The blade was the only beautiful thing Lys had ever owned—Rukh forged and quenched in Bel’s tears, with a spiral basket hilt formed of a single pearlescent shell. Deira had likely expected her to sell it and live off the gold, or to pledge it to the Viceroy’s service once she reached Axa, but on the eve of her banishment she cast it into the sea, and for a moment thought of throwing herself in after.
Instead she boarded the ship that would take her away from everything she knew. She could not say why she chose to live, beyond a desire to prove she could go on without Deira and a refusal to end her own life when so many others had tried and failed in war or duels. She paid little attention to the swaying gangplank and the dark mass of the ship, only noting briefly it was named the Doe Hare and flew the colors of the Erestia Trade Company.
The first mate, who spoke better than any sailor she’d met, showed her to her cramped little cabin, where she stayed, listening to the sound of footfalls and creaking timber, and the rhythm of wind and tide, as the ship cast off and set sail for the colonial province of Axa.
All she saw, again and again, was her parting with Deira. Deira had received her in court attire, her true hair entwined with a formal wig piled high and decked with ivory until it resembled a faerie tower. Valets who had once served them breakfast together now ordered her to show proper deference to Deira Tarmel, Countess Eldwyne. Even that memory was preferable to what Lys saw when she slept—Deira’s fool cousin Laryn dying on the end of her blade, the same blade now at the bottom of the harbor.
She drank rough spirits she had not touched since her mercenary days and took her meals in her cabin. It was not until the last bottle ran out that she emerged on deck to find the world she had known lost to the blue of sky and sea.
“At last you do us the honor of your presence,” said the first mate, there to greet her like a valet. And just like Deira’s valets, there was a mocking lilt to his smile.
“My presence does no one honor, sir.”
“So you say. You’ll soon see that merchant shipmen have their own strange honor, and the odd lot that’s seeking passage to the colonies have one stranger still. But we haven’t been properly introduced. I am Tamlen, first mate of the Hare. And you are Lys, but I’ve not heard your surname.”
“Well, Only Lys, you’ll join us for dinner, I hope?”
She mumbled her assent. There was little else to occupy her on the ship. Old Malin from the Manor Guard had given her a copy of Undyn’s Travels in the Colonies, but it was Deira who had taught her letters, and she could not read more than a handbill without thinking of their lessons, held late and in the bedchamber. Nor could she practice her bladework without recalling things she could not face. Without liquor the silence of her cabin was too much to bear, so she lent her help to the crew, who showed her how to climb rigging and tie sailors’ knots.
There was only one other woman among the sailors, an old Sugar-Islander who the men called Mother and consulted with questions of wind and tide, though she could still haul lines with the best of them. Lys gave her a friendly bow when offering the old woman her help, but she only shook her head.
The rest were glad for Lys’s assistance. The Doe Hare had fewer crewmen than a ship of its size ought to, and they were a glum lot, tired-eyed and wary of something Lys could not discern; all the while she worked, she felt the eyes of first mate Tamlen following her.
That evening she joined the passengers and the first mate at the captain’s table. The room was dimly lit with whale-oil lamps, and in the waxy yellow light she saw her fellow exiles for the first time. There were five men at the table, including the captain and Tamlen, all in the thick of different conversations. A stick-thin Aragite nobleman sat by himself in the corner, his cape and waistcoat embroidered with glyphs in the True Language that squirmed and shifted when Lys looked at them. She gave him a wide berth. Aragite nobles all spoke the True Tongue, and Lys had heard they married twice—a human consort to continue their bloodline and a spirit to cement their ties to the Otherworld. This one appeared to be an old bachelor, and Lys was relieved that no spirits were traveling with him.
The captain was seated at the table’s head, a short, florid-faced man whose uniform fit poorly. A tall wig sat uneasily on his head. He was already deep in his cups, holding a one-sided conversation with a man nearly twice his size whose head was resting on the table, who occasionally seemed to answer the captain with unintelligible mutters. Tamlen was seated next to the sleeping man, and he pulled out an empty chair for Lys.
“Welcome. I’m afraid our captain and Roleg started early.” Tamlen patted the unfeeling shoulder of the big man beside him. “A pity—Roleg helped put down Hob’s Rebellion. You might have traded war stories.”
Lys frowned. Clearly Tamlen knew more about her than her name, but what was he after? If it was her company, he was bound for disappointment. Lys had lain with a few men in her mercenary days, if only to fill the nervous hours on the eve of battle. It was not something she would do again.
No, Tamlen was after something other than her body, but he was difficult to read. He plied her with questions of her past in the mercenary companies and the house of Eldwyne. Thankfully, the conversation on the other side of the table grew louder and saved her from answering. A young lector of Iores in the white cassock of his order sat opposite her, letting his food grow cold and listening with growing discomfort to the questions of a little Nahala man in the red robes of the Rukh.
Lys had never seen a Rukh up close, as they kept to their spiral towers and promised death to any who trespassed, but she had used their steel and even fired one of their pistols, made only for favored nobles. She was delighted to see that his lips were blue, just like the stories.
“May I assume,” said the Rukh to the lector, “based on your rough garment and the fact that you drink only water that you are of the Penitent order?”
The young lector nodded.
“Fascinating. And you are from Nemla, if I judge your dialect correctly. What an opportunity, to have your god as king as well, directing the affairs of church and state in person. Tell me, please, have you been in the presence?”
“I have not.”
