“Tell me what you are,” Ruby said, and the blade of the longsword, streaked with warm vermilion, did not shake.
A fresh sweat broke out on the Verani captain’s forehead, welling up through a pate that already gleamed in the beating sun. It must have stung the cut that still sluggishly bled into his hair. The twitch of his hands said he was considering lying to her, asking what she meant. “What I—?”
“Save your honor and do not make me ask again,” Ruby said, deepening her voice like Mother’s when her commands were questioned.
It was all the man needed. His hands fell to the deck where he knelt and his chin dropped. He was silent for two long heartbeats, long enough for Ruby to wonder what it must be like, a captain from the land empires knowing now that his only immortality would be the emblem she, his last enemy, would carry on her skin, a living memory of pain. “I am wind over the sea,” he whispered, and this time the words were thick with a truth, his last; “a cold nor’wester before morning, clouds chased by the sun.” Though his voice did quaver, he did not weep; as he surrendered his spirit’s secret shape, the form of his unique humanity, Ruby swallowed an unexpected rush of pity and admiration.
A stillness stole over her, at its core a wild uncertainty like a swaying deck that she clamped down on hard. How could a man that had fought with such violence have an essence so gentle? A mystery that would die with him, if he fell here. If she killed him.
“Ruby.” Mother’s voice was cold as the north sea in winter. She would not say in front of the gathered crew what she had said so many times behind the thick door of the captain’s cabin. “You are sixteen and unmarked. It shames me.” Mother, who carried more marks than any freebooter on any sea in the world, not just the West, where she ruled.
It shamed Ruby. She clenched her sword hilt, willed herself to coldness. He will go back, she told herself, if he lives he will go back and the empires will think they have won, that they can trespass here. Were their roles reversed, Ruby knew without doubt that the Verani would slice her throat with not a moment’s hesitation.
The sharp thunk of boot-heels, and Mother’s shadow fell across her. “You prolong his suffering,” she hissed, deep anger clipping her words, and disgrace crept through Ruby’s blood like seeping bilge. “Finish this, Ruby,” she ground, low and terrible, but it was with pain, “or so help me I will put you off at the next port.”
The captain watched stoically over the waves. He had to have heard Mother’s words, but if so he gave no sign. “Thank you,” Ruby told him quietly, and opened his throat with her blade.
A roar like a swift thunderstorm filled her ears, covering the choking of her foe, and her heart began to pound again as the thick stench of copper filled the air. For an instant blackness rimmed her vision, and if it weren’t for all of the blood she would think the man’s thrashing a grisly pantomime.
Adrenaline faded, and she began to remember her own wounds: a stinging at the back of her neck that had been far too close, she’d hear about that, and a long mark down her calf that she suspected would show quite well when it scarred. The sun was strangely bright, or else the return of vision stunned her.
Mother’s expression was a wild mosaic. The lift of her eyebrows was pride, the redness of her cheek excitement, the whiteness at the corner of her lips apprehension, maybe even sadness. Though there were crow’s feet framing her famous green eyes, no grey yet marked the riotous scarlet curls that would not be contained by her battered leather cap. Those were the curls that chilled the bones of many a lookout, seen through a spyglass; they proclaimed her Rhiannon, the Sea Queen, commander of the flagship Viere d’Inar, the Crown of the Sea. And down from them, covering her neck, her arms, virtually her entire body beneath her linen and armor, a maze of inkwork, some said a thousand tattoos—one for each man or woman she had killed, as was custom. With a sharp gesture between two onlookers she ordered the body of Ruby’s opponent, now two moments dead, commended to the waves.
“You’re a woman now, Ruby,” Mother said, all trespass forgotten, then reached out to pull her closer by the neck, banging their foreheads together, grinning fiercely. The cinnamon musk of her leather oil engulfed them. “You’ve had your first blood.” The hands all laughed at that, and Mother waved them back to their posts, dispatching a small group to see to the new vessel and tally plunder. When the sundries were assigned, she turned back to Ruby. “Where’ll you have him put?” she asked, intent as an osprey sighting prey.
“Left hand,” she said, sweeping a fingertip down the inside of her thumb and half holding her breath. Mother smiled again with wolfish pride and Ruby felt a warm glow through her middle.
“A good place,” Mother said. “No hiding it. And it’ll hurt like hell.” Her relish was unmistakable. “We’ll have it done here, at the helm, and Wymar will add a mark to the wheel to celebrate it. You and our Lady Crown will be bound at last.”
“At last,” Ruby said, as the two crewmen lashed the wind-man’s sword to his wrist and lifted him over the rail. The splash was heavy but the sea swallowed fast, and soon was peacefully lapping the hull once more.
