By Chris Wright
His world tipped and rolled, screeching its displeasure, threatening to fall apart. Again. Cruel, biting water spat in his face, stinging his eyes, and his stomach gargled and spun. By the Gods, he hated the sea.
They’d said it would be better up top, where his eyes could make sense of what his body could not, but the vomit continued to rise up his throat and his mind continued to whirl, like the ale clutched in his hand was his thirtieth, and not his third. He drank from it, throwing half down his shirt and wincing at the salty taste.
Footsteps, heavy boots on wood, rang out behind him and a rugged greeting lost itself to the wind. He turned.
An old sailor walked his way, his posture straight as a ballerina, well taught legs rolling with the waves with practiced ease. He was a big man, almost as big as he himself, with broad shoulders and a barrelled chest. His sleeves were rolled up, revealing thick, sinewy forearms, tanned permanently red and painted with sloppy tattoos. His age was indeterminate, somewhere between thirty and seventy, as his craggy face bore salt-torn skin, stubbled cheeks and hard-earned eyes. He didn’t smile, none of them did, but his expression was unthreatening and he offered a nod, which was shakily returned.
“Kagaso,” the sailor rumbled his name as way of greeting, leaning on the bar rail beside him.
What elegant wordsmiths he shared the boat with. Still, he preferred it this way; this sort were far more liable to try and stick a knife in your front than your back; a rookie mistake. The pause was left open as a silent prompt, with an enquiring glance to the passenger. He considered for a moment.
“Ryda,” he said at last, testing it himself.
“If you say so,” Kagaso replied. “First time on water?”
“And the last, Gods be good.”
But when are they ever? He thought. Gods be marginally less like arseholes was a somewhat more realistic hope but for him, even that was a stretch. He’d once had a Cossettian Monk tell him that in a past life, he must have pissed in Creus’ soup. It came to something when even the clergy blasphemed on your behalf, even if it was against their heathen false-gods.
“She’s an ‘arsh mistress, aye,” the sailor replied. “But she loves them what love ‘er back. Treat ‘er right and she’ll not hurt ya.”
Ryda grunted and forced his eyes not to roll at the seaman’s asinine inanities. The idiom had the ring of something the sailor had once heard and, in his idiocy, thought profound. Ryda couldn’t help but picture him saying it to every passenger who had ever graced his ship.
“Where d’ya hail from?”
Fuck off and leave me alone was the first answer that sprung to Ryda’s mind but he swallowed it harshly with the vomit in his throat. He had to live for two more months with this man and the wild, cramped conditions of a mariner’s life made a blade slipped between the ribs all too easy. And, frankly, he always preferred to do the slipping.
“Oh aye? Me mam’s from round those parts. Whereabouts?”
This time it was a smile that Ryda had to bite back. It was the forced casualness of the question, the little glance, the feigned indifference. The lumbering oaf clearly fancied himself as something of a sheriff. Probably sent by his cronies to feel out their mysterious passenger. If this was the best they could offer, he prayed to the Mother Moon that their sailing had circumvented their idiocy.
“East,” he replied simply, grinning inwardly at the triumphant look of confirmed suspicion that raced across Kagaso’s salty features. He opened his mouth to speak again. Ryda didn’t let him. “Turata district, at the Newtown end of the Jurinhay docks. I was born in the 8/10 block, the Yellow Monster we called it, but I moved to the 7/3 when I was young. Border-side, next to the Blessed Solar Temple. Does your mother know Holy Master Kirosho? He’s served that area for fifty years.”
Kagaso fumbled for a second.
“Er, yeah. He were there for her wedding. Great man. Blessings on ‘im.”
Ryda clasped his hands together in the appropriate gesture of response before grasping tightly at the rail once more. He found it rather unlikely that Kagaso’s mother really did know Holy Master Kirosho. Velda Durj was one of the biggest cities in the empire, not some little backwater where everyone knew the local priest. And quite apart from that, Ryda had just made him up that second. He felt secure in his lie. None of them were returning to Sallundia any time soon, least of all Ryda himself. He couldn’t.
“Big step,” Kagaso spoke again, undeterred by Ryda’s unenthusiastic replies. It seemed he was one of those men who would only get the hint when it was written on a bat and he was bashed over the head with it. Though, presumably, he would need the healer to read to him what it actually said. “The journey, I mean. New world. No family, friends. It’s a frontier, you know, hard life there, so I hear.”
