Tremaine had been living in Cineth for more than a month now, and so far, none of her more pessimistic predictions had come to pass. She hadn't gotten anyone killed, not even Cletia; she hadn't added Ilias to her previously dismal record of broken relationships; and she hadn't been homesick for Vienne at all.
In fact, the moment she had stepped out of the circle taking Giliead, Ilias, and herself back to the Syrnai, it had felt like coming home, and her marriage to Ilias still felt that way too. It was all going so well that she had to stop herself from imagining ways to screw everything up.
Today, Tremaine was going to the Cineth market with Dyani, Gyan's foster daughter, and Calit, the boy she had either rescued or kidnapped from the Gardier. Dyani was cheerful company, and Calit was handy for carrying things, but also very good at looking waifish and underfed the minute they went near a stall selling something he liked to eat, which was everything. They got a lot of free food that way.
"What's the name for those red berries again?" she asked Dyani, poking through a huge jute bag of assorted herbs and dried berries. "The ones that sweeten tea?"
"Those are ennet," Dyani said, picking up little sacks of dried flowers and inspecting them critically. "I think they're out of season, but we can always use honey." Calit nodded enthusiastically.
The worst thing about Cineth so far was the lack of coffee. Tremaine had practically been living on coffee on the Ravenna and during those last unhappy weeks in Vienne, and it had taken some time for the shakes to subside. She was getting used to the various Syprian herbal teas, though. They didn't have the same quality of keeping her awake at all hours, but possibly that was a good thing.
It certainly helped her target practice. Her hands never shook, even after hours of aiming her sleek wooden crossbow at branches of an old olive tree in a field near the house. The crossbow had been Nicholas's parting gift, probably stolen from the Capidaran military, and it was definitely easier to handle than the big goatshorn Syprian bows, but she was already developing some impressive calluses.
They bought several kinds of dried flowers and herbs, and then wandered on to the jewelry stall. Shopping was a leisurely affair; the market was held every week, and since most people in Cineth grew, fished, or hunted much of their food themselves, at least half the market was given over to luxuries, rather than essentials.
"Are you going to buy Ilias more jewelry?" Dyani said, giggling when Tremaine gave her a mock glare. So far, Tremaine had bought something for Ilias almost every market day; she couldn't help it, Syprian jewelry was beautiful and exotic to her, not least when Ilias was wearing it. Or showing her his appreciation.
Tremaine nodded a greeting to the stallholder, a broad-shouldered woman with copper half-moons woven into her grey braids, and sifted a handful of carved wooden beads through her hand, enjoying the bumpy feel of them.
"Here, look!" Dyani held up a dark stone carved in the shape of a strange, sinuous animal, pierced at the top so it could be worn on a cord.
Tremaine held it up to the sun, and suddenly the dark stone was shot through with fire; now she could see the tiny veins of some kind of different mineral running through it, glittering a very bright green.
"It's beautiful," she said, impressed.
The stallholder smiled at her, the kind of smile you give to a customer who comes back every week, and said, "Beautiful, and rare. The Hisians carve it, but I don't know where they get the stone from. I give you fair warning: I won't get in another of these until after the winter storms, at best, and I sold the last one to Visolela."
Tremaine nodded, translating this information as 'not just expensive, but very expensive'.
"Maybe later," she told the stallholder, and regretfully laid the stone back in its wooden bowl; it would be a breach of manners to begin bargaining for something she probably couldn't afford. She had a reasonable amount of money at hand, but she wanted to lay in the last stores they needed for the coming winter, not spend it all on something inedible.
After her first few days in Cineth, Tremaine had figured out a way to both help out the Aelin and provide herself with some kind of income that didn't involve gutting fish. The Aelin had been working odd jobs at all hours, mostly in the harbor, to try and save enough money to get back to trading, and Tremaine had a handful of the gold coins from Coldcourt left, so she used them to buy the Aelin a ship: a fairly large trading vessel meant for long voyages, with beautifully painted eyes and indigo sails.
In return for her investment, the Aelin cut her in for a portion of their future trading profits. Tremaine had originally asked for five percent, but the Aelin had bargained her into ten, in a flagrant violation of their usual trading rules.
