“Show me the world,” Evred said.
Taumad Dei met the greenish gaze he’d seen in dreams through the years since that last parting, when his and Evred’s emotions were a tangle of desire and tension. And anger.
The anger was gone. Evred was still too stunned to think at all; as soon as Tau heard that Evred Montrei-Vayir had abdicated in favor of his son, he knew where Evred would go, and what he expected to find. Tau exerted enormous effort and expense to get to Ala Larkadhe first.
A week and a half he’d lurked around the mysterious white tower central to Ala Larkadhe castle, intermittently making himself useful to the new young commander, slope-shouldered Inda Toraca, as news relayed northward that “the king, that is, the former king, was coming.”
Evred had come. And he found what Taumad had been afraid he would find, that the ancient morvende archive was permanently shut against the war-like Marlovans: judged without trial, condemned without defense.
Show me the world. Tau had crossed the continent to make that offer—and Evred had accepted.
Practical matters first. “All right, then,” he said, and let Evred’s hand go in order to gesture toward the mess hall. “Shall we get a meal into you?”
Tau would let him dictate the amount of personal contact in public; when Evred was young he’d never demonstrated affection where he could be seen, partly out of habit, and partly out of a conviction that he would be courted for favors. Now no one would court him for favors, but there remained a lifetime of constraint. And more recent grief. “I suggest we wait for morning to start up the pass. It looks like we’re in for steamy weather. You’ll be amused to hear that the last snow at the top of the pass was two weeks ago. The amount of mud, I hear, is astounding.”
Evred’s gaze had gone distant as he slowly scanned the landing. Of course he was seeking something—someone—but the person lay beyond the limits of the world.
Evred said, “You knew Inda died, then?”
Tau had not expected to hear Inda’s name from Evred so early—if at all. “I know. That’s why Hadand was taking horse to go home, wasn’t she? To comfort Inda’s family?”
“Or to take comfort.” Evred remained motionless before the stairs, head bent. He stretched out his hand, fingers spread, palm slightly cupped. “I touched him, once. On the head.” His hand dropped to his side. “I still don’t know if his recoil was from my touch, or from memories of his experiences in Ymar.”
Tau had considered every possible direction this first conversation would take—except that. Tau would always honor the face of truth in things that mattered, though he had made a career of dressing it with grace. “For someone so formidable in the field, about some things Inda was quite . . . simple,” he said, and when Evred did not react, ventured near the bone of truth: “He did love you. As someone once wrote—” Tau was not about to say where. “—in all ways but one.”
Evred cut a sharp gaze toward Tau, then turned away, shoulder, arm, hand stiff: acknowledgement and denial. Tau winced, aware that Evred was probably thinking of that last terrible interview between Harvaldar and Harskialdna, when Evred had come so very close to breaking Inda. And afterward, lost the little of Inda he’d had.
They left the landing—though Taumad suspected that they had not left the subject of Inda—and trod downstairs, where they found Vedrid waiting, as always just out of earshot. His pale hair had gone white, but otherwise he was fit, though the contours of his face were blurred, like Evred’s, by time.
At the sound of their footsteps Vedrid touched fingers to chest in greeting to Tau. “They said you were here.” He turned to Evred. “Shall I ready things in his chamber?”
Evred said, “Vedrid, tomorrow Taumad and I will go up the pass.”
Vedrid turned out his hand.
“I made you a promise once, and I will keep it. I have received an invitation to venture beyond our shores. You have given me a lifetime’s service—more than a lifetime, if one considers the customary number of years our kings manage to survive.” Evred’s voice deepened to irony on that last. “Therefore I release you from your oath.” His tone lightened. “And I expect my loss will be Fnor’s gain. Go and be happy, Vedrid.”
Vedrid’s fist struck his chest. His countenance expressed all that was needed.
* * *
Tau had a hidden purpose. There were roughly three weeks ahead in which to approach it. Ordinarily plenty of time, especially after years of tricky diplomacy, but with someone as complicated as Evred, and the price of error entirely personal, that might not be time enough.
Evred had not permitted himself to think beyond the archive.
The next morning, Tau and Evred said their farewells and departed; Noddy Toraca’s son Inda, who looked as hangdog and morose as his father, was as laconic. But as soon as Evred and Tau rode through the north gate every Marlovan man and woman appeared on the walls, youngsters drumming with wild abandon, older folks banging swords and daggers against shields as from the towers the horns blew the salute to the king, three times three.
Evred turned white, then bright red. He would have forbidden it had he suspected Toraca would give such an order—but the heartfelt fervor of this last salute to their king filled him with a gratitude so intense it was almost painful, and he found it difficult to breathe.
Tau had tactfully ridden a little ahead, leaving him alone there on the road; Evred wheeled his horse and gravely saluted the castle, hand flat to his chest, as he hungrily pressed into memory the ardent faces, the wild drumming, the castle built of three types of stone, and the mild blue sky above.
The full-throated cheering persisted until the two vanished from sight around the first bend.
Evred bowed his head. Tau left him to his thoughts, as the horses began the long climb toward the pass.
* * *
By the time they reached the top of the pass, it had dried out. During the long climb, they passed occasional traders and riders without exchanging more than lifts of the hand in greeting.
For months Evred had felt like a stone effigy; once they left Ala Larkadhe Evred fell back into the long silences that had become habitual. He did not intend to shut Tau out, but he had no defense against the years of controlled grief, now punctuated by stabs of sensory memory. The sight, the sound, even the smell of the pass in early summer threw him back to the violence, physical and emotional, of the Fourteen.
He wasn’t certain he’d remember the cliff on which he’d stood watching Tau and Inda fighting side by side against the numberless Venn warriors. Maybe wind and weather would have disguised it. But he knew exactly where he was the moment he rounded that last curve, and here Hawkeye had died. Down there Noddy Toraca had bled out his life on a wagon, his face wet with Inda’s tears.
The knife of memory buried itself in his heart, sharp and hard—until he became aware of a warm hand on his shoulder. Not insistent, nor demanding. Just there.
The lightning-fast instinct to strike that hand away flashed then vanished. Evred’s throat constricted, and he forced himself to breathe.
To breathe, and to pretend a semblance of rationality. “The boys at the academy are sick of hearing the old men yap on about the Fourteen,” he said.
“But I’ll wager they know every move of the battle,” Tau retorted, withdrawing his hand, again at exactly the right moment.
Gratitude suffused Evred, but he could not shape the right words. They rode on.
* * *
The downward trip was much faster; the animals Commander Toraca had loaned them knew the way. Blue slivers of ocean began to appear between the talons of the mountains, tantalizing glimpses widening and lasting longer, until at last the two began the descent where once the mighty Venn army had marched as, up above, hidden in a cave, a group of children listened in terror. One of those children had become second in command to the Captain of the King’s Runners, though she was a woman. Cap’n Han had been the first. Runners and the City Guard had begun to mix men and women, as Hadand had intended all along.
Evred wondered how much of Hadand’s work would be undone by the new queen, and as he studied the bay beyond Castle Andahi, he made an inner vow: whatever the rest of the world was like, he would never return to Iasca Leror. It would still, and forever, be ‘home.’ Just not his home.
Gradually the long-familiar ache of grief constricting his chest gave way to the welcome sensation of wonder as he gazed out at those masted shapes bobbing on the water. Ships. How small they appeared! How impossible that they wouldn’t tip over, and fling the sailors into the water. Yet Inda had lived on one for most of his teens, and had welcomed the chance to go back to sea when the alliance called him to defend the strait.
Evred had agreed to step on board one.
Tau pulled up alongside him, a hand absently smoothing the ridge of his horse’s neck as the breeze off the shore blew back his silver hair.
Evred sustained the warm tug of attraction, sparking a smile that Tau mirrored back.