A stiff breeze, cold and sweet, shook the Viere’s furled sails like albatross feathers, filling the twilight with the sound of snapping canvas and creaking rig. Ruby leaned out over the prow, feet braced against the wooden wall, arms stretched down toward the water with fingers spread. She twitched her left hand, reprimanding her fingertips for ticking towards the still healing ink on the inside of her thumb. The reed needles had, indeed, hurt like hell, but the meticulous wind spiral with the sunrays below (“clouds chased by the sun,” his voice whispered when she looked at it, so she didn’t, often) had been lauded by all as a near-perfect first mark. Wymar had done well. He’d lost his legs to a cannonball five years ago but earned his keep tattooing flesh and sewing sail. When her eyes strayed toward the black ink she still saw the Verani captain’s scuffed boot slipping across the rail to join the sea’s final darkness.
The waves below were green and lively. When Ruby closed her eyes the sea rushed up inside her, thundering through her blood. For an instant she was a girl again, terrified, nearly overwhelmed by the cold vastness, swallowed into the dark. Mother, awed (Mother was never awed), telling her she had a great gift, a blessing from the goddess of the sea. Blessing or not, some terror still lived there, when she opened herself to the waves. But she always came back to do it again. Here there were no sails, no beams, no orders and no captain—only the wild water. Mother might think it a gift, but only because she would never know Ruby would wear only this if she could, not the weight of a captain’s tricorne. The truth, as truths often did, would break her heart.
A hum in the back of her skull told her that a storm was approaching—big, but not enough to threaten the Viere d’Inar. The waves knew, carried the song of it out across the miles, up from deep fathoms, down down down from the glass surface. Ruby had loved the sea, adored it with a deep and terrible rapture she had never felt for anything living or dead, from the moment she first reached out to it—but she loved it in a storm best of all.
With her hands stretched in the salt air, Ruby poured herself into the sea, exulted in its rush and churn.
And the storm came, first blotting out the sun, then piercing the fabric of cloud and wave with needles of white fire. She gave herself up to it, to the primal abandon, the madness that brushed so close to death. It flung her away from mortality, danced at the edge of oblivion, washed away identity and everything with it, filled her with the real.
Rain hissed across the deck from stern to prow, soaking her to the skin in moments. To those huddled in the cabin this would seem a quiet storm, meditative almost, the drum of rain and the occasional rolling boom of thunder on the waves—but Ruby felt it through her blood as a wild symphony, shifting clouds and folding whitecaps crashing together in rhythms that vibrated her ribs and cleansed her heart.
But then—there was something else.
It took her a long moment to distinguish it, to pull the piercing cry out of the exultant wail of the storm across the serrated waves. She struck rain from her eyes impatiently and squinted into the clouds. There, finally—an erratic white shape tossed to and fro between thunderheads. When it dropped close enough to make its size and form recognizable, she gasped in a breath that brought a lungful of rain with it, choked, and stumbled toward the alarm bell.
The storm swallowed every other gong of the bell, but the rumble of boots up the steps and across the deck vindicated her. Shouts of surprise and wonder stopped her from pointing out the twisting shape in the sky.
For several long minutes they watched helplessly as the creature—an impossible relic, eagle’s head and lion’s body, a gryphon, her heart insisted, but it could not be—battled the storm. It would disappear entirely into black anvil clouds, sometimes for long enough that they were sure it had escaped the storm, but inevitably it reappeared—lower in the sky.
Finally—and now they could spy wings, tufted tail, hooked beak—the figure passed beneath the storm’s intense influence and gained control of its flight again, though weakly. Mother had come to stand beside Ruby, and by her white-rimmed eyes Ruby knew that she, too, had thought the last gryphons extinct decades ago, now nothing more than a nautical tall tale told by bearded men with the blue madness. But here was one dropping out of the sky.
And coming closer.
Gradually the crew began to realize that the creature was, in fact, headed for the ship. A low murmur of concern and suspicion grew into a buzz of alarm punctuated by shouts as the gryphon circled the ship, dropping ever closer.
Mother brought them to quick order. “Clear a space on the deck, all of you,” she barked, and the crew scuttled. “Stay away from the rail. Get your backs against something tall!”
The gryphon was so close that they could feel the added wind of his wingbeats. In one final pass, he nearly clipped the mainsail, then folded his wings—more of a collapsing motion than anything with deliberate elegance—and dropped straight down, impacting the deck with a force that caused the entire ship to list starboard. As all hands leapt for purchase, Ruby dove for a salt-crusted cleat in the deck and wrapped herself around it, stomach lurching as the Viere quickly swung herself aright.
