I was busy pummeling my mind into a stupor when the messenger found me. There had been only enough room in this hole for me, Old Rodrigo, and the barrel of rotgut he kept ladling into my cup when, panting, he showed up. The curtain drawn across the entrance fluttered, letting in too much light and heat, and he was already at my elbow saying my name. I must have made some small noise of assent because he drew something out of his satchel and waved it in my face.
A letter. Interrupting my sacrament, its blessing swirling in my belly like fire and dulling the call of the sea. This far from the shore, almost to the mountains, the Wound’s pull was faint but ever-present. Rather than give into it, all day I swung a hammer in the salt quarry until my body was numb; off my shift, I tossed back cup after cup until my mind was too.
I blinked at the square of vellum, its seal swimming into focus, a spiral pressed into the wax. Even in the dim light, I recognized the Vortex my brother Ostred took as his symbol, and the heat drained out of me.
Implacable as the tides, he’d found me.
The messenger waved the letter again, as if me not seeing the damned thing was the problem. I focused on moving my cup around it without spilling any. Almost there. I licked my lips in anticipation.
“Don Jacinto.” The messenger’s gaze was dull. “Please.”
I should have had some sympathy for the man, especially if my brother sent him, but I was too far gone for any of that. All that time keeping myself hidden from the sea—any sea, not just the Wound—now useless as pouring every drink I’d ever taken into the empty black of a well.
“By the god’s quivering pucker.” I slammed my cup down, drink going everywhere. Goddamn it. I was on my feet, now, and snatched the letter out of the messenger’s hand. “How the fuck did you find me?”
While I spoke, something inside the letter uncoiled. It writhed, hot between my fingers. I cried out as the sensation of hot needles pierced my eyes and screwed them shut against the pain. I blinked away tears, receiving a vision of my world drowned. Rodrigo’s empty eye-sockets stared at me as crabs picked his cheeks to tatters and the messenger’s pale lips opened to let a long ribbon of blood billow out.
Shuddering, I threw down the letter, and the vision passed.
“Go.” I righted my chair, my drunk now curdled. “Piss off.”
After he was gone, I took the letter again, making a game of guessing what I’d felt moving inside. Knowing my brother, he might’ve sealed a live scorpion within, but now—nothing.
I broke the seal to reveal my brother’s flowing hand, scratched onto the vellum in an ink the color of old wounds:
My dearest brother Jacinto,
How many years has it been since last we set eyes on each other? I’ve long searched for you. I strove to find one shore, one errant wave that could scent you, but all the currents of all the waters of the seas brought me not one sign of where you’d gone.
Come back, I beseech you. I’ve found us a new family just like our old one, and they’re oh so eager to meet you after I’ve told them about you, brother.
You know you cannot hide from your destiny—
I crumpled the letter in my fist to stop myself from reading any further. I recognized the ink, a tincture of godsblood drawn up from the red waters of the Wound, often laced with sorceries to bend the will of the reader to follow the wishes of its author. How many of Mama and Papa’s notes had forced our little family to punish those who opposed their plans?
Old Rodrigo pulled aside the barrel’s lid and scooped out another ladle for me. For a split second, my reflection gazed back and reminded me of the vision. Shaken, I looked away and covered my cup with a hand.
I fumbled out some clay chits when I heard the shouting outside. I tore the curtain aside and lurched into the blaze of late afternoon. A knot of miners had gathered, looking at someone sprawled in the dust.
Even before I got there, I knew who it was.
The messenger’s dull eyes met mine as he gasped for breath, rust colored water leaking out of his mouth. The others kept muttering about his blood, but I knew what it really was: seawater from the Wound, drowning the poor bastard some twenty leagues from its shores.
Water dribbling from his mouth cut a spiral in the dust.
In the beginning, two brothers divided the world between the bitter waters and sweet. Tiago parted the bitter waters of the boundless deeps, and his brother Jaime carved the revealed land with his lakes and rivers and streams so they could flow and empty into the seas his brother so loved.
They looked upon their handiwork and were well pleased.
In time, towns and great cities grew along the shores of the rivers and lakes and streams Jaime had created, and the people raised their voices in worship of him. Even sitting upon his Stormwrack Throne, built from the timbers and keels of a thousand wrecked ships, Tiago could hear their adulation. None but the most salt-bitten did more than fear him and curse his name, and with what reason? Did the sweet waters not drown as easily as bitter? Did he not guard deeper mysteries and wonders than his brother?
So it came to be that he saw Jaime walking along the shore one day and rose to greet him. From the surf, Tiago called out, “Brother, how pleased I am to see you! How do you fare?”
“Greetings!” Jaime smiled but did not slow his stride nor turn to face him. “I am well, if occupied at the moment.”
“Occupied?” Tiago laughed, not believing his ears. “Surely, you have time to speak to your beloved brother?”
“Of course, Tiago.” Jaime’s smile was a mere tightening of his lips. “What do you wish to tell me?”
“Your people.” Tiago was taken aback by his brother’s demeanor. When had Tiago ever been less than generous and gracious with his kin, always speaking to him as his equal in all things, face to face? “I hear so many people who call your name in reverence, and the few who I have curse mine, afraid of me.”
“Yes.” Jaime dug new beds for rivers that meandered without emptying into the sea and said nothing more.
At last, convinced his brother was not listening to him any longer, Tiago spoke again. “Why?”
Droplets of sweat fell from Jaime’s brow, splashing into the dust to grow into fast-moving streams, chattering as they sprang from stone to stone. When he was done, he realized he’d become lost in his task and his brother was waiting for his answer. The force of Tiago’s glare made him step back, raising a hand as if to ward off a blow.
“Forgive me, but I don’t know the answer to what you ask,” Jaime said. “I know people prefer to drink my waters and use them to grow their crops. They carve their own beds to tame my waters and lead them under their clever wheels to mill grains, or as canals between my rivers. And though many more drown in the sweet waters than the bitter, they find your domain to be the more terrible.”
“Are they children, to be afraid of me, brother?”
“All day, I hear nothing but their cries,” Jaime said. “Pleading for my blessing or my intercession. I try to help them, but I am but one to their many and my work would never end.”
“Give some of them to me, brother.” Tiago strode to the very edge of the sea, his hand almost touching him. “Let me help you.”
“If it were so simple, dearest brother. I fear driving them away to let you try to win their hearts would make them turn away from us both.” Jaime fixed his gaze inland, seeing in his mind’s eye all the small villages and towns crowded along his waterways.
“Then let me come to them,” Tiago said and clenched his fists. In response, the bitter waters of the sea surged across the land in a flood. “And they may then come to know me as well as they know you, brother.”