“Notice the orchards there, and the winding trail? You can just make out the shape of the avalanche.” Tau pointed to the long slope stretching up to the right.
Evred had been studying the mighty castle, with its alert female sentries patrolling slowly on walls and towers, the silhouettes of their bows just visible. It was all women on guard, as the men were either riding around Idayago on patrol, or had accompanied Cama and Keth down to the royal city for the coronation.
Evred shifted his gaze to the attractive arrangement of neatly pruned trees and low flowering shrubs stretching from below the eastern wall away to the heights. It would be difficult to mount an attack on the castle from this slope. Someone with military sense had put all that greenery in with an eye to affording a clear view from the castle walls.
From there to the bay. At first the ships looked the same: long vessels curving gradually upward to a point, except for one that curved sharper into a roundish shape. He squinted, but the light spangling the water, the shimmers of heat and moisture, blurred details.
“That one draws the eye. Draws my eye,” Evred amended. “The one sitting in the middle of the water. Behind that row that seem more alike in shape, if not in size. What is it?”
“That is a Venn war ship,” Tau said. "Called a drakan."
“Venn?” Evred repeated sharply. “Why was I not told?” His head dropped as he recollected: I am not king.
“There are no Venn on board.” Tau did not hide his amusement. “See the flag at the foremast? No Venn symbols. It’s come in as a law-abiding trader.”
“Of course. It has to be a war prize.”
“How do we go about hiring a ship?” he asked Tau, whose smile deepened the corners of his eyes. This was not a smile, it was laughter. Another stunning thought, embarrassingly late: “I have no money. I never considered that.”
Tau’s shoulders shook.
Evred said with grim irony, “And you claimed Inda was simple.”
“All you Marlovans are simple when it comes to money,” Tau observed. “But yes, you and Inda are probably the worst—and with the best reason. Never mind. I will see to it all. My question for you is, do you want to bypass the castle?”
“No. I would like to pay my respects to Ndand. Besides.” It was Evred’s turn to smile. “She’s probably got the banquet ordered. They’ve been observing our progress since the first watchtower two days into the pass.”
That’s Marlovans, Tau thought. The most efficient when it comes to military matters, but the least when it comes to comfort. He resigned himself to a night in a stuffy castle, eating and sleeping on a bare stone floor cushioned only by woven mats, the delicacies consisting mainly of cabbage, rye, and raisins. At least they would have excellent coffee.
* * *
Tau’s mood changed with the enthusiastic welcome—in spite of the predictably boring food. Tau had always liked the Marlovan women, with their tight bodies, the unconscious swing to their walk that set hip and braids in complementary arcs. He thoroughly enjoyed Ndand’s open appreciation, for she too had the Arveas roving eye.
And he enjoyed seeing Evred’s mood lighten as they talked through most of the night. The tide turned at dawn, so they said their farewells, and waved to the women ranged along the top of the wall. Evred was smiling. As a round-eyed child readied the boat to take them out to sea (Tau could almost read his thoughts as he stared at the former king, memorizing every detail for later parading before his friends), Evred said in Sartoran, “Ndand’s girls, and my daughter, will keep the peace up here.”
“That they will,” Tau agreed, picking up the second set of oars. The boy gave him a grateful look and they sent the boat bumping through the rippling waves. When they had gotten past the breakers, Tau asked, “I trust you will not object to the Venn war prize? It has space for us, and it is sailing east.”
Evred did not trust himself to speak, as the smaller waves of the inner bay had increased in size. He gripped the gunwale, his mouth a thin line. Tau did not press for an answer to a question that had only been a courtesy; the boat skimmed over the quiet sea toward the arched prow of the Venn prize. Evred watched, gripped with tension, as the boat boy hooked them onto the side of the overlapped hull, and then readied the rope ladder that those on board dropped down. Fear was yet another reminder that he was alive.
“The trick is to move one hand, then the opposing foot, securing yourself between each step,” Tau said. “Hold on when the ship swings away, for you’ll discover you are dangling over the water, and climb when it leans the other way.”
Evred gripped the rope, which smelled of brine and mildew, and forced legs and arms to propel him upward. The swing out was unpleasant, but he reminded himself that Inda had done just this at age twelve, with less preparation for it than Evred had, and without a single friend.
The thought sufficed to get him the rest of the way up. He pulled himself over the rail, holding on with one hand as the flooring shifted in an unsteady roll.
He stepped away—the floor lurched—he began to fall, but a strong hand caught his arm and restored him, then yanked free when he recoiled out of long habit.
He turned to thank the mariner who had helped him, then checked. Unmistakably the mariner was a woman, dressed in a startling array of clothing—striped trousers so wide they flapped in the wind, a tight shirt of shiny purple fabric, and on her skin had been painted, or etched, thorny rose vines. Her dark hair was short, loose, blowing about her face, revealing a single hooped earring glinting with a ruby.
Her face tightened in response to whatever she saw in his expression, she cut a fast glance at the back end of the ship, then she swung around again and said something with careful politeness. Evred thought he heard a Sartoran root somewhere in there, but the pronunciation was too distorted.
Tau swung his leg over the rail and dropped beside him. Evred asked, “Is she speaking Dock Talk?”
“Yes. You’ll pick it up soon enough.” Tau spoke to the woman; his Sartoran was clear, though he truncated the verb and added unfamiliar terms. He seemed to be saying something about readiness.
The woman stepped away, one hand indicating a square hole in the wooden floor. Evred looked around. The floor—deck, hadn’t Barend called it? —was not flat, but rose at a gradual incline toward the front and the back ends of the ship.
Tau hauled up their gear, which the boy had hooked onto a boom. Evred reached to take his own, but Tau shook his head. “You concentrate on standing. You’ll get your sea legs in a day or two, but for now, one hand for you and one for the ship is the first order every single person here began with.”
Evred was glad to hear that, except there wasn’t always something to hold onto. He lurched after Tau, who walked effortlessly toward that hole in the deck. Evred was aware of being watched, and braced to be laughed at. He had had three weeks to remind himself that once he stepped off Marlovan soil people would not turn to him for orders, or defer—that his life would revert to the way it had been when he was merely a second son, with no power or influence. A hated Marlovan when he walked around at the Nob.
But no one laughed, even when the floor gave a hitch like a horse twitching a fly from its back, and he fell heavily against a structure with thick cabled rope extending upward.
He caught himself, hating the moment, the choice—but it was made. There was no going back. He rested his forehead against his arm. Life had moved on, taking Inda with it, and Hadand, and Buck. It had taken Hawkeye and Noddy long ago, and his father before that. Leaving him here—but he was not alone, he was with Taumad, about whom he’d rarely let himself think all during those long years. He would see the world Inda had once seen. He might walk in the places Inda had walked.
He just had to learn how to move about on a ship.
He tightened his body, hands gripping those cables.
“Want a hand?” Tau spoke at his shoulder.
“No. I need to learn the motions. There must be a pattern.”
“There is, but your body will learn it better if you relax into it. Come below. One more ladder, a short companionway, and we will be there.”
Evred lifted his head, opened his eyes, and followed Tau, mimicking his motions, as the crew watched from their stations, and the captain from abaft the wheel.
* * *
Taumad waited until Evred dropped into uneasy slumber, then left the tiny cabin that belonged to the first mate. He’d offered a thumping sum to the latter, knowing that Evred would be better off with relative privacy, rather than adapting to a swinging hammock in the crew’s quarters.
Tau stepped into the circle of lamplight from the open cabin door. He found the green-eyed captain drinking wine from a gold-chased goblet, and lounging in a two thousand year old curule chair carved with runes and knotwork.
“You going to hide in here?” Tau asked mockingly.
“This was your idea.” Fox raised his goblet, examining the glints of light running along the fine runes worked below the rim. “I’m still trying to figure out who was more stupid, you for insisting, or me for giving in. Is that fool going to parade around my deck in that damned gray coat? Who does he think it will impress?”
