye be as predictable as the comin’ of Chance. The Ketirvan begins today. Truth be told, I expected ye afore dawn. Grind off a bit of the bitter edge.”

Sylbrac’s lips pulled flat. At the beginning of each new season, the Pilots’ Guild congregated under the guise of conducting the business of the guild. In reality, it was a vast chasm of putridness, with an overabundance of posturing, backbiting, conspiracy, and scheming. Inevitably, he’d end the session with a fiery pain in his gut and an insatiable urge to kill someone. Usually more than one someone. All told, there was nothing Sylbrac dreaded more—not even being trapped between a gale wind and a knucklebone weir to the lee. At least the latter was a quick death, and far less painful.

He removed his outer wool coat and his frock coat, loosened his collar, and rolled up his sleeves. He stretched his arms over his head and bent from side to side. Torsby continued to polish the blade, chuckling softly.

"I think your hair needs a trimming,” Sylbrac said, pretending to be irked at Torsby’s amusement. They’d known each other a long time and the other man wasn’t put off by Sylbrac’s notorious and persistent bad temper. "Per­haps a little off the eyebrows as well, old man.”

"Thorn, me boy, ye couldn’t scratch me ass if ye had ten swords and I had but one arm.”

"In that case, I’d think you’d stop calling me Thorn.”

"And call ye by that blasphemous name of yours? I’d be struck dead. ’Sides, it suits ye better. Never met another such pain in the ass as yerself. Prickly bastard. Thorn in the side, thorn in the foot. But that has nothing to do with how ye swing a sword.”

Sylbrac laughed. Most new Pilots swiftly developed inordinately swelled heads that never deflated with time and experience. Their arrogance and hauteur were products of the lack of market competition. No one else could navigate the Inland Sea with any degree of safety. Without Pilots, Crosspointe would wither and die. A fact that made them, quite literally, priceless. But it wasn’t as if a person became a Pilot through any innate virtue of his own. It was merely the whim of the gods.

Every day Sylbrac gave thanks for the unbelievable luck that had changed his life so abruptly, opening a door on a world of unimaginable beauty and wonder. So instead of selecting an unpronounceable, self-important name from the venerated dead language of the ancestral Ekidey as was Pilot tradi­tion, he’d chosen to borrow the pieces of his name from the sea god Braken and from sylveth, the blood of the Moonsinger Meris. Blasphemous it might be, and ironically enough, most of the guild thought it was terribly arrogant as well. For Sylbrac, it was a gesture of gratitude, a constant prayer of thanksgiv­ing for the gift he’d been given. That his choice infuriated his fellow Pilots was a bonus. He relished every opportunity to prod at their superior smugness.

Still smiling, he unbuckled his sword belt and drew his blade, tossing the scabbard down onto the bench before pacing around to the other side of the circle. He scooped up some of the clamshell powder.

"Shall we see what you have to teach me today, old man?”

Despite his years, Torsby was spry. In fact, he was downright quick and nimble. Within minutes Sylbrac was sweating. They went back and forth, swords flashing and clanging in rapid staccato. Torsby kept up a running commentary about Sylbrac’s form, jeering at his pupil’s growing breathless­ness and stiff, jerky moves.

"Gotta give up that soft livin’, boy. You’re turning into a loblolly. Stop pounding like ye was beating the forge with a hammer. Ye know better. When you’re in the circle with a blade in your hand, your head can’t be anywhere else.”

The reproof stung, the more so because it was true. Sylbrac laid in harder, forcing his mind to focus. Soon all thoughts of the upcoming Ketirvan faded like smoke in the wind and the nettles of tension that had been plaguing him since he’d become dirt-bound unwound from his muscles.

"Aye, there ye go,” was Torsby’s only comment. They sparred without pause for well over a glass. At the end, Sylbrac was panting heavily, but his body felt fluid, invigorated. He returned Torsby’s salute, touching his sword to his forehead before stepping out of the practice circle. He wiped his face with a towel before dipping a tin cup into the water bucket at the end of the bench and drinking deeply. The water was flavored with mint and lemon. He gulped a second cup.

"You’ll careen yerself if ye keep drinking like that when you’re so heated,” Torsby commented, sipping from his own cup.

"Better a bellyache from this than the Ketirvan.”