Silence, and then, slowly, she looked up.
What had been a distant figure tossed by the wind was now a large heap of giant feathers on the deck. For one horrified moment Ruby wondered if the impact had killed him. How she knew it was a ‘him’ was a mystery, but there was no more mistaking it than the hugeness of the sky or the color of the sea. As he lifted his head, Mother gripped Ruby’s arm.
The fury of the ocean spun in his indigo eyes, strange and familiar. Ruby pulled away from her mother and stepped close to kneel near the massive white head. “Who are you?” she asked. Could he speak? Would he?
( Ellisar, ) he said, and the crew drew back as one at the voice in their minds. Ruby turned the “sound” around in her head. Even strained, exhausted, his voice was brassy and more resonant than a human’s. The gryphon’s head lolled to one side as if in a swoon, but the eye remained keen, searching the sky. ( I need—to go inside, ) he said, as if the last word were strange even in thought.
The crew erupted in objections. Some wanted to toss him back into the storm, others insisted that this would be powerful bad luck, and still more wanted to hold him hostage while he was weak. A few even blamed him for the storm itself. The contingent that wanted to toss him back to the wind and waves seemed to be winning out when the gryphon clawed his way to his feet. A desperate certainty filled Ruby; this gryphon knew the sea, knew it as none Ruby had ever met could claim to. They would not have him. She tensed, ready to defend him with her own body if need be, searching the crew and picking out who was most dangerous. Valentin, the Maresh knife-brawler; Jarek, whose real name none knew....
The gryphon’s quiet stare visibly chilled the hearts of the most hardened sailors—even old bald Remi, who had known sea wars and the systematic loss of all his blood-kin—but something about the way he lifted his wings sent a ripple of electricity up Ruby’s spine. ( Unwise, ) he said only; and as he spoke, the waves beyond the ship grew steeper. Masts creaked as the sea picked up speed again, rolling against the hull with slowly increasing force.
The crew exchanged tense mutters again, and some even reached for weapons, near to panic as they watched the waves rise.
“Enough now,” Mother said, and heated exchanges died on chastened lips. She did not raise her voice and did not need to; hands drifted away from cutlasses and knives. The line of her shoulders was taut as she turned toward the gryphon. “Ellisar, is it?” The massive beak dipped in the smallest of nods. “You can speak to the ocean. My daughter can, as well, but she is untrained.”
Ruby stiffened, breath catching in her throat.
( I can teach her, in return for your hospitality. ) The waves did not cease their onslaught, nor slacken. Ruby’s heart leapt with them, with possibility.
“That would be most agreeable,” Mother said, and turned back toward Ruby. The heady, looming wave broke over her, washing her in euphoria—to be trained to the sea.... “Ruby, establish him in the main hold.” With that and not so much as a sniff more, she returned her attention to the crew and gave rapid orders that sent them all scrambling, if not without backward glances.
The gryphon tucked his wings back to his shoulders. Ruby just caught the breathed word of a command she couldn’t identify, and the waves at last smoothed, lowering the ship. Her heart didn’t subside with them, but continued to hammer with guilty elation. Here was a chance to learn the ways of the sea she loved—but what then? To return afterward to the command her mother dreamed for her would most certainly be more agonizing than never learning in the first place. But speculation, as usual, was moot; Mother had ordered, and so she would obey. “This way,” she said, and pointed toward the hold.
Chin resting on folded arms atop the curved rail of the Viere’s slender bow , Ruby sighed as she watched the last edge of the storm drift off toward the horizon. The gryphon had seemed particularly un-mythic as he staggered into the hold, braced himself against a wall, and curled up like a very large cat to sleep. Ruby had watched him for a solid hour, then crept back out to the deck for a breath of fresh air.
She closed her eyes and reached out to the water again, sifting through its soothing presence, letting it smooth the rolling waves within her. Down she drifted into emerald coolness, salt and life.
( You’re a natural, you know. )
Ruby whirled, pulling her mind away from the depths so wrenchingly that her head spun, but the curved knife drawn from her boot cuff did not. She clenched her lips together in an attempt to calm her pumping breath, and even through the absurdity of holding a palm-sized blade up against an only-recently-non-mythical monster, felt a powerful wave of protest against a creature that large being able to move that quietly. And how had he gotten the hold’s hatch open, much less crossed the deck to loom not half an arm’s length away?
“Sorry?” she managed.
( You’re what they call a ‘natural’. The priestesshood would kill to get their hands on you. Especially now. ) The gryphon did not seem to be concerned by the blade or even aware that it existed.