“You agreed to my price,” Tau reminded him, the retort nicely calculated to be as irritating as that remark about the horsetail coat. “I read your record, I corroborated details to the best of my ability. I even coerced Jeje and Dasta to verify theirs. As for Evred, he will lay aside that quite customary garment as soon as he discovers that those skirts, cut for riding, are not suitable for shipboard, especially in summer. Now, since we’re talking about your record—”
“—did you finish the writing of it?”
“Finished. Tdor Marth-Davan came north a month ago. I have the last of Inda’s life recorded, and like everything else, what she said confirms what I was given.”
“Yes, about that.” Tau dropped uninvited onto the cushioned bench below the fabulous Venn candelabra. “You neglected to include in that record of yours exactly how you managed to delve into thoughts that I am quite certain I never let outside my skull. Jeje was exceptionally annoyed when I read her portions out to her.”
“But it was accurate, wasn’t it?” Fox’s gaze shifted reflectively around the ancient cabin, gleaming with golden inlay of a type not in use for centuries.
“Jeje also observed that the biggest gap in that wealth of detail came roughly between your treacherous, snake-in-the-sand sneaking off to Ghost Island, your subsequent appearance on the beach with your face rapidly swelling, and Barend’s being taken off to this very vessel, which was conveniently tucked away in a hidden alcove. You never did connect the three events.”
Fox laughed silently all during this mendaciously cordial speech.
“Are the three related?” Tau persisted.
“Yes. That entire episode was sufficiently humiliating to keep out of the test copy I sent you. But it’s in the one I left with my son when I handed off my jarlate to him and made my farewells, last week. He may read it—or not. He may copy it—or not. I’ve got a wager with myself, whether anyone ever actually reads such memoirs outside of those who go searching for their own names.”
“As long as the mysterious episode was sufficiently humiliating.” Tau flicked him a considering glance, then reached to pour a glass of wine, “I am content. So. Shall I bring Evred in for breakfast, or are you going to lurk in here when he’s awake?”
Fox also poured out more wine, considering Evred’s first appearance on deck. Hatred had been a comfortable companion for decades, for many reasons; even so, he’d recognized grief in Evred’s grip on the lower mast preventer stays. And Ramis’s disturbing access to the memories locked inside people’s skulls had given insight into Evred’s life—which, king notwithstanding, Fox would not have traded for a heartbeat.
But no one needed to know that.
Are you laughing, Ramis, damn you?
Tau was still waiting for an answer. Fox said, “As for lurking, I may make a transfer or two again. Might not always be here.” He indicated a carved door on the side of the cabin, which seemed to open into a closet. Actually, it did open into a closet—unless you were carrying a carved gold coin, which would transfer you to a Destination. And back to the ship again. Not roughly, but smoothly—unnervingly so.
Tau laughed. “Fox, you are a coward. You sent your son to be raised by Evred, yet you won’t meet him face to face?”
“I sent Indevan to be raised in the center of Marlovan culture. Evred Montrei-Vayir kept his distance from my boy: if they exchanged a hundred words in ten years, I would be surprised.”
“Did you get those hundred words from your mystery source?” Tau asked skeptically.
“No.” Only that having to do with Inda’s life, but Fox wasn’t revealing it to Tau. “Let’s see how his majesty does in the harbor at Bren, without armed guards clearing the way and jumping to carry out his every wish.”
* * *
A few days later, in time-honored fashion the most senior members of the Treason’s crew met high in the main mast’s rigging, out of their captain’s notoriously sharp hearing. Not that he cared if they talked, but they didn’t like him overhearing it when he was the topic. He had a penchant for extremely sarcastic observations, usually at the worst possible moment.
“So who is this fellow’t looks like the Old Man? I thought we don’t take passengers any more, and they sure ain’t crew.”
Old Man was their term of respect for a captain who, though aging, still often led the fighting on the foredeck, where he proved most painfully that he was as hard as a hammer, and about as merciful. The Old Man had other disconcerting habits, like vanishing when you thought he was in the cabin. But then, just when you think he must have rowed off during a night watch (though no one saw a boat lowered), and so you might slack off just a little on a hot day, he strolls out of the cabin, easy as you please, and unlimbers some creative commentary on the sloppiness of your flemishing.
“Here’s what I know about the new fellow. He’s as ignorant as a baby. I don’t want to waste half a watch telling him the difference between a shroud and a stay.”
“The Old Man said, if he wants to work, let him.”
The Old Man had also said he was to be treated with respect unless he asked for trouble. Even within the liberal interpretation a crew in search of entertainment put on ‘trouble’ the fellow with the dark red hair hadn’t offered any insolence.
“He does look like the Old Man,” the third mate said, giving voice to all their thoughts. She cast a frowning glance toward the deck, then added, “But the Old Man hasn’t come within sniffing distance of him.”
The second and third mates and the ship master had been talking so far. The carpenter had been silent until now. “In Andahi. When I was talkin’ to the Wood Guild chief. Said he used to be the king.”
“King o’ some stupid island, maybe, but not the Marlovan king.”
“That’s the very one,” the carpenter insisted stubbornly.
“Then how come he’s alive? I thought those Marlovans changed kings by killing everyone in sight,” the third mate said, and when the other two looked at her scornfully, she amended, “Well, the new one kills the old one’s family, anyway.”
That sounded more likely.
The second mate shook his head. “Can’t be a king. He’s not handing out orders right and left. Wearing velvet and a gold crown. Everybody knows that’s what kings do. King’s cousin, maybe. Better, the king’s cousin’s horse tender, or whatever they do with horses.”
“Yeah. I heard him talking to Silverhair about horse training just this morning, when he came out on deck for the first time. Before he asked what he could do to help. Like any king would,” the third mate shot this last bit of sarcasm in the direction of the carpenter. “You were either drunk and dreamin’, or them Wood Guilders were playing you, like typical landsmen.”
The second mate grunted. “And as for lookin’ like the Old Man, everyone knows those Marlovans all look alike. So, watch change in a heartbeat. What do we do?”
The third mate spread her hands. “Unless you want a personal tour of your own face, conducted by the Old Man’s fist, I’d pretend the new fellow’s a ship rat, and tell him what he wants to know. Nice and polite. And if he offers to put a hand to a halyard, let him.”
* * *
That was the first day Evred woke without nausea. He made it to the deck with the idea of offering to work. He remembered Barend’s and Inda’s tales about the unending labors of shipboard, and his own life had been one of unceasing labor. He had no money, no responsibility—he had no purpose. He must not become a burden.
It had seemed simple enough to offer his labors, but he was balked by the crew’s apparent incomprehension. “They don’t understand my Sartoran,” he said to Tau in the wardroom later, as they sat down to his first real meal.
The food was strange—corn bread, spicy rolls of vegetables and fish, a sweet thing called fruit pie—but it tasted delicious. He discovered he was ravenous.
“They are afraid you’ll fall overboard and they’ll have to pull up into the wind to fish you out,” Tau said, laughing. “Here. Have another piece of corn bread.”
“What is this they have put on top?”
“It is honey-butter. You’ll find cornbread served this way all along the strait. As for working, offer as soon as you can stand without holding onto something. Then they will teach you some of the ship chores.”
Evred finished the second helping of corn bread, then said, “I am trying to relax, as you advised. But my balance is no better.”
“You’ve been too ill to truly relax.” And, shortly after, “Are you done?” Tau led the way down to their tiny cabin. “What you need is to distract your mind, so your body can go about its business adjusting to the rhythm of the ship.”
“Distract my mind? How?”
“Here’s an idea.” Tau had begun unbuttoning his shirt. The summer air was still down below, heavy with the smells of oak and cedar, and the lingering aroma of fresh-roasted coffee beans. Tau’s forehead and the hollow of his throat gleamed as the shirt parted.