Some of their Syprian neighbors shook their heads over this business venture, especially the older folk who could recite an appallingly long list of ships that had gone down in some storm or been eaten by giant sea monsters, but none of those things had happened yet, either, and the Aelin had already made several successful voyages.
After the first time the Aelin ship, now named Boundless, returned to Cineth's harbor with a load of spices and dried grains, and the ship's crew triumphantly brought her her share, Tremaine realized that the older Aelin were infinitely relieved to have a trading relationship with her, and by extension with Giliead and Ilias, since they now belonged to her house. It had been wearing on them much more than she knew, to have been rescued and then provided with a house to live in, with no real way to repay such an immense obligation. Now things were on an even keel again.
Dyani helped Tremaine deal with the rest of the shopping while Calit worked his wiles in the tent selling berry tarts—Tremaine had given him enough coppers to buy three, but he came back with six—and then they carried their loot back to the house, where Obelin and several other of the older Aelin were hanging laundry in the atrium, singing a work song that involved a lot of rhyming and repetition.
The house was generally full of Aelin of all ages, as well as herself, Ilias, and Giliead, and Tremaine found herself enjoying the noise and bustle much more than she would have thought. It was like having a big extended family, but it lacked the acrimony and long, terrible silences that she associated with the concept.
It helped that the Aelin managed themselves without needing her input as the nominal head of the household, and that they had learned how to resolve conflicts incredibly well during their long, involuntary confinement. If they fought about something, it was a loud dust-up that lasted perhaps half an hour, after which they would reach a decision and be done with it. Ilias and Giliead seemed to deal with problems much the same way, except with more half-naked wrestling, which Tremaine already knew she enjoyed a lot.
She was used to being the odd one out, but here, she was much less noticeable than Giliead or Ilias. Being The Chosen Vessel or The One with the Curse Mark trumped The Woman from Another World every time. The Aelin, too, were adapting so fast they hardly looked different at all anymore.
It wasn't until that afternoon that trouble arrived, in the shape of a trader from Uthien village, where someone claimed to have seen a wizard.
"You should stay here," Giliead said. His sword and bow were already slung on his back, a leather sack full of provisions lay near at hand on the kitchen table, and his face was set like stone.
Ilias faced him, while Tremaine sat on one of the long wooden counters, watching them both. This fight had been brewing for a while; until now, Giliead had refused to discuss what they would do if another wizard showed up, which meant he was trying to avoid the issue. Some Chosen Vessels were only called upon once every couple of years, at most, but from what Ilias had told her, Giliead had never been that lucky.
The trader, an older woman, had prudently retreated to the atrium, along with Dyani, Calit, and a handful of curious Aelin children. For the moment Ilias, Giliead, and Tremaine had something approaching privacy. Not that the news of a big fight wouldn't be all over Cineth in a handful of minutes, anyway.
Ilias crossed his arms. "Oh? And what about Tremaine?"
Giliead didn't look at her. "The same."
Tremaine checked her first, angry response. This wasn't some Rienish backwater; she wasn't supposed to stay home and out of danger just because she was a woman. It was more likely that Gil believed she was too important to risk herself, as a ranking woman of his family. She watched them both, prepared to step in when it became necessary, but letting Ilias take the lead for now.
"What do you think we would do here, while you were off fighting this wizard?" Ilias asked mildly, as if it was an abstract question.
"Train the horses," Giliead said. "Take care of the land..." He frowned, the lines around his eyes growing deeper.
Giliead could be a monosyllabic monolith when he didn't feel like talking, which was most of the time. Ilias was very good at uncorking him when necessary; Tremaine thought that was a big reason why Ilias and she had gotten along so well from the very start, when they hardly had a shared vocabulary apart from words like "yes", "no", and "ick". Ilias had been dealing with Giliead almost his entire life, and he simply refused to be intimidated by any amount of sarcasm, silence, or stonewalling.
Right now, Ilias was looking bored. "Yes, because if I don't start planting enough sava to get us through the winter, all of us are going to starve and die."
Tremaine snorted at this, but Giliead didn't move a muscle. Of course, they were all well aware that the house had a cellar, a larder, and a separate shed that served as a storeroom, and after Tremaine's shopping expeditions, those rooms were packed with grains, beans, honey, smoked meat and fish, cheeses, apples, nuts, and all the various winter vegetables that could be stored, mostly harvested by those Aelin who were too young to go out on sea voyages.