As seawater reclaimed the land, the wails of his people reached Jaime’s ears and he was struck by how small they appeared against the vastness of Tiago’s realm. Some lashed together what remained of their houses into rickety ships, but the waves swept them far out to sea.
“Brother, please.” Jaime turned to face Tiago. “Stop.”
“Stop? I’m helping you.” Tiago noticed the set of Jaime’s jaw and realized his brother’s anger was but a low-banked ember on the verge of blazing to life. “Brother, do you love them as your children?”
And with each cry of his people like a pain through his heart, Jaime realized he must keep them from his brother’s regard because he did love his people like a parent loves their children.
“Forgive me, brother,” Jaime said, digging his heels into the sands of the shore. “But they are as my children and I must protect them.”
“You choose them?” Tiago rose from the waves, his anger a fist of storm clouds roiling in the sky above them. “Over your brother?”
A vast multitude called upon Jaime to save them, and between gritted teeth, he promised to keep them from the bitter waters. Cyclones sent down tendrils around them, and Tiago, lightning-crowned, was dreadful to behold, but Jaime laid hands upon his brother and fought him.
They wrestled for an age, feet trampling the world into the shape known today. That is, until Jaime threw his brother down. Tiago’s hands fell away and plucked at the stone spire that had impaled him. He held a trembling hand out as if asking for help, but Jaime turned his face and hardened his heart against his own brother lest the land be drowned under his waters again.
Ashamed, Jaime left his brother where he fell ever wounded, ever bleeding until his spilled blood covered him and became the great sea called Wound. There, in its deeps, Tiago thrashes, and his fury over Jaime’s betrayal churns the waters into a great vortex. Jaime stood watch from shore, his face ever towards the sea, and vowed to protect the world from Tiago should he ever rise again.
Long ages have passed since, but to this day, wise men say they can see Jaime’s face in the craggy summit of the holy mountain Ajh. If he remains, then his brother does as well, biding his time and nursing his fury until he may rise once more and reclaim all the earth and make of it his domain, as it was in the beginning.
I pushed past the gawkers, eager to get away from the scene and back to my barracks. Had anyone seen the messenger come out of Old Rodrigo’s? I doubted it, but if any of the bosses got wind of it, they’d want to lean on Old Rodrigo. Didn’t matter how loyal my custom; his livelihood depended on the bosses looking the other way.
How the bosses dealt with the incident would also depend on whether word got out to the local Jemmite magistrate, who also turned a blind eye to what happened in the quarry. At best, if I was involved in the death, the bosses would clap me in irons until they decided how best to dispose of me too.
Either way, I reckoned it best to be far away before then.
Sitting on the edge of my cot, I was shoving my scant belongings into a sack when I overheard my name. The barracks were filled with off-shift workers getting themselves ready for sleep before lights-out. Already, the place was abuzz with gossip about the messenger. My work crew was dicing in a corner, but none called me to join them. I liked to think we had all swung hammers together for a long while, but I knew that wouldn’t amount to one copper jot once the bosses squeezed them.
Fast friends turn coats quicker, Mama and Papa liked to say.
Even so, none of my work crew, no one working in the salt quarry, deserved the awful end Ostred wanted for them. I saw them all, bodies floating in the red waters that would cover the world if my brother succeeded. I could run away from all of it again, the same way I’d been doing ever since I was old enough to leave the orphanage. I could pack everything up and head west, into the basin beyond the mountains. Hide myself all over again, except this time I’d plunge into the wild ancient forests of the Riverlands, or maybe head south and watch the sun rise over the stupas of Qawaat’s jungle kingdoms. I blinked as my crew erupted into raucous laughter over an unlucky throw and knew Ostred had to be stopped.
This realization added itself to the old familiar tug of the Wound, and where I’d until that moment been a tossed die, tumbling end over end without falling this way or that, now I was decided. Even if I paid for it with my worthless life, I must find a way to stand between my brother and his plans.
I had to return home and stop him rousing the god from the deeps.
Long after lights-out, I lay in my cot staring into the dark, remembering. I was twelve again, praying to the Wounded God to return my big brother Ostred so he could come back and break me out of the orphanage. By first bells, though, the Jemmite brothers and sisters found me watering their cabbages with bitter tears because both my brother and my god had forsaken me. The old anger bloomed again, coiling so tight around my chest that it crushed the breath out of me. Gasping, I reached for my rucksack and fled into the night.
Outside, I couldn’t do anything but suck cold air in long shuddering breaths for a while. The second moon peeked over the edge of the world by the time I set feet upon the road. I picked my way through the rocky scrublands by moonslight until I found the trail leading down to the banks of the Saltwash. Here, the river rushed through the highlands before widening into the vast waterway that emptied into the Wound.
If I followed the river, I could reach Bloodport within the week, but if I could catch a barge at Aster’s Crossing, I could be there within days. A few times, I stopped, cocking an ear because I was sure I’d heard footfalls behind me. I worried Ostred had sent another of his creatures after me, but it turned out to be nothing but echoes.
By sunrise, my feet beat a tattoo on the boardwalks of Aster’s Crossing. Mule-driven carts lined the banks, waiting to unload slabs of salt from the quarry. I hurried past, nervous that one of the teamsters might recognize me.
I spied the customs office ahead, the Many-Waters Seal of the Jemmites swinging in the morning breeze. A filthy, wild-haired boy sat in the building’s shade. Unsettled by the way his dull gaze followed me, I gave him a wide berth. As I passed, he gave me a smile full of blackened teeth, nodded, and said “huy-huy” in greeting. Instead of answering, I made my way down to the docks.
I passed several barges before one of the captains called. “Ey-ey! You headed to Bloodport, brother?”
I rolled my flinch into a shrug. “Depends who’s asking.”
“That’d be me.” He flashed one gold tooth as he tapped his chest with his thumb. “Cap’n Ixto. Ready to load up and go before noon. If you put your back into it so’s to make sure I’m back before the Red Tide rolls in? Well, you’d have paid your way.”
I slowed my step, thinking it over.
In my pocket, my brother’s letter seethed as if a hornet’s nest was trapped in its folds. Was the captain another of Ostred’s creatures, sent to find me? Or was the godsblood ink warning me—like it had with the messenger—about the captain’s final reward if I came aboard his ship? I wasn’t sure, but either way I didn’t like it. There was only one thing I should do.
I kept walking.
The barge captain hounded me, a note of desperation creeping into his voice. He walked the length of his barge trying to coax me aboard until he was forced to spit curses at me from the bow. I waved them off with a rude gesture of my own as I put him behind me.