The Rukh did not seem to hear the acid tone in the lector’s reply. “Pity. How strange it would be to meet your god in the flesh, especially, forgive me, when he is quite different from what your archlectors have preached. I once petitioned for an audience myself. Of course I was denied, but I heard he is quite the lover of beauty, male and female alike, and of dance and music.”
The lector’s face had begun to redden above his starched white cassock.
“Never fear, the Nahal in Axa and elsewhere revere Iores—or Irias as we call him—as the infant that heralds the dawn. Quite a different aspect to the one he has shown in Nemla.”
“And you Rukh in your towers scoff at the gods and enthrone only human reason.”
“No, dear me, we do not scoff. We might not revere the gods, but we respect them. And while some of my fellows hold that natural laws are enough to explain all, others such as myself maintain there must be an unmoving mover, beyond men and our small gods.”
“As if Radiant Iores were a vulgar pocket god—” spat the lector. He seized the captain’s brandy bottle in a trembling hand, swinging it full-force at the Rukh. Lys moved without thinking, dashing the bottle from the lector’s hand before it could connect and sending it to shatter against the wall.
The captain leapt to his feet, his hand fumbling for something in his breast pocket. For a moment, Lys feared he would draw a Rukh pistol, but his hand remained buried in his coat.
“There will be no further blasphemy, and no further wasting of good brandy. Good night to you all!”
Outside, the lector hurried to his cabin with a scowl, leaving Lys with the little Rukh. The captain and Tamlen remained with Roleg. Perhaps they would have to roll him out.
“I owe you a debt for your actions,” said the Rukh with a bow. “I doubt I shall be able to repay it, unless you are in need of a scholar of divinities.”
“You owe me nothing,” said Lys, “unless there is a god who will let me go back to better times.”
“One thing I have learned is that such favors are rarely worth their asking price. Now come, walk with me.”
The little man introduced himself as Scholar Second-Class Garral, of the Spiral Tower of Axa. As they walked along the starlit deck, he told her he had completed a survey of the fallen gods in the Eastern lands of Erestia, Nemla, and Arag, and was returning home with his findings. The war in the Otherworld had drawn to a close when Lys was ten years old. Like any good Eresti, she was raised to respect all gods, and to revere Meret, Iores, and Lar above others. The fact that one of these three had fallen to earth and sat upon the throne of Nemla made little difference to the observance of tradition.
As they walked, Garral told her more of his theories of the fallen gods. He seemed not to realize that that sort of talk had almost earned him a beating. Then, when they had reached the far side of the deck, Garral abruptly dropped his speculation and spoke in an urgent whisper.
“My eyes are bad in darkness. Is anyone from the crew about?”
Lys looked around. Only one man remained in the crow’s nest, likely sleeping on his feet. She shook her head.
“Good. Keep watch for me, would you?”
Garral withdrew a little gold triangular object from a pouch at his belt. After a moment, Lys recognized it—a sextant—one of the Rukh’s great gifts to Queen Eryx and the foundation of Erestia’s empire of trade. Garral sighted the pole star, mumbling as he calculated their position. When he had finished he frowned.
“What is it?” said Lys.
“This ship is on the wrong course,” said Garral. “Wherever we’re bound, it isn’t Axa.”
Lys found the mystery troubling, but in many ways it was a relief. Wondering where the ship was bound, and for what purpose, was better than wondering if there was any point to living.
Garral spent the next day in his cabin, poring over charts and books. Lys continued to aid the crew. She had proved herself strong and agile with the ropes and quickly learned the sailors’ knots and the difference between square and Nemlan rigging. When the ship was at full sail and the wind was in her hair, she even felt a measure of peace. But the crew still held her apart, and the woman they called Mother would not speak to her.
When they broke for a ration of salt fish and biscuits, she asked one of the men, a wiry Nahal named Angan, where they were bound.
“Axa of course,” he said, as if she were slow-witted.
She would get no answers this way, and the crew betrayed nothing in their conversation. In fact, they seemed almost afraid to talk among themselves. Learning more would require a different approach.
When no eyes were on her, Lys frayed a rope with her knife—choosing one which would not harm the sails but would send an iron pulley tumbling into the sea. When Tamlen angrily ordered a replacement brought from the cargo hold, Lys was first to volunteer and on her way before anyone could deny her.
When she reached the ship’s lowest level, Lys gave herself a moment to adjust to the darkness and the damp, heavy air. She was surprised to note the hold was half empty. There were provisions for a long sea voyage, but very little cargo. One barrel toward the back held firedust, fit for a cannon. The dark powder’s making was held close by the Rukh. Kings and brigands alike managed crude copies of their guns, but no one could duplicate firedust. The barrel before Lys was worth many times its weight in gold. Next to it, beneath an oilcloth tarp, was the iron mass of a true Rukh cannon.
As her eyes adjusted she began to notice more. Huge iron rings hung from the wall of the cargo hold, each one strung with lengths of chain. The Doe Hare had been a slave ship at one time. This was chilling, but not a surprise. Slave ships left Erestia every month, loaded with bondmen from the debtors’ prison or else bound for the Red Market of Irb—all headed eventually for the plantations on the Sugar Islands. There had been rumors at court of a decline in the slave trade, but Lys had not heard the details. In those days, she had thought the less she knew of such matters, the better.
One other thing was odd about the cargo hold. It held a little room at the back, newly built of heavy timber. The room’s door stood open, but Lys saw that it could be sealed with a thick iron bar. Lys could not stop herself from looking, but when she drew closer she saw the room was empty, save for chains clearly meant to hold a prisoner.