“Much better.” He dropped the fine linen over the trunk secured under the bulkhead; the light from the swinging lamp outlined taut muscles. “You might try taking that coat off. No one wears them on the sea.”
“I feel undressed without it.”
Tau reached lazily, and thrust the sturdy wooden shank of Evred’s coat through the hole. “Mmm. You are at sea. Life is different.”
Another button. Air fingered the sweaty flesh at Evred’s throat, a sensation both soothing and promising.
Evred could not remember the last time he had permitted anyone to touch his clothing. One by one the buttons were undone, easing the sense of stifling restraint he had not been aware of until then.
Tau paused when he reached the sash, then ran his fingers inside it back and forth along Evred’s waist. The knot loosened; the sash fell to the deck. Tau’s clever hands trailed down the coat, unfastening each button with a grave slowness. When he undid the last, his knuckles grazed the outside of Evred’s trousers.
Anticipation roared into fire.
Tau laughed softly. “The coat. I’m taking it off. Turn around.”
Evred faced away from Tau as sweat pooled in the small of his back, and ran down his temple. A tug at the belled sleeves, and the familiar weight was gone, leaving him light and free, hot and cold where his shirt had dampened.
A hand planted squarely in his back and shoved. The cabin was tiny; Evred had backed against the bunk built into the bulkhead. His feet had nowhere to go; he bent at the waist, his top half thumping on the bunk.
Tau lifted one of Evred’s feet. A strong tug, and a riding boot slid off. Then the second, swiftly followed by his stockings. Barefooted, lying athwart the bunk, Evred sensed his anticipation shifting to unease. He could not see. He began to turn over, to find his legs pinioned against the bunk by Tau’s thighs.
“Oh yes.” Tau gloated. “I do like this view.”
Evred was going to say “I don’t,” but that was absurd with his face mashed into the bunk. He didn’t like being passive. He never had.
So he made an effort—and it took all the strength he had—to twist and catch Tau’s wrist. Tau fell forward, freeing one of Evred’s legs, which Evred snapped up and over Tau, pinning him with the power of the lifetime rider.
Tau wheezed with laughter, his free hand outflung, fingers loose as dust motes whirled up from the bedding, golden in the light of the lamp overhead.
“So, you want to work, hmmm?”
Tau tensed—that was all the warning Evred had—a heartbeat late.
Tau flipped Evred over, his right hand pinning Evred’s left against the mattress. Tau bent down, his hair trailing over Evred’s chest as his free hand ripped the laces from Evred’s shirt. He whipped the lace around Evred’s wrist, and thence to the weather handle at the side of the bunk, and as Evred yanked against the sudden binding, Tau leaned down gave him a hot, mocking kiss.
Evred locked his free arm behind Tau’s head, and when the ship heaved up on a swell, he used the momentum to flip Tau over, so this time he was face down, with Evred on top. “I learn fast,” he breathed, tensed his arm, and broke the lace, ignoring the cut across his skin.
Then he bared his teeth and nipped Tau’s ear.
The subsequent thumps and clatters reverberated through the wardroom, where the third mate was sitting with the second mate. “Listen to that,” she said with high approval; Silverhair had once given her a fine tumble on an earlier cruise, so she took a proprietary interest in his well-being. “Sounds like our landsman is finding his feet.”
“Or someone’s finding someone’s something.” The second mate chuckled at his own wit.
* * *
Fox watched the waterman row Tau and Evred toward the main dock at Bren Harbor.
He was quite aware that he had no excuse for avoiding Evred Montrei-Vayir. With caustic self-awareness he acknowledged that he’d been waiting for Evred to betray himself with high-handed or arrogant behavior, so that Fox could emerge from his cabin fastness and smite him with the gravitas of moral righteousness.
But Evred hadn’t. Despite having wielded absolute power over the biggest empire remaining in the entire world, through the days since Evred had become accustomed to the movement of the ship, he’d submitted to correction by squeak-voiced mids as he learned the simplest jobs. He’d willingly rolled around on the deck, grappling with hands younger than his own children, during drill.
It was a relief when the boat reached the dock, releasing the matter from Fox’s mind. Perhaps they would choose to remain in Bren. After all, Tau could afford to hire a pleasure yacht—or an armed cavalcade if the ex-king was sick of the sea. As he turned to the day’s labors, Fox wished they would.
By then, of course, Evred had learned enough about the hierarchy and function of the ship to realize that he had yet to meet the captain, about whom no one talked, except in distant reference. “The captain says.” “The captain wants.” He gathered that Tau had some relationship with this captain, but Tau had numerous relationships of various types. Evred did not ask about anything. Once he had striven to control every waking moment, to pay for it in broken sleep and terrible dreams. Now he did not know what the morrow would bring. He did not ask. And when they rested, he slept deeply and woke refreshed.
At first, Bren Harbor astonished and delighted Evred. Barend had told him when they were boys that he could identify any city blindfolded, by the smell. Now Evred could believe it—spices and woods and fabrics and flowers from all over the world passed through this city spread across the hills on either side of the river. Something as simple as a flower box set in a window could, when multiplied outward to an infinitude of houses, fill the air with a riot of color and aromas.
The delight swiftly turned to exasperation when he discovered he could not pay attention to his surroundings and the passers-by at the same time. He nearly walked into people, and found himself jostled, once or twice unmercifully, by those who scowled back at him, red-faced from the heat.
And the heat only worsened. He felt sick to his stomach by the time they’d trod to the top of the first hill. “Here we go,” Tau said, guiding Evred under an awning, into a shop that smelled of new-spun fabrics. It was a relief to get out of the sun. “Time to lay aside that wool coat.”
This close to the belt of the world, early summer was far hotter than the Marlovan royal city at its worst. But . . . “It might seem foolish, but I dislike the idea of going about in as public a place as a city wearing only shirt and trousers.”
“Once one accepts the idea of clothing, then nothing is foolish. It’s a matter of custom and habit,” Tau said, leading Evred past displayed bolts of fabrics dyed in amazing hues. “I could not comprehend why Inda wore a vest over a long sleeved shirt when it was far hotter than the air is now. Until I met the rest of you, and understood that those coats are symbolic armor.” He paused before hanging racks of ready-made clothing. “The vests are a compromise—for what is a vest but a tunic with the sleeves sensibly cut out? You will find it far more comfortable. They even have pockets.” Tau indicated a fine brocade vest of deep cobalt blue, and another of shimmering forest green silk that would complement Evred’s dark red hair.
Evred gave them the briefest glance, and moved past to finger a vest of sturdy, undyed linen. Tau sighed; the task of introducing a Marlovan to color could come later.
Evred liked the vest. When it was sashed he felt properly dressed again, but it was far more airy than his sturdy coat designed to protect him from the cold plains winds. Tau had the tailor measure Evred for more shirts of summer cambric, a vest of sober brown silk with dull gold highlights, and trousers to match. These, with Evred’s coat, would be delivered to the ship by the morrow.
Considerably more comfortable—even feeling a little daring to be walking abroad in nothing but shirt sleeves—Evred followed Tau out again. They spent the day prowling around the city, as Tau showed him the places where Inda and Barend had been, then walked him up to Risto Ridge to where Evred’s mother had lived. They looked in at the Five Star Guild, now become respectable—the central headquarters of a trade consortium. They bought books.
At night, Tau took Evred to the Wisteria House. “I own part of the business,” Tau explained as they approached the door. The pleasure house was the most impressive in the row, with high arched windows filled with stained glass, and aromatic shrubs planted in pots along the pillared porch. The doors and windows downstairs were all wide open, spilling into the balmy evening air an enticement of golden beexwax light, delicious smells of pastry and spice drinks, music and laughter. “We hire young musicians straight from Colend. A lot of people come just for the concerts. But you and I are going upstairs.”
