Chapter One | Chapter Two | Chapter Three | Chapter Four | Chapter Five | Chapter Six | Chapter Seven | Chapter Eight | Chapter Nine | Chapter Ten | Chapter Eleven | Chapter Twelve | Chapter Thirteen | Chapter Fourteen | Chapter Fifteen | Chapter Sixteen | Chapter Seventeen | Chapter Eighteen | Chapter Nineteen | Chapter Twenty | Chapter Twenty-One
A pirate captain. His mysterious captive. A quest for revenge.
In Sihr, an ancient world long ago swallowed by its rising seas, people live by their creeds. Well, all people except the witches, that is. That’s one of the reasons Zoral, captain of a pirate crew, hates them. But the main reason is that months back he battled a legendary witch craft and lost not just the fight, but his wife as well.
Aron has a list of secrets. One of them is that he has witch’s blood, and after spending the first twenty years of his life hiding that fact, he’s been found out and chained aboard the witch craft the Tibalt. He’s expected to cooperate and guide and protect the ship with his magical power. The problem is, Aron doesn’t have that kind of power. When pirates take the Tibalt and Aron changes hand along with her, he finds himself the captive of young, handsome Captain Zoral, who keeps Aron in his cabin instead of the brig.
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The Tibalt was a smaller ship than Aron was used to, and rocked by every wave. Still, over the long days of his captivity, Aron had adapted to its specific pitch and sway on calm seas.
But when Aron woke on his thirteenth night in the Tibalt’s brig, it wasn’t to the familiar, gentle motions he was accustomed to. Instead, the ship was being tossed about so violently, Aron had rolled across the deck and to the end of his heavy iron chain. The shackle bit into his wrist and twisted his arm at an almost-impossible angle. He struggled blindly in the dark, in an animal’s panic to ease the pressure before the joint—or worse, the bone—buckled under the strain.
When he had clawed himself back to the wall where his chain was bolted, he clung to the bulkhead and tried to take stock of what was happening.
The underbelly of the Tibalt was always dark as pitch, but Aron had learned how to tell whether it was night or day by whether he could see a thin slice of light beneath the door at the top of the ladder that led to the upper deck. He stared into the total darkness and knew it was either nighttime, or the sky was shrouded in storm clouds so dark, they blotted out the sun.
Waves slapped the hull, and timbers groaned as the ship twisted and flexed. Beneath that din and the pounding of his own heart, Aron could hear the panicked sailors’ cries and the Captain’s bellowed orders to stay calm.
Aron shrank back, gripping the massive eye bolt that held his chain like an anchor. He hated that just the sound of the foul man’s voice could make him cower like a kicked dog, but at least no one was there to see him. No use pretending to be brave when he didn’t even have an audience, was there?
When the door over the ladder slammed open, Aron thought for a moment that it had been dislodged by the ship’s sway and the pounding rain. Indeed, a sheet of rain immediately penetrated the opening, peppering Aron with its peripheral spray. He shielded his face against the icy water and his light-sensitive eyes from the flare of a lamp.
“Witch!” the Captain howled. “You will tame this storm, or I will cut out your heart and make it a gift to the lightning god. The choice is yours.”
Aron didn’t doubt the Captain would make good on that threat, and Aron very much would have preferred to live. But it hardly mattered. Aron couldn’t agree to tame a storm he was incapable of taming.
“I’ve told you,” he said, trying to sound fierce but instead practically whimpering, “I can’t!” His heart hammered with a panic no mere storm could have inspired as the Captain clambered down the ladder and toward the brig.
“I have no patience left for your lies, witch,” the Captain said over the wails of desperate sailors and furious winds. “Now, choose—your power or your blood? Because if you will not give me the one, then I shall take the other.”
Aron shouldn’t have been shocked by the Captain’s declaration. In fact, he probably should have been braced for it. He’d never expected to leave the Tibalt alive. But nonetheless his hopes of escape had refused to entirely die. And hope aside, he hadn’t realized the end was quite this imminent. He hadn’t gone to sleep that night expecting it to be his last. He hadn’t even had the chance to say a prayer to his ancestors. Perhaps it wasn’t much, but it was the least the lightning god owed him—a few minutes’ time to pray.
But as the Captain stalked his way, steps slow and careful for balance on the tossing ship, it was clear that Aron wouldn’t be afforded even this smallest of mercies.
Maybe it was moral outrage, or maybe the unfiltered desperation of a man who sees his death coming and can only wait at the end of his chain for it to reach him, but Aron’s terror fled and gave way to something else: anger.
He should not die like this. And he wouldn’t take it lying down. Not figuratively, nor—he scrambled quickly to his feet—literally.
The Tibalt lurched again with a violence that threw the Captain back against the ladder. Aron scrambled to stay on his own feet, his hand pressed against the bulkhead, rough with tar. But the lurch he was expecting didn’t come.
The ship had righted itself. Evidently, they were in the wake of that abrupt and fierce storm. The Tibalt was perfectly steady under Aron’s feet.
The stillness was so perfect, in fact, that it turned Aron’s stomach in a way the most turbulent waves never did. A vivid memory, one he hadn’t realized he still possessed, briefly seized his paralyzed senses. He had been no more than three or four, tucked into his father’s arms. That scent of salt and ink had belonged only to him. He’d been crying because they’d just stepped onto solid ground for the first time in his young life, and the loss of constant motion from the rocking sea had left him sick and panicked, his very nature rebelling at the sensation of being inexorably moored.
Aron blinked several times, recalling himself; the salt and ink smell fled, as did the phantom warmth of a loving embrace. He was back in the chill underbelly of a ship in stinking rags and the bruising grasp of a chain.
The Captain was staring through the hatch above the ladder, where, instead of streams of rain and churning seawater, there poured only quiet and sunlight. Apparently the crew were struck silent at having been spared from the storm so abruptly.
“Very good, witch,” the Captain murmured, looking back at Aron with a dazed face. His jaw was slack, revealing three missing teeth and several more that appeared well on their way, brown and shriveled as raisins in his gums. “Very good, indeed.”
And then, a shadow fell through the open hatch and dropped silently to the floor of the hold, the silver knife it wielded neatly slicing through the Captain’s throat as it passed.
The Captain didn’t scream. His eyes did go very wide as his throat opened, but in an instant they relaxed, the life in them gone as the Captain collapsed like a sack of meat, his body striking the grimy floorboards with a gut-twisting thud.
Aron was so stunned, he could only stare as the shadow resolved itself into the shape of a man, bent over the fallen Captain to clean his knife on the dead man’s tattered trousers.
The shadow man glanced up through his cowl at Aron, who was staring in dismay, the cumulative shocks of the past five seconds making him question whether he was dreaming—perhaps even the long dream at the seabottom? But then, he’d heard that to die was to slip into a long, continuous nightmare, and while Aron generally disapproved of murder, he couldn’t deny that he felt a certain, twisted joy at seeing the Captain dead. That feeling of satisfaction, depraved though it might be, didn’t suggest he was lost in a bad dream.
While Aron questioned his reality, the shadow man straightened up and tipped back his cowl. “You must be the witch.”
Aron was shocked all over again by the face this movement revealed: tanned skin, black eyebrows, bright blue eyes, all framed by long black hair in tight braids threaded with silver beads. The man’s body was taller and heavier than seemed possible considering the lethal grace of his entrance. It would just figure, Aron thought with rising irritation, that his subconscious wouldn’t miss an opportunity to insert a bizarrely handsome rescuer into his dreams.
“Well,” the shadow man said, matter-of-factly sheathing his knife. “It’s overboard for you, I’m afraid, though I’ll grant your request as to whether you’d like to take your chances with the waves, or have your throat cut before we throw you in.”
Aron abruptly revised his assumptions about being in the midst of a dream.
Clearly, he was quite alive, and he’d mistook this man for a rescuer when in fact, he was simply an alternate executioner.
The shadow man came closer, and Aron remembered his earlier resolve not to die on the end of a chain. But he didn’t find that vibrant anger he’d experienced when the Captain who’d been his tormenter for twelve long days moved in his direction. With the Captain, he’d known arguing was no use. With this stranger, he seized on the chance his pleas could make a difference.
“You’re taking the ship, aren’t you?” His voice was high and rough from days of nothing but screams and tears, but the shadow man seemed to understand him well enough.
He glanced up from where he’d paused to examine the crude lock on the flimsy brig, which was little more than a few slabs of wood with a piece of metal grate for a door.
“Yes. That is usually the primary reason for boarding a ship and killing its Captain, isn’t it?”
“But I’m not part of the crew!” Aron said, tugging at his chain as though it was any use. Even if he got free of his cuff, there was no way he could outpace this expert killer and reach the ladder. “I’m their prisoner! You don’t have to kill me!”
“You’re their witch,” the shadow man corrected, frowning at the lock thoughtfully, then he moved a few steps to the right and grasped a wooden support, giving it an experimental tug. Nodding to himself, he stepped back, angled his body, and then with a dexterous kick, he split straight through one of the boards with the heel of his boot.
Aron yelped and leaped away from a few flying chunks of wood and splinters, and one projectile nail, plastering himself against the hull. “I’m not anyone’s witch!” Aron exclaimed.
The shadow man stepped carefully over the wreckage of the brig’s wall. “Yes, you are, according to the crew member I interviewed. And what else would explain the Captain being down here, shouting at you instead of defending his ship?”
“I’m a witch,” Aron said, though there was a thread of doubt even in his own mind at the claim, it was true by some definitions. “But I’m not theirs.”
The shadow man was now close enough that Aron could smell what must have been the oil in his braids, a rich perfume, and the scent of something else. Could a man smell of sunlight, or was panic addling Aron’s mind?
“Please,” he groaned miserably as the shadow man’s knife flashed.
For whatever reason, the man froze at that and leaned forward, looking carefully at Aron as though seeing him for the first time. Aron realized that the light didn’t carry very well from the hatch in the deck above the ladder, and the shadow man probably hadn’t gotten a good look at Aron until now. Not that there was anything about Aron that should bring him up short. The last time he’d seen himself in a mirror, he’d been a scrawny young man of twenty who looked more like a boy of twelve, and almost two weeks of starvation rations and no sunlight probably hadn’t improved matters. He’d been fortunate to inherit his mother’s hair, which was a sunlight-golden color and curly, but at the moment it was stringy and greasy from his imprisonment and probably closer to the color of soot.
“You’re a boy,” the shadow man blurted, his calm demeanor somehow undermined in this moment as it hadn’t been when he’d been murdering a wizened captain and announcing his intention to throw Aron to the waves. Male witches weren’t common, but they weren’t unprecedented, either.
So, Aron assumed that the shadow man was surprised by his age, not his gender. “Well, I’m twenty,” he muttered, then immediately regretted it. Maybe if he’d pretended to be the child he was sometimes mistaken for, he’d inspire this casual killer’s sympathy.
But the shadow man didn’t appear to have heard him. His eyes narrowed and his expression cleared of shock, full of frightening malice instead. He stuck the very sharp point of his knife beneath Aron’s chin, and Aron’s mind went blank with terror. “Where,” growled the shadow man, “is the witch?”
Before Aron could think of anything to say, the light that had been passing through the open hatch was blotted out by a new arrival. “Captain,” called the person blocking the hatch. Aron couldn’t have moved his riveted gaze from the shadow man’s even if he’d tried.
“Not right now, Trek,” the shadow man said through his clenched teeth. “I’m conducting another interview.”
“I think,” said the man who was presumably Trek, “that you ought to come above deck and have a look around before you do anything… rash.”
The knife was gone so quickly, Aron might have thought he’d imagined it, if he hadn’t clutched his throat reflexively the moment the knife went away. A few drops of blood wet his palm.
“I hope for your sake that this ‘look around’ justifies the disruption,” the shadow man muttered, and though his words made it clear he was speaking to Trek, his gaze didn’t stray from Aron. He seemed increasingly displeased the longer he looked, which was, again, not a totally unfamiliar experience for Aron, but didn’t precisely make sense under the circumstances. “Now that I’ve compromised your cage, I suppose I must bring you with me.” The shadow man contemplated Aron’s chain for a few moments, then gestured behind him, summoning Trek down the ladder. “Do you have your rock?” Aron’s gaze flickered over the shadow man’s shoulder to the ladder, which Trex was descending somewhat ponderously. He was a very large man, about the height of the shadow man but roughly twice as broad. His head was so closely shaved, it shone beneath a grid of black tattoos. “My rock?” he asked hesitantly, his hand settling on a bulging hip pocket on the long vest he wore.
“Yes.” The shadow man snapped the fingers of his outstretched hand in a hastening motion. “Give it to me.”
“Be gentle, Captain,” Trek said, reaching into his pocket with obvious reluctance and producing a smooth, ovular stone flecked with silver mica. He put it in the shadow man’s hand, then bit his lip.
The shadow man palmed the rock, and Aron had the brief, wild thought as he raised his arm that he meant to brain Aron with it—but when his hand descended, the rock neatly brandished, he instead shattered the link of the iron chain that fastened it to the eye bolt.
For only a moment, Aron felt a thrill at seeing the chain severed, but before he could mistake himself for free, the shadow man picked up the loose end and wrapped it once around his own forearm. Then he proceeded to half-drag Aron toward the ladder.
Aron found himself tripping to keep up instead of digging in his heels. Though he wasn’t deluded about his odds of escape at this point, they were certainly much better above decks than down here. The chain was long enough for the shadow man to ascend the ladder, then wait, kneeling, just through the hatch for Aron to clamber up behind. But he was dizzy and weak from lack of food, lack of exercise, and fear, so it took him several long moments, muscles straining and sweat breaking out over his entire body, before he managed to lift himself past the first rung. With a low sound of frustration, the shadow man doubled over the chain, and though that made Aron gasp with pain at the tension on his chafed wrist, by leaning some of his weight on that arm, he was able to use his remaining hand and legs to struggle up the rest of the way.
Aron rolled onto the deck with the last of his strength and lay there gasping like a landed fish, barely aware of his surroundings. Sprawled on his back, he reveled in the feeling of the sun on his face. He cracked his eyes and found that the sky was full of brilliant sunlight, and the Tibalt remained eerily still beneath him, as though it were lodged in a sandbar rather than resting on calm water.
“Is that the witch?” someone murmured, followed by a rush of inseparable whispers. Turning his head, Aron struggled to lift himself into a sitting position, seeing that the invading crew had already disposed of the overthrown crew, leaving no trace save a few streaks of blood on the deck. All the faces around him were unfamiliar, and all of them stared as though awestruck. He happened to meet the eyes of one older man with long, wispy gray hair, and the pirate snatched the hat from his head and clutched it to his chest as though he were in church.
“Boy,” said the distinctive voice of the shadow man, low and menacing. He jerked on the chain and Aron looked up to find him staring out over the railing, his face even more striking in the full sunlight and perfectly devoid of expression. Aron got to his feet, stumbled to the bulwark himself, and followed the direction of the shadow man’s gaze. It was difficult to understand what he was seeing at first. All around them there was nothing but sky. Not a single visible cloud, only bright, empty blue.
A cloudless sky shouldn’t look so strange. It happened from time to time. Then Aron realized why the scene was so odd.
The empty, sun-washed sky didn’t meet a visible horizon.
Aron stepped closer to the bulwark, gripping the damp railing, and lowered his gaze. The horizon came into view then, but much lower than it should have been. Finally, slowly, Aron realized the reason why the world was askew and the Tibalt wasn’t swaying on the waves: the ship was not resting on the water.
Rather, the Tibalt was suspended in midair, perhaps a dozen feet above the sea.
A little earlier.
Zoral, former Captain of the Dreambringer, knelt in the narrow plow of the rowboat that was all he had left. His eyes were trained on the two witch crafts locked in battle—a battle staged by soaring waves under a web of unnatural lightning. The larger craft, which had Michaela painted on her hull, had called down blast after blast upon the smaller craft, the Tibalt.
Behind him, what was left of his crew were packed onto the rows of plank seats, straining against the oars while the water churned around them, dragged toward the Michaela and the Tibalt by the blood current, that unnatural force called up by a witch’s storms that sucked in nearby crafts like silt in a basin after someone unstopped the drain.
“Which one will it be, then, Captain?” shouted Trek into Zo’s ear. Still, Zo could only just hear him over the moans and whistle of the wind and the slap of the rain against the waves.
“Don’t call me that,” Zo shouted back, repeating himself for the dozenth time. “I can’t be a Captain without a ship.”
He wasn’t sure how much Trek heard, but the big man responded with a dismissive laugh, then waited for an answer to his question.
Three days ago, Zo’s ship, the Dreambringer, had succumbed to her wounds and sunk. She’d taken with her two good sailors and the bulk of the crew’s provisions. By the goodwill of the lightning god, the rest of the crew had managed to row to an empty seatower, barren of food or fresh water but sparing them from sunstroke or the krakens. And then, by a stroke of remarkable luck, the Michaela and the Tibalt had appeared on opposite horizons, both with sails that marked them witch crafts long before they were close enough for Zo to see the runes on their hulls. This far from neutral waters, Zo had known they wouldn’t be able to come within reach of each other and resist pitching a battle, and sure enough, the Michaela had set her cannons on the Tibalt and stirred up an unholy storm for good measure. The Tibalt, for whatever reason, hadn’t put up much of a fight. It was the lighter, nimbler ship, and it had led the Michaela on a short chase, but its witch didn’t seem up to the task of calling its own lightning, nor taming the Michaela’s.
“The Tibalt,” Zo decided.
After, perhaps, a moment’s hesitation, Trek relayed the order. The crew on the oars stopped fighting the blood current, and the rowboat tumbled in a rapid spin over the waves toward the witch crafts’ battleground like a magnet toward its opposite.
The spinning motion from the current, combined with the pitch of the waves, wreaked havoc on even Zo’s sea-hardened constitution. To keep from succumbing to dizziness and tumbling overboard, he tipped back his head, baring his face to the sheets of rain. He could hardly open his eyes against the downpour. The clouds were as dark as pools of spilled ink, except for the intermittent illumination of the lightning that arched overhead, punctuated by cracks of thunder that made his ears ring.
It never ceased to amaze Zo, bearing witness to this ancient disharmony—when the sky became determined to fuse itself to the sea, and the sea became determined to rise and swallow the clouds, leaving mere mortals trapped at the intersection of these two eternal and impossible desires.
“Hold!” cried one of the rowers, as the rowboat careened on a particularly high wave, then rode it straight down on a collision course with the Tibalt’s hull. There was no way to slow in time.
“Jump!” Zo bellowed, springing from the prow and into the water, going under in the moment the prow where he’d been crouched struck the Tibalt with the wet crack of splitting wood, the noise dampened by the water in his ears as he plunged beneath the surface. He blinked through the saltwater and foam at the shapes of the crew, tossed in alongside him, all kicking toward the surface. Instead of following them, he remained submerged and turned toward the hull of the Tibalt. Seeing the trailing end of its pilot’s ladder, he swam straight for it.
As soon as Zo’s hands closed around the algae-slick rope of the lowest rung, he breached the surface and ascended as fast as he could, making room below him for his crew. He didn’t slow until he’d reached the top of the bulwark, and then he carefully raised his head enough to peer onto the Tibalt’s deck.
Panicked sailors were dodging bursts of lightning, and in the cacophony of thunder, wind, and rain, the sailors could hardly shout audibly to one another, making coordination all but impossible.
Zo scanned the scrambled crew for signs of a leader, and saw a red-faced man among them bellowing at them to be calm. Despite the wind, a three-peaked Captain’s hat was firmly in place on his head. After bellowing out a final order that none of his crew seemed to hear, the Tibalt Captain yanked open a trap door in the deck and descended. Everyone else Zo saw appeared to be a sailor, so he had to assume that the witch wasn’t above decks. And if the Captain wasn’t a coward going below decks to escape the lightning, then perhaps he was going to consult with her.
In Zo’s experience battling witch crafts, the witches were kept out of the open where they could work their magics without being exposed to the fighting. But strangely, the Tibalt didn’t seem to be utilizing any witch power to defend itself. All the raining lightning was emanating from the Michaela, and though the Michaela was faced with the Tibalt’s cannons, she was staying out of range. The Tibalt was going to lose this battle. It hadn’t been evident while they’d watched from afar, but now in the midst of the fighting, Zo could see that he’d chosen the wrong ship to board.
He could only hope that the Michaela’s Captain wouldn’t sink the Tibalt before they had extracted the Tibalt’s witch for themselves. When witch crafts fought they typically did so for the prize of the rival craft’s witch’s blood. Hopefully, the Michaela was just holding out until the Tibalt exhausted its cannon fodder, and then she would move in closer and Zo’s crew could lie in wait and fight the sailors hand to hand.
First, though, they’d have to take the Tibalt. Looking down at the rope below him, Zo saw a long line of his crew. All but one of them had made it off the wrecked rowboat and up the ladder. They held their blades in their teeth, eyes bright with readiness.
Winding one arm through the rope ladder, Zo used his opposite hand to pry free his long knife from its improvised strap. He’d lost his proper harness in the battle that had cost him the Dreambringer, and the remains of his shirt and spare belt weren’t a good substitute. The swell of the blade had bit into his back while he swam. His skin was so cold, though, he was almost numb to the line of pain between his shoulders, but he did feel the warm trickle of blood that ran down his spine.
He still had his cloak, which was kraken hide, and therefore sloughed water almost immediately. It was already almost dry to the touch. When his knife was in hand, he pulled his cowl back into place, and with that, there was no reason for another moment’s delay. Zo leapt onto the deck with a cry. The chaos already underway on the Tibalt’s deck redoubled with Zo’s appearance. There was no way to board without being seen, which made the next few minutes critical. The crew would follow single-file; even if they climbed their fastest, they would each need a second or two to get over the railing, and they would be defenseless until they had their boots on the deck. Now that the element of surprise was lost, it was left to Zo to defend this scrap of the deck against the entirety of the Tibalt’s crew while his own crew boarded.
When a woman threw herself at him with a crazed scream, waving a hatchet, he met her for only two blows before he knocked aside her hatchet with his unarmed hand and threw his shoulder into her sternum, sending her reeling backward just as her crewmate charged, swordtip brandished at Zo, and promptly skewered the woman instead.
Zo hadn’t planned that exact sequence of events, but he was glad of it, because he already had three more opponents running in his direction. They were wiry men, and they charged him empty-handed and black to their elbows from soot, obviously having been manning the cannons before they’d realized they were being boarded. They knew that their best chance of picking off the enemy would be while they were dangling from the side of the ship, and they were desperate to stop them before they got to the deck.
Zo was almost disappointed when a stray bolt of lightning dispatched these three by chance, depriving him of the opportunity to so much as bloody his knife. The only thin streak of red on the centermost curve of the blade was his own, drawn from the flesh of his back where the knife had been strapped.
With years of experience in battle, being outnumbered twelve to one didn’t unsettle Zo in itself, but doing so while dodging the Michaela’s lightning set his teeth on edge. Fortunately, the bolt that struck the gunners strangely seemed to be the last. The angry sky made a sound like a spitting cat, then a discontented rumble as the nearly continuous roll of thunder that had drummed for the past hour fell quiet.
Trek and the others were on deck now and surging against the harried Tibalt crew, who were too shocked at being boarded while their opponent was seemingly still a quarter-league away, and too weary from their long fight, to be much of a challenge to a crew with talents at the level of Zo’s. In the turmoil, Zo saw a wild-eyed Tibalt sailor part from the others. When the man turned to run toward the cabin entrance, Zo shot forward to intersect him.
Zo snagged the sailor by his collar just as his hand grazed the door handle of the cabin, and he hauled him backward while Trek sprinted past, one burly arm raising a mallet he must have taken off of someone in the past forty-five seconds, because Zo didn’t recognize it as one of the handful of weapons saved from the Dreambringer.
Trusting his crew to watch his prone back, Zo threw the sailor down on the deck, straddled him, and put his knee into the man’s sternum. The sailor was roughly twice Zo’s age, and thin as a rail, but he fought Zo with the unnatural strength of someone who correctly believed their life to be at stake. Zo grimaced, grabbed him by the hair and yanked his head against the deckboards, and then dug the tip of his knife into the soft skin just inside the man’s sunken eye socket.
Just like that, the sailor was holding very still.
“Where’s the witch?” Zo asked, leaning in so that the sailor would hear his shout.
The sailor writhed in Zo’s hold, though he was careful to keep his head still. Zo gritted his teeth and trapped the man’s kicking legs under his own, able to restrain him without trouble, for now, but not interested in exhausting himself by doing it for much longer. The Tibalt wasn’t his—yet.
“If you tell me, I’ll let you live,” Zo said, which seemed to alarm the sailor for a moment until Zo gave a harsh laugh and clarified. “I mean, I’ll still sell you for whatever price you’ll fetch in the neutral waters, which is unlikely to make it worth my while. But you’ll live.”
The sailor’s face twisted in an expression of fury and reluctant acceptance. Smart of him; he wouldn’t get a better offer. “Belowdecks, in the brig. It’s a new one, that witch, and it hasn’t taken to the Tibalt. Cost us everything, the Captain did, buying that worthless excuse for a replacement.”
Surprised by this little speech, and glad to have gotten even more information than he asked for, Zo felt almost charitable. So when he got to his feet and pulled the man up by his wrists, then spun him about and wrenched his arms behind his back, he took care to do it in a way that wouldn’t dislocate either of his shoulders. Zo marched the sailor along in front of him. “You have no one but yourself to blame for sailing a witch craft,” he yelled into the man’s ear. “If you live through your internment, I hope you at least learn that lesson.” Zo caught the eye of Olsen, a young woman who had been with Zo since she was a somewhat feral twelve-year-old swabbing the deck. Zo gave the man in his hold a grim nod that he hoped conveyed “this is my prisoner, don’t kill him for no reason,” because she nodded, flashed her gap tooth, kicked the sailor neatly in the balls to incapacitate him, and had begun binding his wrists together by the time Zo turned away.
The lightning hadn’t resumed while Zo had been questioning the sailor, and the cannons had gone quiet. The Tibalt had either run out of fodder, or Zo’s crew had disrupted its operations. Zo stole a glimpse at the Michaela, certain she’d be creeping closer now that the guns weren’t holding her at bay. But not only was the Michaela not drawing closer, she wasn’t in sight at all.
Zo wondered for a long moment if he could possibly be so disoriented as to have lost her position, but when he turned around completely, studying the view in each direction, still he didn’t see her.
Trek appeared to his right, as he had a habit of doing.
“Captain, the Michaela must have been suffering more than we could see, sir. She’s gone down! And we’ve neutralized the crew here, neatly as you please. Not so much as a scratch on any one of us. We haven’t found the Captain—or the witch,” he added. “But the crew’s sweeping the cabins now.”
“I saw the Captain just as we boarded. And from my interview with his erstwhile crewman, I expect he’s with the witch, in the brig. If you’ll give me a moment or two, I’ll see how he feels about naming a successor.”
Thinking back over his conversation with the Tibalt’s sailor, Zo could hardly believe his luck. If the witch truly wasn’t bonded to the Tibalt, then he could throw her overboard and be done with it, without worrying the ship would turn itself inside out in protest. He’d expected to have to keep the witch controlled and appeased—and, in the pocket of his cloak, he had the means to do that, thanks to the relics at the bottom of the safe that they’d carried off the Dreambringer.
But, it would be much less of a headache if he could dispense with her altogether. If he had a witch on his craft, his inherent distrust of the creatures aside, he’d be dogged by witch crafts like the Michaela, intent on using a rival witch’s blood—and possibly bones, it was all very distasteful and unclear to Zo—to fuel the power of their own witch. Honestly, even if a death by drowning wasn’t the ideal end, it had to be better than being made a ritual sacrifice.
So, Zo decided as he crossed to the open trap door, he’d be doing the witch a favor when he gave her to the sea instead.
With the Michaela gone, the storm had broken up so swiftly, the sun was already breaking through the cloud cover, stunningly warm and bright. Zo slowed his steps and listened as he came to stand above the trap door, through which the hoarse voice of a man could be heard marveling at the witch’s diffusion of the battle storm.
The man almost made it too easy for Zo. He stood just beneath the opening in the deck, but clear of the ladder, so that Zo only had to let himself drop, and with a quick dart of his knife, he’d taken the Captain’s mantle for himself. Of course, he didn’t pause to celebrate or let down his guard; a creature awaited Zo down in this darkness, one far more dangerous than the one who’d just landed with a wet smack on the tarred floorboards.
The old Captain had carried a lantern which had fallen from his grasp as he fell, then rolled a short distance aft. Though its remaining light was dim and angled, Zo could see a small shape through the shadows—only a silhouette, really—standing inside a flimsy wooden cage with a bit of spare grate for a door which must have passed for a brig on the Tibalt.
“You must be the witch,” Zo said to the shadows. The figure there rearranged itself, and Zo heard the rattle of a chain. There was no use making false promises, he’d always thought, so he came straight out with it. “Well, it’s overboard for you, I’m afraid, though I’ll grant your request as to whether you’d like to take your chances with the waves, or have your throat cut before we throw you in.” Zo sheathed his knife and started for the cage.
The chains rattled, the figure scrambling to get away when there was nowhere for her to go. “You’re taking the ship, aren’t you?” Her voice was rough from disuse or abuse, it was hardly Zo’s business which.
“Yes,” Zo answered, not sure why he was bothering to engage. Maybe it was his irritation with redundant questions that made him add, “That is usually the primary reason for boarding a ship and killing its Captain, isn’t it?” He assessed the metal grate, which was closed with a chain and lock.
“But I’m not part of the crew! I’m their prisoner! You don’t have to kill me!” Her voice was deeper than Zo would have expected for a woman so small in stature. Though he could still only see the suggestion of a body, and a head of wild hair, all featureless in the dim light, it was evident that the witch weighed less than a couple sacks of grain.
“You’re their witch,” Zo pointed out, testing the integrity of the wooden portion of the cage and finding it was just as flimsy as it looked, he stepped back, aimed a kick, and neatly broke through one of the thin boards, causing the entire wall to collapse.
“I’m not anyone’s witch!” Her protests became louder and more energized as Zo got nearer.
“Yes, you are, according to the crew member I interviewed. And what else would explain the Captain being down here, shouting at you, instead of defending his ship?”
“I’m a witch,” the girl capitulated, “but I’m not theirs.”
Zo didn’t mind killing people whom he was fairly sure would kill him if they were given the opportunity, but he’d decided what would happen to the witch when he’d learned she wasn’t bonded to the Tibalt, and he wasn’t going to change his mind now because she was giving a good impression of helplessness. He reminded himself how things had gone the last time he’d hesitated in the presence of a witch, and it was all the assurance he needed. Firming his jaw, he drew his knife again and stepped forward, closing the final distance and watching the witch carefully for signs she’d kick or strike out with a hidden weapon before he got his hands on her.
“Please,” the witch pleaded, voice dropping an octave, just as Zo drew close enough that his vision could penetrate the veil of shadows enough to see the witch’s face for the first time.
It shouldn’t matter that the witch was a boy—though, were witches ever boys? Zo had never seen one in person, anyway, and he was often in the neutral lands—and yet the sight of him stirred some doubt in Zo. He couldn’t think of what else it would be, but that he had the unmistakable face and shape and scent of a man, when Zo had expected a woman. The body braced against the chains was slight, yes, but also hard with lean muscle. And the low, desperate growl climbed out of a man’s chest in a man’s voice. The face’s delicate features were framed with bold lines—strong cheek bones, a square jaw, gaunt as a ghost, yet vividly alive.
“You’re a boy,” Zo said, the words unbidden, the sound of his own voice startling him. Words didn’t escape him without his permission. This didn’t happen to him—this faltering of focus and sense, not even in the midst of battle, or in the throes of the storm-tossed ocean. He quickly moved from shock to anger at himself, and in the process regathered his wits enough to prod the boy beneath the chin with his knife.
“Where is the witch?” he demanded.
Before the man could say a word, Trek called to Zo from the trap door.
“Not now, Trek,” Zo hissed, “I’m conducting another interview.”
“I think that you ought to come above deck and have a look around before you do anything… rash.”
The “rash” thing that Zo would do, he realized in a flash, was spill the blood of a witch while aboard a witch craft, of course. Cursing his own poor judgement, he quickly removed the blade from the boy, who clutched his throat before Zo could see if it bled. Zo scanned the hold but saw no signs of another body among the wreckage of the brig, except, of course, for the Captain. That meant that this boy was the witch. Zo had checked the hold, as he’d already said, and he’d heard the Captain address the boy, too. And yet, perhaps he ought to be doubly sure before he tossed the boy into the water? No, no, no. He was being an idiot. There was nothing about the boy that should inspire mercy, or worse, interest. He had no time or energy to be interested in anything. He had a mission to complete, one that would likely be the death of him, but he wouldn’t rest until it was complete. His resolve buoyed, Zo borrowed Trek’s rock to free the boy from his chains, all while trying to ignore his own strange awareness of that small, quaking body. Then, he pulled the boy after him up the ladder to see whatever it was Trex thought he should see.
The pendulous sway of the body while one climbed rope ladders or riggings on a ship was such second nature to a seasoned sailor, one almost didn’t notice it. Not, that is, until it was gone. That absence of motion was Zo’s first indication that something was wrong, even before he emerged into the light, quiet, and stillness abovedecks and spied the stunned faces of his crew.
Trek wasn’t a man who tended toward overreaction; he’d been a fine first mate in that regard, skilled at filtering through the various requests and items in need of action at any given moment, and sensibly assigning them priority and doling them out to Zo, one by one, if they weren’t something he could see to himself.
So, Zo had known that whatever inspired Trek to interrupt him was probably significant… but nothing could have prepared him to find the ship he’d just taken floating in midair.
Two things quickly became clear: first, without the past crew or Zo’s predecessor in captaincy to the Tibalt being aware, the Tibalt had most certainly bonded to the witch on board. That witch was probably the boy on the other end of the chain in Zo’s fist. And in addition to, or perhaps because of, his rare… maleness… the witch had an ability long believed lost to the witches of ages past: he was a sky tamer.
Aron stood at the rail of the Tibalt and stared at the water at least two dozen feet below, dumbstruck. His first instinct was to look around for another witch—a real witch. He, Aron, couldn’t be fueling this phenomenon. Not Aron, who had only shown the barest glimmer of magical strength in the past.
But on a deeper level, Aron knew the truth. He felt the truth, in his very bones. It was an ache in his marrow, the sensation a reminder of the origins of ship craft power that made him shudder. And as he did, the ship quaked, too. The movement was only a slight tremor, but it summoned a gust of half-panicked whispers from the crew around him.
“Witch,” the shadow man said tightly, “will you kindly put us down?” He stood beside Aron, still holding the end of the chain connected to Aron’s shackle, his knuckles pale where he gripped the links.
He was so much taller than Aron, and the sunlight washed his skin with a bronze glow and emphasized the blue gleam of his eyes. Aron found him hard to look at, like the sun itself. And that was in the moment before Aron remembered that this man had recently promised to toss him into the sea.
Put us down? Aron echoed in his head. He had no idea what to say. Should he speak the truth? Admit that he had no idea how he was doing whatever he was doing, if he was doing anything at all? From the little he knew of witch crafts, the ship might just have easily been doing this itself, fueled somehow by the dose of Aron’s blood that had been spilled into its hungry wood.
But without magic, or at least the perception he could wield magic, Aron would be totally at the shadow man’s mercy. And from what Aron had seen and heard, he didn’t have much mercy in him.
The shadow man seemed to mistake Aron’s silence for posturing. He let out a harsh breath through his nose, a line of tension appearing in his jaw, like he was gritting his teeth. But he relaxed enough that his voice sounded level and calm when he went on. “I understand that you might be reluctant to cooperate, given my… ah, hasty words, earlier. But I assure you that I have no intention of harming you. I spoke in anger.”
If he hadn’t been quite so consumed by shock, Aron might have snorted, unimpressed, at this little speech. As it was, he only muttered, “You didn’t seem very angry. Actually, you sounded pretty fucking matter-of-fact.”
The shadow man’s smile was downright bashful. He even flashed a dimple, easy to spot despite the thick layer of short stubble on his jaw. He was an astoundingly good liar.
Before the shadow man could elaborate on his tale, the Tibalt flexed and creaked, for all the world like it was trying to tell Aron something. The sailors exclaimed again.
The shadow man gripped the railing, his smile vanishing like it had never been there, and the steely glint returning to his eyes. “Your point is taken, witch. But the fact remains you’re one boy, witch or not, and you can’t manage this ship without me and my crew. My last ship is gone. Look at all the corners of the horizon if you don’t believe me. I can’t harm you without losing the only chance my crew and I have to survive. We’re at an impasse, so state your terms.”
Again, the shadow man had misconstrued the ship’s movements for some expression of Aron’s will. Aron was more convinced than ever that he’d be an idiot not to confirm the Captain’s suspicions… that Aron was a terrifying witch—a sky tamer, straight from the lost history books. And, while he absolutely wasn’t making the ship move on purpose, much less float, he did feel a connection to the Tibalt that hadn’t been there before the shadow man and his crew boarded. So, the shadow man’s assumptions weren’t without merit.
Aron knew what he felt without being told what it was, and in spite of never having experienced anything like it before. He’d always thought of his mind as a tightly closed place, just for him. He’d never had reason to imagine it any other way, but now it was very much like—well, if his mind had been a windowless room with the door closed before, the door was now cracked. Just enough that a hand could reach through. And that hand belonged to the Tibalt.
But if someone gave him two fistfuls of rigging and told him to adjust the sails, he couldn’t do so blindfolded. Similarly, merely knowing that his head was somehow tied to the Tibalt didn’t grant him any mastery of it.
State your terms, the shadow man had said. Aron had no idea how to state terms. He’d never in his life held any leverage over anyone. He could think of only one thing he wanted, which was that he not be killed, maimed, or further tortured. It was hard to think beyond his immediate safety, so Aron seized on his father’s old lessons about the ways of pirates, and said, “Swear you won’t let any harm come to me, then.”
He’d mustered the most confident voice he could, and it came out louder and stronger than he’d expected. His statement was met with silence from the shadow man and the crew, while the Tibalt pivoted slowly in midair like an unsecured steering wheel in a circular current. Aron’s stomach also felt like its contents were swirling, and he wasn’t entirely sure whether his guts were echoing the actions of the Tibalt, or the other way around. “Swear on the will of the lightning god and on your fated star.”
The shadow man’s eyes widened very slightly, but it was the tiniest display of surprise, and swiftly concealed again behind a neutral mask. “Very well.”
“Captain,” began the big man, Trek, who’d loaned the shadow man a rock to break Aron’s chains in the brig. His voice was low and urgent and his expression was worried as he spoke, taking a step toward them before visibly restraining himself from coming any closer. “I don’t think—”
The shadow man ignored his crewman. “I swear, on the will of the lightning god and the tip of the raven’s wing, I won’t harm you.”
“No, I want you to swear that you won’t let any harm come to me,” Aron corrected sharply.
The shadow man’s lips thinned, but he didn’t argue. “By the will of the lightning god and the tip of the raven’s wing, I swear that I won’t let any harm come to you, so long as you are the witch to a ship I captain. And in return, you will work with me to bring this craft to the neutral waters.”
“I swear,” Aron said by way of agreement. He stumbled a moment over how to finish without revealing his creed, or leaving some fault in the exchange of oaths that would give the shadow man an excuse to betray him later. Finally he went with the correct words: “By the will of the time counter and the helm of the knight.”
Again, he’d taken the shadow man by surprise. He was sure he knew the slight signs on the man’s face now—a faint wrinkle in his brow, a thinning of the lips, which both eased as quickly as they’d appeared.
“Then, we’re in accord,” the shadow man said.
Aron’s breath left him in a relieved whoosh—and before he could wonder how in the gloomy sleeping depths he was going to go about putting down a ship he wasn’t convinced he’d picked up, a terrible lurch almost threw him off his feet.
The ship dropped like a stone, down dozens of feet and back into the water. It collided with a deafening crash, and frothing waves erupted over the deck. Then it rebounded back into the air, and down again, and again, bobbing hard. In the midst of all this, Aron was thrown against the railing, and might have toppled over if the shadow man hadn’t dropped the chain and grabbed him by both arms, his hands tight as vices. He jerked Aron against his chest while the ship tilted madly back and forth, fighting for balance before, finally, resting upright on the calm water.
Aron could hardly pay attention to what the ship was doing, though. He was consumed by the sensation of being held fast to a large, warm body of hard curves and fascinating ridges of muscle. The shadow man’s long braids were cast about by the force of the ship’s movements, brushing against Aron’s face and shoulder. It had been years since he’d been close to a person without fists flying, and even then, he’d never been embraced—save in violence—by anyone outside of his family. It was a breathtaking feeling, more so, almost, than the ship’s abrupt freefall and tremendous crash.
When the ship righted, the shadow man pushed Aron’s body away from his, but still held him by one arm, just below the shackle on Aaron’s wrist. The cuff formed by his hand felt like another shackle, warm and soft in stark contrast to the cold, unyielding metal. Between them, the chain pooled on the deck.
Aron looked up at the shadow man and the shadow man looked down at Aron. But the eye contact quickly became too much for Aron, so he dropped his gaze to the shadow man’s chest. Immediately, he was distracted by the observation that the shadow man’s cloak was repelling water much more effectively than ordinary leather would. And it wasn’t just the water—the sunlight also bounced off of it with no impact. It was as perfect a scrap of inky darkness here as it had been in the dimness belowdecks.
There was only one material that behaved like that: kraken hide. Aron’s heart stuttered at the realization. In almost every creed, kraken hide could only be worn by the person who’d slain the beast themselves. Which meant it was impossibly rare, and the people who wore it intended for you to fear them, and you’d be a fool not to believe that you should.
Well, Aron had already realized that the shadow man was worthy of his fear, even without this new evidence. He’d seen how the shadow man had struck down the old Captain. Aron could only hope that there wasn’t a loophole in the oaths they’d exchanged.
“Have the crew take stock of our acquisition. I assume the prisoners are secure?” The shadow man was speaking to Trek. If he was relaying orders, Trek must be the first mate. And had the shadow man said—?
“Prisoners?” Aron blurted, surprised.
The shadow man shot him a look, his eyebrows dark arches on his bronze face. His surprise wasn’t unexpected. He wasn’t Aron’s first captor. He wasn’t even Aron’s second captor. And captors always expected captives to be meek. But Aron was rarely meek, no matter how terrified he was or how hopeless things got.
“Did you think we’d just tossed them all overboard?” the shadow man asked.
Aron considered pointing out that the shadow man had had no qualms about throwing Aron overboard. Instead, he just shrugged.
The shadow man pursed his lips. “We’ll take all your erstwhile colleagues to the neutral waters and sell their commissions there.”
Aron had heard of the concept before—though in the towers where he’d lived, the lawdrawers hadn’t allowed it, considering it too parallel to enslavement, which every creed forbade. From what he recalled of the practice, a capturer sold his prisoners to a purchaser who would permit them to work it off. For example, if another pirate Captain bought them, then after the prisoners had repaid the sum in sweat and time, they were free to leave—or remain, as a regular member of the crew.
Frankly, Aron agreed with the position that it commission trading was enslavement by another name. And yet, it sounded like a desirable alternative to a cut throat or death by drowning.
And anyway, Aron couldn’t bring himself to be disgusted on behalf of the Tibalt’s old crew. He didn’t bear them friendly feelings. They had stood by while the Captain tried to torture Aron into mastering the ship, with no regard to Aron’s consistent and honest insistence that he wasn’t capable of doing so if he tried.
“Was anything left in the seatower?” the shadow man was asking his first mate.
“Nothing of great importance, Captain,” said Trek, rubbing the thick beard on his jaw thoughtfully. “We hadn’t saved much from the Dreambringer, you know, and the crew brought all the weapons and gear they could carry on the rowboat. If anything’s there, it will be a few odds and ends.”
“Well, ask them. If anything might be there, send Olsen and Willow back for it. We’re sufficiently impoverished that we ought to gather every spare button and bit of cloth. We may need it.”
Aron silently agreed. The Tibalt had carried sufficient provisions for its small crew, but its population had also abruptly doubled, assuming that most of the losing side had survived the takeover to be imprisoned somewhere below.