Ruby re-sheathed her knife. “‘Priestesshood’?” Faint memories from itinerant tutors, towers and books spoken of with zeal by old men who hated the sea. “What do they do? I’ve never heard of their ships.”
He chuckled in her mind and leaned close enough that she caught the peppery smell of his feathers, warm and rich like sun on fresh-cut timber. ( They sail, but never far from the shore. ) The huge head cocked toward her like a curious gull’s, bizarre at such a scale. ( Most of them are afraid of the open ocean. )
Ruby looked out over the waves, laying her palms on the rail again. “They’re right to be,” she said softly. The darkness of the water sang to her, tickled under her fingernails, pulled with gentle but unrelenting insistence.
( Yes, ) he agreed. She could feel the alien eye sharpen on her, a flash and pin of huge black pupil. ( But you’re not. )
“I couldn’t leave it,” she said, instinctively answering what he did not say.
( If they catch wind of you, you might not have a choice. They can be very persuasive. )
“Let them try,” she growled, waves within beginning a churning spiral at the thought of dusty scholars chaining her to land. It almost seemed that the sea responded, leaning in against the Viere’s hull.
Sunlight flashed off of Ellisar’s suddenly widened eye and parted beak. ( Such force, such recklessness in you! And only sixteen! What a power you could be. ) He rustled his wings, but abortively, flinching.
“Is your wing all right?” The gryphon was hitching his right wing back up toward his body with awkward care.
( Fractured. ) The word had a bitterness to it like salt pork nearly turned. ( I won’t be going anywhere for awhile. )
“I’m—sorry,” she said, uncertain.
( Don’t be. This will be a pleasant—holiday. And rarely do I have the opportunity to instruct such a promising prodigy. The Priestesshood thinks that they have a monopoly on elemental ability. It would please me to prove them wrong. Their ways are not the only ways. They would limit you, for instance, from your true strength, your true potential. )
His tone filled her with a strangeness. Some of it was pleasure at his diffident compliment, some of it was fear, and some more elusive tendril buried in the emotion was something unsettling, like watching a shark drift up out of the depths and vanish again. Sternly she told herself that all of this was normal, and Mother wished her to learn from this creature, who, certainly, above all other things, would be strange! She would not let fear master her. In protest to her own weakness, she reached out toward the water again, let her mind flow along with it.
From the corner of her eye she saw the flick of Ellisar’s tufted white tail, and then, sleek as a dolphin slicing through summer waters, there was another mind there with her, coursing along the waves.
Her eyes widened. The steady presence, rather than merging itself with the waters, moved solidly underneath them, and then pushed. Ruby’s stomach dropped and she stumbled away from the rail, banging her elbow on the varnished wood for her trouble. She knew even before she pushed herself to her feet that waves would be creeping up the Viere’s hull as they had when Ellisar threatened the sailors.
( Do you fear drowning, Ruby? )
The question was so odd it brought her up short, made her forget her aching elbow. The answer was ‘no’, but that lack of fear had never made sense. The sea terrified her, deeply, but she had never feared drowning. And never really known why. “No,” she said, finally.
( The oldest priestesses, nearly before they even knew their goddesses, did not fear drowning, either. The sea would never swallow them, for they spoke its language. )
Her throat was suddenly dry and she licked at cracking lips, savoring the sharp, grounding pain. Passion for the sea welled up in her again, and would not, this time, be denied by doubt. “Can you… teach me how to do that?”
( I can. )
She wouldn’t tell him that she wasn’t ready for this. She wouldn’t.
When Ruby stepped onto the main deck, under the creak of rope and sail and pulley, her breath caught, not pulled by the brisk salt wind, but at the sight of the challenge Ellisar had prepared for her.
The boots were heavy, worked with metal long frosted with salt, and despite her training the sight of them sent an instinctive quiver through Ruby’s belly. They were known with tense affection as “peacekeepers”, for they had a certain way of making a sailor very cooperative—and terrified of walking the top deck. An oddity from a plundered ship, they had never actually been used aboard the Viere.
( You have nothing to fear, Ruby, ) Ellisar said, and by the strange copper focus of the words she knew he spoke to her alone. Gathering strength from his quiet confidence in her, she approached the peacekeepers, passing Mother and the silent gathered crew as she did so. She steeled herself against a flopping stomach as she worked her feet into the boots, yanking too hard on stiff laces, clenching her hands tight around fasteners as she closed them.
When she straightened, the rush of the sea beneath the Viere’s hull sang of danger in her mind.
