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Our Ships Painted Red

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John is walking.

He's been in motion for a long time. Sailing, fighting, then sailing again. It sounds so neat and orderly, in retrospect, broken down into its component parts. Mundane, almost. Forgettable.

But those days are behind him. Now, John just walks.

He isn't sure just how long he's been walking or how far he's come--his legs are still sea-weary, slow to reacclimatise themselves to dry land, his gait still dangerously unsteady--when he crests a small hill and comes upon the first people he's seen since he left port, a boy and a girl playing by the side of the road.

To judge by the knowledge of a child would be surely be cheating the terms of his oath, but he's as visible to them as they are to him, and he doesn't avoid them.

"Oi!" calls the little boy. He shrugs one bony shoulder at the oar balanced on John's shoulder. "Where's your boat?"

Cheating or not, there's the temptation removed. There's a tremor in John's hand born of something like relief. Once, he might have argued with the boat designation, but he can feel his pride even in that fading with every step he takes inland, metre by faltering metre.

The boy is thin, with sandy blonde hair and warm blue eyes in a friendly face. He stands and places his hands on his hips, puffing his narrow chest outward. It's a childish, possessive gesture: My land; my place. Mine. The girl doesn't bother with posturing; she remains crouched on the ground, her face twisted into a suspicious glare. There are streaks of dust on the side of her neck.

John directs his answer to the girl; though it's the boy asking, he knows the question, like the land, is hers in all the ways that count. He had a sister too, once.

"I left it behind."

The girl's mouth draws tight. The boy nods as if John's answer is something that makes sense, and John envies him his confidence. He shifts his grip on the handle of the oar. It's heavy, carved of dense oak, but the awareness carries no accompanying urge to cast it aside, even temporarily. He's made an oath; he'll see this through.

His shoulder has long since developed a bone-deep ache but he keeps the oar balanced there all the same. The right shoulder, every step of the way. The oar isn't all he carries, and he wants his left hand free.

"I have a wagon," the boys tells him. "Sometimes we play pretend. You can ride in it with me, if you want."

John smiles at him. "Not today," he says. "I've had enough of boats."

"Even pretend ones?"

"Even those. Enough for a lifetime."

Even as he says it, John knows it for a lie. He's been at sea so long the thought of living anywhere else is an uneasy one; for all he's been longing to go home, he's not sure what there may be of home left to him, in any of its forms. Not anymore.

"Silly to bring your oar with you then," the girl says. "Not much use without a boat."

"Yes," John tells her, "I know." She's right, of course, but it doesn't mean he can stay.

 

 

 

The next person he meets is a woman perhaps a few years younger than himself. She's kneeling in a garden beside a low cottage, using her fingers to push seeds down into the dirt, row after careful row. She looks up at John's approach; when she pushes her hair back from her forehead, there's mud caked around the beds of her fingernails. It makes him hopeful, despite himself. It makes him ache.

"There's a river up that way, but you won't be needing a boat to get across," she tells him. She's recognised the oar, then; he'd been a fool to hope she wouldn't. He tightens his mouth against the warmth still simmering in his chest. She may have her fingers in the dirt, but he has to keep moving on. "It's hardly deep enough for that. And anyway, there's a bridge."

He manages to smile, he thinks, more or less. "Thank you."

She stands, brushing dirt from the palms of her hands against the front of her skirt. "Where are you headed, stranger?"

He shrugs. With that knowledge, his would be a different sort of journey altogether. "Just passing through."

She recognises it for the non-answer it it, but she gives him a smile that's no less genuine for it. When she tells him her name her voice carries it softly, like an offering; two syllables the endless blue of sea and sky.

The colour spreads out inside him until there's room for nothing else.

There's a pause while she waits for John to reply in kind. When she realises it won't be forthcoming, the blue of her eyes grows darker. And that, he knows, is his answer, though her voice when she speaks is still kind. "How much further do you have to go?"

"No idea."

"Sounds like a fool's errand to me. You'll want a drink for the road, at least." She disappears inside, returns with a cup of water. She watches John drink it. The water is cool, clear, bearing no trace of salt.

It's nowhere near enough.

He hands the empty cup back to her and she wraps her fingers around it as though she could touch him through the clay. "Will you be back this way?"

John doesn't have a response to that, either. He's been at the mercy of wind and tide for a long time, going where he's told, where he's compelled to go. He minds, and he doesn't, and the fact of it is that either way he doesn't have an answer yet.

"Well." She laughs, almost; a nervous sound. "If it's a town you're after, there's a good-sized one up ahead. But it's a long walk."

"Yes." It sounds like agreement; as though it were the answer he hoped for.