Evred glanced doubtfully up at those windows, each built around the stylized shape of wisteria blossoms. “It seems to me we can as well rent a room somewhere else.”
“Oh, my idea is not to spend the night with one another. We can do that on shipboard.” And when Evred paused, Tau did as well. “We won’t if you don’t like the idea. But Evred, there is nothing to fear. No one will ever court you for favor again—you have the luxury of no one knowing who you are. And if you and one of the fellows take to one another enough for you to want to return, you will know it is because he likes you, not your title.”
Evred stood for a short time, considering. For years sex had been confined to his wife, whose unconditional love claimed his duty, and when need drove him to it, short encounters arranged through the local pleasure house, with men whose names he never learned, who were paid to depart on finishing, and to never expect a second encounter. All to avoid a repeat of the humiliating experience with Dallo, which was just the sort of thing he’d feared clear back in his academy days.
Tau had been the first break with that—and Evred had wasted a great deal of that time fighting the sick, angry conviction that Tau would trade on what Evred regarded as his own weakness. Kings could not afford the luxury of human weakness.
Now Tau was back in his life, and Evred was not a king, he could grant no favors. He didn’t even have any money. Life with Tau was better than it had ever been—better than he’d dared let himself believe possible.
“All right,” he said. “I leave the choice to you.”
Tau gave that quick, soft laugh that Evred enjoyed. “Let us see who is here tonight. I haven’t been by in several months.”
They walked inside, to a bewildering complexity of people, music, the heady smells of spiced wine and tiny Colendi-style sweet cakes. Though Evred was almost dizzy with sensory superabundance, the proprietors were watchful, for not ten steps into the building and Tau was surrounded and welcomed joyfully.
The merry melodies of woods and strings carried from the great room adjacent. Tau led Evred past the concert room, knowing that Evred had no ear for such music—that, too, could wait—and guided him upstairs to a private suite of sumptuous rooms.
Evred scarcely took in the satin sheets, the enormous pillows, the low little tables on which food, drink, or implements could be laid out, then once again they were surrounded, this time by handsome young people in artfully draped robes that revealed as much as they concealed.
A short red-haired woman with a bountiful figure that reminded Evred of Hadand ran lightly up to Tau. He bent to kiss her, running a hand over her curves, as she laughed deep in her throat. He looked over her head at a pair of young men, and said, “Alored. Kestan. Take my friend here, and . . . I really think you should begin with the Torment of The Thousand Plumes.”
“Ahhh,” said one of the men. He was tall, with strong arms, and a wicked smile under slanting black eyes.
“Follow that with . . .The Mad Gallop, I think.”
“Oho,” said the other man, whose red hair fell in many braids, each with tinkling chimes.
“Then, perhaps, The Blacksmith Sharpens His Sword.”
Three voices said, “Mmmm!”
“And if there is time—because he really does have the staying power—The Tinker’s Dilemma.”
“Ahah!” said the men, and the woman cooed.
As the young men each took one of Evred’s arms, Evred said, “Where will I meet you—where do we sleep?”
“Who says,” Tau retorted sweetly, “you’ll sleep?”
* * *
Fox watched from the stern windows of the cabin as the liberty crew rowed back, Taumad and Evred with them. He snapped his glass to, and cursed.
“You’re a coward,” Tau said ten days out of Bren, as the ship rose on a kelp-veined swell.
“Yeah. And?” Fox retorted, glass to his eye as he tried a sweep. They’d been hugging the coast, but as the wind rose, veered into the strait to win sea room. The towering cliffs beyond Danai were no longer visible, just the gray-green of sea and sky.
Wind ripped at them as they stood behind the binnacle, preventers reinforcing the two strong sailors already at the wheel that Fox had had installed in place of the old Venn whipstaff.
“Just as well I had that replaced,” Fox shouted against the howling wind, when he noticed Tau’s abstracted glance. “Not certain a thousand year old rudder would have withstood a blow like this.”
Tau squinted against the horizontal sting of water blowing off the tops of the waves. Thunderheads tumbled overhead, stabbed by lightning, but as yet the rain was occasional warm splats. He accepted the subject change; now was clearly not the time. “You think this gale will become a typhoon?”
“No. I’m worried about what’s hiding in it,” Fox shouted back, and in a few words shared the latest report from Danai, which they’d touched on only for supplies. He raised a fist to his first mate, who sent the single mid to turn up the entire crew, half to the ship and half to take battle stations, the tops already being stripped to storm sail.
Tau used the rescue lines to help him cross the deck to the hatch, where the last of the crew struggled up into the wind.
Tau dropped down, moving with care along the pitching companionway. He found Evred sitting at the tiny fold-down table bolted next to the bunk, hands gripping the raised wooden edge that kept dishes from sliding off.
“Are we in trouble?” Evred asked in the flat voice that Tau remembered from the old days: Evred was exerting iron control.
“Not the blow, though these do get dramatic. It’s the possibility of pirates.”
“Pirates! I thought—”
Tau smiled. “The problem has lessened considerably, but as long as there are people and ships I am afraid there will be pirates. The Chwahir cannot defend their coast adequately for numerous reasons, and Ymar can’t for different reasons. Apparently there is a recently formed group of pirates who’ve begun lurking along these shores, waiting for just such storms. They can’t be seen from a distance, and the target’s crew is so busy handling the ship they can’t fight it as well as they would in better weather.”
“Then we should offer our service,” Evred said.
Tau dug in his gear and pulled out a pair of gloves. “Excellent idea.” Without being asked he fetched Evred’s, so the latter could brace himself against the table as the ship pitched and yawed, sending the lap swinging.
Evred lifted his chin toward the weather deck above their heads, where fast footsteps thumped back and forth. “Are they attacking now? Should we go?”
“No, that’s the crew taking battle stations. Our place is right here until we are needed. Now, let me give you a few pointers about battle on deck during a gale. You’ll want to keep one hand gripping the rescue rope . . .”
The pirates attacked just before sunset, as the wind screamed and sleet thudded against the taut sails as loud as the thunder. Evred followed Tau up the deck—where he had to bend almost to a crawl when the wind did its best to strike him straight into the churning seas.
Blue light flared. Evred glimpsed writhing silhouettes amid the tangle of rigging, but Tau recognized the classic pirate attack fore and aft. Fox led the defense team at the fore, where the attack was hardest as they tried to disable the ship. Tau gripped Evred by the arm and pulled him aft to the captain’s deck, pausing to pick up a couple of dropped weapons. He pressed a cutlass into Evred’s hand—the sword most like a Marlovan cavalry blade.
A rope smacked Evred’s hand—he gripped—his heartbeat rushed and drummed in his ears—lightning flashed on wild-eyed, howling faces, blood-smeared weapons held high as pirates leaped to the attack.
And Tau swung to meet the first with a scything sweep that rang above the thunder. Evred nearly ran into him, faltered, then the long habit of drill took over, and he dropped back to shield arm position. The world and time narrowed to the sword swinging at his gut.
His responsibility was to keep himself alive—and to keep the enemy from taking any more of the deck. His strength gave out far earlier than he had expected, his breath rasped in his throat, his heart might choke him before it ceased its drum . . . then the blows were fewer and fewer, and finally he had a moment to breathe, to lean his trembling limbs against the rail.
The noise of the collapsing attack caused him to swing around, staggering as sweat and rain ran stinging into his eyes. Lightning flared—and there, caught against the foremast, upraised sword gripped in hand, was a familiar profile.
Evred stared—the lightning vanished in a teeth-rattling roar of thunder, and Tau was at his side. “Come. Good work. We’re done—let’s go wrap up that arm, shall we?”
Evred shook him off, or tried. His arm was rapidly going numb, except for white stabs along his nerves. “Who,” he croaked. His voice was gone.
