On days when the winds rose, the fisherfolk who lived along the rocky shore saw in the white-capped surf the manes of horses and said the king of the ocean turned his stables out for exercise in the storm. But it was a calm day, a quiet day. Only gentle wavelets lapped against the stones and stretched tongues of water through the high-arched openings of the sea caves at the base of the cliffs.
Over that murmur, the sounds of iron-shod hooves rang loudly. A horse came through the arch, and then another: one grey, one white. They were flesh, not water, but they had this in common with the sea horses: they left no trail showing whence they had come. The line of hoof prints went one direction only: away from the caves, along the shore, and up the cliff, where the riders at last paused to survey the new world they had found.
It had taken them five days of riding the coastline, casting each evening with Changeling for the source of its brightest glow, to admit this fact: that between them and the Master Gate lay the sea, its endless leagues of water a barrier impassable on foot or horse.
"We will need a ship," Morgaine said at last, when the embers of their fire had burned low on that fifth night. Vanye, scouring harness buckles that the salt air of the coast seemed determined to corrode, started. She had been brooding all evening, as she always did when anything came between her and her goal, and he had thought it safest to sit in silence. These moods of hers had led them into battle and skirmish, but here there was nothing to fight: only the sea, vast and impossible to challenge--and each other. He had no wish to quarrel, though he knew it might well come to that if her impatience found no other outlet.
"I know nothing of how to steer a ship, liyo," Vanye said carefully, letting his hands still. The only vessels he had known were the barges and skiffs that poled the rivers of Andur-Kursh, bringing grain and logs and other goods from one holding to another. He pictured one bobbing in the waves, its poles hopeless to touch the bottom, and could not fathom how it might advance beyond the shore.
"Nor do I," she admitted. "--thee need not look so startled."
"It is not like you to admit ignorance, liyo," he dared, keeping his tone light. His reward was a faint huff of what might have been amusement.
"This much I do know: a ship that can cross that vastness will take many, many hands. Even were thee and I both to turn sailor, it would not suffice."
"As you say," Vanye agreed. "What then?"
The hint of amusement left her voice. "What then? We shall need to hire one."
They sat then some moments in silence. Put that way, it was a simple notion, and yet it brought them to another difficulty almost as insurmountable as the sea: they had no coin, and they had learned already, when they first ventured into a village seeking a better understanding of where they found themselves, that this was a world where nothing was valued more than gold. There was no hearth-law of hospitality, here, no way to plead for a night's lodgings or a day of grain.
For himself Vanye had not minded so very much to be turned away; he had grown used to camping, to the quiet rhythm between him and Morgaine as they set up their tent and tended their gear. There were fish in the shallows he could capture, and Siptah and Arrhan seemed to do well enough on the oat grass that grew on the dunes. After their flight through the plains toward Mante and their nights sharing a fire with untrusted allies, it was a welcome peace--except for the lapping of the waves that wound, unending, through his dreams.
That sound seemed louder, now, as though the sea laughed at him. He thought how much a ship might cost and did not like the answer he came to, balanced against the value of what they carried: their arms, their armor, a few small trinkets of other worlds. He said nothing; he did not need to. He could see the same calculations on Morgaine's face.
At last she sighed, and stood to bank the fire. "First we must find one to hire. Come then, Vanye."
When he followed her to the tent, even the sound of the waves faded away. For a time he forgot the strange world they had found themselves in. He thought--he flattered himself--that he was not alone in forgetting. But when he woke in the morning, he found her already arisen, and staring again at the sea.
They could not ride toward the gate, so they followed the coast on a small track that widened as they traveled into a harder packed and heavier trafficked road. The people they passed looked askance at them, and gave them wide berth. At first Vanye thought it was Morgaine's silver-bright hair that repelled them, but there were other with qhal features on the road, surrounded by retinues and treated with honor. Nor were they alone in being armed and armored, though the style of their mail was unlike anything else he saw. But all the other armed travelers guarded carts or packhorses; they seemed the only ones whose purpose on this road was not to ferry goods.