Trek went off to relay the shadow man’s orders, and the shadow man looked to Aron once again. All the while he’d been holding Aron’s arm, and now he tugged on it.
“Come with me, witch.”
Aron had to focus in order to avoid tripping over his trailing chain. He halfway expected the ship to act up—it had reacted to his fear and the shadow man’s threats, he was almost sure. And his swooping stomach. And his relief.
How would it react to the unnameable emotion that was presently making his heart pound and his thoughts race and scatter whenever he looked directly at the Captain?
Aron was vaguely conscious of the wide-eyed stares of the crew, pausing to gape at him as he passed by close in the shadow man’s wake, even as they had immediately gone about fulfilling the shadow man’s relayed orders. Mostly he kept his head down, focused on not tripping while trying to reel in and organize his far-flung thoughts.
The shadow man was leading him to the captain’s quarters, a raised cabin at the back of the ship. Past its barred door, there wasn’t much light.
“Here,” said the shadow man gruffly, drawing Aron over to a chair and at last letting go of his arm. Aron felt almost bereft without the bruising pressure. That’s what a few years without physical contact did to a person, he supposed wryly, slowly sinking down into the chair. Furniture, even just a simple carved chair with a hard seat, felt like an impossible luxury after the past couple of weeks. He hadn’t realized how weary he was until he leaned against the backrest and exhaled, but then the full weight of his exhaustion seemed to descend at once.
Meanwhile, the shadow man was moving around the cabin in that noiseless way of his, as though his feet never actually touched the ground. He jerked open the shutters, then the window, emitting a burst of fresh salt air along with the light. It was like he’d pried the lid off a chest that had been locked for a decade. Stale air rushed out, fresh rushed in, and the cabin immediately felt more habitable. Though, the light also revealed a dozen signs of the cabin’s recent, hateful occupant, from his spare pair of boots under the open window that the shadow man now stood beside, to bits and pieces of detritus littering the floor, tossed about by the battle and the aftermath—Aron noticed letters, several apple cores, and a few dirty socks.
When Aron’s gaze finished its tour of the cabin and returned to the shadow man, Aron found him smiling warmly. The soft, kind expression was so convincing, it might have fooled Aron if he hadn’t already watched the man transform himself from one moment to the next. Even knowing it was an act, the look on his face made something warm and vulnerable spread through Aron’s chest. He swallowed past a sudden lump in his throat—a throat that was also very dry.
“Water?” Aron asked hopefully, the rasp in his voice only slightly exaggerated. He was thirsty, but he also needed to break this moment before it broke him. He could see it now: the shadow man sweetly asking Aron questions he didn’t want to answer, and Aron helplessly giving answers he didn’t want to give. There were secrets that no torture could extract from him, but he had the horrible suspicion that this man could get him to talk just by asking in a certain way.
“I’m sure there’s something ’round here,” the shadow man murmured, trailing around the cabin again, though Aron didn’t fail to notice he never put his back to Aron, and he never got further from the door than Aron was, as though he wanted to be prepared to intercept Aron if he should try to bolt. Aron had no plans to run. Where could he go? His father said the human urge to flee when afraid was the single greatest piece of evidence that they were designed to live on land, not water. Once, the world must have looked different, and that flood of adrenaline and energy that drove a person to run could have carried them more than the width of a ship’s deck, or on a vertical path to cornering themselves at the top or bottom of a seatower.
Aron’s father had taught him to ignore that urge. To hide instead of run, and how to hide in plain sight if he must. He’d never gotten as good at it as his father would have liked, but Aron called on all the old lessons now, gripping the arms of the chair and willing his face to go blank, revealing nothing.
The shadow man came back with a half-full skein of water, opened the cap, and sniffed. “Smells all right,” he decided, and held it out to Aron.
“Thanks,” Aron said, taking the canteen of sewn hide in stiff fingers. He drank until it was empty, then held the skein in his lap and reluctantly met the shadow man’s gaze again. This time he’d armored himself better against the effect of that false-friendly look on that too-handsome face.
“Now,” said the shadow man pleasantly, “I’d like us to begin again. I’m Captain Zoral, and the Tibalt is now my ship. I know we began at odds, but that isn’t how I mean to continue. I understand that it is in the nature of a witch craft to bend only to the combined will of her witch and Captain, and therefore you and I must work together.”
The shadow man had to believe at least some of what he was saying right now, Aron reasoned. He seemed smart, and a smart man wouldn’t kill a witch with a demonstrated bond to the ship he depended upon. Also, he was a pirate, and a pirate would honor the oath of his birth star. Pirates, his father had shown Aron time and time again, were liars, but they were principled liars. They misled, they told outright untruths, and they twisted what was true to suit their own ends. But they also had a strict code of honor—one that didn’t include honesty for honesty’s sake—and part of that code was that a pirate didn’t break an oath.
So, all of that taken together, Aron should be safe, doubly protected by his relationship to the Tibalt—or the relationship perceived to be there, anyway; he still wasn’t exactly sure what was going on himself—and the shadow man’s own vow. But if that was true, then why did Aron feel like he was in greater danger than he’d ever been before, even beneath the hail of the old Captain’s blows?
“It is customary to give your name after someone has given theirs to you,” the shadow man said. The name Zoral had yet to assimilate into Aron’s subconscious, if it ever would. Though the shadow man’s tone was polite, there was a flicker of impatience in his eyes.
“Oh, right,” Aron said, then blinked a few times and looked at the skein again. His father had taught him about lying, too, and he knew that the best lies were rooted in truths, and no lie should be told for no reason. His name had no real value as a secret—at least, not this one. Still, he felt strangely reluctant to say it. “I’m Aron.”
The shadow man stepped closer, bringing him quite close indeed, because he hadn’t stepped back after handing the canteen to Aron. Aron’s hand tightened almost to a fist in that empty bundle of leather which he still held in his lap.
“Aron,” the shadow man said, slowly. The sound of his name being spoken aloud startled Aron in and of itself. Then the shadow man repeated it. “Aron, Aron, Aron.” By the time he said it the fourth time, Aron was shuddering not because of the novelty of hearing his name outside of his own head, but because it was the shadow man saying it, the shadow man in all his strange lethal beauty and with his low, melodic voice. Aron recognized that he was in the presence of a master seducer in every sense of the word, and that everything the man did and said to Aron was borne of strategy and nothing more, and yet still his breaths came fast and shallow in response.
It was absolutely infuriating.
And Aron couldn’t bring himself to do much about it except sit still and refuse to look past the shadow man’s boots, even as he came another careful step closer, bringing them almost toe to toe.
Aron could smell him, that same perfume he’d first gotten a whiff of in the brig. It had permeated even the stink of that airless place, and similarly, it overwhelmed the smell of stale tobacco and the old captain’s unwashed laundry in this one. There was something tart, almost lemony there, that Aron could nearly taste.
The shadow man touched Aron’s hair, and he almost leapt out of his skin. Still, though, he didn’t look up. He dare not look up. He stared instead at the taut fabric of the shadow man’s dark leggings. Framed by the tails of his kraken cloak, his legs were long and strong and—oh, gods, Aron was no better off staring at the bulges of the muscles above his knees than he would be staring straight into his deep, blue, deceptive eyes.
The shadow man stroked Aron’s temple with his fingertips. Aron knew his hair was snarled and matted, but he hadn’t realized there was a bruise there, too. The shadow man’s light touch raised a faint bloom of pain just beneath Aron’s skin. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant, especially not compared to the sweetness of a deliberate, gentle touch. Aron trembled but didn’t flinch.
“You’ve been mistreated in the past,” the shadow man said, a thread of moral outrage beneath the soothing softness of his tone. He really was quite the actor, Aron thought wanly, even as flutters erupted in his stomach. It was as though Aron’s head and body had been split apart—and his head was the only part of him that realized the shadow man was playing him. Or the only part that cared.
The shadow man’s words hadn’t been a question, and if they had been, it would have been redundant. Aron answered anyway with a shrug. “Well, as you pointed out, I’m a witch. Mistreatment is pretty much what we all expect.”
The shadow man huffed out a laugh. Aron dared a glance up and was startled by what he saw in the shadow man’s face. Not the studied, sad, empathetic half-smile that he’d been treated to when the shadow man first opened the window and turned to him. There was something much more complicated in his expression now, as though two predominant feelings were at war. He was staring hard at the place on Aron’s forehead where his fingertips lingered.
Then the shadow man noticed that Aron had raised his eyes, and their gazes met. Within the space of a moment, the shadow man’s pleasant and apologetic mask had slid back into place. And then the shadow man’s hand left his temple to cup his jaw, another simple touch that made Aron want to lean in, to melt, while simultaneously hating himself. He was helplessly locked into that unrelenting eye contact, searching for something sincere, something like what he’d seen hints of before the shadow man knew he was being watched. Arrested by those bright eyes, stormy sky blue, and lulled by the novel feeling of a large, warm hand and the rasp of its calluses on his cheek, Aron didn’t realize that the shadow man’s other hand had moved until it was too late.
A blur in his peripheral vision—a cold pressure around his throat—the click of a locking mechanism—all simultaneous sensations. Aron rocked back in the chair, away from the shadow man, with such force that he toppled the chair backward and sent himself sprawling. He was already clutching at the collar around his throat when he hit the floor.
The Tibalt bucked and heaved in synchrony with Aron’s writhing body while he tried to yank the stinging metal from his neck, but it was too late. With a fiery sensation, like Aron imagined a brand would feel, the ring of metal sank into his skin and fused with a flash of light that made him press his eyes closed and shout at the pulse of pain in his pupils.
He only let himself lie on his side for a stunned second before he forced himself to his feet to face the shadow man. The Tibalt was still rocking, but the shadow man stood with his legs apart, riding the movements without difficulty. He gave Aron a smile that was entirely different from all the ones before as he fitted a metal cuff around his wrist. This smile was wicked, unapologetic, and triumphant.
Aron didn’t have to look in a mirror to know the cuff must match the collar he’d just placed around Aron’s neck. The shadow man didn’t even wince as the cuff sealed with a bright shimmer of its own.
And just like that, Aron was caught in a trap more inescapable than any ship’s brig could ever be.
The moment the cuff melded to Zo’s wrist, a rush of heat flooded his body. It was like stepping into flames, painful in its intensity—but before he could register any agony, only alarm, it receded. The cuff seemed sunk into his skin, fusing to his flesh as though it was painted on. It was like a tattoo, if a tattoo could be hard and metallic to the touch. It was unsettling to see, but it was painless and didn’t seem to inhibit him; he could still bend his wrist and wiggle his fingers without discomfort.
Across the cabin, the witch was on his feet, chest heaving, eyes blazing. Seconds before, he’d been tucked into Zo’s chest, nervous but pliant, a combination that Zo had found very pleasing, to his own surprise.
So pleasing, that he almost regretted being the cause of the transformation from docile to enraged. But regret wasn’t a useful feeling under the circumstances. The boy was a witch. And even if Zo hadn’t had very well-established opinions about witches, the boy was also a tool in Zo’s arsenal, no more and no less. An arsenal he intended to wield against the Bellringer, its Captain, and especially its white-haired witch, and make his bid for revenge. That was his only purpose. He couldn’t permit himself any distractions.
So he let go of his doubt and reveled in the rush of satisfaction at having executed his rapidly composed plan so handily.
“What is this?” the witch shouted, clutching his neck. “What did you do to me?”
Like the cuff on Zo’s wrist, the collar had seemed to melt into the boy’s throat. The delicate gold filigree curled against his skin and seemed to glow, and not just with the ordinary metallic gleam that Zo had observed when no one was wearing it.
“It’s an artifact designed to control witches. I was worried it might have been at the seabottom too long, but it seems to still work.”
“An artifact that—what?” The boy sank his fingertips into his own skin like he could tear the collar off his body if he just tried hard enough.
“Stop doing that,” Zo said mildly. “You’ll hurt yourself.”
The boy froze and a look of horror spread across his face.
Zo grinned and looked admiringly at the cuff. “Yes, definitely working.”
“This isn’t—you can’t—your creed doesn’t allow this!” He was practically spitting now. “No one’s creed allows this!”
The witch should have been afraid, if he had any sense. But his outrage was apparently stronger than any fear he felt. Zo might have admired that in a less hateful creature.
“Well, pirates are known for flexibility of creed,” Zo pointed out, but when blood suffused the witch’s pale face until he was practically purple, Zo relented. “Calm down. I’m not going to abuse it. Even if it weren’t my creed, I’d never command someone’s free will.”
“Then why put it on me?” The witch’s wide eyes were a dark so brown that they appeared nearly black, especially shining with tears. A few of those tears broke loose and ran down his cheeks; he dashed at them, then seemed surprised he had control of his hands, and flexed his fingers hastily, though he kept them away from the collar.
“Because I don’t want you to kill me in my sleep,” Zo said reasonably. “Can you really blame me?”
“You could have made me swear.” The witch glared at Zo through his tears. “I trusted you with my life on your word alone.”
“Well, I’m not a witch.”
The boy crossed his arms, in what would have been a convincing sulk if Zo hadn’t seen how his hands shook.
“I won’t give you any direct orders,” Zo assured the boy, which earned him an incredulous look. “Ordering you not to scratch was an accident. I spoke without thinking,” he explained, though in fact he wasn’t sorry about it. Watching the witch claw at himself had been unpleasant.
“I can’t believe this,” the boy muttered. He gingerly touched the collar like he wasn’t completely convinced it was really there, and when his fingertips brushed the metal so strangely fused to his throat, he flinched. “Where did you even get something like this?”
Zo opened his mouth to answer before he caught himself. What was it about this witch that made him so biddable? Answering questions that were no one’s business but his own? Perhaps it was the inconsequence of speaking to someone whose opinion didn’t matter that relaxed his tongue.
But he would give away more than he would ever care to tell anyone, much less someone who was both a witch and his captive, if he went into any detail about his acquisition of the collar.
“It wasn’t easy,” he settled for. Quite an understatement. The collar and cuff had been his sole object when he’d set his sights on the divers’ barge; though he’d won his prize, he’d paid the steepest imaginable price. He hadn’t planned to use the artifacts on anyone but the Bellringer’s witch, but now that he thought about it, this was probably a useful preparatory experiment.
He gazed at his wrist a moment, recalling again what he’d lost in winning these bits of enchanted metal. Two sailors. And, his beloved Dreambringer. She’d served him well, delivering him victory in that fatal battle.
It was a silly sentiment to love something inanimate. A ship was no more than boards and tar and rope and sails… but it was also a home and a source of livelihood. Not to mention, the reason he’d first been called “Captain.” And the Dreambringer’s decks and corridors had been the place where so many of his memories of Letta had been anchored….
“If you aren’t going to give any direct orders, why did you put it on me?” the witch asked, on the cusp of pleading. “Just take it off. I won’t do anything. I’ll swear, and you can trust me—”
Zo gave the boy a sharp look. “I absolutely cannot trust you.” That was true, but also—even had Zo cared to remove the collar, he didn’t know how. The clasp for the cuff and collar both were on the inside of the objects, and had seemed to melt into their wearers’ skin. But Zo wasn’t going to worry himself yet. The engineer would sort it out. He just had to reach her workshop, which meant—
“If you want it off, I’ll tell you how you can make that happen: get us to neutral waters, and we’ll part ways. Also, I misspoke. I do have a few orders to give.”
The witch jerked his head up, glare flashing again.
Zo smiled. “Do not undermine me.” He felt an echo of the brief, intense fire from when he’d first put on the cuff, like the object was taking note of his instructions. The heat was unpleasant but nothing Zo couldn’t bear without an outward reaction. “Do whatever is in your power to bring us quickly and safely to neutral waters.” Another stab of heat against his flesh, and gauging by how the witch fidgeted, he felt it in the collar, too. “And, don’t try to kill me while I sleep.”
The witch’s brows climbed at the final command. He was so dirty that his tears from earlier had left pale trails through the grime on his face.
“I can’t try to kill you in your sleep,” he echoed dubiously. “What about any other time?”
“If I’m awake, I’m not worried about it,” Zo said, giving him a wink. “You’re hardly a threat.”
The boy drew himself up, instantly indignant. “Aren’t people supposed to be afraid of witches?”
All Zo’s humor vanished with that remark. “I don’t know about most people, but I’m certainly not.” He looked around the cabin. “Stay here. I’m going to find something you can wash with. If we’re going to stay within spitting distance of each other, I can’t have you looking—and smelling—quite this foul.”
He moved for the door, and from behind him, the boy sputtered. “You said you wouldn’t give any more orders.“
Glancing over his shoulder, Zo was interested to find that the collar was glowing even more brightly than before, seeming to trigger another, lingering flash of warmth in the cuff, also. Meanwhile, the witch appeared to be straining to move, despite the fact that his feet were rooted firmly to the floorboards. Zo didn’t approve of magic; he was a man of his creed, after all. But he couldn’t deny that there was a heady feeling to wielding a little of it through the cuff.
Drunk on power already, Zo? Letta’s voice crept into his subconscious, a perfect echo of the tone, bubbling with repressed laughter, that she always used when she was amused at his expense. Typical.
“Well,” he told the boy, answering him instead of letting himself be distracted by the taunts of the dead, “I meant it at the time. Last one, I promise.”
He turned and left the cabin, the witch cursing in his wake, and almost collided with Trek, who was hovering directly on the other side of the cabin door.
His first mate’s expression of worry cleared slightly at the sight of him, then transformed into one of dismay.
“Are you smiling?” the big man demanded, his gaping mouth revealing several gold crowns interspersed among his natural molars.
Zo made sure the cabin door was closed and wished he knew how to lock it. “Definitely not,” he assured Trek. “Did we already dispatch my predecessor in captaincy to the seabottom? If so, I hope someone checked his pockets first.”
Trek distractedly held out a small cloth bag. “Here’s everything he had on him. Except, Becka asked for his boots and belt, and I told her she might have ‘em.” He was still staring intently at Zo. “Everything all right in there, then?”
“Oh, to be sure,” Zo said, rummaging through the bag. After nudging aside a few damp, but intact cigars, and three stained silk handkerchiefs, he found what he was looking for. “Aha!” He drew out the key, then stuck it in the door handle and turned the lock. While he was doing that, Trek apparently noticed the cuff.
“Captain!” he exclaimed, looking left, then right, then stepping close and firmly tugging the sleeve of Zo’s cloak down over his wrist. “What in the dark, deep water…?”
Zo stepped away from Trek, disgruntled by his aghast expression. “I’m just making sure it works,” he said in a tone of levity that sounded only a little bit forced. “I needed to make sure he wouldn’t slit my throat, and the collar was in my pocket. I had a moment’s inspiration and the opportunity, so… what? Why are you looking at me like that? No, leave my sleeve alone.” He batted at Trek’s hands. “I won’t lie to the crew, anyway, even by omission.”
Trek, brow furrowed, sighed and stepped back, clasping together his fidgeting hands like he had to physically stop himself from reaching for Zo’s sleeve again. “We pitched a battle for those prizes, Captain,” he muttered, sounding scandalized. “They’re not for sport!”
It was Zo’s turn to be surprised. “‘Sport’…?” he echoed slowly. “By the lightning god, what do you think I’ve been doing for the past ten minutes? And if your answer isn’t ‘ensuring the inhuman being who controls the entire ship and can make it fly doesn’t kill us all,’ then I’m going to wonder why you trust me to be your Captain at all.”
Trek sighed, a little of the tension in his face easing. “I didn’t mean to assume the worst. Only, your face, when you came out—I haven’t seen you look like that since the time you and her honor spent two days locked up with the redhead you took a fancy to at Simensa.”
A phantom of pleasant memory and recent grief spun into life from the dusty remnants of Zo’s heart, and he smiled reflexively, though the expression quickly died on his lips.
“That was a good holiday.” He sighed fondly, remembering the young man with the scarlet hair, and how instantly Letta had zeroed in on him. She’d always had a knack for picking their partners, sometimes requiring no more than a passing glance to know she wanted someone. And she had almost never been wrong about what Zo would like too.
“So,” Trek said slowly, “you understand my… confusion?”
“I was just enjoying seeing someone do as I say for once,” Zo sniffed dismissively. “Maybe I should get another collar for you. Stop fussing with my cloak, I said!” But this time he didn’t push his sleeve back up his arm and let it hang instead, covering the cuff.
“Very well,” Trek said, tone solemn and expression dubious. “I hope you know what you’re doing, Captain.”
So do I, Zo thought, but chose to keep it to himself. “Someone needs to bring water and clothing for our witch,” he said instead. “He smells exactly like you’d expect of someone you found chained up in a brig.”
Trex continued to look at Zo with judgment, but Zo was accustomed to such looks, so he just put a hand on his hip and waited. “Is seawater acceptable, Captain?” Trek asked at last. Zo grinned darkly at him. “Yes. I wouldn’t dream of using the drinking water for bathing. Why don’t you help the boy clean up, and I’ll take my tour of our new home.” He handed Trek the key to the cabin door, then looked around the Tibalt’s top deck, feeling a rush of satisfaction at its sleek lines and lightweight scale. He liked his ships small and nimble—rather how he liked his men, now that Trek had raised the subject. How long had it been since he’d thought about sex? Certainly he hadn’t since he’d lost Letta, but before that? Not in the weeks when they’d been fleeing the Bellringer, with no idea why it was so intent on capturing one particular pirate’s vessel. They’d maintained such a breakneck pace and constant evasive tactics, they’d barely had time to sleep, much less fuck. Well, if the rush of taking the Tibalt, and then the witch, had raised Zo’s spirits briefly, they were low once more. But as his euphoria gave way once to the rage that had fueled him for the months since their last battle with the Bellringer, Zo better recalled his present purpose. He turned his now-grim stare on Trek, who blinked, as though taken aback by the sudden shift of attitude. “Did you mishear me?”
Zo’s first mate gave a resigned sigh and a small nod. “Yes, Captain. As you say.”
They parted and Zo strode across the deck toward the masts, scanning them for signs of strain, especially where they were bracketed to the deck itself. Then he seized the riggings, and leaned on them, one by one, testing their integrity. It was a mostly useless task. A good sailor knew the fitness of a ship just by feeling it rock on the waves and react to the wind, but it was a routine that had always settled his thoughts and put him more at ease. He’d probably walked the Dreambringer’s every board three times a night since Letta had gone, until he was finally exhausted enough he could fall into a few hours’ dreamless sleep. Though she never wanted a title, and though their creed didn’t really provide for co-Captaincy, she’d been as much a leader of the crew as him. And even though she was gone, he sensed that she was still the reason that the crew followed him so loyally. Even after the Dreambringer was lost, they didn’t lose faith. They, too, were intent on avenging her. But while he missed the way she could craft brilliant plans or resolve a pressing issue decisively, more than anything he simply missed her. Before anything else, they had been one another’s best friends of more than a decade. He was as hollow and incomplete without her as he would be if someone wrenched loose his heart and a few of his limbs. You always were dramatic, her ghost’s voice whispered near his ear, still sounding on the verge of laughter. If missing her wasn’t already bad enough, she was determined to haunt him. Fortunately, Zo thought resolutely, the end of his torment was in sight one way or another. He didn’t pretend that the odds were in his favor when they found the Bellringer, a witch craft more ancient than any other, rumored to date back to before the war, and feared even by the fiercest pirates.
This time, at least, Zo would have the element of surprise. It was the silver lining to having lost the Dreambringer. The Bellringer wouldn’t know it was he and his crew who were aboard the Tibalt the instant they saw her on the horizon. The Tibalt gave Zo and his crew’s plans new and unexplored dimensions. If Zo could sink the Bellringer and put his knife in the heart of its witch, he would have avenged Letta and her sarcastic ghost could rest in peace. Maybe then Zo could find some of it himself, though he doubted it. And if Zo died in the attempt—well. Then he’d find a different kind of peace.
Gritting his teeth at that dark thought, Zo took a few steps’ running start and leapt up to grab the taut rigging of the main mast, climbing it hand over fist to the Tibalt’s crow’s nest. The platform was scorched in one spot and still smoking from a stray bit of lightning, but sound. He had always liked it up here, as near the clouds as man had any right to get. He looked down at the crew, shrunk to the size of finger puppets by the distance, just in time to see Olsen seize another sailor by his collar and shove him back against the railing so hard he yelped as the small of his back dug into the wood and his torso leaned out precariously over the open water.
“Take it back,” Olsen snarled, her voice carrying easily to Zo’s vantage point. A small knot of crewmembers watched Olsen too, but none of them intervened in whatever disagreement had cropped up. Olsen was always spoiling for a fight, but there was something particularly vicious in her voice right now. The other culprit was Donovan, who had been on the crew just a year, after an eight-month indenture to repay his comission. Zo didn’t often take commissions; it had been Letta’s idea, in that instance. They had been shorthanded at the time, having just lost two longtime crewmembers to retirement, and Olsen had still been young and green, so Letta thought they’d needed someone. As it turned out, Donovan had joined them just in time for that last, fateful voyage that became a prolonged and unsuccessful flight from the Bellringer‘s pursuit.
Donovan appeared to finally gather his wits enough to remember he was almost twice Olsen’s size and dislodged her hands from his clothing, though with apparent difficulty. He straightened up, forcing her a half step back but no more, as she stared him down defiantly, chest-to-chest.
“And Trek says I’m cold-hearted,” Zo muttered to himself as he began silently descending from the mast. He had a soft spot for Olsen, but he should still know better than to intervene in sailors’ disputes. Yet here he was, doing it anyway. More of their words drifted to his ears as he slowly lowered himself down the ropes he’d just ascended.
“We’re all damned and cursed,” Donovan said, panting. A few more of the crew had paused to listen, and Donovan’s wild eyes took them in and his voice turned entreating. “All the stories of a sky tamer’s crew end in carnage! What do you think sank the land and ended the last age? Those dark powers! The sky isn’t meant to be ridden!” Zo kicked off the solid beam of the mast, swung a short distance on the rigging, then released it at the prime moment to land just behind Olsen, absorbing the shock of impact with bended knees. He was pleased by the entrance, as well as the little gasps from his audience, and how Donovan’s eyes were suddenly round as saucers.
“C-C-Captain,” he stammered. “I didn’t mean no disrespect.”
“Certainly not,” Zo said, shrugging. “No disrespect at all. Only the encouragement of dread and despair.”
Donovan swallowed and said nothing.
Zo looked at Olsen, who’d spun to face him, and folded his arms. “What have I told you about fighting, sailor?” When Olsen blushed, she looked just like the ten-year-old stray Letta had brought home after they’d docked overnight at a civilian seatower. Zo sighed, searching for some symbolic punishment. “Go scrub down the brig. I still haven’t got the smell out of my nose.”
She ducked her head. “Yessir,” she muttered, and vanished without argument. Good; at least she had the sense to realize she’d gotten off easily.
“The rest of you, return to your duties. We have plenty to do before we can lift the anchor. Inid, go see about the crow’s nest. I noticed some fire damage.”
While the crew scattered, Zo looked back at Donovan, thoughtfully. “Remind me, Donovan, what’s your creed?”
Donovan, who’d fixed his gaping, dreadful look on his boots, glanced up. “The lightning god’s my deity, Captain. I’m a pirate, born and raised.”
“But you’ve sailed a witch craft before.”
Donovan blanched, but didn’t dodge Zo’s eye. “Yes, sir.”
“This may be a witch craft, but we will operate as we did on the Dreambringer, and when this strange interlude is over, we will be free of the influence of ship craft once again.” Zo raised his voice while making that last statement, because it wasn’t for Donovan’s ears alone. He knew that the few members of the crew who hadn’t heard him would receive the message from their fellow sailors before sundown. It was the closest thing to a speech he was willing to make.
Donovan nodded dubiously. “Yes sir.”
“Go about your duties, then,” he muttered, with a gesture of dismissal.
Donovan went, with a pained, but grateful smile, and Zo leaned against the railing where Olsen had just had Donovan pinned, letting his sigh mingle with the gusts of wind. He hoped what he’d said proved true.
Aron stood in the middle of the cabin after the door closed behind the shadow man—Captain—Zoral—the most incomparable asshole in the entire world of Sihr—whoever he was—and tried not to dissolve into a panic.
His arms felt heavy and clumsy, still, from the moment he’d resisted the first compulsion. He’d locked every muscle in his arms, trying to do what he’d been told not to do, and he could still feel faint tremors from his shoulders to his fingertips.
Stop doing that, the shadow man had said, and just like that, Aron had stopped.
Now, his legs were stuck to the floor like a pair of stone pillars.
Stay there, the shadow man had said, and Aron had stayed.
Though Aron had met people who didn’t like small spaces, he’d never considered himself one of them. He’d had a bunkmate once, though, who’d sweated and gasped any time he had to be the one that slept closer to the wall. During his time in the brig, Aron had come to understand how a sense of containment could set his teeth on edge. Coming abovedecks, even at the end of a chain, had been a physical relief he hadn’t quite anticipated.
But now, unable to move from the spot where he stood, he felt a vice on his heart, the crank turning tighter with each passing second. He focused as hard as he could on calming himself, as his father had taught him to do when he was panicked or spoiling for a fight and needed to make decisions with a clear head. He pulled in air and imagined it filling him from his feet up, and that every exhale carried his panic out of him, like a swirl of dust caught in the wind.
Within a second or two, the shallow wheeze of his fast, rapid breaths receded, and he could hear past his pounding heart and see straight again.
He got himself under control just in time for the door to bang open and spur another bolt of panic. Aron had happened to have his back to the door when the shadow man gave his order, so now, when he whipped his head around to look, he still couldn’t twist enough in the torso to see the doorway except out of the corner of his eye. Still, the size of his frame and the gleam of tattoos on the big man’s scalp was enough for Aron to know almost immediately that his visitor was Trek.
He carried a bucket, his occupied hands being the apparent reason he’d kicked open the door. Now, he kicked it closed. The noise made Aron jump a second time. “Sorry to alarm ya,” Trek said, rounding the cabin and coming more comfortably into view, the bucket’s contents sloshing. He was frowning as he gave Aron’s person a critical once-over. Then he leaned in, sniffed tentatively, and promptly leaned back. Aron just gazed at him, far too devoid of dignity at this point for embarrassment. “I’m here to help you wash,” Trek then declared, and Aron realized he wasn’t past the point of embarrassment after all.
“Help me?” he echoed, his voice squeaking a little in the middle, which made him blush, but Trek either didn’t notice his reaction, or pretended not to. The big man just nodded placidly.
For his own part, Trek was streaked with a bit of blood here and there and had a few shallow cuts, tokens of his recent battle for the Tibalt, but before that he’d apparently swam some distance in the driving rain of a witch’s storm, so compared to Aron he was practically fresh-scrubbed. “Well, I brought you the bucket and a rag without any blood on it,” Trek clarified, shrugging. “That’s quite helpful, if you ask me.” He turned and drifted around the cabin, toward the open window at the rear, kicking the old Captain’s boots out of his way so he could lean against the sill. “Don’t mind me. I’ll just take in the view, and you can give yourself a wipe-down.”
Aron wrapped his arms around himself, suddenly very conscious of just how filthy he was. In the brig, there had just been one general stink, of which he was a part, but now that he was in more open air, it was quite evident that the filth covering him was responsible for the majority of the foulness in the cabin. He looked at the bucket of water, which he suspected was seawater, and imagined how it would burn against the chafed places on his skin. He also imagined wiping away the worst of the grime and having clean skin, and shuddered with longing. “Um,” he said after a few moments’ silence. “You’ll have to scoot that bucket a little closer.”
Trek looked over his shoulder. “Pardon?”
Aron rubbed his hands against his thighs and grimaced. “I can’t move my feet.”
Trek turned fully, his brows rising toward his nonexistent hairline. “Were you hurt in the fight?” He looked Aron up and down again in puzzlement. “But you’re standing…?”
“I can’t move my feet,” Aron repeated, and touched the collar, not knowing what else to say.
Trek’s expression shifted from confusion to curiosity to slow horror. A blush mottled his throat. But without a word, he came over, pushed the bucket until it almost touched Aron’s toes, then went back to the window and turned his back again.
Aron didn’t think he should feel gratitude toward the apparently loyal first mate of the man who had entrapped him and stolen his free will, but he couldn’t really tell his heart what to do, as he’d recently proven. Signs of empathy in the first mate made his already compromised emotions intensity. Aron tried to ignore the prickle of tears as he bent awkwardly at the waist, hooking his shaking fingers around the rag that was folded over the lip of the pail and pushing it down into the water. Sure enough, the contents of the bucket were icy cold even as they lit up the open scratches on his knuckles with a contrasting fire.
Still, seeing his familiar, freckled, pale skin appear from beneath the layer of dirt was so satisfying, he ignored the flashes of pain and scrubbed fiercely at his arms until they were clean. Then he hesitated, plucking at the dirt-encrusted fabric of his shirt.
“I have a change of clothing for you,” Trek mentioned, holding up a fistful of cloth. “So you can get rid of what you have on.” He tossed the bundle at Aron. Aron caught it in midair and shook out the pieces of cloth one at a time. He found ankle-length trousers that would be looser in the thigh than the calf, with a drawstring instead of a belt, and a rough hewn shirt, dingy white. The pants would probably fit. The enormous shirt would drown him, but the fabric, though smudged with old stains, smelled and looked freshly washed. He was hardly in a position to be fussy, and it would be bliss to be clean.
“Thanks,” he told Trek, then remembered that if you shouldn’t feel gratitude toward kidnapping accomplices, you definitely shouldn’t express gratitude out loud to them. But it was too late now, and anyway, he wasn’t sure Trek had even heard—he didn’t so much as shrug. Maybe something had caught his eye out the window and he wasn’t paying Aron any mind at all.
Lent courage by that thought, Aron considered whether it was possible for him to undress from the waist down with his feet firmly planted. But he found he could lift them one at a time for the purpose of pulling off his trousers, though he was careful to set them back down exactly where they’d been. How did it work, he wondered? Could he move simply because he’d done so without the intent to leave the spot where he’d been told to “stay”? It was a discomfiting thing to ponder, but Aron was naturally curious, and had always been interested in engineering. Under other, strictly academic circumstances, he might have been abjectly fascinated by the collar. As it was, thinking about it for too long made his stomach knot and flop. So, in the interest of avoiding being ill into his bucket of bathwater, he set aside those considerations for now.
Shedding the clothes he had on, Aron made short work of the rest of his bath, grimacing as the water in the bucket turned murky. Then he used the cleanest part of his old clothes to pat himself mostly dry before he hastily slipped into the garments that Trek had brought, rolling up the sleeves so his hands weren’t swallowed, and knotting the hem so it fell to his hips instead of his knees.
“Okay, I’ve finished,” Aron said awkwardly, dressed and once again rooted to the spot, semi-dirty seawater pooling around his bare feet, shivering despite the thin clothes. He was still damp, and even with dry things on, he was still quite cold, especially with the sea breeze gusting through the open window behind Trek.
Trek gave him an approving nod, picking up the half-full bucket and tossing the contents out the window. “Better?” he asked, rather kindly, considering. Also, he hadn’t given Aron so much as a pitying second glance when he’d been on the other end of a chain, but Aron could tell by the way his nose wrinkled when his eye fell on the collar that he felt sorry for him now. Being pitied made Aron itch, though he wasn’t sure why he had such an overgrown sense of pride. He’d never exactly had anything to be proud of.
“Yes,” Aron said honestly. He did feel better than he had before he’d washed and changed, even if everything was still relatively terrible. “Thank you,” he blurted again.
This time, Trek could hardly pretend he hadn’t heard. He shrugged, his eyes sliding away from Aron’s, and bent to gingerly pick up Aron’s filthy old clothes, dropping them into the bucket. “Think we’ll pitch these,” he decided. “Don’t think there’s anything there to be salvaged.”
Aron could hardly argue. In addition to being filthy, his old garments were torn and full of holes. Still, his clothes were the last physical thing he had from home, so the idea of them being burned or tossed overboard made him cringe. “If you’ll leave them, I’ll try to wash them,” he said hurriedly. “No use wasting good cloth.”
Trek’s frown suggested he doubted Aron’s judgment as to what constituted good cloth, but he shrugged and left the bucket with the clothes in it on the floor between them. “Well, then, I’ll just be going,” he said awkwardly. “Once we scrounge up some food, I’ll be sure you get a bit of it.” Again, the unexpected thoughtfulness, minor though it was, struck Aron oddly.
“Alright,” he said, and cleared his throat.
Trek nodded. He did it with his whole body, his head and neck leading and the rest of him swaying forward and back, rocking on his heels. “I’ll tell the Captain to be along as soon as he’s able,” he added, an awkward reference to the fact that until Zoral came back, Aron remained glued to the floor.
Then the big man gave him a final parting nod, and went out. This time, he handled the door more gently, and it closed with a soft snick instead of slamming against its frame. Aron was left with nothing to do but wait for the blasted Captain. He already knew from his time in the brig of this very ship that captivity was a strange combination of intermittent terror and boredom. His mind didn’t seem capable of sustaining a fear-saturated state for long; inevitably, he’d found himself almost wishing for visits from the old Captain, just to break the terrible monotony and dark solitude when he hadn’t been there. He’d made his meager meals stretch, just to occupy himself by eating the hard bread crumb by crumb and feeling the texture in his hands.
He was quickly bored now, too, and it was a new torment that he couldn’t so much sit or lean. He tried, hoping his earlier trick of raising his feet with no intention of actually going anywhere would work, but it didn’t. Resigned, he tried to distract himself from the growing ache in his legs. If he strained his ears, he could hear the occasional word or phrase from the crew outside the cabin, and the slap of the wind when it caught a slack sail. He could hear the groans of the ship’s wooden hull, which had a much different quality from inside the cabin than they had when he was belowdecks those many days.
Cautiously, he turned to an exploration of the other change wrought by the day.
The connection to the Tibalt was just as vivid and apparent to Aron now as it had been when it first formed, but it also seemed to slip into the periphery of his mind any time he wasn’t consciously focused on it. When he did turn his attention carefully toward that cracked-open door in his mind, though, the Tibalt was subtly ignited by his attention. He felt the ship quake beneath him, and the impression of excited chatter, though it came without sound or words. It was more like the emotion was appearing in his head just as one of his own might, but so obviously belonging to something not him, he couldn’t have mistaken it for his own feelings.
There were many theories about the nature of witch crafts, and Aron didn’t know which one he believed. But there seemed evidence in the quality of his connection with the Tibalt that the ship had some will of its own. That would explain, also, why the ship had floated in air, and why it had returned to the water. Aron couldn’t control it, but it was trying to interpret his wishes in its own way. It was a strange and empowering suspicion, and he thought he should probably test it, but couldn’t begin to think of safe parameters.
Before he could scheme in any detail, the Captain came back.
Aron glanced over his shoulder at the sound of the door opening, and seeing who it was, firmly turned to face forward again. He wasn’t going to strain and struggle against the cursed collar in the presence of the man who’d imposed it on him. He wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. But as Aron stood there stiffly, he found that the shadow man would have his satisfaction whether Aron liked it or not. He walked a slow circle around Aron then stood in front of him, and when Aron couldn’t stand it any longer and tore his gaze from the opposite wall to look at the Captain’s face, he wanted to spit at the expression of strange delight in the man’s face.
“Well, since you’re back,” Aron said hoarsely, “maybe you’ll let me move? I can’t feel my toes.” That was true, though he thought it had as much to do with the cold water that had collected on his bare feet as it did immobility.
The Captain’s gaze fell to Aron’s feet, which were slightly blue. “You’re being dramatic,” he said calmly. “But yes, fine. You can… move,” he said slowly, reminding Aron of an earlier suspicion that the shadow man was just as unfamiliar with the way the collar functioned as Aron was. It was rather terrifying to be a slave to the whim of someone ignorant to the terms of such enslavement, so he tried not to think about it, instead enjoying the feeling of stalking away from the center of the cabin toward the window, for lack of a better destination.
“You look much better than you did before,” said the Captain, wandering after him with his head cocked to one side. Aron stole a glance at him out of the corner of his eye before he could stop himself, then turned resolutely back to the window. It was comforting to see the open water after having been so long blind and disoriented belowdecks. The the sky was growing purple to the west, a herald of sunset.
“Not that that’s saying much,” the shadow man continued amiably. “I’ve knocked dried seaweed off my boots that was less bedraggled than you were when I pulled you out of that brig. Did Trek feed you, too?”
Aron hesitated, then slowly shook his head, trying not to look too hopeful. But the shadow man still smiled knowingly as he took something from his pocket and tossed it to him. Aron caught it impulsively, pleased to find a bit of hard bread, free of dirt and without anything growing on it, which would make it the most appealing thing he’d have eaten in weeks. He’d intended to pace himself, but he lost control after the first bite, and in a matter of seconds he’d eaten the whole chunk and was carefully collecting the crumbs from his fingers with the tip of his tongue.
When he opened his eyes, which had fallen closed at the bliss of putting something in his gnawing, empty stomach, he found the shadow man watching him intently.
The brief expression of focused interest vanished and the Captain gave an airy shrug, looking out the window instead. “I’ve never seen someone so small eat so quickly.”
“I’m not small,” Aron snapped.
“Well, anyone human, at least,” the Captain continued as though Aron hadn’t interrupted him. “I think I’ve seen starving rats devour bread at that pace. But still, it’s very impressive that you can match them, given your considerably duller teeth and lack of claws.”
Aron rolled his eyes. “Is there any more?”
The Captain looked back at him with open surprise, then a grin. “You’re a very demanding captive.”
“Well,” Aron said, shrugging, “it can’t hurt to ask, can it?”
The Captain’s chuckle was low and made something loosen in Aron’s belly, before he viciously reminded himself what had happened the last time he’d let his guard down in this man’s presence. He touched the collar just to cement the memory.
“Never say I’m not just,” said the shadow man solemnly, and took a second chunk of bread from his pocket, surprising Aron into looking straight into his face. Their eyes held while the shadow man stepped forward, setting the bread in Aron’s hand this time instead of throwing it to him. The press of his fingers was just as hypnotizing as before—proof that Aron was deeply and hopelessly broken.
“‘Unjust’ is too kind a word,” Aron agreed, quickly snatching the bread and backing away a step, which brought him up against the window casing. He tore off a bite and chewed, forcing himself to go more slowly.
“Is it?” The shadow man seemed sincerely puzzled. “How would you know? We only met an hour ago. And, I might add, since that time I’ve given you quarters, clothes, and food. I’ve met monks who were less generous than I’ve been with you.”
“You killed the Captain,” Aron pointed out, his words a little garbled by the fact his mouth was still full.
The shadow man arched a brow. “The one who was keeping you prisoner and starving you, you mean? Yes, how terrible of me.”
Aron’s eyes narrowed. He swallowed, and hesitated with the bread halfway raised to his mouth again. “You’re a pirate.” He took a decisive bite.
“That’s not very open-minded of you,” the Captain chided, “but then again, I was going to kill you simply for being a witch, so I can’t pretend not to understand.”
Aron choked on a startled laugh, clapping his hand over his mouth to stop it, as well as to contain the large bite of bread he was still chewing. The shadow man shot him another one of his small, wise smiles and walked away to poke through the old Captain’s desk. When Aron had swallowed again, he tucked the remains of the bread reluctantly into the pocket of his borrowed trousers, then watched the Captain thoughtfully. He had pulled open a drawer and was thumbing through the stack of loose papers inside, but judging by his expression, he hadn’t found anything worth noting.
“I prefer you when you’re honest,” Aron told him.
The shadow man laughed outright. He closed the drawer and turned back to Aron, leaning against the desk and crossing his legs at the ankle. “You’re very unlike any captive I’ve ever had. So cheeky. Aren’t you afraid?”
Aron snorted in disbelief. “Of course.” He shuffled his cold feet and shivered. “It’s just not the only thing I am.”
This remark seemed to strike the shadow man, who frowned and rubbed his bearded jaw, gazing contemplatively at Aron with those sharp blue eyes until Aron wilted under his stare and had to look down at his toes, wiggling them to ensure they were still attached and functioning, not sure what thoughts he’d just ignited in the shadow man’s head and wishing he could take back his words. It was a familiar feeling; Aron’s mouth was forever getting the best of his judgment.
“You should lie down,” the shadow man said eventually, which was more or less the last thing Aron had expected to hear. The “should” seemed carefully included, and though Aron tensed, he didn’t feel any sort of command in the collar. He looked at the old Captain’s double cot and wasn’t sure whether he was more tempted or repelled.