He resettles the oar against his shoulder, wraps his fingers around the handle tightly enough that they hardly shake at all.

Mary watches him leave. He doesn't turn around again, but he can feel her eyes on his back all the same.

 

 

 

He walks.

Later he reaches a place where there are streets, and houses, and strangers. Strangers to John, that is; not to one another. Somehow in a crowd he can't seem to bring himself to approach them, to ask if they recognise his odd displaced burden, so he does the only thing he knows to do: he keeps walking. A different sort of wind, a different sort of tide, and he's still waiting to see where it takes him.

It won't matter. There's water here; he can smell it. He might have left his ship behind but he hasn't forgotten where he belongs.

But that's the whole problem, isn't it? He doesn't quite belong, at that. So long gone and he can't remember what it means to come home, but the sea is endless and angry, and he has a job to do. His men have suffered; his men have been lost.

John knows, too, what he's promised. Until you find someone who doesn't recognise what you carry, the prophet had said. If there's water here, he's sure to be found out. He'll have to move on.

He turns a corner, drawn toward the scent of water despite himself, and walks straight into a tall man who's just exiting the door of a bookshop. The stranger is scowling down at the paper-wrapped parcel, head bowed so that his dark curls obscure his face; the jolt of the collision makes him drop his package on the pavement.

"Careful." The man's voice is a low growl despite its surprise-born breathlessness.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to--" John stoops to retrieve the dropped item. "Here."

When he straightens again he's confronted with pale eyes that are staring into his own so intently that he has to stop himself from taking a step back. "Er."

There's a quick drop down, just a flick of a glance; when he returns his eyes to John's face, they're gleaming. "You're not from around here."

"Er," John says again. "No, I'm not, I'm--"

"Oh, don't tell me," the man says with a wave of his long fingers. His gaze rakes over John's body again, more slowly this time. John finds himself inexplicably willing to wait. He feels, for the first time in a long while, seen. Exposed in a way that he's only ever felt under the infinite expanse of the Mediterranean sky. "A long way. From the south, across the continent. Beyond that, perhaps. And you're a-- hmm. An educated man, certainly. A craftsman by trade."

"A... what?" It's not so much the inaccuracy of the analysis as that it's happening at all; John is, to his knowledge, unknown here. What possible interest could his history hold for this stranger?

The people passing on either side pay them no notice, parting to move around them like the current around a stone.

"Obvious, from your… implement." The man jerks his chin in the direction of John's right shoulder, the oar he'd all but forgotten was balanced there. "But that's not why you're here. The callouses on your fingers say fighter, but not--"

The man's brow crumples in frustration. Seeing it makes John feel unmoored, disoriented, as though he's overturned an anthill to find a beehive.

John feels a surge of hope so unexpected that for a moment he can't quite seem to catch his breath. "My what?"

"A baker, perhaps? No, your stance, your-- the musculature is all wrong." He gestures impatiently at John's right shoulder. "But if that's not a winnowing fan--" He runs one hand quickly through his hair, fingers catching in dark curls.

"A--" John's can hear the blood pound in his ears. "Is that not water nearby?"

"Of course it is."

"But you don't know an oar when you see it."

The man's eyes flare wide, just for a moment. The muscles in his temples jump as he clenches his jaw. "Irrelevant. Most of what holds my attention requires me to keep my feet planted firmly on dry land." There's a pause; when he continues, his voice is tinged with something almost like chagrin. "If I ever did know, I deleted it."

John shakes his head, incredulous. "But there must be boats, how do you--"

"It's not important," the man interrupts him. "Fine, not a craftsman. But educated. Arrived here by-- no, not boat, you've come too far for a small craft. A ship. Your ship. A captain, then, is it?"

His ship, yes. A captain? Perhaps. He'd long ago stopped thinking of himself as such, with so few of his men remaining. He'd been able to save such a small number of them.

And yet, to hear it from the mouth of a stranger he's only just met--

"Amazing." His own voice sounds breathless.

"Simple observation." The words are clipped, impatient. "Now, are you coming?"

The stranger turns and begins to walk away without waiting for John's reply. John finds himself following, hurrying to match the man's long stride.

"Where?"

"With me, of course." It feels, to John, like more of an answer than it is. Perhaps he's simply been too long at sea.

They walk in silence for a while, until the man reaches out to grasp John's sleeve, tugging John along as he veers abruptly to the left.

"This way. We have to make a stop first."

They turn two more corners and the scent of the water grows stronger; it's not the clean salt air of the sea but is still dark and thick with the promise of secret depths. The stranger stops in front of a tree and leans in to draw aside a low branch. John can see that a crest featuring the image of a hand clutching a knife has been affixed to its trunk.