The Red Tide—I’d forgotten about the festival until he’d mentioned it. Two moons in the sky, the Red Tide is nigh was an ancient fishmonger’s rhyme to keep a tally of the holy days. It had been the last day of Red Tide when the Jemmites boarded our home of lashed-together ships and slaughtered us. Below-decks, barricaded in the hold, Mama and Papa hurried through their prayers and anointed my brother as one of the god’s chosen. They ignored the sounds of axes chopping their way to us. When they reached out to me with trembling hands, I hesitated, and it was too late. The Jemmites broke through. Mama and Papa threw themselves atop Ostred and I in a doomed attempt to save us. I felt the blows that killed them shudder through their bodies before we were taken to the orphanage to save our souls.
That night, after scraping out a space under a thicket near the banks, I settled for a few hours of fitful sleep and woke, heart racing. In my pocket, the letter pulsed in beat with my own heart. Someone was moving through the brush nearby and I froze, straining my ears to listen.
“Huy.” A tentative whisper, as if calling to someone in hiding. I turned my head to see a lanky shadow moving along the bank. It was the wild-haired boy, and by the god’s festering heart I could smell him from where I lay hidden. “Huy-huy,” he repeated, and cocked his head the way a bird listens for a worm. After a time, he moved far enough away I could no longer hear his inane call anymore.
I struggled to sleep again, with no luck. The morning sun found me trudging along the river, cursing myself. Why hadn’t I thought to ask Old Rodrigo to fill me a skin before running off into the night? I stared at the bright-scaled surface of the river with bleary eyes. As sailors poled their barges past, I wondered if any of them were Captain Ixto’s, and if I’d made a mistake in not taking his offer.
The rest of the journey to Bloodport blurred into the old blood-drenched nightmares that chased sleep away. If not that, I lurched awake, certain I’d heard someone crashing through the brush nearby again, straining my ears to hear “huy-huy,” so much like the call of some night-bird. By the time I stumbled my way through the High Gate of Bloodport, my hands ached for the curve of the cup.
I let the flow of the festival crowd pull me along, gaze drawn to the slopes of Mount Ajh and to the shining walls and temple spires of Mirdhras. The holy city loomed over the people of the Wound in the way their god kept watch for his brother. With the same ruthless mercies and thou-shalt-nots the Jemmite brothers and sisters had done with Ostred and me at the orphanage. I gave the holy city my back to take the path down towards the Wound.
A barnacle clinging to the underside of Mirdhras.
Jostled through the twisted, mud-spattered streets of home, I took in its heat, its noise, its stink. The narrow buildings leaned into each other like conspirators, while street vendors harangued passersby to come sample what they had to offer—from skewers of dubious meats, served piping hot, to prayer rockets guaranteed to reach Jamie’s stone ears.
Jemmite faith militant stood guard against blasphemy on every corner. A young man, old enough to shave but still too young for wisdom, cried out “So the Fallen may rise” in defiance. The Jemmites clustered round him, swinging their cudgels to silence him before taking him away. I clenched my fists at the injustice. Bloodport had been founded by worshippers of the Wounded God, but now its people were forced to outwardly pray to their god’s rival. This was why Mama and Papa had taken to the waves, to create their own town out of decommissioned fishing boats and half-sunken wrecks and be free to pray to their god.
At least until a routine Jemmite patrol ship had found them.
Out over the sea, the sky rumbled its faint threats and flashed lightning, but the air over Bloodport was hot and still as a held breath. My hands shook with the effort of willing my steps to turn away from the shoreline; I had to find Ostred.
The best places for that type of gossip would be the rough-and-tumble places along the waterfront, where sailors from all up and down the shore gathered. By the time I turned onto Murkwater Alley and my eyes fell upon the first place, by the god’s curdled blood if my heart didn’t beat faster. I nodded at the woman keeping bar and asked for whatever passed for rotgut as I let copper fall on the splintered wood.
Just one drink.
Buy me enough time to ask about my brother.
Whatever was in the cup smelled like fermented chum, but I choked it down and asked for another. My eyes danced over the heads of all the drunkards to find the hired muscle, a bald, barrel-chested man who scowled back at me. When the woman returned, I caught her eye and traced a spiral on the bar. Her gaze flicked to it and back to mine with no change in expression. She moved onto the next cup without a word.
Later, she bent her head to share some words with the bald man. He looked my way and crossed his arms, which were scarred in a way that made them look scaled. Both kept glancing at me, and I felt a prickle run over my skin. My nerve broke, and as soon as their customers distracted them, I slipped out—and almost walked into a Jemmite guard. I mumbled my apology to my feet and kept walking, hoping he wouldn’t follow.
At the next place, I told the barkeep I was looking for someone.
“Oh?” He glanced at me as he poured. “What do they look like?”
I frowned at my drink as I realized I didn’t have an answer, and he left to fill other cups. It dawned on me that the last time I’d seen him, Ostred was still a boy. Not anywhere as big as I’d thought him when he abandoned me at the orphanage. Almost two decades had passed since then, and nearly five years since he last tried to find me. By the time the barkeep came back round, I’d already left.
Prayer rockets set aloft whistled in the distance as I walked under the moonslight. Unbidden, laughter bubbled up from my gut. What a fool I’d been, thinking I’d be able to find Ostred. If a smuggler didn’t want to be found, then what? I belched, thankful for the drink warming my belly. This close to the Wound was like fighting an undertow, its pull now faint, then sharp and strong as being snatched by a shark.
One more and the night could take the rest. I shouldn’t have another, keep my wits about me, but there was a reason I was drinking—to find Ostred. I gritted my teeth in concentration as I fought the urge find the shore and wade out into the dark water, instead heading towards the next place. It reminded me of Old Rodrigo’s, small enough to be confused with a vendor’s stall, with a high bar to stand at and one barrel full of spirits.
“Easy on, traveler,” the barkeep said when I dug for my coin. He slid a cup towards me, a lopsided smile splitting his red beard. “I know what you’re here to find.”
When I gave him a sharp look, he twirled a spiral in the air with one finger. It was the slightest movement, meant for my eyes only, but I held my drink in both hands until they stopped shaking. My reflection stared back at me from the bottom of my cup with such a haunted look that I gulped down half my drink rather than keep looking at it.
“I don’t know what you’re saying.” I gave the slightest shake of my head, afraid to even look at him. In my pocket, Ostred’s letter flared with heat. I glanced at the barkeep out of the corner of my eye and remembered something Mama and Papa used to say: red hair, favored by red waters.
“It wasn’t easy,” he said, making a show of tidying up everything around me. “Keeping an eye peeled and an ear pricked up for anyone asking around, but he’s never led us wrong.”
My breath fled as I felt invisible jaws closing all around me. I was already turning to go before the thought to leave crossed my mind, but the Jemmite guard stood at the entrance to the place.
He slapped the business end of his cudgel in his other palm, the meaty sound echoing. He stepped forward, forcing me back inside.
“Anyone see you?” The barkeep held a lamp, adjusting its light.
