Actions

Work Header

Carrying Salt to the Sea

Work Text:

It was a strange summer that year out on the great Bay of Costamaret: dry and still. Little wind blew to carry either the trade boats or those who harried them, and the slave galleys of the Costamaret sea guard ruled as far as the Island Tors.

On other surfaces, the sea was also calm. Olaf the Tyrant, pirate king, had not been seen since the previous winter, when he had gone inland with all the crew of the Gale's Teeth. There were rumours he'd been seeking a bastard child, or even a wizard he'd once held in thrall - but no one could swear they knew his errand, so no one knew if he might have succeeded or failed, and if he might return. The merchants went largely unmolested, and allegiances shifted slowly, with the wind.

A grain trader who had set out for Redmouth put in at last at Jedder, far short of her destination, although it was three weeks later than she had meant to arrive. By all reports, her best chance of selling her cargo was to beat back up the coast to Markesh. This was a town ill-suited to ocean trade because of its shallow, sandy harbour with many bars.

The cook's boy and two other crew left the ship's company at Jedder, hoping to work their way south overland. It was just the captain's luck that the first person who responded to her call for crew had been two years away from the ocean, and could provide a recommendation only from Toad, a fence and pawnbroker from Costamaret way with a none-too-clean reputation himself.

The captain went with her instinct and sent the woman away, but as the sailor walked down the gangplank, a breeze sprang up - the first they'd felt in days. "Now you come!" she cursed it. "Come back... Helga," she added to the sailor. "But any trouble and I'll put you off at Markesh, is that clear?"

Olga let out a breath to join the air elementals dancing around her and nodded curtly. It had taken even longer than she had expected, but she was on the water again.

 

When she had told Lukin how she planned to spend the the summer, Lukin said, "But it will take so long, doing it that way!"

Olga had said, "Yes."

Hearing her plant her feet with that word, Lukin had gone a little cold and hard himself. They had stared at each other, both well enough aware that neither could out-stubborn the other. Olga had tried again. "Yes," she said. "It must - I need to."

"All right," Lukin had said, still with disappointment hanging about him, and kingly grimness that he found hard to shake off. "I see." He tried, too. "I'll be glad enough at the end of it," he said.

 

Olga's objective was an island where treasure lay hidden.

On any good map, a treasure island is marked with clues, not clear directions, and although Olga knew the location she sought very well, it was still her intent to go there by indirect means. Only the most daring of buccaneers or the greatest sea-powers tore their way across oceans to claim their stakes. In this becalmed summer, there was no speed to be had, and many idle seafarers whose suspicions might be alerted.

Nor did Olga wish to go to sea as if only on a visit or an errand. Even if just for a summer, she wanted to return.

She made a concession to luxuries: she took coffee along. She brought a packet of beans to the ship's cook. "I don't need anyone asking questions," she said. "I reckon you can sell it bit by bit, and I'll give you a cut."

"I reckon I can," said the cook.

 

They reached a point three days out from from Markesh and stayed that way for three days of total calm. The store master made increasingly dire reports about the freshness of the cargo. At last, the captain had particular reason to be glad she had taken 'Helga' on. To make progress, they launched the ship's three boats so that rowers could tow their vessel across the water - and there Helga excelled, nor did she complain about the endless, backbreaking work.

"You've proven yourself, and then some," the captain said to her, clapping the rower on the back as she climbed back up to the deck at the change of the watch.

"You'll give me a recommendation at Markesh, then?" 'Helga' asked.

"Surely," said the captain, though she was surprised; she'd expected Helga to stay on. But the woman had earned a good word, and the captain was mindful that strong rowing would be needed again before they arrived, to transport her cargoes to Markesh's piers.

Thus Olga sailed that summer - changing ships at almost every port. When she could, she worked her way towards her island, but when she couldn't, still she put to sea rather than waiting for other passage.