( Now, ) Ellisar said, a burr of excitement deepening his alien voice. ( As I showed you. )
The boots were strange and outbalancing to feet long accustomed to sandals or bareness. With an effort she lifted her knees higher than she needed to, determined not to stumble. When she reached the rail and pulled herself onto it, tilting precariously for a moment, she heard Mother’s sharply indrawn breath, and the brief absence of Ellisar’s touch on her own mind said that he moved to reassure her.
The steadiness of her hand surprised her as she lifted it out across the waves. Again the sea welled up inside her, eager to flood her salt blood with itself, to make them one. As Ellisar had taught her, she pulled it close, but held it back, keeping always a tight boundary between them. But up, she told it, up, to the sky and—
A column of spinning water rushed up from the surface of the sea, green at the center and wrapped ‘round with bubbling foam. As she watched it, Ruby almost turned back, but felt the press of Ellisar’s encouragement against her, and did not.
Forcing her eyes to stay open, she stepped out onto the burbling top of the water column.
Standing atop the water was unlike anything she’d ever felt. It gave beneath her footstep at first, sending wild adrenaline surging up from her stomach, but only half a handspan, and then it held her weight. It moved with her, subtly, with a gentle force that anticipated her every movement, pressed against her mind and knew her closest thoughts. It was alive, but not alive, something beyond life, beyond mortality—ancient and comforting and treacherous and wild. It was as if something she had been separated from, something that had been missing, now suddenly coursed all around her—the sea, out of reach, though so near, now wrapped her in its immortal embrace.
A surge of strength and pride welled up in her, heady and sharp and blood-warm as fine whiskey. She was strong, she was swift, she was invincible. Smiling, she called across the waters, throat tight, “I have you to thank for this, Ellisar. I—I don’t even know how to thank you.”
The gryphon laughed, a high, almost whistling sound, the feathers of his neck ruffled with mirth. He twitched out a talon, and a great swath of seawater fountained up from the waves in a silvery spear. Ruby instinctively took a step back, heart jumping into her throat when she stepped onto nothingness and nearly fell backward, but she threw her weight forward, recovered, and with a lifted hand directed the spray of water back down into the sea. Then she sent a returning volley slicing across at Ellisar. The gryphon deflected it without so much as a gesture, but he bowed his beak in a little salute, cheek-feathers roused with approval.
Below, on the deck, Mother’s eyes were shining.
A storm was coming.
On watch in the crow’s nest, Ruby felt the approaching winds as an anxiousness around her spine even before they filled the sails. She touched the waves with a questing mind and staggered as the breath was pulled from her chest. The storm was closing faster than she’d ever seen, with a power behind it that was not the wild selflessness of the sky and sea, but calculating. Intelligent.
She forced herself to reach again, this time stretching up into the sky and to the thin but furious water there.
Three. There were three minds, distinct and sharp and—angry. And strong. Where Ellisar had been a squall, furious but short-lived, these three were rolling typhoons.
Ruby felt her insides starting to shake. She knew down to her bones that the Viere could not survive the onslaught of this storm. Nor would the crew believe there could be a storm they could not ride out or escape. But if there were minds behind it, moving it.... And, her mind whispered, if there were three gryphons guiding it, there could only be one reason....
Stretching herself across the nest’s narrow rail, Ruby reached for the sea.
( What are you doing? ) Ellisar suddenly loomed up in her thoughts, for the first time his closeness seeming a threat.
“If that storm gets any closer, we’ll be pulled to flotsam. We need to talk to whatever’s controlling it.” She pulled water from the sea, lifting it upward, then felt pressure, like a hand on her wrist, resist the pull of her mind.
( If you touch them, they’ll know you for a natural and take you to the Nistran priestesses, ) Ellisar said. Ruby looked down, searching for a large mass of white feathers, but did not see him.
“Then you should talk to them. They’re gryphons, aren’t they?”
He didn’t answer. The coldness, the wildness, the strangeness she had felt when first she had spoken to Ellisar bloomed, the shark in its full and terrible clarity.
“Ellisar,” she said, “Your wing. It isn’t broken, is it?”
( We could find a solution—you and I—together we could—)
“You betrayed us. You brought this on my ship and my crew.” Accusation put a wild note in her voice, but she couldn’t stop it. Her chest felt as crushed as if the Peacekeepers had dragged her to the bottom of the sea. Not quite knowing how, she shoved him away with her mind, and, to her surprise, felt him release her.
( It should have been safe out here. It still could be. They’ve come so far from dry land that they must be exhausted. We need only resist them. ) Frantic urgency laced his voice, a scent in her mind like ozone, lightning-struck tar.
She looked down the mast at the helpless figures standing below. Her mother, white face upturned, red curls down her back, unmoving. The crew. Her crew. And the vastness of the ocean all around them. She and Ellisar might defeat these gryphons, stood a good chance of succeeding, wearied as their opponents were; but they would not save themselves and the ship and crew from the gathering storm at the same time.