Seeming to understand, the shadow man walked over to it and jerked off the rumpled blankets. “Here,” he urged Aron, pointing at the cot. Aron still dragged his feet, but more out of a reluctance to obey than any lingering aversion. Maybe the cot would smell of the sour sweat and cigar smoke of which the old Captain had always reeked, but Aron could tolerate it for the pleasure of lying down on something soft for the first time in months. He reached the edge of the cot and sat down, immediately sighing at the feeling of a cushion under his backside and thighs.
Without remarking, the shadow man went back to the desk, opened another drawer, and began to peruse it. Free from the harness of his attention, Aron slowly stretched his body out horizontally, and could have sobbed at the bliss of the position. He’d had his arm partially raised above him, restrained by the shackle, all those days and nights, in addition to being unable to recline. His shoulder was so sore it felt like sparks were shooting out of it when he rubbed it with the opposite hand, but it was a good pain, a relieved pain. He rearranged himself a time or two until he found a position that was right, and almost before his eyes closed, he was asleep.
Having not introduced himself to the prior captain of the Tibalt before descending with his knife, Zo discovered the man’s name while rifling through the desk drawers in the cabin.
Captain Kaller managed to be both the most detailed recordkeeper Zo had ever observed, posthumously or otherwise, and also the least organized. The drawers were stuffed full of ship’s diary entries, but the leaves of parchment weren’t bound in a book or ledger. Kaller had only occasionally bothered to scrawl the date at the top. What appeared to be the more recent entries were more or less at the top of the stack, but not necessarily; he seemed to have shoved sheets into the drawers mostly at random. To make matters even worse, Kaller’s cramped handwriting was nearly impossible to read.
Zo considered throwing everything out the window, but resisted the temptation. Pirates could always make good use of information, and the desk was a trove of contact lists and inventories, provided he took the time to separate the pearls from the oysters. Still, it was tedious work.
It didn’t help his concentration that he was constantly aware of the witch, curled up asleep on the cot. With at least three-quarters of the grime washed from him, he was a much more appealing creature than he’d been straight out of the brig. While he was far too thin, a little food and water had erased some of the awful paleness from his freckled cheeks. And his hair, though still somewhat matted, was in a much better state, showing hints of curl amidst the tangles.
More importantly, though, was what he signified. After the shock of realizing that he was stuck with an atrocity in his keeping for as long as he sailed the Tibalt, and then the preoccupation with getting the collar on said atrocity, Zo had grown calmer. More thoughtful. He was bound on a mission of vengeance against the most feared witch craft in the known world. Would his odds of victory against the Bellringer not be improved if he faced her at the helm of a witch craft at his command—and one armed with a sky tamer, no less?
To even consider it was a testament to how badly he wanted to leave the Bellringer, her captain, and crew, everyone responsible for the loss of Letta, at the seabottom; to rain down destruction so complete, it wouldn’t leave so much as a single, smoldering plank afloat. And having faced the Belleringer before, he’d always known on some level his aim was nearly impossible to attain.
Darkness fell, and Zo lit the lamps, determined to sort through one more of the drawers. He would like to know the Tibalt’s trading routes so he could carefully avoid them all. If any of her friends hailed them and discovered pirates where they’d expected to see friends, Zo might have to flee or fight; neither option was appealing with a weary crew on a new vessel, and would delay his pursuit of the Bellringer yet again.
Eventually, he had read enough to satisfy himself that the Tibalt wasn’t among the handful of witch crafts that visited the neutral waters, and the course he’d set the crew to follow was likely no more dangerous for them sailing the Tibalt as it had been on the Dreambringer. Which was to say, quite dangerous indeed; the neutral waters were always difficult to reach in this season, and Zo wasn’t sure they’d be welcome when they arrived. The careful politics of the First Tower meant that they wouldn’t want to be seen as providing assistance to someone who’d made themselves an enemy of the Bellringer. But, hopefully, they wouldn’t be hailed by someone likely to recognize any of the crew. The Tibalt would serve as their disguise; a bitter silver lining to the loss of the Dreambringer.
When his eyes could no longer focus and he had a kink in his neck, Zo leaned back from the spread of papers that he’d weighted down with a collection of smooth stones from the bottom of one of the drawers. He stretched his arms over his head and his gaze fell on the witch again.
He lay on his side facing Zo, and his face was faintly illuminated by the receding glow of the lamplight as it sputtered through its last pool of oil. His lips were parted, and his breathing was deep on the inhale, with a faint whistle on the exhale. Sleeping deeply enough to snore—Zo could almost envy him.
He imagined the Bellringer, alone in open water, believing herself peerless. Unsuspecting when, while all the horizons remained reassuringly empty, Zo and his crew fell upon her from the air. He imagined what that view would be; like staring down from the highest mast, traveling through the parting clouds, killing the enemy ship before her crew could even register its surprise, just as he’d fallen upon the hapless Kaller with his knife.
Zo knew little about witches and witch craft, except how grim it was to fight one and the bitter price of losing to one. There was the lore, yes; but the stories of witches built of shark’s teeth and raven’s blood, breathed to life with a god’s curse, had never sounded very convincing to Zo.
He knew the best witches served willingly. He knew that he wouldn’t go into battle with someone he’d dragged there on a leash. Not because of moral qualms, but because you couldn’t take a well-guarded prize with a crew you couldn’t trust.
Deep in thought, Zo shed his cloak and folded it over the back of the desk chair. He rested his hand there a moment, imagining how many dead men had sat there before him. The last time Kaller had sat there, had he known that he was scratching out his last bit of unreadable nonsense? What was the last word he’d jotted down, the last of the tattered letters, kept neatly in their own, separate drawer and all smelling of the same perfume, he’d carefully reread?
Zo wasn’t usually so thoughtful about mortality, but now that he was fairly sure he was living the last of his days, it was often on his mind. And it didn’t sit easily.
He looked at the witch again, feeding the idea of making him an ally like he’d grow a flame with scraps of paper before it built into a good fire. He kept expecting the idea to feel ridiculous, unfathomable, something only to be scoffed at. Instead, Zo felt increasingly sure that the lightning god had given him more than just a ship when he set the Tibalt and the Michaela upon each other within Zo’s reach.
He knew little of witches, but plenty of men. And he remembered the way the witch had leaned his face helplessly against Zo’s hand when he’d touched him so gently.
The formulation of any plans aside, the exhaustion of the past few days, and the allure of a cot after sleeping the past two nights on the stone floor of the abandoned seatower, were too great for him to resist any longer. Zo pulled loose his belt and slipped his knife beneath the cot, positioning the handle so it would be easy to grasp without looking. He toed off his boots as well, but left them where he could quickly step into them if the need arose, and didn’t undress further. Then he slid onto the cot, rearranging the thin, warm body that was sprawled across its entire surface so that the witch was lying on his side, facing the wall, giving Zo plenty of space and the warmth of the witch’s thin body against his back like a hot stone.
He knew the moment the boy woke; where he’d been pleasantly supple to Zo’s handling a moment before, he was abruptly, entirely rigid. His head whipped over his shoulder, eyes wide and dark. “What are you doing?” he hissed, trying to scramble away from Zo, but of course he was trapped against the bulkhead. He sat up, knees and elbows poking out, the length of chain still dangling from his wrist dragging between them.
Zo propped himself up on one elbow and raised a brow. “I’m going to bed. What does it look like?” He yawned demonstratively, and his true weariness took over in the middle of it, widening the yawn until his jaw cracked.
“But—you’re sleeping here?” “There’s nowhere else,” Zo pointed out, lying back down against the stale-smelling pillows. “Then, I’ll….” The boy made as though to climb over Zo, then appeared to realize that to do so would require straddling him, and froze once again. “You’d prefer the floor?” Zo snorted. “I’ll have you know I’m considered a very desirable bed partner.” He hadn’t meant anything by the teasing, not really. Though he had just been remembering how eager the witch had been for his touch before Zo had caught him in the collar…. Zo’s gaze drifted to the witch’s throat now, where the metal glinted in the guttering lamplight, then over the wet gleam of his eyes and lips. A blush bloomed on the witch’s throat and cheeks. The witch averted his eyes, swallowing convulsively. Zo watched the movement of his long throat. Could anyone be quite this innocent, Zo wondered?
Zo spoke reasonably. “Don’t tell me you were raised in such grandeur that you’ve never shared a bunk. This one is much roomier than most.” And it was. They wouldn’t have to touch one another, if they stayed still while they slept. Zo thought he probably would keep his arms and legs to himself more successfully than the boy, who had spread himself over the cot while Zo was at the desk like a small kraken, all limbs.
“That’s true,” the boy said cautiously, holding Zo’s gaze even as his cheeks turned a shade darker pink. Slowly, he lay down once more. There was a handspan or two between them. Whatever crew member had given up his spare shirt to the witch must have been twice the boy’s size. The collar gaped to his sternum, revealing more hairless, freckled skin and the sharp protrusions of his collarbones.
Zo cleared his throat and rolled onto his other side, so his back was to the boy. “There you are, behaving sensibly. It’s not so hard, is it?” A breath that could have been a laugh or a sigh was his only answer. “Remember, the collar won’t let you kill me,” Zo reminded the witch—and himself, to be honest—as he closed his eyes. “So don’t bother trying.”
As Zo had predicted, he woke to the sensation of the witch plastered to his back, and the feeling and sound of his soft whistling snores, little gusts of breath against the back of Zo’s neck. Also, nestled firmly against his ass was what some men claimed to be a natural consequence of the morning on male anatomy, but Zo had always thought that was a flimsy excuse.
Zo supposed he should have been disgusted, given what the witch was. But his lack of disgust was useful, if he cared to act upon the notions he’d entertained the night before. Some ideas born in the dark seemed laughable in the morning light, but not this one. If anything, Zo felt more strongly now than he had before that his way forward lay with a ship that could fly; indeed, something so incredible might be the only way to take the Bellringer successfully.
That being said, while it had been plain to see that the witch was vulnerable to a bit of kindness, Zo hadn’t anticipated that he might also be susceptible to Zo’s natural wiles. Of course, Zo knew what he looked like, and even men who weren’t so inclined at port were often interested given sufficient time at sea. Further, given his apparent starvation, torment, and imprisonment, he hadn’t expected the witch could manage such an impressive erection, regardless of his source of inspiration. One of the boy’s hands was latched firmly around Zo’s waist, splayed over his abdomen. He’d also thrust a bony knee between Zo’s thighs.
The combined effect wasn’t lost on Zo. Just as it had surprised him the day before to have a lurid thought about the witch, it surprised him now to feel a telltale stirring below his hips. Under better circumstances, he was sure he’d have been fully hard himself. Even the dull flare of arousal was a pleasant sensation, after so long feeling nothing but anger, frustration, and grief.
Maybe it was that, that bit of warmth and light after so many dark, cold days, that made him feel almost eager as he rolled over in the cage of the witch’s wiry arms.
Of course, his primary motivation was to seize this excellent opportunity to put his plans of capturing the witch’s loyalty into motion. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy it.
The witch’s eyelashes fluttered on his cheeks. In the wash of morning light through the window, which Zo had left unshuttered the night before, his eyelashes were silver and gold, and much longer than they appeared from a distance. His nose was narrow and turned up very slightly at the end. Zo nudged the boy’s thighs apart with his knee, an echo of the way their legs had been entangled when Zo woke, and ran his other hand lightly down the boy’s side to his hip, then back up, rucking up the loose shirt along the way. First, the witch just murmured incoherently, his eyes opening to sleepy slits, still only half-awake, and shuddered appreciatively as Zo stroked his bare waist. Then, his eyes flew open and he gasped, his hands flying up to grasp Zo’s shoulder. Fortunately the arm with the chain on it was trapped beneath him, or Zo might have lost an eye.
Zo met the witch’s wide eyes and brushed his knuckles down his stomach, past his navel.
“You didn’t stay on your side of the cot,” he said lowly. “And I became aware of your… problem.” He pushed his knee further between the boy’s thighs, which made the witch gasp again.
“Am I awake?” the witch murmured, sounding a bit drunk. Zo actually laughed, and a real smile lingered, feeling unfamiliar on his face, as he dipped his hand past the drawstring of the witch’s trousers. He looked down to admire the contrast between the sun-browned skin of his wrist and the incredible paleness of the witch’s nearly concave stomach.
“W-Wait,” the boy whispered, and Zo paused, glancing up at his face. “Oh, gods. I am awake.”
“Hmm,” Zo hummed in confirmation. He tugged at the waistband, forcing it down a couple of inches, revealing more creamy skin taut over prominent bones. “You need to eat more.”
The witch swiftly drew in a breath as Zo sank his hand to the wrist into his trousers, his palm fitting around the warm, solid length of its target. “Oh, fuck!”
“All is not exactly in proportion here, I see,” Zo observed approvingly, giving the cock he held a firm stroke that made Aron jerk and curse again. “I’m impressed.”
“Why are you—ahhhh!” The witch interrupted his own question with a strangled cry when Zo swept his thumb over the sticky fluid at his crown and pushed back his foreskin, exposing the entire head to his touch. He found himself wishing he could see what he was doing, but it was also rather gratifying to watch the boy’s face, which was more rapturous at Zo’s first few exploratory touches than some men’s faces when they came. Zo found himself slightly mesmerized. In the back of his mind, he hesitated, but his touch remained sure. After all, just because he had motivations that transcended the moment, didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy himself a little.
“Why am I jerking you off? Because I want to, and you want me to,” Zo said carelessly, finding a slow rhythm that made the boy groan and buck. “So, why not?”
“Aren’t you supposed to—I don’t kn-know—ask first?” the witch gasped. His fingers were digging hard into Zo’s shoulder and his upper teeth sunk deeply into his lower lip.
Zo stilled his hand. “Tell me that you want me to stop, then.”
The boy looked for a moment like he might hyperventilate, and the collar flashed like a spark. “I want you to stop,” he said through gritted teeth, and the collar was quiet.
Zo had spoken without thinking of the collar, but now he grinned, his fingertips running down to Aron’s high, tight balls, which had only the faintest layer of silky hair.
“Tell me the truth,” he murmured. “Tell me what you want.”
The boy’s eyes narrowed and his nails bit viciously into Zo’s flesh. “I want you to touch me,” he said, in the same tone he might threaten murder. “And you’re a bastard,” he added in a snarl. “You said you wouldn’t—”
“Ah, yes,” Zo interrupted with faux remorse, gripping the boy’s cock again, tight enough to stop his voice on another gasp. “It slipped my mind again.” He twisted his wrist and, seized by inspiration, leaned in and licked the straining cord of the witch’s white throat. That yielded interesting results; the boy shouted and his cock pulsed in Zo’s grip, like he was already close. “Oh, should I have asked first? Very sorry,” Zo murmured against his skin, and did it again.
He’d always enjoyed giving more than receiving, and it came as a strange relief to rediscover that pleasure, buried as it had been by his endurance over the past several months.
He lost himself in the thrill of the moment, the focus on the present that a good performance required. He made himself attentive to every breath and quake and the rocketing pulse in the body in his hands, reveling in his satisfaction when the boy’s hips jerked erratically and he came into the cup of Zo’s palm with something like a sob.
In the immediate aftermath, Zo came back to the surface of his thoughts, past a deeper vantage point where all he could hear were the sounds of the boy’s breath and voice and heartbeat, as well as Zo’s own thundering pulse. It was almost like battle—that odd loss of momentum that came so suddenly when the last foe had fallen, but the body remained primed for the fight.
His face was still pressed against the witch’s throat, the collar brushing his chin, so warmed by the witch’s body that it was as warm as skin. The witch was quaking all over, everywhere Zo could feel him, from his chest to his stomach to his thighs.
And Zo was hard, too; not just the earlier inkling of sensation, but a demanding hardness. His earlier pleasure in the suggestion of arousal vanished beneath a vicious wave of disgust and shame.
He rolled away and sat up in one motion, bending to reach for his boots. His hand was sticky; he rubbed it into the floorboards with a grimace.
“Rest if you’d like,” he told the witch without looking at him. “Later, we’ll discuss the advantages and disadvantages of making ships fly.”
The witch didn’t reply. Zo stood before looking back down at him. He was curled on his side, arms across his stomach like he was braced for an attack. He scowled at Zo with surprising vitriol for someone who, moments ago, had been succumbing to Zo’s hand.
“What?” Zo demanded, mystified. “I did ask,” he reminded him.
The witch exhaled in a hiss and threw himself back down in the cot, then twisted so he faced the wall, his back to Zo.
Zo rolled his eyes. “Suit yourself,” he muttered, and strode out of the cabin to check in with the crew.
Aron hadn’t given a lot of thought to what it would be like to have an orgasm at the hand of someone else. He knew it was something most twenty-year-old virgins would spend more time thinking about, but for the past several years he’d been preoccupied. Sure, imagining being ravished by handsome men was amongst his favorite daydreams for a period during his early teenage years, but since then, he’d been too preoccupied with survival and avoiding capture by persons of various creeds for it to occur to him to be lovesick over anyone, even the shadowy figures in his imagination. When the need and the opportunity aligned, he knew how to give himself perfunctory relief.
What had just happened with the Captain had not been perfunctory at all. At least, not from Aron’s perspective. And at one point, with their legs laced together, Aron’s thigh had happened to nestle against a corresponding, hard bulge in the Captain’s trousers. So he wasn’t quite as detached as he’d pretended to be, either.
His throat hurt from resisting the collar when the Captain had commanded him to speak. He remembered the words he’d said, and the raw, hated truth in them. With a groan, he rolled onto his stomach and pushed his face into the pillows. Now, over the stale scent of linens halfheartedly washed in seawater, there was the sharp, tangy scent of arousal and male spend. He remembered those last few moments in a daze, his entire body gripped by a need so powerful, and the feeling of leaping from a precipice, much higher and more perilous than anything he’d ever brought himself to on his own.
Frustrated, Aron abruptly pushed himself up and rolled out of the cot, skipping sideways to dodge the trailing chain that swung from his wrist and came dangerously close to striking him in the shins. Then he looked around the cabin, desperate for something to distract his thoughts.
There was sky and open water visible through the window. The chain he wore was broken. But he touched the collar and knew the illusion of freedom for what it was. He’d tested the collar more than once, now, and he knew that his will wasn’t enough to surmount its control. He should have felt helpless.
But Aron had never been any good at helplessness. That was part of what made him such an atypical captive, as the Captain had noticed the night before. He was going to find a way to escape. He just had to pay attention and bide his time.
He considered the space within the cabin. There was nothing there to occupy him but the dead Captain’s random possessions. Having no interest in boots and dirty laundry, Aron approached the desk, only to be stopped in his tracks by the collar at about a foot’s distance.
A chill raced over his skin. Apparently, he had been given another command, when he either wasn’t within earshot of the Captain, or while he was fast asleep. Knowing that the collar could control him in this way was somehow doubly unsettling—realizing that he could stumble against unknown commands…. He rubbed his arms to stop himself shivering.
Sidestepping the desk, he circled the rest of the room. There was a faint remnant of his bathwater, forming a dark, misshapen circle on the wooden floor not far from the door. There was the rumpled cot, the untouchable desk, and a few scrolls of blank parchment and stacks of bound loose-leaf parchment, too, for writing. But though the late Captain Kaller appeared to have been a good correspondent, apparently he’d not been much of a reader. Aron quickly abandoned hope of uncovering a book after kicking through the last of the three laundry piles and discovering nothing.
He dropped onto the edge of the cot with a sigh and put his head in his hands, resigning himself to another one of those long and hated boredom phases that had been hallmarks of his captivity insofar, when he heard the door creak.
A young woman peered through the frame. He recognized her as a crew member, recalling his surprise when he’d seen her among their number. She looked to be even younger than Aron. She was slight, too; short, and lean as a whipcord. But the way her dark eyes looked at him, as sharp and intent as a seahawk, he got the feeling her impish looks disguised considerable capacity for danger.
She looked him up and down. “You want some air?”
Aron nodded eagerly.
“Then come on.” She pushed the door further ajar and stood in its opening with her hands on her hips. “I’m to take you to the galley to be fed as well.”
“I appreciate that,” Aron said, interrupted by the growling of his own stomach at the mention of food.
She shrugged, still studying him with her eyes, which were almost black, and sharper the longer she looked at him. “Even though I’m not the ship’s girl now, they haven’t gotten around to finding one, and so I still seem to get all the shit jobs no one else wants.”
“Oh?” Aron paused a step or two away from her; she showed no signs of moving out of the doorway.
“I’m Olsen,” she said. “What should I call you?”
“My name is Aron.”
“Like the land bird?”
He didn’t hide his surprise. “You know the story?”
She pushed a lock of short black hair that was swinging next to her chin behind her ear. “Sure. My parents are dead, but if they’d lived I’d probably be a diver, like them.” She scanned him again with renewed interest. “You, too?”
“No, my parents weren’t divers. They just liked the name.”
“What were they, then?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Aron assured her.
Her eyes flashed. “I heard you swear to the Captain on the knight’s helm. Are you the lawdrawer, then, or are you still under the creed of your blood?”
Aron sighed, but supposed there was no use being secretive. He’d been found out as a witch, taken from his home, and sold to a witch craft already. Now he wore this collar. But it was difficult to be casually open about himself with someone when he was accustomed, his whole life, to concealing every little fact and detail to guard his trail.
“It’s a bit of both, actually,” he admitted. “I’ve never been formally sworn as a lawdrawer myself. But I was raised under the creed by my father, and I’ve also done a lawdrawer’s work myself. I always assumed that’s how I’d spend my life, whether or not the guild ever came around to our tower and branded me.” Well, that was mostly true—he had assumed he’d spend his life as a lawdrawer, provided no one found out about the magic he carried.
Olsen looked thoughtful. “Really? I like knowing where people are from. Funny curiosity of mine, I guess. Everyone ‘round here tries to be mysterious. Pirates, you know—they think if they don’t admit to anything, you’ll assume they’re descended from the lightning god instead of plain working people.”
“But not you?”
She finally moved out of the doorway, turning so her brisk reply was delivered over one slim shoulder. A giant, gleaming blade was strapped between her shoulders; it practically covered her entire back. A few chunks were missing from the edge of the blade, but the rest of its gleaming curve looked freshly polished, and razor sharp. “Not me. If I want people to know how scary I am, I show them. A practical demonstration beats a mystery, ever time.” She hopped off the top stair onto the maindeck, and Aron, baffled, followed her.
Olsen took him on a loop around the deck, the most modest concession she could have made to the order to subject him to the fresh air. Aron appreciated the chance to stretch his legs, but he didn’t totally regret the brevity of the exercise; the looks and whispers from the crew unnerved him. He’d expected they’d all despise him, like good pirates should, but they seemed faintly awed instead. It was almost worse. There was one middle-aged man with thinning hair who turned to see Olsen and Aron, and then stumbled backward like he’d been struck before hastily moving away under the pretense of adjusting a sail that was already catching the wind beautifully.
After they’d lapped the deck, Olsen headed belowdecks, Aron following dutifully. They didn’t descend through the trap door into the hold, of course, but still Aron felt a burst of unease as he ducked after her out of the sun and into the hazier light of the oil lamps lit along the narrow stairwell.
The Tibalt’s berth included a rather large galley for her size, which must have meant the sleeping arrangements for the crew were snug. A tall, long-nosed person wearing a stained apron wielded a ladle over a pot of something, heated on the stove at the far end of the galley. Their long, shapeless garment and unadorned hair made their gender ambiguous; Aron’s strongest impression as they looked up from their pot was “nose.”
“Smells good, Cook,” Olsen said approvingly, striding over to peer into the pot, which earned her a threatening gesture with the ladle. She dodged, laughing, and stepped back. “Is it some sort of fowl?”
“I trapped two gulls on the seatower,” said the aproned person, with no apparent satisfaction. “Scrawny things, but they’ll make bone broth.” The prominence of their nose made their eyes look strangely shaped as they focused on Aron. The talk of birds made him draw an abrupt and unshakable comparison between the person’s visage and the aforementioned gulls, and he was filled with the nervous urge to giggle. “This is it, then?” the person inquired, apparently referring to Aron.
“Well, he’s not one of the prisoners from the old crew, hogtied in the brig, is he?”
The cook gave Olsen a slow look full of disdain. Aron expected that look had a more discouraging effect on most people, but Olsen appeared impervious, sidling close to the pot and peering in again.
“Well,” the cook said, “it needs feeding.”
“That’s why the Captain had me bring him, yes,” Olsen agreed, and without glancing up, ducked just in time to tuck her head out of range of the next pass of the ladle. “He said I could have a bowl, too, for my trouble,” she added with a grin.
The cook’s frown deepened, then they began muttering inaudibly. Nonetheless, they fished two wooden bowls from a cabinet bolted to the wall, wielded the ladle as a cooking utensil rather than a weapon to half-fill them both, and passed them to Olsen.
The broth tasted of nothing, and was oily and viscous and a few fragments of feathers seemed to be afloat on its steaming surface, but Aron brought it to his mouth and drank it like it was ambrosia. The cook pointed with a knuckle to one of the benches running alongside the long table in the space, and Aron stepped over and sat down obediently without pulling the bowl away from his mouth, swallowing steadily.
Olsen sipped from her bowl at a more measured pace, watching him, though she paused to look up, plaintively, when the cook reappeared with only one hunk of bread, which they placed in front of Aron.
“None for me?”
“You said the Captain allotted you a bowl of broth, not bread. You’ll eat with the rest.”
Olsen pouted, but didn’t argue further.
“Thank you,” Aron told the cook as they began to step away.
Their eyes narrowed on him again, this time with an air of puzzlement.
Aron felt self-conscious at once. “I know, it’s strange for me to say thank you, under the circumstances. That is, that I’m your Captain’s prisoner, and all. And you being complicit in my captivity.”
Olsen and the cook exchanged a baffled look.
As was often the case, now that Aron had started talking, he found it hard to stop. “But I am glad to be fed, especially something that’s not full of weevils, and which you didn’t spit in.” He looked at his empty bowl and hesitated. “Well, as far as I can tell, you didn’t spit in it. If you did, I don’t want to know.”
Olsen and the cook looked at each other again, and this time their eye contact lingered. Olsen shrugged, swiping a finger through the residual broth at the bottom of her bowl, and popping the digit in her mouth to suck it clean. “The Captain said he was ‘not what you’d expect.’”
The cook looked back at Aron, seeming more frustrated yet, but Aron also thought that their hostile air wasn’t exactly deliberate. Maybe it was just a side-effect of how their face was assembled.
“I’m Aron, by the way,” he said after he’d swallowed another bite of bread.
The cook just kept staring, and Aron, apparently lacking Olsen’s fortitude, reconsidered what he’d just decided about the cook’s fierceness being an illusion, and his tentative smile withered a bit.
The cook reached into their apron, produced a shriveled apple, and set it on the table in front of him without a word.
“An apple?” Olsen cried, apparently outraged. Aron quickly picked it up and took a bite before anyone could change their mind and take it back. The sugar and sourness and acid burst over his tongue like sunlight. He moaned and cupped the rest of the fruit close to his heart, like a treasure.
“That’s what those with decent manners get,” the cook told Olsen matter-of-factly. “Perhaps you’ll be inspired to civilize yourself.”
Before Olsen could respond, the ship tilted harshly and abruptly. It had been riding water so calm, the bubbling contents of the cook’s soup pot had barely swayed. Now, a splash of broth was startled out of the pot, striking the floor, and Olsen and Aron’s empty bowls slid toward the edge of the table.
The likely cause of such an event under clear skies went without saying in Sihr, but in Aron’s experience, someone always said it, anyway.
This time it was Olsen. She leapt to her feet and drew her knife, her expression grim but a flash in her dark eyes betraying excitement, too. “Krakens.”
A kraken siege on a seatower outside the neutral waters was a fairly common occurrence, and generally not that dangerous, assuming everyone followed protocol, and the tower had sufficient provisions to hold out until the creatures lost interest.
But seatowers were anchored by their tendril pillars—krakens’ attacks could cause them to jerk and sway, but nothing more. The ancient materials that bound them to the yet more ancient sunken cities beneath could withstand storms and the disturbed currents of battling witches; krakens were no threat.
A ship lacked that imperviousness.
As Olsen loped toward the stairs, Aron shadowed her. When she realized he was coming, she stopped to scowl at him.
“What are you doing? You want to be bait?” She shoved him hard with the hand that wasn’t holding a knife. “Stay put.”
Aron nearly objected; a call of “arms in the water” was an implied call of “all hands on deck” on every craft he’d ever sailed. But, he was empty-handed….
Before he could turn over that thought and decide whether to ignore Olsen, though, a spike of alarm lit in his head that had nothing to do with his own worries—indeed, it wasn’t human at all. The Tibalt was trying to speak to him.
Unfortunately, Aron had no idea what it was saying, and moreover, the wash of its presence was like having that door in his mind, which he’d thought of as cracked before, thrown open so that daylight could pour into the darkness, blinding at first glance.
He staggered against the bulkhead, and through bleary eyes, he saw Olsen hesitate another moment, like she might assist him. Then, the ship lurched hard again, but in the opposite direction, like it was being batted back and forth.
“Steady, witch,” she said by way of farewell, and vaulted up the stairs.
Two more crewmembers pushed past Aron in the passageway, barely sparing him a glance, and then he was alone. Except he wasn’t alone at all, because inside his head, the Tibalt’s consciousness was battering him, just like the krakens were battering the Tibalt.
What emanated through Aron from the Tibalt was an inversion of sensation. He was aware of light, but it was felt, not seen. And movement and pressure, which coincided with Aron’s own perception of the ship suddenly rocking rapidly back and forth, but he saw it instead of feeling it in the Tibalt’s voice in his head, as a series of irregular rings expanding away.
“I don’t understand,” he insisted out loud through gritted teeth, the words escaping him through sheer frustration, and not at all because he expected it to work.
But to his surprise, it did.
The “voice” in his head stilled. Aron slowly opened his eyes, which he’d unconsciously pressed closed, and tentatively regained his feet from his slouched position against the bulkhead. He reconsidered the stairs, and joining the crew in what sounded like a riotous battle above him. But before he could take a step in that direction, the Tibalt came racing back into his mind. That door into his consciousness wasn’t just thrown open, it was stormed. The effect was instantaneous: Aron fainted dead away.
“Arms in the water!” called Orand from the crow’s nest. His bellows always sounded at least two octaves higher than what a person should be capable of, more like a gull’s cry than a human’s shout.
Zo wasn’t fond of krakens, but neither did he look forward to the summertime salt storms, or the unpleasant chore of diving to scrape off the blue barnacles that inevitably accumulated near the rudders. Occasionally fending off krakens was no different—a seasonal nuisance, a bit of pirating routine. No one enjoyed the task, and it wasn’t wholly without risk, but it was a part of sailing and generally didn’t get anyone killed.
But from the outset of this particular kraken battle, he sensed that something was different.
The first strike pitched the Tibalt harder to starboard than even a large kraken school should have been able to manage. The Tibalt was a smaller craft than the others Zo had sailed, only half the size of the Dreambringer; but a group of creatures the size of an average shark shouldn’t have been able to strike with such force, even if they’d somehow managed to make impact in perfect unison.
Krakens in the stories told by the eldest of the creed were monsters with the size and power to foil the gods. But if you believed all the elders’ tales, then you’d also have to buy their claim that a shark king lived in the oceanbottom and fed on a diet of solid gold and pearls. Zo had his doubts as to the details of most of the stories, even the ones rooted in fact. Krakens existed, yes, but they were pests; dangerous in the water but clumsy above the surface. They occasionally swarmed a ship, like they were swarming the Tibalt now, but they were easy to pick off when they began sluggishly climbing toward the bulwarks. Generally, they made for nothing but easy target practice for the blades of a few sailors, and after an hour or two they were driven off.
It was only if you met one in the water that you were unlikely to survive; Zo still had chilling memories of his jaunt with the creature that he’d made his cloak. He’d been lucky.
Kraken schools who set upon ships usually struck the hull with a dull series of thuds, like fists hammering on a solid wood door, and no more disruptive. To be literally yanked in one direction, and then the other, made Zo doubt Orand’s initial call as a mistake. It seemed more likely they’d struck an object in the water—a chunk of wreckage or a whale carcass.
Zo joined the rest of the crew in racing to the bulwark, where he peered over the railing. In a kraken attack, he’d expect to find the hull plastered with oversized, tentacled leeches, slow-moving out of water. Instead, his eyes widened at the sight of three individual, enormous tentacles rising above the water, black and gleaming, each one fastened to the hull with a pale pink sucker the size of a man’s head.
Allowing himself only a moment’s shocked hesitation, and aware that every crew member lined up along the bulwark was gaping and unmoving, Zo took aim, swung his blade, and gritted his teeth at the surprising resilience of the tentacle he struck. He’d hoped he could sever it in one blow, but it was a denser, tougher flesh than it had appeared. A viscous pink fluid trailed from the laceration in its hide, and the enormous kraken made a shrill sound of protest, sharp enough to make Zo’s ears feel like they could bleed, even dampened by the barrier of the water.
“Captain, above you!”
Zo reeled back from the bulwark, sensing the shadow a moment before he heard the warning. It was Olsen, storming up the ladder, brandishing that favorite blade of hers, which was almost as big as she was. He turned and raised his own sword, but Olsen was faster, and had leapt into midair to catch the slender descending tentacle first. This one was slimmer and longer than the sucker-tipped appendages grasping the Tibalt’s hull, and it was lopped off by Olsen’s blade stroke.
The truncated arm streamed a trail of that pink fluid as it retreated, whipping back toward the water. The foot or so of length that Olsen had severed fell to the deck. Zo hadn’t gotten a clear look while it was blurring toward him through the air, but now he saw that it was tipped with a hooked barb like a shark’s tooth, but black and gleaming as obsidian. The barb was the size of his palm, and would have made short work of him if it had hooked him in the throat or chest.
“Nicely done,” he told Olsen. She flashed a proud smile.
“No need to thank me, Cap. I’d save your ass even if you were ungrateful.”
“That’s comforting to know. Where’s your charge? The witch?”
“Below, near the galley—that’s if he did as I said.”
There wasn’t time for more words; three more of the slender, barbed tentacles whistled their way, and careened toward the deck like a volley of arrows.
Fortunately, they weren’t well-aimed; after all, the body and eyes of the mammoth kraken were underwater. One tentacle struck the deck with a wet slap and another dealt only a glancing blow, and not with its barb, to Farlap, one of the grizzled veteran sailors who never seemed to be sober except, miraculously, in the midst of emergencies. Farlap had already been dodging, so he was spared the brunt of its force. The other tentacle wove through thin air then flung back upward and rerouted.
Olsen had chopped the tentacle that had fallen on Farlap as deftly as she had the one that had descended on Zo. Satisfied, Zo left her to swing at the flailing thinner tentacles, and leaned over the bulwark again to take stock of the wider limbs that still grasped the hull as a gull might grasp a fish in its claws.
A few of the sailors had taken turns landing blows on the tentacle clutching the hull at the highest point, and therefore within easiest reach, and they’d almost succeeded in cutting it clear through. Before they could, though, a squeal from the kraken broke the surface of the water and the tentacle retreated, slipping under in a spray of pink foam.
A short cheer went up and one of the sailors, a young man with long, yellow braids called Sena, let his expression of grim triumph fall when he met Zo’s eyes. “What’s the scuttle, Captain?”
“What’s it look like, boy?” snapped Farlap, giving the nearest tentacle a solid thwack with his short, sharp-tipped dagger. “Got us a grandmama kraken on our hands.”
“Keep at it,” Zo instructed tersely, as he saw another pair of the slender tentacles uncoil from the water, barbs gleaming. They rose higher, though, and moved in unison toward a specific target with an unmistakable accuracy they’d lacked before: Trek.
Zo opened his mouth to shout a warning, but stopped himself when he saw that Trek had already seen them coming. Rather than distract his first mate, Zo sprinted across the deck to the opposite bulwark to come to his aid. Trek swung his oversized mallet with a strong arm, but missed his snakelike target. He swung again and connected; the tentacle was flung off course, but quickly rallied and came for him again. Meanwhile its twin, taking advantage of Trek’s distraction, planted its razor sharp barb snugly into the meat of the muscle between Trek’s neck and shoulder.
A moment too late, Zo severed the tentacle, but blood was already streaming where the barb was embedded in Trek’s flesh, and though he made as though to swing his mallet again, Trek howled when the movement tried his injured shoulder, and the mallet fell to the deck from his spasming hand.
Two more tentacles appeared to replace the severed one—Zo spun and sliced them both while the third wrapped itself tightly around Trek’s waist, withholding its barb, and yanked purposefully. Trek’s back slammed into the deck, and the tentacle dragged him a few feet before Zo, cursing, leapt into its path and chopped that one, too.
By now, though, they were truly swamped with barbed tentacles, and the Tibalt groaned, water sloshing over the bulwark at the prow, angled downward as the kraken apparently sought to pull them under.
What happened next seemed to take a long time, and yet lasted only for a moment. The air became very cold, with a suddenness and an intensity that felt like a wall of fire. Vapor climbed out of the sea in a cloud, making it difficult to see, and the kraken’s scream, more blood-curdling than ever and seeming to come from directly under Zo’s feet, made the Tibalt quake.
Then, with a snap of tentacles, the kraken unleashed the Tibalt and vanished.
“Captain,” Trek gasped, then clapped a hand, fingers already tinged blue with cold, over his mouth. The blood on his shoulder had frozen into a thousand red ice crystals, bright as rubies. The remnant of the tentacle that still dangled from its wicked hook in his skin jerked and curled as though still alive, then shriveled altogether and fell to the deck, where it shattered like glass.
“The witch,” Zo said grimly, filling in what he’d known Trek meant to say, and realized why Trek had regretted speaking. When the polar air was invited past Zo’s lips, it froze the breath in his throat and made his teeth ache.
He stumbled on feet that felt like blocks of lead to the ladder to the belowdecks, intent on finding the boy who’d saved them from the kraken and now seemed likely to kill them all with cold before withdrawing whatever cursed power he’d unleashed.
Then, Zo recalled the collar.
“Witch,” he said, as loud as he could call, even though that meant a gust of ice rushed into his lungs. “Stop this magic!”
He hadn’t been sure it would work, but it did, instantly. The cold emptied out of the air like clams from a trap, and Zo’s next breath thawed his ice-logged gullet and his skin tingled everywhere with the return of sensation.
Grimly, he continued toward the ladder on steadier feet, the ghost of the cold still lingering everywhere like a stain. He shuddered, skipping down the steps, shaking off his anger with the reminder that the witch had saved them before he’d nearly killed them—and maybe he would have turned off the blast of cold all on his own, given a moment longer.
Or maybe he’d seen an opportunity to rid himself of his captors, and seized it.
But as soon as that thought came to his mind, Zo saw the witch’s tow head appear, his face pale and his eyes bright, the collar flashing even in the muted sunlight that was still burning through the mist of water vapor lingering in the lair.
“Did it work?” he asked, looking left and right and then, apparently surmising the kraken was gone, he beamed a smile at Zo.
Zo was battling the urge to smile back when the witch’s grin disappeared and he slumped heavily against the railing, almost toppling backward down the ladder. Except he didn’t, because Zo moved on instinct to catch him around his narrow waist.
“Oh,” said the boy, blinking up at Zo. “I think I might still be a little outside my own head.”
Whatever that meant. Zo looked over his shoulder and found the crew members were, to a person, all standing and staring at the witch in his arms. He sighed.
“Take stock of the ship, and if she’s sound, stay the course,” he called. “We’d best make neutral waters before our tentacled friend decides to give us another go.”
Olsen elbowed through the throng of taller women and men and pointed accusingly at the witch. “Couldn’t you have just had us fly? Last I knew, krakens couldn’t float on air, and that’d’ve been a sight more pleasant than getting our balls frozen to the decks!”
“What do you know about it?” Brin asked sourly, placing a hand tenderly between his legs and shuddering.
“It’s a figure of speech,” Olsen muttered, rolling her eyes.
“Maybe she’s got a pair, for all you know, Brin,” said Lis, winking.
“If I did, they’d have more hair on them than yours,” Olsen told Brin smugly.
Seeing that they appeared to be without lingering trauma, Zo adjusted his hold on the witch and more or less carried the boy toward his cabin. “I’m less interested in what’s between your legs than what’s between your ears, sailors,” he said sharply over his shoulder. “I said, take stock!”
Zo carted the witch past the cabin door and kicked it closed behind him. By the time he’d maneuvered the witch toward the edge of the cot, the boy had perked up enough to get his feet under him, and sat down of his own volition. Zo stood over him with his hands on his hips, and the boy frowned up, as though surprised by his austere expression.
“What? What are you mad at me for?”
Zo pressed his lips together, searching for calm. Then he held up a splayed hand, still colorless from the sudden loss of blood flow in light of the intense cold. “I’m lucky I still have all five of these,” he snapped, wiggling his fingers demonstratively. “Were you hoping I’d forget the collar, and you could hold out long enough to be sure you killed the one who holds your leash?”
The boy’s eyes narrowed, looking confused. “I don’t understand….” Then his expression cleared. He blinked. “Oh, the cold. You think I….”
Zo cut him off impatiently. “I don’t think you’re to blame, I know it!” He turned and stalked off a few steps in frustration. He shouldn’t berate the boy; he’d been so intent on making him an ally, and his odds of accomplishing that hadn’t been good to begin with. They’d only get worse if he unleashed his tongue now.
But maybe the gods had intended to teach him a lesson over the past hour—reminding him of the treachery of witches, and the unreliability of their powers. It could be a blessing in disguise; it could be his chance to dodge a nastier outcome if he unwisely gave the witch his trust.
“I’m still—learning,” the boy’s voice came from behind him, sounding very small. “Once it began, I didn’t know how to make it stop. I didn’t want to hurt anyone.” A good liar can spy a solid truth. One of those bits of pirating creed that rang true. And Zo was a very good liar. He tilted his head thoughtfully, weighing the words he’d just heard and the tone in which they’d been spoken. When he’d made up his mind, he turned to regard his troublesome captive with a thoughtful frown.
“Well, even if we nearly froze, you kept us from the seabottom,” he said grudgingly. “I suppose you’re owed some gratitude for that.”
The witch’s eyes widened. “Then—you believe me?”
Zo nodded. “Either you’re telling the truth, or you’re an even better liar than I am, and I think one of those statements is much likelier to be true than the other.”
The witch smiled slightly, moving as though to lean back on his palms, when his expression fell again and he sat up quickly, patting at the gaping shirt pocket, and then the loose trouser pockets, with a crestfallen expression.
“Damn. I lost my apple.”
Zo let out a low whistle. “You snuck an apple out from under Cook’s big nose? Perhaps I’ve underestimated your capacity for deceit after all.”
Ignoring or failing to notice the teasing note in Zo’s voice, the boy scowled at him. “I didn’t steal it! They gave it to me.”
“Well, in that case, you’ll get a replacement if you ask for it. Are you well enough to go back to the galley? You should eat until Cook refuses to feed you, I think.”
The boy got to his feet with an expression of cautious hope. “Really?”
“Yes. Run along.”
Zo wasn’t far behind the witch in vacating the cabin, though while the witch went belowdecks, Zo stayed above, assisting with adjusting bungled lines and twisted sails, all while keeping a nervous eye on the still-calm surface of the water, expecting a return of the kraken at any moment.
“Biggest I’ve ever seen, or heard told of,” Trek said. Zo found him at the railing, looking pensively into the water and holding a folded cloth bandage tightly over his wounded shoulder.
“Then you’re not well-versed in the old stories,” Zo said. “You’ve never heard the one about the kraken that laid an egg, and when it hatched, the seas of Sihr poured out, drowning the old world?”
“I don’t mean in stories, Captain,” Trek said, rolling his eyes, but the signs of strain in his face betraying that he remained in a great deal of pain.
“I’ve never heard of anyone who saw such a monster with their own eyes, either,” Zo said, humor fading. “I hope it doesn’t pay us another visit. We’re lucky it didn’t punch straight through the hull with those blasted massive tentacles it had.”
“I don’t think she’ll have another go at us any time soon, if ever,” Trek said with apparent confidence. “We gave her plenty of wounds to lick, not to mention a sniff of what our witch can do.”