"You have responsibilities now," Giliead said, not looking at either of them. Tremaine wasn't sure who he was talking to. "You belong to a new household—"
Ilias ran a hand through his hair, clearly frustrated. "So do you!"
"It's not the same," Giliead said, and it wasn't, of course. He was only a Valiarde by choice, not by marriage, and he wasn't necessarily bound by anything other than his loyalty to the god.
Ilias's status had risen because of Tremaine; first because she had paid a higher marriage price for him than anyone had expected, and then because of her house in Cineth, the land that went with it, and her share in the Boundless. And since he was her first and so far only husband, the responsibility for taking care of the Valiarde property, especially the land and the animals, fell on his shoulders.
That was the traditional Syprian view, as far as Tremaine could determine. Her own view was that Ilias's main responsibility was taking care of the Chosen Vessel. Not that Gil couldn't look after himself, but it wasn't the kind of job anyone should be doing alone.
The stories she had been told of previous Chosen Vessels, how some of them had gone mad, how many of them had died - very rarely of old age - only confirmed that. She hadn't moved into a new world just to break up a cast-iron partnership forged in childhood, even if one of those partners was currently being mule-headed idiot about it.
"So it's not like we have some urgent task here, but you just don't want me to travel with you any longer," Ilias said. He tilted his head up, looking Giliead right in the eyes.
Tremaine appreciated his technique. He didn't sound particularly pissed off or pleading, just earnest and straightforward. It was a lot harder to ignore.
She could tell he was wearing Gil down, just a little, because a hairline crack appeared in Gil's stone facade; his mouth turned down slightly at the corners, making him look more harried than before.
"You didn't have a lot of other options before," Gil said, in a patient voice, as if explaining something for the hundredth time. Or perhaps, convincing himself for the hundredth time. "After you got the curse mark—"
"You think I only went into the wilds to hunt wizards with you because I had no other options?" Ilias's voice rose, but there was a slight catch in it, and Giliead flinched minutely.
This was becoming painful to watch, Tremaine realized when she felt her stomach clench. And it didn't look like half-naked wrestling was going to be on the menu anytime soon.
"Well, I'm going with you both," she said flatly, sliding off the wooden kitchen counter she had been sitting on and startling both men into silence. "And Gil, if you try and stop me, I'm going to use you for live target practice. I'm tired of shooting at wild ducks, anyway. They taste like shoe leather."
Ilias smiled at this, though it looked a bit strained. Gil just looked gloomy and resigned.
"And now I'm going to pack," she added pointedly, then left the kitchen.
She wandered into the set of rooms she shared with Giliead and Ilias, wondering at herself. Usually, she would sit back and watch, maybe drop sarcastic remarks, but not actively try to derail or defuse anything. Caring enough about other people to want neither of them to get hurt in an argument...that was new.
"The trouble with the Uthien," Ilias was telling her as they climbed yet another huge sandhill, "is that most of them are liars, and the rest of them are off their heads. So if they say they saw a wizard, it could mean anything. Especially since wizards usually don't reveal themselves until they've killed half the village already."
Giliead nodded absently, and Ilias quirked his brows, appearing to take this as a minor victory.
They hadn't settled their argument yet, Tremaine could tell, but at least Giliead hadn't tried to stop her or Ilias from coming with him. And as soon as Giliead and Ilias were traveling together again, they had quickly settled into their usual routine, with Ilias scouting ahead and doing most of the talking, while Giliead listened and occasionally dropped in a deadpan comment.
"Last year, during the winter storms, they told us they never saw anything of the Chaean trading ship that was lost near their village, and then at the spring festival, almost all of them were wearing new clothes with Chaean embroidery," Ilias told her.
"They said bales of cloth washed up on shore later," Giliead said, in a studiously neutral tone of voice.
"Which could be true," Ilias agreed, pausing to work a stone out of his boot. "But you just know they sank the ship first."
Giliead threw Tremaine a deprecating look over Ilias's head, and she got the distinct impression that he didn't think Ilias was entirely reliable on this subject.
Uthien was one of the gleaning villages along the coast, and gleaners were apparently the lowest rung on the Syprian social ladder. People who had been cast out of their households could end up there, along with criminals, people with curse marks, and the insane. They lived off whatever they could glean from the sea, mostly shipwrecks and the like, and Tremaine could see the temptation to help things along in leaner times.
