The trouble with pirates was that they were entirely too honest. The whims of the sea made them so— their homes on scrubby isles and windswept spits of land reinforced their love.
Oh, thought Helen, their love might not be steadfast, but it was sincere.
"How do you know Her Majesty?" inquired Attolia's emissary. He was an unusually good appointment. Not at all appearing to be as clever as he was. Helen who was Eddis liked him despite herself. (She was almost sure Attolia knew that she would, even without Gen's attempts at coaching. Helen saw it for the gift that it was.)
And Del, scourge of the Middle Sea, fancier of dried gouna, pilot of the Gnasher's Strait, he who was missing three fingers, grinned a honeyed grin with gaps for canines.
"I am her lover!" Delphikos declared before the court.
The Queen of Eddis did not glance at the magus of Sounis, not once. She did, however, lay a dry hand upon her brow.
Eddis was hurrying so hastily that she forgot Gen's lessons in creeping. The lamps in this wing of the castle were tinged with the warm aroma of sandalwood, imported through Attolian trading routes. It clashed with the pine needle and crisp waterfall smell of the mountains, but clung cloyingly to the skin, and to the contents of the library.
The chambers had been Gen's, and lately, officially bequeathed to the magus via additional loud complaints that he would ruin their ambiance. The Magus was content to use the rooms as a secondary office, most often to catalog Gen's works which had been left behind. Unsurprisingly the magus preferred to quarter in his south-facing rooms of exile, catching the sun almost before the chickens, whilst offering no easy target for a marksman from his erstwhile homeland.
Helen felt rather foolish for approaching him at this hour. Surely he had understood? Sounis had its own navy, after all. Did they not have sea-lore, as well?
She hurried along before she could change her mind.
She slowed as she breached the antechamber. Almost bashful, she shut the door and faced it, listening as the magus's pen continued to scratch.
Squaring her shoulders, she turned with what dignity she could muster, for the hour and the circumstances.
"He didn't mean it," she said to the magus.
Carefully, the magus put away his pen. "Whatever did he mean?"
The Queen of Attolia was not one to leave a detail alone, once it was known to her. She'd sworn many oaths to the mountain-born, her new husband among them, but it was not in her nature to keep to herself a sea-route linking her former port of Ephrata to the coastal hills below the Pricas Spring. The years of fractious politics had rendered the physical border of Attolia necessarily porous. Had they petrified, that meant a coalition of patronoi had hardened as well. Attolia had spent much to prevent that from happening. While her Guard was nearly impenetrable where they were garrisoned, she depended on intrigue and strategy where they were not.
So, so, never mind that she had been betrothed between Ephrata and the top of the sheer sea-cliff. She displayed no sentiment over it. (Nor did her King, for other reasons.) Though Ephrata had been ceded to Eddis, this was not true for all its sea-routes.
The meandering path from the tide's teeth to slender horse-trail was not as abandoned as it looked.
And that was how Delphikos had been caught.
A thief must learn their ways from somewhere, well-traveled as they were from crossroads to crossroads and all the roadless territories in-between. On the flat ocean, the best teachers were the unforgiving claws of Oceanus, and the brigands of the sea: the pirates. Like Delphikos, who shared a name like his father, who was named like his uncle. So forth. The island settlements knew better than to waste resources like names.
It wasn't that he'd stopped paying attention to the political change-of-hands. It was little relevant to a man who could smuggle himself past any guard. Besides, one couldn't own the sea! It was the sea-winds which had blown his bark off-course and that much closer to the watch-fires on land. To the coastal patrols loyal to the Attolian Baron Efkis, or at least to his old father.
Delphikos knew he couldn't own the sea.
He loved the sea.
So here we are.
"You made his acquaintance before," observed the magus.
Outwardly he did not seem worried, but Eddis had known him for a while, by now. She huffed into the cup of steeped herbs, then blew on it more deliberately. It was a recipe which the magus had collected in the highland valleys, except sweetened in the Sounisian manner.
"We were practically children," she said.
"I suppose," the magus said, with an air of someone who had read it somewhere, "he bears affection for you."
"He told the truth," said Helen reluctantly. "He loves me. Islanders are different," she said, setting the cup down and smoothing out the cuffs of her sleeves.
"How did you come to meet him, nestled here in the mountains, if he makes his home on the sea?"
Helen smiled fondly. At last she claimed the seat he had offered her when she entered. "Father insisted upon the breadth of our education."
~ ~ ~
Her idyllic summer tramping riding through the hills with Nestor was put to an end when Eddis summoned her to the court. There was barely a quarter of the usual crowd in attendance; Helen dredged up her lessons and fumbled through the formalities anyway. She really had to be better at those. She could manage half the exercises in tertiary; surely courtly forms ought to be easier to commit to memory.
As usual her father's countenance betrayed neither approval nor disapproval. Helen was secretly covetous of the skill. She still remembered being let into the map room while the generals strategized, believing she was utterly ignored until her birthday, when overnight arrived a set of colored chalks and a piece of slate engraved with the outline of the territories of Eddis.
"We've a delicate matter for you," her father began before she'd finished bowing. "Hegite's match with the chieftain's son has fallen through. What do we need from his isle?"
"Horses and lead and blown glass," Helen recited.
"And passage," said the king. He seemed slightly amused. Helen flushed. He said, "Since you did so well interrupting our naval exercises on the Reservoir, we are sending you to fetch Hegite, and to convey a gift to smooth over future relations. And present ones."
"The honor is mine, My King." She didn't straighten from her bow to see the expression on his face.
In private he'd had a good laugh at the prank, and been quite forgiving at her mishap with the oars. Her brothers had been less amused to have to hook the oars out of the choppy shallows of the Reservoir. The engineers had removed a railing from the lakeside road, and closed that scenic bend two months early, to sort out whatever detritus they'd snagged instead of the oars. Meanwhile Helen had been serving out her punishment in rooms with warm fireplaces. Her mother had fretted over her time in the damp, worried that she would catch ill.
Helen wondered what the queen thought of this. Ios-and-Serfos were only a day away from shore, but the open seas were not the relatively placid waters of a mountain lake.
"The gift is meager," said the king. "They'll be far more impressed that you're coming. There now, don't worry," and now his smile did twist out of hiding, "The island peoples value plain speaking and quick thinking. You'll fit right in. Yours will be the last envoy until after the windstorms die down and the harvest is in."
Helen replied with the proper forms. None of her uncles pointedly cleared their throats, so she had probably gotten them right.
"Be blessed in your endeavors," said her father.
She met his eye briefly, then curtseyed as properly as she could. It would probably be best to leave the capital before the queen found out. It would only be a fortnight's journey if the roads were clear and the sea agreeable. Between major festivals, her brothers might sneak off for longer — coming and going as they pleased, engaging in war games or hunting or inciting rumors about prospective matches.
As she packed her belongings amidst Xanthe's bustling, Helen's eye fell upon the colored-in slate map. Beyond the silvered borders, all the expanse of the Middle Sea was a blank, untouched unknown.
Usually the journey out of the mountains was harrowing at best. Bracketed by Sounis and Attolia, Eddis formed an uneasy overland bridge between, with no deepwater port. However the late famine in the foothills of Sounis had loosened their king's hold on the borderlands, particularly when Eddis offered their surplus fruit without the usual tariffs. The Minister of War insisted upon clandestine training such that Eddis felt no trepidation at sending a small party including the young princess through the Sounisian hills. This would be a temporary condition, it was true. This window of opportunity was partly why Hegite had been ventured as a suitable match now, and not at another time.
She'd been sent on with Aulus, who in her experience was an ungainly, towering shadow. He was past spears and had graduated into horsemanship, it seemed, as he drove his chariot better than she did. He probably did the court forms better than she did, too, even though his family only ventured down for the snowmelt and the harvest. She was startled at how deeply his voice had broken, as she'd heard it so seldom. When they stopped for lunch, he mingled with the older guards like a grown man. He was already taller than all but two of them. At night he retreated to sharpen his knives. He gave her the best cut of their dinner when she gawked with envy at his efficient butchery. Helen was still trying to talk her way into the royal kitchen before formal dinners, instead of being stuffed into an itchy gown.
As primly as she could manage, she let the mens' coarse language float past. Only a handful of times she couldn't smother her laughter quickly enough. By the time they crossed back into Eddisian territories, her resolve had crumbled; it was difficult to remain aloof when Aulus found his polished helmet filled with mud. She learned quite a few new words that night. Some of the guards had as well, and the volleys of low-murmured teasing did not abate, what with the security of the late hour and the jagged coastal hills rolling about them. Any brigand would be a fool to take on a party of Eddisians, night or day.
Dawn found them changing horses in a small, deep lake tucked into a cuplike valley a short march from the sheer bluffs overlooking the sea.
What she had taken for a barn was actually a long abandoned sawmill. The water wheel was gone; scuffs and gouges marked where the machinery had fit. One of the guards, another distant cousin, pointed out the steep rapids above the lake. "All this side of the river used to be thick forest like the Irkes. Now it's all gone. The Sounisians felled them all. Although," he added ruefully, "it was so long ago that it might well have been us."
"That's why we listen to the engineers," said another guard where he was loading a coil of rope.
"Logs taller than two men," rumbled Aulus. "On their sides." He subsided. He seemed a little homesick for his family domain: pockets of forest below the treeline linked by tracks no better than goat trails. Helen had only seen it from afar when the weather was clear. The trees had to be gigantic.
Helen took in the size of the lake. "Oh, I see. They floated them down the river."
The guard nodded. "Easier than wagons. Deadly work, though. They have smaller runs nowadays, but before they built the Reservoir, they used to have logs choking up the river from here to the Sacred Mountain."
When they reached the top of the ridge, they stopped the horses for a moment, and pointed out the timber slides carved into the hills, like a god's thumb had smudged a line to the riverside. Both Helen and Aulus were suitably impressed.
They were blindfolded before they reached the crest of the bluffs, and first sight of the ocean.
The guards were blindfolded sequentially, so they would only know part of the way. Only the guard who had told them of the sawmill would be their guide. While he was a lowlander, he had no wealth of his own — he had grown up in his mother's house here on the coastal side of the river. His manners were nearly as crude as Aulus's, but he'd acted more certain of himself the closer they got to the salt smell of the ocean. Though he was Eddisian, apparently the captain knew his family well enough to trust him.
Aulus looked like he wanted to practice his night exercises, unsure if he could fight blind. He kept fingering the hilt of his knife.
"This is within our borders, isn't it?" Helen asked.
"It is, but these passages are secret for a reason," said the lowlander guard.
"Who would want it secret from us?" Helen said. They were being led down, and down, into cooler air. A cave, perhaps. The path was narrow; Aulus kept bumping his ankles and swearing.
There was no reply.
When the blindfolds came off, they faced a sheer drop, the descent of which could only be accomplished with a barrel-sized basket and a series of pulleys.
As the guards tested the ropes, the answer was whispered in her ear.
"The gods," Aulus said.
They could hear the lapping waves far below.
At the mouth of the sea-cave, they were greeted by a woman so wizened and freckled by the sun that she might have been Helen's age, or older than the oldest guard. In the shadows of the cave and backlit by the noon sunlight on the water, her grin shone white. Helen realized she had been amusedly watching their descent.
"Lady Ortugia," said the lowlander guard.
"Pssh, don't title me like an mainlander," Ortugia scoffed. "You are of Eddis?" she asked Helen.
"I am," said Helen. She was relieved to drop the rest of the formal greeting.
"I am of Ios. Who's coming with you?" She moved aside. In the sunlight, two things were clear: the grey pallor of her skin was actually dried salt spray, for she was as brown as sandstone in the morning; and there were only two boats.
The guards looked at each other. Only the lowlander did not seem distressed, but he was still taken by surprise.
Ortugia rolled her eyes. "We have air bladders if you can't swim."
"I'm coming," said Aulus.
"You fight with staffs? On a beam?" Ortugia said. At Aulus's nod, she said, "If you capsize, hold your breath and heave yourself up like it's a straddling exercise." She glanced at Helen. "You, simply lie back and float — you probably won't tip over like he would."
Helen wondered how and if she could riposte an insult which so neatly touched them both. It was good advice, though. "I can swim. And paddle."
"Good!" Ortugia tossed her a pair of oars. Helen nearly crushed a finger catching them. They were of a different make and heft than the ones she used in lakes. "Hold on to those. They won't come back when you whistle."
"Your Highness," began the senior guard anxiously.
It was Aulus whom Helen checked first. He seemed stolidly determined, which was good enough for Helen. "Isn't it market day in the nearest Sounisian port?" she asked their guards.