“‘Our’ witch?” Zo quoted back, raising a brow. They stood side by side, observing the final adjustment of the main mast that resulted in the sail filling, and the Tibalt picking up sure speed on a northeastern course. Without further incident, and if the wind stayed favorable, they’d reach the neutral waters by nightfall, and then Zo would be able to breathe easier. Krakens, fanged sharks, and the other most frightful sea monsters stayed away from that stretch of sea, which was what had given the neutral waters their name.
“That’s your plan, isn’t it?” Trek asked blandly. “Make him your… friend… and have him help us fight the Bellringer?”
Zo had the unfamiliar feeling of having underestimated someone, and it was doubly frustrating because he should have known better in the case of his first mate. Trek had always been distressingly perspective, and since Zo had become the only captain of their crew, Trek had hovered over him twice as much as before, observing Zo’s every thought and action.
“What are you, a mind seer?” Zo muttered.
Trek shrugged. “No, it’s simpler than that. It’s a smart move, and I know you to do what’s smart. Even if lately you’ve not been all yourself, you’re not stupid, Captain. Never that.”
“That’s very flattering, Trek,” Zo said wanly.
Trek grinned despite his paleness and the bloodstained bandage. “If you’re trying to say thanks, Captain, then—you’re welcome.”
When they crossed into neutral waters, they knew it by the spark—a band of light that broke over the surface of everything and erupted skyward, made even more brilliant by the fact night had just fallen. The crew, apparently bursting with relief just as Zo was, cheered, and in honor of the lightning god, most of them seized whoever stood nearest them by the collar and exchanged messy kisses. Zo, fortunately, stood safely apart from them all at that particular moment, halfway up the midden mast where he could observe the spark in its full glory.
“Go to your cups,” he called down to the crew benevolently. “We can close the distance to the First Tower in the morning.”
Zo, though, didn’t join them. He rested his back against the mast, legs splayed so his feet dangled over the edge of the platform, and listened to the breeze in the sails. He could see the distant lights of the First Tower. He remembered the last time he’d sailed here, more than a year ago, when the Bellringer had been nothing to him but a half-mythical ship. His Captain’s title had begun to feel comfortably meaningless. He was considering lending his blade to Letta, letting her have the three-peaked hat awhile. He’d stick around, of course, and ensure she didn’t take herself too seriously. He hadn’t brought it up with her then, but he’d thought about it steadily, the idea growing on him as they passed a fine time in soft beds, at good tables, and handsome men’s beds.
Zo let his mind linger in the memories, as though no time or trouble had passed since.
His eyes drifted closed at some point, and he awoke later to laughter and heavy footsteps on the deck below. When he’d roused himself, he gripped the mast and leaned out over the platform to peer down.
Olsen and Brin each had an arm around the witch, who was apparently unable to walk under his own power.
“Just look at him,” Olsen said bitterly. “You should’ve known better than to feed him rum. A stiff wind could blow him away easier than a gull feather. No wonder he’s half-dead drunk on two cups.”
“It’s tradition!” Brin defended. “He won the battle, he drinks first. And if he didn’t drink at all, then neither could us, could we?”
“It wasn’t me,” the witch piped up, then hiccuped. “You should’ve poured a cup on the deck.”
“Yes, that would have been much more sensible,” Olsen agreed, “then you wouldn’t be sick and giggling.”
“I’m not sick!” said the witch. In his affront, he pedaled backward out of their grasps and stood swaying on his own two feet, chin raised. “And I don’t giggle.”
Olsen poked him in the stomach, which caused him to erupt in giggles and almost fall over. Brin caught him clumsily.
“Liar,” Olsen said smugly. The witch kept giggling as Brin hauled him against his side and nearly off his feet. For some reason, the sight of Brin’s big, hairy arm tight around the witch’s waist made Zo alight from the platform, though they didn’t notice him come down.
Still unseen, Zo approached them as they were reaching the cabin door. The witch’s mirth had faded, and he appeared to be dozing, slumped against Brin.
The sailors paused and exchanged a look.
“Have you a key?” Brin asked Olsen lowly.
“And if I did, would I be standing here staring at your ugly face?”
“Luckily,” Zo said cheerfully, pleased when they both jumped, “I have one. Thank you both for the delivery.” He put his arm around the witch’s waist and pulled him firmly out of Brin’s half-embrace. The witch tilted his head, blinking those drowsy eyes up at Zo. He looked warm and loose, like he had when he slept in the cot. Even his eyes, usually a deep brown bordering on black, were brighter, like dark, spilled honey. He looped one of his lean arms around Zo’s neck and with a sigh, leaned against him, his head lolling against Zo’s chest.
Zo looked up to find Brin watching with his mouth slightly agape, but when he saw Zo looking at him, he quickly snapped it closed.
“G’night, Captain,” Olsen said breezily, brushing past Brin and checking him firmly with her elbow in the process. The big man jumped and quickly followed her.
“Yes, Captain. G’night.”
Aron woke with a start in the small top bunk where he’d slept most nights since his father had brought them to the Leeside seatower. He might have sat up and hit his head on the ceiling that was just a few handspans above his nose, but his sleeping harness saved him as it had so many times before. The worn, braided rope would only let him shift a few inches in any direction on his bunk.
He collapsed back against his thin pillow and the cot cushion that did little to offset the hard edges of the metal and wire frame of the bunk. He was disoriented. He had the distinct feeling he wasn’t waking up in the place he was meant to be.
He’d feel better when he got into the sunlight and air, Aron was sure. The hardest part of adjusting to Leeside had been getting used to the sleeping dormitories. He finished the task of untangling himself, listening to the soft chorus of snores and rustling bodies against stiff blankets and rough pillows, so familiar to him now that he hardly noticed it. Yet at the moment all those bodies close by made him unsettled, just as they had when he and his father had first come to Leeside, and he’d barely slept for the first week.
Aron walked sideways to skim between the rows of bunks in their tight grid, and released a relieved breath when at last he pushed open the door to the dormitory and stepped into the corridor on its other side.
Aron followed the squares of light set into the floor flush against the wall in the curving hallway on its perpetual upward slope, until at last he reached the balcony ladder, and climbed it straight up into the open air and a cold night’s breeze. The moon and stars were still the only source of light. Sunrise was far enough away that there was no whisper of its haze on the eastern horizon. The night sky and the waves seemed in these hours like they were eternal, and memories of daylight were only a trick of the mind.
That thought, of tricks and memories, combined with the unmistakable sight of his father, leaning against the parapet to stare down from the tower with his back to Aron, were what made Aron sure that he was dreaming.
The Leeside seatower was swaying as a ship would, not with the subtle, stuttering movements of a seatower against its tethers. His legs didn’t even ache from all the steps he’d taken to bring himself from the dormitory, only midway up the tower, to the rooftop. He should have known even before he’d seen a ghost.
Aron’s heart twisted around in his chest, blinking blurred eyes at the dream figure. “Father?”
His father turned, his smile easy, like always. Nothing had ever surprised Aron’s father, as far as Aron could tell; naturally he wouldn’t be startled in a dream, either. “Hello, my son,” he said, his voice a low, pleasant rumble. He had a good singing voice; and there was something musical about even in his regular speech. Another thing that made father and son almost comically different. Aron couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.
“I’m dreaming,” Aron said, but he still drank in the sight of his father’s smiling face greedily. “I’ve figured it out.”
“My mother used to say that dreams are lessons, sent by the moon god.”
Aron felt a flicker of memory. “You’ve told me that before.” But he didn’t remember, not really. It must have been a long time ago.
“You’ll wake up soon. Before you do, you had better figure out your lesson.”
“I don’t follow the moon god.”
His father smiled. “Oh, son, yes you do. We all follow all the gods, whether we want to or not. “
“Is that my lesson?”
His father only smiled again. His smiles came and went like flashes, pulled loose and carried away by the stiff wind. If Aron had stood on the deck of a ship, this dream wind would have been carrying the craft, racing over the water, straining the masts. “I don’t know the moon’s lesson for you,” his father said quietly, “but I hope you remember some of mine.”
Aron woke again—no, for the first time—to an unpleasant ringing in his ears and a terrible taste in his mouth.
“Ugh,” he managed, rubbing his face into his arm. He was sprawled over the cot, and he knew he must be alone. He cracked open an eye and found the cabin dim, only a few rays of light forcing their way through the shutters fastened over the windows. He was on the Tibalt, alone in the Captain’s quarters, and he was a little hungover.
The dream had been so clear, that for a few moments Aron was still disoriented, his mind back in the Leeside tower as though all the events between then and now had turned vague and blurry in his memory. It made sense that Leeside would stand out most clearly in the scenery of his past, and not just because it was where he’d lived most recently. His father had moved them around so much over his earlier years that he’d hardly had the chance to weigh anchor, but in Leeside, he’d carved a small, predictable life for himself. His father wouldn’t have liked it. His father had always told him that the only way to stay free was to keep moving. But his father had been dead for three years, and Aron couldn’t live the same way without him.
The events beginning just a few months before came back into sharp focus in Aron’s mind—beginning with the skirmish at the low port. It hadn’t had anything to do with Aron, just a protector and a merchant bickering over suspicions of inflated prices on the merchant’s wares, and Aron hadn’t gotten out of the way fast enough. The merchant’s elbow had happened to catch Aron square in the face. The spray of blood from his smashed nose had seemed to mist the air in slow motion before Aron’s very eyes. He had practically heard the blood spatter on the deck. And then had come the ear-burning noise of the tower shifting, twisting, and groaning as its runes, which the people of Leeside fed just once in ten years with a drop or two of bartered-for witch’s blood, had received an unexpected meal and had ratcheted up their buoyancy an unmistakable inch or so. The disturbance amongst the protector and merchant had ended abruptly, and the pair, along with everyone else on the port, had turned to stare, frozen, at Aron.
Grimacing, Aron sat up. There was absolutely no use dwelling on the past. The present was preferable, even if his head felt stuffy, like he had a cold coming on, and he was desperately thirsty. He’d never gotten drunk before; he had only vague memories of the experience, and they ended somewhere around his second refill, when he’d decided to stop worrying and take at face value that the crew were happy he was there drinking with them. As soon as he’d let go and relaxed, his memories got very foggy.
How drunk was I? he wondered, peering around the cabin like the answer lay in its shadowy corners. He didn’t even remember coming back here.
Well, maybe he did have a memory or two. His nose pressed against Zoral’s shirt. The smell of his skin pitching Aron straight overboard and into a sea with tides made of longing and lust.
Gods, he really was pathetic. Pathetic might not even be a strong enough word.
Despite his shame, Aron rolled over and pushed his face into the pillow next to the one he’d slept on, and sighed when he found that it still smelled faintly of the shadow man—sun and salt water and sweat.
The strange, foggy ache in his head made Aron linger until his thirst drove him out of bed on stiff legs. It wasn’t just his head—he felt like all the water had been wrung out of his entire body, leaving his muscles tight and brittle. There was a full skein of water on a peg by the windows that Aron didn’t remember seeing before. Aron drank greedily while he cracked the shutters and peered out with interest over the water. He’d seen the spark last night, and it had lit an undeniable excitement inside him. He’d never been in neutral waters. The crews he’d served on with his father had all sailed under conservative Captains who didn’t travel where their runes couldn’t protect them. But anyone who grew up on the waters of Sihr heard countless stories of the place.
According to those stories, the First Tower had been a seatower like any other, but when the neutral waters began to grow around it, banishing krakens and fanged sharks and making the diving easy and shallow living possible, it had grown into a tangled net of single-layer living, like the famous giant sandbars at the edge of Sihr where the high tower and the university stood. Except, instead of sand, the First Tower was built by man from the detritus of the sunken cities.
Aron couldn’t see anything from the window, but he heard distant calls and voices over the water that he knew didn’t come from the Tibalt’s deck, and his heart quickened. They must already be close.
Aron’s only clothing was the tunic and trousers he’d been wearing the night before in the galley with the crew, which meant they smelled of stale, spilled rum and sweat, but at least he hadn’t thrown up on himself, the way he’d heard of other people doing when they drank. He took another deep draw from the canteen, pulled on the boots he didn’t recall taking off but found rowed up neatly next to the cot, and stepped cautiously out of the cabin door and into the late morning sunshine.
What he hadn’t been able to see from the stern-facing windows was that they were already upon the First Tower, which was a mind-boggling stretch of human habitation upon the water, as far as Aron’s eye could see, just off the aft and starboard side of the Tibalt.
About half the crew was gathered on deck. The sea gate to the First Tower’s semicircular port appeared to be closed. They must still be awaiting an inspection. Sure enough, Aron caught sight of a small rowboat approaching, the people within covered in protector markings everywhere their skin was visible.
The sight of the protectors couldn’t distract Aron for long from gaping at the visible settlement beyond the semicircular port, where rings of structures were layered like ripples one after another, all the way to the foot of the tower itself. Aron’s eyes just darted in constant movement, unsure where to look. There were simple rafts stacked with people and barrels and tethered, tarped cargo; there were rowboats with elaborate, rickety cabins and canopies built over them, lashed to the nearest larger structure. Outside a rough-hewn door that he must have to crawl through to enter, a man sat in the narrow prow of one of these rowboats, one bare foot slung over the edge of the boat, whittling.
There was a tower without walls, just old ship’s timbers in a square frame almost the size of a small seatower itself, and the frame was laced with rope ladders and woven net for hammocks. Two men were walking nimbly across the netting in their bare feet as easily as if it were a solid wood deck, and then paused to lean against the rope railing and peer at the Tibalt with unmasked curiosity. There was a second, smaller structure like this one on the opposite side of the sea gate, as well, but that structure was curtained with long strings of metal discs that flashed pink and amber as they caught the light, and when the breeze stirred them, they struck one another in a tinny symphony, rippling like seagrass.
On the Tibalt’s deck, Zoral, his first mate, and a handful of other crew members were standing at solemn attention at the top of the pilot’s ladder, apparently ready to address the protectors. Zoral had on his calm, alert expression that Aron was beginning to associate with him in any high-pressure situation, and for the first time, Aron saw he wore the three-peaked hat of a Captain. Aron hadn’t seen a hat of that kind since Kaller’s death, and could have done without ever seeing one again.
The first of a trio of protectors appeared over the railing, then hopped gracefully over the bulwark. He waited until his colleagues joined him. They all wore a uniform of sorts; short, dark blue belted tunics and leggings. Their feet were bare, and they were branded all over with the marks of their creed as well as their tower. The welted skin and ink reached their wrists and their throats.
“Ho, Tibalt,” said the protector who’d ascended the ladder last. “We don’t know you.”
“No,” Zoral agreed comfortably, though Aron knew he was lying. The night before, Zoral’s half-drunk crew had relayed to Aron scores of reminiscences about prior visits to the First Tower. “The Tibalt will be a new adornment to your port,” he went on, rescuing the statement from absolute falsehood with a deftness that left Aron reluctantly impressed. He didn’t like to admire the Captain. It felt too much like surrendering, and though he’d already surrendered to the shadow man in so many ways, he wasn’t ready to capitulate altogether.
The protectors exchanged a look. “And what is your business here? I assume you’re not dropping anchor just to offer your sailors some merriment while you air out your berth?”
“Well, we have a few commissions to post,” Zoral said, and as though on cue, one of the crew pushed open the hatch door to the belowdecks at that moment, pulled himself through, and then reached back to guide the first of a string of Kaller’s old crew up behind him. They had their wrists bound and were a little the worse for wear, but appeared to be basically unharmed. “I’ve only just collected them; my investment has been small. You’d be doing me a favor if you took them off my hands and took the commission assignment for, say, a leaf a head?”
Aron did some quick math in his head. A leaf a head would be over a dozen leaves, which was a small fortune as far as Aron was concerned. But then again, it seemed a paltry price for twelve people’s freedom. He bit the inside of his lip and watched the protectors, who were openly shocked, and then eager.
“Well, if it will be of assistance.” The protector who’d been speaking caught the eye of another and jerked his head, some silent signal that had his fellow scurrying back down the pilot’s ladder to their rowboat, perhaps for his purse. Aron wondered what constituted a leaf in the neutral waters. He and his father had often made a game of guessing the basis of the currency of every new territory they came to. More than one place had used the traditional green plants, dried and carefully packaged, precious for their ability to preserve strength, teeth and eyesight, but for most territories the term had come to stand for something else entirely.
The protector returned with a small cloth sack, which he passed to Zoral. Zoral loosened the drawstring and poured its contents into his palm. All Aron could see was the glint of something metallic, and the sound of the materials spilling into the Captain’s hand.
The protector watched Zoral inspect the leaves with an eager, uncertain look on his face. “If it would add bones to the pot,” he said after a few protracted moments of the Captain tilting his hand to and fro so the gold material caught the sunlight from every angle, “I can also offer a few rooms in the tower for a night.”
“Five rooms?” Zoral asked, not sounding particularly interested, and without looking up from the pouch.
The protector hesitated, his glance creeping toward the twelve prisoners on the deck. “Yes,” he said decidedly.
“Thank you for your assistance,” Zoral said immediately, pouring the contents of his cupped palm back into the pouch. “Where would you have us weigh anchor?”
“Wherever you like,” replied the protector, gazing happily at his new purchases as Zoral’s men prodded them toward the pilot’s ladder and they descended, one by one. The protector was younger than he’d appeared at first, with the tattoos and other markings, along with the scars that crisscrossed one of his cheeks, another, unofficial mark of his creed. His hair was dark without a hint of white, and though it was cut short, it was thick on his forehead and temples. “I have a drink at the Middle Floor most evenings,” the protector said in a different tone, his eyes turning warm as he looked at the Captain again. He folded his arms in a way that made the muscles bulge and flex under the tattoos in his upper arms. “If you find yourself in want of company, you can likely find me there.”
Aron couldn’t see the Captain’s face, but his voice was low and didn’t sound displeased when he replied. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
The protector smiled before he turned to follow his men back over the bulwark to their boat. Aron hoped he’d trip and drop face-first into the water, maybe ricocheting off his boat in the process, but instead he just hopped over the railing with graceful strength and descended the ladder capably.
Zoral turned toward Aron and seemed unsurprised to find him there, watching. He walked toward him as the crew dispersed to lift anchor and maneuver the Tibalt through the First Tower’s sea gate, which had opened with a groan of wet hinges and creaking metal.
Aron braced himself for—well, whatever side of the Captain he’d be presented with in this particular moment. But he still couldn’t quite prepare himself for Zoral looking warm and curious, or reaching out and pushing one of Aron’s curls from his cheek as soon as he was close enough. The brush of the Captain’s fingertips made Aron a little unsteady; he knew he should be wary, but found himself relaxing instead.
“You’re looking well.” Zoral sounded surprised. “I thought you might have a head-splitting hangover this morning.”
“I feel a little strange,” Aron admitted, “Mostly thirsty.”
“Oh, to be young again.” Zoral winked.
Aron was flustered. “You don’t seem very old,” he muttered.
The Captain smiled and looked over his shoulder as the Tibalt nudged her prow through the sea gate. “I need to talk to you,” he said, and put his hand on Aron’s elbow. But instead of pressing him into the cabin, as Aron had expected, he guided him toward the railing where Aron could stare in fascination at the port area as it came into better view.
Aron was dazzled all over again by the sprawling port, that net laid over the water, woven of bits and pieces of wrecked ships and sunken city salvage the likes of which he’d never seen. The tower itself was one of the largest Aron had ever heard described—the width of three Tibalts arranged prow to stern.
Though he wanted to drink in his surroundings, all Aron’s focus had narrowed to a pinpoint of attention, upon the small of his back where he was rapturously conscious of the weight of Zoral’s hand.
Like most pirate-born children, Zo hadn’t known his parents. He was raised by the anchored order, in the tower of the white sands, at the eastern edge of Sihr. When he grew old enough to be of use on a ship, he’d volunteered for a commission, and spent two years accruing debt before he earned his place on the crew.
It was at that time, when he was eleven or twelve, that he’d first laid eyes on the First Tower. He remembered his awe at the sight of it, a memory reinvigorated by the look on Aron’s face as he stared over the Tibalt’s railing.
The witch was a curious sort. All his emotions seemed to live just beneath his skin, where he couldn’t contain or hide them. Just as the witch was quick to rise to anger—just as he was quick to respond to Zo’s voice or touch—his surprise and pleasure washed over him immediately. He looked to be lit from within as he took in the First Tower, his eyes wide and his lips parted.
The witch was charming. Zo couldn’t deny it. And though the realization still rankled, it wasn’t as repellant as it would have just a few days before. Zo was sure that Aron wasn’t like other witches.
Zo turned his gaze away from his captive and out over the port, following the direction of the witch’s rapt stare. He chided himself for being distracted by the witch’s flushed cheeks and the glint of the sunlight on his collar. Zo needed to keep his thoughts clear and his purpose in mind. Not only his central goal of delivering justice to the Bellringer, but the many smaller tasks he had to master before he could even reach for that pinnacle. Beginning with securing the witch’s loyalty, while keeping a close guard on his own.
“Is it like you expected?” It wasn’t a struggle to make his voice low and interested. He took his hand off the witch’s back, in case letting it linger there would tip his hand. The boy was sharp, and it wouldn’t do to let him catch on to Zo’s effort to endear himself.
The witch grinned distractedly at Zo, barely able to pull his eyes away from the view. The breeze ruffled his white-gold curls. There were still smudges of filth on his face, but he looked much better than he had a couple days before after a rudimentary bath, a few meals, and rest.
“It’s not,” Aron said. “I’ve tried to imagine it, but I didn’t get anywhere close. Do you know what any of these things are?” His gesture seemed to begin at a bundled net full of large, colorful pieces of glass, and ended to their right, where a row of plants were planted in lumpy clay pots. They had thick stems and sparse leaves, making them resemble children with hard brown limbs, their arms fixed over their heads. “Are those real trees?”
“I assume so. The people who live here are proud of all their strange artifacts.”
“Artifacts?” The witch’s eyes widened, as though in shock. “All of this stuff?”
“Well, of course. Remember where we are. Neutral waters. No magic works here; there isn’t a kraken, a fanged shark, or a blindfire on this side of the spark. How could the divers resist?”
“I guess they couldn’t.”
“Exactly. There’s more of that creed here than anywhere else in Sihr, and they also like to show off.”
The witch nodded, looked at his feet, and then peered up at Zo, almost shyly. “Did you really want to talk to me about something?”
The change in subject felt abrupt, until Zo realized the witch must have been waiting for Zo to raise whatever topic he had on his mind from the moment they’d stepped away from the crew. Zo leaned his elbows on the railing. He turned his head and studied the witch, who was watching him with an uncertain expression. The sun was bright, but now that Zo let his eye linger there, it seemed to him that the collar’s warm glow came from within.
Trust was a strange thing. It could not be earned through lies alone, in Zo’s experience. If you were to truly win someone over, your overtures had to be seasoned with the truth. Even the most guileless person would sense the lie, otherwise—even if they didn’t realize it on a conscious level, they’d be uneasy, and like the adhesive on a patched sail in damp weather, the bond wouldn’t set.
So, Zo cleared his throat, and chose his truth. “Someone raised in my creed is told all their life that witches and witch craft are an affront to the lightning god. ‘Only he should ride the sky and crack the lightning.’” The witch’s expression turned guarded, and some of the healthy color fled his face, leaving him almost as pale as he’d been a few days ago, fresh out of the brig. “I know.”
“But not all of us believe everything in the old stories,” Zo went on. “You have to admit, a lot of it is pretty far-fetched.” The witch’s mouth twitched in a tiny, uncertain smile. “I always thought the bit about a shark king who ate pearls was a little much.”
Zo laughed, genuinely amused, though he immediately wondered how Aron knew the details of their lore. Just as how he’d known how to demand a pirate’s oath to save his life when Zo had first pulled him up onto the Tibalt’s deck. There was something strange about him, apart even from his inhuman powers. But Zo tucked aside that thought and focused on his present purpose.
“What I’m trying to say is that I never had that much of a bone to pick with witches, personally. They left us alone, we left them alone. Technically my creed required I hate them, but it wasn’t something I put a lot of thought into. Mostly, what witches were and what they did had nothing to do with my life. And then, seven months ago, a witch craft pursued my ship to the western edge of Sihr, pummeled us with lightning and waves taller than the mainmast, and when we were beaten, they took my wife.”
Aron’s eyes widened. They were a strangely dark brown color for one so fair, which made them seem enormous within their fringe of golden eyelashes. “Your wife?”
Zo thought the witch was focusing on the wrong part of the story, but the way his voice wobbled made Zo’s chest tight for some reason. He cleared his throat. “It probably doesn’t mean to you what it means to pirates. The lightning god joins two of complementary spirit, uniting their separate paths to glory into one, so that they may face the seas with a single heart and mind.” He was practically quoting the old stories he’d just been disparaging, now. But some of the stories Zo didn’t mind as much.
Aron still looked pale. “When you say they took her—?” He didn’t finish the question; he didn’t need to. From time to time a witch set their mind on a particular person. No one seemed to know how or why, but when a witch established a target, collecting that person for their particular arcane purpose became their sole focus. And the witch on the Bellringer had wanted Letta.
Zo’s only answer was a glance and a nod. When the Bellringer had the Dreambringer cornered, the witch, a creature with alabaster skin and hair that made her fearsome as a ghost, had come to the railing and called out her name. Letta had refused to surrender. And then the lightning had begun to come down and the waves had risen, the sky turning as dark as night in the middle of the day. It was impossible to see his own blade in his hand, let alone fight, and when the skies had cleared and the water had calmed, the Bellringer had been gone, and so had been Letta.
It was possible she’d lived through the first day or two, but long before Zo had any hope of catching the Bellringer, he’d known his wife would have been long dead, her blood and bones fed to the witch who had wanted her so badly.
Zo had almost forgotten the rage that had fueled him exclusively before he’d taken the Tibalt and let himself get distracted. Now, it surged through him again. It was like being cleansed by fire, burning away all the weaknesses and frivolity he’d been entertaining the past few days. A part of him had been regretting what had to come next in his plans with respect to the witch, but now his focus was renewed and his reservations vanished.
His voice was level when he went on. “What I know firsthand of witches, I learned fighting for Letta’s life against the one who wanted her blood. And I lost.” The bitter taste of those words made him want to spit. “If I treated you unfairly, then that was why.”
The seasoning of truth had the effect that Zo had intended: it eclipsed the cracks and fissures in his story and in his pretense of contrition. The witch’s soft, open expression proved it.
“The crew said you lost your ship taking on a diver’s barge.” Those ships were like floating towers, vast and full of protectors. The witch looked like he was torn between thinking Zo brave and thinking him a fool, and Zo generally agreed with the evaluation.
“Was it—it was for this?” Aron touched the collar.
There was the tiniest thud of impact as the Tibalt’s hull met the dock. Despite the sober topic of conversation, Zo enjoyed a brief surge of pride in his crew for their efficiency in getting her snugly docked.
“Yes.” He grimaced. “I was sure we could sneak aboard the rig, take the artifact, and be away before they realized anything was amiss. If I’d known I could lose the Dreambringer….”
Any more words in that direction felt like too much truth, so Zo sighed and shook off the memory of his beloved ship, taking on water, buckling under the pressure of the sea against her broken hull….
“Why are you telling me all of this? Are you trying to say that you’re sorry that you…that you put this on me?”
He meant the collar of course, and there was no way to season the words the witch wanted to hear with the truth, so Zo just gave the unsalted lie to the best of his ability. “Yes. It was wrong. And we’ll find plenty of engineers here. I’ll have one of them remove it.”
Zo already knew it wouldn’t be so simple, but the witch would never realize that. The boy’s dark eyes widened in surprise.
“Really?” A tiny furrow appeared between his pale eyebrows, and for a moment, Zo wondered if the witch was really so gullible as he seemed… but then the witch’s expression cleared and he smiled happily. “Thank you.”
“In fact, we could make that inquiry now. There’s no reason to delay.”
Aron stepped away from the railing, still smiling, and nodded.
Zo smiled back and walked toward the portion of the railing his crew had already lowered in order to extend the gangplank.
“I do wonder what your plans are when we part?” Zo asked as casually as he could manage. “An unattached witch—and one with your particular skill.” He cast a pointed look heavenward, and watched an anxious look replace the witch’s open smile of a moment before.
“Well.” Aron snagged his lip between his teeth and worried it a moment, then shrugged. “I don’t know, I suppose. But I’ve hidden my bloodline before.” He glanced at Zo, seeming to have said more than he’d intended to. “I’ll be fine.”
“Well, if you’re looking for a good place to start over, the First Tower is a fine choice,” Zo said graciously.
Off the dock there were merchants hawking wares to the members of Zo’s crew who were filing off the ship—bits of hot food, jars of flavored rum, jewelry and artifact shells woven into webs of unnaturally bold colors. Zo took Aron’s elbow and guided him hastily through the throngs, bounding onto one of the rope bridges slung from one structure to the next. The docks were rafts, hulls of old boats, oversized nets, and flimsy lean-tos all lashed together with rope, connected by bridges or in some cases swinging ropes.
The Tibalt didn’t appear to be the only newly-arrived ship in the port. There were clusters of eager merchants at two other sections of the dock. As soon as they were a few dozen yards from the open water, though, the crowds thinned to nothing.
Aron didn’t seem to know where to look. But the wrinkle hadn’t disappeared from between his eyebrows, either, which assured Zo that he wasnt as confident about being on his own as he’d claimed to be.
“You could use new boots,” Zo said when they’d reached the edge of the dense flotilla beyond the tower and its platform. A rope bridge, longer than the others they’d crossed, stretched toward the engineer’s workshop. But about a dozen men and women were already crossing it, their shoulders piled with baskets. Zo stepped aside at the base of the platform to wait for them.
Aron looked down at his feet like he’d never seen them before. “They do have holes in the bottom,” he admitted. “I’ll buy you a pair. It’s the least I can do.”
Zo thought he heard a hint of sarcasm when Aron said, “Is it?”, but when he looked at the witch he was shaking his head and turning away, watching the First Tower merchants come down the platform steps. “Okay,” he murmured.
“I see a sign, just there,” Zo said, pointing to a shack with a high-peaked roof, a chimney emitting a puff of rose-colored smoke, and a sign painted on the door—just a rudimentary boot, in bold black and white lines. “Let’s see if the cobbler’s in?”
Aron nodded, his eyes still lingering on the departing backs of the merchants. Or, rather, Zo thought after looking as well, they were more likely divers. They wore regular boots and plain cloth, but their leggings looked smooth enough to be kraken hide, suggesting they wore their creed’s fitted suits under their clothes, like they had to be ready to spring into the water at any moment.
Zo and Aron were steps away from the cobbler’s door when two large men—probably protectors who were off the clock, though their jacket sleeves were too long and their collars too high to betray any marks—loomed out of the shadows. One of them was twirling a small oar.
“Don’t recognize the two of you,” one of them said, giving Aron barely a glance before his gaze rested on Zo, assessing. “That’s a nice cloak. Bet I could turn it around to the divers and make a fortune.” He was the one carrying no visible weapon, but he was a big man, taller even than Zo. He had legs like masts, the thick columns of muscle in his thighs bulging under his worn, stained leggings. He dipped his hand past the tattered lapel of his jacket and a knife’s blade flashed.
Behind him, the oar thudded against his companion’s palm in a slow rhythm like the lapping tide.
Zo sighed. “I have no time for this. We’re running errands. If you’d kindly step aside, I’ll interpret your remarks about my cloak as compliments, rather than threats, and you’ll be much better off.”
The witch was silent, having already slipped into the space behind Zo at first sight of the men. Zo spared him a glance, and found his expression focused and cautious, but not panicked. Interesting.
Zo redirected his attention to the men, who were sneering.
“Hand over the cloak, or we’ll take a pint of blood for the witch trade, too, if you’re saying you’ll make us spill it.”
The witch gasped softly; the smallest intake of breath. Zo resisted the urge to smile to himself, making his face grim and determined instead, and drew his blade.
The bigger man fully brandished the knife he’d been keeping partially concealed, but it was his friend who charged first, with a grunt and a wide swing of the oar. It was a good weapon for their arrangement; he could swing it from a distance, staying out of range of the opponent’s weapons, and though it was easy to dodge the wide arch of the scarred wood, most people would scatter directly away from the oar’s trajectory, their predictable movements making it easy for the second man to find an opening with his knife.
But Zo was too battle-hardened to behave impulsively. He grabbed the witch’s upper arm and stepped back and around the swinging oar, instead of away. He ducked to avoid its path. Hoping Aron would have the sense to stay back and out of the way, he released the witch. Zo swung his own blade and its flat side slapped the oarman’s extended shoulders, a stinging and bruising blow, but not a cutting one. The protector stumbled, following the momentum of his oar into a sprawl on his side. The oar flew from his hand, almost striking his companion, who swore as he jumped out of the way.
Meanwhile, Zo leapt nimbly over the fallen oarman and thrust the pointed end of his blade flush against the bigger man’s chest, turning his wrist so that the sharp edge pierced the fabric of his anonymous garment, the fabric splitting under the pressure, but not the skin beneath.
The big man was breathing hard and still holding his knife, glowering.
“The girl said no blood,” he sputtered.
Zo gritted his teeth and gave the blade a firm nudge that threatened the man’s hide. “I haven’t spilled any yet,” he said lowly, “but keep speaking, and I’ll have reason to change my strategy.”
The man’s face twisted into a surly scowl, and he dropped his knife, obediently mute.
“Well,” Zo said cheerfully. “This has been a refreshing bit of exercise. I suggest you be on your way, and let any friends you may have know that the Captain and crew of the Tibalt aren’t to be undertaken lightly. I’ll forgive you if you embellish our encounter and claim to have parried at least once. I understand a person needs their pride.”
The knifeman walked backward, still scowling and not looking nearly afraid enough for Zo’s taste, his gaze dropping hesitantly to his knife, which still lay on the lashed boards of the rough piece of raft where they’d sparred.
“I’ll keep that, if you don’t mind.”
The knifeman grunted. The oarman had gotten laboriously to his feet, and looking at his fallen oar, hesitated.
“You may take the oar, though. A compromise.”
When they men had gone off, Zo turned around to look for the witch.
He’d expected him to be standing nearby, agape, but instead he was nowhere to be seen.
Zo might have been more uneasy, but he had the cuff, after all; he felt for it under his cloak sleeve and was reassured by the smooth, warm metal against his fingertips. He was about to call out when the shadows stirred around the base of a shack that looked unoccupied. A broken crate shifted, and Aron appeared from where he’d been so effectively concealed.
If Zo had had worse luck with the knifeman and oarman, they probably wouldn’t have found the witch without a very thorough search of their surroundings.
“That was smart,” he told the witch, startled into honesty.
Aron looked mildly abashed. He brushed some dirt from the knees of his trousers. “I’m not a good fighter,” he said, sounding unhappy about it, “and if you aren’t a good fighter, you’d better be good at hiding.” He said the last words in the tone of someone repeating something they’ve been told many times before.
Zo was curious, but they didn’t have time to get off-topic. “I hope you weren’t too afraid. They were never any real threat to us, as you can see.” He hesitated. “Well, they weren’t any real threat to me, that is.”
He’d been expecting Aron to be frightened and clinging to him, but the witch seemed to have moved on from the encounter as easily as Zo had. He shrugged, looking past Zo at the cobbler’s door. “Do we still have time, or…?”
“Oh, yes,” Zo said, clearing his throat. “Boots. Let’s go.”
A quarter-hour later, a new pair of boots were laced onto the witch’s feet, and they had mounted the rope bridge toward the engineer’s workshop.
Far from showing any emotional strain from the altercation outside the cobbler’s shop, the witch was instead absorbed by the delight of his new boots.
“I haven’t ever had a brand new pair before,” he said, smiling as he leapt nimbly off the platform stairs at the far end of the rope bridge. Aron landed on the docking boards with enough force to make them gently sway, and grinned up at Zo, who followed, though he descended the steps one at a time. “I feel like I could walk through flames, or over a bed of nails.”
“I wouldn’t recommend it, if you want the boots to last,” Zo said wryly. They fell into step together. The structures around the engineer’s workshop were larger, with more forged metal than wood above the waterline. The hulls of the metal buildings also showed signs of being frequently patched to combat the constant rust. Zo didn’t understand the preference of these tower villages for metal; he himself would always prefer wood.
They’d almost reached the engineer. Zo was out of time, even if Aron’s present attitude wasn’t the one he’d been planning to be confronted with when he delivered these next lines. “You know, there are other people like the men we saw outside the cobbler’s.”
Aron squinted up at him. “You mean, protectors in bad disguises, looking for extra leaves?”
Zo schooled his expression. Aron couldn’t possibly mean what he sounded like he meant, could he? “A kraken cloak would account for more than a few extra leaves.”
Aron just smiled cryptically.
The engineer’s workshop loomed ahead. It was perfectly round, like a half-submerged shell, its metal plating many-times patched, rust weeping from beneath a few of the plates in long, red trails.
Zo stopped walking, turning toward the witch. He was further away than Zo had realized; he had to step closer in order to reach out and rest his hand on his narrow shoulder. “If you’re not sure about going out on your own, then perhaps…” Zo shrugged. “You could stay with the Tibalt. Maybe I’d be better off with you along. She’s a witch craft, after all. What would she be without a witch?”
Aron met his eye without flinching. “You thought those men could scare me into saying yes?”
Zo flinched and his hand fell from the witch’s shoulder. “I don’t know what you—”
“You paid them to come at us, didn’t you? I wasn’t sure, but then the big one said something about ‘her,’ and spilled blood, and then I knew. Was it Olsen you sent ahead? I thought it was strange that I didn’t see her anywhere on deck when we were weighing anchor at the dock.”
It took all Zo’s effort to keep his expression passive. He couldn’t think of a thing to say.
The witch sighed, appearing almost sympathetic. “I think you probably would have fooled a lot of people,” he said, like he wanted to assuage Zo’s pride. “It’s just that I’ve had a lot of experience with liars. I can almost always tell.”
Zo crossed his arms, his voice firm, his general attitude somewhere between offended and alarmed. “I have no idea what you’re talking about!”
Aron tilted his head. “You are a pretty good liar,” he murmured. “But I know you did it. There’s no use trying to convince me otherwise.”
Zo let out a frustrated breath, unwinding his arms and planting his hands on his hips. “And what if I did? I just thought I should illustrate a point that I wasn’t sure you’d grasp if I tried to merely—explain. It’s not safe out here, especially for someone… like you. Especially if you’re alone.”
“That would be true if I planned to walk around in the open, advertising what an easy mark I’d be, and then try to fight the people who want to hurt me. I know how to hide.” The boy crossed his arms and stuck his chin in the air. “I did it for most of my life.”
“But you were caught in the end!”
The witch glared. “I stayed in one place too long. I won’t do that again.” He looked at the engineer’s workshop, then back at Zo. “Will you really let me take off the collar? Or was that a lie, too?”
Zo lifted a brow, darkly amused. “Why do you ask? I thought you knew my every intention.”
For whatever reason, the witch blushed, his cheeks stained red. “Sometimes you’re more transparent than others.”
That was encouraging to hear, at least. Maybe the witch hadn’t been pretending to respond to Zo’s moments of earnestness over the past couple of days.
And there’s one reaction to me that he couldn’t possibly fake, Zo reminded himself smugly.
With that in mind, he stepped closer and put his hand back on Aron’s shoulder, then slipped it around the back of his neck. His nape was warm, his skin soft. The blush on his face intensified and the witch’s eyes shone. The next breath he drew shuddered through his body.
“Why don’t you stay with me, whatever the engineer tells us about the collar?” He gave the witch’s neck a very gentle squeeze, and a murmur of sound escaped the witch’s lips. His body tipped toward Zo’s, as though an invisible wind was driving him, and he could barely withstand it. “I know that you enjoy my company,” Zo murmured, making no effort to conceal what he meant. “And the crew and I will keep you safe.”
While Zo touched him, the witch’s eyes had gone half-lidded, but he blinked a few times and his gaze focused on Zo’s face, his expression bemused.
“You’re going into battle against the Bellringer. No one on your crew will be safe, least of all a witch.”
Zoral let go of Aron, turned around, and muttered in frustration, shaking his braids back over his shoulders.
Aron looked at his turned back and swallowed. He could still feel the weight of the Captain’s hand on his neck. He could still taste the bitter flavor of his lies.
Maybe Aron should have kept playing along, but keeping up an act took a lot out of him, and he couldn’t sustain it forever. He always slipped up eventually. If he were capable of pretending long-term, he’d have been tempted now. Tempted to cling fearfully to the Captain’s strong body; to convince the Captain he needed to be seduced; to be tucked into a real cot at night, given plenty of food, and—
And, eventually, to face the Bellringer. Because the Captain was determined to doom himself and his crew.
No short-term contentment could compensate for the inevitable, disastrous end when Zoral brought the Tibalt to the Bellringer.
“You said you’d take off the collar,” Aron said tersely. “Were you lying about that, too?”
“No,” Zoral said shortly. “You got us here, so I’ll bring you to the engineer to see about the collar. That was our bargain.” Zoral turned back to Aron and gave him a cool, speculative look, his earlier charade of tenderness erased. The contrast made Aron shudder again, but this time, not pleasantly. “Let’s go, then.” With that, Zoral turned again, his priceless kraken cloak swinging, and strode toward the workshop door.
Aron hurried along behind him, taking in the ominous, windowless hull of the engineer’s structure with interest. He didn’t know why an engineer would settle in the neutral waters. How could they even do their work without access to magic? But according to the first charter, every seatower needed an engineer, and the First Tower could hardly make itself an exception to its own rules. Despite the confrontation with Zoral moments before, he was still eager to see the inside of a workshop. The mysteries of engineers had always intrigued him. He was fairly bouncing on his feet after Zoral knocked. The movement made him aware yet again of his new boots and the astounding cushion of the thick soles.
After a few seconds, Zoral knocked a second time. Aron watched his stiff shoulders, and the way the long fingers of his hand curled into a fist when it fell back to his side, impatient. Aron remembered exactly what those fingers had felt like, gentle on his face and throat, and deliciously firm…elsewhere. He swallowed and tried to focus on what was important—his next steps, his future. Not a single encounter with someone who didn’t give a fuck about him. When the collar came off, he’d disappear into the village of the First Tower, and make his way to the tower itself in due course. Most of the population would reside there, and it was always easier and safer to hide in crowds. That’s what he should be focused on—his next step forward.
The doors opened to reveal a petite woman with a soft cloud of black hair. She wore a sleeveless tunic that fell all the way to her bare feet, and her arms were laced with bracelets from wrist to elbow. The bright metallic jewelry contrasted boldly with the dark gleam of her skin.
She narrowed her black eyes on Zoral, then looked over his shoulder at Aron. At the sight of him, her eyes narrowed even more. For a moment, it seemed like she might close the door in their faces, but then she stepped out of the doorway with a hand on her hip, apparently the closest thing to an invitation to come inside that they were going to get.
“You’re late,” she snapped as Zoral took the first step, ducking to avoid hitting his head on the low, arched doorway.
Aron didn’t have to duck. He gave the woman an abashed smile as he passed. He couldn’t help touching the collar self-consciously as he studied her bangles, but though they seemed to be artifacts, they were clearly nonmagical. They moved freely above her skin like a sleeve, instead of being fused to her like the collar and cuff were with Aron and Zoral’s bodies.
She was one of those small, deceptively pretty people that had an aura of danger about them that belied their appearance. Aron had the nervous urge to keep his eye on her, but he was quickly distracted by the sight of her workshop.
Aron had the sensation of standing beneath a giant, overturned bowl. The exterior metal shell enclosed a single, circular space beneath the domed ceiling, which was netted with a variety of glowing shapes like dozens of small lanterns. When Aron narrowed his eyes, he saw they were connected by strands of wire. It must be electricity, that “nonmagical magic” that Aron had heard talked about in connection with the First Tower, a power that could only be harnessed in the neutral waters.
The sloping walls were covered in shelves welded to the walls, and the floorspace was dominated by a circular worktable almost the size of the entire galley on the Tibalt, strewn with books, rolls of parchment, and bits and pieces of artifact. Another electric light sat in the center of the table like a captured star, the size of a man’s head and glowing brightly.