The wind was picking up, and they quickly traversed the top of the dune and slogged down the other side through the heavy, loose sand. There, in the lee of the wind, the trail continued northwards, marked by an occasional handful of pebbles or a fragment of cloth tied to a bush.
They walked over hard-packed shell sand, past patches of tiny, often prickly plants, and an occasional sprawling tree covered in late-blooming yellow flowers. It took serious willpower for Tremaine not to stop and smell the trees at length, every time they passed one; the scent was warm and intoxicating, like hyacinths and honey.
"That's Uthien," Giliead said, waving an arm seawards, past the next tall row of dunes.
Tremaine squinted against the sun, which had almost sunk to the horizon and glinted off the distant sea like it was made of metal. She could just make out a straggly, crooked shape above the dunes that was too unnatural to be a tree. It didn't look like a building, either. "What is that?"
"That's their lighthouse," Ilias said, grimacing.
Tremaine blinked. She had seen the lighthouse at Cineth, a sturdy stone pyramid with a fire platform at the top. This looked more like something out of a child's drawing.
"Let me guess, it falls down a lot?"
"Sometimes, in the storms. I think the last time they rebuilt it, they tried to make it look more like the masts of a ship."
The trail now divided itself, and they took the unmarked path leading over the dunes to Uthien. The lighthouse looked even stranger close up; it had a stone foundation, but its long, spiraling upper half looked like it had been built from the carcasses of several shipwrecks, with long lengths of wood sticking out here and there that might be masts, or even oars.
When they reached the heart of the village, a small cluster of driftwood huts around a huge stone circle that clearly served as a communal firepit, they found a group of gleaners already gathered near the circle, waiting for them.
"We're here for the wizard," Giliead said. The gleaners looked at each other. They were a motley group, some old, some young, some dressed in faded rags and some in clothes that looked more garish than anything Tremaine had yet seen in the Syrnai.
Some of the gleaners muttered at each other, and Tremaine saw the tension in Ilias's shoulders increase. It certainly looked more like a mob than a welcoming committee.
"You're the Chosen Vessel from Cineth," an old man wearing a purple robe said very slowly, in a croaking voice.
Giliead nodded patiently. He looked as though he was prepared to stand there in the sand until he grew roots, or somebody gave him useful information. Tremaine admired that in him; she was already at the point of wanting to shake the old guy until his teeth rattled.
"We didn't send for him," someone else said angrily. Heads turned towards the speaker, a thin woman with long black hair and eyes like coals, who stood in the middle of the crowd with her hands on her hips, glaring at them.
"Well, yes, you see, we asked Ancyra's Chosen Vessel to come," the old man explained, scratching his beard.
Giliead's jaw tightened, but before he could speak, Ilias stepped forward, eyes wide with outrage. "Ancyra is days away from here! This isn't even their god's territory, what were you thinking?"
"We heard about your god," the black-haired woman spat back at him. "It does curses all by itself. So does your Chosen Vessel. We don't need your kind of help, curseling."
"Is that right," Tremaine said softly, rage coiling hot around her spine. She could feel the contained tension in Ilias beside her, as well as Giliead's deceptive stillness, and silently thanked them for waiting to see where she was going with this. I hope I know where I'm going with this.
It was so, so tempting to just shoot somebody. But this woman expected them to react, to grow angry, to give the mob some reason to explode into violence. Tremaine wasn't going to give her the satisfaction. A mob was as stupid as its most idiotic members, but break it apart and there was some hope for reason. She could make out several faces in the gleaner crowd that glinted with silver in the waning sunlight, just like Ilias's, and she saw some sideways looks that made it plain not all of the gleaners wanted the black-haired woman speaking for them.
"So what you're saying is that you'd prefer to let this wizard slaughter you all," Tremaine went on, making her voice sound as bored as though she were a jaded professor giving a lecture to undeserving students.
"Because that's the one thing you can count on. If the Chosen Vessel from Ancyra even gets here before you're all dead, she's not going to be bringing her god with her. She won't be able to tell where the wizard is, even if he's standing right next to you. Not until he curses you. And when he does that, it will be too late. This village will be ashes, and all that you care about will be gone. But that shouldn't bother you, because you drove away your own Chosen Vessel when he came to help you, and that's all that matters. Right?"