"Ye’ll regret it when ye have both.”

Sylbrac sighed, dropping the cup into the bucket with a splash. "There’s no way around it. I am hulled. I shall have to attend and sit through the end­less hours of talking and saying less than nothing. By Braken, couldn’t they just cut out my eyes and tongue, lop off my legs, and toss me to the dogs like the Jutras? It would be infinitely more merciful.”

"Pilots’ Guild ain’t interested in mercy. Specially to a thorn like you. And whose fault be that? I expect ye’ll be takin’ the cat again?”

"Most definitely. Fitch wouldn’t miss a moment.”

Torsby shook his head, his mouth puckering. "Ye invite trouble. Sur­prised ye never been tossed overboard, what with the cat, not to mention that whistling ye insist on.”

"Can’t sail the Inland Sea without a Pilot. No matter how much you don’t like him. Besides, there’s nothing unlucky about Fitch, and whistling is just music, not a summons for the wights of the world.”

"Not a sailor on this island as would agree with ye.”

"They don’t have a choice, do they?”

Torsby eyed him steadily. Sylbrac flushed and looked away.

"It’s little wonder you’re so much alone.”

Sylbrac stiffened. Bleakness suffused him. Torsby was more right than he knew. It was less than two months since Jordan’s death. His brother’s murder had left Sylbrac completely alone. No family... at least none he would will­ingly claim. He could never forget they were blood, but by the gods how he wanted to. As for friends... aside from Fitch, Torsby was the closest thing to one he had.

Sylbrac’s lip curled in silent scorn. He’d made little effort to see Jordan in the past seventeen seasons. Most of their infrequent encounters happened accidentally when they were both in port over Chance. Sylbrac had made even less effort to make friends. He reaped what he sowed. Yet he couldn’t help the ache in his gut at losing Jordan. He felt strangely adrift, as if his brother had been anchoring him through the years without Sylbrac ever realizing it, and now the anchor chain was snapped.

He sheathed his sword and buckled on his belt. "I choose to be alone. Peo­ple annoy me.”

"Do they, now? And ye bein’ such a lapdog. Ye’d think they’d cuddle right on up t’ ye.”

Sylbrac snorted. "The sea’s enough for me.”

"Some men like a tickle and a tumble from time to time.”

"As do I. But there’s no need to worry. I’m a Pilot. It’s easy enough to find a skirt to twitch when I want one.”

"Then it be a fine life ye got. No naggin’ missus, no bawlin’ kiddies, nothin’ at all to disturb your sleep or aggravate your meals. Come home to peace and ever-lovin’ quiet.”

"A fine life,” Sylbrac agreed, but the burn in his gut intensified.

He bade Torsby farewell and returned home to bathe and dress before the Ketirvan. He couldn’t stop thinking of Jordan, try as he might to shut those thoughts safely away. He couldn’t remember the last words they’d spo­ken to each other. It had been too long ago.

By the time he reached home, his stomach was churning. He was only a bare step away from sinking into the quagmire of his past—a past he’d worked hard to scour forever from his mind. Jordan’s death had ripped open the levees that kept that past at bay. He felt exposed and raw. The fluid relaxa­tion he’d achieved at Torsby’s had evaporated and his mood had turned foul. He dismissed his valet with a snarl, throwing off his clothing and scrubbing himself vigorously in lukewarm water before yanking on his formal clothing.

He donned a close-fitting black suit made of dosken and silk. It was light and easy to move in and bore no embroidery or embellishments. The jet buttons rose up to close tightly around his throat and he wore no cravat. He drew on a short padded leather coat—a monkey jacket like most sailors wore. The arms were ringed with wide silver bands etched with the serpentine shapes of Koreions. Over that, he wore a sleeveless black robe. It was loose and flowing and shone with a silvery iridescence, like the moon striking the black waves of the Inland Sea. He stamped into his leather boots, tucking a stiletto into the top of the left one, and shoving a dagger into the small of his back. Weapons weren’t allowed into the Ketirvan, but Sylbrac had spent years running wild on the docks. He knew better than to trust anyone and never went anywhere without a blade of some sort.