Helen recalled the tiny mark on the map. "If there's a lighthouse there, still, then we'll signal them once we've arrived. Our spies in Sounis can pick that up and tell father of our arrival." It sounded rather pompous to her own ears. She'd only properly found out about spies last month, having grown up with the euphemistic phrase "our cousin who is on an errand abroad."
"You'll be in debt to the lighthouse keeper but that's none of my concern," said Ortugia. "Should I say 'Your Highness'?"
Helen would not get caught up wondering if that was a backhanded shot. "As the river goes, is the saying," she said. "I'm Helen."
Ortugia's brows twitched. She seemed pleased for the first time. "Follow me, prow to stern, and pull slowly. The current will do the rest. Worry about steering. These aren't built for skirmishes; the underwater rocks will put a bigger hole in you than the other boat."
"Where are we going?" asked Aulus. He was eyeing the slender boat as though wondering how he would fit himself into the seat.
The islander laughed for the first time. "We're not paddling all the way to Serfos. Luckily for you."
There was no chance to take in the closeness of the cliffs or the rough breakers on all sides. Helen was clumsy trying to coordinate her steering with Aulus's paddling. She had the impression of the sea being a third rower, or an invisible tow-craft yanking them about in all directions. The air bladders were also an annoyance. Although, when they weren't getting in her way, Helen thought she might want to practice forms with them later — they were different from the obstruction of light armor.
Ortugia seemed to read something in every wave, to pick her course so confidently. It was like pathfinding, except to Helen's eyes, there was no path at all.
As they wended toward their goal, Ortugia called out, "These boats used to be more stable. They had outriggers in my great-grandfather's time. Then wood became scarce this side of the Ring. We're better sailors for it."
Heartened by what might have been a note of apology, Helen replied. "We used to have more forests as well. I mean, er, we do still..."
At least Ortugia didn't draw out the awkward silences. "That's why the match was arranged with your cousin."
"I mean overcutting is a common problem." Oh, there was no diplomatic way around. Helen was lucky Ortugia didn't care for diplomacy. "There are stories of hills falling down on people after they were razed," she blurted. She hoped that story was true. Gen had a tendency to embellish his tales.
There was a prolonged silence as they slipped into deeper water.
Ortugia said at last, "I do not believe Eddis is a poor country."
It was a compliment and a threat all at once. Helen was impressed despite herself.
They rounded some nastily jagged rocks to come upon Ortugia's flagship.
"It's only a flagship because it's got a flag," muttered Aulus.
The crafts were modest, is what Helen told herself to say. Besides, she was so preoccupied with her oars that she could only mark that the triangular sails. It could've been Oceanus himself as far as Helen was concerned.
The ladder up to the ship was not the relief she expected. Without the paddling, she was at the mercy of the rocking deck. When she looked over the rail, the blue of the water merged with the clear sky, disorienting her further. Even the clouds looked like white-caps.
Helen entirely missed the crew's greeting of their captain. Hopefully there was not some ceremony which required her attention. She'd experienced rough waters on Hamiathes' Reservoir before, but never like this.
Then she turned her head to look at Aulus, and stifled a gasp. "Are you all right?" she whispered.
He managed a nod. His grip on the railing was white-knuckled.
"It's like standing up on a horse," offered Helen.
"It is not," Aulus growled. "It's fifty horses. And they're all jumping."
They shoved off immediately. The motion seemed to soothe Aulus, enough that he felt well enough to insist on tasting the offered water first, perhaps having remembered that she was also a princess. Helen hoped he hadn't committed some diplomatic gaffe.
Looking back on it, Helen realized that the crew was too busy to be offended by anything. The vessel was underway the moment the anchor was withdrawn from the depths, pulled up by two men on a strikingly large winch.
Everyone was busy, except for a boy perched on the railing. He was probably between Helen and Aulus' ages, though his scrawny physique made it difficult to tell. Unconsciously swaying with the ship, he watched Aulus as though gambling on when he'd throw up.
He caught their eye. "Delphikos at your service." He neither bowed, nor looked to be in anyone's service. "Son of Delphikos. Pilot of the Gnasher's Strait. Hostage of Ios."
Ortugia cuffed the side of his head. "Stop telling passengers that! They always look for the chains."
"Am I not? While you hold my father's ship." Delphikos did not seem bothered by it, only saying it to get a rise out of the implacable Ortugia.
She was not moved. "Pilot them to their quarters, will you?"
"I'm a cabin boy today?"
"You're the only one on this deck without his hands on a rope or an oar. Erklos! The tiller is yours. I'm to the Dolphin. Seas take us."
Delphikos didn't move, but his entire demeanor sobered immediately. "Seas take us," he replied.
To Helen's startlement, Ortugia hopped on the rail and caught the hank of rope tossed to her by Delphikos. In a lazy arc, she swung to the adjacent ship.
"My father's ship," presented Delphikos.
It was smaller, and in a silvery color which made it seem carved out of a single block of pale wood. Helen knew nothing of ships; she thought it looked very fast.
Aulus did not care to be motion-sick from politics any more than from the rolling sea. Belowdecks he asked Del, "Are you a hostage?"
"Oh, it's only a feud. It floats up every now and again when Ios and Serfos remember they're separate states. The joke's on us, as the islands are close enough to be kissing, that everyone else recognizes us as one state." He shrugged. "Little skirmishes are common on the archipeligo. The coasts don't pay it any mind, because one way or another they're resolved. We'd all like to be Celia, but mostly we're trying not to be Ardos."
"Ardos?" asked Helen.
"It's a barren rock off Thicos," said Delphikos. "There used to be a kingdom there. It wasn't a cyclops that killed them off. They went to war, razed the towns, ruined the wells, burned the trees. Even the harbor's spiked and mined. The sea wall fell over, and so. The older children like to swim there at high tide and tell ghost stories. War's a luxury for people with land. The rest of us grit our teeth." His smile spread thin across his face. "In practice, I'm Ortugia's apprentice. Accordingly, her mother lives on Serfos where she weaves blankets and lies in the sun eating grapes."
"Must be pleasant," said Helen, smiling.
"So it must be! I prefer the salt spray." With that, Delphikos left them.
There was a brief awkward moment when Helen went to unfold the hammock. Instead Aulus insisted she take the more comfortable bunk, and made to leave. Helen snapped at him, and all he did was set his jaw in an imitation of a boulder. At last he said, "I don't mean it that way. We've bedded down all in one room before. There's two of us, and that means posting watch. Unless you want the first watch, and then I'll take the bed. And risk being sick in it, besides."
Helen apologized profusely. She was both twisted up with excitement at the whole venture, and completely out-of-sorts in every way. Aulus took her apologies with frustrating blankness.
Then at second watch, he woke her so badly that she reflexively drew her knife — nearly breaking her pocketwatch — and had a hearty laugh at the look on her face.
This being a shorter voyage and a smaller ship, when one person rose to stomp around on deck, everyone else woke, too. Aulus was quite prickly that the crew was up before the sunrise without the benefit of coffee. He subsided when Ortugia coolly reminded him that a hearth added extra weight to a smaller craft with a shallow draft. Helen thought she tacitly hinted that it would be about the size and weight of a young man like Aulus.
He remained grumpy into the seventh hour. Helen patted his back. "It was fifty horses yesterday. It's only a score today."
He frowned at her balefully, though his complaints trickled to a halt.
They were taking the long way to Ios-and-Serfos. The short way seemed to involve the Gnasher's Strait, which Delphikos declared would be no trouble, but was fraught enough that they would not risk their royal guests.
At first Helen and Aulus milled about uncertainly. They were ready hands, yet clearly untried, and unless they wanted to row in the galley, there was nothing for them to do all day. Other than Ortugia, the crew seemed to think they were lacking in entertainment for such high-born passengers, while Helen tried to diplomatically hint that it was the last thing either of them expected.
They broke fast with the crew. It was like any meal in Eddis, except everyone drank from the barrels or with deep, heavy cups, and however much they burped, they were scrupulously clean. Not one crumb for the rats, it was explained. On a short hop like this, they lacked a mouser, as the island cats were better deployed in the on-shore granaries.
Most of the food was dried. Some of the crew reconstituted it with water warmed in old, rope-wrapped wine bottles secured atop the helmsman's roof. On days without sun, there were also small burners used for melting hard sealing wax, but there was the impression that they did what they could to avoid fires.
Every now and then a crew member imparted some remedy for nausea, which only made Aulus quieter, unused to the attention. Helen tried seaweed for the first time. Delphikos sat with them, admiring their knives, then admiring that they told him nothing of their forging. He told them most islands couldn't support a forge anyway, being short on timber. Helen was uncomfortably reminded of the forested view outside her bedroom window.
She thought the boys were getting along until Del got his share of a crumbled dried fish called gouna. Aulus visibly flinched. Del must have noticed, because he began to chew messily, dropping flakes back into his bowl. He began to declaim on the benefits of gouna, its taste, the location of its schools beyond the shallows, how they netted them by the bubbles from their farts.
Aulus made an incredulous noise, and Del leaned over and huffed a breath of half-chewed gouna over Aulus's face.
He turned green, and abandoned his plate.
Helen glared at Del despite herself, knowing the crew was watching the byplay. Del did promise to clean up their plates, though his smirk didn't fade over his stuffed mouth. Huffing, Helen got up to go after Aulus.
This bout of motion-sickness was enough to get past Aulus's stoic mask. He accepted fresh water from most anyone now, whether from Eddisian waterskins or the blackened barrels in the hold. More than once Helen helped him drink from the cups, when the ship's rocking proved too unsteady for his coordination. His aim was true over the side of the railing, at least.
He was given a small wooden stool to sit in the open air of the deck, which he methodically placed in a promising spot; placed himself, creaking, on its woven seat; then after a while repeated the process on another part of the deck. After a while he drove Helen away, saying all he was doing was alternating between closing his eyes over his knees or scrambling for the rail. It would not, he said, spoil his aim with a crossbow bolt if he had one.
He ended up facing one of the crewmen, a man of middle age who had perhaps suffered a stroke, and had no power of speech. Helen was not sure Aulus could cease staring even if he wanted to, as his eyes were crusted open and bloodshot. If the crewman knew Aulus was watching him, he gave no sign, his hands flying swiftly on the ropes, knotting and tugging them and in some cases knotting them once more. The rest of the crew treated him as an equal, sometimes pointing out a rope that needed tying, or holding up their own work in silent question like he was an inspector general.
Before Helen could intervene with Aulus, Ortugia came up beside her.
She said, "He almost drowned. He's without most of his senses; we have to feed him, or he'll starve. But he can tie any knot on any rope on any vessel from the Ring to the Twin Sentries, so we keep him on. He's happier keeping busy, in the sunshine and fresh air. If the sea doesn't take you, the surest way to die out here is wasting away useless." She looked down on Helen, as though she were peering through the back of her head. Then she grabbed her palms (making Aulus twitch), and examined the lines like a fortuneteller at a circus. "You understand that, don't you? Your hands have hard work written on them."
It was like the moon switching faces.
Ortugia laughed. "Why are you blushing, little princess?"
Helen heard the scrape of Aulus's wood stool, and could not know if he'd judged the moment a private one or had to be sick again.
"My sister and my cousins have the opposite opinion," Helen at last admitted. Fancy rings did no good on fingers with chipped nails and cracked skin.
"Your sisters are not entirely wrong," Ortugia said, dropping her hands. The freckles bunched around her eyes as she squinted at Helen. "Keep your nails strong, or you'll starve to death on a beach full of oyster shells." Then the captain was called away.
"Break an oyster on a rock," Del said. He had come up behind her, hauling a coil of rope bigger than he was. "Then you'll have a shard to pry with. And a pearl, too, if Oceanus favors you."
"Del!" someone called. He too jogged away, nimble as a rope walker on the tilting deck.
Later, when they had joined the main current, and the activity on the deck settled somewhat, it was Aulus who approached Ortugia.
"Did he know how to swim?"
"We all know how," she said. "The currents don't care if we can or can't."
At lunch, Aulus took his broth and sat next to the mute man. His name was Teisulos, except he could not answer to it, and at least one deckhand didn't know what it was. Helen was fascinated to watch Aulus patiently communicating with his hands. There was a brief mishap when Aulus leaned in too closely, upsetting whatever rope was being knotted; Helen thought he still did not have a feel for the size of his own body. If he took after his father and brothers, he was going to earn his shield in no time.
She was wondering how they treated the lamed in the hinterlands when Del cornered them in the passage.