The shelving on the walls was laden with metal baskets containing more artifacts, immediately identifiable by their color and texture, nothing of wood or cloth; only the hard glint of metal and the lightweight, seamless materials that divers called plas, crafted by some ancient and lost arts.
And there were books. Row upon row of them. Aron had never seen so many in one place.
Aron had wandered toward the center of the room, craning his neck this way and that to stare and losing track of the murmured conversation between the engineer and the Captain behind him. He found himself beside the worktable. A book lay open there, its pages the size of pillows and splotched with stains. Without meaning to, he raised his hand as if to touch the corner of a curling page.
“I have just one rule,” the woman called sharply, “and that’s don’t touch anything.”
Abashed, Aron turned back and tucked his hands into his trouser pockets. “Sorry.”
The engineer and Zoral still stood next to the door. She seemed even more petite in contrast to Zoral’s much greater height, but as Aron had immediately observed, she also had the bearing of someone much larger than she was.
“I am Elena. And you are?”
“Aron,” he said, then glanced at Zo. “You two already know each other?”
“We do,” Elena said, not sounding very happy about it. She turned back to Zoral, and looked unhappier still. “Well, now that I’ve dropped everything to deal with whatever trouble you’ve caused yourself, let’s not stand around chatting. Come over here.”
She walked briskly to the place where Aron stood, Zoral following obediently behind her. Then, without breaking stride, she planted her hands on the tabletop and hopped so that she could crawl up onto the surface. She stood and walked gingerly over the books and gadgets, picking her way like a cat. Then she knelt next to the light at the center.
Something Elena did caused the light to swell brighter, until the space around the worktable was as bright as if they were standing in full sunlight at midday.
“That’s amazing,” Aron murmured, staring at the light. Then he looked up at the ceiling, where the band of other lights still shone. “It’s electricity, isn’t it?”
“That’s right,” the engineer said. She looked askance at Aron as she stepped back to the edge of the table, then skipped neatly to the floor. “Most people fumble that word, if they know it at all. Where did you hear it?”
“Everyone tells stories about the neutral waters and the First Tower,” Aron said, shrugging.
“Do they?” She watched him closely. “Most of the tales I’d heard told, growing up in tainted water, were spoken by people who’d never been here, of fantasies that don’t exist.”
Aron shrugged and looked away, relieved when Elena’s glance didn’t linger on him.
“Sit,” she told Zoral, and he did, though he took his time, as though to make it clear that he wouldn’t jump to obey Elena’s commands. She had gestured to two chairs, both turned to face away from the table, so after Zoral had sat in one of them, Aron sat in the other.
With Aron sitting, Elena stood before at approximately eye level, which meant that she didn’t have to strain to study the collar. She didn’t hesitate to touch him, her fingers dry and the contact completely impersonal, but the physical contact and the whisper of her bracelets sliding together still left him flustered. Fortunately, her inspection was brief. She gently prodded the skin of his throat around the collar, and ran her fingertips all the way around the collar’s circumference. Then she stepped over to Zoral, gestured for him to hold up his hand, and repeated the same process with his cuff.
“Tilt your head,” she told Aron, “and lift your arm toward him,” she added to Zoral. Aron tipped his head, seeing Zoral extend his hand toward him out of his peripheral vision, his hand hovering near Aron’s ear. Elena stepped closer, her tunic brushing against Aron’s knee, and she looked back and forth between the collar and the cuff for a moment, then said, “Don’t move.”
She whisked away across the room. Aron stayed frozen for a breath before he decided that he’d get a kink in his neck if he were perfectly obedient and didn’t move at all. Just as he was straightening his head a bit, Zoral absently rested his hand on Aron’s shoulder.
The touch was nothing like the engineer’s. The warm weight was familiar by now, but still sent a hot charge racing through Aron, radiating from his shoulder to every other part of his body. Would it always be this way? Would he ever get used to even Zoral’s small, passing touches?
Well, you’re not going to find out, Aron reminded himself. Within the hour, they’d be parted. He’d never see Zoral again, much less have occasion to be touched by him.
His heart thudded at the thought with something like panic.
“Here we are,” the engineer said, returning. Aron immediately jerked his head to the side again, though Zoral didn’t move his hand as she leaned over them a second time, an open book balanced in the crook of her elbow. The oversized spectacles perched on her nose seemed to magnify her eyes. She looked between the cuff and collar and whatever was depicted on the page she had open a few times, and then nodded to herself.
“It’s what they said it would be,” she said, stepping back and snapping the book closed. “The markings make it impossible to mistake.” She seemed torn between distaste and fascination as she gazed at the artifacts. Aron remembered having a similar feeling when he’d first been told what they were. What the ancients had been capable of was equally fascinating and horrifying—perhaps slightly more horrifying when you were their victim. “What you never mentioned to me in our past discussion, Zoral, was your intent to put the collar I helped you find onto the first juvenile witch you encountered.” She folded her thin arms, bangles sliding against one another with a hiss, like they, too, were outraged.
Even her fierce look couldn’t inspire any shame in Zoral, of course, though he smiled as though he had been caught in an inadvisable practical joke. “I made a decision in the heat of the moment,” he said easily. “Besides, I paid you for the information, Elena. You didn’t give it in exchange for any promises about how I’d use it.”
She grimaced. “That’s right, asshole, because I would have known better than to trust a pirate to keep his word.”
Now, Zoral began to look offended, but Elena waved off his objections before he could say anything.
“I know that in the way of your twisted little creed you think you’re honest, but speaking words that have two truths is the worst kind of deceit. Not that I’ll ever convince you to give thought to the consequences of your actions,” she muttered. “Gods, even by the standards of pirates, you’re bullheaded. I never understood why Letta—” She interrupted herself, falling instantly quiet as soon as the name had escaped her.
Letta. Zoral’s wife. Aron looked at his hands in his lap.
“Instead of rehashing old arguments,” Zoral said evenly, as though she hadn’t spoken the name at all and he was merely steering a dull conversation to a more interesting topic, “perhaps you should proceed to removing the artifacts from our persons? Or do we need to discuss the matter of your price for that service?”
Her uncomfortable expression cleared at once and her baseline scornful grimace returned. “As we previously discussed, the servant collars weren’t meant to be temporary. Removing one isn’t a matter of sprinkling the right amount of sugar and muttering the right words.”
Zoral just stared at her, and Elena threw up her hands, taking a few backward steps. “Don’t look at me like that. We discussed this.”
The Captain looked away, still frowning.
Elena sighed. “I suppose you weren’t listening to me at all. You didn’t care about removing them—it wasn’t part of your plan. You just wanted to hogtie the Bell’s witch for long enough to get yourself killed.”
“In my defense,” Zoral said mildly, “I’d rather hoped that I’d take the witch with me—or at least, a few of the crew.”
“Well, if you were determined to be ignorant about how the artifacts worked, what possessed you to put the collar on this poor boy?”
Aron wasn’t sure how he felt about being referred to in such a pitying way, but he didn’t intend to draw any attention to himself in the midst of this agreement at all, much less interject to correct Elena.
“I couldn’t think of another way to secure him,” Zoral said with an unapologetic shrug. “I used the resources I had to hand.”
Elena shook her head, muttering a string of words, only half of which Aron could hear, but which seemed to center on the subject of how little she respected Zoral’s intellect. She put the book she’d been cradling on the edge of the table and turned a few pages with her forefinger, bending closer and wrinkling her nose when she found the one she wanted.
“The markings on your set are very distinctive. They’re almost like runes, but a bit rudimentary. Anyway, the collar seems to be of this type.” She stabbed at a point two-thirds of the way down the page. Aron peered over her shoulder, though he kept a careful distance, and saw an almost indiscernible sketch of a faint pattern, which indeed seemed to resemble what he’d seen engraved on the cuff Zoral wore.
“What type is it?” Aron murmured. He saw what she’d meant about the symbols resembling runes. Though he hadn’t drawn that conclusion himself, now that she’d pointed it out, the circles and lines were very similar to the figures for trading and strength. A strange combination.
“It’s a kind of—training device.” Elena’s expression made her distaste obvious. “This particular set is designed to work as an incentive. If the collared one wins the cuffed one’s approval, wholly and unreservedly, the artifacts should detach themselves. Their purpose will have been served. The collared one will be—trained.” She glanced at Aron and winced. “Hypothetically speaking.”
“There must be some other way to remove it,” Aron said, a little desperately. “Why would they create something that even the master couldn’t take off at will?”
“I imagine that’s one of the reasons why these servant collars are a particularly rare artifact. They fell out of favor shortly after their invention. There are a few accounts of men cutting off their hands to get loose of the cuff. Unfortunately there isn’t a similar, survivable remedy for the collar wearer.” She shrugged and gave Zoral a cool, I-told-you-so look as she folded her arms. “There might be no other solution but to see whether you can satisfy the magic so it unlocks itself.”
Aron and the Captain exchanged a doubtful look, then Aron turned beseeching eyes back to the engineer.
“Please,” he murmured. “I can’t stay with him. I don’t want to go where he’s going.”
He could sense the Captain stiffening beside him, but Aron kept his gaze locked on Elena in a silent plea.
Her grim frown deepened, almost like she sympathized. Then she straightened her shoulders and tipped back her chin. “I’m sure you’re not the first one who’s said something along those lines about this son of a kraken, but unfortunately, your paths are tied together for the time being.”
“What about a rune?” Aron insisted, before he could stop himself. He could feel the weight of a sharp look from the Captain, but didn’t look at him. The engineer had gone very still at his words.
“The question of a man who knows something of the ways of witches,” she said quietly.
Aron wanted to tell her more, in case she might be able to help him. After all, if a rune could be effective in removing the collar, he could feed the magic. The runes didn’t seem to care that he wasn’t talented; they devoured his blood just the same.
But a lifetime of holding his secret close to his chest was too much for him to overcome with someone he’d barely met.
As though she’d seen the fear on Aron’s face and known exactly what had stirred it, the engineer uncrossed her arms and said, “You should know that part of the magic is that neither of you may harm the other. Tandem artifacts function only when in balance. The collar must obey the cuff, and the cuff must safeguard the collar.”
A rush of relief filled Aron; even if he still was to be dragged along on the Captain’s doomed quest, at least he’d keep his head for the time being.
Zoral’s only outward reaction to this revelation was a frown. “And what of his question? Could a rune somehow help us?” He said the word with a slight inflection that revealed his distaste.
The engineer hesitated, then shook her head slowly. “I don’t believe so. But I’m not a witch.”
The difference between witches and engineers was subtle, but distinct; witches generated and manipulated magic; an engineer understood its properties and how to manipulate it using artifacts and other devices built to extract and channel the power. Runes were a witch’s art, and witches had a history of strong and negative reactions to discovering engineers who dared to explore runeology.
Aron wondered if Elena knew more than she wanted to admit.
He thought about what she’d said before—about what the collar would require of him in order to free him—and found himself baffled. What would be necessary to win the approval of a man like the Captain? Aron could think of no quality in himself that the Captain seemed calibrated to admire. It might be an impossible task.
“There may be a blood key, though. We shouldn’t rule it out,” Elean went on briskly. “At least, not without more research. I’ll be able to review more of my texts now that I’ve seen the actual markings.” She leaned over the table and picked up a quill, dashing out a few deft strokes onto one of the sheets of parchment, effortlessly reproducing the shape of the symbols on the cuff and collar. “You can come back in a day or so. That should give me enough time.”
Zoral nodded, still strangely subdued. “If you can find an answer, I will pay you well for it.”
“Yes, you will,” the engineer agreed. She set down her quill and turned to the Captain again. “I have another thing you’ll pay well for. I’ve been saving it for you.” She sauntered toward one of the nearby, overflowing shelves, and plucked what appeared to be a small clay pitcher from amongst the odds and ends. As she walked back, Aron saw that it wasn’t ordinary, crude pottery, but perfectly symmetrical and polished as a shell. On the bulbous center, the rune for purity was boldly printed.
Aron glanced at Zoral just in time to see a flash of intrigue light his blue eyes before he affected a dismissive air. “And why should I pay well for something that won’t fill my belly or my purse?”
“Because I’ve known plenty who’ve lived in the Hightower, and how they can’t shake its habits. You want it, I know you do.”
Aron’s head snappred toward Zoral. “The Hightower? You?”
Zoral blinked at him. “Is that so hard to believe?” He gave the engineer another look that was unconvincingly nonplussed. “How much?”
While they bartered, Aron struggled to digest the revelation that Zoral had been educated at the Hightower. Granted, it wasn’t that unusual to find people who had studied there; the Hightower was available to any young person of Sihr of the proper age and with sufficient aptitude, and Zoral was obviously intelligent. But that a pirate would have any interest in the Hightower—and more impossibly still, that someone would attend the Hightower, and emerge a pirate—was stunning to Aron.
And he was envious, too. He’d always yearned to go there himself, though he’d long known it was impossible, given the blood in his veins. Witches couldn’t attend, and there was a blood test to enforce the policy. Even the Hightower, the center of the most learned persons of all disciplines in Sihr, no one seemed to understand that not all of the blooded were witches themselves.
The negotiations seemed to be successful; both Elena and Zoral were grumbling, but leaves and the pitcher changed hands just the same. Zoral tucked the device into his cloak with reverence. Aron had seen such a thing before, but couldn’t fathom why anyone would place any value on it. The rune would enchant any water poured from the pitcher to scour away filth more effectively than soap. Aron did enjoy bathing on occasion, but as far as he was concerned, water did the job well enough. If he had leaves to spend, he’d spend them on apples and meat. But one of the famous features of the Hightower was its underground springs where the rock ledges were engraved with the purity runes, and apparently getting and staying clean could become an addiction as surely as drink.
“I’ll return in one day,” Zoral told Elena. “It’s all I can spare. I have a witch craft to catch.”
“I’ll see you then,” Elena said, then added grimly, “Though I wouldn’t be in quite so great a hurry if I were you.”
They started for the seatower proper, Zo in a pensive silence, the witch once again gaping in wonder at their surroundings. The First Tower village was similar in essence to what existed around most of the major towers, but if you looked closely there were constant reminders that it was built of stranger stuff.
Not to mention that as they neared the tower, every few paces they encountered merchants selling the useless but curious materials retrieved by the divers. Zo happened to glance into an enormous sea grass basket spilling over with identical tiny, cylindrical metallic rings as smooth as glass, and a stack of what looked at first like weathered and perfectly square stones, but with glossy, patterned surfaces that couldn’t have been the gods’ creation.
Again and again, one of these oddities froze Aron in his tracks. Each time, Zo kept walking, and Aron had to hustle to catch up. After a half-dozen repetitions of this pattern, Aron jogged up alongside Zo with an expression of disbelief. “Nothing—none of this—interests you at all, does it?”
Zo shrugged one shoulder. “Not particularly.”
“How can that be?”
“I’ve seen it all before,” Zo said dismissively, though that wasn’t precisely true. There was always some strange new thing to behold in the First Tower that had even its residents buzzing. When a diver found some new impractical treasure of a type never retrieved in recent memory, the whole place would be abuzz for days, while the smug discoverer held court, showing off their prize in a lead-in to a bidding war.
Aron shook his head. “Every tiny artifact spins a hundred stories in my head about what it was to them and why they made it. I don’t know how I could ever get used to it, no matter how much time I spent here.”
“You can get used to anything,” Zo said, and when Aron looked skeptical, he nodded demonstratively at the tower they were approaching, a smooth cylinder rising toward the lightning god’s realm from the seabed far below. “Look at seatowers. They’re the most fantastic artifact of all, and I wager that you rarely give them a second thought.”
The boy frowned, then nodded, as though it pained him to concede. “That’s true enough.”
They reached the ladderstairs to the tower’s doors, a stiff net of forged-metal rings many paces in length, which curved from the barge to the tower’s first-floor doorway, a modern creation crudely anchored to the original artifact. The gentle angle of the climb made it easy, but Zo still took his time, using one hand so that he could keep his left arm curled around the pitcher which he carried under his cloak.
“Do you think the ancients were giants?” Aron asked as they stepped off the ladderstairs and into the shadow of the massive doors.
“Giants?” Zo echoed, amused.
“Everything is so much larger than it needs to be for regular people,” Aron explained, gesturing at the doors, which stood taller than three men.
“It’s an interesting theory, but I doubt it. On the upper levels, everything is smaller—you’ll see.”
The boy nodded absently, his eyes fixing in a distracted stare on the activity inside the tower. Zo looked, too—once again trying to see what was before them through the witch’s less experienced eyes. A sloping ramp instead of stairs wound around the outside of the tower, leaving the entire first level as a single, open room. The first level, being the most easily accessible to the ports, was where the residents of the tower ate their communal meals when they were taking a rest from diving or hawking artifacts to visiting sailors; there were things for sale other than food, as there were everywhere on the First Tower. You couldn’t turn around without being offered a pound of something that had no purpose beyond its origins, although—
Zo looked around and quickly found what he was looking for: a certain, tall bald woman he remembered from his own past visits. He reached out for Aron, aiming for his elbow, but caught his hand instead and pulled. “Come here.”
The boy stumbled a bit, then followed, his fingers curling around Zo’s palm.
The bald woman Zo remembered was set up in a corner, just as she had been on all the visits he recalled. Even seated, she was so tall she’d been easy to spot even across the crowded space. As ever, she sat in an odd chair that while not itself an artifact, had the trademark strangeness of things First Tower craftsmen designed to imitate what their divers found at the seabottom. It had a tin frame that could be folded in half for ease of carrying, and its seat and back were formed from a stretch of dense netting, like a hammock.
When the crowds separated enough for them to approach her more closely, her wares became visible, displayed in a semicircle of glass containers around her feet. The containers varied in size, and though perhaps in need of a polish, they still shone with the smoothness and odd transparency of artifact glass—the better to show off their contents, which were dozens upon dozens of glass orbs just as pearl-smooth as the glass containers. Except, instead of transparent, each one of the glass orbs was filled with swirls of color, like ink spilled into a cup.
Aron’s breath caught. Zo let go of his hand so that he could bend down and stare into the largest of the containers. All of them had flat bottoms, then either oblique or cylindrical sides that connected in a round opening at the top, ringed with ridges.
“Good day,” he told the merchant, thinking absently that if he ever needed to barter with someone, he shouldn’t have Aron along. The boy couldn’t contain his excitement, and negotiations were won with an appearance of disinterest.
The merchant didn’t seem surprised that Aron had essentially fallen at her feet; she must be used to her particular artifacts garnering such a response. Zo remembered wanting to do as Aron was doing the first and even second and third times he’d seen the bald woman’s orbs. She was of indeterminate old age, but seemed unchanged since the day he’d first beheld her, when he’d been several years younger than Aron was now. Even after all this time, Zo found his eyes were still drawn to the containers and their useless, beautiful contents.
A child settled on her knees next to Aron to exclaim, and the boy seemed to realize he was behaving more like her than the adults. He slowly got to his feet, with an abashed smile up at the merchant.
“Beautiful, amazing things,” he told her earnestly. “Are they some kind of pearl?”
She shrugged a bony shoulder under the threadbare patchwork of her tunic. “Only the ancients can say.” Her eyes were as dark as Aron’s, but where his were a stark contrast to his fair skin, her face was almost the same color as her irises. Those eyes rested on Aron thoughtfully, seeming to linger on the collar his throat. “What is your creed, pray tell, child?”
“We should be going,” Zo said, unnerved and not sure why. He took Aron’s hand on purpose this time and drew him toward the ramp. Aron let himself be led, though he did look over his shoulder, his face wistful, for a final glimpse.
The ramp was wide enough for a giant, which made Zo rethink Aron’s question when they’d first entered through the massive doors. He looked over his shoulder. “I had drinks with a diver once,” he said. “He told me that there are things no one will ever believe under the sea, including what’s left of giant contraptions with wheels they believe the ancients used to move around in. Like ships, but for abovewater.”
Aron’s eyes were wide. “But why? We can walk abovewater.”
Zo shrugged. “Maybe they were lazy. Maybe they had great abovewater distances to cross.”
The boy’s eyes shone at the thought. “That’s what my—what I’ve always thought, too. That in the ancient world, the land must have gone on for leagues and leagues, just as the sea does now.”
“Only the ancients know,” Zo said, quoting the orb merchant solemnly, and smiled to himself when Aron snorted a laugh. “But maybe that’s why everything is large on the lower levels. For the contraptions to pass.”
They passed three more levels of the tower, each one less bustling than the last, though they were all open floors like the first had been. It was on the fourth floor that the ramp terminated on a landing and the level was divided into corridors with a spiral staircase in the center. Even if Zo had never visited the Middle Floor tavern before, the unmistakable tavern sounds would have led Zo there. Clinking cups, laughter and guffaws, and above all, the faint but unmistakable deep voice of Zo’s first mate.
“Stay close,” Zo told Aron, and inside they went.
Zo theorized that taverns were the same all over Sihr, no matter which tower they were planted within. The Middle Floor was bigger than some others Zo had patronized, but no grander. Plenty of the revelers were easy to identify as divers, either because they still wore their distinctive gear, or because they had shed it and the markings banding their wrists were easy to see. One of them—a young man who had rolled his diving suit down to his waist, leaving his lean upper body on display—bumped into Zo, likely on purpose. He immediately snatched a bit of Zo’s cloak sleeve between his thumb and forefinger.
“This is a fresh hide,” he said. “I’d pay you a good price.” His eyes were green-brown like seagrass, and he was pretty, Zo couldn’t help noting. The diver seemed to be thinking complimentary thoughts about Zo in return, because his smile turned soft as their eyes met. “Maybe I’d give you a nice tip, too. There’s some currency that’s nicer than leaves, isn’t there?”
“I’m afraid my creed wouldn’t allow it,” Zo said, freeing his sleeve.
The young man’s eyes flashed with disappointment, then fell on Aron, who was on Zo’s other side. “Oh, I see,” said the diver, then immediately frowned in puzzlement. “I didn’t realize pirates were creed-sworn to faithfulness, though,” he went on. “I’m sure I’ve had a married pirate—at least once, I recall a married pair!”
Aron made a choking sound. Zo gave his shoulder an absent, gentle pat.
“Our creed’s not bothered with faithfulness,” he assured the diver. “But we are creed-sworn to only allow the slayer to wear the hide.”
The diver sighed. “I’d be out of luck it my creed were so strict. I could never take a kraken myself.” He shuddered, and looked back and forth between Zo and Aron with renewed, friendly interest. “My other offer stands. Even better if it’s just for fun. I can see I’m not far off your type, given the look of your boy, here. Perhaps he and I could start out together—give you a show?” He winked.
Zo, still petting Aron while he squirmed fretfully, smiled and shook his head. “I’m afraid not. Quite flattered to be asked, though.” he gave the diver an appreciative look, rather appalled at himself for declining. This was just the sort of boy that would have kept him and Letta entertained for hours.
His smile faded at the passing thought of her. The diver moved on, and Zo took his hand off of Aron, feeling abruptly cold and stiff. “Come on,” he told the boy, and they continued to the plain wooden surface of the bar itself, rippled and scarred from the setting and spilling of drinks over many years. The barkeep was a slender woman with close-set eyes and freckles; she’d been very pretty once, and still was if you liked your ladies white-haired, which Letta always had.
Zo grimaced. Clearly he needed a few drinks. But he wasn’t willing to let his guard down that far, not with so much going on, not with so much already lost. So he met the barkeep’s questioning glance and asked for two plates of food and cups of watered beer instead. It wouldn’t be enough to dull his senses, but it might cut the rancid taste of tower water.
He glanced across the room toward his crew, easy to pick out despite the distance. Someone had handed Trek a small stringed lute that looked tiny in his giant hands, and he was getting a feel for how to play it. The surrounding strangers were disinterested for now, but his crewmates were arranging themselves nearby with avid expressions, familiar with Trek’s talents and eager for a song. All of the crew were all there, except the handful that must have drawn the short straw and stayed back to mind the Tibalt.
Aron clambered onto the bench next to Zo to wait for their food, just as long, sweet notes began to spill out of the lute; apparently Trek had finally warmed up. Aron sat up as tall as he could to see around the room from his seat. There was something about seeing his slight body strain, and feeling the tension in him when their arms brushed, that made Zo’s stomach lurch. He averted his eyes and shifted on the bench a half-inch, taking a quick swallow of the dull yellow contents of his cup.
Trek began to sing along to the melody he’d spun from the lute. His voice was deep and pleasant, and what he lacked in range he made up for in the rich, deep tone of his voice. Though Zo had heard him many times below, the sound still made him smile.
Aron slouched back down and gaped at Zo. “That’s Trek, playing. And singing.”
“It is,” Zo agreed, taking another drink from his cup. The first one had made him wince, but the second wasn’t as bad.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was a minstrel.”
Zo smiled, but he didn’t answer the implied question; it wasn’t his place to discuss a fellow pirate’s past. “Our Trek is a man of many talents.”
Further down the bench, the sinewy diver who had propositioned Zo at the door sidled up next to a very tall man—though not as tall as Zo—with a thick beard. Zo’s gaze lingered absently as the man’s paw landed low on the young man’s back.
Aron must have been watching too, because he muttered, “I can’t believe that man just asked you.”
Zo watched the diver with his new conquest another moment before turning to Aron, amused. “He didn’t ask me. He asked us both.”
Aron’s cheeks flared hotly at that clarification. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“That’s because you’re damnably innocent. I’ve probably had two concurrent partners more often than I’ve had just one.”
“You’re telling tales,” Aron said flatly. “Anyone can say they’ve done a thing—or everything.”
Zo smiled indulgently at him. “I can’t say I’ve done everything, but I like to think I’d try anything. And really, three are so much nicer than two. You haven’t lived until you’ve had your mouth on someone while another puts their mouth on you.”
Aron’s eyes looked like they could fall out of his head. He shot the barkeep a quick glance when she set down their plates, and he reflexively snatched a roll from the plate and took a huge bite. “Now I know you’re lying,” he said when he’d steeled himself and swallowed. “No one would…not that.”
“What, suck a cunt or a cock? Lick it?” Aron almost choked on his food, and Zo smiled serenely, inspecting his fork for some sign it had been recently washed. When he spotted no obvious debris, he stabbed a bite of potato.
When Aron had recovered, he was scowling. “But the—it’s not—”
“It’s a pleasure not to be missed,” Zo said firmly.
Aron pressed his lips together, still blushing but obviously determined not to be mortified into silence. “Even if you were telling me the truth, you wouldn’t need three for that.”
Zo supposed he had a point. “No.” He brightened. “But you do need three if you want a mouth in front of you and another behind you at the same time.” He smiled at the flash of a few fond memories; though some of them included Letta, it was the happy aspects of the memories that he felt.
“That’s a load of rotting fish guts,” Aron said resolutely. “There’s no way anyone would put their mouth on the back.” He actually looked horrified rather than fascinated at the suggestion, which made Zo grin.
“Well, perhaps not, generally.” He leaned toward Aron pointedly. “But recall the pitcher I just paid so handsomely for.”
Understanding made Aron’s lips part. He gawked at Zo a moment, then said, almost whispering, “But even if it was—um, very clean—surely that’s not…pleasant?”
Zo’s brows rose. “For whom?”
Aron scowled at him and hissed, “Either!”
“Well, I can speak to both parts, and assure you you’re quite wrong,” Zoral said firmly, and when Aron continued to look unconvinced, he leaned closer still until their shoulders were pressed together and Zo’s knee rested heavily against Aron’s. “For the recipient, I can think of no greater bliss than being worshipped there until you relax—a hot, wet tongue drawing circles in that secret place, perhaps while a warm hand strokes your cock. And for the one performing—well, I admit that I usually do it with ulterior motives. I’m already imagining what will happen next, and how good what’s under my tongue will feel when I’ve stretched it apart with my cock instead.”
Aron fumbled his fork and it fell to the hard floor with a clatter, startling him into nearly upsetting his cup. Zo snaked out a hand and caught it before it could spill a drop.
“I don’t believe you,” Aron said, dragging his eyes from Zoral’s and swallowing convulsively, his cheeks scarlet as a sunrise.
“Perhaps you require a practical demonstration later,” Zo murmured. He reached up before he could stop himself and ran the first knuckle of his forefinger over a few inches of the warm, glittering collar on Aron’s throat.
A part of him was aghast to be flushed with interest at the idea of doing everything he’d teased Aron about to the boy, proving himself to him, teaching him. He hadn’t felt the blood rush to his cock like this in months, and the reawakening unsettled him. “Eat your food,” he muttered to the witch, and handed Aron his own fork before signaling the barkeep to collect another.
Trek’s song ended and Zo and Aron applauded along with the rest of the Middle Floor patrons. And as had been inevitable, a few of the crew spied them and pulled themselves away from the tight circle of onlookers that had formed around Trek, just as he leaned back his head and strummed a new tune from the lute.
Olsen strode across the room to them and put one knee on the bench next to Aron, then leaned her upper body against the bar until she caught the barkeep’s eye and ordered an ale.
“Look who’s here,” she said to Aron, her brows raised and her face flushed with color from drink and the warm room. “You changed your mind, then, about ditching that collar—and us?”
Zo tried not to make it obvious that he was listening as he exchanged nods with Inid and Willow, who had come up on his other side.
“Mind we sit, Captain?” asked Willow.
“Not at all,” he said.
Aron’s voice came from just behind him. “Merely a delay,” he told Olsen calmly. Zo remembered that he’d guessed—correctly—that Olsen had been the one to help Zo stage their accosting outside the cobbler’s shop, and wondered whether he’d confront her.
The bench creaked under the compact weight of Willow. She wasn’t much taller than Olsen, but she was almost as broad as she was tall. In contrast, limber Inid hopped over the bench like it was a loose board on deck he was effortlessly avoiding. Inid was an older man, his hair turning silver and thinning these past few years, with a ready smile. If he were younger, he might have been exactly Zo’s type.
It wasn’t the first time he’d had that passing thought—rather, Zo had had it often, admiring Inid’s lean brown legs. But this was the first time it had resonated strangely in his mind, the flavor of something untrue. Of course he wasn’t interested in Inid, for a variety of reasons. But suddenly, he realized one of them was his recent, single-minded interest in one person in particular.
Maybe he should take the boy apart properly, not just with his hand. Maybe then he’d get this urge out of his system entirely and could focus on what was important.
The idea of rutting around with a witch, after he’d lost Letta and before he’d had his revenge, still made his stomach tight and sick. But not to the extent it had mere days before. He was wearing himself down. That always happened with the things Zo wanted; he had never had a talent for restraint.
The barkeep brought Zo and Aron’s food, and he ordered for the rest of the crew, too. Trek was still singing, belting out increasingly merry songs as he accumulated more listeners interested in refilling his cup and Becka and Farlap staying near him, swaying to the rhythm. While not actively sailing or tending ship, those two spent most of their time fighting with one another or fucking, and this night it appeared they’d be engaging in the latter. Wiry old Farlap was sitting on Becka’s knee; the boots she’d requested off Captain Kaller’s dead body before it was sent to the seabottom appeared to fit her massive feet very well.
When Aron had cleaned his plate, Zo slid his own in front of him, but Aron rubbed his stomach and shook his head. “Don’t want to overdo it,” he said with a wry smile.
Zo deliberately misunderstood him, and gave a slow, sly smile. “That’s wise of you. If we’re going to carry on our earlier discussion with practical demonstrations, you won’t want to have a sore stomach.”
Aron’s eyes widened slowly as understanding dawned. “You don’t—you can’t be—?”
“I’m quite serious,” Zo assured him, and signaled the barkeep to settle the bill.
Aron trailed after the Captain in a daze; it took all the focus he could spare just to organize his steps up the spiral staircase. He distantly wondered what level of the tower held the accommodations that had been part of Zoral’s negotiations with the protectors. But mostly, his mind was spinning with all the filthy things that the pirate had said in the tavern.
A part of Aron had challenged Zoral on the matter because he truly didn’t believe people would do the things that Zoral described—or at least, not in pursuit of pleasure. Another part of Aron wanted to goad the Captain into proving the veracity of his claims. Now that he’d apparently succeeded, he couldn’t decide whether he was thrilled or terrified.
They reached a level that seemed to comprise a single, circular hallway lined with doors to quiet rooms; the only sound was a low hum that seemed to be coming from the strange lights that studded the ceiling. Electricity, again, Aron supposed, eyeing the fixture they walked beneath cautiously, like it might send down a tiny bolt of lightning if someone got too close.
“Nervous?” Zoral murmured, and Aron realized to his chagrin that as they’d passed beneath the light, Aron had unconsciously stepped closer to Zoral. But Aron knew that Zoral wasn’t asking if Aron was nervous about the strange energy that fed the First Tower.
Aron glared at him and kept his chin up. “Not at all.”
Though Zoral’s face was expressive and dynamic, Aron had come to realize within their first minutes together that his expressions were part of the facade he donned for whomever surrounded him at any given time. But Zoral had a tell that Aron had noticed when something truly amused him or annoyed him, and an unplanned reaction threatened his careful masks. A certain quirk appeared on the left corner of his mouth. After days of observation, Aron could tell the difference between, for example, the hint of a mere frown, or the first flash of an angry scowl.
This time, he knew that Zoral had wanted to grin.
Aron was sure he should feel offended at being laughed at, but instead he just wished that he’d been able to see something in Zoral that he could claim to have caused. A fissure in the mask. Something true, pulled out of the Captain’s aloof heart.
He was still wrestling with his confused thoughts, pounding pulse, and a tingling half-stiffness in his groin when Zoral unlocked the door to one of the rooms and gestured for Aron to precede him inside.
Aron had never even seen the private quarters within a tower before, let alone slept in them. Though the wedge-shaped space was incredibly small, the idea that it was for them alone made it unspeakably luxurious. The wall facing the hallway was only slightly wider than the doorway. There was a water basin and a jug and a bed no larger than the cot in the Captain’s quarters aboard the Tibalt.
Across from the door was a small window, not large enough for anyone to tumble through. Though there was a latch in the glass frame, when Aron tried to open it, he found it locked either intentionally or by corrosion. His shoulders slumped. He would have liked to feel a breeze in the small space.
“Bothered by small spaces?” Zoral asked. When Aron looked back the few paces between the window and the door, he found Zoral standing there, the door already closed behind him, shedding his cloak and laying it over a stool.
“A little,” Aron admitted. He didn’t mention that it was a new feeling, inexorably tied to the time he’d spent in the Tibalt’s brig. He looked out the window. The chamber was so high within the tower that he couldn’t see the water, only see the sky—calm and streaked with clouds, the brightest stars just emerging as night fell. “I’d heard the days were shorter here, but to see it myself is strange.”
“It does mean the nights are conveniently long,” Zoral murmured. “Plenty of time for me to teach you to appreciate the benefits of certain artifacts.” He held up his clay pitcher so it dangled by its small handle from his forefinger, winked, and then turned to the table that contained the larger, modern pitcher and wash basin. He poured half the water into the artifact, then crooked a finger toward Aron. “Come here.”
Aron didn’t know if it was the collar responding to the summons, or his body responding to the promise in Zoral’s words, but he stumbled immediately back to the Captain’s side, his head spinning and blood rushing between his legs, his cock filling and pressing against the snug laces of his trousers.
Zoral hooked his fingers under the hem of the loose tunic Aron wore and pulled. Aron reflexively lifted his arms so that it could be dragged over his head, then shivered at being suddenly exposed from the waist up. He’d been in varying states of undress around strangers rather often lately, including the Captain, but though he’d heard the taunts since boyhood, he found himself loath to hear remarks about his narrow chest and bony shoulders from the Captain.
But Zoral was silent as he discarded the tunic at Aron’s feet. His eyes were focused with such intensity, they seemed to glitter. There was no mockery anywhere in his expression. Aron swallowed hard and didn’t move as Zoral raised the artifact and poured a small stream from its delicate spout and onto Aron’s head. The feeling of the cold water sluicing against his scalp made Aron shudder, but nonetheless he remained still. He realized at once that there was something other than the temperature that made his skin tingle everywhere the water touched.
Watching his expression, Zoral smiled as understanding dawned. The magic from the pitcher, conveyed through the water, was causing the feeling. Aron had to admit it was oddly pleasant, like the prickly feeling on his tongue when he’d tried peppermint oil, except all over his head and neck, and beginning to drip onto his shoulders.
Zoral was slow and thorough, ensuring that he covered every strand of hair, massaging the water into Aron’s skin with the fingertips of his left hand while his right controlled the pitcher. The combination of the water and the careful, delicate touches made Aron feel like a soap bubble, shining, delicate, buoyant—and liable to burst at any moment.
Aron’s eyes had fallen closed involuntarily. When Zoral tipped his head back with a thumb under his chin, Aron’s eyes flew open. He found Zoral’s gaze locked on his, his eyes the dark blue of stormy skies, so much so that Aron almost expected to hear the crack of thunder.
“Close your eyes,” Zoral said, and though he measured the words evenly, there was a rough undercurrent that made Aron shudder, obeying before the collar could make him.
Zoral removed his hand from Aron’s chin, and this time the water came from his cupped hand instead of the pitcher. He spread it beneath Aron’s eyes and over the ridge of his cheekbones with his thumbs, and eased his wet palms over Aron’s ears and the curve of his jaw.
“You can open them now,” he said, but Aron kept his eyes pressed tightly closed, afraid that he’d be undone if he had to see Zoral, as well as feel him. Zoral didn’t comment on Aron’s voluntary blindness, if he noticed it at all, as his hands traveled down to encircle Aron’s throat briefly, a warm mantle over the collar. Aron’s knees failed him for a second; he swayed against Zoral’s grasp, making himself gasp.
“Put your hand on my shoulder,” Zoral said, and again, Aron obeyed before the collar could compel him. He hooked his hand over Zoral’s shoulder to steady himself, thinking in the back of his mind that he really ought to have another conversation with Zoral about phrasing, but he couldn’t bring himself to object when more of that enchanted water was running down his shoulders and chest, racing past his stiff nipples and dampening the waistband of his trousers. He was already whimpering when Zoral ran his forefinger down the straining laces of his trousers, the faint pressure making Aron bite back a cry.
“Take these off—if you would.” Zoral said, clearly amending the directive as an afterthought. His voice was deeper than it had been a moment ago, Aron thought with surprise. He opened his eyes and blinked blearily at the sight of Zoral’s clothed chest. He felt the warmth and hard muscle and bone under the thin fabric under his hand, which still clutched Zoral’s shoulder, but the steadiness in his body was belied by his voice.
It astounded him to consider that Aron might not be the only one affected by the moment, but he was too eager to peel off his trousers, damp and clinging to his legs, to linger on the suspicion.
Aron tugged at the strings with shaking hands, a small part of his mind crying out in protest. Though Zoral had made his intentions obvious down in the tavern, there was a new reality to stripping himself fully bare for the Captain.
He wanted you dead before he thought he could use you; he’s a liar and a murderer—he collared you—
But while that small part of him that lingered in his principles fired off the litany of reasons that Aron should resist, the larger part of him didn’t care what Zoral had done, in general or to Aron in particular. If Aron could take a little pleasure from a life that had offered him so little, why shouldn’t he? And why should he care who gave it to him?
The moment the laces were wrestled open, his loose trousers fell into a puddle around his feet. He looked up at Zoral through his wet eyelashes, fighting the urge to grip his throbbing shaft. Zoral was looking down at Aron’s body, and Aron’s felt hot all over under the scrutiny. But not in an unpleasant way. His skin already felt like it was on fire, but when Zoral tipped the pitcher again, pressing the edge of its mouth against Aron’s skin beneath his navel so the water coursed over his cock in a flat stream, he finally lost the battle with his shaking knees.
Before he could fall, though, Zoral caught him around the waist and held him against his chest. The feeling of Zoral’s clothes, and his large, warm body beneath them, was almost too much against Aron’s exquisitely sensitive skin.
“Shhh,” Zoral murmured, using his hands again, his fingers diving between Aron’s ass cheeks and causing a burst of sensation that made Aron want to sob. “Almost there, little witch.”
He paid careful attention to every inch of the skin between Aron’s legs, in the same manner he had his hair and his face, but Aron had the opposite reaction to the same gentle, diligent attention in this region of his body. He twisted his hips, alternating between pushing against Zoral’s fingers and rubbing his cock against the Captain’s thigh, the rough fabric of his leggings chafing him, but he was too desperate for the friction to care.
“You can’t,” he exclaimed when Zoral’s fingertip circled his hole, and Zoral paused.
“You want me to stop?”
He didn’t sound like he believed Aron, and Aron didn’t blame him. He shook his head, his forehead pressed against Zoral’s chest, which was damp from Aron’s skin and hair. “I—no, but—I’ll come if you don’t.”
“That won’t bother me. There’s more water,” Zoral pointed out. “Do as you like.”
His finger pressed past Aron’s tight, tingling rim, and Aron ground his cock against Zoral’s leg and came, hips lutching erratically, while Zoral held him by the waist and continued to stir his finger just an inch inside Aron’s ass.
“Gods,” Aron groaned, somewhere between relieved and humiliated. “I—”
“Hush,” Zoral said, his voice warm with amusement. “I’m nearly done.” He held Aron firmly, withdrew his finger, and then with two fingertips, he stretched the skin on either side of Aron’s rim, pulling him open. Aron frowned, not sure he liked the feeling, and then Zoral tipped the pitcher again, this time at the cleft of his ass, a trickle of that skin-tingling water ran straight into Aron’s body.
An echo of his orgasm clenched his balls and made his cock leap. “Fuck! Oh!”
Zoral held him through his tremors with one strong arm; Aron sagged against him. He heard the rattle as Zoral set aside the pitcher, the sound clear in his ears even as his body was wracked by a pleasure so terrible it was almost pain. He didn’t resist when Zoral swept him off his feet altogether and carried him to the bed. Aron felt like hot iron being poured into a mold; he relaxed and fell still in the comforting softness with a sigh, staring at the stone ceiling above his head, briefly listless with shock.
He heard the splash of water and the rustle of clothing, and then he felt Zoral’s hands on his legs. At some point in the past minute he’d thrown his arm over his eyes, but now he dragged it away and stared down his own, spent body in dismay to find the Captain looming between his legs, eyes bright and full of promise. He’d shed his shirt as well, and the sight of his muscular shoulders between Aron’s thighs made his ravaged body catch fire all over again.
“You aren’t really going to—?” Aron asked, his voice raspy from all the noises that had been wrenched from him by Zoral and the pitcher.
“I take proving a point very seriously, you’ll discover,” said Zoral, and splaying his hands on the backs of Aron’s thighs, he pushed his legs up and open, and lowered his face between them.
The balm of Zoral’s hot tongue where the water lingered in the folds of skin between Aron’s legs felt unspeakably good. Discovering a reserve of sexual energy that felt supernatural, Aron found himself hard again, writhing on the firm point of Zoral’s tongue inside him, and begging for more.
Heeding him, Zoral slipped two fingers between his lips and Aron ass, and used them to hold him open so his tongue could travel deeper still.
Aron kept begging, and then moaned in protest when instead of giving it to him, Zoral disappeared from the bed.
“What?” Aron peered into the dark, barely able to speak between his panting breaths. “What are you…?”
“Quiet,” Zoral murmured, but his voice was so gentle, Aron didn’t think the collar would have registered an order. He let his head flop back against the pillow silently anyway. “Oil,” Zoral explained, and this time when his fingers slid over Zoral’s hole, they were slippery instead of rough, moreso even than his spit-slick tongue.
“Swords and fire,” Aron swore. He felt a ghost of pressure on the inside of his knee that he was almost sure was a kiss—but no, surely that was just his imagination.
“Did you know,” Zoral asked casually, lying on his side with one hand splayed over Aron’s right knee, while his other hand teased Aron’s rim, “that oath refers to a pirate attack? Before the treaty, when pirates still attacked towers, the attacks generally began with flaming arrows. Fire.”
His finger slipped inside Aron again, but he was so warm and loose from Zoral’s tongue, it didn’t even feel like an invasion.
“Then,” Zoral continued, his voice a half-octave lower, “when the population was in a panic, the pirates stormed the tower on foot. Swords.” He pushed a second finger inside and Aron arched his back and gasped.
“This—isn’t—the time—for a history lesson,” he managed between taking gulps of air.