He glanced in the mirror, and yanked a comb through his brown locks. De­spite his efforts, they fell over his forehead in an untidy mop, the back of his hair hanging several inches below his collar. He rubbed at the bristles casting a scruffy shadow along his jaw. He’d be damned if he’d shave. He slipped a heavy gold ring on his forefinger. It was shaped like a quatrefoil with a sylveth compass rose in the center. It was his official Pilot’s signet. He shoved the matching brooch to the back of his sock drawer.

When he was ready to go, he poured himself a glass of red brandy and gulped it down in a single swig. He poured another and went to collect Fitch.

He settled the little black cat on his shoulder. She dug her claws in for bal­ance and wrapped her tail around his neck. Sylbrac scratched her ears. She butted against his hand, purring. The sound made his stomach unclench fractionally. He’d found her almost exactly a year ago. A couple of stray dogs had cornered her on a dock, and though she’d been just a kitten, she’d not given ground. Eventually she’d run them off, coming away with hardly a scratch. From the moment she’d walked away shaking her paws in disgust at the dog drool slicking her fur, Sylbrac had known she was a kindred spirit. He’d kept her with him ever since.

"Are you ready?” he asked.

Her purr grew louder. He sighed heavily and departed for the Ketirvan.

The guildhall was located on the east side of Blacksea, requiring Sylbrac to cross through town. He took a route along the docks. The air was sharp and the wind slapped hard. Regrettably, the cold cleared the murk of the brandy from his head. Fitch bumped her cheek against his jaw. He reached up to pet her.

He nodded greetings to the sailors he passed. Most Pilots didn’t bother to notice they were even alive, unless and until they were forced to do the job of protecting them at sea. But Sylbrac respected them. He’d beenthem, not all that long ago, before his gift... happened. Sailors lived hard, brave lives, most coming to an abrupt end in the black waves of the sea. He liked their rough honesty. He liked that they were too busy surviving to scheme and sell one another out. He liked that they spoke their minds and, when they were angry, they told you about it with their fists and shouts. He felt more at home among them than anywhere else.

Home. The idea of it sent a chill trickling down his spine. He remembered that last day, creeping out, a handful of coins in the pouch stuffed down in the toe of his boot, a small bundle on his back. It had all been stolen by nightfall, including every stitch of clothing he wore. He’d nearly died that night, and almost every night and day after for many seasons to come. But he had counted himself better off than Jordan, whom he’d left behind, knowing what must happen to him.

Guilt assailed Sylbrac. He had not let himself think about it, not since he’d run away, and not since Jordan’s death. Now he couldn’t seem to stop himself.

A little over five sennights ago, Sylbrac had returned to Crosspointe. He’d arrived just a few days before the Chance storms rose, before the Pale vanished and the majicars—despite years of saying they couldn’t possibly fix a broken Pale—rebuilt it in the blink of an eye. The pre-Chance storms had been terrible, and he had been so exhausted by the effort of getting the ship back in one piece that he’d slept several days away before he picked up a paper and learned of Jordan’s death. By then his brother had been dead for nearly two sennights.

The story was murky. Murdered for certain—there was no doubt about that. At first it had been blamed on Lucy Trenton. She was a royal brat—a niece of the king or some such—who had been working as a customs officer, thanks to the Chancery suit that had tied up all the royal family’s finances and forced most of the royal family to find their own means of support. She had been accused of smuggling blood oak, which was high treason. The newspa­pers claimed she’d killed Jordan because he was going to expose her. But when Captain Marten Thorpe had been convicted as an accomplice, Sylbrac knew there was at least as much falsehood in the story as truth. He’d sailed once with Thorpe. The man was a gambler and a rogue, but from the stories he’d told aboard ship and the few times Sylbrac had spoken to Jordan in recent seasons, he knew that the two were friends. It just wasn’t possible.

Then the story shifted again. A Jutras plot against the crown, and Jordan caught up in it. Lucy Trenton and Marten Thorpe framed and the plot discov­ered too late to save them from the Bramble. That story didn’t seem believa­ble either, though some said the snapping of the Pale was evidence. In the middle of it all, a storm-broken Jutras warship had limped into the harbor only days before the Pale fell. The story was possible.But there was no way to get to the truth. That’s what chewed his innards. How had Jordan become involved? Sylbrac was certain their parents had something to do with it. They had their fingers in everything on Crosspointe. Had one of their vicious little schemes gotten Jordan killed?