“No one important,” he said.
“And our orders?” The barkeep’s voice had an edge.
“You know what I’m not hearing? ‘Thanks for getting the lads ready to turn the world upside-down,'” the guard said.
“That’s why we sweetened the pot for you. The orders?”
“God’s stone balls, what do you think? Dissolved the ink in blessed water.”
I tried to dash outside. As I pushed past him, he managed to hook a foot between mine, sending me sprawling face-first. He drove the air out of me, twisted my arms behind me and bound them. I squirmed, trying to get out from under him, but lights danced in front of my eyes and I gasped like a landed fish.
“Can’t deliver you if you up and run off.” The guard grunted as he pulled me onto my feet. “Very different reward for us if we came back empty-handed, eh?”
“Definitely,” the barkeep said over his shoulder, pulling at a hidden catch in the back wall to reveal a narrow passage. We squeezed through, the smell of the tide thick in the narrow space, and moved through a forest of wooden piles. Occasional thumping overhead reminded me we were under the floorboards of Murkwater Alley. Ahead, the Wound heaved itself onto the stony shore, its waters seeming to hiss my name.
“Do you know where we’re meeting him?” The guard shoved me ahead.
“You’ll see,” the barkeep murmured.
The passage led to a rickety pier on the far end of the docks, hugging the breakwater wall. The fishing boats looked decrepit and half-sunken, piled high with crab cages and stinking nets. Gaunt men and women huddled together on their decks, eyes dull and hollow.
“Huy-huy,” they muttered as we passed them.
“Bloodhounds,” the guard said, shuddering.
“Word is, they swallowed godsblood as a way of defying hard questions from Jemmites like our friend, here.”
First thing the Jemmites had done after taking me from Mama and Papa was to sever the cord holding my pendant of godsblood from my neck. The brother who took it laughed at my cries after he tossed it overboard. I never thought to eat the symbol of my faith in defiance, even if it would drown my mind to this world. I thought of the desperation that must lead to such an action and felt a guilty relief as I listened to their dreary voices call to each other.
When we reached the end of the pier, the moons had moved behind Mount Ajh. By now, whatever plan the guard had conspired to happen up in the Temple Wards of Mirdhras was visible from Bloodport. The peals of bells, faint with distance, sounded an alarm as flames leapt across the vaulted roofs. Closer, scores of prayer rockets shrieked aloft. I was sure more than a few of those were launched in celebration.
“Your idea?” The barkeep glanced my way. Behind me, the guard slid his cudgel out before answering.
“We never agreed to torch everything,” he said. “What good is a share of the riches now?”
I shifted my weight as he moved, but he was too quick. I glanced off his shoulder and fell, knocking my head against the boards. the barkeep heard nothing, his eyes dancing as the flames grew to engulf the roof of one of the temples.
“I love a good plan,” he murmured.
“A shame you’re no longer part of mine,” the guard muttered before bringing his cudgel down on the barkeep’s head with a crack. He crumpled, his head a bloody mass.
After searching through his pockets, the guard rolled the barkeep into the open waters. As he came towards me, something slithered loose inside me. My brother’s letter answered me from inside my pocket. It kindled with a hot, slow pulse. The guard loomed over me, his cudgel covered with gore and part of the barkeep’s scalp.
His hands tugged open my pockets. He palmed whatever scant copper was still on me before his fingertips brushed the letter. He tugged it out, smiling. “Oho. What’s this, then?”
“No,” I said, gritting my teeth as I pulled the same way the Wound did to me. One bloodhound staggered out of the shadows towards me, towards the guard.
“Huy.” It sniffed the air and came closer.
Unaware of the bloodhound, the guard peered at it before turning to me. “I’ve got to go, so do let him know he sweetened the pot plenty, but I’ll be damned if I jump in.”
“Y-you just can’t,” I sputtered, unable to say much else.
“If the Wound wants you, it can have you.” He shrugged and kicked me towards the water. I struggled against him to stop myself from rolling all the way into the water, the Wound lapping at my waist.
“Huy-huy.” The bloodhound lurched ahead, the glint of a knife in her hand. Several more followed her to swarm over the guard, hands rising and falling as I slipped further into the water. One of the bloodhounds gave a cry as it held my brother’s letter.
The last thing I saw before I sank into the red waters was the bloodhound lick at the ink-covered surface of the letter and shudder, as if in ecstasy.
Once upon a time, an old man and his wife lived on the shores of the Wound. Much to their regret, they had never borne children. Now in their sunset years they feared the time had passed.
Even then, they held out hope.
One day, the old man, whose name was Manni, signed aboard a vessel bound for the wine-dark deeps. There, he hoped they could find one of the great tar-like masses of half-living godsblood. Such a find could ensure that his share of the riches was enough to pay the offering required to adopt a child from one of the Jemmite orphanages on Mount Ajh.
While away, his wife Estelle kept casting her nets along the shore. She collected the pieces of hardened godsblood the waves left on the beach like a spray of uncut, unpolished jacinth. Between one cast and another, she would scan the horizon for the sails of Manni’s ship returning to port.
Now, everyone down those shores had some story of small miracles visited upon them because of godsblood: from fish jumping into starving fishwives’ nets to old salts claiming they fell overboard only to have the red waters spit them back up undrowned. Because of this, Estelle the Bloodmonger was a welcome sight among the nearby communities, and she got by selling what she drew out of the Wound.
So, when her nets came up empty no matter how often she cast them, she grew worried. After more time passed with her nets remaining empty and her larder growing bare, she became desperate. She was too weak with hunger to climb the slopes of Mount Ajh to beg for salvation from Jaime’s stone ears.
Instead, she knelt before her household shrine and called upon Jaime to save her, hoping he could still hear her pleas. Every morning, she prayed, and every night she prayed, for seven nights and seven days. When her reward was nothing but silence, she knew what she must do.
Come dawn, she waded into the surf, drew her knife, and set its edge against her forearm. She took a deep breath before calling out to the god of the bitter waters.
“Before, I only took, but now I see my error and beg forgiveness,” she called out into the heart of the sea. Then, she drew the blade across her skin and fed her blood to the waves. “Just as blood calls to blood, please take of my body so that you can grant me life.”
For seven days, she waded out into the waters, and for seven days she drew another line across her skin, feeding her blood to the sea. For seven days, she said the same words, made the same plea.
On the seventh day, the sea answered.
Red waters surged forth in a flood, rising past Estelle’s waist and spreading past the stones lining the shore. For as far as she could see, dusky gems of godsblood bobbed in the water, so much that she didn’t need her nets. She scooped up her prizes with her bare hands and gathered them in her skirts to carry them home. She hurried back with her nets and cast them wide. Every time she dragged them back, they held so much godsblood to make her fortune for years upon years.