Well thanks for the warning, friend, Ryda thought. In that case, spin the ship around and sail me the two days back to Sallundia.
“I hear the same. Nothing wrong with a hard life though. Like you say, new worlds to see, new challenges to conquer.”
“You’re an adventurer then?”
Well, the sheriffs might have another word for it. He didn’t answer the question. The sea swelled, tilting the ship and spilling his patience with the last of his ale.
“It’s a one way trip for you too,” he said. “Sailor or not, you’d be mad to make the journey twice. Even Father Sun’s blessings only go so far.”
“True enough,” Kagaso said. “All sorts on this ship; different blokes, different stories. All looking for the same thing though. A new start. Maybe even somewhere where folks don’t ask too many questions.”
Amota’s your place, Ryda thought. Gods know it’s not the deck of this fucking ship. He was about to articulate a more civil response when the sea roared upwards beneath them and the entire ship wobbled like a virgin drunk. He didn’t mean it, it was an instinct, like throwing his hands to the ground when falling face first. His grip slipped on the rail and he tilted and stumbled. He stretched his palm out to the ground, reaching for his power with effortless finesse and pushing out at the floor. The power pulsed out from his hand, reaching beneath him like an invisible limb and righting him on his feet.
It took but a second but it was long enough. Realising what he had done, he snapped his eyes to Kagaso to find the big man stilled in surprise and fear. He froze himself and scrutinised the sailor closely for the first time. He washed an experienced eye over him, looking for bulges and shapes. There was a large mariner’s knife at his hip, slung through his belt and hidden by a baggy old tunic. Kagaso didn’t reach for it. In fact, he didn’t move at all, content, it seemed, to simply stare Ryda down with an unsure weariness. Knife aside, the man seemed unarmed. Ryda kept his eye on such things and he hadn’t seen a pinch of gunpowder since boarding the ship. Well, except for the tab hidden in his inner cloak pocket, next to his miniature wheellock.
His hand slipped surreptitiously to his pocket and caressed the pistol’s fine wood handle, seeking its comfort as he continued to stare off with the sailor. It was seconds, nothing more, though Ryda’s anxious mind spun it into a standoff. A moment of shock, of deeply-ingrained fear, and Kagaso had shaped his expression back to benevolence.
“Like I say, we get all sorts. No one’s here to judge.”
Ryda nodded, relieved, though he knew nothing, or at least nothing that he was willing to do, could prevent this knowledge spreading through the ship like an errant flame. An Empowered on the ship. He could look forward to more bullishly subtle interrogations, he knew. Questions and curiosities that must not go unanswered and the most important of all already ringing in Kagaso’s head. Was he of one of the favoured clans? The Emperor’s own? Was he to be respected and revered or hated and feared? Was his power a gift from the Gods or of dark, unforgivable magics?
What a joke. How could the power be stolen? The favoured were simply that; old family, old friends, of Emperors gone by. But who was to argue with men who spoke with the Gods? Their representative on earth. What a joke. The Sun and the Moon, the Earth and the Stars; their concerns were their own, their ways unknowable. They favoured no one and certainly not Ryda.
“It’s fish for dinner,” Kagaso suddenly announced. “Cook’s serving up in ten minutes.”
Though a trace of fear remained, there was something of a thawing in Kagaso’s demeanour. A small acceptance burgeoning through the faux geniality of before. It was true what he had said. A ship like this, heading off to the new world; to Amota with its monsters and mysteries, through the Savage Seas surrounding it to a dangerous new frontier, it attracted a certain sort of people. All sorts of characters, all sorts of people, all running from something. Kagaso, it seemed, was happy to know Ryda’s secret, or at least to think he knew it. And an Empowered could be useful on any voyage, though everyone knew they were not to be trusted, not if they were unfavoured.
Ryda breathed a heavy sigh, scrubbing his calloused hands across his face and fighting the nausea from the twisting waves. Why was he doing this? He knew of course; it was them. But was it worth it? Leaving it all, everything he had known for the danger and death of the seas and Amota? He knew the answer of course, though it pained him no less to bear it. Yes.
He sighed again and reluctantly released the hand rail, tipping back his tankard and swallowing a mouthful of seawater before he remembered his ale had gone. He cursed and threw the mug to the floor before waddling after the disappearing back of Kagaso. Slipping and sliding across the deck, he edged closer to a dinner he wouldn’t keep down. It was going to be a long journey.
By Chris Wright
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