Ruby raised her arm, reached out, and lifted a column of water from the churning sea.
All trace of Ellisar vanished from her mind as she rose on the water column into the embrace of the storm. Cold wind sliced her face, first quartering, then following, then quartering again—and then the tempest overtook them in full, catching her in the eerie stillness of the storm’s eye. There they waited, three of them.
The gryphons did not ask, did not pause, but forayed into her mind as though they had every right to be there. Ruby rocked back on her heels, but held her ground, fending them away from certain memories, certain thoughts. They did not press, but seized on the image of the great white gryphon that had fallen from the sky.
( We are sent to destroy him, and any who had sheltered him, ) the first of the gryphons said. He was tall and lanky, supple like a silk flag in the wind, and he called himself Urri, placing the name in her mind with unsettling ease. All were thinner, smaller, lighter, more precise creatures than Ellisar.
“We did not know he was hunted,” Ruby said. “What is his crime?”
( Negligence, ) the second gryphon said, her voice like cinnamon and innocence. She was broad of barrel and her eyes were deep and blue. ( Negligence that killed three of his apprentices. And cowardice, that he would not face their pridemates. Lastly, the obstruction and defiance of due justice. ) Giving two quick wingbeats to lift herself above the other two for a moment, the gryphon fixed her with one large, searching eye. ( It seems also that he has been attempting to deceive pursuit—by hiding behind you. )
“What? Behind me?” Ice in the pit of her stomach. She longed sharply for the cool reassurance of the ocean, whose dangers did not hide.
( Yes. In teaching you to move waters without proper balance training, he has sent ripples through the world that mask his presence. We should have found him days ago were it not for this. He sought to distract us with your performance, which looked from a distance to be the wildly dangerous flailings of a powerful natural. We came here, away from our task, we thought, to contain you. )
( Ellisar’s sentence is death, ) Urri said. ( Him we must execute, and you deliver to the human Daughters of Nistra. ) The gryphon’s calm talk of execution rippled over her, but the thought of being torn away from the Viere crashed like a typhoon.
But she did not have time to register surprise at her attachment to the ship that bound her, for his next news was far worse. ( Your ship must be destroyed to set an example for those who harbor criminals. We are sorry. )
Ruby’s hands clenched and unclenched as she fought for control. She breathed determinedly, gripped herself for what she knew she must do. First in negotiation: the bargain she knew they would not accept. “He has taught me all I know of the sea. I can’t let you take him.”
( Child, it is simple, ) the second gryphon said gently, and Ruby knew the bitter victory that she had won. ( You do not have the power to resist. This is not your choice. And your ability must be properly trained. )
“I never used it before Ellisar came here. You would never have found me. Spare my ship and crew, leave me here”—she paused; second in negotiation: the true offer that they would not refuse—”and I will carry out his sentence.” Ruby fought around the lump in her throat. “Alone.”
The gryphons fell silent, but by the flashing of their eyes she knew they were in heated conference.
( She is sincere, ) the third gryphon, whose voice filled Ruby’s mind with the scent of clean herbs and surprise, said finally. ( The code of this people is such that they will adhere to their word long after we are gone. )
( They’re privateers, ) Urri said, voice like clumping algae. ( Pirates. )
“We are a people of swift justice,” Ruby said, glaring a challenge at the three creatures. She breathed deep, recited her mother’s words in her head. “We do this to survive, Ruby. We look beyond our fears and pains and we see how many would suffer for our inaction. When we must, we act, and we ask neither permission nor forgiveness. We are separated from landers because we do not flinch from reality. This is our freedom and our curse.”
( He has betrayed her, ) the third gryphon said, anxiousness like vinegar in her voice. ( A gryphon, betraying a human. It is disgraceful. If she can kill him, it is a fitting end, balance for the apprentices he has led astray. )
The three grew silent again, but the tension between them tightened like dry heat before lightning.
( Very well, ) Urri said at last, grudging, a rusted anchor pulled free.
( He’s here, ) the second gryphon said, pupils large and unseeing, now her voice like incense smoke. Suddenly the three creatures all focused elsewhere, their minds vanishing from Ruby’s with a lurch. The third gryphon, doing something Ruby could not see or understand, lifted the clouds away, revealing the serrated azure glass of the ocean and the strident tilting figure of the Viere d’Inar below.