"You don't pity him, do you?" Del said hotly. He glared at Aulus. Aulus solidified, or did a good imitation of Ortugia. It only seemed to incense Del further. "He made his choice to love the sea. The sea took him, the sea spared him, and he still comes back. That is how we love: at the mercy of the depths."
Aulus glanced at Helen. A few of the crew tying the sails were looking on. Then Aulus shrugged. "He made his choice. Grown men like him have run from cannon fire."
There was nowhere to run from the sea, Helen realized. The mountains could remain remote but one might find a route around them.
"Del," she said. "He only wanted to sit with him."
Del's stance did not change, though they both marked how his shoulders sank back a touch. Then he turned on his heel and left.
They were not even to the top step before Aulus said to Helen, "I am not made for this. Give me a posting and a pike."
"You did better than I," said Helen. "I would have lost my temper."
Aulus looked thoughtful at that.
For the rest of the day, Del ran hot and cold with Helen. As this seemed to be his usual disposition, she wasn't bothered. When he ignored her, she merely found a new spot where she wouldn't be in the way. He was a hard worker, and could perform every job on the ship. Perform he did, hasty where most everyone else was careful, and he was willing to explain every job while he was in the middle of doing it. He seemed to seek out Ortugia's censure as much as her praise.
Eventually Del would circle back to her side to point out seagulls or talk of different sorts of waves or explain parts of the ship. He used the Silver Dolphin, his father's ship, to illustrate. "That rope pulls the mast down on our heads," he said, and Helen laughed. Much later she found out this was actually true, a tactic for when winds unexpectedly turned. Or when white masts would stick out on a black glass ocean.
Then he called Aulus a goatfoot, and for the rest of the day refused to speak to Helen after she defended her countryman. It was just as well, as Ortugia looked near to separating them, having halted their attempt to teach Helen how to swing between the moving ships.
Helen spent the afternoon learning sea shanties with the rowers. They were a stout bunch who seemed delighted that a young lady would be interested in bawdy lyrics in old languages, and did not mind at all that she could not carry a tune. She taught them army cadences for marching, and they recounted various rowing songs from all corners of the Middle Sea.
A half-hour into Helen's watch, at least by what she could make out on her pocketwatch, she heard some unusual splashes over the side. She crept as slowly as she could — Gen might approve, and then offer to correct her technique — and found Del throwing a fishing line. This was no artful cast, unlike the hours some of her uncles might spend hunting for the perfect branch. Del had a fist full of hooks, and he tossed them overboard. Helen was a little amused that he threw them first, and secured them second.
"Are you going to ambush me, Eddisian?" called Del.
"No. I was always taught to be quiet when fishing. I suppose that doesn't apply at night." She came out, and joined him at the railing.
"I don't think I'll catch anything," said Del. "The sea is fickle. Can't hurt to try."
A few minutes later, Aulus too appeared. Helen only later thought of asking him if he'd heard her, or if he'd instinctively missed her presence at the post, as she was helping Del haul in his catch.
Big eyed cephalopods struggled on Del's glove. Along their sides and around their face, they had markings which glowed in the dark.
Del let them flop and wriggle about on deck as he sorted them. "Careful, that one stings," he said. He tossed it back overboard. The rest went into what looked like a cooking pot full of water. Helen didn't want to ask if they were for eating. Del named them off, filling his pot with softly glowing creatures like a thief stealing light from the gods.
He dumped one in Aulus's big palm. Aulus merely held it and examined it; they watched it flicker wildly. Del held a container underneath to catch the futile spurts of ink. This wasn't like netting fireflies. Helen was discomfited by how clever it seemed, how present and aware and powerless.
"That's only a small part of the sea's bounty," said Del. "These unlucky ones have hundreds of cousins still swimming in their pods. You have a hunter goddess that you pray to, after you take a kill?" he asked.
"We don't pray to any god after a catch. Only to gods to favor us so we can have food to eat." His glance slid over them like the flat of a knife-blade. It came to Helen that many considered the islanders barbaric for invoking gods and yet not sacrificing to them. They spared nothing, not even for the gods. "Oh, we pray for safe returns, like anyone else, but we're only pardoned for so long. The seas will take us," Del said. "Islands can rise and fall into the deeps. Continents may float away. Oceanus and his cousins are always there. One day the Earth may swallow him, but not until the Sky tumbles down. We'll all end up in the sea. Even you."
Aulus, of the high country, snorted.
Helen thought how strange it must be to be surrounded by one's god at all times. "I think it's polite to at least say 'thank you,'" she said.
Del seemed to prepare some retort before holding back. He grinned. "Maybe I'll try that. Can't hurt. This catch was fairly lucky, for one. The wind doesn't usually change like that, and draw them out of the shoals."
"That's Periphys," Helen said. "She changes the weather in the mountains, too. It's said when she shifts, she is chasing her daughter Moira who is gone away to serve the Great Goddess."
"I don't know her."
"I'll leave an offering to her, for your sake," Helen promised. She would have to find an altar back in Eddis. Few sacrificed to the fickle goddess.
Del was surprised. If Aulus was, he made no sign. "We don't take pacts lightly, Helen of Eddis."
"Nothing here is inconstant." Helen thought she understood that, now. "Though very little is in our hands."
"Moon promises," said Aulus.
"You must explain that," said Del. "I have heard different stories on the mainland. The moon is more reliable than a clock. Look at the tides!"
They discussed the moon while tossing bait overboard, the water lighting up with congregating deep-dwellers, then fading to pitch black lined with the ships' white wakes. The wind was indeed blowing in; Helen barely felt the chill. The evening took on the same unreality of other late nights, when in the shadow of the mountains the campfire seemed the only light in all the world. Helen leaned with the ship's motion, and imagined she could see the horizon. It was, ironically, a moonless night.
"Do you miss it?" Del asked, without preamble.
"I miss Nestor," Helen answered. She didn't bother to look at the differing expressions on the boys' faces. "My pony. I got him for my birthday."
"You get a pony for your birthday," said Del, thick with the sort of teasing to which Helen was now accustomed.
"He is stubborn, like Helen," said Aulus.
"What do you miss?" asked Del.
"My brothers," said Aulus, who then looked surprised that the truth had tripped out. Perhaps it was true; it was hard to spout falsehoods while sailing atop one's possible mortality.
"It's time to go," Del said curtly.
Helen must have looked surprised, because Del laughed. He swept the spotlight across the fringe of the schooling fish. There was a brief impression of large, cylindrical bodies, and the gray on gray of fins the same shape as their sails.
"Sharks are here," said Del. "They're not only bad luck." In Aulus's direction he tossed off, "Don't fall overboard."
Ios-and-Serfos did not have a lighthouse on the side facing their approach. With dawn nowhere in sight, Ortugia pointed out a number of buoys to keep ships off the shallows. Only a foolhardy captain could do more than run a ship aground on the soft sandbanks.
"The Dolphin would skim right over," said Del.
"Only at high tide," said Ortugia.
Instead they sailed around until the beaches receded and the bluffs rose over the sea. Aulus yawned, but it was his turn to watch, so he had no complaints. Helen hung on the rail watching the towns grow closer. Their square, white houses were like pieces of the moon scattered on the cliffs, a scene out of an ancient story.
Suddenly, exactly like an ancient story, several boats came up around the fleet as though pulled out of the ocean. Their white sails came up as they came from both directions to make a pass parallel to the other boats.
Helen scrambled back from the rail. She knew a firing pass when she saw one.
"Peace," said Ortugia with a grin. "We don't have lighthouses." She tossed a pair of burnt cork earplugs. Helen put them on. Being surrounded so quickly had her heart beating wildly, and automatically she stood back to back with Aulus.
Ortugia raised a horn made of shell, and used it to amplify her voice to the other ships. Once they had accepted her passwords, most of the ships disappeared as though they had never been. Only one remained, a single lantern bobbing from its prow.
They followed it into an opening in the cliffs. The Eddisians admired the craftsmanship of the carved-out tunnel. It would've been the ceiling of a makeshift mine back home, but nobody had to cut a mine in deep seawater. All the toolmarks were from hand-tools, too. It could've been an old sculptor in a dinghy with a single chisel.
"I hope you don't mind," said Ortugia, with her usual air. "This is where they load cattle."
Now that Helen knew, she picked up the smell of hay and manure. There were long ramps winding all the way up to the surface.
"All this for livestock?" said Aulus.
"You try lowering a cow from a harness off a cliff onto the deck of a ship," said Ortugia.
Aulus, thought Helen, rather looked like he wanted to try. They certainly had some impressive cliffs back home. She nudged him.
There was a clang which echoed through the cavern. Aulus startled; Helen spotted the pilot boat's lantern swinging wildly.
Ortugia leaned over the rail to speak in the rapid local dialect. Helen noted they were mostly hard consonants, as vowel sounds might be lost in the roar of the waves.
The captain did not look happy at all. "There's a melee on a horse transport," she said. "The handler's taken a knock to the head. Deep water."
Several of the crew turned their heads at that. Many shook their heads. "How did they manage that?" said the navigator.
"Heads full of foam, I expect," said Ortugia. "These won't be mere ponies. They can capsize a ship with no handlers to corral them. We'll need my ship, and two others." She looked at her two Eddisians, and then up at the ramp leading to the town of Serfos. "They won't let you through the gates without me."
"My ship can't handle more than five or six horses, much less spooked ones," said Del suddenly. "We can take a couple of guests. We'll circle around to the other port. High tide gives us two hours exactly."
Ortugia raised her lantern to examine Del's face, as though searching for something. She advanced on him. "You will not let them come to harm, Delphikos. The Eddisians are advanced in war, you understand? Where the sun can't find you, where the moon doesn't know your voice, they will find you."
Aulus straightened a little.
Del snorted. "That's not why I'd protect them. Of course I'll keep an eye on them. Captain's honor, and may my blood run with seawater."
"You'll be navigating, not captaining. Erklos! To the Dolphin!"
"What about Hegite?" said Helen. Their cousin would be expecting them at sunrise. She was probably eager to leave. Helen imagined her doing something rash if she saw no sign of her countrymen on Ios.
"I know how to secure horses in a hold," said Aulus. "Helen...?"
She nodded firmly. "I agree. Aulus is a master at horses. I'd just get in the way. We'll meet back here if we're separated," she said to Aulus.
"So, you've come to a decision," said Ortugia dryly. "Very well. Do not get sick again, Aulus, or you'll get a bleeding ulcer or worse."
"I won't," said Aulus. He could ford a rushing river on a raft full of horses. Down in a hold, he would not even notice the ship's rocking.
Helen got to swing on the rope after all. She stumbled onto the Silver Dolphin just as Del tossed something over the side, ballast, she thought. Overhead she caught the glint of the Serfosan signal lantern which had alerted their pilot.
She saw Aulus shape the word 'blessed', and he was gone from view.
With no sign of dawn, Ortugia's small fleet slipped out to find the ship in distress. Del's sleek little ship followed them out of the mouth of the cave, oars dipping silently into the waves.
~ ~ ~
"That was when," said Eddis to the magus of Sounis, "Del paid off Erklos, took the tiller, and turned his ship to raid the island of Serfos."
The magus paused with his cup halfway to his lips. "Serfos? Not Ios?"
"He must have thought I agreed with this course of action, because those were the first words out of my mouth, and not 'Is kidnapping me part of the plan?'" Eddis laughed. "I don't think he had one."
Still trying to work out why Del would raid the island of his birth, the magus said, "I beg your pardon, didn't have what?"
"A plan," said Eddis.
~ ~ ~
"I have not known you very long, but I can tell this is foolhardy even by your standards," said Helen to Del. She was out of breath from running back to the topdeck of the Silver Dolphin. Below them, the oars were cutting into the water like a many-legged insect.
"She has a point."
"Why is she here."
Del cut off the murmurs with a glare. "We are not common marauders! I gave my word, seas take me. There are no moon promises over deep water." Only the gods.
Helen glanced about. Slowly she lowered her hand from her knife hilt. These were all the best of Ortugia's crew. She couldn't know the details of such a mutiny, but the islanders didn't have exiles and criminals like mainland countries. They could not waste people; neither could Helen waste a chance to sway them to think well of Eddis. Not that it mattered how much they'd talked and laughed and shared food together hours earlier, she wanted to believe they would not betray her.
"I promise I won't say anything about this venture if you get me to Hegite by sunrise," Helen said to Del. She thought a moment. It was at times like these that she truly realized that her father was the King of Eddis. "Except my father, to whom I am oathbound. If it's at all clever, he'll probably have a laugh at it."