The list of captains who might vouch for her grew longer. If she spun her tale skilfully enough, saying that she had crewed for Jenna and Halick, and Oros and Arnhem, without saying when, she could imply a career on the sea that stretched back as far, indeed, as her true apprenticeship as a pirate child.

By autumn, the winds began to return, heartening the merchantmen. But the men who had paid tribute to Olga's father, a rag-taggle of bullies and privateers, became bolder and bolder with Olaf's absence. They began to seize on travellers without waiting on his leave.

Once, when a pirate approached on the horizon at a speed Olga knew her vessel could not match, she worked a simple spell to help pretend it could; she conjured an illusion to show pirate and trader both that they were drawing apart from each other. They weren't, of course; and she hoped that the pirate would break off long before hearing a give-away sound, but just in case, she summoned the elementals of the air to aid her in hiding noise as well. "The sounds that you carry across these waters between us," she said, "bring them to me, and only to me." Soon she was dizzy with the cacophony, and could manage no further spells. With bad luck, the pirate might have sailed straight into them, with all on board either vessel innocent of the possibility - but when she dismissed the elementals and lifted the spell, the other ship was truly out of sight.

Her second encounter with pirates was much closer, and far more dramatic to other eyes. A ship whose colours Olga's captain trusted came up beside them as they approached the mouth of a harbour. It changed those colours as its prey drew alongside. Olga went with her shipmates to repel boarders; but when the leading pirate caught sight of Olga's face, he faltered and withdrew.

Walten, Olga thought.

She was forced to give the other crew members a different truth than the relevant one, and explain that she was a wizard. After that, she was unsettled by their belief in her. It was one thing to be shunned; another, quite a frightening thing, to be thought capable of protection.

At last she left shipmates for good on the island of Tarfour, the largest of the Tarfour Chain, and acquired her own craft. It was only a row-boat. Those from whom she bought it assumed she meant to travel to either of Tarfour's nearest neighbours, but that was a misdirection she had intended. The treasure island was much further. No other rower, no matter how accomplished, ought to have planned such a trip.

But Olga had air and water elementals to call on, and as she spoke - and listened - they sped her across the sea.

Once, her hands went slack on the oars as a single voice whispered, I remember you, and she knew that she had come to the the right place, at the right time, in the right way, if a drop of water from the ocean could call her by name.

When at last she stood on the shore of the island that was her inheritance, she was sorry that she had not drawn out the journey longer.

Left to her own devices, Olga thought, she might never have returned to her father's treasure. When she had run away to the University, she had taken a large sum. She had vowed that it would last her as long as it needed to.

That vow had shored her up against profligacy; no prodigal daughter she. But she had not reckoned on what Olaf would do next. Nor could she have expected that her friends would protect her and themselves by transforming him. Whether a dead man or a live mouse - somewhere - he had relinquished his own claim on his gold. Nor had she reckoned on others' need. The treasure would do good in Luteria.

Perhaps she might sow the most elaborate of the treasures on water and wind, bespelled to ensure they met land; some wealth might return to those who had owned it before Olaf. But even if she could do that for all of the treasure, she did not care to. As many of her father's conquests had been grain-traders like the captain at Jedder, far more had been the slave-traders of Costamaret, or lesser pirates themselves.

It was a tangle, and if she had not thought of a wiser course on her entire journey here, she knew she would not think of one now.

So she weighed her boat down with fine things, and returned to Tarfour with cracked hands and a hoarse throat, and tied her boat up at a smaller pier with spells woven into every line of grain in the boat's planks, and every fibre in the mooring-rope.

When she stepped into the tavern at Tarfour, her friend Claudia was waiting for her.

"I thought you might like to go home the easy way," said Claudia, whose wizardly talent was translocation, and whose other talent was in understanding people's reasons for things.

And Olga smiled, and agreed without correcting her, because home was many things; it was the sea, and the University, and Lukin, and after long absence, the sight of the face of a friend.