Murderous hate rose up in him. His fingers flexed. From the moment he’d read the newspaper accounts, he’d wanted to go confront them. Demand the truth. But years of running and hiding from them made him hesitate. They didn’t know he was a Pilot. His parents were devious and ruthless. They wanted him back, and if they couldn’t have him, they wanted to ruin him. No one escaped them. They’d found him twice before; he knew well enough what they might do. When it came to protecting their reputation, when it came to their family pride, they were willing to go to great lengths. Horrific lengths. Sylbrac couldn’t bring himself to risk it. Enough of the terrified boy who’d run from them still existed within to keep him silent.

Besides, even if he could go ask his father, even if he was willing to stand in front of that goat-cracking bastard again, it would be pointless; the lord chancellor was a skilled liar. As for his mother—Sylbrac would sooner trust a Chance storm than a viper like her.

Fitch bumped his jaw with her head and he scratched her ears, letting her purr calm his anger.

He turned off the road, climbing up along the headland, taking the cliff path through the trees. Below, the tide was rolling in, the strand thinning with every wash of waves. He broke into a jog, though whether to outrun his impo­tent rage or exorcise his depthless guilt, he wasn’t sure. Fitch hissed her pro­test in his ear and dug her claws deep into the padding of his jacket. He left the path, pushing up the hill through the rhododendron bracken and broom bushes that cluttered the trees.

He emerged just below the knob of a grassy hill, upon which perched the Dabloute. As always, he stopped, awe filling him. Carved from obsidian and alabaster, it looked like storm-whipped waves, rising high and falling, frozen in a timeless plunge. Sylbrac could almost believe that he would blink and the waves would finish dropping and be gathered back into the Inland Sea. There were no windows. The walls were cut so thin they were translucent. Seeing its magnificent beauty was enough to dispel his tangle of emotions about Jordan, at least for the moment.

He skirted around to the front of the Dabloute, feeling the tide rising higher. The Ketirvan would begin at the moment of high tide and the doors would be closed against latecomers. Much as he didn’t want to be here, nei­ther did Sylbrac want to be locked out. Guild law bound him and too much idiocy was likely to be written into the books if he wasn’t there to lend a voice of reason, or at least one of mulish obstruction.

The entrance of the guildhall was in the upper half of a spectacular sylveth compass rose. The rays rose like a sunburst fifty feet in the air. The edges of each were gilded and a fine filigree overlaid the diamond glitter of worked sylveth. Ironically, as dangerous as raw sylvethwas, once worked into solid form by a majicar, it was safe to touch. Above the compass points, twined in an erotic embrace, was a sculpture of Meris and Braken, white on black. Their naked limbs grappled together, though Sylbrac was never sure if they were cleaving lovingly to each other, or if Braken was clutching at Meris to prevent her from running off to Hurn, her lover. On the inside rim of the compass, etched deeply in flowing script, was the phrase "The path to becoming a Pilot is through the blood of Meris and breath of Braken.”

The entry into the Dabloute was through the center of the half compass. Pilots walked beneath in pairs and clusters, heads bent together, some laugh­ing, some arguing passionately, others silent and stern. Sylbrac ignored them, striding ahead. No one called out a greeting, but several saw Fitch and made angry exclamations. Sylbrac’s lips curved in a scythe-sharp smile.

The inside of the Dabloute was as fantastical as without. The corridors were sinuous, the rooms oddly shaped. The ceilings disappeared into skurls and ripples, the floors rising and falling in soft undulations. There were no carpets or tapestries, no paintings or curtains. Rather, every surface was carved into undersea shapes: knucklebones, Koreions, vada-eels, celesties, and more. The sunlight from outside made everything seem to waver and move as if pushed by waves. Softly glowing sylveth lights set in the floors bright­ened the shadows. As soon as he passed inside, Sylbrac felt a soothing wash of peace. The Dabloute was the next-best thing to actually being at sea.

He turned off from the main corridor, wanting a few minutes’ peace and quiet as he made his way to the Ketirvan. High tide was nearly fixed. The feeling was a fullness in the beat of his heart. He didn’t have much time. He hurried along, turning sideways at one point where the passage narrowed and before opening up widely. The walls were heavily rippled here, with clefts and nooks like undersea grottoes. Someone in a long blue cloak slid through the narrowed opening ahead of him. She didn’t look at him, merely brushing by with quick, hurried steps. He caught a glimpse of a tumble of red hair beneath the folds of her hood and smelled something that reminded him of wind and majick. He wondered where she was going with the Ketirvan about to begin, then promptly dismissed her, the rising tide pushing him to hurry.