Tau helped him below, where the cook was busy handing out hot coffee laced with double-distilled bristic. A hot, scalding sip sent fire through Evred. He shut his eyes as someone pulled off his sodden coat, then tied something around his throbbing arm.
Making a great effort, he opened his eyes, and discovered he was in their cabin.
“Who,” he murmured.
Tau’s hair writhed down in his face, dribbling rain. A cut on his jaw dripped reddish water onto his shirt. “Let’s just get the rest of these clothes off. You will feel much better if you do not try to sleep in wet clothing.”
Evred permitted Tau to peel the clothing away, but only so he could gather his strength. Then he threw back his head. “Who. The man. Our age. Looks like my cousin Hawkeye. But red hair.”
Tau’s eyes widened, and he drew in a breath. Then said, “I hadn’t . . . seen that resemblance. But you’re right. He’s the captain of this vessel. Known as Fox, but you’d know him as Savarend Montredavan-An, former Jarl of Darchelde.”
Exhaustion, pain, and the effect of double-distilled bristic were forcing Evred down and down. “You didn’t tell me,” he breathed with the last of his strength.
Tau laughed silently, wiping the trickle of blood from his chin. “You did not ask. Go to sleep. He’s not going anywhere. And neither are you.”
Evred struggled with anger, frustration, with the desperate need to . . . to . . . down he fell, tumbling into ever deeper waves of warmth.
* * *
Morning brought a restless, green sea with clumps of seaweed floating on the waves, and here and there some wooden flotsam, evidence that the pirate attack had included more ships than just the Treason. And some had not fared so well, either against attack or storm.
Tau found Fox supervising the damage control. From the back he looked exactly the same as the old days: tall, lean, dressed in black, so one had to look hard for bandages, because he used black-dyed cloth. His only concession to age was that he leaned on a stick to favor the leg bandaged at the knee; in the old days he wouldn’t even do that.
His head turned, his eyes marked underneath by tiredness, but alert, green as the sea. “You two held the lee companionway,” he said—the obvious statement being Fox’s oblique method of acknowledgement. He jerked his chin toward the aft hatch. “He hurt?”
“Only a cut down one arm.”
“I’ll survive,” Tau said. “He recognized you. That is, he thought you were his cousin, Hawkeye Yvana-Vayir. Died at Andahi—”
“I know that,” Fox cut in. “I even know what Hawkeye was thinking when he died.”
Tau grimaced. “That’s right. I still don’t know what to make of that.”
Fox shifted his gaze upward at the work party raising the new foremast, then out to sea, then last to the high, smooth prow. The fantastic dragon head had been struck down into the hold after the last battle in the strait. Fox would reattach it again, soon.
But not yet. It seemed there was one last piece of business.
“You don’t have to make anything of it,” Fox said. “It’s my problem.”
“Why should it be your problem?” Tau asked.
Fox looked sardonic, tired as he was. “Do you really think this ship—the memories from others’ minds—came without a cost?” He pushed on past before Tau could ask what cost—a question Fox was obviously not going to answer. “We should be through the Fangs by nightfall, if the wind holds. And the lookout spotted Chwahir on the southern horizon. I expect any further trouble will not be ours to deal with.”
“I will bring him to breakfast,” Tau said as the bosun rang the bell for watch change.
One of Taumad’s most irritating characteristics (and he had many) was his ability to slither around even direct confrontation, his skills at deflection so good that Fox wondered if Ramis would find himself confounded by Taumad Dei. Or if Tau would find himself confounded by Ramis.
Either way, he thought, laughing to himself as he left the foredeck for the cabin, he wished them both the meeting—and the subsequent frustration.
* * *
“Evred, Fox.” Tau indicated each.
“Do you want coffee, either of you? I can call the rat of the watch back in.”
Tau had noticed that there were no actual shiprats of the usual rat age—the ‘rat’ was a job term only, as the person currently serving that duty was a young topman of some twenty years.
Interesting; Fox had always taken on and trained youngsters, but there was no one on board under twenty or so, as far as Tau had seen.
Evred turned down the coffee with a polite gesture, and then said, “This is a very fine ship. I understand you took it in the war with the Venn?”
“Before, actually. But you can regard it as a prize of war,” Fox said, tilting his chair back. “You like the sea?”
“Yes. Once I became accustomed.”
The conversation struggled on in like manner. This first encounter between Fox and Evred was remarkable only for its dullness. Their mutual dislike was evident in their mirrored tension. Fox, predictably, was superficially polite but covertly challenging—the tipped back chair, the derisive edge to his tone. Evred’s voice flattened to council mode as Tau struggled to find a topic that did not strangle after polite question and equally polite but non-committal answer.
Sea—sky—ships—harbors, all failed as topics. Even a brief reference to Indevan Montredavan-An’s years as a King’s Runner crushed converse: Evred had not known that Fox had relinquished his jarlate not long after Evred’s abdication. But there would be no reason for it to be mentioned at Ala Larkadhe, because alone of all the Jarls, Indevan Montredavan-An would not have been riding to the king’s city for the coronation, to make his oath of allegiance.
Evred had walked into the fine cabin looking for differences between Hawkeye and Savarend Montredavan-An. No sooner had he mentally catalogued them—their very different coloring, this fellow’s bones were sharper, his build leaner—than little movements, tricks of tone would bring Hawkeye to mind again and again.
For Fox, it was unpleasant and painful to see how many of Inda’s mannerisms Evred Montrei-Vayir mimicked. Or did they belong to their mutual boyhood experience in the academy? Barend had once said, “If you didn’t go to their academy, you heard it every home leave, how much they sounded alike. Saw how they moved alike. Thought alike.”
The next day, Fox was not in the cabin. Evred stayed forward, working in a withdrawn silence.
Tau resigned himself to defeat; by nightfall, as he sat with the sail makers replacing the sails ruined during the pirate attack, he mentally reformed his plans. If Fox touched at Khanarenth, they could travel inland from there, perhaps through Colend, which was beautiful in autumn, and reach Sartor by winter.
* * *
After midnight Tau’s watch ended. Just before dawn, Evred quietly dressed and left to serve a watch with the waisters—the crew who’d been wounded, and the mates to the non-coms, who swept the deck and tidied things for the day.
He’d worked his way around the mizzen mast when he discovered Fox at the taffrail, one booted foot proped just below the rail, his elbow steadied on his knee as he peered through his spyglass. It was exactly the same posture Hawkeye had used long ago, when propping his foot on a rock so he could sweep the coast in his eagerness before the pirate attack at the Nob. Exactly.
Hawkeye had been five years older than Evred, a negligible difference in manhood, but an impossible divide during their boyhood days in the academy, especially with Evred’s uncle maligning Hawkeye’s father any time the Yvana-Vayirs were mentioned. It took being half the sub-continent from home for Evred and Hawkeye to discover a mutual trust and even friendship. Despite their vigilant, jealous mutual uncle. And after Aldren’s death, Hawkeye had in a sense stepped into the brother’s position, but a brother like Evred had never had in Aldren. Hawkeye had even accepted the younger son’s role; he was too loyal, and too honest, to make trouble, despite his father’s best efforts.
Fox snapped the spyglass shut with a rap on his knee, and swung around. Then stilled, and the two regarded one another. Evred became aware that the other sweepers had moved far beyond, but as always, no one admonished him for having paused in his job.
He’d figured out by now that the crew tolerated him, but he and Tau existed in a bubble of privacy. No one asked questions, though they answered them readily enough. No one cursed them when they were late, or slow, or made mistakes. No one chaffed them the way they did one another. Evred suspected that this preferential treatment was by Fox’s will—the crew was as tough as they were skilled, and their comments to one another did not lack point or fluency.
“You may as well come into the cabin,” Fox said, and walked on by.