Ellisar had made a mad dash from the ship, winging swift and low just above the waves, using them to shelter him from the reach of the wind. For a second Ruby’s heart leapt with hope—that he would fly far away, that the gryphons would leave to chase him, that she would not be washed in yet more blood—
She was spared from lancing guilt only by the speed with which his flight proved futile. Together the three gryphons released the power of the storm upon him, wrapping him in it, binding his wings close to his body and lifting him up to face them all. Ponderous, roaring, three columns of water each twice the size of Ruby’s lifted from the sea. The three gryphons folded their wings and sat atop them delicately.
“Ellisar?” Ruby said. “What they say about what you’ve done... what they say about what you did to me and what they will have to do now... is it true?” She stretched her arms behind her, and under the guise of resting her hands on her belt, pulled free her longknife, resting her palms on its smooth haft, tracing the wood to stop her hands from shaking.
( They do not lie, ) Ellisar said, though his eyes darted to the three gryphons first. The truth was pressed from him as oil from flaxseed. ( I sought refuge in the sea. )
In his hesitancy, in what he would not find the strength to admit, Ruby saw Ellisar clearly for the first time. The sight contorted her throat and heart. She turned to the three gryphons. “I’ll carry out our agreement,” she said, “but from the deck of my ship. Below.”
( Very well, ) Urri said. Ellisar’s eye-ridge was slanted as he worked to unknot her ploy.
Together the four of them released their hold on the churning waters, Ruby mimicking the gryphons as they let out their grasp measure by measure, as knots in a sounding rope. There was a brief clap of rustling wings as the three gryphons leapt onto the deck of the Viere, pulling Ellisar with them still wrapped in his foaming cocoon. Knowing it might be her last time moving the sea, Ruby bent a curve of glassy water across the Viere’s rail, then stepped lightly down and let it return to the waves.
Ruby looked to the gryphons, but they did not move or speak. She turned to the crew, and to her mother. “These gryphons have been pursuing Ellisar. He has been fleeing them, a fugitive. They wished to execute him... and destroy the Viere for its role in harboring him.”
The crew erupted in shouting, and Mother—now every inch Rhiannon, Sea Queen— silenced them with a grimly raised hand. “What else is there, Ruby?” she asked.
“In exchange for our lives and the Viere, I have agreed to deliver Ellisar’s sentence myself, on this deck.”
( RUBY, ) Ellisar thundered, drowning out the white rush of the curving waters that bound him. ( You will not do this! )
The crew, however, remained silent, watching their captain, who but nodded, sealing her acceptance of the bargain, and renewing Ellisar’s fury. “You will act in my name and the name of the Viere d’Inar,” Mother said, drawing her saber to pass it hilt-first to Ruby. It was light, the wire-wrapped hilt warm.
Amidst his condemnations, Ruby stepped toward Ellisar. “Tell me what you are,” she said only, softly. A great heaviness settled in her stomach. Ellisar’s great golden eyes widened.
( You humans and your damnable superstitions, ) he hissed in her mind, but the voice was thin with alarm, the scent in her head the musk of a cornered rat. ( I am what I am, as you know well. I can never be anything else. And neither can you. ) Ellisar’s eyes flashed, giant pupils flaring and pinning. ( They’ll destroy you, Ruby. Count on it. They’ll come for you and they’ll destroy you as they tried to destroy me. We’re alike, you and I. Together we could stand against them. Together we would be feared! )
“I don’t need to be feared,” she said. And “I’m sorry, Ellisar,” was all she could manage before her throat closed. Without a word the other gryphons loosened their hold on the waters binding Ellisar. His claws touched the deck.
Faster than Ruby could react, Ellisar launched from the weaker hold of his fetters, spraying seawater in all directions as he ripped free. He leapt, not at Ruby, as she had instantly expected—but at Mother, two swordlengths away. Unarmed.
His claws sank through her leather haubergeon like a hawk’s talons through rabbit fur, and his hooked beak engulfed her side. When he reared back, he brought torn armor, shredded flesh, and bloodstained linen with him.
Ruby shrieked and dove after him, raising her sword. Bracing both hands around the wooden hilt, she threw her weight against it, driving the point into his jugular. There was a moment’s resistance, and then the blade shot through, slipping as through pierced sailcloth, and her fists were buried in his feathers, their whiteness rapidly steeped in a spray of thick blood. Its slick warmth swept over her hands, and she caught one last glimpse of a wide golden eye before bands of water closed between them, drowning his final gasping breath.
Ruby fell beside her mother. The gryphons’ voices were a cacophony inside her head, but she did not sort out their words. Someone yelled for the ship’s healer, but all knew this was far beyond the man’s limited talents. Hot tears flooded Ruby’s eyes and she swept them away with her palm. “If I hadn’t brought him down here,” she choked, “Mother, if I hadn’t....” But there she was adrift. If she had not learned from Ellisar, if she had not stopped the crew from throwing him back, if she had not been born....