"So, we are doomed," said Erklos where he was checking the sails.
"You'll think it's clever when you are paid," said Del. He seemed in good humor now that Helen was going along with it.
"And," said Helen. "You will explain to me what you are doing."
Del raised a brow. "Why? Princess, I could leave you on a lonely sandbar and say you were washed overboard. No one would gainsay it."
Helen got a chill at the look in his eye. Nevertheless, she was sure his oaths would hold. So. "I'm here to learn."
Del threw his head back and laughed. "You want to learn to be a pirate?"
"I'll be the only one in my country who knows how," said Helen. "Why not?"
If she survived, little Eugenides would be madly jealous.
~ ~ ~
"Del was headed where he told Ortugia," said Eddis. "Riding the high tide over the sandbars towards Serfos. By the time he was close to port, Ortugia would be on the open ocean with no sightline to us. He was headed past the harbor, into the shallow salt flats between the islands. With the shadow of the cliffs, most of the flats were on the sunnier Serfosan side. You remember how the speculators used to push for exotic salts?"
The magus thought of several oversalted feasts in the Sounisian court, and shuddered. "I recall."
"Serfos sold those salts at a premium. It was a prodigious markup. It's certainly safer to dry and gather than to mine. I believe there were supposed to be curative properties. Del had struck a deal with an unscrupulous Trading House. He was to fill his hold with bags of salt, and he and his crew would be paid well for the delicacy."
"This sounds like a straightforward... burglary, if you will." The magus smiled. "I am sure Gen would correct me with the professional terminology."
Helen's smile turned briefly sharp. "Del could only load the goods from the Serfosan harbor. Not even the Dolphin would be able to sail into the flats. As soon as I was aboard, I knew it was a ship prepared for a raid. The number of oar-holes; the platform fitted with a crane and winch, easily converted for war; and its boats and swinging ropes were ready for boarding."
"Naturally," said the magus.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
What follows is what Helen omitted from her tale for the Magus. It was an occurence from her childhood, some time before meeting the islanders.
In fact she had told no one of it, though she would not have been surprised if the gods themselves had taken note of it.
Helen was at the age where any sudden departure of a member of court was a great blow which she found hard to hide. She was old enough to know it should not have bothered her so. Men went to war and did not come back. Acts against the throne of Eddis had to be answered with exile. Elders traveled to their winter homes and did not return.
But few leave-takings hit her harder than the departure of Stenides, the eldest brother of her cousin Eugenides. She had steeled herself against Gen's despondence, and when she did come face to face with the icy silence, found she could not bear it. She was the older one; she should have received the news without wavering.
In her mind's eye she could see Gen's face, and the brief, plaintive question before he turned and crawled out the window in his usual alarmingly perfunctory way.
So Helen found herself outside Stenides's workshop. Inside was his small hearth, hardly a forge, yet it had for her entire childhood produced wonder after mechanical wonder.
She knocked. "Sten."
Stenides was still wearing his mourning colors. He looked up from the pile of clothes and the dulled metal tools spread across his bed. The room looked very bare. Even the huge worktable had been moved out.
He seemed to read something in her face. "Princess," he greeted.
Helen saw no reason to waste time with formalities. "Why are you leaving?"
Sten knew at once what she meant. "Why leave when Gen is still so cross with me?"
Stenides was quiet for a time. He was very methodical, like his father, though in happier times... he was very like his mother.
"Not everything is about Gen."
This set off a laugh. "It's not?"
"I don't believe in Eugenides," said Sten. And Helen knew he meant the God of Thieves, not his little brother.
"He let Mother fall. She sacrificed to his altars nearly every chance she got. Was it not enough? If he's real, he let her fall."
The last thing Helen expected to hear was her beloved cousin Stenides offending the gods. Part of her expected the blinding flash of a lightning bolt to leap off the window panes and into the chamber.
Helen tried to puzzle it out in the ways her Logic tutor attempted to instill in her. Logic, she was finding, made much more sense when she simply did it instead of planning for it. "If he's not... then he wasn't there to catch her? That doesn't make any sense." The Thieves had their own mysteries. Now was not the time to repeat what little Gen had told her of his professional lore.
Solid, steady Stenides had a smile faded around the edges, and his bright eyes pinched with a seldom-revealed emotion. He was staring at a delicate chain of enameled disks lying atop his folded robes. Helen thought they looked like small coins dotted with paint.
"That's why I can't believe in him," he said. He paused. "Gen does."
Suddenly Helen was afraid. She loved Gen. For all his antics, she did not want him to fall.
"That is why I must leave," continued his older brother. "If I stay, I might try to stop him."
"That doesn't make any sense!" Helen exclaimed.
"I'm starting to understand that not everything runs like clockwork," said Stenides. He was beginning to grow a beard, or something more affected, like a Continental, and its shadows made him look even older than he was. Then he looked up at Helen. The brightness returned to his face. "You're good at secrets."
"Me?" Helen blinked. "I try to be honest."
Sten shook his head slowly. "You are, nonetheless. You're proficient at it. It could serve you well, one day."
Helen shrugged. Everything she learned was a potential resource for later. She enjoyed it, when it wasn't snarling her head in knots. People like Stenides's father encouraged her interests. Less receptive relations might turn their noses up, but she agreed with Gen that Logic was not as boring as the practices they pressed on the girls in court.
"I'll tell you a story," Sten went on. "You mustn't tell Gen."
Helen was shocked anew. Sten reserved his best stories for his little brother.
As the import of it dawned on her, she drew herself up as properly as she could. "Very well."
Sten smiled. One day there would be crinkles besides his eyes. "I dedicated an offering to the Great Goddess, after, as expected of us. Halfway down the naos, I realized the baskets weren't nested all the way. There were two extra fruits I had overlooked. Even though," he said with a smirk, his expression reflecting a similar one on Gen's face, "By my count, they had all been left for Hephestia. So I turned, meaning to go back, when I caught sight of the altars for her lesser children. One of them looked a little bare.
"It was the shrine of the Artificer. I don't know why I've never left an offering for him. Or if I have, I don't remember. I placed the fruit, one on each side, because the Old Artificer likes symmetry.
"This morning," Stenides said, "One of my etching chemicals came unstoppered and burned half my worktable. It would have spilled over the side and started a fire in my wastebin. It was already filled with oil-soaked rags," he told a gaping Helen. "There was no fire. No explosion. Because the library trays had been stacked upside-down on the side of the workbench. They formed a dam for the flames. Oh, they smoldered a little, and the trays are well ruined. I was able to catch it in time before it became a conflagration."
"Was it a god?" asked Helen.
Stenides was silent for a minute. Then he plucked a scroll from under the robes, and with a startlingly hasty sweep of his arms, spread it open. He had clearly been studying this section in depth because it opened neatly to an inked illustration.
"It was this, Princess," murmured Stenides. "This scroll is what was under the trays."
The words were all in barely legible archaic, scratched tiny next to the illustration. Helen peered at the picture — a diagram. Undulating waves covered the bottom. On top were two fleets of ships. And overlaid upon the air, and under the water, bloomed deadly gouts of fire.
No one had wielded Hephestia's Breath since before the invaders.
"I suspected for some time that my recipe for etching materials, combined with distilled resins, would result in this. The scorch pattern on my desk confirmed it. It'd be amazing for fire-etching," said Sten wistfully. "What it would be used for, instead, is obvious. This is the only copy of this scroll in the library. I'm taking it with me when I go."
"Why tell me?" said Helen, bewildered.
"Because Gen can't steal what he doesn't know is missing," said Stenides with a wry grin. "And because you're good at secrets. You know Gen tells you all of his own?"
Helen could not imagine how that could be true. "He doesn't!" He tells you everything, she thought. The words stuck in her throat.
"Oh, not right away! He'll drag his feet then tell you three versions of the truth. But he does eventually tell you all his stories. Including the ones I'm not privy to. I think you should know this one," said Sten. "Because you're good at secrets. You're good at knowing when to tell them. And when to keep them.
"Watch out for Gen," said his brother Stenides.
All Helen could think of was that she would have done that anyway. "Sten," she said, coming forward to embrace him. "Be blessed in your endeavours."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Only a few years later, Helen would be staring transfixed into the hold of the Silver Dolphin. Before her were the very same elongated cannons illustrated in Stenides's scroll.
~ ~ ~
At first they seemed to go about their business. A sleek little boat of the coastal patrol's signaled them. They signaled back.
Then Del called for Teisulos, who proudly surrendered the knotted rope he had been working on: the patrol's secret passcode. Patrolling was a rotating job, it seemed. No one would notice the girl on the duty roster who was at that moment hanging on the ladder talking to Del. He tied the rope around a sizable amphora and handed it to her.
"I'll hold them off, Delphikos," she promised fervently. She took the rope-code from him like it was a gold bracelet.
"You don't have to hold them off, Eulimene, only give us our window. Thank you," Del said.
Eulimene swayed on the ladder. "You're thanking me?" She looked so achingly hopeful. Helen sighed. Poor chick.
"I'm trying something new!" Del laughed. "Here, grant us a kiss for luck, dear Eulimene."
Helen was contemplating asking Del if he knew how much Eulimene was sweet on him when something caught her eye.
"Why are your flags up?" asked Helen. The islanders' flags relied less on color than on shape and size. The ship still flew its distinctive dolphin leaping over the wave-like crest of Serfos.
"For now, they are," said Del. Erklos did not seem amused that he was in actuality explaining everything to their Eddisian passenger, but the older man said nothing. It was Del's rudder; he leaned on it like it weighed an ounce. "We'll fly our standard long enough to slip past the coastal patrol, then pull it when we're in sight of shore. That's why we're taking our time."
Helen took out her pocketwatch.
"Show her the tide tables," said Del without looking over. "In case we do leave her on a sandbar."
"Sharks would spit her out anyway," said Erklos, but he did as he was told. Given the atmosphere, Helen was lucky they thought she could read.
"What if they do a count and they know it's you," she pressed. "Anonymity won't do you much good."
Del said, "Any captain can take down their flag and turn pirate. Usually, in open water. In sight of watchers, it sows doubt. Then they'll wonder if it was a friend who was suborned, or a mutiny, or if a god is playing tricks with mirages. Anonymity is an invitation to hostilities. Why must I explain that to you, Eddisian?"
"On land, we tend not to be seen at all." If it were done right. Helen always managed to give herself away, even in full camouflage. "That makes sense... even small craft are easily visible."
"In good conditions," Erklos added, getting into it.
"But Del," said Helen, "Why raid Serfos? Couldn't you simply... steal the salt?" Which was a perfectly Eddisian thing to say. Somewhere Gen's ears were itching.
Del laughed ruefully. "There's a song about stealing the salt which I must teach you one day. My dear, I have lived most of my life on Ios. They don't know me on Serfos, not anymore. Even if I could run to the salt flats and back without Ortugia finding out, a dozen shutters would slam open the moment I took a wrong step. It's not like I can hide behind a tree," he sneered.
"You can't," and then Helen bit her own tongue. She could not let on to Del what she had seen in his hold. She was sure they were guns which could not be fired. She couldn't let on that she might know how to reverse that situation.
"This is your fault!" Del snapped, swinging to heated again. Erklos took a look at him, and left them alone by the tiller.
"How so?" Helen said, her cheeks burning.
"Because the match fell through! You won't send another girl until at least another season, unless Eddis becomes preoccupied with some other war, and then what?"
"Can't we write a treaty without a marriage?" Helen said.
"Not out here," said Del, as severely as Ortugia at her driest. "You can ride your horse down to the next country, or send some sneak on foot to check that a treaty is binding. Out here there are only the ships." And outside of the shipping lanes, every crew was filled with islanders. Not even they knew all the waters of the Middle Sea, given the number of specialized pilots like Delphikos himself. "Only the sea is constant, Helen. Look around you! It takes money and men to maintain even one ship. There are rowers who would be that much closer to paying off their debts. Families who can rebuild their houses after the last windstorms. The sea feeds us, but it cannot put oil in our lamps nor grant us timber for our hulls."
Rather uncharitably, Helen wondered why Hegite had rejected the match. Del was right; Eddis had the advantage.
Even if Helen was only one Eddisian, it behooved her to... do something. She wasn't sure what, quite yet. "I don't understand how this benefits you. The salt is traded away legitimately—"
"The profits are split between Ios and Serfos," said Del.
They smiled at each other, both of them grim.
"The raid will be a distraction," said Del reassuringly.
Helen heard the familiar, oddly comforting sound of weapons being counted. She thought of what she had found in the hold, and cast about for a god who would hear her: let it only be a distraction. Let it not be war.