Evred frowned at the broom in his hands. He could refuse; he suspected nothing would happen, though he’d also learned that captains of ships were tantamount to kings. Perhaps his flouting of what constituted an order would be regarded as disrespectful by the crew all listening, though trying to look busy with other things. But Evred had been a commander far too long to be fooled by their apparent unconcern.
So he began to follow Fox, and was not surprised when the mate of the watch silently held out her hand to take the broom as he passed.
* * *
Tau woke alone in the cabin. On deck the bell rang the mid-morning watch. He dressed and went to hunt up Fox to ask about landing at Khanerenth. In the cabin he discovered Fox and Evred seated on either side of the ancient table, a chart between them.
Evred touched a Marlovan spoon laid endways—representing the wind, Tau saw. It sat at an angle on the chart of the strait at The Fangs. Coins of different denominations had been set out in the formation of the Battle at Jaro.
“ . . . so you could call wind and current the equivalent of terrain,” Evred was saying, as he touched the big twelve-siders. “To carry on the analogy, the Chwahir are the heavy horses?”
“And we the Nelkereth plains runners.” Fox tapped the line of smaller six-sided silver coins. “You could say we charged downhill in line to cut across the top of the Venn line.”
He moved the coins about as he described the battle step by step, but he translated sea-going terms into military equivalents. Tau helped himself to the food set on the sideboard and sat down to listen to Fox’s precise summation of a battle that Tau remembered in blood-splattered shards.
Evred’s voice was still flat, his expression guarded, and Fox frequently sardonic, but over the next day or so, as they progressed from that battle to Inda’s style as a commander to little anecdotes about Inda (like the time he discovered that he’d been drinking punch after days of downing it by the cup) the two relaxed into a kind of armed but superficially cordial neutrality.
Tau sensed that Evred was mustering himself to ask about the Battle at The Fangs. He suspected that Fox knew it, but for typical Fox reasons would make Evred ask.
The third morning, as a low band of rain poured down the deck and streamed out the scuppers, rendering sweeping as impossible as it was unnecessary, Fox actually had breakfast for three waiting in the cabin when Tau brought Evred to see what the day’s plan was to be.
The invitation was implicit. Evred displayed no reaction other than his readiness to stay. Tau asked idly, “When we were at the Andahi castle, the Randviar brought out Keth’s newborn son, another Inda. Inda Arveas-Andahi. Inda Toraca. Fox, you named your boy Inda as well.”
“Indevan,” Fox corrected drily. “Which is what he is called.”
“How many of them are there, I wonder.”
“I can answer that,” Evred said. “Hadand had to keep records. For the betrothal treaties. Starting with Noddy’s son and ending with Keth’s, there were thirty-seven.”
“Including my boy?” Fox asked as he passed the square-bottomed coffee pot.
“Of course,” Evred said. “He figures into the marriage alliances.”
“That must have led to some inventive naming at the academy.”
“For a few years there, nicknames went out of use. Considered babyish. They used last names with Ain and Tvei. I should probably mention that there were forty-four Evreds, and twenty-five Haldrens. Over a period of about fifteen years, you understand. Around the tenth year my new headmaster tried to make it a rule. No more nicknames. With predictable results.” Evred paused, and when he saw the appreciative expectation in the other two, he said, “The standout was Indevan Noth, son of Flatfoot, who was known as Grass Ass. My son Tanrid knew why, but he wouldn’t tell us.”
Tau said, “In trade for that vital information, Fox, you might relate the last battle at The Fangs. Inda was not in the capital long enough between his return and his journey home to take up his new life as Adaluin, and I don’t think Evred ever heard a report.”
“You were there.” Fox cocked an eyebrow.
“I was with Ymar. You led the defensive line. And you possess the most details about Inda’s actions aboard the Vixen.”
Fox set his biscuit back on his plate, and snapped out the chart of the strait. “Grab that bag of coins over there. We’re going to have to cover the entire table,” he said. And, after a brief study of Evred, who waited in expectant silence, “It might take a few days.”
As the clean winds sent the ship flying down the Chwahir coast toward the open sea, they ranged over the entire engagement with the Venn, beginning with the gathering of the alliance and ending with the two-pronged attack. Fox and Tau traded off telling Evred about Inda’s encounter with Rajnir and Erkric—Tau relying on Jeje’s trenchant summation, which Fox added little to. They covered everything, right to Fox’s duel with the would-be Venn king on the wharf at Fire Island Main.
* * *
Tau had set out with several connected goals. His mother had raised him on Martande Lirendi of Colend’s saying, Life is a work of art in progress. Tau regarded his near miss with failure as a reminder of the importance of waiting and watching. But there was also the danger of inaction. There were little signs that Fox had some mission in mind, or some goal; he overheard a sailor mentioning that the Treason would no longer take passengers. If that was true, then the splendid winds that gave them such an exhilarating run worked against Tau—time was running out.
The evening a brief shower cleared, revealing the rocky heights of Khanarenth off the bow. Evred was below, being initiated into the skill of net making by a couple of agreeable sailors.
Tau found Fox on the captain’s deck. He said, “We’ve talked for days about Inda, and you’ve answered every question he asked.”
Fox braced against the rail as he swept his glass over the shoreline. The wind carried the complex smells of land, pungent after so many weeks surrounded by nothing but sky and sea.
Fox continued to study the rocky cliffs as Tau waited. Then Fox smacked the glass to with a decisive snick, and regarded Tau under a shading hand; a stray beam between his long fingers lit one eye with a lambent emerald gleam, and struck the ruby in his ear with a malevolent red fire. “Whenever you tell me what I’ve done in that commendatory tone of yours, I know I’m about to be stung.”
Tau said, “Anyone would think it was your turn to ask.”
“About Inda?” Fox’s eyes narrowed.
Tau said, “You’ve avoided asking Evred about that last interview with Inda—about which I’d never heard a word, from Hadand, or anyone else, until I read that record of yours.”
Fox lifted a shoulder and sauntered across the deck, pausing to squint up at the set of the sails. Uninvited, Tau followed him to the cabin, where Fox lit a lamp, set his spyglass in its place, picked up and then tossed down a golden scroll case.
He watched it clatter as though finding hidden meaning in the action. Then he looked up. “I suspect if he answered at all he’d give me a concise report,” he said, as if there had been no pause. “Where’s the fun in that?”
“In the pain it would cause him to recount it?” Tau leaned against the cabin door.
“I’ve never liked torture.” Fox’s faint smile turned sardonic. “So I find myself disarmed by the fact that I already possess the truth.” He said it airily, easily.
“And by . . . a shared grief?” Tau asked.
Fox flicked up his fingers dismissively. “What is this, an attempt to sentimentalize an imaginary bond?”
Tau said, “An attempt to define the extraordinary lacunae in your record of Inda’s life.” And when Fox’s brows twitched in denial, “A record that delved into everyone’s inner life, however briefly. Such as Barend’s, who had sex once every five years then filed it away between times as finished business. And Signi Sofar’s, who was the least sexual being alive—or rather, who was as sexual as visionaries ever are. Everyone’s,” Tau said, “but yours.”
Fox crossed his arms. “What do you want, Taumad? I’ve overlooked the Montrei-Vayir treachery—rendered even more pointless now that Evred’s got no throne and I’ve no land—I’ve respected the boundaries he has no idea that I crossed.” His mouth turned sarcastic. “Or are you regretting this gesture of yours, and hope to turf him out so that I’ll take him up? If so, you must have forgotten that damned Montrei-Vayir tendency for single-minded obsession. You are saddled for life, coz, so you’d better settle for a long ride.”
‘Yes,” Tau said gently. “And that obsession will never encompass me. I don’t ask of him what he cannot give. Or what you cannot.”
The silence lengthened, punctuated by the whish-slap of the waves along the hull, and the hoarse bellow of the second mate registering dissatisfaction with the set of the royals.