Lys’ heart almost leapt into her mouth when she felt a hand on her shoulder. She whirled, old instincts taking hold. Her little knife was in her hand.
It was the captain, his usually florid face gone pale. One of his hands was thrust into his jacket pocket and the other raised to defend himself. When he recognized Lys, he relaxed slightly. “Oh, it’s you—thank the gods. You aren’t permitted below, officers and crew only. Leave at once.”
He seemed more relieved than angry. Lys did not question him, but as she passed she caught sight of what he clutched in his pocket—a crude human figure carved from wood.
“The Doe Hare was a slaver,” said Lys, in Garral’s cabin, “and not only that. They’ve got a cannon and powder below, Rukh-make, but scarcely any cargo. I think we’re going to transport some sort of prisoner—they have a brig made up at the back of the hold!”
Garral nodded. Every surface of his cabin was strewn with books and maps, and some sort of herbal concoction bubbled away in a glass alembic on his desk.
“Also, and just as strange, our captain has a pocket god.”
Garral’s eyebrows rose. “For protection, I’ll wager. Not unusual for a commoner, but a ship’s captain is always a nobleman among you Eresti, is he not?”
Lys nodded. Her mother had kept a similar statue close to her breast. Deira had laughed at the idea, and even the servants in the Eldwyne manor saw it as a shameful rustic practice. The thought brought back painful memories. Deira had found her lowborn lack of manners amusing, even charming at first. As Lys’ blunders became fewer, Deira’s anger with them had grown. Lys had lost her novelty. Was any of it real? she thought, or was I just her rough common girl?
“If you pardon me one moment,” Garral said, “I believe I have determined our course, but first I must attend to something.”
Garral poured the contents of the alembic into an earthen bowl. It smelled foul, but he drank it greedily. The blue of his lips was brighter when he finished.
“Essence of Esma. All Rukh must drink it from an early age. It sharpens the mind but creates a need in the body. Only the inner circle possesses the secret of its make, and so we Rukh are loyal to a fault.”
Lys nodded. There were so many questions she wanted to ask Garral about his order, but they were all less pressing than the ship’s destination.
“If you note these calculations from points along our journey, we must be bound for the Sugar Islands. We must be quite close to them, in fact. Most unusual. A slave ship with no slaves, bound for the wrong port, whose captain has the habit of a commoner.”
With that, Garral sank deep into thought, but Lys was already thinking of the first person she would confront with the news.
When Tamlen rang the ship’s bell for the change of shift, Lys waited for Mother to descend from the crow’s nest. Silently, she fell in behind her until they were below decks. Then Lys grabbed her firmly by the hand.
The old Sugar Islander whirled on her, and Lys was shocked at the strength in her knotty arms. “Wait—I won’t hurt you, I just want to talk. I know we’re not bound for Axa. We’re heading to the Sugar Islands.”
Mother only stared back, her eyes unreadable.
“Why, damn it! What’s the secret?”
“Sugar Islands is not their name. That was the first thing you Eresti stole. As for your purpose, I know nothing, and it matters little. I have read the path of tides, as some from my islands still can, and nothing good awaits this ship. There are eyes beyond the fire.”
Mother’s gaze was fierce. Lys let her hand drop. The old woman stormed off, muttering in a language Lys did not understand. She had more questions now than before, but she did not have the heart to say another word.
Lys was still turning Mother’s words over in her head when she came to dinner, and trying to forget the old woman’s accusing stare.
She did not have much time to think. As soon as she came through the door, Roleg, the large, grizzled man that had been sleeping on the table the evening before, handed her a glass of brandy and loudly called for a toast. “It’s her, all right. I thought as much. Raise your glasses! I was at Tolar’s Field with this young one in the war with old Hob Erdyn. I saw her take the hill, torn banner in her hand like the Maid of Nemla...”
Lys cringed. Once again she heard the hoof beats on the plain, saw Count Eldwyne’s standard bearer go down beside her. She, a common mercenary, not even sworn to the Queen, had seized the banner from his dead hand and rallied the faltering charge on Hob Erdyn’s cannon. They were cobble-guns, crude copies of true Rukh weapons, loaded with stolen firedust and just as likely to fail as to work. She had bet her life on that failure and won the hill, and victory had followed.
Only when the rage of battle left her did she see the crow-pecked dead, the stacks of severed limbs at the surgeons’ tents and the wounded crying for mercy. She felt how close she’d come to death, and sat numb through Hob Erdyn’s hanging and her own commendation. The only thing that brought her back was Deira, then only Countess Eldwyne to her, pinning the Queen’s Star of Valor to Lys’ newly sewn uniform and giving her a brief, private wink of the eye.
Roleg seemed to remember only the taste of victory—perhaps he drank to forget the rest. Reluctantly Lys joined him in three verses of The Queen’s Noble Horsemen, his voice drowning out anything else.
“Enough, Roleg,” Tamlen finally said, “or we’ll be forced to counter you with seaman’s chants.”
Lys passed the rest of the evening trying to muster some semblance of good cheer, but not even the brandy helped her. Roleg was too drunk to notice, and the captain and the young lector were more interested in trading dark tales of Rukh conspiracies while glaring at Garral. The Aragite kept silent, as always, with his pipe and brandy.
Garral excused himself when the glances thrown his way became increasingly unfriendly. Lys left soon after. She took a last look at the stars on deck and was about to retire when she saw Tamlen approaching.
“Much better above than listening to war stories and fools’ theories, yes?”