“He died here?” Mother said, her voice finding a strength that made the gathered crew straighten instinctively, “on these decks? Then you did well, Ruby.” She squinted, then moved, her face contorting with pain and blanching white.
Then Ruby’s stomach dropped, as it had the first day she had watched Ellisar move the waves. She looked around wildly, but the gryphons’ eyes were riveted to the fallen Rhiannon—who stretched out a hand, her face a mask of sweating concentration beneath the pain that wracked her body.
With the smoothness of swaying kelp in a gentle tide, an arm of green water separated from the bands confining Ellisar’s lifeless body, and drew with it the bloodied saber. As it coiled through the air toward them, the water trembled, dropping pieces of itself to splatter across the deck, but the sword landed gently in Ruby’s lap. She clenched one hand around its hilt out of reflex, out of shock.
“You did well,” Mother repeated, but her voice was hoarse. “Never drop this.” Her hand, smeared with blood, fell across Ruby’s on the sword and tightened. “It’s yours now, princess,” she whispered, and her grip, the grip of the West Sea Queen, slackened around Ruby’s wrist, and fell.
( We can’t guarantee that you’ll remain undetected if you engage in active movement of the waters, ) Urri warned. They stood on the deck of the Viere, turned away from the stain of Mother’s blood, a mark among many on the dark wood.
“I understand,” Ruby said. Out of propriety or protectiveness for her, she wasn’t sure which, Urri stood with his wings partly spread, obscuring the column of water that held Ellisar’s body. The gryphons had remained through the ceremony of committing the Sea Queen’s body to the waves, and the sun now hovered low against a crimson horizon.
Urri bowed low, touching his beak to the side of one huge hooked claw. ( We remain in your debt for your assistance. ) And then he was leaping into the air, with the two others launching just after him, the wind of their passing stirring sail and rattling rig.
No one moved until the gryphons were at last lost to sight, and then some. Gradually, the crew dispersed, leaving only Ruby standing at the bow. She watched twilight settle into dusk and finally true night. Her mother’s first mate, now hers, came out at length and quietly asked for a course. Ruby’s answer, Ignirole, was the right one, it seemed, for he nodded and said it would be done. His retreating footsteps were gradually swallowed by the lap of the sea against the ship, dark waters that showed no reflection that night, and not until the stars had wheeled halfway across the sky did Ruby turn away from the rail and the waves.
Ruby grit her teeth as the tattooist worked at her shoulder with the reed needles. In the polished glass just above her head she watched the shape on her back gradually resolve, etched on angry skin that seeped blood sluggishly. The artisan, an old man with hands like dried vegetables, finest tattooist in Ignirole and on the whole western seaboard, worked methodically at filling in the outline of a stretched-hand-sized gryphon head that spread across her right shoulder-blade.
The work took hours, long hours that Ruby counted by the second. But gradually the shape took form, with precision that pulled pain from Ruby’s heart, left it stitched there on her skin.
When she emerged from the dockside parlor sunlight struck right through her eyes and hammered the back of her skull, but she grinned at the pain and light together, stretching (carefully, on the right side at least) and breathing in the sensation of being alive. The tattoo should not have cost the full bounty that the gryphons had insisted on giving her for Ellisar, but she left it in tribute, a memory donation for her mother, and with a murmur to the goddess Nistra that they were square. Her mother, the price of a dream, a handful of gold. Destinies that none of them could escape.
Along the plank dock the bare masts and rigging of the Viere made a spidery silhouette against the fiery horizon. As she approached the gangplank something out of the corner of her eye sent a chill down Ruby’s spine and she spun, but confronted only the half-seen spectre of her reflection on the glassy waters.
In the months it had taken to reach Ignirole Ruby’s hair had grown long and unruly. It fell in riotous curls down to her tattooed shoulder, which was still bare and gleaming with salve. She stared at the reflection, half-turned, and carefully, slowly, pulled her mother’s cap from her rucksack and fitted it to her head.
The rippling water below, and the sudden tears that blurred her vision, wove a cruel illusion—a figure, near inscrutable through the sharp shadows dancing across the water, taller than Ruby, a swordmaster’s grace and a Queen’s carriage. And a voice. “Hurts like hell, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Ruby whispered. “It does.” She pulled a large gold coin, the last from the bounty, from her pocket and flipped it into the water, casting a burst of shimmering halos across the surface of the sea. It swallowed the coin fast, and Ruby turned down the dock, boot-heels echoing on the boards, to where her ship awaited.