For three days, the waters of the Wound flooded the land.
For three days, Estelle cast her nets.
And on the third day, the waters retreated, the Wound settling back into its bed. Estelle struggled to store her bounty and packed barrel after barrel until she could sell or trade it.
In the following days, every time she daydreamed of all the meat pies or sweetcakes her new fortune could buy her, she became ill. At first, she thought the thin gruel she ate for breakfast had turned, but as she spied sails on the horizon by the dying light, she was certain another of her prayers had also been answered.
The sea had gotten her with child.
She was as certain of this as she was sure the ship she saw was Manni’s, returning from the untamed deeps. So, when her husband crossed the threshold, Estelle stayed in her seat next to the hearth-fire. She did not stand with joyous cry at his return, and she did not rush to embrace him. Instead, she clasped her hands in her lap to hide their shaking, afraid of how Manni might react to the news of her miracle.
“Dearest,” he called. He carried a bundle in the crook of one arm. “Come see what I’ve brought!”
The snap of the banked fire filled the silence.
“My love, why are you sitting in the dark?”
“Forgive me,” Estelle murmured from her chair. She rose, lighting a candle from the hearth flame. “I was having a most curious dream where we had a child together.”
“Then your dream was god-sent. Come,” Manni said, smiling and beckoning with his free arm. And Estelle, hearing the warmth in his voice, reminded of their long life together; of her husband’s gentle soul, let her fears subside.
She allowed Manni to draw her into his embrace.
“Look,” he whispered in her ear and lifted the rags to reveal a fat-cheeked baby boy, dozing.
“Another miracle,” Estelle blurted.
“Another—?” Manni started to ask before he saw his answer written on Estelle’s face. For a moment, his face was as still as the surface of deep dark waters, and Estelle’s heart fluttered. Then, the moment passed, and her husband’s smile emerged like sun from behind clouds.
“Then we have been twice-blessed!” Laughing with joy, Manni kissed his wife. Squeezed between them, the baby awoke and began to fuss. Manni stepped away from Estelle’s embrace to rock the baby asleep again.
“He might be getting hungry,” Manni said and smiled, but did a shadow of pain cross his face? Questions warred with each other in Estelle’s mind until—instead of asking any of them—she stammered out something else altogether.
“How was the voyage, love?”
Manni made a sour face. “We came back empty-handed. Well—” He glanced at the baby. “Maybe not all of us.”
“How—?” Estelle bit back the rest of her question, but Manni saw her eyes on the child and knew what she meant to say.
“Third night out, beyond the sight of shore, a dream woke me. So I did what many of the other sailors did to clear their minds and cast a line off the stern by moonslight.” Manni moved to his chair near the hearth-fire and sat with a groan. There! Estelle saw him wince in pain, but he continued to speak before she thought to say anything about it. “Instead of fading, though, the dream became clearer to me: I was trapped in the cold dark, and far away a voice wailed my name.” Manni trailed off into silence.
“And then?” Estelle poked at the fire.
“Then I woke.” Manni shook his head as if even now he couldn’t believe what he’d done. “For the second time. I could have fallen overboard, especially with what was tugging at the line.” Manni nodded at the child. “In the moonslight, he was black as pitch, like he was covered in godsblood, or made of it. Whatever it was washed off easy enough.”
At that moment, the baby began to fuss again, but nothing Manni did could dissuade the child from crying. And for the third time, Estelle noticed her husband grimace as he lifted his shirt to reveal a deep, puckered wound under his ribs.
“No help for it, now. He’s been hungry,” Manni said.
Then, he lifted the child to suckle at his wound.
Estelle could have shrieked but instead strangled the cry coiling itself at the root of her throat as she fathomed at last what the sea asked of them in return. Her hands moved to her belly, to where another sea-born child quickened.
And she set aside her fears; did they not live amidst miracles?
Even so, some small noise must have escaped her lips, for the child opened eyes bright as two polished coins to stare at her while he fed. Estelle waited until Manni pulled the boy off with a gasp before beckoning him to follow. She led him to the storeroom, past the nets hung to dry, where she had rolled the barrels full of godsblood.
The child, perhaps still hungry, whimpered as Manni rocked him, crooned a lullaby, and did what he could to quiet him.
“The sea already sent us gifts for his children.” Estelle uncovered one of the barrels. The musk of godsblood mingled with the salt tang, and the child fell silent. His nostrils widened as he scented the air, eyes gleaming, and followed her hand as she plucked a piece out of the barrel.
When she offered it, he opened his mouth and sucked at it, silent but for the occasional hiccup. He brought one hand, then the other, to push the dull and ruddy gem into his mouth. Manni’s smile grew wider, and Estelle was glad to see his color coming back.
She told him everything. When she finished, knowing what she would do next, she fished out a pebble of godsblood and swallowed it. The child of the sea in her womb grew and kept growing as if to catch up with his sibling.
Within a month, Estelle gave birth, to another boy.
Within a year, both boys grew as much as children of seven years, and though one rarely spoke, both Estelle and Manni loved them both as their sea-born children. The boys grew long of limb and healthy, always honoring their parents in the ways good children do, but always with one eye cast towards the sea.
The darkness was a hand clamped over my mouth and nose, my hoarse screams smothered unheard, just like in the old dreams. No matter how much I thrashed, I couldn’t move my arms or legs, and a slow thump shivered through me, steady as a heartbeat.
“Stop.” Someone yanked the sack off my head.
I was aboard a ship. On my right, a porthole let some light in but obscured the other side of the berth. An old sailor, white hair silver in the light, tossed aside the sack he’d pulled off me. Grunting, he sat me up and ran his hands over my body in a series of deft pokes and squeezes, like I was some piece of fruit at market and he wasn’t yet decided on buying.
He nodded at me, encouraging me to speak. I hesitated, loath to say a thing after being crossed that way. I was aboard a ship, then. The way the deck pitched and rolled felt like it was anchored in deeper waters. The last thing I had seen was the guard, trying to hold back the blood spurting from his neck, and a chill ran through me.
Was this a Jemmite ship?
I was far from anyone who could hear my screams whenever the Jemmites started to ask me questions real hard about how much I knew. Not what, but how much. Once I’d told the Jemmites what they wanted to hear, they’d feed me to the fish.
For all my brother’s talk of destiny, he hadn’t foreseen this.
“You expecting a ransom?”
The old sailor narrowed his eyes as if what I’d said was something he couldn’t quite believe, like hearing a dog stop licking its ass long enough to recite scripture.
“My brother will pay handsomely for my release. You know Ostred?”