For a moment they stood silently, looking up at the distant lights. Lys had never seen so many stars.
“What are you running from, Only Lys?” said Tamlen.
He smiled, friendly and yet somehow mocking her.
“Clearly it is something. You’re a war hero, not a spent drunk like Roleg. Why risk your life in the colonies? Come, tell me, what is it?”
“How sad,” he said. “You may be swift, but you will never outrun that.”
The next day, they caught sight of the Sugar Islands.
Soon all of the passengers were assembled above, talking in whispers. Lys exchanged a worried look with Garral. The captain strode onto the deck and called them to order, but it was Tamlen who addressed them.
“We have been diverted on official business of Her Majesty and the Erestia Trade Company. It is unavoidable that you will see certain things here, and so I must ask you for discretion, as befits gentle folk. Our captain is on good terms with the Viceroy of Axa, and we can ensure favorable introduction. Unfortunately, and I know this will not be necessary, we can ensure the opposite if tongues prove loose.”
There were more mutters from all sides. Lys turned to Garral, but there were too many questions in her head, and she couldn’t think which one to ask first. Garral seemed just as perplexed.
The crew was preparing to trim the sails, and Lys felt the same itch to be useful that had led her to war, to service in House Eldwyne, and to this cursed ship. She could never stand idle, and it had given her so much and then taken it all away.
They reached the port of New Meretia on the largest of the islands after dusk. As they neared the land, Lys thought a storm cloud was bearing down on them, dark and low in the sky. As it drew closer, she saw it was not a cloud but a mass of buzzing flies.
The captain ordered all passengers confined to quarters, and everyone scrambled to get below. The crew rubbed their limbs with bitterwort sap and hoped for the best. Lys was ashamed she was not with them.
Instead the dim little porthole was her only view of the Sugar Islands—a sliver of dirty harbor water, stacks of goods, and a brooding stone customs house flanked by palm fronds. She had first tasted sugar at Deira’s table, the sweetness of the tiny crystals almost too much to bear. It had been a wonder to her, a kind of faerie snow. Was this truly where it came from?
There were men moving among the crates, restocking the Hare with provisions. Lys could not be certain, but there was something odd about their movements. It made her recall a puppet show she had seen long ago as a village girl, the wooden figures stiffly twirling, graceful and yet so unlike natural life.
Without the wind of open sea, the ship was sweltering, and Lys could not sleep. The air around the island was heavy with sick-sweet rot, and the droning cloud of insects found their way below as well. Lys waited in her bed, killing flies and mosquitoes when they came near her and trying to think of anything but the thoughts that always came to her at still moments—her last sight of Deira, cold and decked in the trappings of her rank, and Deira’s cousin, driven to fury at something Lys barely understood; willing, even insisting to die for it.
By midnight she’d had enough of sweat and bad memories. She slipped out of her cabin. There were footsteps on the deck above, and she crept silently to the hatch, taking care to remain in the shadows.
Tamlen stood holding a torch and barking orders at the men she had seen working on the docks. Closer up, their stiff movements were even more jarring. Their faces were pale and slack, and many of their heads hung lolling on broken necks. Lys shuddered and fought the urge to run. These men were dead, and yet they continued to work, obeying Tamlen’s commands with more precision than a royal regiment at drills.
When the last supplies had been loaded, the dead men returned to the docks. Then Tamlen barked another order, and a troop of guards marched a prisoner onto the ship.
This is the one who will be kept in the room below, thought Lys.
He was thin and fever-pale, yet bound with thick irons pinning arms to chest, and the lead guardsman marched him ahead of the company at the end of a slaver’s catch-pole. A burlap sack covered the man’s head, and he shook and pitched his frail body with a terrifying ferocity. Lys had once seen fishermen in the bay of Otar net and gaff a shark, and it had thrashed with the same frenzy on their hooks. She turned away as the pale man was lowered into the depths of the hold.
Back in her cabin, she felt the ship cast off. She dreamed of war that night, and many things she wished she’d never seen.
They made good time for Axa on the next day, but the crew was in ill humor. They refused to sing or even speak as they trimmed the sails. The captain was warier than ever as he paced up and down the deck. Only Tamlen was calm, even cheerful, whistling and humming the sea chants the crew no longer sang.
Lys met Garral in his cabin. He had seen the dead men as well, and seemed greatly troubled by it, mumbling to himself and all but ignoring Lys. “Not since the days of Old Vash have such arts been used. The Otherwold is drawing closer again. This explains the decline of the slave trade, which I would otherwise cheer, but this will do no one good.”
Something else had changed the night before. Mother had jumped ship in the darkness and was nowhere to be found. The captain cursed but ordered that they sail onward. Lys wondered again what Mother had seen in the tides. Whatever it was, it was worse than an island full of dead men.
The mood was even darker at dinner. The captain’s brandy had been replaced with Island rum, which he and Roleg drank with even more desperate vigor. No one spoke, busying themselves with the spice-cured beef and pale root vegetables on their plates. Finally, the old Aragite broke the silence, his face given an eerie yellow cast by the lamplight.
“I will pay good gold to know the art you raised those dead men by. I had thought such things long lost.”
His voice was as dry as dead leaves, and for a moment no one dared answer.
“And well they should have been,” said the captain. “Time was we would sail from Old Meretia with a load of villains from the debtors’ prison, or buy a mess of heathens from the Red Market. We’d trade for rum and molasses at the Sugar Islands, then trade still more for Axan crafts and spices and return with every man richer. Now what do we do?”
“What indeed,” said Garral.