She didn't wait to study the reactions of the crowd, though she could hear some gasps and whispered words. Instead, she turned her back to the gleaners and muttered from the corner of her mouth, "Start walking."
Ilias and Giliead followed, flanking her as she walked back through the tiny village, following the trail they had come by. Her neck prickled and her back felt very naked and exposed, but nobody shot at them or attacked them from behind. So far, her gamble had paid off.
"Let's go slow," she whispered. "We need to give them time to argue. And hopefully, for some of them to make up their minds that we're not the worst possible option."
Giliead nodded and Ilias stopped right there, making a big production of shortening the leather thong that secured his bow to his back.
"I thought that nobody knew," Ilias said in a worried undertone, fiddling with the knot. "About the god making the curse-gate work, I mean. Nobody in Cineth said anything when we came back."
Giliead looked grim, and dropped a casual hand down on Ilias's shoulder. He knew, Tremaine realized. Whatever people might not have said to Ilias, would they have dared say it to Giliead? Surely not; they were much more wary of Giliead. But some rumor must have made its way back to him before this.
Ilias slipped the knot into place, and they began walking again, very slowly. Tremaine thought about adding a limp, but decided against it.
"Gyan was there the first time we tried it, remember," Giliead said softly. "And Bythia, and Dyani. We didn't exactly swear them to silence."
"Besides, I'm still here," Tremaine pointed out. "The circles don't work anymore, and yet suddenly I'm back? Someone has to have worked it out."
"It doesn't matter, anyway," Giliead added, shaking Ilias gently by the shoulder. "I never planned to hide what we did. The people know the god is still here, protecting them. Anything else, they will just have to get used to."
It was different in Cineth, of course. The people there knew Giliead, at least a little, and after the aborted row with Herias, they knew that their god was still supporting Giliead's choices. Here, and in the other outlying communities, they might never have seen the god, and heard about their Chosen Vessel only from rumor and poet's tales.
Even walking at snail speed, it didn't take them long to reach the foot of the row of dunes that formed a natural wall around the gleaner village. The trail went up through a gap between two of the tallest dunes, and there were some rudimentary stairs, made out of big rocks and pieces of driftwood anchored with stakes and rope. Tremaine eyed them with disfavor. It was an arduous climb, she had already done it once, and she didn't want to do it again if she didn't have to.
"Hah," said Ilias, who had managed to sneak a backwards look, "Someone's coming."
There was only a sliver of sun left on the horizon, red as a blood orange, and Tremaine could barely make out a shape moving towards them, coming from one of the last huts this side of the dunes.
Tremaine began to climb the stairs very slowly and awkwardly, waiting to be interrupted. She could hear the footsteps too now, crunching softly on the sand, and then a light voice whispering, "Go over now, go on! I will meet you at the next crossing, near Stillwater Cove, and show you what we saw."
It was a girl who looked to be several years younger than Dyani, dressed in a faded red tunic much too big for her, the ragged hem hanging around her knees. Her short hair, bleached by salt and sun, stood around her head in a wild halo, but her eyes were dark and serious.
Ilias stood still, arms folded, radiating distrust. "Who are you?"
"Hisfana, of the grasscutters. Go, or they'll stop me!" She turned around and slipped back the way she had come, not looking back.
Reluctantly, Ilias nodded and started climbing the stairs, followed by Giliead, so Tremaine climbed too. They didn't speak again until they had crested the top of the dunes and Uthien village was behind them, invisible except for the jagged silhouette of the lighthouse.
The way down and back to the coast trail was less steep, and there were no stairs, just a wide slope of churned-up sand bordered by clumps of tall, spiky grass.
After she'd caught her breath again, Tremaine asked, "The grasscutters? Is that something special?"
"They cut the dunegrass and make it into rope, or baskets," Ilias said. "It's something the young ones do who aren't allowed to glean yet, and the old ones who still have strong hands. It's not that special a job, but in a place like this, it's something."
They walked back to the coast trail in the twilight. Nothing moved around them except grass in the wind, and a small dark bird that made a tinny hooting sound when they came near it, and flew off in a flurry of wings.