"It is well," was all Morgaine said, when he brought this thought to her. "Ships draw trade." Vanye had meant to suggest they veer from the road and take a more inland path, lest they provoke a fight with a merchant who saw in arms without obvious occupation a threat of banditry. But Morgaine turned from him and set her gaze toward the sea, and he let the words pass from his mind. She will not venture a step further from the draw of the gate than the curve of the shoreline requires. He let Arrhan pick up her pace and tried not to wonder, again, how they might persuade a ship to carry them in this world where they alone, it seemed, rode with hands empty of riches--unless they resorted to banditry in truth. The notion made him uneasy; all his half-formed thoughts of how they might pay for passage did.
Morgaine surprised him when she hailed the next merchant they passed, a qhal whose human retinue guarded six chests large enough that Vanye himself might have fit inside them. He waited, holding Siptah's reins, while she walked to the merchant to confer, straining and failing to hear them over the sound of the sea.
"There are ships," she said briefly, when she had remounted, and nothing more.
Another, inland road converged with theirs as they traveled, and then a third, and then at last they drew rein at the top of a rise and looked down into a tangle of cobbled, sloping streets. Vanye had never thought to owe gratitude to Mante--had thought that entire accursed world best forgot--but he would credit it this much: having seen its endless buildings, its red roofs and golden walls stretching beyond the limits of sight, he was able to take in his first glimpse of the harbor city with nothing but a single indrawn breath, and say to his liege, "Liyo, shall we enter?" as though the city were a commonplace, not a dwelling place for more men than he had ever met in all his years in Andur-Kursh.
She gave no answer but to nudge Siptah into a walk. Together, they passed into the close-packed streets and toward the wood-planked docks. The ships that clustered there seemed to Vanye no less qhalur magic than the gates or the weapons Morgaine bore; he did not understand how, without magic, something so vast could sit upon the waves.
If Morgaine noticed his discomfort, she gave no sign of it. She surveyed the ships with satisfaction and chose one to halt beside.
"Wait," she bade him, and handed him Siptah's reins once more. "I would speak with the captain."
He waited, staring at the white-sailed masts that rose like a forest from the water and, past them, at the sea and the distant gate that lay beyond his sight. He did not know what bargain Morgaine thought to strike, but he had done inventory of their possessions many times since that night by the sea when she first voiced their need to cross it, and came always to the same conclusion: not for all they carried, save for such qujalin artifacts as Morgaine would never let leave her possession, could they secure passage for the two of them and two horses. But the horses--the horses were fairer by far than any they had seen on the road, and he had seen more than one merchant eyeing them with envy. For the sale of the horses, he and Morgaine might purchase a berth.
He had left the thought unvoiced, and she had never raised the possibility. He was certain she would come to it in time; she would pay any price, abandon any loyalty to follow the geas that drove her. But she must know that for him, Kurshin-born, Kurshin-bred, to give up the horses--gentle Arrhan and the Baien gray who might well be the last living survivor, save him, of the world where he had been born--would be hard.
I must offer it, he thought, as he watched the wave crests catch the sun's light and throw it blindingly back in his eyes. It is unkind to her, that I make her ask it of me.
He thought he kept his hands even on the tether as he considered it, but still Siptah's hoof stamped and Arrhan flicked an ear. "Peace," he bid them in the Kurshin tongue, "peace." The word came out smoothly, but his throat felt tight.
By the time Morgaine came down from the ship he had calmed himself, and even Siptah seemed content to stand motionless, though the crowded docks were no great place for horses. He handed her Siptah's tether and took some comfort in the brush of her fingers against his.
"We shall not sail with them?" he asked, when she made no move to beckon him toward the ship.
"No," she agreed. "We cannot pay what they ask."
Vanye steeled himself. "The horses would fetch a fine price in the market here," he observed. "They are better than any we saw on the road." Morgaine turned from the sea, which had as always caught her gaze, to look at him. Her silver hair caught the sun almost as brightly as the waves, he saw; he looked at her hair because he could not quite meet her eyes. Still, he did not let himself falter, but continued. "There will be a kindly master we can sell them to. I see no sign the people here mistreat their beasts." He saw no sign they treated their beasts with great love, either--but there was no purpose to saying that.
"Thee would do this thing," Morgaine said, her face shuttered.