"He was raiding Serfos to help Serfos." The magus was rubbing his temples.
"It's not unheard of, in less dramatic circumstances. The pirates of the islands tend not to raid each other openly. It foments war, which few islands save the largest or richest can afford. There are raids, still, in an odd redistribution which most of us would call barbaric. But mainland pirates do nothing but strip the islands and take their spoils back to mainland countries. If they don't know which is which, they can maintain the polite fiction that it wasn't their cousin from the next island who took the sausages, if that same cousin's the one who buys a cask of their wine." Eddis patted her knee. "Some islands, who are used to Attolia and Sounis warring over them, simply hide away their most precious goods, and leave some storages unguarded, like leaving a bowl of milk on the temple steps."
"Either too small a force to bother resisting, or too large a force to risk casualties," said the magus, enlightened. All this infighting had gone on during his tenure, and he had, like most of the histories he read, only paid attention to the islands as points of strategic interest, or perhaps as suitable places of exile.
Eddis sighed. "The late war took them by surprise, I'm afraid. I've tried to hurry some kind of relief to them now that we've got Ephrata. It will be some time before Attolia and Sounis collect themselves to even think of the islanders. Then as now, it will be a season too late."
"You know, if you," began the magus.
"Ah, ah," said Helen, smiling. "I am the hero of this story, for once. You're getting a more complete version than Gen did, he being a young and impressionable Thief at the time."
The magus settled back. "I am honored, Your Majesty."
True to his word, as soon as the raiding party crossed into the fragile rings of torchlight by the pier, the alarm went up, and most of the town shut itself inside. Helen had been told by nearly every member of the party to stay on the ship. Sometimes twice, because they were all wearing masks, and it was indeed quite confusing in the dark. There were three groups. One was the raiding party; the second, a pair of the best rowers used a makeshift boom to slingshot them into the bank, where they could be left. This pair paddled in circles to convey each boat of raiders, then as torches were extinguished, retrieved as many of the craft as they could.
Helen watched the last group shoot in the other direction, towards the salt flats. Under cover of the chaos in town, they would haul what they could back to the harbor. Few would count them. There was where the salt was collected, and where it was stored — between the two, Del was sure to fill the hold of the Silver Dolphin.
By clever application of the tiller, countering the oarsmen only pulling on the starboard side, the ship slid unmarked towards the small hill separating the harbor and the interior of the islands. The waters here were barely deep enough for the Dolphin to lurk without running aground. Del was leading the raiding party, and they would cut through the town and then jump off the hill into the water.
Helen was a bundle of nerves. She was almost sure she could trust Del's crew without him there. She would certainly get herself in a heap of trouble if they were caught, and it was discovered that the daughter of the King of Eddis was taking part. Not to mention, separating herself and Aulus had been her idea.
When Del had given her the mask, she had squawked with the realization. "You could have just blackmailed me into going along with your plan!"
"That's a fine idea," laughed Del. "Have another one like that, and I'll love you forever."
Now, she checked her pocketwatch. Untrue to his word, Del was losing the race against sunrise and tide. The second group was aboard with all but one of the landing boats. In her mind a hundred outcomes if they were caught tried to trample her calm. She wanted to pray; it didn't seem the right time and place for it. So, she held her breath and listened to her heart tick away.
Suddenly, from atop the hill, someone lit a lantern, then tried to conceal its light.
"Oh no," said Helen.
They were going to catch the raiding party on the way back.
Hurriedly, the crew checked that they were still concealed. If it came to it, Erklos said, they could raise the Serfosan standard, and claim to have been hijacked. Everyone on board were Serfosan.
"What?" cried Helen. "If you go back, they'll recognize you on Serfos."
"Why would we go... duchess, we're not going back for them." Erklos shook his head. "We can't signal them without giving away our position. Then we'd get Ortugia in trouble."
"I'm not a duchess yet. I am the only one here who would not be recognized on Serfos," said Helen.
She was also thinking: if Del were caught, his guns would be confiscated too. Ortugia could not know what they were. She would have sold them for scrap... or to the highest bidder. That was what neutrality meant.
Urgently, she said, "Erklos. Please don't betray Del."
Erklos was taken aback. "Why would we do that? He loves the sea more than anything. No islander would."
"Then keep your promises," Helen said.
Time and tide were running out.
Very well, Helen could admit being motivated in some way to save Delphikos. In the moment, though, all she could think of was that finally, she was useful. Quick on her feet and plain-speaking.
Erklos rowed her to the closest sandbar. It was growing uncomfortably solid as the sea receded. Helen gave it a quarter of an hour before the Dolphin would have to retreat to deeper water.
She checked her mask, tapped the sheath of her knife, and sneaked into town.
Ios-and-Serfos were so small that the reports on them were generous with details. Serfos was like a giant cross tilting into the ocean. At the center was their primary source of water, an uncovered well with ten waterbaskets for each founding family. Now there was shouting, and fighting, the only positive detail being that Helen heard very few clangs of metal, and no report from a gun. The houses reeked. The trapped heat from baking in the sun all day was cooking whatever Del had thrown on the walls. Helen wondered how long before the Serfosans realized it was rancid olive oil with tree resin, and not, as threatened, a substance that would make clay inflammable. If it did catch on fire, a bucket of sand would put it out, of which there was no shortage.
The source of this idea of Del's was far more frightening than the demonstrated gambit.
Helen avoided the town center. She crept from shadow to shadow until she was back at the cattle gate. As expected, the guard had deserted his post to catch the raiders. It was no good as an exit for them, as it was on the opposite direction from their path.
A few ramps down, Helen found the luminescent trail of dead sea creatures which Eulimene had used to mark the trail. Helen followed them down, then followed the smell.
Only an hour ago, she had been floating on the waves below.
Now she ran across the stables and unlatched every stall.
~ ~ ~
"I couldn't let him lose his father's ship," Eddis now told the magus.
He contemplated the answer, noting nothing amiss.
"You didn't trust him not to tell them of your involvement," he said.
The queen shrugged. "I still would have gone home in that case. The islanders needed us too much. Besides, I thought if Del were behind those spooked horses, I could stampede a few head of cattle."
~ ~ ~
The problem was that Helen could not figure out how to stampede a herd of cows.
She clapped in their ear, tugged at their harnesses, tapped the back of their hooves like they were sheep. Even if she'd wanted to take a switch to them, they were someone else's cows, and rather sleepy ones at that.
The cows only stared at her. It was unnerving.
It was early enough in the morning that their only ambition was to be milked. They would amble forward a little if Helen waved the milking stool. That was the extent of their involvement.
Helen checked the pocketwatch. She was going to get caught, and Del was going to get caught, because she could not out-stubborn a herd of cows.
That was when Helen spotted the shovel.
~ ~ ~
It was gratifying that the magus had grown so used to Helen's tale-spinning and her way of thinking that he instantly guessed what was to come.
He groaned deeply. "You did no such thing."
Helen laughed. "I haven't gotten to it yet!"
"And Gen doesn't know about this?"
"Not a word."
"If it pleases you to continue, Your Majesty."
"All right, let me remember."
~ ~ ~
Helen found a sack which would be up to the task, and propped it open with an upturned milking stool. That she could estimate how much manure would give her a certain weight was evidence of many years of having brothers. She had no time for gloves, and when the mask grew stifling, had to flip it up with the sides of her arms.
When she had collected enough manure, she grabbed a bucket and a rake, and raced out into town.
She was almost too late. The townspeople were marching Del into the square, with his loyal raiders behind him. Some had undoubtedly escaped back to Ios, or would circle back to the Dolphin.
Their masks were still in place. All was not yet lost.
With her mask firmly fastened, Helen dashed onto the lip of the town's well, and held the sack of manure over her head.
"Let us go or this will drop!"
It wasn't a very threatening tone. However if there were one thing Helen was good at, it was speaking without the Eddisian accent, like a Continental, a skill born out of an interminable summer of Gen practicing his accents on her.
The stench of the sack's contents were threat enough.
The crowd gasped. Del's mouth hung open.
It was an unmistakable act of war to sully a town's supply of drinking water. Oh, engineers from a country as advanced as, say, Eddis, could turn the water potable again, but only after many years of patient filtration and testing. It was, as Del explained, too much of a delay. Helen was exceedingly careful with her balance. If her arms faltered at the thought of what she was doing, of the global import of what she was doing, she thought of the guns.
The chieftain was not there. He was, Helen later found out, alerting Ios, or possibly accusing them of sending pirates. The sentries and gathered townsfolk looked at each other. Then they released Del.
"Get clear!" ordered Helen. With the rake and bucket, she placed the sack so that it was balanced near the edge. Most of the weight was centered away from the well, but no one else could see it. "Clear a path to the water. We can topple it with a crossbow bolt." The Serfosans backed away, giving them an open path. They didn't have a crossbow bolt, which seemed beside the point as they ran like a landslide back to the harbor.
It wasn't until the second sandbar that Del began hooting. "I love you! That was brilliant! You saved us, my dear! Oh, to the end of my days, I love you!"
Helen, who was trying to wash the nasty taste in her head, was not in the mood to reply.
They tumbled into the waiting boats, paddling with their hands if they had to, back to the Silver Dolphin. In the light of the pre-dawn sun, Helen saw that it was actually painted a blue-green.
On the other side of the ship, the last sacks from the salt flats were being loaded. They had done it.
None the wiser, they sailed with full colors into the waters off Ios, to yell up a window at Hegite. There was a pulley system for lowering bread and other rations down from what had to be a bakery. Hegite stuck her head out that window and greeted Helen with a bellow which rivaled her singing voice.
"...and I heard there were pirates!"
"The islands are very wide around, we were missed," said Helen. She felt a little ashamed of her lies, even if Gen would have approved. "Hegite, listen to me! We have another errand to... to fix this ship. Aulus will come and fetch you."
"You're on a sinking ship?" Hegite howled.
"No, it is something else. Hegite, do you want me to yell up a cliff about the various parts of a ship all the day long? My voice is scratchy already."
Hegite shouted a few more unpleasantries. She had been refused, Helen realized, and she reminded herself to give Hegite some leeway. "And I am sick of dried gouna! Day and night, they serve it!"
Del, who had been packing up the sail behind Helen, began to object. Never mind that Hegite couldn't hear him.
Helen waved them both off. "Hegite, are you in danger? Are you being mistreated? Wrinkle your nose twice if so!"
"I am in no mood for your humor, Helen!" Her scowl only wrinkled her nose once, so she was all right. Then even from so many feet below, Helen saw her heave a sigh and knock her cheek on the window frame. "I want to go home."
"Aulus will come for you," Helen promised again. Her heart clenched. She coughed, and wiped her eye. She wanted to go home too. "Tell him that I am fine," not that Hegite had asked, "We will meet up with you closer to Hannipus."
After accepting provisions, they sailed away from the bare cliff of Ios.
"So you are staying on with us," said Del, amused.
"You cannot be caught by Ortugia with the contraband still in your hold," said Helen wearily. "Which means you cannot let me go until you are rid of it. Do not talk around it, Del. At least tell me the drop-off point is close, and not on the other side of the ocean?"
Del's amusement faded. "It's on Ardos."
"Very well. I am going to bed."
"I said I loved you," said Del. He sounded very much like it was all a game to him.
Helen knew he was serious, but she was too tired to work out how. "You know Eulimene was making cow-eyes at you."
"Cow eyes?" said Del, honestly alarmed. "Is that a serious condition?"
"She is sweet on you. It's bad form to simply declare your love to someone else."
"I am not lying. To you nor to her. That is how the sea loves." He looked thoughtful. "Though I suppose she may have higher hopes for me than I for her. I should clarify that before I kiss her again, I suppose?"
"Cruel," said Helen.
"No crueler than being willing to cut down my own kin for money," sneered Del. "Or poison a well."
"That part I knew." She had seen. A battle-haze could take over even the kindest person. Del was no different, even if he wanted to have airs about it. "I was trying to be polite, by not mentioning it."
"So," said Delphikos. Helen was not sure that he did understand. "You have yet to explain to me about the cow eyes! Was it something you saw, in the stalls?"
Helen trudged off to find her bunk.
Eddis was prepared to tell the magus that the Dolphin had been lost on the rocks of Ardos, where their contact was waiting with their payment. What actually happened was this: grey clouds gathered like the Sky gathering the folds of a dress. The salt had been loaded onto a net, which was now hanging from the sturdiest winch she had ever seen. Much of its mechanism was hidden, though Helen guessed there were large ratchets involved, to carry a load with so few pulleys. Del explained that it could be rolled to different parts of the deck and then locked in to balance out the load. It was a hazard, but he could not bear to leave it to rust.