“There’s no bad time for history,” Zoral said, and even without seeing his face, Aron could picture his grin. “But as it so happens, I’m about to keep my mouth occupied with another kind of lesson.” His fingers sliding ever-deeper inside Aron, he bent his head close to his hand, and sucked Aron’s cock into the warm sleeve of his mouth.
Aron sang out all the oaths he knew, with no thought to their origins, as Zoral thrust with his fingers and pulled with his hot mouth, proving that at least one person would indeed do all the things that he’d insisted weren’t uncommon practices down in the tavern less than an hour before.
All but one.
“Wait,” Aron cried when he felt another wave building in his blood, gathering toward a crest in his cock and balls and even his ass—which he’d never imagined as a place that pleasure could be drawn from, just as sweetly as from his cock. “You said—”
Zoral let go of Aron’s cock, but his fingers kept pushing and probing a certain place inside Aron that made his knees shake and the bottoms of his feet tingle like he was back under the pitcher’s fire-laced water.
“What, little witch?” Zoral asked, his voice rough and strained from having Aron in his throat. “What did I say?”
“You said—that after you—after your mouth, you’d put in your cock.” Aron’s face was flaming, his heart racing, but he barreled through the words anyway.
Zoral cocked his head. “Is that what you want?”
Aron tossed his head against the pillow, forcing himself deeper on the spear of Zoral’s hand. “Yes. Fuck, yes. Please do it.”
For a few long seconds, Aron wasn’t sure whether he was going to be denied. At the thought he’d begged for something that he wouldn’t get, shame began to bleed into the periphery of his thoughts. He swallowed hard, and opened his mouth to tell the Captain to forget about it—that Aron didn’t care what he did, so long as it carried Aron over the precipice that he was riding again, sharp and painful after the rigors of the past minutes.
Then Zoral left the bed again. This time, Aron dared to hope it was to retrieve the oil. He raised himself on his elbows, his arms shaking with the small effort, and saw Zoral’s turned back. He still wore his trousers. The lines of his upper body were stunning, his braids a heavy tumble over his shoulders, partially obscuring the dark markings of his creed that crisscrossed his bronze skin. Still facing away, he stepped out of his leggings, and the sight of his bare ass and muscular thighs was almost too much. Aron couldn’t look away, though, especially not when Zoral turned and Aron saw that he was stroking his hardness, his fingers and his cock glistening with oil.
Aron’s heart hammered in a combination of excitement and trepidation as Zoral knelt between his knees once more. Aron stared at the curved length of his cock, flush with blood and noticeably greater in its girth than Aron’s. “Will it fit?” he whispered hoarsely.
Zoral’s mouth quirked in a hint of a smile. “Yes, little witch,” he said, but he peered up at Aron as he stroked the head of his cock over Aron’s rim. “Did you change your mind?”
Aron, teeth dug deep into his lower lip, hooked his arms around the backs of his knees and spread himself in answer.
“Gods,” Zoral breathed, positioned himself, and slid inside.
For a moment Aron felt only a horrible, burning pain, and then one of the Captain’s hands cupped his hip from underneath, lifting him and changing the angle, and relit the flame that had been stroked to life by Zoral’s fingers.
“Fuck, please,” Aron gasped, his head falling back. He let go of his own legs and fumbled between their bodies to grasp his own straining cock, giving it a rough stroke. The bliss of his own hand was magnified a hundred times by the reality of a man between his legs, and a cock deep inside him, stretching him with long, slow strokes, until the edge of the pain was gone and all Aron felt was an urgent need to come, more desperate than he’d ever been, and quaking with it.
The Captain leaned over him, and Aron felt the rough rasp of his beard, and then the sharpness of his teeth, first in his shoulder and then grazing the line of the collar. His braids trailed, heavy and cool, over Aron’s skin, half tickling, half soothing.
Aron, far past the point where he could communicate in words, wrapped his legs around the Captain, silently urging, and with a growl that Aron felt in his balls like a touch, Zoral’s hips snapped faster. Aron sped his hand to match the rhythm, and with a hoarse cry, he came with a force that left him limp.
Almost immediately, the Captain stilled his thrusts, rolling his hips against Aron in a way that made the waves of feeling still coursing through him draw out, like the moment of his orgasm could be stretched to an hour. But then that feeling passed, and Aron winced. Now that he’d had his release, the invasion of Zoral’s cock was uncomfortable. Seeming to sense that, Zoral raised himself on his arms, his hands planted to either side of Aron’s shoulders, and peered down at his face.
Aron blinked up at him. Zoral’s expression was puzzled.
“I don’t want to stop fucking you,” he said, rolling his hips again.
Aron’s eyes filled with tears at the feeling. He couldn’t say whether he hated it or loved it. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out as Zoral pulled himself halfway free, and then plunged slowly back in.
Aron did make a sound then—a long, agonized whine.
Zoral smiled and moved again in the same way, but the smile fell away after the third stroke. “I want to fuck you until I come,” he said, as though bewildered by the realization. “I want to come when I’m deep inside you.”
“Yes,” Aron managed at last. “Do it.” He didn’t even know why he wanted it; at this point, every second Zoral was inside him felt impossible, agonizing. His spent cock twitched, so sensitive it hurt. Aron locked his legs more tightly around the Captain and raised his hips to meet his next thrust. Zoral’s heavy balls struck his with a slap and he felt like he’d been gutted.
Then, Zoral reared back, lifted Aron by the hips, and fucked him like Aron imagined an animal would—no check on his considerable strength, a snarl on his face, and sweat streaking his face and chest.
Aron felt apart from his body, unsure whether he was feeling pain, or pleasure, or some other, indescribable sensation that was both and neither. A red haze gathered at the edges of his vision, and he felt his pulse in every part of his body, and a building energy, like he could cast fire from his fingertips.
Zoral tipped his head back and came with a gasp, and outside the tower, there was a crack of thunder and the window flashed with the glow of a lightning strike.
Zo heard the first crack of thunder faintly—muted by the sound of his own rushing pulse. But a lifetime at sea meant that he didn’t miss it entirely, even with his head tipped back and his body still singing in the sweet aftershock of coming. As he opened his eyes, lightning bloomed in the windowpane.
It was a pirate’s instinct to flinch at the sign of an approaching storm, but Zo’s ship was securely anchored, and he was sheltered inside the most secure seatower in Sihr. On past visits, he’d slept more soundly in the First Tower than he ever did anywhere else. There was something soothing about being on this side of the snap. The scholars at the hightower might have said that it was the absence of magic in the neutral waters; a subconscious knowledge that krakens and fanged sharks weren’t lurking underfoot. Maybe it was just that he knew he didn’t have to be concerned about witches.
Well—except for the one he was in bed with. Zo smiled to himself as he ran his hand up Aron’s lean back. He’d pulled himself out of the boy’s body, but remained kneeling behind him.
“Consider me convinced,” Aron muttered into the crook of his arm, where he’d buried his face. “I’ll never question the filthy things you say, ever again.”
Zo didn’t bother to hide his grin, since Aron wouldn’t see it. “Then I’ll have no reason to make further demonstrations,” he said crisply.
Aron snorted. “Well, I might need need the occasional reminder.” He was trembling; Zo reckoned he was only chilled by the air on his sweat-damp skin. But just to be sure, he asked in a carefully neutral tone, “How do you feel?”
Aron huffed a laugh and then twisted like a fish, nimbly flipping himself onto his back. He stretched out his legs between Zo’s parted knees. His hair, which Zo had washed so carefully, had half-dried. Now that it was clean, it fell in soft ringlets the color of moonlight over his dark eyes. Looking at him made Zo’s chest feel tight.
“I feel very well.” The witch studied Zo’s face, as though he’d noticed something interesting, and Zo realized too late that he had no idea what his expression would betray. He hadn’t thought to guard it. “And you?”
Zo considered his answer, reflecting again on the importance of judicious use of the truth to establish trust. He was sure he made some progress toward winning the witch over in the past days, only to lose ground by attempting to fool Aron earlier in the day with the disguised protectors.
Still, being honest now almost caused Zo physical pain. He was not accustomed to vulnerability, especially not with people he’d just fucked.
“I can’t remember the last time I came inside someone,” he said, watching the path of his fingertips as they trailed up and down the boy’s sides from his waist to his thighs and back again. “I usually finish in my hand.” He slipped his forefinger back between Aron’s legs, and with a low whimper, the boy spread his thighs so that Zo could gently prod his loose hole, which leaked an intriguing, cooling trail of Zo’s spend.
“You don’t—fuck people?” Aron sounded flabberghasted.
Zo decided to take the boy’s incredulousness as a compliment and smiled faintly. “Certainly I do. But while I generally enjoy making people enjoy themselves, I usually don’t get so caught up in it myself.”
“Not even with your wife?”
Zo froze and looked up as the color drained from the boy’s face.
“I’m sorry,” Aron rushed to say. “I shouldn’t have asked about her.”
Zo braced himself for the familiar wave of guilt and anger, and it came—but it was more bearable than what he’d expected. His urge to touch Aron’s lean, pleasing body didn’t abate, so he rested his hands on the boy’s splayed knees and ignored the apology. “The answer is no, especially not with her.” He paused. A part of him was astounded that he was offering this much honesty, no matter how badly he wanted the boy’s trust, but he kept speaking anyway. “We weren’t wed in the way you’re imagining. A marriage under the pirate creed is more about partnership than anything else.”
“So she was your… friend?” “Yes. My very best friend. We did enjoy each other’s bodies from time to time, though usually only when we wanted to share someone, or if we were extremely drunk. Or bored. Or more likely both.” Aron stared, color rushing back into his cheeks to stain them red. Zo winked at him. “She would have approved of you. She always thought I would be happier with someone of my own.” The witch’s mouth fell open in shock. “Your own? Me?”
Another strange flurry of emotion stirred in Zo’s chest, unfamiliar and disconcerting. He lowered himself over the witch’s body, caging him in with his arms and resting some of his weight between his legs, pressing together their soft cocks. He leaned in until their faces were close.
“Aren’t you? Haven’t I touched you as no one else has?” He brushed back one of those silver-gold curls from the witch’s wide eyes. “Am I not the only one who’s ever fucked you? Not to mention—” He bent his head and licked a stripe up the witch’s neck that began at the base of his throat, where his skin was salty and hot, and ended when he tasted the bright metallic tang of the collar.
Before the boy could do more than gasp, another roll of thunder quaked the tower. And this time, the simultaneous glow of the lightning was so close and bright, it raised the hair on the back of Zo’s neck. He lifted his head sharply in the direction of the window, then whipped it toward the door at the sound of a series of sharp pops from the corridor on its other side.
“What…?” the boy began as Zo rolled away from him and onto the floor, crossing the small room to stare out the window. From the corridor, there was a commotion of opening doors and raised voices, but Zo ignored the ruckus in favor of studying the sky. Within just a few seconds, a net of lightning illuminated the sky in an unmistakable pattern. Zo spun back toward the bed, where the witch still lay.
“What did you do?” Zo growled.
“Me?” The boy’s tone was dismayed. “What could I have done? We’re not even on the Tibalt!”
Zo swept his trousers off the floor and stepped into them. “That’s not a natural storm. That lightning was called by a witch.” He buckled his belt and reached for his boots. Audible cries from tower village rose and penetrated the windowglass, combining with the growing upheaval from outside the door to fill the air in the wake of the thunder. A single voice rose above the din from the corridor, high and frightened—“Can’t see a fucking thing!”
“It must just be the weather,” the witch insisted. He rose from the bed and slipped his naked legs into the shapeless trousers. “What else could it be? We’re in neutral waters! Doing magic here would violate the charter, not to mention all the blood it would require.”
“Believe me, the charter is violated more often than you’d think,” Zo muttered, but he agreed it was incredible that a witch craft was responsible, given where they were. For one thing, it was supposedly impossible to call lightning on this side of the snap. For another, it was one thing to violate the charter at the fringes of Sihr, where it was easy to escape the keepers’ notice. It was quite another to do it at the foot of the First-fucking-Tower. But he knew for certain that what he’d seen in the sky was the product of withcraft.
He left his shirt unbuttoned and slung on his cloak. “Are you ready?” he asked Aron, who was standing on one shod foot while he pulled on his other boot.
He peered up at Zo. “Yes.”
Zo plucked the artifact from where he’d left it beside the pitcher and basin and tucked it under his arm, then checked his belt for his holstered knife. “Let’s go.”
The corridor was clogged with people and dark as pitch. Or it was dark until, with a hiss like a spitting cat, one of the illumination devices on the ceiling briefly flashed with weak light, then sputtered and went out again.
“The storm has done something to the electricity,” Aron said from behind Zo.
“Fuck,” Zo hissed. The First Tower depended on its strange magic, and without it, the place was as dark as the seabottom at midnight.
More of the people around them stumbled toward the stairs, shoving each other in their panic. Still protected by the doorway, Zo grit his teeth and looked over his shoulder. “Take hold of my arm, and don’t let go,” he told the boy, too late feeling the surge of energy in his cuff that he knew Aron would feel in his collar. Zo didn’t waste time recalling the inadvertent command. Aron clasped Zo’s arm with an iron grip and Zo stepped into the tide of bodies, using his greater size and strength to his advantage. The crowd was moving in the direction of the stairs, which was the way that Zo wanted to go, too. So instead of fighting them, he let the panicked people push them along, focusing on keeping his feet under him. Aron was plastered to his side, forcing Zo’s knife hilt into his gut.
One of the lighting mechanisms ahead of them briefly lit again. Zo squinted at the sudden light, and had a brief impression of the wide eyes of the frightened faces around him. The people under the rain of sparks cowered and staggered backward, briefly locking the crowd tight in immobility.
“My eyes!” a man who’d been standing just beneath the faulty device wailed, clawing at his face, before the light abruptly went out again.
With that, the initial panic redoubled. Zo grit his teeth and towed Aron after him, knocking people out of their way with his right arm, his body turned sideways so that he could use his shoulder like a battering ram.
“Wait!” Aron cried out as someone wedged themselves between them, breaking Aron’s grip. But Zo’s own momentum, and the tight confines of the crowd, swept him forward several feet before he could reach into the darkness behind him for the boy. By then it was too late.
Zo twisted around but couldn’t fight the crowd in order to retrace the step he’d been forced to take. “Boy!” he shouted, because he could hardly call the name witch into this panic. Then, louder, he called, “Aron!”
To Zo’s left, a tall woman lost her footing and fell, screaming as someone trod on her. Zo could see nothing but shadows, and that much only because the door into an empty room stood open. It had a small window, just like the one in the chamber where Zo and Aron had passed a half-hour, and the moon gave just enough light for Zo to see depth and shadow where it fell.
“Here!” cried the witch’s voice, high and breathy. “Tell—the collar—” he gasped, barely audible over the noise of the crowd bouncing off the narrow stone walls.
But Zo heard enough to understand. Now that he was paying attention, he could feel a faint burn in his wrist where the cuff burned to be obeyed. “I—retract my order,” Zo said hastily. “You can stay where you are.”
Where that was, though, Zo had no idea. He almost wished for the ceiling to spit fire again, if that meant he got a glimpse of Aron.
Just when Zo was considered drawing his knife and cutting a path, shouts echoed from the direction of the staircase. Not the panicked cries of the mob, but the booming, authoritative voices that seemed to be possessed by every protector in every tower, as though it was conveyed to them along with the traditional marks.
“Calm yourselves! Be still! Remain calm!”
Around the bending corridor, torchlight bounced off the walls, bobbing in time with the protectors’ slow steps. In that pool of light, Zo saw a familiar head of tousled curls.
Either the orders or the sudden presence of torchlight seemed to soothe the crowd somewhat. The people surrounding Zo stopped trying to force their way past, freeing him to fight his way further back.
Zo elbowed a sobbing man, checked a young woman with a knife handle in her palm with his knee, then found the rest of the short distance clear to another open doorway where Aron stood with his hands braced against the frame, his face ashen, and the collar still glowing with residual light, faint but very noticeable in the darkness.
Zo slipped into the doorway beside him and grimaced. “Sorry about that,” he said, with a glance at the collar.
“Phrasing,” Aron muttered, rubbing his neck, but quickly returned his attention to the approaching protectors. “Are they going to evacuate the tower?”
“I have no idea,” Zo said simply. There were proably forgotten protocols that predated the first charter for what a tower should do when under attack. But, after a few decades of the towers enjoying relative peace, Zo doubted they had much in the way of planned defenses against any attack, much less one by a witch craft.
“Just the light might help quell the panic,” Zo murmured. The protectors were visible now, all looking alike—tall, muscular people, their markings and torchlight combining to make their faces seem particularly fierce. The crowd did seem to be settling down. “At our first opportunity, we’ll go to the stairs,” Zo murmured. “We need to get to the ship and figure out what the fuck is going on.”
“What about the crew?”
Some of them were likely still in the tower. Zo assumed that until the chaos started, they’d likely still been at the Middle Floor, enjoying the tavern just as they’d been doing when Zo and Aron had left. “They know that when things go to shit, the rendezvous point is the ship,” Zo said. “If there’s a threat to the ship that’s too great, the crew on its decks are authorized to set sail even if not everyone has returned. There’s no use in everyone getting killed because of a few stragglers.”
The protectors seemed to be advising most people to return to their rooms, but those who chose to leave instead weren’t stopped. Instead, one of the torch-bearing protectors led them around the corridor, presumably to the stairs, which were close but still out of sight given the angle of the corridor.
A male protector scanned the corridor and did a double-take at the sight of Zo. “You!” he said sharply, striding between a pair of young women to approach the doorway where Zo and Aron were still poised. “I know you,” he said, and then looked at Aron, eyes widening. “You’re the one who sailed that rune-encrusted witch craft into the port today. And now there’s lightning in the sky.”
“I have no idea what you’re implying,” Zo assured him, but it didn’t help that the noticeable glow from Aron’s collar hadn’t abated.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” the protector muttered. Zo now recognized him as the very man who’d accepted a bribe just hours ago on the Tibalt’s deck. And extended an invitation for a drink at the tavern, though apparently flirtation was the furthest thing from his mind at present. “You’re coming with me. I’m going to drag you down to that cursed ship and we’ll find out exactly what the fuck is going on here.”
Well, if the protector wanted to provide an escort for Zo and Aron through this madness and deliver them to the Tibalt, Zo would hardly oppose him. He snuck a glance at Aron, whose eyebrows were drawn together in a scowl, and caught his eye with what he hoped was a stay calm expression.
“Hurry up, then,” the protector said gruffly. It was all Zo could do to keep his hands at his sides when the man reached past the lapel of Zo’s cloak and yanked out his knife. The protector passed the blade to one of his cohorts, who had appeared behind him and was staring with disgusted amazement at Aron’s collar.
“Lead the way,” Zo said with a tight smile, and when the first protector turned, Zo followed him with Aron once again at his side, conscious of the second protector falling into step closely behind them.
The First Tower’s protectors seemed to inspire a degree of respect as well as trust in the average resident, which was evident in how the crowd made way for their procession. Zo was torn between being glad that they were getting out of the tower as fast as possible, and wishing for a delay that would give him more time to formulate a plan. For while he didn’t mind having an escort to the ship, he’d prefer to quickly dispose of it once they arrived there. Or, ideally, shortly before.
There was no way to pass a signal to Aron. They had no shorthand for communication, and Zo couldn’t possibly speak plainly with the protectors hovering around them. Zo wouldn’t worry about dispatching one or both of them, even weaponless, if he didn’t have Aron’s safety to consider. But ultimately, he might not have much of a choice but to fight them. He remembered earlier in the staged battle, Aron had demonstrated a skill for hiding. Zo was still turning over the options when they reached the first level of the tower.
While in the upper levels, people had seemed intent on rushing down, here, people were choking the ladder stairs to the entrance doors, intent on getting inside. More protectors stood around, haphazardly waving torches and belting out instructions, doing little to contain the chaos, but at least they were doing some good against the insistent dark. Even outside, the starlight provided very little visibility. Zo looked out the doors and might as well have been staring over the Tibalt’s deck in the middle of the open water; he could see only darkness and the distant splash of the moon’s reflection on calm water.
The protector in the lead of their party grabbed the arm of another of his creed who was hastening up the stairs as they came down. “Where is it coming from?” he asked the harried-looking woman, whose torch was burning low.
“We still don’t know,” she murmured, with a click glance toward Zo, like she didn’t think they should be speaking within earshot of non-protectors.
Her fellow protector released her. “You’d best get up there. It’s a fucking cluster.” He looked from the torch in her hand to the one in his. “Here, take mine. It has more life in it. You’ll need it more than I will.”
She nodded shortly, looking less than enthused as she accepted the swap, then continued to plod up the stairs with the brighter torch held aloft.
“Make haste,” the protector snapped at Zo and Aron over his shoulder, and hustled down the stairs toward the doors. They had to pause for the crowd to subside enough that they could reach the first rung of the ladder stairs. “You two go first, and don’t try anything brave.” He gave Zo’s knife a meaningful little wave.
Zo started down the stairs with Aron a half-step behind. Zo leaned his side against the ladder, using one arm, so that he could easily see his way down and navigate the frantic people below and around him who were desperately clawing their way up as he went down. Aron moved more nimbly, in part because he had use of both of his hands. Zo was still stubbornly holding the artifact pitcher under his cloak. He’d paid much too dearly for it to abandon it after he’d only enjoyed it once.
The protectors started down directly after them, and Zo wondered if he and Aron could seize the few seconds’ advantage they’d have when they reached the base of the ladder stairs before their escorts. They could break and run—try to get lost in the crowd. He was still considering the logistics when he heard a muted cry from above him. Reacting on instinct, he plastered himself tightly to the ladder just in time to avoid being bashed in the head by the body of one of the protectors as it tumbled past him.
A moment later, the other protector met a similar fate. Zo craned his head up to stare up the ladder, and found himself looking at Olsen’s grinning face. She was several rungs above them on the ladder, and starkly illuminated by the light of the torch in her other hand, which she’d apparently snatched from one of the protectors before she’d dispatched them.
“Hello, Captain,” she said brightly. “That makes twice in three days I’ve saved your neck. Another fortnight or so and Trek might be outta a job.”
Zo hurried down the last few rungs of the ladder stairs to discover that where the protectors had fallen, Trek himself was helpfully deploying his trusty rock against their temples for good measure.
“No need for lethal blows,” he hurried to tell his first mate. The last thing he needed was a posse of avenging protectors on their tail. He made sure Aron was on his feet beside him and apparently no worse for the wear and then retrieved his knife from where it had fallen, knocked loose from the hand of its erstwhile thief.
“Where are the others?” Zo asked Trek as he straightened up and stepped away from the crumpled protectors. Though a large handful of the crew had been at the Middle Floor earlier in the night, now he only saw Trek and Olsen.
“Told em to go ahead and see whether there were people going for the Tibalt and the rest of the crew,” Trek said. “We were going to find your rooms, but then we saw you already coming down—with this lot.”
A cry interrupted them. “Get away from ‘em!” A lone protector sprinted toward them, parting from a cluster of villagers making for the shelter of the tower.
“That’s not bad advice,” Zo told his crewmembers. “We need to get to the ship as fast as we can.” He took a few fast backward steps to make sure they were following before he turned to run.
“It can’t really be a ship craft, can it?” Trek shouted, obediently breaking into a lumbering trot after Zo.
The sky lit with a cloud full of lightning, each line of the web of light straight in a perfect pattern that the lightning god would never have drawn himself.
Zo gave his old friend a grim look over his shoulder as they ran on. “Does that answer your question?”
Aron ran along with the pirates through the dark chaos of the First Tower village. For every sure stride he managed, he tripped through another few paces. It was impossible to be surefooted on the ever-changing surface of the various barges and rafts that were strung together to form the village; at one point, Olsen ran straight off the edge of a platform into a narrow stretch of open water to one side of a rope bridge she apparently hadn’t noticed in the gloam. Her arms arms windmilled for a brief moment as she fell, then she disappeared with a splash. Aron broke stride, and might have jumped in after her on instinct if Trek hadn’t grasped his collar and half-dragged him over the rope bridge instead.
He needn’t have worried; by the time Zoral, Aron, and Trek reached the far side of the rope bridge, Aron could see that Olsen hadn’t been delayed by her swim in the least. Rather, she had outpaced their progress over the bridge, and on the barge on its far side she was already running, having gained such a lead on them that Aron could barely see her swinging braid in the middle distance, her bright hair like a wavering flame in the darkness.
She came to a sudden halt, her angry cry and that she immediately reached for her weapon Aron’s first clues that they had been intercepted. Trek and Zoral ran harder, and Aron kept pace, his heart thudding with dread when he saw who had gotten in Olsen’s way.
A team of protectors faced Olsen. A few of them held torches, and between the jumping flames, the surrounding darkness, and the dense markings that covered so much of their skin, they were like a troop of ghosts, bodies amorphous and afloat. When faced with similar-looking men the day before, though Aron had quickly realized he was in the midst of a ruse staged by Zoral, at first he’d been afraid. That was nothing to the fear he felt now. Now, the danger was very real, and the more detail he took in the more uneasy he became. The protectors’ human barricade was two deep and six across. Zoral and the crewmembers were badly outnumbered, even counting Aron, who didn’t even have a crude weapon.
As soon as they came to flank Olsen, Zoral pulled Aron back by the arm and then stepped in front of him, placing himself squarely between Aron and the protectors. Aron could hardly see anything, Zoral being both taller and broader than him. Or at least, he couldn’t see anything in front of them; when he looked over his shoulder, he had an unencumbered view of more protectors, closing in from their rear.
“There’s more of them,” he said, his voice made faint by his labored breathing.
“Shit fuck,” said Trek with deep feeling, following the direction of Aron’s gaze. “We’re surrounded, Captain.”
Aron put his back to Zoral’s and swallowed hard, eyes scanning the barge they stood upon for anything that could be used as a shield, weapon, or for evasion. The protectors had chosen the site of their ambush well, though. The barge was a simple connector between the rafts on either side in the narrowing portion of the village that led to the docks. The protectors blocked both ends of the barge, which was only ten paces or less in width. Beyond it lay dark water.
“Don’t think about goin’ for a swim,” muttered one of the protectors Aron was facing. She lifted an enormous bow with a taut string and notched an arrow as long as Aron’s arm. “Or, do. I don’t get much professional satisfaction out of shooting fish in a barrel, but it can be amusing.”
Another protector blew a whistle, loudly. The peal of noise made Aron shudder. That signal would bring more protectors down upon them within minutes, maybe less. If they stood a chance of getting away, it was sooner, rather than later.
Seeming to come to the same conclusion, the pirates around Aron drew their weapons.
“Aron, down,” Zoral growled, and Aron’s collar lit with an instant flash at the vehemence of the words. He fell like a stone, dropping out of the way just in time for Zoral to draw his knife with a hiss; Aron felt the sharp edge of the blade part the air just over his head before his shoulder and hip hit the barge and he immediately rolled into a ball, hoping like fuck no one trampled him in the darkness, and clasping his hands over his head just in case.
Metal clashed, men shouted, and Aron heard the unmistakable thud and whoosh of a knife sliding through flesh. Something hot spattered his back that could only be blood. He couldn’t contain a cry of revulsion and fear. He flinched violently when he felt the weight of a hand on the back of his neck, but when he heard the accompanying voice, he let out a sharp breath of relief.
“Now,” Zoral said close to his ear, “swim. And don’t stop until you get to the Tibalt.”
Aron jerked his head up to find Zoral gazing down at him. His eyes were colorless in the dark—just two deep pools, as dark as the seawater that surrounded them and just as unfeeling. Before Aron could find any words to object, Zoral spun away from Aron and straightened in one movement, his knife intercepting an approaching protector with deadly precision.
Shadow man, Aron thought faintly. The collar was applying its hot pressure to both his throat and his will, trying to drag him toward the water’s edge. But though he slowly rose to his hands and knees, he fought its draw—fought it for long enough that Zoral paused between attackers and glared at him.
“What are you still doing here?” he shouted over the clamor of blades and bodies. “We’re surrounded, and more are coming. Go, and if that asshole with the bow notices you, I’ll make sure to cut her down next.”
Zoral shook with the effort of defying the collar. “Don’t order me,” he said, his hoarse shout barely audible above the din. “I—”
With a growl, Zoral sheathed his knife, bent down, one arm around Aron’s waist and the other a bar across his shoulders, and walked with sure strides despite Aron’s weight in his arms. Aron’s eyes widened in the moment before he realized what was happening. He struggled, but it was too late; Zoral was already letting go of him—or, more accurately, tossing him—straight into the water on the side of the barge nearest the docks.
At the last moment, Aron remembered to take a gasp of air and hold his breath as the water closed around him. And then he was swimming, and barely of his own accord; the collar sang on his neck, imbuing each of his strokes with a strange precision. He cut through the water with an ease that wasn’t his own… though he’d learned to swim around the same time he learned to walk, if not before, his skills were average at best. Now he was surely testing the bounds of what a human body was capable of in the water; he felt as fleet as a fish or at least an experienced diver. He even thought he could see better than usual. While his entire body was dedicated to making each stroke strong and sure, he could still clearly see the outline of the village’s barges in his peripheral vision. They rose up from the water in dark, jagged shadows, marking his path to the docks.
When another bright burst of lightning fired, it provided an eerie backdrop for the skeletal shape of several ships’ masts. He’d reached the docks—and so quickly. But before he could fully form a moment of excited recognition of the Tibalt’s lightweight profile amongst the other ships, he heard the sing of an arrow.
First he felt the impact against his shoulder, like a shove. The momentum and careful coordination that kept his body abovewater was broken, and he tumbled beneath the water’s surface, taking a mouthful of cold, salty water in the process.
It was a full second before he felt the pain. But it wasn’t the pain in his shoulder; no—that pain was faint compared to the agony that gripped his throat and quickly spread from there over every inch of his body.
The collar, it seemed, didn’t care if Aron had good reason for faltering in his obedience. All it was concerned with was that he wasn’t swimming, when Zoral had told him he must. He spun in the water a moment, completely disoriented, trying and failing to get a sense of which way the surface lay. All he saw was darkness; all he felt was pain.
And then the lightning came again. The thunder was just a whisper, dampened by the water in Aron’s ears. But the lightning caught his eye, and gave him a direction to swim toward. Even though there was still an arrow in his shoulder, and his arm couldn’t move with the same unnatural strength that had possessed him before, Aron swam with the ordinary-extraordinary determination of someone trying to save his own life. He found a rhythm. He drew some shadow of that earlier power from the collar and fed it into his body, and slowly, painfully, inched his way back to the surface.
He took a deep breath of air that he had to force past the throbbing stricture of the collar, and then he began to swim again through the dark water, hoping the lightning stayed quiet long enough that he could hide in the darkness from whatever archer had already struck him once. With the aid of magical compulsion, Aron might be able to make it to the Tibalt with one arrow making his muscles spasm and scream as it twisted and bit his muscle and bone with every movement of his arm. But, he was certain that a second arrow would be the death of him.
Aron’s body was numb by the time he reached the pilot’s ladder on the Tibalt’s hull, and it wasn’t numbness brought on by being immersed in cold water. That meant, he presumed, with a distant kind of interest, that he had probably lost quite a bit of blood. That was his penultimate conscious thought.
His last conscious thought was, as he tried and failed to grasp the first rung of the ladder, that he didn’t have the strength left in his body to climb aboard, and it was bitterly ironic that he had gotten this far only to die now. His hand, too weak to clutch the ladder, drifted as though of its own accord, and his fingertips brushed against the Tibalt’s hull. A kind of goodbye. And then he slipped down into the water, numb even to the collar, which was so ablaze in protest, it was once again emitting glow of golden light so bright, Aron could have read the runes on the Tibalt’s hull, if his eyes hadn’t already fallen closed.
Because he had been here before, Aron understood that he was with the Tibalt, in a kind of shared consciousness. The first time it had happened, Aron had seen the air turn cold and force back the krakens, and hadn’t been bothered by the vague knowledge that the krakens weren’t the only ones that the cold could kill. But that time he’d had Zoral to pull him back. This time he was untethered—or, no, he was firmly tethered, but to a chain and anchor that locked him to the seabottom, a vestige of the ancients’ sunken city, stronger than stone or steel and inescapable.
The frigid wind of the witch’s storm was beginning to clip his sails; even lowered, they caught and snapped in the wind, billowing against their ties. Voices filled the air, but he “heard” them in the same sense he heard the wind—as a force that whispered against his hull and masts and the panes of his portholes. The voices made a vague kind of sense, but only if he listened with the part of his mind that was a man and not a ship. It was difficult for him to focus in that way, and he didn’t have the energy. But he knew by the tone of their calls that these were Zoral’s crewmembers. He felt the vibrations of their running feet upon his decks, and the grip of their hands and weight of their bodies as they clutched the railing and leaned against it.
He tugged restlessly against the anchorpoint. He could not see, exactly, but he was aware of what was near and far. There was a craft of his own kind coming, and it was coming full of blood and bright with magic.
With a dread entirely his own, Aron shook himself loose from the merger of his consciousness with the Tibalt enough that he could suddenly see and hear in a way that was both foggier and more clear than before.
The voices were raised in heated debate as to whether to wait or set sail.
“We aren’t leaving them! Not the Captain, not the first mate—what kind of a coward are you?”
“It’s the Captain’s order that we leave stragglers if we must!”
Aron wasn’t sure how it had happened, but his body seemed to have wound up on the Tibalt’s top deck. He was aware of his body without occupying it, exactly. He felt and saw himself through the Tibalt, and as the Tibalt saw and felt; he had a sense of his own mass against the decking, and a very strong, hungry sense of the blood that still streamed sluggishly from his wound and onto the Tibalt’s rain-slick hide.
Though that awareness was nothing compared to the sense he had of that same, heady energy bathing his hull, as though every drop of blood that Aron had spilled in the ocean had somehow been drawn into the Tibalt from the surrounding water like pebbles through a sieve.
The sky filled with lightning, briefly silencing the crew as they scrambled to take cover from a rain of arrows from the tower village. The archers were biding their time for the momentary visibility they gained when lightning struck. Apparently they had decided to shoot first, and ask the crew questions later. Aron wanted to scream at them that the Tibalt wasn’t the one calling the storm.
“Fine!” roared Becka. “You’re right, we go or we die. Raise the anchor!”
The Tibalt thrilled at the first contact of a hand upon the pulley that would raise the anchor—but the pulley stuck fast on the first crank.
“Only the protectors in the docking station can release us,” Orand realized, his voice a squeak.
Aron felt relief at first, thinking that they wouldn’t be able to abandon Zoral and the others, after all. Then he realized that wouldn’t serve anyone. If Zoral got to the Tibalt and it was stuck at anchor, he wouldn’t be able to get away, either.
Aron had no idea how he’d communed with the Tibalt successfully in the past—if he could be said to have been successful at all. But he hardly had time to hesitate, so he let his instincts guide him as best he could, and formed a thought that he expelled like breath.
You’ve had a lot of my blood.
The Tibalt understood, he realized immediately, as it trembled in an eager affirmative. Yes, it was flush with the power of his blood. Aron’s blood had livened the water; the Tibalt was practically humming with the power of it.
We can’t call lightning, but surely we can break a chain?
Aron didn’t think the Tibalt could laugh, exactly, but its giddiness did erupt in a gust of warm wind that made the crewmembers who were already aboard turn to one another in anxious confusion.
Though that was nothing compared to their reaction when the Tibalt strained against its chain again—but this time, not to and fro on the water’s surface. Instead, the ship rose ten inches up, then hit the bounds of its anchor with a lurch.
“What in the gods’ names…?” Donovan swore.
With a little shout, Farlap dropped to his knees next to Aron’s prone body, suddenly noticing him in the shadows of the deck railing. “The boy is here!”
Aron could not feel the old man’s weathered hand brush his wet hair from his face. He only felt the inexorable pull of his blood from his veins and into the ship’s thirsty maw.
The Tibalt sank into the water more deeply than it usually rode the water, as though its belly was full of lead, and then it sprang upward a full two feet. The chain made a sharp sound of strain, and the ship dropped back to the water again, rocking back and forth on impact.
Aron’s body rolled away from the deck and onto Farlap’s knees, breaking the seal between his wound and the ship’s deck, and Aron abruptly returned to his own senses with a gasp.
“Boy,” Farlap shouted in dismay as Aron blinked and coughed. Strangely, while Aron had been with the Tibalt, and without his own eyes and ears, he’d felt impaired. But now he could see almost nothing in the darkness, nor hear Farlap above the pounding rain. Aron had wound up sprawled half over Farlap’s lap when the ship pitched, but he barely traced the shape of Farlap’s profile hovering above him. He could clearly feel Farlap’s hard, skinny thighs, bony as sticks under his sodden trousers and digging into Aron’s ribs. “Where’s the Captain?”
“Not far,” Aron said with all the volume he could manage. His voice was hoarse but carried well enough. Farlap looked out toward the railing.
“Anywhere but here is too far,” the old sailor said grimly. “Although, perhaps not, for a ship that can fly?”
Reminded abruptly of the Tibalt, and his objective before he’d left the Tibalt to return to his body, Aron sat up with a start, wincing when his head spun. Blood loss, he thought faintly, grasping his wounded shoulder impulsively, then gasping at the pressure of his own fingers on his ravaged flesh.
The movement must have drawn Farlap’s attention to Aron’s injury as well, because he swore colorfully. Then, he diagnosed, grimly, “An arrow?”
“Yes,” Aron said between gritted teeth. He tried to get a sense of the Tibalt, but though he was aware of the ship at the edge of his mind, like he always was when he was aboard, the fusion he’d experienced while he was unconscious was out of reach. And though the ship still thrashed beneath him, he knew the movement was only the result of the rough water and insistent wind, not the ship moving autonomously with the assistance of Aron’s blood. Apparently, that required more than blood alone. It also required Aron, on some, more basic level.
He hesitated, then ran his hand in a semicircle over the wet decking, unsure whether there was any blood still mingling with the rainwater given the downpour. Perhaps it had all been swept away, and that was what had stopped his connection with the Tibalt. But then again, the last time this had happened, Aron hadn’t been bleeding… had he?
Now wasn’t the time to hypothesize, he reminded himself fiercely. He plucked a stray notion from the top of his mind, swiped his fingertips through the blood still trickling sluggishly from the wound on his back, and pressed his hand against the decking again.
The Tibalt pulled him back in with a speed that made Aron’s stomach lurch and his head spin, but somehow he didn’t fall completely unconscious. A sharp ache burned between his eyes and stars burst in his vision, but he was still distinctly inside his own body and mind, rather than spread through every board and nail of the Tibalt like a thin layer of paint.
The Tibalt shuddered with gladness, eager to break its chain. Once, when Aron was a boy just learning to sail, he’d grabbed hold of a stray bit of sail rigging when the wind was coming up, intending to hold the mast until one of the ship’s crew could come and take it from him. But his body hadn’t weighed enough to keep the rigging steady; instead, the sail billowed and the line whipped after it, carrying Aron off his feet before he came to his senses and let go, falling hard back to the deck.
That’s how he felt now; dangling from a bit of rope while the Tibalt towed him heedlessly. But though the sensation terrified him, he didn’t let go.
The Tibalt leaned down into the water again, so deep this time that seawater rushed over the railing to form a thin pool on the uppermost deck. Farlap and the other pirates on deck barely had time to exclaim before the ship sprang toward the sky once more. This time, when the Tibalt struck the end of the anchor chain, the strained links snapped and the ship sailed unimpeded into the sky as another brilliant torrent of lightning cracked above its masts.
Zo might have second-guessed the decision to pitch his witch headfirst into the water if he could have spared the seconds it would take. Instead, he spun back toward the fray, feeling the barge under his feet sway under the running boots of another attacker.
When he’d told Aron to swim, he’d done it knowing for sure that the boy would be cut down if he stayed where he was. Yes, the protectors could make good on their threat to fire arrows into the water—or even dive in after him—but he doubted they’d waste their arrows firing into the dark while they still had three experienced fighters to deal with abovewater.
All in all, Zo thought as he knocked back the charging protector with two strong blows, he had more confidence that Aron would return to the Tibalt than Olsen, Trek, and Zo himself.
He didn’t let doubt take hold, though, just as he didn’t let himself worry that the witch was somewhere at the seabottom. He threw himself into the fighting, grateful for Olsen’s speed and Trek’s bulk; the three of them made a good team, and they were accustomed to fighting together. But for every protector they knocked back, two more seemed to fill their place.
The deck was slippery with rainfall and blood, and the handful of fallen bodies were becoming their own obstacle… Zo took a backward step and stumbled over the splayed legs of a dead woman.
Zo and his crewmates were forced closer together on the center of the barge bit by bit, until Zo was back-to-back with Trek, so tight in their formation that Zo was sure the next time they swung their blades, their elbows would knock together.
Before that theory could be tested, a whistle blew again, this time in three short, sharp blasts which appeared to be a cue to the protectors to freeze, mid-charge or mid-swing. Without the meeting of boots, fists, and knives, the only sound was the rain rebounding off the rafts and barges.
Then a protector called through the pounding rain, “Turn over the witch!” Zo couldn’t discern the speaker within the mass of shadowed, rain-swathed bodies, but the voice seemed to come from in front of him, rather than behind.
Zo grinned mirthlessly in the general direction of the voice. “What witch?” He was glad that the protectors apparently hadn’t even realized Aron had gone into the water. The lightning god must have been smiling on them; Zo hadn’t exactly been inconspicuous when he’d hauled the boy to the barge’s edge.
“The one with the artifact around his neck that just happened to be glowing bright as a star when the whole tower went dark!” roared a different voice from the protectors’ mob.
“Protectors aren’t known for their smarts,” Olsen called out in a level voice, sounding barely winded though she’d been fighting like the cold god itself with a knife that had to weigh as much as her arm. “But surely even you idiots know that a witch can only do magic from aboard their craft?”
If they lived, Zo would have a chat with his irreverent youngest crewmate about the poor judgment call of deliberately agitating the enemies who outnumber you and have you cornered. Though there was another, more obvious issue with the protectors’ suspicions that she hadn’t pointed out: Aron would have had to empty most of the blood in his body to call up this storm in neutral water.
He wanted nothing more than to get the fuck out of there before the witch craft arrived, but as he heard the thud of boots approaching from the direction of the docks—signaling yet another wave of protectors to form ranks against him and and only two of his two crewmates, he had to admit that he was unlikely to get the chance.
“Hand over the witch, and we’ll put you in the brig. Make us come and take him, and we’ll toss you to the krakens.”
There weren’t any krakens in the neutral waters, of course, but it was a figure of speech for a reason. Much less intimidating to threaten to feed someone to mere fish.
Olsen didn’t taunt the protectors. Instead, she took a half-step to adjust her stance. Zo didn’t answer them, except to adjust the rain-slick grip on the hilt of his knife and brace himself for the next charge. And from just behind him, he heard Trek mutter, “Come on then, you creedless fuckers.”
Zo wasn’t sure if it was the moment of stillness that made him conscious of a very faint pang of heat in his wrist around the cuff, or if it had been inert until that moment. Either way, he glanced at the metal banding his half-raised arm, only partially visible past the cuff of his cloak sleeve. He wondered uneasily what the feeling meant. He’d come to associate a sense of energy in the artifact with the span of time it took for Aron to fulfill a command. But when they were separated in the tower corridor, the feeling in the cuff was different—vaguely painful—at the perceived disobedience. He hoped the subtle warmth he felt now now meant that Aron was still swimming.
If the lightning god had any sense of justice, they would let the boy reach the ship before the crew finally decided time had run out, and followed Zo’s standing order: leave the stragglers, save themselves.
“What the hell is going on here?” Elena’s sharp, familiar voice cut through the sound of the driving rain. There were grunts and mutters in the crowd of protectors as they were apparently elbowed aside by the petite engineer, who appeared in an oversized rain slicker, scowling out from under the cowl.
“This business is none of your concern, engineer,” growled the voice of the same protector who’d been demanding Aron’s head. He stepped out of the formation slightly to reach for Elena’s arm. He had what would probably be a ridge of spiked hair when he was dry, but which had been plastered over one of his eyes by the rain, and a red, puffy new scar where half of his nose probably used to be. Zo hand trembled with the urge to take his head, knowing very well that if he charged forward on his own right now and seized the moment of surprise, he might succeed—though surely he wouldn’t live long to enjoy it before the rest of the protectors descended on him.