At my brother’s name, the old sailor blinked. The faintest smile flitted across his face before he stepped back into the shadows to crack open the hatch. His silhouette stood out against the slice of moonslit main deck I could see through the opening. He spoke with someone just outside. Conversation ended and he snapped to attention, bringing a fist to his chest. He held the door open while someone else entered, clasping the furred collar of his oiled cloak close as he shut the hatch behind him.
I allowed myself a smile. It had been a small victory, but seeing how mention of my brother’s name had stirred things up kept my mind from what came next. The visitor sat on the dark side of the berth and took a long breath before he spoke.
“Welcome back, dear brother.”
It couldn’t be, but that voice belonged to—
“Ostred?” I tried to say something else, but words left me. Anger and fear roiled in me, each fighting the other for control, but most embarrassing was the sense of relief. I wouldn’t have to haggle for my life with strangers, at least.
Who else would it be? His chuckle was the low, wet sound of mud bubbling up around a boot. “Did my first mate Santos welcome you aboard my ship, The Sea’s Promise?”
“How did you find me, Ostred?”
“Chinto.” He repeated my childhood nickname under his breath and tsked. “You thought the god couldn’t tug at all the currents of fate to bring you back into my waters?”
“The god wrote that letter,” I said. “Sent a messenger to die.”
“Two months past, he sent me an omen.” Ostred said. “I was in Qawaati waters, pulling up anchor and ready to catch the tide when I spied a runaway barge snapped free of its mooring. It floated low, so overladen with slabs of salt ready for the millhouse, it was slowly sinking as the current carried out into open waters.”
“I’m sure you think that story makes everything clear to me.”
“To the faithful,” Ostred said, “the god’s will is written across the sky every sunrise. Didn’t you used to believe that, Chinto?”
“I did, once upon a time.” Even though his face was in shadows, I could feel his gaze on me. “You’re going to tell me the god knew all about the Jemmites, too?”
I knew what the answer would be, but I needed to hear him say it. Ostred shifted in the dark and leaned forward so his clasped hands emerged from the shadows.
“‘All blood ever flows back to the sea—'”
“‘—as we come from it, so we return,'” I cut in, spitting the rest of the funereal prayer. “You made them kill each other.”
“Blood must answer blood,” he said. “You know this, brother. They’ve had it coming for a long time. After what they did to us, what else should I have I done?”
“Oh, Chinto,” Ostred snapped. “You and your wish to keep your hands clean are what put us both in this, remember? The sea itself trembled in wait for your knife to fall, for the flow of blood that would rouse the god and bring him to save us from our enemies. Blood will be shed, brother. How did you expect this to happen?”
“You’re a monster,” I wheezed, unable to breathe. I was huddled against the wall of the orphanage, waiting for Ostred all over again. “I should’ve known that when you left.”
“I meant to come back,” Ostred said, almost to himself.
“But you never did, Ossie.”
“I was only a boy, afraid—”
“And I was younger and smaller than you!” I pushed forward, straining against my bonds until my joints popped. “You know what they did? Every morning, they’d come. Lead me into their baptismal pool. See, Mama and Papa left their stain on me, one the Jemmites had to wash away to save me, they said. Then they would push me under, again and again.”
“They almost killed me!”
“What do you think they did to me?” Ostred roared.
He loomed over me, panting. His face, now visible in the moonslight, sagged as his anger drained away. “Why do you think I left in the first place? And if they’d caught me when I came back? I’d have been just another accident at the orphanage. So tragic when they’re so young, everyone would say and not think about it. I signed onto the first ship I could find. I meant to come back, but—” Ostred gave the slightest shrug, eyes distant. “I was afraid and told myself I wasn’t destined to survive like you were, brother.”
“Destined?” I scoffed. “Is that supposed to console me?”
“Ever since they found you, out on the waves, Mama and Papa treated you like the god’s gift to them.” Ostred looked out the porthole. “I was their child, but you were ever their seaward star.”
“What?” I gave Ostred a searching look. If Mama and Papa had ever loved me better, it was the same way Jemmite priests adored their unspeaking marble idols. “I know they always crowned me as Opener of the Way before we’d run around and jump from deck to deck playing, but that was back when Mama and Papa could still dandle you on their knees.”
Ostred grimaced, looking like he wanted to say something more.
The hatch opened, interrupting whatever else my brother was about to say. His first mate poked his head in and saluted, waiting for leave to speak.
“What?” Ostred shifted back into the shadows.
“Beg pardon, captain. Lookout’s sighted ships approaching.”
“Three, flying Jemmite colors.” He glanced at me, and plain on his face was a different question than Heave up?
Ostred nodded, waiting for Santos to bark his commands and for the crew to echo them in acknowledgement. The ship came alive as they pulled up anchor. Ostred stood and brushed past Santos. “Bring him with us.”
The two crewmen Santos commanded had their orders, and regardless of my struggles, they pried me out of the berth like a conch from its shell. Then, they frog-marched me to where Ostred and Santos waited for me at the bow.
The Sea’s Promise was turning towards open waters wine-dark in the moonslight. To stern, the lights of Bloodport twinkled like stars. The faint shouts of the crew told me where to look for our pursuer’s square sails.
“You’ll want to keep still,” my brother said.
Santos gripped one of my arms and drew his blade, an ugly length of black iron with one gleaming edge. He pressed it into the meat of my forearm and blood flowed, dripping on the deck.
“Father,” Ostred intoned, bowing his head. “Deliver us from those who would spill our blood. It is by rights yours. Bring us into your grace, into the light of your regard. Call us to your side the way the shore calls to the tide, the way blood calls to blood.”
Santos flicked his blade, sending droplets of my blood flying in a wide arc to patter into the waters of the Wound.
“So the Fallen may rise,” he and Ostred said in unison.
The sea churned under the ship, and the crew shouted their warnings as a wave crested to stern. Timbers creaking, the ship yawed as its prow cut through the slope of water. We surged ahead, as if The Sea’s Promise was no more than a plaything being pulled on a string, and left our pursuers behind.
It was a time of wonders, for in the shadow of Mount Ajh the boys with separate fathers grew long of limb and strong. Their shoreward father Manni loved and raised them with his wife Estelle, and their seaward father revealed to them all how much he favored his sons.
Remos, the eldest, was fair as a bright day, and his brother Radames was dark and silent as a midnight prayer. Remos loved his brother just as Radames loved him in return, and they both honored their shoreward parents in all the ways good children do.
The brothers’ inheritance made certain the sea answered their wishes. Holding the smallest pebble of godsblood aloft and whispering to their seaward father was enough to ensure their cast nets never returned empty and their spear-tips always found fish. Estelle dried and salted what she could of what they caught until their larder groaned under the weight of all the food. The remainder she put into her baskets and hoisted onto her shoulders to visit the families who once had called her bloodmonger but now bought fish from her.
She returned troubled by what she had seen, and that night Radames overheard her speaking to his father about her visits down the shore.