"Where did you find such machines?" Helen asked.
"This? This was given to me. It's one reason Ortugia keeps me on," Del answered. Helen very much doubted that was true. And she also noted that she was not skilled at simpering her way into information. From Erklos she gathered that they did salvage quite a few treasures from the ancient world. Most of these disappeared to the Peninsula. The Ring Archipelago, interestingly enough, had a loose agreement that these treausures would at least be displayed by their collectors, or brought to the schools for study.
When the exchange occurred, Helen was kept out of sight in her quarters. She was quite tired, and was horrified to wake hours later, still bleary-eyed and now with a crick in her neck. It was practically the next day! She had hoped to catch sight of the Trading House ship. Mortified and angry at herself, she opened the door to find one of the crew standing guard in the corridor. He merely shrugged and said they'd noticed her countryman trading off watches, and had followed in their tradition.
Restless, she did her best to freshen up and made her way to Del's quarters. He might not be happy to see her, but he seemed incapable of keeping any answers from her.
Helen found the door unlocked.
"Why are we not underway?" she said, and halted at the threshold.
Del looked up from wrapping his chest. He didn't seem angry. He raised a shoulder, and Helen hastily slammed the door shut.
The questions turned to ash in her mouth. Helen had never been so rude, not even in the raucous merrymaking of a wedding on Eddis.
Del crooked a smile. Quite generously, he had an answer for her. "It's not as glamorous as the plays make it seem," he said. "Since you are wondering, I am a man. My father says so." A wry look stole over him. "My mother, not as much. She followed my father's lead."
"Oh," said Helen.
"Oceanus doesn't care. We are all gristle for his white coral millstone."
"Surely there are other gods who would..." Helen gestured. Do something. Intervene.
Del laughed. "Out here, you understand, only one god prevails. Ah, Helen, the gods are all cruel. And kind, when it suits them. I do admit, whenever I am inland, I dedicate an offering at their shrines. But I can't think of what they'd do out here in the open water. Perhaps that's better left as a mystery to me. The simple thing about the sea is you've only got to worry about riding on top of it."
"That's where all the storms are," said Helen.
"True enough." He grinned as though the storms were entirely the point. "I could spend all my life wondering about the depths below me and the stars above. Likely I would never get anywhere." He touched his holster where he kept no gun — only a small spyglass. "It may be a life for others. Not for me."
Helen cleared her throat. "You've made your exchange? You have your gold?"
"Had the gold. Hid it already, in the old ruins of Ardos. I'd invite you for a tour of the ruins, however there is a reason for our stopping here."
Through the cotton in her ears, Helen finally discerned the ticking of raindrops.
"It's nothing. Or it could be nothing. Last year three ships went down risking a soft squall like this—"
"Delphikos," called Erklos. Del pulled on a tunic and answered the door before Helen could say a word.
Erklos was not there to lecture them on propriety. "The patrols. They followed us."
"Are they out of their minds?" exclaimed Del, and he ran for the deck.
Helen's heart sank as she watched the lithe ships sneak into the old harbor like sharks circling their prey. It was hard to imagine that the people on those boats were their countrymen. And with the colors down, they did not know this was the Silver Dolphin. She hoped she would never see a war where it was impossible to tell friend from foe.
Del pushed an oilskin jacket on Helen before clambering atop the roof for a better look.
"It's not easy to navigate into the old port of Ardos," he said. Then he swore. "Who is your goddess, Helen of Eddis? Because the wind has changed."
The others did not stop working, but the ripple of dismay traveled across the deck.
"We cannot escape now," someone said.
"Our gold," cried another plaintively.
"Is safe," insisted Del. "Erklos is our best trap-maker. Well, what of it? Without the evidence aboard, do we concede?" He asked the crew.
"Not with me, I'm afraid," said Helen. She covered a sneeze. "I will be obliged to answer their questions truthfully. Or risk future treaties." She folded her arms.
Del let out a frustrated groan. "For a lovely girl, you are bossy."
"Do not play word games," Helen said, coughing a laugh. She was hardly lovely. "Sometimes you have to concede to strategy."
"So you don't side with who you love?"
"They're minutes away," Erklos interrupted sharply.
"I want them closer," said Del. "In case they capsize, we can send a boat to save them."
Erklos and the others of the crew went silent for a moment. Except for the rain, and Del himself, it was as though the whole world drew breath. Then Erklos said, "Delphikos, the tiller is yours."
Our lives are yours.
Helen grabbed whatever handhold she could as Del ordered the crew to fill the sails, though it took them directly into the path of the approaching patrol boats. Without being told, Erklos took the second tiller and leaned on it hard. As Del swung the Dolphin around in a tight spiral, and the sails fell as though they'd been cut, Helen found herself thinking of Del's question. It was an odd thought to entertain when they were trapped between hostile ships and a treacherous coast, with a gathering storm.
As though compelled, Helen said to Del, "Your love may be fathomless. But you carry no loyalties, Del."
"Save one," Del said promptly. His grin unfurled, fierce, and then withdrew again. "On my count, someone yell down to put to the oars like we're double drumming."
"I'll do it," said Helen.
She spent the rest of the mad dash in the corridor between the deck and the galley. They had a listening tube, but the rain garbled the words, and dulled the urgency of Del's commands. Helen shouted until she was hoarse.
It was ultimately hopeless. The storm pushed them away from open water. They could not turn toward Thicos. They could only go back the way they came: Ios-and-Serfos.
Helen wiped at her brow with clammy fingers. "Don't turn and fire on them." At the short silence after her words, Helen said, "You are cornered. What else can you do? I am begging you, though, you cannot fire on them. They'll have no chance."
She gripped the watch in the pocket of her trousers. It felt unnaturally cool.
~ ~ ~
Erklos heard it. A year later he was killed trying to clear a field of wild boars. There were no records of the pursuit of the Silver Dolphin, days before its eventual sinking. Helen made sure of it when she became Eddis. And in the present day, Del was sitting in her best cell, eating sauced mushrooms and too in love with Helen to betray her secrets. Nor see the secrets for what they were; Stenides had been right about not knowing of one's prizes.
As for anyone else who knew, the sea, eventually, took the rest.
~ ~ ~
What happened was this:
Del looked at Helen, who was seated on a stool in the back corner. "Helen, you are shivering."
"I don't understand," she said. She could not quite control what she was saying. She had been meaning to ask if Aulus was there. If he was there, then they could take Hegite and leave. Somewhere the logic of it tangled up and dissolved.
"That's the answer," said Del somberly. "Put up a flag of surrender."
"We're conceding?" Erklos couldn't believe it.
"No, worse. We are declaring a quarantine."
As they sailed into the twin embrace of Ios-and-Serfos, Helen caught a glimpse of the rows of square salt flats shimmering along the coast, like a collection of mirrors arranged on the floor. Their pursuers fell back. They were content to herd them forward to be penned in by the islands. It was as good as a closed harbor, as there was nowhere to go but where the islands leaned toward each other. There the Dolphin could only be kissed by cannon-fire.
Beyond that, the Gnasher's Strait.
And the only ship with the means to set fire to a plague ship from afar was the Silver Dolphin itself. Helen did not have the werewithal to discern how much Del knew.
They used the crane to build a makeshift tent around the tillers. Helen protested. She was fine, only wearied by the short nights and long, tense days. Del remained at the tiller. He was unbearably cheerful that Helen would recover in a day from a malady every child on the islands suffered and survived, and that Helen's misery was quite convincingly worse than it looked.
Unsurprisingly, the only ship to approach was Ortugia's flagship. Helen remembered a few flashes of Aulus bulling his way onboard. Hegite was less enthused. She would not use the rope-swing, and there had to be a gangplank extended. Ortugia stood at the rail and glared; Del hid in the tent.
When Helen could not even keep a weak broth down, she had to concede that there was something wrong.
This time it was Aulus helping Helen at the railing. He did have no shortage of comments about her aim.
Attentions were redirected from the shocking act of piracy in the Serfosan town square to the ship carrying an unknown plague in their harbor. Helen insisted she was going to feel better, but not too loudly. A quarantine meant no one would search the Silver Dolphin. In her lucid hours, she thought about what to do about the guns. She wished she could talk to Stenides, or even his brother Gen, whose ideas, while outrageous, seemed to solve any problems.
Helen was beginning to feel the pressure of abject failure. What diplomacy had she exercised? Every circumstance seemed as fickle as the changing wind.
She felt guilty when Ortugia tore out planks of her own deck to help build walls under the steersman's platform to make a cabin for the Eddisians, out of the sun and away from the galley. Some rowers disappeared during this time, picked up by independent boats or swinging over to Ortugia. They would claim their gold later. The ones who stayed wore some very familiar masks and built the walls around Helen's sickbed.
Unfortunately for Helen, Hegite spent many of those hours crying over Helen's terrible fate, until Helen could not stand it any longer. "I am tired of my troubles. Tell me what you have done here, in the meantime."
Hegite took this to mean she would complain of her own troubles. Helen had been curious, however, and lying woozy in the bunk, she could not find it in herself to stop the flow of anguish. Her would-be husband was so handsome, with interesting scars, and had hands like grinding stones. Slowly it seeped into Helen's awareness that Hegite was truly heartbroken.
It was not until Hegite said, "They said I wasn't happy. That is why they rejected the match. Why couldn't I grow to be happy?" that Helen discerned that there was something more than what was on the surface.
"It's their way," Helen had tried to say. She and Aulus shared a glance when Hegite only sobbed harder. And then switched back to sharp-tongued animosity, making them glad they were piled into a small cabin with walls.
It gave Helen much to reflect on, in her youth, and later on.
Helen had for many years assumed that Eugenides's sisters had married solely for the favorable matches. It was simply something the girls of the palace did, once they were out of the dormitories. Relations to the ruling family aside — they were all cousins here — she'd seen how Baron Pharos had raised his worth in court by dint of raising a troupe of beautiful daughters. Or been fortunate enough to house young women both capable and comely.
It was later that she realized, as with all the opaque strains of that family, that the girls had sought to distance themselves from their wayward mother. All of the Minister of War's children were affected by a sense of duty to country and kin, and that did play into the arrangement of their marriages. At the same time, they had witnessed the cruel hardships which had gone hand-in-hand with the reckless joy of living as Queen Thief.
Helen was chagrined, years later, to find Gen's sisters content in their quiet homes away from the palace, raising their children, occupied with their spouses and holdings. They had chosen that path, and not blindly. They had lived out the other options. Now their children had a grandfather who could seldom visit but for his duties, and a grandmother remembered only in whispered tales. Their lives were as peculiar to Helen as Helen's was to them.
They had not caught the attention of the gods. They were happy.
Del was unbearably smug at delaying Ortugia's retribution. It was, to him, as good as avoiding it. "Helen, it will pass," he assured them. "In a day, you will feel better. Look, Ortugia has reprovisioned us! There'll be greens and salted meat for your broth."
"You're pleased to be eating well," Aulus observed.
"That, too," said Del, unrepentant.
Helen felt worse still when she found that the entire herd had been culled. Her condition had touched off a search for the sick cow, whom Del insisted to the chieftains had been visited on a tour of the cattle gate, missing the pirate raid by minutes. It turned out several herds had been saved from possible disaster on the mainland. Customers were paying off the islanders for their trouble. In turn, they were happy to resupply the Eddisians.
As long as they never found out who had threatened their well — enough of the raiding party had 'escaped' that there was doubt over their affiliations — only Helen's guilt remained to dog her. That only made her feel worse about it. Had she chosen the right course? Or had Del goaded her into impulsive recklessness?
Would the gods ever forgive her?
Or was there a harder answer?
Aulus had decided to spare Helen the pleasure of Hegite's company for the afternoon. Del, bored of talking to Eulimene over the side with no prospect of kissing, stole back in to keep Helen company.
Instead of working out a way to ask him about the guns, Helen found herself conveying the worries kicked up by Hegite's woes.
"The irony is I would be happy to be matched with anyone at all. Any of my cousins would make better matches than I would."
"Can you have the marriage without the treaty? Can't you marry who you want?" Del asked curiously. "You're a princess."
"That's exactly why," said Helen. She smiled at him.
Delphikos shook his head. "I think you'll marry for love."
"What if I fall in love with a fool?"
He scoffed. "You wouldn't stand them for a minute! They'd flop into your presence like a fish on the dock then flop back into the sea." Helen laughed, though it ached. He said seriously, "Would you even fancy someone without any sense of duty? Or even a sense of direction?"