Elena glared up at the half-nosed protector. “I don’t ask as an engineer, you idiot. I ask as a citizen of this tower.” She gestured toward the protectors’ ranks behind him. “You have almost our entire force here! We’re under real attack for the first time since the charter was signed, and you’re chasing petty oath-breakers!”
Despite the circumstances, Zo couldn’t help feeling affronted at being referred to as an oath-breaker, but then again that was one of the kinder things he’d heard Elena call him.
“Who do you think is responsible for the attack?” sputtered the half-nosed protector, pointing with his short sword toward Zo. “They sail a witch craft!”
“So have thousands upon thousands of guests in our port,” Elena said evenly. “And none of them have called down a storm in our waters at all, much less while they aren’t even aboard their ship!”
“It must be some new witch’s power!” The protector insisted. “Look at the unholy device he wears! The witch wears its compliment—and it glows like a lantern!”
“I know what he wears,” Elena snapped. “I was asked to inspect both artifacts, and I know their nature from my texts. They have nothing to do with with craft magic. Now that we have that settled, would you please turn your attention to the north—where I believe you’ll find an enormous fucking witch craft bearing down on us—before it’s too late?”
The half-nosed protector gazed at her with his lips pressed together. Then he said, simply, “No.”
“No?” Elena echoed indignantly. “What—?”
“If we’ve been attacked by a witch craft, then the charter is broken,” the protector said simply. “I don’t have to be a lawdrawer to know that.” He looked dispassionately toward Zo and the others. “That means our charter oath to quarter prisoners is broken, too.” He turned back to his men and raised his voice. “Kill them! Then meet on the northern spire!”
“You’d break the charter over one mad witch craft’s attack!” Elena exclaimed. She placed herself between the half-nosed protector, as though she alone could stop him from advancing. The half-step she took as she turned to face him also placed her closer to Olsen.
Zo realized what was about to happen a moment before Olsen sprang. They were both petite women… in fact, he realized as Olsen pulled Elena against her body with an arm tight around her waist, while the other held her knife to Elena’s throat, they were exactly the same size. But Olsen also had the strength and ability to fell a man three times her size, and she moved so fast that her enormous, bloodstained knifetip was pricking the engineer’s throat before Elena the protectors could do more than jerk up their heads.
“Now that you’ve stated that position,” Zo said pleasantly, voice lifted to be heard over the rain, “may I make a counteroffer?”
Elena didn’t move in Olsen’s tight embrace, but as Zo stepped forward, he saw the burning scorn in her face out of the corner of his eye as she bit out, “I was trying to help you, you ungrateful—”
“Don’t namecall my Captain, lady,” Olsen growled, giving her knife a delicate little twist. A thin line of blood wealed on Elena’s otherwise unscathed throat.
Elena didn’t say anything else.
Hoping Olsen didn’t get carried away, Zo met the eye of the half-nosed protector who seemed to be speaking for all of them. “We’ll return to our ship, and when we are safely boarded, we’ll turn loose your engineer and let her swim back to you, unharmed. Then, you may turn to your real battle. We want no part in that fight.”
The half-nosed protector’s face was suffused with color and his eyes were red-rimmed. “Taking a hostage? You foresworn—”
“Let’s not namecall,” Zo interrupted. “As you pointed out, the charter is broken, and with it, my oath to uphold its tenants. And my creed doesn’t forbid much, I’m afraid, so my honor is intact.”
Zo didn’t feel the confidence he was projecting, though that didn’t detract from his performance. He doubted they could fumble through the dark with a hundred or more protectors on their heels, and reach the docks, all while keeping a hostage at knifepoint, without everything going wrong and the upper hand slipping away too soon. But he didn’t see a better alternative, either.
Then, another option presented itself when the Tibalt appeared.
First, Zo was confused by the horrified cries he heard from the rear of the protectors’ ranks, and the sound of groaning wood, like masts in gale winds, but deeper and more guttural. Then, the ship materialized, filling half the dark sky like a strange cloud, the barnacles and the runes crusting its hull making Zoral think briefly of krakens and deep sea creatures; and that this was one, brought to life and given wings.
The protectors seemed to feel a similar fear. Some of them had broke and run. Their cries and shoves alerted the rest of the protectors to look over their shoulders, until they were all craning their heads to stare. That is, all of them except the ones who had to stumble out of the way of the thick chain that trailed the ship, thick as a man’s wrist and swinging dangerously.
Zo, who had always prided himself on being able to compartmentalize his surprise, was so dismayed that it took him a long moment to realize the swaying chain had once held the ship’s anchor, but it must have broken itself free of the tower dock.
And if it was afloat, that meant that Aron was aboard.
Zo grinned and threw himself forward with a call over his shoulder to Trek and Olsen. He batted aside the halfhearted jousts of the protectors, who were mostly throwing passing swings as they fled. They were well-fed fighters who’d been born, raised, and trained in times of peace on waters that never saw magic. Nothing prepared them to retain their nerve in the face of a witch’s storm and a fabled sky tamer, it appeared.
“Captain!” called a voice overhead from the Tibalt, but Zo wasn’t sure whose it was. “Grab the anchor chain, and we’ll draw it up!”
The anchor chain was swinging pendulously, and as he watched, it struck a fleeing protector square in the back. The man fell with a cry like his spine had been cracked.
Biting his lip as he gauged the chain’s course, Zoral shouldered aside two more protectors and then had the space he needed on the narrow barge to make a running start as the chain began to swing again—straight toward him. He kept his eyes trained on its path as rainwater streamed over his face, impeding his sight which was already uncertain in the dark…
Then, serendipitously, lightning poured into the sky overhead again, a sustained blast that made the deadly swinging chain as clear as it would have been in daylight. It made a low whooping noise as it cut through the air, and its trailing end rattled as it grazed the rough boards of the barge. Zo leaned out of the way as it arched past, and then jumped after it, past the edge of the barge and over open water. The lightning abated and for a moment he was hanging in the darkness, his target out of sight, half sure he was going to crash into the cold seawater.
But then his hands closed around the chain, which was exactly where he’d aimed his body, and he clung to the iron with his hands and clamped down on it with his thighs, riding out the rest of its swing until it hit the end of its arc and then carried him back down into the melee on the barge.
He’d expected to see Trek and Olsen both fighting off any of the braver protectors who were lingering. He hadn’t expected Trek to be covering Olsen while she continued to hold their erstwhile hostage at knifepoint. The weight of his body stilled the chain directly beneath the strange umbrella of the Tibalt’s hull, so the rain sheeted down to either side of them.
“Ready, Captain?” called the voice from above. He thought it might be Brin.
“Give us a minute!” Zo shouted back. “Olsen, let her go,” he said firmly.
Olsen rolled her eyes, but released her captive, stepping back neatly out of reach as Elena whirled at her. Zo thought the engineer might swing a fist, but instead she just shook back the hood of her cloak and glowered at them.
Her hair was covered by a bright twist of fabric. Without its soft frame around the bold planes of her face, her eyes stood out, fierce and luminous.
“Sorry about that,” Zo said to Elena, meanwhile gesturing impatiently to his crewmembers and staring past them to the milling protectors. None of them seemed interested in stepping under the Tibalt’s shadow, but he did see more than one archer clambering into a more distant position to notch an arrow.
Olsen shrugged at Elena unrepentantly, then sprang a few feet in the air to catch the stretch of chain above Zo’s head.
“I was here to help,” Elena snapped, her look withering.
Zo shrugged. “I do hope you’ll understand—desperate times, desperate measures.”
Elena fixed him with a withering look, and when she opened her mouth, Zo fully expected to be lambasted. Instead, she said, “I’m coming with you.”
Zo blinked at her, and then ducked as an arrow nipped past his ear. “Fuck. I don’t think that’s….”
But while he was distracted, she had darted forward and was giving the chain a considering look. Then, she shook back her heavy cloak, revealing that her arms were tightly crossed over her chest beneath it, and she cradled four enormous books.
“Help me with these.”
Zoral just stared at her. “I didn’t even say you could come!”
“Trust me, you’d regret that. But you probably wouldn’t be alive for long to stew in it.”
Before Zo could protest again, Trek reached out, plucked the books out of her hands, and tucked them under his arm. “No time to argue, Captain!” he called tightly. Then he tilted his head back and cried toward the ship’s hull, “Okay, Brin! Bring us up!”
As the chain began to raise, Elena moved forward and wrapped her arms around it.
“Your legs too,” Zoral advised, and she glared at him as though irritated on principle at being told what to do, but after fumbling a moment to feel for the chain’s length with her feet, she did as she was told.
“Holy—!” Trek began. He was clinging to the same stretch of chain Zoral was, their shoulders pressed together, but faced the opposite way.
Zoral twisted his head to look at whatever Trek had seen, just in time to watch another arrow blazing in their direction, this one carrying not just an arrow, but also flame.
Zo winced as it rushed past, but the people dangling from the slowly-rising chain weren’t the target. It struck the hull of the Tibalt with a thud and a hiss as the fire was extinguished by the damp wood. But then three more arrows struck at almost the same spot, and as the wood dried in the heat, it also sustained the fire long enough to singe the broad boards with a black scar.
“Go!” Zo roared. “Fly us the fuck away from here!”
Whoever was on deck must have heard, because suddenly they were being lifted not just by the crank on the anchor chain, but also because the ship the chain was attached to was climbing higher.
A dozen arrows buried themselves in the hull, passing so close that Zo felt the heat of the flames. One of them grazed Olsen; she briefly lost her grip and slid six inches down the chain, her boot connecting hard against Zo’s shoulder in the process of regaining her hold.
He grunted, then his chest lurched as he felt a small weight knocked loose from his belt beneath his cloak, and scrambled to catch it… in vain, as it turned out. The priceless treasure bounced off his knee and dropped out of reach, even as he grasped for it with his free hand.
He hardly had time to mourn, though; the chain had finally been raised enough that, above him, Olsen was able to get a hand around the bottom rung of the pilot’s ladder. Her legs dangled in midair for a moment, but then she wriggled up, disappearing around the curve of the hull.
The Tibalt was high enough now that the rain was dousing the arrows before they reached the hull, but they were still a hazard. Zo half-expected to feel the bite of a steel arrow in his flesh at any moment. Trek was the next to heave himself onto the ship’s ladder.
Zo glanced down to see Elena staring up at him, her eyes wide with understandable alarm. “I can’t do that!” she said, jerking her head in the direction of the ladder. “I’ll fall!”
She was probably right, Zo thought. The leap wasn’t much to ask of someone who’d spent their life in a ship’s rigging, but Elena wasn’t a sailor.
“Trek!” he shouted, extending his hand. Trek looked over from two rungs up, and without question, reached back.
Zo threw his weight against the chain so it would swing to close the inches of distance that weren’t spanned by Zo and Trek’s combined wingspan, and on his second try, he caught Trek’s outstretched palm.
The higher they went, the more the wind whipped at them, cold and fierce. Elena was hanging on, but Zo wasn’t sure how much longer she’d manage. It served her right, but he still didn’t want her to fall to her death. He wasn’t that annoyed.
Trek pulled Zo in to the ladder, so the chain hung beneath its bottom rung.
“Climb up,” Zo told Elena tersely, his arms straining against the force of the chain, which was heavy as hell, and the anchorpoint of the ladder.
Elena managed, but her progress was slow, and her hands kept slipping on the chain’s wet, slick links. When she was close enough, she grabbed Zo’s body instead of the ladder, which made things easier for her, though at one point it put them chest to chest with Elena straddling his thigh like a lover. She glared at him when their faces passed close enough to kiss.
“I’ll never forget this moment,” he promised.
She seemed torn between irritation and incredulity. Zo supposed some would think it was poor timing, with death a hair’s breadth away, to crack a joke. But, really, Zo never felt more alive and on the edge of laughter than when he was also on the edge of death. It was a character flaw.
When Elena was going up the ladder after Trek, Zo unwound his legs from the chain, and the wind ripped it free. He grimaced as it knocked against the arch of his foot, nearly taking his boot with it. He was going to have a hell of a fucking bruise, but if that was the worst of his injuries tonight he’d count himself among the lightning god’s favorites.
Then he landed heavily on the inside of the railing to find Aron, pale, drenched, and with his blood-covered hand pressed onto the decking of the Tibalt, and his good mood vanished at once.
Aron flickered between his own blood-and-bone body and the boards, ropes, and snapping sails of the Tibalt like the unguarded flame of a lamp in high wind, blown out then surging back a handful of times in a moment. He felt landsick—like he’d swallowed a rock, and with bile in his throat.
But he stubbornly poured his blood into the Tibalt a drop at a time, anyway, and the Tibalt rose eagerly into the air with pure elation.
Toward the tower—the Captain—
That’s all he needed to think, which was fortunate, because his thoughts were scattered and he had no sense of which direction was which. But the Tibalt knew who the Captain was, apparently, and could sniff him out like a cat could find an ounce of fish in a cargo hold full of grain.
And even as the Tibalt fought the wind toward the tower, the village’s scaffolds rickety terraces breaking against its hull, the oncoming ship burned blood-bright behind them.
Who is it? Aron found himself wondering, and that same instant, the Tibalt delivered a rush of images. Freshly-sanded boards, sharpened edges of the chisels that first pounded in the runes, the temperature of the wind that filled the sails the first day the ship was lowered into the water, and then a crowd of faces, one after another in rapid succession so they didn’t seem to replace one another so much as morph from one shape and color and expression to the next, like a deck of cards shuffled by a skilled hand. The final image, though, was fixed in place for Aron to study, and the sight of it briefly stopped his heart.
The Bellringer was the ship on the horizon, coming for them with lightning.
“Boy!” snapped a voice in Aron’s ear, as a warm hand closed over his shoulder.
He opened his eyes, returning from whatever abyss of time and space the Tibalt had taken him to in a flash that made his head spin. Or that could have been blood loss; how was he to know? He marveled distantly that he had enough blood left in his body for his heart to pump.
He was relieved to see Zoral’s face, dripping rain—and blood, from a cut on his brow—but for the most part, in one piece. Rather than relieved in turn, Zoral looked furious.
“What are you doing?” he demanded, and then tried to pry Aron’s hand off the deck.
Aron found his voice instantly. “No!” he shouted over the wind, leaning harder against his hand. “This is all that’s keeping us in the air!”
He wasn’t sure about that, exactly, but he didn’t want to risk experimenting, either.
Zoral’s jaw firmed and his eyes narrowed to dark blue slits. “Then get us back down in the water!” he relented. “Farlap, stay with him.” He stood and moved away, and despite his surliness, Aron was sorry to see him go.
Farlap dropped to his knees beside Aron and gave his shoulder an awkward pat. “Still alive there, boy?”
Aron looked up at him through the strands of wet hair that had fallen into his eyes, and which he lacked a free hand to push back. “So far.”
Farlap nodded. “That’s good. Keep it up. Can you put us on the south side? That’ll have the tower between us and whatever godsdamned ship is coming for them.”
Aron hesitated, the truth on the tip of his tongue. “We’re going to try to get away?” he asked carefully. “You’re not going to fight the witch craft?”
Farlap shook his head fiercely. “Course not. Only a man with a death wish would take on a witch craft!”
It didn’t seem like the ideal time to point out that that was exactly what the crew had been doing the day Aron met them, so he swallowed the words.
Farlap shouted, “How about you just focus on setting the ship down, and leave the rest of the strategizing to the Captain?”
Aron had been letting the Tibalt do as it liked with his blood, vaguely trusting that it knew what his intentions were without being told, but he tentatively stepped into the threshold of that space in his mind where the Tibalt seemed to be connected to him, and cast a direct throught into the yawning, inscrutable darkness on the other side.
We need to get back into the water. On the far side of the tower from the—from the other witch craft.
The Tibalt radiated unhappiness at the suggestion, and a hundred sensations breezed over Aron at once, conveying purest longing. Riding a buoying current of air like it was a wave; an endless stretch of stars unveiled above the clouds; and a noise that Aron didn’t understand at first, until he realized it was an unimaginable quiet… only the soft whistle of the wind, without the constant, underlying crush of the sea. He also saw a confusing rush of green, growing things, like someone had propagated a hundred thousand stems to cover the barges of a hundred villages, all lashed together, stretching so far he couldn’t find their end.
No, he told the Tibalt firmly, when he’d regathered himself. I don’t have enough blood to go—wherever that is. I don’t have enough left to go much further, at all.
The Tibalt seemed to relent at that, which was encouraging. Aron didn’t pretend to understand its nature, but it was comforting to know that it would rather Aron not die, at least not immediately.
Once it had decided to descend, the Tibalt did so abruptly. Its collision with the water threw Aron off-balance, but Farlap was ready, and held him steady with a strong, long-fingered hand that gripped him like a claw. “Well done, boy,” Farlap cried. “Now, we run.”
“All hands, prep the sails!” bellowed Trek from some distance away, and Farlap, apparently deciding that order overrode the one he’d been given to stay with Aron, leapt to his feet with a answering shout.
Aron shakily lifted his hand from the deck, and as he did so, he felt the Tibalt’s presence all around him ebb, as though the craft was settling back into relative lifelessness until the next time Aron should rouse it.
He slumped against the overturned row boat strapped to the deck just behind him and closed his eyes. The rain wasn’t falling now; they were out of range of the witch storm. The Bellringer must still be descending on the tower. With any luck, its crew wouldn’t have enough blood left to stage another attack.
But that wouldn’t stop their inevitable pursuit once they reached the First Tower, and realized the Tibalt and its crew were already gone.
Maybe I should have told Farlap what ship it is, Aron thought bleakly. He heard Zoral’s low shout amongst the rest, and looked across the deck to the prow, where Zoral grasped the railing, the wind generated by the periphery of the storm making his braids fly. Aron could still tell Zoral now. His failure to speak hadn’t taken on the quality of a lie just yet.
But if he did that, there was a good chance Zoral would turn them around and demand they fight, determined to avenge his wife the way he’d wanted to since he first took over the Tibalt. And that was not a risk Aron was willing to take.
“What the fuck happened to you?”
A petite woman in a cloak sank down next to Aron. Though she was immediately familiar, it took him a few seconds to place her precisely.
“Elena?” The engineer from the First Tower village. What was she doing here? She was swallowed by the cloak she was wearing, and she held a stack of books in her lap, hunched forward somewhat to shelter them from the receding rainfall.
“One and the same,” she muttered, peering out at him from under the cowl of her hood. Then, with a put-upon sigh and a quick glance upward at the dissipating clouds, she shrugged out of it altogether, balled up the material, and pushed it firmly against Aron’s wounded shoulder.
“Ow!” he cried, startled, but though he flinched he didn’t try to move away.
“It’s better if you don’t see it coming,” she told him, doing something with the sleeves of her cloak that ended with her tying a knot underneath his left arm. He felt every beat of his heart in the wound and his back teeth, but he knew that applying pressure would be the best way to stop the bleeding, so he was grateful.
She shrugged again. “I’m not a doctor, and you’re going to need one.”
Aron sighed. He didn’t think he’d been introduced to anyone on board who proclaimed to be a doctor. Every crew had someone, though, with the right blend of knowledge and confidence to poke at ill people and spread smelly concoctions on wounds. He shuddered as he wondered who would present themselves for the job amongst these pirates; though he’d come to be almost fond of some of them, he wouldn’t go so far as to entrust his bodily integrity to any of them.
“What are you doing here?” Aron asked Elena. The crew had settled down; the sails were fixed and filled; the wind was in their favor. The ship was speeding south, and the rain had stopped altogether. Aron snuck a glance toward the stern; he could still see lightning in the distance. He quickly looked away.
“That’s a question I’d rather answer once, if you can bear the anticipation,” Elena said. She tentatively opened the cover of one of the books, then sighed relievedly at the sight of its dry, unblemished first page. “The cover held, thank the gods.”
Aron was surprised. “I would have thought it’d be waterlogged,” he murmured, but even the edges of the page were crisp and dry.
“The cover is an artifact,” Elena said. “Books like this one are immune to water, and even fire, if you keep them closed. Or, they should be.” She snorted as she carefully closed the cover again. “I suppose nothing is impossible. For example, if you’d asked me yesterday, I would have said that lightning would never be called on the First Tower, in the heart of neutral waters.”
Aron grimaced, his eyes falling onto the book’s cover, which was full of runes in a close, ornate script. Aron could only read a few of them, and there were a few more he recognized from the book Elena had referenced when Aron and Zo had been in her workshop.
“Is that…?” he began to ask, but the sound of approaching footsteps made him pause.
Zoral strode over and looked down at Aron as though he hadn’t noticed Elena at all. “Are you all right?”
“Fine,” Aron said hastily, before he could find out who on the crew called themselves a doctor. Then he glanced to the north again and bit his lip. “Are we—away?”
Zoral followed the direction of his glance, but his gaze lingered. “Yes. I don’t think the ship could catch us now, not without calling another storm. And hopefully when they start to look for us in daylight, we’ll be far enough underway that they can’t spot us.” He looked at Aron again and his eyes narrowed further. “Farlap told me that it’s your own blood that you’re covered in.” His eyes skimmed over Elena’s makeshift bandage. “What happened to you?”
“An arrow. It’s not that bad,” he added quickly. “I think Elena’s done enough.”
“At minimum, you need a new bandage,” Elena said, getting to her feet with her books clutched to her chest. “I want my cloak back.”
Zoral turned his glower on Elena. “You. I still don’t understand what you’re doing here.”
“I can enlighten you. But not out here. First, I need water, some light, and to be somewhere reliably dry.”
Trek lumbered over at that moment, smiling warmly at Elena. “Madame engineer,” he said, with a small bow that was as absurd as it was surprisingly graceful. “Did your books hold up, then? I couldn’t do much about them getting wet while I was trying to—well, avoid drowning, and flaming arrows, and all.”
Elena almost looked amused. “Yes, I’m sure that you did your best. And they’re in perfect condition, thank you for asking.” Any levity on her face vanished, though, when the next pirate to saunter over was Olsen. She looked stiffly back toward Zoral. “Well? Shelter, water? Is it too much to ask?”
“You’re very demanding for a stowaway,” Zoral observed, folding his arms.
“There’s space in the galley,” Trek offered eagerly, as though he hadn’t heard the Captain, and gave Elena a shy grin. Aron bit back a smile, and Olsen rolled her eyes. “It’s the warmest part of the ship, and private, too. Well, if you don’t mind Cook. And who does?”
Aron rather thought that Trek was underestimating Cook.
“And,” the first mate went on, oblivious to the furrow building between Zoral’s eyebrows, “there’s a cot in the sleeping quarters that must’ve been a spare. Practically unused, it is. I could fetch it for you. Not so much as a sweat stain anywhere on it.”
Elena sighed heavily. “I suppose that’s—something.” She held the books tightly to her chest and squared her shoulders. “Lead the way.”
Trek obliged. Elena followed him, casting a quick, black glare over her shoulder when Olsen fell into step behind her with a careless grin, but then Elena turned her back stiffly and walked on, ignoring her.
Zoral caught Aron’s arm and led him along, too. “Cook will bandage you up,” he murmured by way of explanation.
Aron was torn between being irritated at being pushed along to the galley without being asked first, and confused by the almost-gentle way that Zoral was holding his arm.
He glanced up at Zoral as they walked, and caught Zoral staring at him intently.
“What?” he asked, running a hand through the wet tangle of his hair, like he’d find whatever Zoral was looking at on top of his head. The movement tugged at his wound, though, so he lowered his arm hastily with a grimace.
Zoral jerked his head back and forth. “Nothing. It’s just—you’re hurt.”
“I… am,” Aron agreed slowly. He gave the cut on Zoral’s forehead a pointed look. “I’m not the only one.”
“This?” Zoral brushed two fingers against the drying trail of blood that disappeared into his hairline near his temple. “A scratch. You were struck by an arrow.”
Aron still didn’t understand. “You can’t be mad at me about it. I definitely didn’t do it on purpose.” He narrowed his eyes. “I didn’t do any of it on purpose. Remember?”
Naturally, Zoral didn’t appear to even note, much less be concerned by, Aron’s objections to being ordered around through the collar.
“Is your cook really the one who does the doctoring on your crew?” Aron asked as they descended into the dimly lit belowdecks, following the light that was cast through the open door to the galley. The others must have already been inside.
“Is that so shocking?”
Aron started to shrug, but again the pull of the muscles in his back made the angry burn around his hastily bandaged wound intensify, and he stopped himself mid-movement. “Cooking things, healing things… they don’t necessarily seem like one skillset.”
“Can’t a person be more than one thing?”
Aron paused in the doorway and looked up, amused. “You didn’t seem to think so, back when you were trying to kill me, just for being a witch.”
Zoral looked exasperated. “We’d just met. That was all I knew.” His expression turned appraising as he looked Aron up and down. As the attention went from a quick glance to a more thorough study, Aron felt himself blush. He tugged on the arm that Zoral still held, but half-heartedly, more or less just to test what he already knew—Zoral wouldn’t let go.
Zoral’s mouth quirked; the seed of an involuntary smile. Maybe it was the blood loss again, but Aron’s knees felt a little weak. “You are many things,” Zoral admitted in a low voice.
“And so are you,” Aron said more seriously than he’d intended, then strove for a subtle shift in topic. “A pirate and a scholar.” He shook his head. “The Hightower. I can’t even imagine it.” Zoral still watched him closely, but now Aron was distracted enough by his old fantasies of the hallowed halls of learning that his knees didn’t turn completely to water under Zoral’s attention. “So you’ve seen the ten libraries?”
“Only nine of them. The tenth is staff-only.”
“And you’ve heard lectures in the Tall Hall, where the speaker’s voice can carry twenty stories high?”
Aron’s breath gusted from him on a dreamy sigh. “And you’ve seen the rainwater sea? And the trees propagated there, that grow higher than your head?”
“Yes, and yes.”
“Four years at the Hightower.” Aron sighed again. “What was your favorite part, if you could even—?”
“The baths,” Zoral interrupted. “No contest.”
Aron was scandalized, but he didn’t have time to express his outrage before Cook interrupted them.
“Are you coming in, or not?” They asked testily. “If you loiter much longer, my pot will boil dry, and I’ll have to start all over before the utensils will be sterilized properly.”
“Sterilized?” Aron asked curiously. He slipped away from Zoral and approached Cook with cautious interest. Their tall body was bent at the waist as they carefully placed long-handled metal tools inside a tall pot on the burner of the small furnace. When Aron got too close, they flapped their pointy elbow at him to keep him at a distance.
“Yes. It means they won’t be covered in all the little invisible monsters that will make your wound swell and stink and kill you. Now, stay back, or you’ll get scalded and I’ll have even more work to do.” They shot Zoral a glare. “Work I’m not even compensated for.”
“We’ll work something out,” Zoral said. He had uncovered a clay jar to pour water into a cup, and brought it to the table, where Aron now saw Elena had also seated herself. The engineer was glowering across the table at Olsen, who had perched on the bench opposite her, as though oblivious to her dubious welcome, making a show of cleaning the blade of her knife.
“Where’s Trek?” Aron asked, noting the big man’s absence, now that he had looked around.
“He went to get the cot for our guest,” Olsen said, glancing at Elena with a sweet smile, like she was an angelic child and not a blood-spattered killer polishing a weapon.
“Shelter, and water,” Zoral said, nodding to the cup he’d set within Elena’s reach. “Now, speak.”
Elena glanced from Cook, to Olsen, with a deepening frown.
“There’s nothing you shouldn’t say in front of them,” Zoral assured her. “We don’t distribute information according to rank in this crew.”
“Very well.” Elena stiffly positioned one of the books in front of herself on the table and opened the cover. “After you left the workshop, I remembered another text.” She tapped the book gently. “I had pulled it for something else, but the rune dialect isn’t one that I know. I had it shelved with the others that I’ve been translating when I’m in the mood for that sort of work. But it was a close match for the runes I couldn’t define on the collar and cuff.”
Aron shot Cook’s pot a nervous look, but Cook’s back was turned, so he seized the opportunity to slip away from whatever medical attention Cook had in store. He came up alongside Zoral and leaned against his side so that he could see the book, too. Zoral balanced him with a hand on the small of his back without looking away from the book himself. The casual touch made Aron struggle for a few seconds to pay attention to the strange runes on the page.
“I still don’t understand any of this,” Elena said, indicating a block of runes that had so many curling tails and twisting overlays, they resembled a pile of hopelessly tangled rope someone had too long neglected to coil. “But these—” her forefinger skimmed toward the center of the broad sheet of parchment, “—they stand for blood and power, not just the signs of servitude that the other book referenced.”
Aron felt a strange tugging at the corners of his mind that he realized after a moment was coming from the Tibalt. He cautiously focused on it.
Do you know what these runes mean? He focused his eyes on the tangled symbols that Elena had said she couldn’t decipher, and which were certainly beyond Aron’s understanding.
The Tibalt was emphatically affirmative, the energetic equivalent of an eager child raising its hand in hopes that it will be called upon to give an answer it knows.
Show me, Aron said, before he could wonder if he’d regret it, but to his relief instead of pulling him across space and time, the Tibalt only showed him a series of images. They shouldn’t have made sense, but somehow—Aron didn’t subject himself to the headache of wondering how—they did.
He blinked to clear his head of the Tibalt’s message, and leaned in closer. “The Tibalt thinks it means…” He trailed off for a moment while he struggled to translate. “Links in a chain. But each one builds on the last, adding and amplifying. Like a ripple. Each ring larger than the last.”
Elena turned her head to stare at him, and he was aware of Zoral’s focused gaze out of the corner of his eye, too.
Aron squirmed. “Could it be right?”
“Yes,” Elena said slowly. She turned back to the book, blinking a few times, then gave her head a tiny shake. “Yes,” she repeated more firmly. “That would make sense, wouldn’t it? Somehow, the artifact is allowing you to draw power from Zoral—even without blood. And…” she trailed off, turning the page and scanning quickly, then sat back. “Yes. One cuff could be bound to innumerable collars.”
Aron though about how the Tibalt had flown, needing just a little of his blood. And then he imagined what it would mean if a Captain were linked to two, or a dozen witches with an artifact like the one fused to his skin.
The entire galley was quiet; even Cook had stopped fussing with their utensils, and the only noise was the hiss of the boiling water.
“What made you start looking for these particular artifacts?” Elena asked. “When you came to me months ago, asking questions—?”
“I’d heard a rumor,” Zoral said, frowning. He took his hand from Aron’s back and rubbed it over his beard. “Divers talking about what would fetch the best price. They’d seen the like of the cuffs and collars before, but had mostly ignored them, thinking they were just ugly jewelry. But now they were snatching up all they could find, because there was a new demand.”
Most of Sihr was navigable by any craft. Then there were the neutral waters, where the witch crafts roamed occasionally, but where they—usually—had none of their magical power. Some quality in the water deadened their witches’ powers, requiring gallons of blood for the same wind, lightning, and tide-calling that they could ordinarily do with a few drops.
But there were also the edge waters, where the krakens and other creatures were so bold, that only a rune-warded witch craft and a steady supply of witch’s blood could ensure safe passage. Aron doubted even the boldest of pirates would risk their ships and crews in those waters, but the major witch craft were known to congregated in the edge waters. Over the generations, rumors had grown of a lost tower—somewhere deep in those waters where non-witch craft weren’t welcome, if they could reach it at all. Even Aron wasn’t sure what exactly existed there, but he suspected that the witch craft Captains had plans, decades in the making, that the rest of Sihr were too clueless to even suspect.
Trek said grimly, “If for some reasons the witches just figured out what it says in your book—that they can compound their power with artifacts like these—it would explain how we just saw lightning called in neutral water.”
“And,” Olsen added, her knife forgotten on the table in front of her and her face ashen, “we’ve got nowhere left that’s safe from them.”
“It’s not the witches,” Aron blurted, then flushed when he drew the others’ stares. “The witches don’t decide, I mean,” he muttered. The strange interplay between a witch craft and its witch was bound by the Captain’s will. “Unless they’re skilled with runes and left unobserved long enough to write them, all a witch can do is call lightning, wind, and water,” he pointed out. “The Captains and crew are in charge, and a witch can’t defend themselves against them with the weapons they have without risking sinking the whole craft.” He swallowed and lifted his chin. “When you found me, did it look like I was the one making orders?”
Even Olsen looked a little abashed at that point being made.
“Whoever is truly in control,” Elena said carefully, “the fact remains that witch crafts fight each other all the time just to have one less competitor.” It was more complicated than that, but again, Aron didn’t waste his breath arguing. “Now that they’re fighting over these things…” Elena trailed off, pursing her lips.
“It’ll be a full-fledged war,” Olsen said grimly.
Aron wasn’t sure if it was the reality of Olsen’s words, ringing in the silence that fell in the group in their wake, or if the last couple hours were finally catching up with him, but he wilted a little against Zo’s side, blinking through a brief dizzy spell.
Two days after their narrow escape from the First Tower, Cook peeled off Aron’s bandage for the second time, part of their new evening ritual, while Zoral hovered behind him, apparently—willfully—oblivious to the daggers Cook’s eyes kept shooting his way.
“How does it look?” Zoral demanded. “I think it looks terrible.”
Aron could imagine how Cook pressed their lips together in an effort to contain whatever they surely wanted to mutter in response. Instead they said, in a clipped tone, “It is healing well.”
“Really? That’s what it looks like when it’s healing well?” But Zoral seemed willing to take Cook’s word for it, because he reappeared in Aron’s line of vision and stood close, between Aron’s spread knees. Though they weren’t quite touching, his cloak did graze the inside of Aron’s thighs through his thin trousers, and Aron’s skin prickled.
He looked speculatively at Zoral’s throat, which was at his eye level. The rough-hewn collar of his shirt formed a V, revealing a little dark chest hair that Aron knew to be surprisingly soft to the touch. If Cook hadn’t been there, he would have let himself lean in and press his cheek just there, to enjoy the soft springiness of it, but Cook was there, and so was Elena—bent over the table and scribbling furious notes on one of the sheets of parchment she’d been accumulating since she’d come aboard the Tibalt.
Though Zoral seemed to constantly be nearby and worriedly demanding to know Aron’s pain level, he wasn’t willing to address any of Aron’s other physical ailments. Never mind that Aron hadn’t been distracted from his pain for more than the first night before he’d become fixated on the memories of their hour together in the First Tower, and intent on further explorations. For example, now that he knew what it felt like to be touched with hands, lips and tongue, he was interested in touching Zoral in turn. But Zoral had seemed torn between amusement and horror when Aron nestled his hard cock against Zoral’s thigh that morning.
“You’re wounded,” he’d reminded Aron, holding him still with a tight hand on his hip, and though his lips had twitched in amusement, his eyes had been wide with incredulousness. “There’s barely a drop of blood left in you.”
“More than a drop,” Aron had muttered, not adding that there was at least a pint in his cock, which was hot and wanting, making him wriggle in Zoral’s grip. But when Zoral had been unable to argue him out of wanting to fuck, he’d changed tacts and simply gotten out of the bed.
Now, his distracted frown that had been fixed on Cook melted away when he caught the intent look Aron had directed at his sternum. He dipped his chin to catch Aron’s eye and grinned wickedly.
“Are you listening, little witch?”
Aron glanced over Zoral’s shoulder at Cook. “Don’t lift anything heavier than a spoon, drink plenty of water, and get some sun abovedecks. And keep my blood on the inside of my skin no matter how nicely the Tibalt asks for it,” Aron rattled off, repeating the spiel he’d gotten from Cook the first two times and hoping it hadn’t changed, because he hadn’t heard a word they’d just said.
Apparently he was more or less correct, though, because Zoral grinned and Cook gave him a firm prod in the small of the back to indicate he should get off of the stool and as far away from Cook as possible. Cook was a very meticulous and attentive healer, but they occupied the role no longer than strictly necessary, and then started grumbling about how they could possibly peel potatoes with so many shiftless layabouts underfoot.
These mutterings were an oblique reference not just to Aron, but also Elena, who had become a resident of the galley between her studies at the dining table and her nights spent in the cot in the corner. Aron, forbidden to do anything abovedecks except stand restlessly at the railing and absorbing rays of sun, had taken to assisting Elena in her efforts to translate the massive text, a task he was ill-equipped for, to say the least, but it beat the alternative—moldering in the Captain’s quarters alone with nothing to occupy him.
Aron didn’t point out to Cook that Aron was only a layabout because Cook ordered him to be, and just because Elena spent most of her time seated, doing nothing more strenuous than turning pages and writing notes on her growing stack of parchment pilfered from Zoral’s cache by Trek, she was far from idle.
Heavy footfalls announced the arrival of Willow a moment before she appeared in the doorway. “Captain, can you spare a moment?”
Zoral gave her a sharp look. “Anything spotted?”
Though they had no sign yet of the witch craft—which Aron alone knew to be the Bellringer, he thought with a hard swallow—everyone remained on edge that it would be sighted at any moment, and they were pressing the Tibalt hard toward the snap, making good use of a hard southerly wind that had been with them for days.
“Nothing like that,” Willow hastened to say, and Zoral’s taut shoulders eased immediately. “It’s only that we’re near to the snap,” she added. “Should reach it before midday tomorrow, and—”
“We need to prep the midden mast,” Zoral finished for her. “It needs reinforcement around that splintered beam. Yes.” He looked at Aron and hesitated. “You’ll stay here, where Cook can keep an eye on you?”
Aron nodded obediently, and Zoral raised a hand, almost like he’d reach for Aron—touch his cheek, his shoulder, Aron didn’t know and yet the suggestion made him strangely breathless. Absurd, considering he’d been sharing a bed with Zoral every night for several days. Passing touch shouldn’t faze him. But Zoral frowned and pulled his arm back to his side without completing whatever motion he’d begun, and instead turned away with a stiff nod and followed Willow into the passageway.
“Out,” Cook insisted tightly. “I have less than an hour to turn this pot of water into food for a dozen thankless sailors. Out.”
Aron quickly moved off the stool and crossed to Elena, seating himself at arm’s length beside her on the bench.
She was watching the door through which Zoral and Willow had just disappeared. “How far can you see from the crow’s nest, anyway?”
Aron worried his lip as he thought. “Depends on the conditions,” he said eventually. “With the weather we’ve had—maybe ten miles.”
“Not that far,” she murmured. “For all we know, the witch craft is after us, and just over the horizon.”
Aron frowned. He remembered when he’d given the Tibalt a remarkable amount of his blood—enough for it to break its anchor chain and fly—and how at the thought of the witch craft on the horizon, the Tibalt had revealed that the craft was the Bellringer in its strange language of image and impression. It had recognized the Bellringer, despite the miles of storm-churned water and pelting rain between them.
Would it know where the Bellringer was now? How far did its senses reach? Or was there something else—something more—that the Tibalt was capable of, besides senses in the way Aron thought of them, the human’s five.
“Maybe the Tibalt could help,” Aron said slowly. “It… knows things.”
Elena looked up from the book, her brows knitted. A day ago, the look on her face would have made the blood drain from Aron’s face, but he had gotten used to the fierce expression she always wore and realized that it was—mostly—indeliberate on her part, which meant that it didn’t put him quite so much on edge.
“Like when it told you what the runes meant, that first night?”
Aron nodded. Elena had had him try to reproduce that translation effort, but it hadn’t worked again. The Tibalt seemed to be drifting away; apparently unless Aron’s life was at risk or he’d fed the Tibalt a great deal of his blood, they struggled to communicate with one another. Their flight from the First Tower hadn’t changed that aspect of Aron’s relationship with the ship.
“Strange,” she murmured, her brow knitting and her gaze going unfocused and distant as she thought. “Or perhaps not so strange. The witch crafts have peculiar powers, don’t they?” She drummed her first and third finger against her lower lip, which Aron had observed her doing several times over the past couple of days when she was processing a thought. “Of all the artifacts, the witch crafts are the hardest to research. The witches gathered up all the relevant texts long ago, if there were many recovered in the first place.”
“They’re not really artifacts,” Aron replied absently, most of his attention still on his musings about whether the Tibalt might be capable of telling him the Bellringer’s position, if he gave it a little of his blood.
Elena raised a brow at him. “No?”
“They’re not fully artifacts—most of them. Theoretically, you could convert any ship to a witch craft with the right runes, and given time. It’s just that they gain power as they age.” Aron’s father had taught him that witch craft were no more and no less than the interworking of the ancient runes on their hulls and the blood that powered them, a focus for witches just like any single rune, but with a wider range of powers because of their age and complexity.
Now that he’d experienced the connection with the Tibalt, though, that explanation didn’t make complete sense. The Tibalt felt—alive. It had a personality. It felt absurd to use that word in reference to a ship, but it was undeniably Aron’s impression.
Sailors were beginning to file in for bowls of whatever Cook had turned the water into, which was also emitting a scent that made Aron’s stomach growl. At the same moment, Elena wrinkled her nose, and at first he thought she was disgusted by him before he realized that she was glowering toward Cook’s stove. “Let me guess,” she said flatly, “we’re having soup thickened with bone meal, and flatbread on the side. Again.”
Aron had never learned to be selective about his food, but apparently Elena had eaten better—or at least more varied—stuff as an esteemed engineer of the First Tower. He just shrugged, looking nervously toward Cook though Elena had definitely spoken too quietly for them to overhear.
“What are the runes you know, that activate a witch craft?” she asked, rearranging the scraps of parchment so that she could poise her quill over a blank section, which was getting harder and harder for her to find; she had filled the pages, front and back and edge-to-edge, with an increasingly tight script over their conversations the past two days.
Aron worried his lower lip as he thought, then he listed the ones he could remember. Elena wrote as fast as she could, her ink-stained hand practically a blur.
When she’d finished copying down the list, she glanced up with a sharp look in her eyes. “And the Tibalt has told you all of this?”
Aron considered his answer. “Not exactly.” The Tibalt had definitely provided insights, as Aron grew more comfortable keeping a link between himself and the ship open, it was like a participant in his conversations with Elena, with Aron acting as translator for both Elena’s book of runes, and the images that the Tibalt would stream into his consciousness as a result. The more they communicated, the better the Tibalt seemed to understand how it could be most effective; it no longer dropped a deluge of sensation on Aron that made him feel like he was yanked out of his own head at best, or struck totally unconscious at worst. It had learned to slow itself to a trickle, one clear picture at a time—though when it got excited it occasionally seemed to forget itself and overwhelm Aron again, that was happening less and less.
But Aron had a base of knowledge himself. And he was so accustomed to keeping the source of that knowledge a secret that he hesitated to answer Elena, even though the more he’d thought about it over the past several days, the more he’d begun to question whether there was any reason to keep these secrets any more. The danger that they presented to him was no more. Or rather, it had in many ways already come to pass, so he didn’t see what additional harm the full truth could bring.
“My father taught me,” he admitted at last.
Elena twirled her quill in her fingertips and watched him. “Was he like you?”
“A witch?” Aron asked, and when she nodded, he shook his head. “No. That blood came from my mother.”
As Brin settled down the bench from Aron, and shot him a curious, but not unfriendly look, Aron swallowed any more that he might have said about that. He was particularly glad he’d held his tongue when Zoral materialized apparently out of thin air behind him and set a plate in front of him that definitely contained more than just bone meal soup and bread. It had a bit of dried meat and one of Cook’s prized, shriveled apples. Zoral dropped onto the bench beside Aron without making a sound. Shadow man, Aron thought, and rather than finding the thought sinister, he just felt fond.
Troubled by that realization, he frowned to himself and directed his attention at his plate, noting self-consciously the soup bowls that the crew had carried to the table. “Why do I get this, and they have that?”
“You’re recuperating,” Zoral said, biting into the tough bread. “Eat.”
Aron could never bring himself to deny food, especially when he had an excuse, however flimsy. And it did seem like he was more ravenous even than usual the past day or so, after the pain had eased enough that he wasn’t in a state of constant nausea.
Elena closed her book and made as though to rise, presumably to fetch her own supper, no matter how distasteful, but just then Trek walked up and leaned over the bench beside her, carefully setting a large cup of soup and a smaller cup of water where she could reach them.
“I hope you don’t mind, my Lady, but I thought you might rather not interrupt your studies, waiting in line, you know.”
Aron was eating his soup and savings his apple for last, and tried not to stare in fascination at Trek’s determined flirting.