“Why are you all so dour?” said Tamlen. “What you’ve witnessed is progress. Dead men require neither food nor rest. They do not succumb to tropical fevers. I’m sure our Rukh friend would agree that there is a natural order in the world—the lion is first among natural beasts, the leviathan among fish, and so forth...”
“Not precisely—” said Garral, “but—”
“So too in the human world the Royal family sits above all, then the nobles, then landowners and merchants on down. Each class may take heart that there are others still beneath them, save for slaves. Until now, for slaves may delight that they are above dead men, and spared the worst toil.”
“Old Vash was a carrion empire,” said the young lector, “and you are foolish to repeat its mistakes. We know beyond doubt that the basest elements of the soul remain in the body after death and share a connection with the higher spirit. Those dead men are in agony in the Otherworld—you are bringing them eternal torment.”
“For once we are in agreement,” said Garral. “This is a monstrous thing.”
“Surely the souls of profligate debtors and heathens would be in agony regardless,” said Tamlen. “We are simply making use of another resource. You may put your cares to rest.”
No one spoke for the rest of the meal, but only Tamlen was at ease.
The next morning they found one of the sailors dead, his throat torn and limp body hung feet first from the mainmast. It was Barys, a young man from the slums of Old Meretia who had shown Lys the fastest way to tie a seaman’s hitch. She wept now to see his pale face limp beneath the red horror of his neck. The rest of the men wept as well, or muttered prayers or curses. The captain swore every foul oath in Eresti and Low Nahal when he saw the body and ordered two of the men to check the hold. When they hesitated, he threatened to lash them, and they fearfully ventured below. Lys wished she could go with them, but Tamlen was watching her again. The rest of the men cut poor Barys down, and the young lector gave him rites of farewell before they buried him at sea.
Later she met with Garral in his cabin.
“How could this have happened?” Lys asked. “The one they brought was bound in enough chain to hold five men. I saw the crewmen sent to check on him go below and return, so he must still be there...”
“Unless it wasn’t him,” said Garral. “The Aragite was fascinated by the dead men. Perhaps this was some sort of twisted experiment.”
For the first time in a very long while Lys wished her sword were still at her side.
“We have known each other but a short time, my friend,” said Garral, “but long enough that I can guess what you’re planning. I must advise against confronting the Aragite. We have no proof, and he is a Speaker of the True Tongue, a terrible and unpredictable power.”
Lys nodded. Speakers knew the tongue of gods and spirits, in which to speak of a thing was enough to call it into being. Count Eldwyne had kept counsel with one, an old woman who smelled of earth and loam, and conversed with invisible things around her. Deira had told her once that the Count never dared ask the old woman for anything—having her nearby was enough of a show of power.
“There must be a way to find out more,” she said. “This evening the Aragite will go to the captain’s cabin, as always. You go as well and explain that I’ve taken ill. The locks here are simple. It should be easy to gain entry.”
“You’re reckless,” said Garral. “Do not do this.”
“If he is a killer, I will not stand by, Speaker or no.”
When enough time had passed for the rum to flow in the captain’s cabin, Lys crept into the corridor. The lock on the Aragite’s door was simple. It was an easy thing to pick it with a bent pin, and for a moment Lys recalled earlier days, before Deira or the war, when she was small and hungry and left to feed herself while her mother worked.
Inside, the Aragite’s cabin was just like hers or Garral’s—cramped quarters that would house petty officers if the ship were at full compliment. Blankets were heaped on the bed. One oak chest held nothing but neatly folded clothes, another held books—all in languages Lys had never seen. There was no bloodstained cloak, no knife or other weapon. Nothing else of note remained in the room, save for a little lacquered box resting on the desk. Perhaps it would contain a journal, or something else that might implicate the Aragite.
As she drew near the box, she saw a word engraved across the top. She could not distinguish the letters—a strange, sinuous alphabet that seemed to move subtly like flickering flame—but almost as soon as she saw it, its meaning became clear to her. Pain flashed between her temples, a red, throbbing agony that sent spasms through her whole body. The word cut into her skin and etched itself on her aching muscle. The word burned into her flesh. The word was pain, and she could not look away.
She had been struck by a crossbow bolt in battle, cut by a saber’s edge in a duel—neither pain was anywhere near this. She staggered forward, willing her clenched muscles to move. Each moment was the worst she had ever felt, and yet the next moment was still worse, just as the Penitents said of the eternal torments.
She lunged for the box, her fingers warped by pain into a clumsy claw. Somehow, her grip found the edge, and she pried it open.
The pain left her in an instant, every muscle in her body suddenly releasing. The relief was so intense she almost fell to the floor. She looked at her arms and touched her face, astounded there were no cuts or burns. Only when she regained her composure did she look into the box.
What was inside was difficult to describe. It was like a dense little cloud, air that almost resembled water at full boil, bubbling and steaming. She leaned closer, and as she did she started to make out whispers—a multitude of voices speaking over each other, pleading and threatening.
Then in an instant the cloud leapt up at her, reaching up like a greedy hand to engulf her head. The whispers grew louder in her ears, and the room around her was lost in gray fog.
Lys slept, but a little part of her was awake, aware of herself but unable to act. She struggled, trying to rouse herself, but her body, even her mind refused to obey. Thoughts came to her unbidden, things she had forgotten or had wished to forget. The creature in the box was inside her head, and it whispered to her with her own voice.
Do you remember?