"What you said about the Chosen Vessel of Ancyra," Giliead began, then paused, rubbing at his neck. He looked a little rueful, embarrassed even, and Tremaine eyed him askance.
"She won't come, you mean?"
"Probably not, it's too far away for her, like you said. But...I can't always do those things you said, either. We're on the edge of the god's territory here, and it's hard for the god to hear me. Or to warn me about someone who's not doing curses at the moment."
Ilias looked troubled, but kept his eyes on the trail, silent. Nobody said Someone like Ixion, but then nobody had to.
"I knew that," Tremaine said, though she wasn't sure if she did. Giliead didn't talk much about his relationship with the god, and she knew better than to ask him about something so private. "But when they're using curses, you can see it. And this girl we're meeting is too young to be a wizard anyway, right?"
"Has to be," Ilias chimed in. "They have to enslave themselves to another wizard first, and learn all they can, then get free. That takes a while, and some of them never get that far."
"So how do you usually handle it, when you're trying to find a wizard and the god can't tell you where they are?" Tremaine asked, curious. So far, in her experience of evil wizards, it wasn't finding the wizard that was the problem, it was getting them to shut up and stop making traitorous deals with people.
Ilias shrugged, grinning lopsidedly. "Wait and see if someone curses us? It doesn't work on Gil, of course, so we usually let him go first." Giliead thumped him on the shoulder in protest, but he was grinning too.
Right, Tremaine thought, Syprians are crazy. I need to write that down somewhere.
The crossing was some way off, and it was full night by the time they got there. At least it was a clear night, and the starlight helped a little, but Tremaine didn't think these were exactly ideal conditions for wizard hunting. Then again, what would ideal conditions look like?
The girl Hisfana waited for them, sitting crosslegged under a thorny tree. She grinned cheerfully when Giliead lifted an eyebrow at her, and said, "You old people move slow."
"And you know a shortcut," Tremaine said, refusing to rise to the bait. "But do you know where this wizard is?"
"I don't know if it's a wizard," Hisfana said, shrugging. She unfolded herself in one smooth movement and waved her arm in the direction she wanted them to go; Giliead nodded, and they followed her down a barely visible path leading back towards the coast at an angle.
"Some people say so," Hisfana went on. "Some of the boys were planning to go to the cliffs to throw stones, but that was before you showed up. They'll probably wait now, see if you get eaten first."
"Throw stones," Giliead repeated. He exchanged a wary glance with Ilias that Tremaine didn't have much trouble interpreting; she had seen many Syprians react with fear and loathing to the presence of wizards, friendly wizards even, but none of them had been all that eager to take one on by themselves. That was what Chosen Vessels were for.
"We're not like you city people," Hisfana said complacently. "Some moons ago one of the little metal ships came too close to our village, and some of the elders were afraid, but the shorehunters swam out to it and killed all the Gardier people in it. Then the lawgiver came, but all he did was look at the bodies and say that we probably shouldn't do it again. And then we melted down the ship to break the curses and made fishing spears out of it."
Giliead nodded again, smiling wryly, and said, "Does this wizard look like one of the people in the metal ship?"
Good question, Tremaine thought. If he turned out to be one of the last remaining Gardier who had managed to survive being stranded, they might have to keep him alive, if only to find out who else was left. She wasn't looking forward to that part.
For some reason, the idea made Hisfana laugh uncontrollably. Tremaine was starting to get the urge to box her ears, but restrained herself. It probably wouldn't help, anyway. She wondered if she had been this annoying when she had been Hisfana's age, and if so, how Nicholas had kept himself from just locking her in a vault somewhere until she grew up.
"No, no, you'll see," Hisfana said at last, hiccuping, and Giliead and Ilias performed another mute exchange of eyerolls, to which Tremaine contributed a sceptical eyebrow lift. It was nice to share a language without needing a translation spell; of all the languages Tremaine now knew, this was probably the one she spoke the best.
Along this stretch of the coast, sandy dunes gave way to craggy rocks and huge, building-sized boulders, with tide pools in between them that reflected the starlight. It wasn't the easiest terrain to navigate at night, but Hisfana led them surefootedly over a narrow, sandy track that wound between the boulders and toward the shore.