“So many had nothing, and supped on dust and shadows.” His mother’s sob was the small sound of a heart breaking. “So many of them are just waiting for Old Gaunt to rap his bony knuckles on their doors and lead them under the earth. And they all had the same story—Jemmites breaking down their doors to seize what godsblood I’d long ago given them in trade.”
Radames whispered what he’d overheard into his brother’s ear, urging him to welcome the starving, the poor, and the wretched to their shore and share their bounty.
Heeding that advice, the brothers visited their nearest neighbors, bringing fish for them to eat. Word of their generosity spread, and not long afterwards, the brothers woke to find scores of people camped on their beach.
“The sea brought us all to these shores,” Remos said to those gathered. Many sighed with relief, for his smile was the first ray of sun piercing the storm-wracked skies to shine on the waters ahead. “And in honor to our father, we share in his bounty.”
So the brothers opened their larder to their neighbors, and no one suffered want that day. Radames stayed in his brother’s shadow, letting Remos speak and sing and laugh along with the group, for Remos was better suited to the task.
On the second day, the brothers woke to find even more people. Remos once again welcomed them, and they both flung open their larder again, ensuring none among their congregation went hungry.
On the third day, the brothers awoke to a great many more camped on their shores. However, Radames, while his brother listened to the stories of Jemmite raids on even the farthest shores on the Wound, realized how best he and his brother could help their neighbors. This time, when they flung upon their larder doors, the brothers parceled out their inheritance, one piece of godsblood at a time.
At that moment, several of the congregation shrugged off their cloaks to reveal the crimson tabards of Jemmite zealots. As one, they drew their swords and, hurling imprecations against those gathered, cut down the faithful nearest them. Some of the congregation cried out in dismay at the enemies in their midst, but others found their anger stoked to fury.
And now, they held in their fists the means to strike back.
The brothers joined their people in calling upon their seaward father to deliver them from the swords of their enemies. Even as zealots snatched godsblood from lifeless hands, their blades dripping with gore from their butcher’s work, whitecaps frothed the waters of the Wound.
Then, the sea answered.
Crimson waters surged, pushing aside the congregation to engulf the Jemmites in their chilly embrace before ripping them from shore. Currents deep and wild pulled all but one of the invaders far out into the Wound to be claimed by the waters. As the sea receded, Remos and Radames stanched the wounds of those who still drew breath. For the dead, however, the brothers let their blood flow, to be lapped up by the hungry waves.
The lone Jemmite survivor fled back to Mount Ajh to report to the Grand Heirophant what had happened. For a day and the following night, the brothers and their congregation recovered only to wake to clouds of dust darkening the sky as the Jemmites marched towards the sea. They grew fearful, murmuring amongst themselves that they should scatter to their hiding places and secret coves along the coast. Radames heard them and whispered into his brother’s ear once more. Remos, moved to speak by this brother’s words, stood before their followers.
“Brothers and sisters, hear me!” Remos’s voice rang out, turning every ear in his audience from the low thunder of the approaching enemy. “Let us be strengthened by our faith in our seaward father. He who is lord over the bitter waters calls upon us to return to him. We are his children, people of the bitter waters, and so to the bitter waters we must return.”
At this, the brothers turned towards the sea with arms raised, and for the first time the congregation heard Radames speak, and his was the voice of bells sounding in the deeps.
He called upon his father, and the waters grew still.
Again, and his father’s name only rippled over the waves.
Before he called out a third time, Radames knew his father was listening, waiting for him to speak in the language he liked best, and he bowed his head. He shed bitter tears, to be lost in the waves, as he understood what his father asked of him. He turned to his brother, who also understood what was asked of them, and they gazed upon each other’s faces. At last, Remos knelt before his brother, tearing open his shirt to expose his chest. Radames drew his knife and plunged it between his brother’s ribs, calling out for his father a third time.
At this, the waters peeled back and opened a path through the muck. Radames croaked a command to move ahead and lifted his brother’s body, carrying Remos draped between his arms.
So, it came to pass that they walked, arm-in-arm, into the welcoming sea ahead of their enemies, and the sea closed the way behind them as they passed beyond the rim of the world and into their seaward father’s embrace.
Third night of the seabound chase, and dawn was playing coy. With the skies clenching into the threat of storms, I couldn’t fault the sun for wanting to duck back under the world. We had crossed into the untamed deeps of the Wound during the night, and the waters changed from the color of old rust to the wine-dark of the towering swells around us.
Two of the Jemmite ships had fallen behind, their crews likely mutinied. The last ship continued to give chase. The crew of The Sea’s Promise kept us ahead by catching some winks here and there at their posts, ready to man them again at any moment.
Now The Sea’s Promise creaked, climbing the face of a swell. The crew went about their tasks, each with one ear cocked for the lookout’s cry. When the alarm was raised at last—square sails, half a league to stern—a collective groan rippled across the main deck as sailors resumed their battle stations.
When our ship crested, the lookout called down, warning of the lead enemy ship’s turn. “Three masts!”
“Three masts, aye,” Ostred repeated. “Hard to larboard!”
Santos repeated the orders and was echoed by the sailors across the main deck and the rigging. He shared a look with my brother, then drew his blade and sliced through the rope binding my arms. Pinpricks flooded through my muscles. Then, he looped the same length of rope around my waist and tied me to the railing.
Once done, he joined the helmsmen, who were straining against the tiller to turn The Sea’s Promise. The deck tilted as our ship cut across the face of a dark swell. My hands still too numb to hold onto anything, I lost my footing and tumbled across the deck. I would have slid across it, right over the side, if not for Santos’s knot-work.
By the time the enemy ship crested at broadsides to The Sea’s Promise, we’d moved out of range of all but their best archers, presenting our stern as a smaller target. Even then, the lookout cried out a warning.
“Volley, aye,” Ostred’s voice rang out. “Shields!”
Before I could react, Santos slid next to me, holding a round wooden shield over both of our heads. All that to have the enemy’s arrows bite nothing more than water. Santos waited, expecting another volley, before he stood and helped me regain my footing.
The crew eyed me, their gazes shying away when my eyes met theirs. I turned to Ostred, who took in the situation and answered my question before I’d even put it together.
“They know, brother.” He nodded at Santos, who drew a godsblood pendant out of his shirt and pressed it into my hand. The ruddy stone warmed against my palm.
“We are waiting for you to fulfill your promise. To open the way to the god’s embrace to us,” Ostred said, tossing his oiled cloak off his shoulder to open his shirt. When Santos pushed the grip of his blade into my other palm, I jerked back my hand as if burned.