John's breath catches in his throat. "How--"

The stranger narrows his eyes. "Your hands. Trained for close, delicate work. If not an artisan, then a surgeon; if a surgeon, then Bartholomew. It's a simple chain of logical steps. Most people don't like to be told how transparent they are." His voice is low. "A firearm seems an unusual choice, but I'm hardly a theologian. Make your offering so we can be getting home."

"I-- my--"

Of course. He'd almost forgotten, without the roll of the sea beneath his feet, what it is he's here to give up. It would be so easy to forget who he is; who he was. To leave it behind.

He can feel the weight of his weapon against his low back, now that he has a reason to remember. Such things aren't allowed inside the city walls. John knows that; he knows he should make his appeasement and move on.

It's all he's been doing. It's why he's here.

John slides the oar from his shoulder, leveraging the blade into the soft earth and tightening his fingers around its handle as though he can use it to root himself to the spot. As though it's the centre by which he can gain his bearing.

The stranger is still watching him, the corners of his pale eyes narrowed in concentration. "Ah. A good offering, then. And what have you been promised in return?"

John shakes his head. This is one question to which he has an answer, but the answer is knowledge he can't share. He can hear the prophet's voice in memory: Your death will come, far from the sea, a gentle passing....

Separated from the sea, he won't last long. This is the bargain he's had to make, for his own sake and for the sake of those few men he's been able to bring home. But John's wanderings have brought him to both water and a man who does not recognise his oar, and perhaps the choice he's being offered is not quite what he thought.

When John doesn't answer, the stranger speaks again, the words soft and careful on his tongue. "Whatever it is, it's not something you want."

A quiet passing. There are those who say the sea is quiet, too, but John knows better. He knows how to hear it; hears the song in his own blood, in the salt that still clings to his skin.

"No," John says at last, understanding spreading through him like the warmth of a fire. "No, it really isn't."

"Obviously."

The change in the stranger's tone is jarring, and John simply stands blinking for a moment before he can organise the words in his mouth.

"Wait, if you thought-- What are we doing here?"

"Proving a point. No purpose standing around here now that's sorted. Come on, then." He turns; when John makes no move to follow, he spins on his heel with a quick exhale, impatience clearly visible in the rigid set of his shoulders, and answers the question John hasn't asked. "I told you. Home. With me."

"I--" John founders, searching for an objection that makes sense. "But you don't know a thing about me. You don't even know my name."

The stranger regards John through narrowed eyes. He continues to hold John's gaze while he speaks, the words themselves coming out low and rushed as though he's afraid a pause would disturb the delicate balance of a scale John can't even see.

"I know you've come a long way, at great personal cost to yourself. You're a purposeful man by nature, but you've come indirectly. Wandering. Searching for something, but you didn't have enough to go on to mount an organised search and failed to recognise it when you found it. This despite being educated, a trained fighter, and accustomed to command. So what you seek is a means to an end. An exchange, not for your own benefit, though you've convinced yourself it is. You've got an illicit weapon you want to believe you won't need again--and you could be right about that, if you wanted to be, though not if you choose to keep it and insist on concealing it so poorly--but you don't want to be right. You can't abide the thought that your life might get dull."

The stranger pauses, finally, the corner of his mouth lifting into a smile. "And I can assure you that that concern, at least, is unfounded."

A long-held knot of tension in John's chest breaks into a laugh. God help him, he believes it.

"I think that's enough to be getting on with, don't you?" The stranger quirks an eyebrow in John's direction, pale eyes sparkling with amusement. "When we get home you're going to tell me your story. It's sure to be a long one; time enough for names."

"My story." John swallows. His skin feels raw, inverted, stretched to the point of transparency; what else could this stranger want to know about him that he hasn't already seen? "Sounds like you know it already."

"Observation is one thing, but I'd much prefer to hear your telling of it." The stranger tips his chin up, indicating the oar still standing upright in the soft earth. "Leave that instead," he says. "You won't be needing it."

And the hell of it is, John believes that, too. He lets his hand fall away from the handle of the oar. He can leave it behind, he thinks; as witness to his travels, or until some other wanderer may need it.

This time, when the stranger turns and begins to walk back toward the centre of town, John follows without hesitation.
The stranger tilts his head and slants a smile in John's direction. "There's some distance yet to cover before we get there," he says, "but somehow I don't suppose you'll mind."

The truth is, he really doesn't; not now, with the ground beneath his feet feeling steadier with every step. There was a time when the salt air of the sea had tasted unfamiliar, too, and now he carries its memory beneath his skin. One can learn a great many things, given time.

John doesn't speak, not yet. He simply quickens his pace until the two of them are walking side by side, and lets that be his answer.