He turned sideways and edged through the narrowed passage and began striding along. He halted abruptly when up ahead he heard the sound of raised voices. He took a step forward, and heard a sharp crack! followed by quick, angry footsteps.

The woman who stormed around the corner was short and heavy-boned. Her face was square, her skin coarse and tanned with years of exposure to weather. Her nostrils flared and red spotted her cheeks above a mouth made white by fury. The cuffs of her sleeves and the hem of her robe were edged with small silver compass roses with sylveth-drop centers. She was Eyvresia, the Pirena-elect. When she saw Sylbrac, she stopped short, her gaze flattening. More footsteps sounded behind her and she gathered her robe, darting past Sylbrac into one of the grotto nooks. She ground one white-knuckled fist against her lips, glaring back at him as if daring him to expose her.

Grains later, a man appeared around the corner. He hardly came to Sylbrac’s chin. His short, curly gray hair was wild-looking as if he’d been running his fingers through it. His still-black mustache and beard were clipped close, his brows set in a furious scowl. Black gossamer filaments like cracks in fine porcelain crisscrossed his eyes, only a few straying across the whites. Those marking Sylbrac’s eyes were heavier and more numerous, filling the whites of his eyes like a mass of tangled thread. The shorter man’s black robes were ridiculously ornate, weighted by compass roses stitched in gold thread, one covering each side of his chest from collarbone to hip, another on his back. Sylveth disks gleamed at the centers.

He stopped short when he saw Sylbrac, his mouth twisting. On his cheek was a scarlet imprint of a hand. Sylbrac grinned. What had Pirena Wildreveh said to make the Pirena-elect hit him?

"What are you doing here?”

As if he were manure someone had tracked in on his shoe. Sylbrac’s eyes narrowed as he reached up to stroke Fitch. Wildreveh’s gaze followed his hand and his mouth puckered as though he’d eaten a mouthful of salt. It was that snide expression that made Sylbrac step to block Eyvresia from view. She’d hit the bilge-sucking bastard, and so she’d earned a reward. Not that he ever needed an excuse to antagonize Wildreveh. He’d disliked him from the moment he’d first met him. Wildreveh was pompous, self-serving, and spite­ful. He reminded Sylbrac of his father, and everything he’d learned about Wildreveh over the years had only confirmed Sylbrac’s opinion. Their antago­nism was mutual.

"I’m on my way to the Ketirvan,” Sylbrac drawled, aware that his slow an­swer goaded the other man’s fury.

"Not with that cat, you aren’t.”

"Oh, but I am. She’s such a quiet thing, I doubt anyone will even notice her.”

It was a bald-faced lie. Everyone would notice her. Her presence would be like a scream in the night, like smoke in a darkened room. Little he could do would antagonize them more.

"I forbid it. I want her out of the Dabloute before her bad luck pollutes it completely. Now!”

One of Sylbrac’s brows flicked up. "I don’t believe you have such author­ity, Wildreveh.”

The other man’s jaw knotted. "I am Pirena of the guild. That’s all the au­thority I need.”

"I don’t think so,” Sylbrac said. He looked pointedly to Wildreveh’s cheek where Eyvresia’s handprint remained. "And anyway, you’re only Pirena until the end of Ketirvan. You’ve got no fangs to hurt me.”

The other man jerked back. His lips slid slowly apart in a death’s-head grin. His square, horsey teeth were stained brown and yellow. "Haven’t I? We shall see.” With that, he turned and marched away, his shoulders rigid.

Eyvresia stepped out of the grotto, watching him disappear. "I know you enjoy antagonizing your fellow Pilots, but was that wise?”

Sylbrac glanced down at her. "What can he do?”

She shook her head, frowning. "I think it would have been better to know the answer to that question before you pushed pins into him. But it is certain that whatever it is he can do, he will.” Her brow furrowed as she looked at Sylbrac. "Watch yourself. You’ve no friends here to cushion the blow.”

Sylbrac only shrugged. He wasn’t worried. He should have been.

 

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