The path was so narrow in places that it was more like a canyon; Ilias and Tremaine fit more easily into these tight places than Giliead, whose broad shoulders often brushed either side of the walls and picked up smears of mossy green.
"A lovely place for an ambush," Tremaine said softly to Ilias in Rienish, trailing her hand along the damp rock wall and pretending a sudden interest in lichen when Hisfana looked curiously over her shoulder.
Ilias grinned at her, a white flash of teeth in the gloom, and said, "I know. But Giliead hears like a bat, and you can shoot anything that moves."
"That's not going to help us against a rockfall," Tremaine muttered, but the exchange did help to steady her nerves a little.
The path turned left, then right, then widened, and they emerged from the dark canyon into a large sheltered cove, overhung by a wide expanse of stars.
They were standing on a small strip of white shell sand, facing a dark pool of sea water enclosed by rocky cliffs. The tide was almost at its highest, judging from the drifts of seaweed hanging from the lower rocks, and the water lapped gently at their feet.
"It's here that we saw it," Hisfana said, and edged back into the shelter of the rocks, the bravado suddenly gone from her body language. "I haven't been here at night before," she added in a small voice. "It all looks different."
Ilias grabbed her by one thin arm and demanded, "What's here? The wizard?" but before he finished, Giliead had already drawn his sword, sweeping it around in a broad curve to point at the water.
"Something is," he said, staring. "Something cursed. I can't see it, the water's blocking it—"
The water boiled up like a hot spring, and Tremaine laid her crossbow over her left arm, sighting carefully.
A fountain of foam and water exploded upwards, drenching them all, and a tremendous dark shape reared up, roaring.
Hisfana wrenched herself free and ran shrieking back into the canyon, her arms over her head.
Ilias swore, drew his sword and stepped in front of Giliead, whose sword was trailing downwards, his expression vague and distant in that particular way that meant he was talking to the god.
Great, now the god is trying to get him killed, Tremaine thought, drawing back her crossbow bolt. She couldn't see any eyes, just a huge maw of long, jagged teeth set in a formless bulk of shell-pocked skin. She aimed just above the teeth, at what she presumed was its head, and fired.
The bolt hit the target and stood quivering in its flesh, but it didn't seem to make any difference. Maybe its hide was too thick for anything less than a ballista.
Ilias shouted desperately and sprang forward, flourishing his sword, trying to draw its attention toward himself and away from Giliead, who stood still as stone.
Tremaine slotted another bolt into the groove, ready to fire, but the creature wasn't attacking; it twisted and curved in the water, opening and closing its massive maw, but it wasn't getting any closer. It roared again, and there was something strange about the sound. Something familiar.
Giliead opened his eyes wide, took a step forward and said, "Wait."
"I can't believe this," Ilias muttered. He paced at the edge of the tide pool, his sword flat against his shoulder, his eyes never leaving the water.
Giliead was standing there, up to his waist, and he had one hand on the sea monster's shell-encrusted hide while he talked to it. It was a jawdropping sight: the monster towered above him like something out of a nightmare, but it floated quietly in the pool, paddling with its spiny, elongated fins to keep its misshapen head above water, and it seemed to be listening to Giliead.
Tremaine grinned up at Ilias from where she sat cross-legged on the sand. She had her crossbow on one knee with a bolt drawn and ready, but she didn't really think she was going to need it. For the first time, she wished that she had taken a little time to pack when she left Vienne; at this moment, she would give her kingdom for a camera. Not that she had a kingdom. A tiny fiefdom, maybe.
"What, you don't like it when we don't get eaten?" she said, teasing.
"I don't like it when monsters start talking to us. It makes my scars itch." Ilias glowered in Giliead's general direction, but she could tell he was exaggerating just a little, for effect; he was worried, sure, but if he had been really worried he would not be pacing here, he would be up by the monster's jaws, ready to jam his sword down its throat or throw himself into its maw to save Giliead.
"Do you think we're going to have to do it all again next time?" Tremaine asked suddenly, and Ilias stared at her. "Not the monster. I mean the yelling, Giliead pretending he doesn't want us along, that kind of thing."
Ilias stopped pacing and let out a long breath. He took another look at the quiescent monster and then dropped down on the sand beside her, leaning against her shoulder. He propped up his sword against his knees, ready to hand, and said, "Probably. The last time we had that fight, Gil tried to lock me up in the stillroom at Andrien house."