Helen wrinkled her nose. It didn't seem wise to concede the point aloud.
"See," said Del. "No need to worry about falling short; you wouldn't even like someone who'd belittle your responsibilities. There's always room for love, Helen. You deserve it."
Time was oddly stretched and compressed all at once. The reprieve ended at dinner the next day.
"She needs to see doctors!" Aulus growled. He was looming over Del.
Del matched him glower for glower. "Healers will see how mild the infection is! Don't you want to keep this from Your King?"
"Watch your tongues, all of you, that's treason you're suggesting," said Hegite. "We are staying here at Helen's request." In truth, Ortugia had been oddly quiescent about letting the Eddisians break 'quarantine' together. Much later, Helen would realize she had all but driven the Eddisians onto the islanders' fastest ship.
Secrets, thought Helen. She could barely lift her head to spoon her soup. That was a secret, as well.
"Oh no, oh dear Helen," said Hegite from somewhere.
Helen felt, rather than saw, Aulus scramble to get the bucket to her. "There is blood," he reported. "Our hand is forced. She will see doctors. On Eddis."
"Only little flecks," whispered Helen.
They had gambled with the gods and lost.
Helen only remembered fragments from that time. Aulus and Hegite arguing over her feet. Wearing a painted mask, Ortugia braiding her hair to keep it clear from her brow. And Del, kneeling at her side, telling her she could not die, he loved her like the sea itself, unrelenting, he would love her until the mountains crumbled into the ocean.
"That's not... precisely... comforting, Del," said Helen. Worse than the illness was missing her mother and father, and yes, her brothers and sister. All she could do was stare glassy-eyed and understand that whatever Del was offering, she could not accept. Not when another offer had been accepted already.
Time stretched and twisted in on itself. She heard the scratch of a pen, and smelled candied nuts, though all she'd eaten all week long had been porridge.
They left port within the hour.
Del had half the oarsmen at his disposal. Behind him were two of Ortugia's fleet, with Hegite opting to travel with the captain.
Aulus was probably the angriest Helen had ever seen him. "This is not the time to show off. You talk and talk of the Gnasher's Strait, and I know how many ships—"
"I will not be one of them! I swear to you, may my bones turn to foam, I will deliver her to your doorstep. The Strait is the least of her worries."
Helen drifted off. They were only being protective. At least they were speaking to each other. Del was even sharing his ration. All would be well.
~ ~ ~
The truth was: Ortugia had papers of passage for the closest ports in Sounis.
Del did not.
He did not turn the Dolphin around to take the longer course to the mainland. The shortest path was ahead, through the Gnasher's Strait.
Ortugia shouted at him. Aulus shouted at him. Del paid them no mind, for hidden in the newly built cabin he had a pouch of gold, and in the belly of his father's ship, he had guns which could pump out Hephestia's Breath. They sprinted ahead so quickly that Hegite's gangplank fell into the water almost before she touched the deck. They were quick enough that no cannon-fire was startled from the cliffs. Hegite shouted, too; she was on the other ship, and didn't sound it.
Helen never did get to see Del pilot the Gnasher's Strait. She did not see him bend the oars to the sea and rocks before the ship could crash into them. How he leaned into the currents before the waves could lean into the hull of the Dolphin. That did not make him a pirate; that was between him and Oceanus.
She did wake to find Aulus looking green as seaweed. He let out a string of curses, and after Helen was certain he wouldn't aim those curses at the gods, she crept and crawled above-decks to get some air.
"You should go back down," said Del. He was at the tiller, with all the men not on the oars watching the sea.
"Why?" said Helen. She kept low, anyhow. The roll of the deck was daunting, but the salt air felt good.
"Still want to be a pirate?"
"Want to learn," murmured Helen.
"The Gnasher's Strait is fast because it shoots us into the narrower, deeper currents. You can ride them all the way to Attolia if you catch a good wind."
The wooden decking under her palms turned cold as slate. "It crosses Sounisian shipping lanes," Helen realized.
These would not be the small, fast ships of the islanders. These would be warships.
They couldn't be caught.
"We won't be caught," said Del. "Go back below, hide. They have spyglasses that can see which way the moon looks."
The Dolphin wove to and fro around the underwater rocks. Del was sweating. These were not his waters, and they had no pilot to guide him. Helen moved her blankets to the floor, over Aulus's objections, so she'd feel like more like she was moving with the boat instead of rattling on top of the bunk. She thought about praying. Would they offend the gods of these currents? She could not know what hand was directing the boat. Her belief was beside the point; the sea would win.
She thought she understood, bit by bit, how Del embraced the sea, and how it did the same to him.
Ortugia's ships were far behind them, but they closed the gap given all the Dolphin's evasions. Some of the Sounisian patrols were obliged to fall back to inspect their papers.
The Silver Dolphin would be given up as a smuggler. Which was at this moment, technically true. At the very least, Hegite would make it home to report to the King of Eddis.
Suddenly the Dolphin executed another tight turn.
There was a knock on the door. Erklos was in the corridor, trying to remain upright. "Prepare to board the boats."
"What is happening?" demanded Helen. She couldn't even protest when Aulus practically carried her out.
"They have a fast ship, like ours. It's going to present its flank, to board us."
Helen nearly kicked Aulus trying to get free. "Del!" she cried. "You can't fire on them!"
Her every feverish nightmare might come true.
"You are intent on this," said Del, calm as could be. He was leaning hard on the tiller, then yanked it back, then leaned in again. The Dolphin lurched. The remaining oarsmen were pulling for their lives, one side or another stopping and starting as Del ordered it. "I won't fire on them," he said when he caught his breath.
There was no loyalty in Del, Helen could see it now. "Strategy, Del!"
"Don't worry!" Del called cheerfully.
The lights of the nearest port were still far to the north of them. They had open beach in front of them, but in the dark there was no telling what would await them, if they escaped the Sounisian patrol.
Aulus cursed as he tried to get the air bladders and an oilskin jacket on Helen as she craned to peer over the side. The first, fast ship pulled alongside, presenting its flank for whatever firing line was in the Dolphin's hold. On the opposite side, Helen and Aulus huddled in the swinging boat, hidden from view. They were startled when two of the strongest rowers ran from their oars and dropped themselves in the boat with them. Another dropped into one of the larger boats; Helen laughed to see that most of the winch and the crane had been loaded into that one.
There was no sound of gunfire.
Instead, there was the creak of dozens of ropes as the crew of the Silver Dolphin boarded the Sounisian boat.
The current and the speed of the boats carried the ships forward, away from the other patrollers. Searchlights cut through the air in the confusion. The signallers had surely been shattered first. Later, Del told her that the Sounisian captain had his teeth kicked out before he had a chance to yell fire.
As though to assist the Sounisian, one of Ortugia's ships darted to the other side of them.
But though the Sounisian sailors roared to meet their boarders, they were largely ignored. Ropes were freed with sharp axes, and they swung over their heads into the open deck of Ortugia's ship.
"Drop us!" Helen heard Erklos say. Axes on their side tore chunks into the Dolphin's hull in their haste to free their boats. Only two remained, one of them empty. They tumbled into the water. Helen groaned; Aulus looked like she felt.
Sounisian cannon fire ripped through the thin hull of the Dolphin, where they had been swinging. Apparently their sailors could take the initiative as well.
The islander oarsmen had them several feet away in what felt like no time at all. The currents were indeed strong. Helen clambered over Aulus to look over his shoulder.
Ortugia's captain was hurriedly rowing away from the Sounisian ship. Their crew was engaged with the masked raiders of the Dolphin.
Except the raiders had tied the ends of their ropes to the mast of the islander ship.
The ropes pulled taut from the tops of the Sounisan yard arms.
They saw Del outlined by the searchlights, lying low and now, relying on the propulsion of the current, steering the crippled Dolphin into the Sounisian ship.
"He's going to ram them?" said Aulus, disbelieving. Perhaps he could tear a hole on the side of the hull, but otherwise the angle was bad.
Erklos shook his head. "Our hulls resist ramming, not like in the ancient days. Our ram is more of a spur, which sits above water." He grinned. "No, our Delphikos is going to give the Sounisian a little shove in the right direction."
The Sounisian ship began to tip over.
"He's capsizing the entire ship," said Helen. Her vision swam.
They watched the Sounisian roll over like a log tumbling over a waterfall.
"That's not bad," said Aulus. Helen nudged him.
The other patrol ships would have to stop to rescue their men before the current carried them away. Ortugia would apologize for the incompetence of her captain, and they'd be missing half the boats after the Dolphin's crew escaped to the Neutral Islands.
"Del," someone said.
"Del will meet us on shore," said Erklos. "Taking on water, but not too quickly."
There was no stopping the claims of the sea, though. Helen wasn't awake to watch the Silver Dolphin sink, unflagged and decimated, into the deeps in sight of the Sounisian coast.
Aulus would be motion-sick for days after arriving on the Sacred Mountain.
They managed to meet up and hire a wagon outside the city. Helen huddled under the blankets, listening to the clatter of the other cargo. She slept through it all. This time the fever gnawed at her slowly, leaving her with little energy to cough.
It said something about her that the bumpy road up the mountains, taken at a frantic gallop, was so soothing. The only time she woke was to the sight of Del driving the wagon. She spent many long minutes thinking it was a dream. The carriage rocked and jerked, and Helen felt as though she were still on deck, still on the waves. When had Del learned to handle horses? When had Aulus lost his mind and allowed Del to drive the wagon? Suddenly she was airborne. The sky tore open — no, it was canvas, and above she glimpsed the tall trees of home. She heard something bump and clatter, and thought: what had her brothers done this time.
Aulus bellowed at Del, and then Helen knew it wasn't a dream.
The next time Helen opened her eyes, it was to the sight of her mother's worried face.
~ ~ ~
"Uncle? I mean... Minister."
"Yes, Your Highness?"
She sat up in bed, nearly losing all her covers to the cold stone floor. She was only a little dizzy. "He will live, won't he?"
"He'll take his punishment," said the Minister of War. "Your mother the Queen has been persuaded to fatten him up first, but he'll have contact with none but the King's guard until he is exiled." He watched Helen carefully.
She could only nod. "Ortugia will probably keep him hostage for the rest of their lives."
He regarded with her with his usual piercing stare. "You think that islander will be of use to us?" he asked.
Helen nearly answered right away. The Minister of War was known for demanding and deserving complete, honest answers. A single missed detail could turn a campaign into a disaster.
She said, "I think Del is of use to himself, foremost. But if we keep our oaths to him, he may be relied upon."
Perhaps the years and the lingering effects of sickness had blurred the memory. It seemed that her uncle gazed at her with a new light in his eye. It made her feel very grown-up, and very small all at once. He reached a hand out and pulled the covers under her chin.
"Go to sleep, Helen."
She found that she was tired, and so she did.
With a bit of help from Gen — she could hear her cousins shouting all the way across the palace — Helen managed to slip away from her sickbed to catch Aulus before he rode back to his family estate.
"Your Highness," he said, with considerable more irony than her uncle.
"Aulus," she said, not wasting a breath. "Why did you let Del drive us all the way to the capital?"
Aulus had been on home ground as soon as they crossed into the mountains. He was better armed, and better trained. While it made Helen sick to think of it, he could have dispatched Delphikos anywhere between the port and the Sacred Mountain.
"He swore to me," said Aulus simply.
That he would not let any harm come to her.
"You had no reason to trust him," Helen insisted.
Aulus merely looked at her as though she were stupid. Or had looked all over for her jewelled comb only to be wearing it in her hair.
"He would follow you out of love," he said at last. He turned his horse so that he would not have to meet her eyes, as he was at that age as to be embarrassed by such heartfelt sincerity. "It's not as though he's the only one. Be blessed in your endeavors," he murmured, and rode away.
~ ~ ~
It was all Eddis could do to keep Del from outright pleading for asylum in Eddis from Attolia. The Attolians grew stiffer with each of his declarations. They were quite close to — before the Queen of Eddis — explaining to Del how ridiculous that was. At last Eddis cajoled Del into a meeting without the Attolians, if he would kindly appear in court afterwards. She suspected Del was buying time, and though she had guesses, she needed to be certain of his motives.
"Magus, I would like you to attend. Although, I cannot negotiate for your interests," Eddis said with the formality of one stating the obvious.
"I can hardly do the same, given how our navy is splintering along baronial lines," said the magus sourly. "The best I can do is put in a good word for my King, which Del would promptly laugh off."