Once again she was at the head of the charge at Tolar’s Field, her horse’s flanks heaving beneath her, and she felt her fellow riders at her back like the swell of a wave. The cannons fired in front of her. A cannonball that would have torn her to shreds instead exploded in its barrel, blasting apart the men who had fired it. And then their horses reached the guns, and they lashed out with lance and saber at the artillerymen, who fled before them. Lys ran two down herself when a third turned to face her, struck still by fear, his eyes wide as a trapped rabbit’s.
She had forgotten his eyes.
The thing in the box dug deeper, to days she tried hard not to think of.
After the battle, after her commendation, Deira had come to her in her tent, dressed as a common field nurse. Lys had been struck dumb, afraid to name the feelings Deira aroused in her, yet unable to think of anything else. Deira simply reached out and pulled her close. Their lips met, and no words were necessary.
Remember, the thing whispered to her, remember, do you remember.
Her first days in Deira’s court. The feel of lace and Axan silks. The unwieldy title, Armswoman to the Countess. She recalled bowing to old Count Eldwyne, feeling a flash of absurd jealousy—Deira had a marriage of names, not hearts. Her husband spent all his time hunting, and with his young master of the hunt. This world, so strange. Lys had always feared pain and hunger, but these people feared boredom. Hunger was to be relished before a meal, but boredom was a gray thing stalking them like death.
Trysts with Deira, lust blossoming into love. Their lessons, late at night, tracing the letters on Deira’s thigh. The day Deira presented her with the sword—she had been afraid to touch something so fine. The duels—fought always with champions, professional armsmen who served their lords like Lys did Deira. Only landless knights and Salt Barons fought for their own honor. But the duels were so common, the codes of honor so complex it was as if their purpose was to provoke insults. Insults were perfect for staving off boredom.
She fought to the touch, to first blood. She learned to make it a kind of show, to dance around her opponent’s blade or send it flying with a flick of her wrist. Afterwards the champions often shared a drink and laughed.
Remember, oh remember,
The feast of Saint Inver—the fires blazed and the house was full of well wishers and relations. Somehow, in the furor of the feast, Deira’s distant cousin Laryn Tarmel had been seated with Count Eldwyne’s merchant creditors, not a surname among them. Laryn’s waistcoat was patched and his collar five years out of style, but he had worn his name with bruised pride through a life of slights and insults, and he demanded satisfaction from his host.
He had no champion, only himself and a plain-hilted rapier, and Lys met him on the field with regret. The thing in the box shuddered at the memory, drunk with it. No, she thought. Don’t make me remember.
Laryn lunged for her with a savagery she’d only seen in war. She drove aside his clumsy thrusts, bloodying him first on the arm, then the cheek. Each time he refused to yield.
His lunges were desperate, backed by all of his strength, and she fell back, waiting for her moment.
When he lunged again she struck at his hilt, intending to disarm, but he dove into the strike, pitching his body at her when his sword missed. With horror, Lys watched him drive himself forward onto her blade. To the last moment his eyes were fixed in defiance.
The cheers and jests from the crowd died with him, and Lys looked up from his body to cold silence. She was a commoner, and she had killed her lady’s noble cousin.
Suddenly, the thing from the box was torn from her head, and her eyes opened. Garral stood over her, while the bent old Aragite spoke words that sent a chill down her spine, ordering the cloud of whispers, now glutted on her memory like a swollen tick, back into its box.
“That was a Ruminant from the Shoals of Memory,” said the Aragite. “Be glad it was not something worse. Now, explain to me why I should not kill you.”
“F—forgive me,” Lys stammered through numb lips. “I wished to know who killed the sailor Barys.“
The Aragite spat. “I did no such thing, and I care not who does what on this ship, so long as they leave me be. If you meddle with my things again, I will not spare you.”
Garral helped Lys to her feet, and they hurried out of the room. The door slammed shut behind them.
Lys passed the rest of the night in troubled sleep, but she woke to a commotion in the companionway. The sailors were gathered outside of the Aragite’s quarters. The door hung open, and when Lys pushed past she saw him. His throat had been torn out like Barys, and his tongue had been severed at the root and left on the floor beside him.
The captain ordered everyone on deck, crew and passengers alike. They all stood, regarding each other with suspicious eyes as the captain walked by each of them, staring into their faces as if he could see guilt beneath.
Roleg was missing. His cabin was empty, and a search of the ship found him in the crow’s nest, throat a red ruin like the others. From the look of him he had been too drunk to struggle.
“Which of you did this?” said the captain. “We will find out one way or another.”
“The swordswoman was in the Aragite’s quarters last night,” said the lector.
“I thought he was the killer,” said Lys. “I was investigating.”
“Can anyone vouch for this?” said the captain.
“I can,” said Garral. “We left the Aragite in peace.”
“Of course, the only one who vouches for her is the Rukh spider,” said the lector.
“Silence,” said the captain. “Angan, Ryn, go check the cargo hold. As for the rest of you, I am the voice of royal authority, and I am ordering you confined to quarters.”
“A wise choice, my captain,” said Tamlen.
Tamlen ordered the ship’s armory opened and armed each of the sailors with a short saber. The captain took a Rukh pistol from a locked chest. Angan and Ryn went off to the cargo hold, both wide-eyed with fear. The rest of the crew marched the passengers back to their cabins.
“Wait,” said Lys, as they were about to lock her in. “Let me stay with Garral, I will go mad alone.”
“What if you’re the killer,” said one of the sailors.
“I can only swear by Meret, Iores, and Lar I am not.”
They had worked with her for days, and they seemed to believe her.