I searched my brother’s face, not understanding until something he’d said came back to me. Then I’m a child again, the knife in my hand too heavy as I watch Mama and Papa anoint Ossie. All around us stood our family of cutthroats, drunkards, and thieves, all adopted from the back-alleys of Bloodport. All eyes watch me until with a shudder, the floating town is rammed by Jemmites.
“All this?” I gestured around us. “For a story told to children?”
Ostred’s response to my questions was a glance at his crew.
God’s black blood, how would he ever see the truth of things? I tried to say something, anything, but I couldn’t coax any words out of my mouth. I snapped it shut just as the lookout raised the alarm.
Far to stern, the enemy ship crested with all sails up and taut as they caught wind ahead of the storm. Gathering speed, it skimmed across the waves, prow cutting the dark waters into a froth. The sky rumbled a warning.
Ostred was already shouting orders over the thunder, and the crew of The Sea’s Promise turned the ship’s lateen sails ahead of the storm winds. They rippled a moment, then pulled tight, and the ship groaned like an ox led by its nose. We rolled as we turned away from our pursuers and headed farther out to sea.
Ostred broke from shouting orders to stand before me, baring his chest again. He drew his stiletto and dimpled the skin over his heart with its point. He took my free hand and placed it on the hilt, his eyes pleading until he barked, “Save us, brother!”
The enemy was gaining on us, and all eyes turned to me, expecting me to—what? Plunge a blade into the heart of the person who knew how best to sail the ship? I flinched as the wind swirled past me, but underneath its shriek was a low basso rumble that I felt shiver through my bones. I wanted to believe it was thunder, but it sounded like a voice the size of the world moaning in wordless pain, making the very air tremble around us.
“Chinto—” Ostred bellowed. He gesticulated at Santos. “Hold him!”
Santos’s whistle pierced the chaos. He was answered by two of the helmsmen. I took one look at their scowling faces and tried to run—only to be jerked short by my rope. They tackled me, pinning me to the deck no matter how much I kicked or thrashed.
“If you won’t do what’s needed, then another shall take your place.” Ostred’s expression was wild with fury. “Fate does not abide inaction, Chinto.”
Behind him, Santos drew his sword. I knew what came next.
“I’m your brother,” I said. The pendant, forgotten until now, blazed in my fist as I struggled against the many hands holding me down. “You’re choosing them over me?”
“The god requires blood,” Ostred said for all to hear and was answered by a ragged cheer of “the Fallen rise!” Then, he knelt by my side and bent to kiss me on both cheeks, speaking for my ears only. “Trying to escape it will only make someone else visit your fate upon you.” He shrugged. “Forgive me, brother.”
“No.” I choked as rain and seawater trickled into my nose, my open mouth. Too late. Ostred was already standing, bellowing orders to his crew. I ground my teeth, and the godsblood was a searing coal aflame in my fist. I twisted and thrashed, held under again and again by strong hands. Nothing to do but wait for the inevitable.
“No,” I growled, wanting to make my brother hear me. Santos loomed over me, blade raised, and the old anger stirred inside me, uncoiled.
A blinding flash of lightning lit up the sky. I squeezed my eyes shut against it, but burned against my eyelids was a glimpse of something enormous flying out of the air towards us.
It looked like a hand.
A hand that dwarfed The Sea’s Promise, huge the way the voice I’d heard on the wind sounded. As vast as Ostred and I used the imagine the god as children and hide because we thought he was angry at us for leaving him down there at the bottom of the sea.
Opening my eyes, I saw it for what it truly was. Engulfed in flames, the Jemmite ship smashed through the crest of the nearest wave, masts blazing like torches, and hurtled down the face of the swell, prow aimed at us. The lookout yelped a warning. By then, it was too late.
The blow landed amidships. The crack of our keel splintering was loud enough to rival the thunder. The Sea’s Promise listed, held afloat by the enemy ship driven into its hull. The sea washed over both vessels, sweeping their crews off the deck and out to sea. Their faint screams were snatched up and shredded by the wind. If not for the rope lashing me to the ship, I would have suffered the same fate.
My brother’s hand closed around my ankle. I thought about kicking it off with my free foot but noticed Santos’s sword in my brother’s gut. Instead, I reached down and pulled him into my lap, cursing myself all the while. I looped my rope under his arms to shift the load and held him.
“I’m not leaving you, brother,” I said. With everything that had happened I didn’t want to die alone, even if my only company was a monster like my brother, more the fool I. “How did it come to this?”
“They did this—” Ostred raised a trembling finger, pointing at the enemy’s ship, and gulped. “To us.”
Ostred’s blood washed across the deck, the waves lapping it up, and we passed into the eye of the storm. I stroked my brother’s cold brow as we drifted on calm seas under a darkling sky. He stirred, coughing up a dribble of blood, raising one limp hand to pluck at the pitted black iron of the blade.
“Your fate—” He wheezed, swallowing blood. “Brother.”
I don’t know how much time I held him like that, but he was carved from gray ice when I realized he’d left me behind again. Cursing him, I let him go, and he slid into the water without a ripple.
By and by, lashed to the wreckage of my brother’s ship, I drifted beyond the edges of the map. The pale bodies of the dead trailed in my wake as I came upon the god’s resting place.
From the edges of the great vortex, I gazed upon the body of the god, vast as a nation, impaled upon a spur of rock big as Mount Ajh at the bottom of the sea. Bodies without number squirmed over his, rendered insignificant. Around him, countless spires and scaffolds with ropes fanned out like intricate webs, some looped around his bulk. Vast numbers of people climbed the spur of rock protruding from the god’s torso, swinging hammers and chipping away at the stone. The vortex drew me into its maw, and the ships groaned around me.
Even before my blood began to sing, I knew what I would see.
The god turned his gaze, hollow as an old hurt, upon me, and a shock of recognition shuddered through me like a blow. I knew his face, had seen it reflected in the curve of every bottle and at the bottom of every cup. All those years spent running away, to escape this moment, all wasted, futile as trying to get away from my own reflection. When he stretched out his hand, beckoning, I knew I had to go with him. The slow tolling of his heart filled the ache I’d always known, an answer to something I’d long ago forgotten.
We were two parts of a whole, like father to son, brother to brother, shore to the tide. Across his vast expanse, a thousand thousand hands welcomed me and nestled me into the hollow kept for me. He and I joined like hands clasped in prayer, and I shed my everyday fears like an old skin.
I was come into the god’s embrace; we were one and I was pleased.
High, thin pleas reached my ears, cries of anger rippled through the multitudes joined together into my body, and I urged the fallen to at last rise. As I slid off the blunted spur of rock, a pang of regret fleeted through me. Visions of the drowned world returned, but our people had drunk deep of bitter waters long enough to be prepared. I strode across the sea, chasing the waters ahead of me to reclaim all the lands and wash them clean of their oppressors, for is it not just that blood calls for blood?