The sun had sunk below the uneven line of Khanerenth’s cliffs, consuming the last of the light in the cabin, except for the faint golden glow of the lamp, which caught on the interlocking knotwork of the Venn gilding.
Fox eyed Tau, who waited. “’In all ways,’” he murmured, “’but one.’ What was it I said?”
“As with your record, what you did not say was revealing. You’ve talked tirelessly about Inda with the one man in the world who would also talk tirelessly about him.”
Fox lifted his brows, mocking. “And so we’re back to sentiment. You wanted us to fall into one another’s arms? It isn’t going to happen. We made our gesture—it’s a truce. Not even friendship.”
“Lovers, brothers. Friends. Enemies.” Tau opened his hands. “I hoped he might keep you in the world.”
Fox drew in a long breath.
“Once Inda died, you began tying off everything binding you to the world. First your son, sent away, so that when he returned you could leave and he wouldn’t have depended on you. Then that record. Then you gave up your land. But it’s not quite what I feared, is it? At first I almost missed it, until I considered what you said about wagering against yourself that anyone would read that record. To collect a wager, you have to be able to find out who wins.”
Anger was Fox’s first reaction. Suicide? So disgustingly maudlin! But Fox had lived too long to resort to the refuge of self-righteous rage.
Tau stroked his chin. “It’s this ship. Isn’t it? There’s something about this ship.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “The crew is all older. There are no rats in training, just a single mid who’s an orphan, I discovered. No one talks about family at home. No one talks about landing at Khanerenth. You have some kind of pact made with them, about which we haven’t heard a word, but I feel it all around me. Am I right?”
“You’re a damned interfering shit, and I never should have sent you that record,” Fox stated, but completely without heat. “Yes. This is our last run. The crew made their choice.”
“Between landing on shore, or . . .”
“I don’t know.” Fox opened his hands. “Not Norsunder. In fact, I believe the magic on this vessel was created specifically to put it beyond Norsunder’s reach. I suspect we’ll sail right out of time. If not out of the world.” He laughed, and dropped down onto the bench, fists on his knees. “It was a commendable effort, Tau, but there’s nothing to keep me here. If I’d met Evred way back when we were boys, and he was unsuccessfully evading his brother’s fist, we might have become what the other wanted. Needed. Though his uncle would have exerted every nerve to prevent just that. Now . . . too much has happened that cannot be undone.”
Tau said, “Then you may as well set us on shore. I will take him to the archive at Sartor, which I trust will make up for the morvende shutting us out at Ala Larkadhe.”
Fox slanted a quizzical glance. “And then what?”
“And then wherever he wants. I have the money, and the interest. When he tires of travel, then back to Freedom.”
Fox laughed. “The prospect of seeing Jeje’s face when you bring the former king of the Marlovans to her domain is almost enough to keep me here.”
Tau also laughed, then shook his head. “Jeje will be fine the moment she realizes he has no interest in supplanting her. She’s been so busy with Dasta and Harbormaster work and our boys, she’ll probably just put him to work.”
Fox reflected on Jeje, who was as little inclined toward the confinement of monogamy as was Taumad. Dasta, either. Heh. Another possible inherited inclination, this unwanted steadfastness of heart.
Fox dismissed it. “We’ll touch at Land’s End by tomorrow, if this wind holds.”
* * *
Before Tau had left Freedom, he’d told Jeje his plan.
“You’re a romantic.” Jeje had poked him in the chest. “Isn’t that what the King of Ymar called you when you were whooping it up with him on that Venn ship all those years ago? You should know by now that whatever you want Fox to do he’s going to do the opposite.”
Not quite true, Tau thought late the next day, after he and Evred were rowed ashore. He’d written to Jeje via his scroll case, and discovered that Dasta’s boy was on route from Freedom, which would give them a water route to Sartor, or else they could travel by land, crossing Colend. Tau would give Evred the choice.
But that was for tomorrow.
They walked around the harbor, as always visiting places Inda had been. Evred had said little since their departure from the Treason—a ship name aimed obliquely at Evred, Tau had realized only after they were rowing away, with the great gold-painted letters glittering overhead across the stern in fine Sartoran swoops. But Tau’s mission had not been useless. The two distant enemies had met, and battle lines had not been drawn. They had even gained by it. Evred had at last heard the details of the Battle of the Strait, and at a time when the hurt was minimal.
And Fox had admitted what he had never admitted to any living person: that he and Evred had each shared a lifelong passion for dear, oblivious Inda.
Tau was considering whether or not he should keep that secret as they walked up to the point that looked over the harbor, to watch the tide turn and the ships who were leaving take sail.
He’d taken care to purchase a pair of spyglasses. The water turned a pale blue as the sun slid behind them, the late summer glare golding into slanting shafts. The tide began to flood, and out in the harbor sails shook out and filled with wind. Most were round-hulled traders or scrawny fishers, drawing the eye to the towering square sails and martial beauty of the Treason—where, they discovered, the fantastical dragon-head prow that had been struck down into the hold now rode in its proper place, proudly facing the eastern seas.
“I believe we’re to see some magic.” Tau paused on a cliff top vantage, overlooking the curve of the harbor, and the bay beyond. “And I think I’ve figured out who lies behind it.”
“Magic?” Evred repeated. He’d put his gray coat back on; the rising wind played with the skirts, and sent his horsetail streaming. “I did not know Fox had learned it.”
“He hasn’t. That ship is full of it. It’s very old. The mage, unless I miss my guess, goes by the name of Ramis.”
Evred frowned. “Isn’t he from Norsunder?”
“Yes. But there appears to be a mystery. If there isn’t—if Fox has been betrayed—then I know whom to go to when we reach Sartor,” Tau added. “If I can I’ll get Fox out again. And I know what the rift into Norsunder looks like. I’ve never forgotten that sight.”
Evred snapped out his spyglass. The two watched steadily as the towering sails belled out, each rise and plunge carrying the ship faster. Not far beyond it the air began to glitter.
“Why did you not tell me we were going aboard Fox’s ship?” Evred asked presently.
“Would you have gone?” Tau answered.
“No.” Evred smiled, but did not take his eye from the glass. “Is that the magic, that fog that shimmers?”
“Yes. Did you take harm of my ruse?”
“Did you come away with anything worthwhile?”
The ship began to enter the shimmer, the dragonhead blurring, then the foremast.
“I satisfied my curiosity about the battles that Inda would never discuss, or that he had not time to report.” A brief glance, sardonic—bringing the resemblance to Fox unsettlingly to mind. “And I corroborated Fox’s regard for Inda in . . . what was it you said, that first day? ‘In all ways but one.’”
The magic had swallowed half the ship—and it was not the black rift to Norsunder. Tau dropped his glass and eyed Evred. “You knew about that? I didn’t know, not for sure, and I traveled with Fox and Inda for half a decade. Longer.”
Evred had his glass still trained on the shimmer, which scintillated as the stern dissolved into it. “I’ve known for years.”
“It was the rings,” Evred said, and sighed. “Now I have witnessed great magic. I never thought I would.”
“You recognized those summons rings?” Tau repeated.
Evred watched the glisten fade from the air above the empty sea, leaving no trace of magic or ship. “No, but Carleas Cassad did. They were lovers’ rings, made by Adamas Dei centuries ago. Passed to the Montredavan-Ans with marriage between the families.” He lowered the glass, as the night breeze tangled through his long hair. “It didn't take much after that to comprehend the hidden message when Fox gave the rings to Inda.”
Tau grimaced. Even after all these years, it pained him to stumble over his own shortcomings. “Knowing that they would be carried straight to you. So, in effect, he’d failed to attach Inda—and now it was your turn to try. And of course Inda never saw any of it.”
“Communication,” Evred said, and for the first time reached out and took Tau’s arm in his own as they started down the hill toward the harbor. “In all ways but one.”