“What if the Rukh is?” said the other.
“Then I’ll take my chances.”
They shrugged and brought her to Garral, who looked relieved to see her.
“We shouldn’t split up in a time like this,” said Lys.
“I couldn’t agree more.”
The sailors left them each with a measure of salt fish and hard biscuits—no more food from the captain’s table. Lys listened as a board was nailed across the outside of their door. The captain had ordered all quarters sealed—no one was above suspicion.
They passed a day and a night in the cabin. Lys was unable to sleep, pacing back and forth like the caged panther she’d once seen presented to Count Eldwyne. It felt like the minutes before a battle, waiting for the horn to sound the charge, only now no charge would follow, and the minutes passed one after the other.
Garral tried to bear it in his own way, making notes in his many journals and attacking the problem with reason. “It was not the Aragite. This man you saw brought to the brig was greatly feared, hence the chains. He must be able to escape his bonds and then return somehow. The first kill was a sailor, likely a victim of opportunity, or a warning—if he were to kill too many sailors, the ship would not reach port. The second and third were a Speaker and a soldier, both clear threats. You were wise to work with the crew, perhaps he thinks you one of them. I can only assume that as a Rukh I am the next target.”
“What can we do?” said Lys.
“We are three days from Axa at most—we must hope we last until then.”
“Pike that,” said Lys. “I’m not waiting to die.”
She tensed her muscles, ready to lunge at the door. Then she felt Garral’s hand, weak but urgent on her arm. “Do not, by whatever gods you hold dear. My friend, why are you so eager to throw your life away?”
“I’m not— I...”
Even as she had grown to know Garral, part of her had still thought of him as a thing from a campfire story, full of secrets and dark plots. In his eyes now she saw a look of true friendship, and she realized she felt the same for him.
“I lost someone dear to me, through actions that were both my fault and not,” she said. “I almost threw myself into the harbor rather than accept my banishment. Now I know only that I will not take death lying down.”
After the Ruminant had glutted itself on her memory, it was as if all of her wounds had reopened, the pain as fresh as when they had happened. Now, telling Garral even this much felt like strange relief.
He relaxed his grip on her arm, but he kept it there, reassuring. “I am a scholar of gods, not the human heart, but I fear you are still throwing your life away, whether it is into the sea or into danger. I am used to mistrust, to hatred, even. Your countrymen think little of Nahal and even less of the Rukh, despite our gifts, but you put yourself at risk for me, and I would hate to lose you.”
They embraced, and Lys felt truly calm for the first time since her banishment. A friend was something to live for. They spent the rest of the day waiting. Garral told her stories of the fallen gods, of the court of Radiant Iores, Balan with his sealed temple and his sacred riddle, Bel Battleson who made a river with his tears. As much as she wished to hear Garral’s stories, Lys could think only of what might be waiting outside the door.
They were awakened in the night by a piercing scream, quickly silenced. It could not have been more than twenty paces from their door. Lys was on her feet in an instant, waiting for the attacker to break through the door, but there were no further sounds.
“What if he doesn’t care if he kills everyone on board?” she whispered. “What if he is compelled to kill?”
Garral nodded. “I fear what we face is beyond reason.”
“If that’s the case, I’ll not sit and wait for him.” Lys ran and drove her shoulder into the door. It sent a tremor of pain through her, but she could feel the board outside splinter. With the next thrust, it gave, and she spilled out into the corridor.
Everything was silent. The sailor Angan was the man they had heard scream, now lifeless, his throat torn out like the others. They crept past the lector’s room—the door had been all but ripped from its hinges, and the lector’s corpse lay inside, still clutching his prayer beads.
Two more dead men lay on the deck, Ryn and a mute the other men had called Whalebone. The ship was drifting, its sails half-furled.
“This is horrible, horrible...” Garral stammered, before Lys silenced him with a finger to her lips.
She picked up a saber from one of the fallen, and they made their way slowly through the ship. Not a single crewman remained alive; the only ones not accounted for were the captain, Tamlen, and the prisoner, and they could be nowhere but the cargo hold.
Lys and Garral crept to the forward hatch. The hold below was pitch black, and Garral lit a torch from a nearby sconce with a little Rukh device that made sparks. Slowly, they descended the ladder.
The torch lit only a portion of the hold in guttering light, casting long shadows from the empty cargo crates. Something was different. The air was heavier than before—Lys could feel it pressing in on her. It stank like an animal’s den. She saw no sign of the captain or Tamlen in the gloom.
When they reached the makeshift brig, they saw the door had been thrown open. A dead body lay before it, and as they drew closer Lys saw it was the captain. His pocket god sat atop him, broken in half, and his face was a painful rictus above his torn throat.
From within the brig they heard the clanking of chains, and suddenly the prisoner leapt out at them, howling and foaming at the mouth. His teeth had been filed to cruel fangs, and he reeked of carrion. His chains brought him up short. He strained at them, gnashing his teeth before he collapsed, panting and glaring at them with the eyes of a beast.
Something in those eyes called out to Lys. She could feel them burrowing into her, to the part of her she denied—the part that reveled in battle and blood.
“There are eyes beyond the fire,” she said.
Garral gasped. “D—do you know what that means? Their cargo was never a man, it was a fallen god. You Eresti call it the Wolf at the Door, but on the Sugar Islands it is called by the name you spoke. A—a god of predators and man eaters.”
Lys heard footsteps behind them. She wrenched her gaze from the prisoner’s eyes just in time to see Tamlen’s blade flash out from the darkness. She raised her saber at the last moment and drove him back.