“Very kind of you,” Elena told him with a placid smile, and when Trek bowed and moved away, she caught Aron watching her. “What?”
Aron opened his mouth, closed it again, and shook his head. “Nothing,” he said firmly.
As soon as Aron had finished his apple, Zoral gently pried him off the bench and whisked him back toward the cabin. Aron, who’d grown sleepy as he filled his belly, didn’t bother protesting as he was gently manhandled up the stairs, across the space of starlit deck where a sailor watching from the railing nodded pleasantly as they passed, and into the space he’d come to think of as his and Zoral’s.
That was a discomfitting thought. And an impossible one, since Zoral was determined to get himself, and Aron, and the rest of the crew killed, and the Tibalt and this very cabin, complete with its now-familiar cot, desk, and open window, sunk to the seabottom along with them.
The thought depressed him, but he was tired enough that low spirits couldn’t stop him from kicking off his boots and sprawling across the cot on his stomach, sighing as he closed his eyes.
“You must be feeling better,” Zoral observed, his hands gliding lightly up Aron’s legs in a way that made Aron’s skin tingle, like it had when Zoral had stood between his legs an hour before. But just as then, Aron seemed to be the only one whose thoughts were traveling in that direction; Zoral gripped the waistband of his loose trousers and pulled them off; Aron heard the hush of the fabric hitting the floor where Zoral must have tossed it. Zoral had opinions about getting in bed with clothes on that seemed to have nothing to do with preserving easy access to Aron’s body, and more with some odd principle that daytime clothing didn’t belong in bed.
“I am,” Aron said, turning his head so his cheek was against the blanket, and he could see Zoral stripping off his cloak and stepping out of his own boots. “Is it that obvious?”
Zoral glanced at him as he unbuckled his belt. “You move easier,” he said, his eyes drifting over Aron’s body thoughtfully, and now the tingling in Aron’s skin was building toward a shudder he could hardly contain. “You seem more relaxed.”
“I am,” Aron agreed, carefully turning over and scooting out of Zoral’s way so that he could lie down beside him. He watched the easy grace of Zoral’s long, strong body, the stretch of skin over his ribs, the dusky rose color of his nipples, and just like that, he was aching, even before Zoral was stretching out warm beside him, his yawn making his teeth flash against the dark hair of his beard. He held out his arm and Aron instantly eased down beside him, his head on Zoral’s shoulder, his hand tracing a path through the hair on his chest that had teased Aron while he was getting his bandage changed.
“Does a witch ever get their blood from their father?” Zoral asked, startling him. Aron tilted his head back to look at the side of his face. Zoral was gazing at the ceiling of the cabin, one arm behind his head, his fingertips tracing a path up and down Aron’s arm. “I never thought to ask about them—your parents.”
Aron wasn’t sure how to feel about this line of questioning. It was strange that Zoral should be interested at all; it made him wonder what kind of a trap he was laying for Aron to step into. But he couldn’t divine what it could be, so he asked, cautiously, “I think it’s possible. It’s just that it’s usually the mother who has the blood.”
“Right. I’d never heard of a male witch, except in stories.”
“Me either,” Aron admitted, and Zoral snorted. “But my father wasn’t one.”
“He raised you, then?”
“And your mother…?”
This topic made Aron’s heart somersault, but he couldn’t see any danger in answering, if incompletely. “I’ve never met her. My gather took me away when I was a baby. It was too risky to stay, given—well, my blood.”
“What about it? I thought they didn’t know you were a witch yourself.”
“There’s power in it, even if the person lacks talent,” Aron said shortly. “It can feed with craft magic, and any rune. That means it’s—valuable.” He shrugged. “My father wasn’t absolutely sure what happens to blooded children. He thought maybe girls were sometimes kept as apprentices to other witches, in hopes that they would grow up to have talent themselves, and serve on a craft. The boys…” He trailed off. “It’s just conjecture, but we doubted it could be anything but grim. So he took me after I was born, and kept what I was hidden, as best he could.”
“Hmm,” Zoral murmured, a low, angry rumble that startled Aron. Zoral’s jaw shifted, like he was grinding his teeth, which suggested he’d surmised what the most likely outcome was of boys born with witch blood, unlikely to ever wield power beyond what flowed in their veins—they were probably farmed for it, deep in the underbellies of the fiercest witch craft, or somewhere in the edge waters. “So your father saved you from your mother?”
“No. It was her idea. She was a good person,” Aron said, then hesitated. “Or, my father said she was.” He’d wondered, especially lately, if it could be true. He realized with a mild shock that he was relying on his father’s accounts for all aspects of his beliefs about witches. Including what he’d told the group the night they got away from the First Tower… that it was the Captains, not the witches, who reigned witch crafts. Then again, he did have some firsthand evidence, too. Not just what he’d personally experienced on the Tibalt, but what he’d observed over the years when he’d encountered other witch craft, looking beneath the surface of the witch who seemed to stand as the Captain’s equal, to the usual stiffness in their manner and practiced blankness of their eyes.
“And when did you realize that there was more to your power than just your blood?”
Aron smiled ruefully. “The day you took the Tibalt, and I accidentally made it fly.”
He’d succeeded in surprising Zoral. The Captain turned his head, eyes narrowed and moving fast and assessing over Aron’s face. Then his brows rose. “You don’t say.”
Aron shrugged, the gesture made complicated by the way he was tucked against Zoral’s side. But apparently the Captain gleaned his meaning anyway, because he laughed softly. “That must have been… surprising. What’s it like?”
Aron wasn’t sure why he was telling her this, except that it was a relief to admit it. “It’s not easy. Except when—I don’t know, when I’m out of my mind with fear. Or when my back was split open and I was bleeding all over the Tibalt. And even then, it was like—I don’t know, a wave breaking over me, again and again, while I tried to swim. So much. Impossible.” He swallowed and shook his head. “There’s a reason training and experience makes the best witches.” He caught the look of skepticism in Zoral’s face and bristled. “What? Do you think I’m just saying this, so you’ll rethink going after the Bell?”
“No,” Zoral said, so quickly that Aron had to think he was telling the truth. “But you—you are one of the best wishes. You’re a sky tamer. Even with limited abilities, you’re more than any lightning calling witch could hope to be.”
Aron wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or offended, given Zoral’s general opinions about witches. “I’m not sure about that.”
“I am,” Zoral said with perfect confidence, turning his gaze back up to the ceiling. He closed his eyes as he yawned, the hand curled under Aron giving Aron’s uninjured shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Go to sleep, little witch.”
Aron braced himself for something from the collar, then relaxed when he felt nothing. “Whatever you say, Captain.”
Zoral grinned without opening his eyes. “Captain, is it? I didn’t ever expect to hear you call me that.”
Aron hesitated, his fingertips still moving lazily over Zoral’s chest. “You thought I’d call you Zoral?” The name felt forbidden, spoken aloud.
The chest under his hand quaked with laughter. “Gods, no. Only people who despise me call me that. You…” He opened one eye, briefly, then closed it again, still smiling. “You should call me Zo.”
Late that night, with Aron nestled against him and snoring softly, Zo finally gave up on falling asleep himself. He’d have liked to have blamed his restlessness on Aron’s sleeping habits—that despite sharing a wide enough cot that they could share it without touching, Aron always entwined himself with Zo, or that Aron was a noisy sleeper. But in truth Zo found that he enjoyed having Aron’s warm, wiry body close to his, and he found the soft snuffling sounds he made when he burrowed close, and even his snores, endearing instead of offputting.
It was his mind, not his surroundings or his companion, that kept Zo awake. When he grew to orestless to lie still, Zo unwound Aron’s arms from his waist and slid out of the cot.
Zo slipped on his boots and slung his cloak over his shoulders without looking for his shirt. Then he pulled the blanket back up to Aron’s chin and smoothed his hand back down Aron’s blanket-shrouded shoulder, over the cage of his ribs to the dip of his waist.
When Zo stepped out of the cabin, he took a deep, relieved breath of the cool night air. The breeze on his bare chest invigorated him as he scaled the main mast to the crow’s nest. Orand was posted there, leaning against the railing with his chin in his hand, and he was visibly startled at Zo’s appearance. But his surprise quickly faded into a smile and a nod, and he went down the way Zo had come up without a word. Most of the crew were familiar with Zo’s late-night wanderings, which always seemed to end with him climbing to the highest point on the ship, staring out over the dark water while the moon stared down at him.
He sat where Orand had been. The boards were still warm. Zo hooked one hand behind his head, leaning back so that he could keep one eye properly on the northern horizon, in case he should see signs of lightning or a witch craft’s sails, and the other on the clear night’s sky, crusted with stars.
Most of the time, the questions that were posed to Zo in his life were easy for him to answer. He’d always prided himself on decisiveness; in fact, it was one of the qualities he felt gave him a natural aptitude for captaincy. But every once in a while there was a problem that refused to present itself to him directly, that instead lurked at the corners of his mind, giving him brief sensations of niggling unease, but evading capture. When that happened, he’d often found he could lure out that elusive bit of trouble if he sat under the stars for long enough.
Tonight, though, he didn’t find himself making much progress. He still couldn’t puzzle out why his instincts were rebelling at the idea of going after the Bellringer the way that Elena thought they should—the way Zo himself had been determined to do, until some invisible obstacle had inserted itself into his mind, an obstacle he still couldn’t get a good look at, much less understand.
“Captain?” Trek’s head appeared at the top of the rope ladder. “Yes, I thought that was you. I was set to relieve Orand, but I shouldn’t wish to disturb you.”
“Too late for that,” Zo said, bemused, as Trek lumbered the rest of the way up the ladder and settled into the scant, remaining space in the nest, both his thick-muscled legs dangling over the edge of the platform. Zo waited to see what his first mate had come to say; if Trek truly hadn’t sought Zo out, then he would have left as quietly as he had arrived, just as Orand had silently surrendered the crow’s nest when Zo appeared.
Sure enough, Trek sighed and started in within a second or two. “I’ve been thinking.”
“That’s a relief,” Zo said. “I’d like to think that I keep you on my crew to be more than just decorative.”
Trek rolled his eyes, but grinned, proving he wasn’t really aggrieved. “It’s about Miss Elena.”
Zo snorted. “You do not have my permission to run away with her.”
Trek huffed at that, and Zo could have sworn he was blushing, though it was too dark to tell. “As if she’d have me. No, I mean—about her plan.”
Zo sobered. “Ah. That we find the Bell. Wasn’t that my plan to begin with?”
The big man glanced at Zo, a wrinkle in his brow. Then he looked down at his vest pocket, from which he drew out his rock and began to fiddle with it. It was a common habit of his; the rock seemed to serve several purposes: weapon, plaything, and when Cook served oysters, it was handy for cracking shells, too. “As first mate, I advise against it.”
“Do you?” Zo raised his brows. “What’s caused your change of heart?”
Trek rolled his shoulders in a shrug. “Who says it’s changed?”
Zo narrowed his eyes. “I do. Surely if you advised against my declared course of action, you would have mentioned it before now.”
When Trek dropped his rock from his right palm to his left, it made a soft slapping sound. “Before now, the timing wasn’t quite right, Captain.”
Zo folded his arms. “You’re going to have to explain yourself a bit better than that,” he said tightly.
Trek rolled his rock back from his left hand to his right and repeated the motion of dropping it into the opposite palm again—slap. “I assumed,” Trek said evenly, not looking at Zo, “that you would change your mind in due course.” Slap. “I saw no reason to argue with my Captain prematurely.”
He hadn’t agreed with Zo’s plan to hunt the Bellringer, but he hadn’t thought Zo wouldn’t actually see it through. “I see,” Zo bit out. “And until then, you just meant to appease me?” His temper flared and his voice turned colder still. “I’m your Captain, not a child playing pirate.”
“Of course you’re the Captain,” Trek said quietly, “but also, your heart was a bit broken.” He glanced at Zo and went on hastily. “And all our hearts were broken, too. The whole crew loved her. And the other souls we’ve lost—Tabr and Pat—their losses cut us all deeply, too. I imagine there are those on the crew who would follow you into a battle we can’t win, and gladly. But recall your order, Captain—when the ship’s at anchor and under threat, and there are stragglers in the village.”
“That the crew on the ship leave the stragglers, and save themselves,” Zo muttered.
Trek nodded solemnly. “Letta wouldn’t want more of us dying for the sake of avenging her, Captain. I know that you can see that, now that you’re coming out of the darkest depths of your grief for her.”
“I’m not out of the depths,” Zo protested automatically. “I never will be.”
Trek gave him a faint smile. “But you are. You’re climbing the masts again, doing your stargazing again. You haven’t done that since she died.”
“I have.” Zo frowned. Hadn’t he?
“Not between the day we lost Letta until the day we took the Tibalt. And—its witch.”
Zo grit his teeth, very aware of—and vaguely horrified by—the way just an oblique mention of Aron made his heartbeat feel a little louder in his ears and his blood a little warmer in his veins.
“You were a drowning man, those last days on the Dreambringer. And the Tibalt, and that starved little scrap of a boy, they’ve thrown you a rope, Captain. I know it to be true.”
Zo snorted at this alarming declaration, but couldn’t quite bring himself to argue. “Your romanticized notions aside, say I heeded your advice and we don’t seek out the Bellringer. What if the engineer is right, and the witches are after us anyway? What choice do we have?”
Trek flicked his fingers dismissively. “I admire the lady engineer very much,” he said, with a brief, fond smile, “and she did tell me all about how if you were to fight a kraken, you shouldn’t cut off its arms, but seek its heart instead. I reckon I’ve fought more krakens than has Miss Elena, and I respectfully disagree. When it comes to a beast like a kraken, you don’t cut off their arms, or go for their heart, if you have any sense at all—you shake them off, and run.”
Zo fingered the hem of his cloak. “Or, you wrestle them abovewater and drown them in air, then wear their hides on your back.”
“As I said,” Trek replied crisply, “if you have any sense at all…” He broke off and laughed when Zo made as though to draw his knife at the insult. Then Zo crossed his arms over his chest and sank back against the railing again.
There was a moment’s quiet, and then Zo shook his head slowly. “To let her go, unavenged… I’m not sure I could live with it.”
“You can, though.” Trek stowed his rock and reached out and patted Zo’s knee before Zo could jerk away, then stepped off the platform and hooked his foot in the ladder. “Good night, Captain.”
Zo watched with narrow eyes as Trek climbed down, then set his jaw and directed his stare sullenly back toward the sky.
When he heard the next sailor mount the crow’s nest ladder hours later, he stood up, stiff with cold, and surrendered his post to Becka.
He found the cabin just as dark as he’d left it—but noticeably silent. He paused in the act of sliding out of his cloak and draping it over the back of the desk chair and peered toward the cot. “Are you pretending to be asleep, little witch?”
The blankets rustled, and Aron raised his sleep-rumpled head. His hair was so pale, it seemed to give off light, and his eyes were dark, but shone. “I wasn’t,” he said, a bald-faced lie that just made Zo grin, a grin that widened when Aron added, “How did you know?”
“You weren’t snoring,” Zo said. “Dead giveaway.”
“I do not snore!”
“I’ll pretend you haven’t just called me a liar.”
“You are a liar,” Aron growled. Then he pushed his hair away from his face with one hand. The movement made the collar catch the thread of moonlight through the unshuttered window. “Where were you?”
Zo walked to the cot and sat on the edge. Inches away, he could feel the warmth of the witch, emanating from his skin and the blanket he’d been wrapped in. He could smell him—skin, a faint note of sweat, and the complicated aroma of a wound… both the bright metallic scent of fresh blood and the darker fragrance of drying blood. It reminded Zo of the smell of soil, which he hadn’t smelled since his days in the Hightower. His dark eyes were luminous and mysterious, like deep water, like kraken hide.
“Sometimes I like to be out at night. I like the quiet, and the stars. It lets me think.”
Zo had one hand braced on the cot, by his hip. Aron’s inched toward it until their fingers brushed. “Since you’re awake,” Aron said quietly.
Zo looked down at Aron’s infringing hand, his narrower, paler fingers brushing lightly over Zo’s, past his knuckles, and then tracing the edge of the cuff on his wrist. “Yes?”
“I feel like there’s something that you should know.”
Zo looked up at Aron’s face, even close to, mostly shrouded by shadow. But Zo could see that Aron was looking down at the place where their hands touched, and not at Zo’s face.
“Yes?” Zo asked.
“It’s about—the Bellringer. Why I don’t—why I can’t—”
“You don’t need to worry about it,” Zo said quickly.
Aron looked up at that, his eyes wide. “I don’t?”
Zo shook his head.
“But Elena said…”
“She’s not the Captain. She’s not even on the crew. We’re pirates. We look out for ourselves. The foremost requirement of my creed is that I keep my crew and my craft safe.” The words came out of Zo’s mouth so easily, they almost felt unbidden. The choice he’d been struggling with on the crow’s nest seemed simple, with Aron’s featherlight touch on his wrist, the smell of his blood in Zo’s nose, and the collar gleaming in the moonlight. “Letta would want—it’s time for me to let her go.”
Their eyes were locked, and suddenly Aron’s didn’t seem so opaque anymore. Zo felt like he could see far beneath the surface, see what made Aron’s heart pound and sing, and he felt sure that just as Zo saw into Aron, Aron was seeing into him.
He didn’t have the opportunity to panic at the thought before there was a pounding on the cabin door.
“Captain!” The voice was unmistakably Becka’s, even muffled by the door. “There’s something on the horizon—I think it’s a ship.”
Zo surged to his feet, dragging his cloak over his shoulders again. He was conscious of Aron also stumbling out of the cot, but didn’t look back as he strode to the cabin door and pulled it open. Becka stood on its other side, her face flush with commingled fear and excitement. She was a pirate, after all, and even a battle that would be hard to win was a battle she couldn’t help but anticipate.
“Where?” he asked her as she silently passed him her spyglass.
But he already knew what she would say before she said it. “The northern horizon.”
“Get Trek,” he told her, and rushed to the aft railing of the Tibalt, the deceptively soothing sound of the calm water lapping at the hull in his ears, competing with the thunder of his pulse as he leaned out over the railing and put the spyglass to his eye.
He twisted the dial for focus. It took a few frustrating moments of scanning what looked like seamless dark water before he saw a small but definite opaque shape, and upon it, a speck of light. A ship, he knew it, with a light gleaming behind one of its portholes.
He recognized the tread of Trek’s boots on the deck behind him and pulled the spyglass from his eye and held it out without turning, searching the breeze-ruffled waves with the naked eye in vain for a sight of the shape that was so unmistakable through the spyglass. He saw nothing, and yet there was a pinprick of light, there and gone in a flash. The light in the porthole. It must have been what had gotten Becka’s attention as well.
“It’s the witch craft,” Trek said hoarsely. “What else could it be, coming straight from the First Tower?”
“That’s what we have to assume,” Zo agreed grimly.
“We could still be a day from the snap. If we make our stand here, at least the neutral water will give us some advantage,” Trek said. “Or—we run.”
Zo swallowed. “Rally the crew, and send Orand up to take over the watch. He’s got the best eye.”
Trek left without another word, and Zo raised the spyglass, searching the gloam again. This time he found his target faster. It was a dot on the water, without a single detail to indicate whether it was a natural or witch craft, but like Trek had, Zo could only assume it was the witch craft that had descended upon the First Tower, coming now for them.
The fastest way to run was due south. The problem with that course was that if they were being chased by a witch craft, one that could harness its power even in the neutral water, they might still be caught. And if they were caught on the wrong side of the snap, in the water where magic flowed freely instead of meeting the resistance of the neutral waters, the advantage would turn even more to the witch craft. But if they changed course to stay within the neutral waters’ relative protection, they’d be much less likely to outrun whoever was chasing them. Not to mention, very little of the neutral waters south of the First Tower were charted. Zo had only navigated the standard courses himself. If they deviated too much from the routes known to be safe, they risked discovering too late that they were passing over a shallow portion of sunken city when they struck a ruin with their hull.
No; if they were going to run, they’d run south, and hope that the lightweight Tibalt could outpace their pursuer, which was impossible to know without a sense of the scale and design of the specific ship, which Zo could hardly ascertain from what he’d seen through the spyglass.
Despite himself, Zo couldn’t stop himself from thinking of Aron. If they were caught on the far side of the snap, they’d have no choice but to fight. And if that happened, their pursuer wouldn’t be the only witch craft in the fight. With Aron, the Tibalt could fly. How could they not succeed, when they could dodge the brutal current of a witch storm altogether? Without the current to stop them, they could soar straight into close proximity with the with craft, and then the witch’s favorite weapon—their lightning—would do them no good at all. If their witch called it down on the Tibalt, they’d be calling it down on themselves, too.
Zoral didn’t want to do it, though. Everything within him rebelled at the idea of Aron spilling more blood, and against his will. He wasn’t tested, anyway, Zo reasoned. He could just as easily freeze them all in a block of ice as he could effectively put the Tibalt into the sky and carry out their strategy.
These were his seething thoughts as he intercepted Orand, loping toward the main mast, and handed him the spyglass. Then he fired a few more orders to the various crew members emerging onto the upper deck, some of them still settling their weapons into their belts or pulling on their boots, fresh out of their cots.
One of those still wrestling with their clothes was Olsen—and directly behind her, for some reason, was Elena. The engineer’s searching gaze fastened on Zo, and she rushed toward him, just as the door to the cabin opened and Aron emerged, jogging over to Zo as well. They reached him at the same time. Elena glanced briefly at Aron, then looked imploringly up at Zo.
“You’re hoping to make the snap? What if you fought them here, where the water won’t be on their side? You’re pirates. You know how to fight without magic.”
What she was saying wasn’t far from Zo’s own thoughts from a moment before, but he shook his head anyway, mind made up. “We’re not staging a fight here, or anywhere, unless they catch us. And they’re far enough out that they shouldn’t. The Tibalt is one of the lightest, nimblest ships I’ve seen. If we follow the wind, it shouldn’t be able to catch us.”
“But they called lightning in the neutral waters,” Aron spoke up. “Who says they can’t call the tide and the lightning still?”
“If that’s true, then it only makes my idea of staying out of reach sound even better,” Zo said matter-of-factly.
“Maybe it is better to run,” Elena allowed. “Save ourselves for the real fight with the Bellringer.”
Aron flinched, and Zo glared at her. “I know that you consider yourself an expert in craft battles and strategy, engineer, but I’ve considered your suggestion about hunting the Bellringer—and I’m disregarding it. We’ll look for a secure sea tower where we can leave you, and maybe you’ll find another crew to hatch your plan with.”
“I knew you were an idiot,” Elena said incredulously, “but I never took you for a coward, too.”
Zo loomed closer to her, his teeth gritted. “What did you say?”
“I think…” Aron said, waving his hand in a gesture that Zo could only see out of the corner of his eye.
“I called you a coward,” Elena repeated, seeming to rise onto her toes to emphasize how little he intimidated her. She stared back at him unflinchingly.
“I…” Aron tried again, his voice a little sharper.
“Maybe I won’t worry about waiting until we reach a sea tower to let you off my ship,” Zo told the engineer. “I have a row boat I could drop you into this very hour. I’ll even leave you a knife, if you’re so determined to die taking a piece out of a witch craft, you can intercept the one that’s coming yourself.”
Elena laughed bitterly, and Zo raised his brows.
“You’re declining my offer? Now who’s the coward?”
“Zo!” Aron shouted at last, and Zo wasn’t sure if it was the sound of Aron saying his name, or the volume that got his attention. Either way, he looked away from Elena to the boy, who was biting his lower lip so hard, the skin beneath the press of his teeth was white. When he saw he had Zo’s attention, he let it slide free and swallowed. “Like I was saying before. There’s something I should tell you.”
“Go on,” Zo said guardedly.
Aron’s nostrils flared with the force of his exhale, and then he dragged in another breath, as though for strength. “I know the witch craft that’s following us,” he said in a rush. Then, face flushing, he said the rest. “It’s the Bellringer.”
For a moment, Zo didn’t know what to say. Then, a surprisingly rational question occurred to him. “How do you know?”
“When we were at the First Tower, and I was tangled up with the Tibalt, I wondered about the ship that was coming. And the Tibalt heard me wondering, I guess, and answered the way it does. It showed me…” He trailed off, his voice turning into a rasp.
But though he looked pale and rattled, less blood in his cheeks than he’d had when Zo had discovered him half-unconscious on the Tibalt’s deck, making it fly, a few days before, Zo didn’t relent. “What did it show you?”
“Faces,” Aron said, his voice so quiet that it was almost lost in the commotion of the crew still racing to and fro around them. He cleared his throat. “Faces of her witches, I realized, somehow. And the last face—the last face was one I recognized. As the Bellringer’s present witch.”
Zo just stared at him, once again a thousand questions crowding in his head, but only one of them straightforward enough to ask in this moment. “How do you know the face of the Bellringer’s witch.”
“Because,” Aron said, his voice strained and his face white as a ghost’s, “my father used to draw the same face, so that I wouldn’t forget it.”
Zo realized, with dull horror, what Aron was saying before the boy finished speaking. He remembered the Bellringer’s witch in the moment he’d had a glimpse of her, when she was calling out Letta’s name, telling them they’d be spared if they turned her over willingly. She’d been a tall, but slight woman, with pale skin and white curls. Or rather, he realized numbly, blond curls so fair they seemed white, seen in the midday sun’s glare off the water.
Aron, seeing Zo’s knowledge in his eyes, nodded grimly. “It’s true. The Bellringer’s witch… is my mother.”
There, Aron thought. I said it. He’d revealed his deepest, worst secret. Not only did a witch’s blood flow in his veins, but it wasn’t the blood of just any witch. No; his mother was the fiercest of witches, feared—and in some cases, despised—throughout Sihr. And there was no one with more reason to despise her than the man in front of him.
Zo’s face was perfectly blank. He wasn’t wearing the neutral mask that Aron had grown to recognize, and at times even to see past. No, this expression was nothing so deliberate. It was simply the wiped-clean stare of someone who can’t weave a piece of new information into the fabric of reality as they know it.
The Captain opened his mouth and closed it again, his eyes fixed on Aron’s face with an unreadable intensity. The terrible moment that had begun with Aron’s revelation stretched on for another few racing heartbeats before Aron couldn’t bear the tension anymore.
“I’ve never told anyone,” he blurted, though what he wanted to say was, I’m sorry that I never told you. “I knew what it would mean.” I knew what it would mean to you. Please, don’t hate me.
Finally, Zo’s frozen expression became moveable again. But only so that he could slide on one of those cool, distant masks that had been aggravating Aron since the day they’d met. Aron grit his teeth, immediately guilty for the half-second of frustration he’d just felt.
He owes me nothing, Aron thought numbly. Less than nothing. I’m the child of the one person that he hates most, and worse, I lied to him about it.
“Get belowdecks where you’re out of the way,” Zo said flatly. His gaze snapped toward Elena. “Both of you.”
The look on his face and the tone of his voice permitted no argument, and while that wouldn’t have ordinarily stopped Aron from protesting, right now he just swallowed and hung his head, obeying instantly. He walked as fast as he could to the place in the deck where the stairs wound down and grasped the railing when he reached it. The ship’s sway—or more, the roiling of his own stomach—made Aron lean heavily against the handhold for balance, and still he almost stumbled on the first few stairs.
“Well,” Elena said faintly from just behind him as they descended. “I take it you and your mother are not—um, close?”
They reached the bottom of the stairs and Aron glanced at Elena and shook his head. “I haven’t seen her since I was a baby,” he mumbled.
Aron walked down the narrow passageway to the galley’s door without conscious thought. There weren’t a lot of options down here aside from the dark, musty cargo area or the crew’s quarters. The ship rocked again as its wind-taut sales dragged them over a resisting wave, and he and Elena both paused in the doorway, staggering for balance.
Elena swore. “Fuck. I can’t imagine I’ll ever get used to this. Fucking ships.”
Cook wasn’t there, Aron took a moment to note with relief, then he pushed away from the bulwark and threw himself onto the long bench at the table. Elena followed with smaller, more cautious steps, and kept one hand braced on the table as she circled around the end of it, as though anticipating the next violent motion of the ship. She took a seat on the opposite bench from Aron so that they faced one another across the table’s narrow top.
“So, you grew up motherless,” Elena said, in a tone that made Aron think she was trying to feign sympathy, and wasn’t very good at ruses. “That sounds rough.”
Aron leaned his elbows against the table and sank his head into his hands, raking his hair back over his ears. He glared up at her. “I don’t know. Maybe it would have been more rough if she had been around. I doubt she was the nurturing type. Seeing as how she must have given the Bellringer a few bodies’ worth of blood to call lightning in the neutral waters.” He felt sick. He rarely thought about who his mother was. Even in the whirlwind of the past several days, when he’d had every reason to have her on his mind, he had relied on his old habit of keeping those thoughts firmly at bay.
Elena just shrugged, so nonchalant that Aron wondered if anything could shock her. “People are different with their children. Or, they can be.”
Aron hesitated, then shrugged. “Maybe. My father used to tell me that it was her idea that he take me away. That she was worried about me, as a child with witch’s blood, staying with her, where people would know what I was. But maybe he just wanted to make me feel better.”
Elena looked at him steadily and not unkindly, but without pity. He appreciated that; if he’d detected pity, he didn’t think he could have said anything on the subject of his family. As it was, he found it surprisingly bearable to say these words, even if his skin crawled a little. She said, “Maybe he lied to you. But if he did tell you the truth, and she wanted to protect you back then, it might be true still. And if it is, then she might not attack us if she knew you were on board.”
Aron snorted. “I wouldn’t want to take that gamble. And even if I did, I don’t know how we’d let her know.”
“If only you weren’t an aron only in name,” Elena said, smiling briefly. “If you were, we could put messages in little bottles, and you’d carry them to the land where you were born.”
She was referring to the old story of the land birds—the arons, they’d been called in the myth. Massive, long-winged creatures that could soar over miles of open water, past the edge waters and the ends of the world, high into the clouds and down again to the land, another mythical notion, where living cities stretched in a dreamy mimicry of the drowned sunken cities.
Aron had never liked the story, though he couldn’t say why. Maybe it was because he hadn’t heard it from his parents, the way most children did. Instead, a boy at lessons had said something silly to him about not having very good wings, for an aron. And when Aron, confused, told his father about it later, his father had seemed upset.
“Your name has nothing to do with the story,” Aron’s perpetually patient father had all but snapped. “We just liked the sound of the name.”
While Aron’s thoughts snagged in the memory, Elena had moved on in her musings. “I know that you can’t exactly call out to her and wave. By the time we’re close enough for that, we’ll already be trading cannon fire, I assume.”
“Cannon fire for lightning,” Aron said grimly.
Elena shook her head slowly. “Maybe,” she said. “We can’t be sure whether it’s still capable of using magic. Whatever blood they—that is, your mother—had on hand, she might have spent at the First Tower.”
Aron heard one crewman call to another, the rise and fall of voices unmistakable though the sound was too muffled by the decking over his head for him to make out the exact words. He felt a surge of frustration that he was down here—ordered to do nothing more than get out of the way—when he could and should be helping. He was the Tibalt’s—and Zoral’s—witch, whether Zoral liked it or not.
“Maybe I can find out whether they’re calling the tide.”
“Through the Tibalt?”
Aron nodded, then immediately paused. “It’s difficult, though.” He’d described the feeling of being attached to the Tibalt to Zo as being caught under crashing waves, and he repeated the metaphor for Elena.
She sat up a little straighter, and Aron found himself echoing her posture, his hands falling away from his head as he drew himself upright. “What is it?” he asked.
Her books were still sitting within reach, and she grasped one and pulled it toward her, opening the cover and thumbing through the pages. The one where she stopped was a little more worn than the rest. She traced her fingertip around a semicircular rune at the bottom left corner. “This rune,” she said, almost like she was speaking to herself. “The cracked stone.” She glanced up at Aron and went on with more energy. “A few years back, at home—that is, at the First Tower—I happened to be close to the docks one day when there was a witch craft having trouble. I casually got closer when I realized I might have a chance to observe a witch in person. The anchor release was jammed. Probably barnacle buildup, and the divers who normally get called in for problems beneath the docks were all away, and not coming back any time soon. The Captain of that craft didn’t want to wait for them, so he had called his witch to take care of the matter themselves.”
Despite everything, a lopsided smile ghosted over Aron’s mouth. “Did they fly off and break the chain?”
Elena smirked back at him. “No. The Captain told the witch to call a focused current that could blast loose the jam on the anchorpoint.”
It was common knowledge that witch magic manifested in massive ways—in storms, and racing currents, and towering waves. It took much more skill and energy to do anything precise. “In the neutral waters,” Aron’s brows rose. “That must have taken the witch’s own blood—and a rune.”
Elena nodded her head emphatically. “Exactly. The Captain drew it for her. It was the cracked stone.”
Aron’s eyes widened. “For focus.” It seemed so simple now that she’d said it. And it would have taken an immense focus, indeed, to create such a tiny, powerful current and aim it at a relatively small target. Like threading a needle, Aron though, blindfolded—and with your toes.
Elena closed her book and pushed it aside, then rustled through her parchment, muttering to herself. She didn’t seem to find what she was looking for, so she lifted her head and peered around the galley a moment. Something on the far wall near Cook’s stove seemed to catch her eye, and she sprang onto the bench and took two steps across the tabletop before jumping down on the other side, like she was too excited to waste the second or two it would take to go around the end.
She reached onto her tiptoes to retrieve a tin from one of Cook’s tidy shelves. Aron shuddered, hardly able to believe anyone would have the audacity to disturb Cook’s stores.
Elena appeared undisturbed by her own recklessness though. She uncapped the tin and splashed some of its powdery contents onto the table in front of Aron. He recognized fine-ground flour. A puff of pale brown dust rose from it and tickled his nose until he leaned back, rubbing his face. She smoothed the stuff out into a rough oval shape, then drew in the middle of it with her fingertip. Aron recognized the cracked stone, though he might not have without context. It wasn’t a common rune.
He gave Elena a thoughtful, wary look. “You know a lot about this, for an engineer.”
She glanced up at him, forming the notched edge of the shape with careful strokes. “As though an engineer has any area of expertise,” she murmured. “We’re just a creed for the perpetually curious. Most of us know a bit more about artifacts than anything else, but only because that’s the knowledge that tends to pay the most leaves and make someone useful to their tower.” She finished the rune and carefully lifted her hand, tilting her head as she assessed her handiwork. “Most of us have pet interests. Runes happen to be mine.”
“Dangerous,” Aron noted quietly. He’d heard stories about more than one engineer who dabbled too much in runes… if they drew the attention of the witch craft Captains, it could end badly. Though the details were usually too vague to officially pin blame, there was rarely much doubt who was responsible for the sudden disappearances of those engineers who poked their noses into the wrong parts of Sihr’s lost history.
“I’ve always been more curious than sensible,” she said, not sounding bothered by the self-declared fact, and sat down on the bench across from Aron, nodding at the flour-traced rune. “Try it.”
Aron hesitated, and she rolled her eyes.
“What? It’s not like I didn’t watch you put more blood onto the upper deck than you kept in your body. I’m not talking about anything dire. Just a few drops.” She scooped up one of her quills, testing the sharpness of its endpoint against the ball of her thumb, and then, seemingly satisfied that it was up to the task, she nudged it toward Aron. “Here.”
He pressed his lips together and breathed in deeply through his nose, though it wasn’t the slight pain of the quill’s prick against his skin that he was bracing himself for. Then he lifted the quill, poised it over the pad of his forefinger, and pressed firmly. When blood welled, he his hand over the rune, palm-down. The first drop formed beneath his finger, clung a moment, and then fell, striking inside the perfect curve of the first stroke Elena had drawn. The droplet glittered for a half-second, holding its shape, then burst and spread, quickly racing around the entire shape of the rune, as though it had multiplied a thousandfold. A red-tinged haze rose an inch off the table in the same shape as the rune, lingering for several seconds before it evaporated. When the mist was gone, there was no lingering sign of any blood or magic, only a shape drawn in flour.
But Aron knew he hadn’t imagined the last few seconds, because his anxiousness from the moment before his blood lit up the rune had been snatched from him, like a feather caught in a burst of wind, vanished in an instant.
In fact, all his emotions were suddenly absent. His heart slowed to a perfect, steady, rhythm, like a drumbeat, and his muscles somehow grew taut and eased at the same moment, pulling him into a straighter posture, his spine lengthening, his shoulders dropping.
He could see every detail of Elena’s face with a strange objectivity. The glint of her eyes was no more significant than the shadows to either side of her nose or the wisp of hair that curled under her earlobe.
“Well?” she asked eventually, and with conscious effort, Aron focused on her eyes. They were slightly narrowed; watchful. “Is it working?”
His voice was so calm and toneless, he almost didn’t recognize it as his own. “There is some effect.”
Another bead of blood had formed on his fingertip. It caught Aron’s eye, a perfect, shining thing, despite its tiny size. Slowly, he moved his hand so that when the next drop of blood fell, it struck the deck instead of the table. Instantly, the Tibalt drank it in.
He turned cautiously to the space inside himself where the Tibalt was anchored, and where he could feel its delight in his blood. But instead of the brutal, breath-stealing tide of the craft, he instead felt like he was rowing through calm water, in a snug rowboat with strong oars that went exactly where he pointed it, no less and no more.
The Tibalt felt even more manic than usual, in contrast to Aron’s newfound steadiness, but he was like a tower in the middle of a storm, immoveable despite its chaos. Yet the union of mind between it and Aron was still there, which meant that its senses were Aron’s. He unfurled them.
He could have calculated the weight of the water from the surface to the sea bottom with all its crushing potential and variable heat. He could have broken the moonlight into its individual rays and the magnetic force of its distant, insistent allure. He could have let himself be drawn like a starving man to bread toward the pure and unburdened water that lay just over the southern horizon on the south side of the snap.
Armored with the rune’s power, Aron wasn’t pulled apart by the vastness of these possibilities. Instead, he focused solely on the ship drawing ever-nearer between the tugging water and dark sky to the north.
The Bellringer. Like all witch crafts, it was covered in runes, both etched into its hull and painted on the surface. But with the Tibalt’s senses, Aron was aware of the invisible runework too; the runes that had sunk so deeply into the boards they weren’t strictly visible. The ones that lingered even if the ancient paint that first drew them was gone. The fresh runes glowed and the older runes were a mist, no less pervasive for being less bright. And as the ship tipped and moved with the wind and the water, it shimmered with an imbued power that the Tibalt knew to be the still-virulent magic the ship drew from the dry bones of witches thousands of years dead, laced into its hull like the ribs of an animal.
Aron was grateful for the rune, which made it easier to shake off the layer of senses that were strictly the Tibalt’s and ignore the evidence of all the pain and death that had fed the Bellringer in its long life. Then, he could study the ship the way he might have perceived it if he’d been standing on a dock in a port where it was anchored, looking at it with his own, human eyes.
It rode low in the water, the lower row of portholes half-submerged. They gave off an eerie, rippling light through the dark water. The upper deck was practically empty, a stark contrast to the bustle and noise of the Tibalt’s decks, where the crew still raced back and forth. Maybe the Bellringer hadn’t yet sighted its prey the way the Tibalt had spotted its pursuer.
Only one person stood on the deck—a woman, tall and straight-backed with long, dark, braided hair. She was simply dressed, with a long knife holstered on either of her shoulders so that they crossed at the center of her back. She had high cheekbones and small, narrowed eyes. Her long, bare arms were ropy with muscle and she seemed impervious to the cold wind Aron knew to be blowing along the water. She was beautiful and dangerous-looking, but the frown on her face wasn’t the expression of an avid hunter staring after its quarry. She just looked grim.
It was very difficult to parse sound when he was with the Tibalt this way, Aron was learning. Everything that his mind was processing as though it had entered through Aron’s own ears was a low drone, like he was submerged in water. When the woman turned and her mouth flexed in a tense half-smile of greeting, he heard the stilted word she spoke in a stretch of delayed noise, like he was hearing the echo of something that she’d said seconds before.
But he thought she said, “More?”
And then the Tibalt, sensing where Aron wish to look, swiveled its focus toward the person approaching across the deck with sure strides. She was as tall as the first woman, but older and with lean, hard angles where the other woman had muscled curves. The first woman was fair of skin, in contrast to the dark spill of her hair, but the second woman was paler still, nearly ethereal. Aron recognized the pallor of his own skin, and the dark brown color of his own eyes, and the wispy silver curls, longer than his, that spilled to this woman’s shoulders.
The Bellringer’s witch. Aron’s mother.
He didn’t even know her name. He wondered how he’d failed to ever ask his father. Back then, though, it hadn’t seemed to matter. To Aron, she was his mother, a figure he could imagine how he liked, given her utter absence in his life. And to the wider world, she was the Bellringer’s witch, nothing more and nothing less. What room had there been in his thoughts of her for a name?
But seeing her—with marks of tiredness around her eyes and a weary smile on her lips—he was bewildered that he didn’t know her name. She must have one. She was so obviously, so alarmingly human. And humans had names.
Her mouth moved, but just as it had with the first woman, the sound came later. And the cadence and pitch of her speech seemed more blurred together, but Aron thought she might have said, “Yes,” and, “Only a little.”
The first woman held out her arm, and Aron’s mother held her gently, almost tenderly, by the wrist with her own left hand. Then, she raised her right hand, and the moonlight flashed on the wickedly sharp edge of a small knife. Without hesitation, she pressed the blade firmly into the dark-haired woman’s forearm, and blood welled and dripped onto the deck.
The Bellringer immediately lurched like it had been dozing, and just awoke. Its sails snapped and, even unmanned, they panned to better position themselves against the wind. For there were no sailors, still. Aron marveled at that. Even a powerful witch craft still had a human crew. Where were they?
But this was not pure, unfettered power. The Tibalt could see what Aron could not, after all, and it showed him how the current had to be forced with blood, when normally it would eagerly answer a witch’s whispered call. A few drops of the dark-haired woman’s blood would ordinarily carry the ship for days. Now, each one lasted just a few leagues.
The two women remained standing together near the railing, Aron’s mother’s thumb digging into the skin beneath the wound she’d made in the other woman’s arm until the first woman winced, though she did not pull away.
Will they catch us? he asked the Tibalt.
The Tibalt rushed to fill Aron’s senses with impressions. The near-silence of riding high in the sky, a sea without waves. Below, the fields of green in whatever lost or make-believe paradise it wished to seek. For a moment Aron thought it had misunderstood his question. Then he realized that it was trying to tempt him to fly, as it had when they’d escaped the First Tower and he’d asked it to set itself back down on the water.
Without flying, Aron thought firmly. Without my blood. Will they catch us?
The ship made another one of its wordless answers—the quickened current beneath the Bellringer, fed drop-by-drop with the dark-haired woman’s blood, and the sun boiling over the horizon. Aron understood the answer to be Yes. Near sunrise.
He unpeeled himself from the Tibalt’s consciousness and lifted his head from where it had been resting on the table in the galley, finding himself suddenly back in his own, infinitesimal and inconsequential body while the Tibalt rocked on the ocean, an ocean carrying their attacker ever-closer. He blinked a few times, but his mind still felt painfully sharp until he reached out and dashed a hand through the rune. As soon as the shape was cleared, its power ceased. He drew a deep, relieved breath at the abated sensation of its effects.
Elena looked at him grimly from the other side of the table. “Well?”
“She’s using power. The neutral water is slowing them down, but not enough. At this rate they’ll probably reach us by sunrise.”
“Unless we fly.”
“It would take a lot of my blood to even try, and even then, I don’t know if it would work on this side of the snap. I think it would be better to wait. I heard them say we might reach the snap before sunrise. Hopefully that’s true, and we’ll reach it before the Bellringer reaches us.”
“You need to tell Zoral what you saw.”
“Of course,” Aron murmured, but the thought of looking at Zoral, and seeing his shuttered expression as he looked back, filled Aron with dread. In the same moment, he winced at an odd, almost numbing sensation in his throat. When he reflexively put his hand to his neck, he shuddered at the feeling of the collar under his palm. For the first time since Zoral had put it on Aron, it wasn’t warm—or burning hot in command—but shockingly cold. He had to assume it was a signal that the man wearing the cuff to Aron’s collar wasn’t very happy with him. “If he’ll listen,” Aron added grimly.