"I know what drives you, liyo. I know you will never turn for my sake. If we must sell the horses, better we do it now, when the day is early and the market full of people who might buy. We should not waste time merely out of sentiment." My sentiment, he thought but did not say. He knew she loved the grey, but love, for Morgaine, was always balanced against duty.
She stared at him in silence, and he found the waves slapping the dock posts sounded very loud. "We have not wasted time," she said at last. "I have been learning what I must know of this world. And the horses are not all we have of value."
"What else, liyo?" he asked, and she nodded, minutely, to him--to, he realized a moment later, the pyx he wore around his neck. He kept from reaching out to touch it only with effort. "We cannot sell that," he objected, shocked momentarily from decorum. The damage that could be done with the gate-stone--was, he supposed, very little, once they had closed the gate and the power it drew from dwindled. But it was still a risk, and it was not like Morgaine to encourage any meddling with gate-force by others, no matter how short-lived.
"We need not," she said simply, and he followed her lead as she mounted and rode along the waterfront. "Has thee noticed," she asked, as they came to a stretch of street where some unsuitability of the harbor meant no docks and fewer people, "that the ships here are all captained by qhal?"
Vanye shrugged. He had not noticed; the crews that crowded their decks and riggings seemed human enough. But it did not surprise him; the qhal had a way of finding themselves in command. "No, liyo," he said.
"There are human captains," Morgaine said. "The qhal with whom I have spoken tell me they have their uses: they train new sailors, they ferry the dirtier goods along the coast. But they do not travel across the sea to bring back distant riches. That, the qhal reserve for themselves; only they know the way. I have a mind to change that."
From another mouth, this might have been a declaration of purpose, a desire to address injustices. But Morgaine, Vanye knew, had only one purpose. He pondered it as the continued east. The buildings around them grew lower, and the horses no longer clanged against cobblestones but stamped through mud. Their gleaming armor had stood out as foreign in the finer section of the docks; here, it was utterly out of place, and he only hoped it marked them as too much trouble to be worth robbing even as it also promised a wealth they did not have.
"The gate-stone," he said, finally, thinking of how Skarrin's people had used them to send messages, of how it would pulse and draw toward gates and its own kin. "They use them to find their way."
Morgaine nodded. "We could not sell your gate-stone to a qhal--they have them, all the captains." She reined Siptah in, and Arrhan stopped as well without so much as a touch from Vanye. "But if thee goes to that ship, and speak human to human, and tell the captain we have the skill and tools to steer them across the ocean, to places only qhal have gone--that, I think, will be worth our passage, and our horses beside."
Vanye stayed astride a moment, taking it in. "A ship that knew the route would be a safer passage," he observed.
"A ship that knew the route," she shot back, "would not be in our debt. And we will need horses, when we reach the far shore."
"I have stolen horses before," he said, stubborn. "Liyo, if you do this for me--do not."
Morgaine was expressionless, but Siptah's snort told him her weight had shifted. "Were it needful, I would give up the horses. Were it needful, I would give up all. But I say it is not. Trust me to know what my task requires." Her hand brushed Siptah's mane, and he arched his neck under her touch. "It is no kindness I do either thee or I. Some day we will leave them behind, and it will grow no easier with time."
But it is, he thought. It is a kindness. He did not say it; he knew what Morgaine would say, that it was when she meant to be kind that she always, in the end, did her worst cruelties.
"They will not thank us for taking them," she added. "Horses do not fare well on the sea."
"You have told me," Vanye said, daring, as he slid off Arrhan and handed Morgaine the tether, "that I would not thank you for taking me from my home. You were wrong."
She looked at him for a long moment, and he thought he saw her mouth quirk in momentary amusement. "Let us hope the horses are half as forgiving as thee."
"Let us hope," he agreed. In truth he looked forward to the voyage no more than did the horses; even from the solid ground of shore, the ocean's murmurs would always sound hostile to him, its endless wrinkled surface look unnatural to eyes used to wood and rock and narrow stream. But for a moment, looking toward the ship Morgaine had chosen, he did not see the waves, or imagine the gate beyond them. He saw only her there-and-then-gone-again smile--and his heart felt lighter.
"Now go," she said, "and make what bargain you can. There is a gate awaiting us."