His mouth and fine clothes were caked in blood, and his eyes were yellow and slit like a hunting cat’s, just like the prisoner’s.
“Beware,” said Garral. “It is in them both.”
Tamlen struck again, faster than any man had a right to move. This time his blade aimed at Garral. Lys threw herself between them, barely blocking in time.
They circled each other, Tamlen on the attack. His form was perfect, the product of years of training, but he fought with a hunger Lys had only seen on the battlefield, and his strength and speed were matchless. Her last duel with Laryn was still fresh in her mind, only now she was the one overmatched and desperate. He could kill me at any moment, she thought, all it would take is one slip. She struggled to maintain her footing as the ship pitched in the rolling sea.
All the while his eyes were on her, gleaming with reflected light. Something in them called to her, and for an instant she felt herself running through a darkened forest, blood on her lips.
Behind, she could hear the prisoner hissing and thrashing in his chains. In her mind she saw him in better days, a young Eresti noble grown bored on his family’s plantation, easily lured into the jungle. Easily taken.
In his skin it had killed slaves in the night, and no one had stopped it. Then the dead men arrived, offering no sport, and it had turned its hunger on his noble kin until the soldiers came with chains and catch-poles.
Her body moved without thinking, her blade meeting Tamlen’s in a savage dance.
You are a killer, a voice growled in her mind. You are me.
No! she thought. Get out of my head! But she could feel it throughout her body now, a voice so much more vast and ancient than the paltry thing from the speaker’s box. Her movements became a blur, answering Tamlen’s. She had never felt so alive.
She could see Tamlen’s moves before he made them, they fought as mirror images, blades now flashing blurs. She had never been so fast or so strong.
She saw inside him, too. A young captain with pride above his station, always scheming. He had tried to trick the god by feigning unimportance, making his first mate the captain, but it had smelled the killer in him when their eyes had met, as it had with her. Tamlen had thought the world arrayed in ranks and files, but it knew better. There were only two ranks, eaters and eaten.
You are us now.
The hunger was so strong, the lust, she couldn’t deny it. She lowered her blade. Tamlen was a part of her, another limb. There was prey to be had. She turned on Garral.
The torch trembled in his hand. His eyes were wide with fear. She was back on the battlefield, riding down her enemies. She raised her sword to strike.
But there was more in Garral’s eyes. He saw what had taken her, and his sorrow was greater than his fear. She had seen that look only once before: in Deira’s face as Lys stood over her dead cousin.
She twisted her sword at the last moment, aiming for the torch, striking it from Garral’s hand as she had once meant to strike Laryn’s rapier. It fell to the floor, making the shadows dance like mad as it rolled.
You choose to be prey. So be it!
The voice in her head was mad with bloodlust. The prisoner howled with fury, and Tamlen lunged at her again. The god’s speed had left her. It was all Lys could do to keep Tamlen’s blade at bay. Each strike came closer to breaking her guard.
“Run!” she yelled to Garral, but he was rooted to the spot.
The ship rocked on the waves. Tamlen’s blade whipped toward her, inhumanly fast.
She nearly lost her footing on Garral’s loose torch. She kicked it aside.
Tamlen pushed forward with his blade. Lys struggled to hold him back, her arm beginning to tremble. His sword’s edge was almost at her throat. She could smell the blood on his breath.
The torch sparked and sputtered as it rolled to a stop, at the barrel of Rukh firedust.
There was a still instant, as the bloodlust in Tamlen’s eyes melted to horror. Then the flames burst forth, loud as cannonfire.
Lys woke to the bitter taste of ash in her lungs. Garral stood over her, shaking her frantically. He had dragged her stunned body back to the ladder. “We have to go, now!”
The ship lurched beneath them. She could hear hissing like a mad serpent—already the water had found a way in. Her whole body ached, but she pushed it to move. Coughing and sputtering, she hauled herself up the ladder with Garral pushing her from behind.
The deck was already leaning toward the breach. The ship’s timbers groaned like a dying whale. Garral looked up and down the deck, his eyes wide with panic.
“Longboat!” Lys rasped, “starboard side!”
They raced to free the longboat from its oilcloth tarp. The deck pitched and buckled beneath them.
With trembling hands they pulled the boat free, and Garral helped her lift it over the side. Please let it land aright, she thought, please let it float. It dropped with a splash, bobbing in the waves. Lys helped Garral lift himself over. Then it was her turn.
For an instant she froze, smoke and fire raging at her back, as she saw the dark swell of the waves below, like that moment on the docks so long ago, only now the water was livid with reflected flame.
The freezing waves closed over her, and she clawed for the boat, hauling herself up, then heaving Garral aboard. Gasping for breath, heads down, they rowed clear. Lys could feel the heat of the fire urging her onward.
Finally they reached a safe distance, and Lys looked back to see the dark mass of the ship sink into the sea, cleansed by fire and water.
She could not be sure, but for a moment she thought she felt a darkness scratching at the edges of her mind. She shut her eyes, and it was gone.
As they drifted she dreamed again of Deira, of their last goodbye. Deira stood before Lys in her splendid gown, her wig like a confection of white sugar, but Lys saw her as never before, bound by lace and ivory, by name and history, and in her eyes were love and sadness. That day would always hurt Lys, but now she knew she could bear it.
And when she woke she saw Garral at the oars, giving her a weary smile; they had washed ashore, grounded on sand in the shallow surf. Beyond the sea the sun was rising, and it was dawn in a new land.