Tremaine blinked. "I bet that worked out well for him."
Ilias nuzzled her cheek, and she could hear the smile in his voice when he said, "Oh, yes. Because I freed myself, and came after him, and sailed with him to the Isle of Storms."
His damp hair tickled her cheek as he leaned over a little further, and Tremaine said softly, "I'm glad you did."
"I'm really glad I did, too."
They stopped talking for a while after that.
Tremaine vaguely registered a lot of noise as Giliead slowly squelched back towards them, but she was too occupied with Ilias to give him her full attention until he stood over the both of them, dripping, and said, "I see how it's going to be from now on."
Ilias detached himself from Tremaine in a slow, leisurely manner, then looked up at Giliead and said, "Well, it's like you were saying. I do have responsibilities."
Tremaine sat back to watch the sea monster, ignoring the energetic scuffle that was going on beside her.
It drifted quietly in the water, looking ungainly and strange, starlight glinting off some colorful pieces of coral embedded in its hide. The crossbow bolt was still stuck into its, for want of a better word, head.
"So what is it?" she asked at length. "And do I need to apologize for shooting it?"
Giliead dropped a laughing Ilias in the sand and sat on top of him, effectively immobilizing him until he could get his breath back, and said, "It's a curseling. An old, strange one. The god thinks it was made by a wizard we killed long ago, back in the Bone Mountains, but it slept in a sea cave for a long time. When it woke up, it was free of the wizard, and it remembered being human once."
Tremaine caught her breath, and she could see Ilias go still, the laughter instantly swept from his face. All jokes about itching scars aside, this had to come a little too close to the bone.
Giliead moved off Ilias, helped him sit up, and kept an arm around him as he said quietly, "It doesn't remember its name. It has been in the sea for a very long time now, and it's not unhappy. It lives like the water people do, hunting fish, swimming to explore new places. It just got stuck in this pool at the last spring tide, after the rains, and the gleaners scared it when it tried to talk to them."
Tremaine wrapped an arm around Ilias's shoulders, too. They sat still for a while, watching the curseling, who wasn't able to watch them back, though according to Giliead it could smell them in three dimensions, even under water.
"Can we get it out of here?" Ilias asked at last. "Or do we need to wait for the new moon and another spring tide?"
The cove's rocky walls opened out to the sea at its furthest end, but the opening was narrow, and Tremaine could see how it could be a perfect funnel trap at high tide, especially for a creature that had no eyesight to help it navigate.
"We could try it now," Giliead said thoughtfully. "There might not be enough water for it to get through, but at least we can stop it from bashing itself against the rocks."
They waded out into the tide pool and the curseling followed them, fanning its fins out slowly, its huge mouth half-open to taste the air and track minute changes in the wind.
The bottom of the pool fell away steeply, and they had to swim out to the edge of the rock walls and cling to them. Ilias nearly got a ducking when the curseling turned a little too fast and bumped him in the head with one of its fins, and Giliead scraped his leg on some sharp underwater rocks at the cove's mouth, but they managed to guide the curseling safely through, mostly by pushing it firmly when it threatened to get stuck.
Once through, it spun its massive bulk around in the deep water in what looked like a gleeful display, fins moving faster already, and at the very last moment Tremaine said, "Wait."
She clambered on top of one of the smaller rocks and reached out to the creature. It obediently came to her hand, idling just within reach, delicate touches of its fins keeping it in place in the tide current.
Ilias didn't ask what Tremaine thought she was doing; he just passed her his hunting knife, and with that she managed to prise the crossbow bolt out of the creature's hide. As soon as she got the narrow head of the bolt out, its hide closed up around the hole, leaving only a small dent behind.
After that, they swam back to shore quickly and watched the creature move off into the open sea. It spouted a huge fountain of sea water into the air, making a sound like someone blowing into a drainpipe, and then dove under, leaving a trail of bubbles in its wake.
Giliead wrung water out of his shirt and looked pensively at Tremaine and Ilias, who were shivering. "The gleaners have that big firepit," he said.
Ilias grinned. "And I'm sure they're going to be very grateful to us."
Tremaine gave them both a doubtful look. "Well, if they aren't, we can ask the monster to swim by again."