"I don't think my ministers would mind, given how this affects all of the Middle Sea. It will save me having to relay the tale to you later. Perhaps we might require a sufficiently adversarial role."
"My adversarial tone did nothing for Gen," protested the magus. "I don't see how it would do much more for Del."
"What is your proposed deal, then, Queen Eddis?" Del said. He had not lost his impetuous tone. Helen was quietly glad that the years had not sharpened it to bitterness.
"Our treaty with Attolia is in earnest," said Eddis. "I'm sure you've already marked our garrison in Thegmis."
"I'm surprised you haven't moved your palace into a free spot by the Tustis River."
"No, that's Gen. Did I ever mention him to you? You'd get along like two cats in a bag."
Delphikos laughed. "...Attolia's navy spared no one in the battles for the islands."
"Nor did Sounis. If we had a navy, we would've done worse. Del, it's war. Do you shake your fist at the windstorms when they come?"
"Sometimes. Your point is taken — it doesn't actually do any good." Del swung his legs across the bench and sat up. "The islands are always last to be rebuilt after a war. Why shouldn't we harry every unescorted ship?"
Plain-speaking was best. Helen drew a long breath. "This war was precipitated by the Mede. From at least two sides." In the corner of her eye, she saw the magus nod his grim agreement. "I am sure you hear news from across the Black Straits. Not only the tidbits we need — what the Mede do to their offshore islands."
"They're fed well," said Del uncertainly. His gaze went flat.
Sounis had eyes on their shipping routes, and Attolia's spy network was unparalleled on this side of the Middle Sea. But Eddis could no longer turn a blind eye to the activities on the open ocean, and if the Medes attacked, the bulk of their forces would arrive upon the waves which Del knew so well.
"Delphikos," said Eddis quietly. "I am sorry about the Silver Dolphin."
"That was a long time ago." Del leaned in.
"I was delirious with fever, but I still remember what you did at port. You skipped over two coaches which would have gotten us to Eddis faster." He'd also sprinkled gouna in Aulus's food, or else he would have protested more vehemently. At the time, Del had been playing with Helen's life.
"I know ships, not horses."
"You picked a larger merchant caravan," Helen persisted. "And you brought your winch." She could still hear it rattling around in the back of the carriage.
Del spread his hands. "It was a birthday gift. You got a pony, I got a winch."
Eddis tried not to laugh, she did. Once she started, Del too began to chortle. "Del! Where are the guns of the Silver Dolphin?"
So, he didn't think anyone had noticed him loading the boats before the Dolphin sank.
It took Del a moment to recover himself. In that moment, Helen saw the answer in his eyes, and remembered the wagon taking the turn too quickly, the muffled thumps as several heavy objects spilled over the uncovered side. She had waited years to see if Sounis had recovered them; once she met the magus, she knew that they had not. So that left Del.
"They're at the bottom of the Hamiathes Reservoir."
Fascinated, the magus was careful not to make a noise. That did explain the swiftness of their alliance during the late war.
Eddis too recovered her equanimity. "What good are these guns to you without a ship?"
"We can mount them on a cliff, if we had enough men! We could set them on a swivel. Conceal them... I have pacts with several artisans who would be happy to solve the problem for me."
"What good are they," pressed Eddis, "if you cannot hold them? What guarantees do you have that Sounis cannot acquire them? Or a passing scout ship of the Mede?"
Even in Eddisian hands... Eddis knew the capabilities of her foundries. They were very quietly catching up to the Peninsula, and even the Continentals.
In her mind's eye she saw fire shooting across the waves. People jumping into the water, only to worsen their agony. It would be easy for Eddis to sit safe in her mountains and sell to the highest bidder.
"I need those guns," Del urged. "Helen, your war spilled over to our waters. It's not so easy to net the sea's bounty in the middle of a blockade. We cannot build new ships. We cannot defend our waters. Would you have us starve for your skirmishes? I need them. We need them. They belong to us."
"I'm not a wide-eyed little girl anymore. I am a queen. I am negotiating a cessation to that war." Helen watched his eyes clouding over, and tried a different tack. "If you love me, do you not trust me? Or was that declaration of love a turn-of-phrase I can't understand?"
Del squinted at her like he was windburned. "I trust you to be a queen," he said at last.
"So," she said. "That's all I ask."
"If I may inquire, Your Majesty," began Attolia's emissary as delicately as he could. Beside him, the Attolian ambassador's brows shot up; he was well aware that his own appointment was temporary, his replacement being en route from Ferria and further delayed by mountain roads not yet repaired from the late siege. It was the emissary who would see the rulers of Attolia soonest, not long after the coronation.
Helen allowed herself a raised brow as well. Perhaps it would impart some echo of Irene's.
"Are you planning to capitulate to this pirate's demands?"
Or perhaps not so much. Mimicry was Gen's strength. "Delphikos is... much loved," said Eddis carefully, "in Ios-and-Serfos. And where those isles go, so goes the rest of the Archipelago. I'll hardly mention the Capria. If I'm not mistaken, your Queen has sent your counterparts to meet with the island chieftains, after the latest engagements. We would not want to unduly complicate those talks."
The Neutral Islands were not truly neutral.
"We are also not bending to his whims," continued Eddis sternly. It was rather like scolding Eugenides, being firm with Del, but she had a lot of practice with it. "Rather, we are reminding him of his true loyalty."
The Attolian emissary looked to be untangling what other loyalty a pirate might have, besides to his crew and his spoils.
Del for the first time sat up straight.
All the islands ceded to a greater power, unmatched by the interests of any Queen or King.
Helen quirked a smile. "To the sea."
She heard rather than saw the magus snort.
The Minister of War spoke up at last. "What of his original transgression? It lies in a grey area in the wording of the treaty. Will Attolia accept sparing his life?"
Eddis met the magus's eye. They had both been examining the Eddisian ambassador's dispatches about Attolia's overlapping webs of spies. "If you avail of your contacts in your corner of the Middle Sea—"
"You want me to spy for Attolia?" Del all but howled.
At a glance from Eddis, one of her cousins gently placed a wide hand on his shoulder and pushed Del back into his seat. Eddis abruptly recalled that it had been the Minister of War who had ordered Del flogged.
"We want you to spy for all of the Middle Sea. Lighthouses, Del. They don't do any good if the keeper knows no one on shore. I'll set you up with a contact on Thegmis, Eddisian if you wish, so you won't have to speak with another Attolian."
"But they'll know," Del said, pointing at the Attolian emissary.
"Obviously. It's their right, because they were in a war as well. Everyone in this room has lost someone to the fighting," Eddis said pointedly. "This scarcity does not belong to the islanders alone."
The Attolian emissary's jaw stiffened, as though unnerved that the queen of Eddis would be aware of his brother's death.
Del was trying not to look at him. And failing.
Oh, he would take lives if the situation called for it, Helen was certain. She was equally certain that the order would be more difficult now that Del was sitting next to an Attolian and not spying on him through a glass.
"Everyone in this room knows, but it's not as though we can stop you or control you once you've left shore," continued Eddis. "It will be widely understood that you would be acting in the best interest of the peoples on this side of the Middle Sea."
The court at large took this in.
After glancing at the provisional ambassador, the Attolian emissary cleared his throat. "Well, these are unconventional times, Your Majesty. I believe my Queen may find this arrangement acceptable. My King as well," he added hastily.
Helen did not gust out a sigh.
"It's your navy, Attolian," said Delphikos to him. "You'll not abandon us?"
The emissary looked like he would rather be fed to crocodiles than negotiate with a barbarian sea-brigand, but he could not ignore the need for Attolia's intelligence-gathering. Nor the map, with its vast blue uncertainties. "I will compose a missive personally, if you promise to stay clear of the Attolian shipping lanes."
"A personal missive," mocked Del.
"My word and my family name on it," said the Attolian emissary. "My honor on it that as soon as I return to Attolia, I will seek a personal audience with my Queen. She will not overlook you. In return, I want your word on it, before my colleague, all these ministers, and the Queen of Eddis."
Ah, he was quite quick on the uptake. Helen really would have to thank Irene for this appointment.
Del looked like he'd been pinned down by a flock of gulls.
"Under our Sacred Mountain," added Eddis mildly.
With a roll of his shoulders, Del stood and offered both hands in the manner of the sea peoples. The Attolian took an awkward few moments to stumble to his feet, and returned the handclasp.
Delphikos declared, "I give my word to spare the Attolian ships, unless I believe them treacherous, may the gods strike me down and drag my body to the bottom of the ocean."
And it was so.
"The sooner you release me, the sooner I can be out of your country and out of your hair!" Del exclaimed. It was three days later, and he was still a guest of the queen. "I still have my winch. If you would only let me send for it—"
"Del," said Eddis. He looked at her again as though he still expected the plucky girl and not the seasoned queen. "The guns aren't at the bottom of the Reservoir."
Delphikos began to turn an alarming shade of puce.
"Ah," said the magus. He had opted to break fast in their company, all the better to record another few sea shanties before Del departed. (The one about stealing the salt from the sea was indeed amusing.) The attendants were mostly unamused by all the singing so early in the morning, and were eager for Del to disappear as well. "Of course nothing would be there."
Before Del could do something like throw a fork, calmly Eddis said, "During the war, we opened the sluice gates and flooded everything downriver."
Del opened his mouth and closed it. He was no doubt recalling how the odd, thin guns were still attached to their wooden platforms. "Your Majesty," he said, "I'm not sure I love you any longer."
"A pity," said Eddis, sipping her coffee.
The magus finished his food in silence.
Early the next day, the magus joined Eddis outside her morning constitutional following the Hephestal offerings. He wet his lips. "You understand, if you give him those guns, I will have to report this to my King?"
All night he had tossed and turned. Even if the water had ruined this islander's guns, he surmised that they were not regular cannon. A king, or any sufficiently motivated and funded individual, might easily recreate the plans for such a device, and if they could be mounted on the fast cutters favored by the pirates... The magus had not slept well at all.
He would not presume to ask Eddis what sort of guns, but he was eaten up with curiosity and dread.
Helen did not smile. She did know her attendants' sense of discretion. She pulled even to him on the path, swayed to the side, and bumped the magus's shoulder.
"Do you not trust me?" she murmured.
The magus nearly lost a step. He recovered. He regarded her from the top of the Sacred Way to the forecourt of the palace.
They exchanged nods before parting for their respective breakfasts, each knowing he would be sending no missives to the King of Sounis. Just yet.
Del squinted at the Eddisian engineer, and then at the Eddisian guards. He snapped out his spyglass. As the water cascaded out of the sluice gates, he could see dark shapes crashing into the sides. It was just another current, if crammed in a much smaller channel.
Another god, in another land.
They did look like the right size.
The Eddisians looked on in slightly amused silence. They would likely convey all they saw directly to their Queen.
Del wondered if he should have been asking half as many questions as Helen had asked him.
"Galen told me once that the earlier fever saved my life," said Helen quietly.
Before them, the Reservoir shimmered in the late sunlight.
The magus leaned upon his walking stick to regard her.
She said, "There's papers circulating on the Peninsula that weaker infections might prevent more grievous ones later." Practically her whole family had succumbed to plague, making her Eddis. When telling of her childhood, she spoke more of Gen than she did of her own brothers, perhaps to avoid the subject.
At the elbow-shaped bend, the railing her brothers had broken had since been repaired. Masons and royal engineers were replacing it with a stone wall. Below it, the smooth slope was filled with planted trees.
She continued, "It sounds like a dry read. More to your liking than mine, I think. It involves a lot of cows."
After a while, the magus said, "You think it was Del who saved your life? Not the gods?"
Helen smiled, and patted his arm gently. "Do not offend the gods."
Del rode up to the waterfall. There was a water-wheel on the other side of the lake. He would have to ask his guides what it powered.
The horse Helen had gifted him was quite gentle. Del had learned to ride years ago, but it still took getting used to. The sea had a mind of its own, but at least it didn't try to read his mind.
His guides seemed to be... waiting.
Then one by one, gigantic cylinders appeared at the top of the falls. They tipped up for a second, then plunged down the white foam, and landed in the lake with a splash.
Del nearly urged the horse into the water. One of the guards grabbed the reins before he could.
These were not guns.
They were trees. They had lain in the clean, airless deep of a cold mountain lake. They were perfectly preserved.
"My Queen," said the guard, "has authorized the use of the sawmill for your spoils."
The timber bobbed in the frothing water. Enough timber to build a fine sailing ship with two rows of galleys.
Delphikos dismounted, and waded into the mud. He didn't know the names of these gods.
"Thank you," he said.