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His Third Home
Shirt O' Cannonballs
The Storyteller's First Mate
The Storyteller's First Mate
A FAMILIAR voice called to him, one he hadn't heard in at least a year.
Follow me, it said. Your mission has just begun. There is no time to waste. Come on now, we've got work to do.
But a deep healing warmth swam through him, and at its bottom, as it was while he was in chains aboard La Argentina, a welcoming pool of unconsciousness waited for him. He didn't hesitate to fall into it.
He dreamed of a girl, young and wide-eyed, quiet and unsure. She stood alone on Ae Infinitus, while in the great distance a tremendous, formless shadow mounted the horizon.
She looked so helpless! How could she confront it? How could she survive it? The shadow wasn't going to stop; it was going to swell and swallow everything and continue on past the Tangents, claiming all for itself. She was a fool for believing she could defeat it!
Yet there was something about her ... something behind the uncertain gleam in her eyes, and it calmed his panic. He could almost hear it ... a song ... a melody ... It held her together even more than the skeleton did beneath her flesh. It seemed to lift her up and weigh her down at the same time. She stood defiantly as the shadow loomed higher and higher, threatening to overcome her, but he paid it no attention, for this girl ... she radiated power, so much so that if the shadow so much as touched her it would dissipate utterly.
But before it got to her the vision dissolved, and he found himself wandering aimlessly in deep blue water as a shark, the sunlight overhead like the lighthouse beacon passing through fluttering angels' wings. There was no purpose in his wandering, no hunger, no rage. He swam to swim, to feel the immersive freedom of it, the water passing over his form, the coolness of it, the confidence, the mastery.
Come on now, we’ve got work to do.
The lighthouse ...
Warships surrounded it. His mother and Orion knelt next to it bloodied and in chains as the new Constable stared cruelly down at them. An entire legion of demons swarmed over the land. Anthtree was burning, the villagers fleeing or falling under bloody, stabbing, hacking swords, demons eating, pulling limb from limb, the shadow of the emperor crawling over the mountain forests of his home, consuming everything, snuffing the daylight, reaching, reaching for the Poets, for Dohbdy ...
He woke with a shout.
He sat up as he gathered his wits and looked around. He was in bed ... but it wasn't his on the Selaki. He was on another ship.
Someone knocked at the cabin door. It opened slowly.
A man stood under the doorjamb, shrouded in shadow. From here, from the way he stood slightly bent, Anurag guessed that he was an older man, perhaps elderly.
He approached, and his features resolved out of the gloom.
Anurag stared, astonished. "Tray ..." he said. "I can't believe it. Tray ..."
"Cap'n Anurag, sir," said Tray, extending his hand, which Anurag took. The sight of this old sailor was like seeing sunrise the morning after one's death sentence has been commuted.
"You's been dreamin'," said Tray. "I's heard you's yellin' out. ‘Tis good to see you's well, surely 'tis ..."
"I'm aboard the Ari …"
"I'll be damned. How ... how did you find me? Where's Kaza?"
"He's aboards the Selaki, lookin' after it. You's were in a ter’ble state, Cap'n Anurag, when we's found you." They were still gripping hands; Tray squeezed even harder. His hold was warm and reassuring. "We's almost lost you's—twice! The Healer almost gave up on ya's!"
Tray shook his head, let go of his hand. " 'Tis a long story, Cap'n, and you’s needs medicine. It’ll be easier to give you’s nows you’s awake. We’s’ll talk after you’s gets it down. Sure as the Healer's touch it broughts you's around!"
Anurag went to get up, but then he noticed his right hand and lifted it.
His pinkie finger was half what it once was. The stump was healed, tight pink flesh over the top. He reached for it with the index finger of his other hand, touched it. The skin felt unreal, not his.
Tray stopped at the cabin door. He studied him sadly.
"You's lucky to be alive, Cap'n Anurag. Very lucky indeed."
Anurag rose and dressed and followed him out of the cabin to the deck of the Arilyceum.
The "concoction" was, predictably, nasty, but he downed all of it per Tray's hawkish insistence, who took the mug and disappeared back into the cabin, then returned to his side.
Anurag stared at his ship. It was a quarter mison off the starboard bow and in the fog appeared like a dark, hollow apparition floating in and out of consciousness. The waters they were in were calm and lapping gently against the hull, and the air was dead still. The sails on both vessels were down. It was quiet; so quiet that Tray, when he spoke, did so at a near whisper.
"We'd’a been searchin' high n' low for you's, Cap'n Anurag," he said. "We's knews you's was in a heap a trouble. The Healer with us is a Storyteller like Cap'n Kaza, though nowhere nears as powerful. He's a 'tuitive," he said animatedly, pointing at his own temple. "He's can sense things. He's been part of the resistance from the starts, he has. Anyways, he's somehow senses one day that you's be in great pain and needs help, even though he’s doesn’ knows you’s! We's docked in August, resupplyin' the girl, when he suddenly shows up! Says the Sontai Lighthouse got you's Arrowsparrow; he was there when it arrived. Somethin' was wrong, he's knew when he saw it, and he's knew he's had to do somethin'. He's knew you's be facin' all sortsa hell. He's could jus' sense that all sortsa trouble was upon you's!"
He reached out and patted Anurag's shoulder.
"How he's founds us ‘scapes me," he continued, shaking his head in wonder. "Sontai is prob'ly two hundred misons from wheres we's were, and I's knows this fellow and I’s can tell you's heres and nows he's not that powerful to knows we's would be there! 'Twas sheer chance we's run into 'im! Then again ..." he rubbed his chin, "... then again, he's knew abouts you's somehows, so who knows! Anyways, gettin' back to it, he's tells us of his feelin's, his 'tuition, and Cap'n Kaza, well he knows this fellow well and trusts him, so we's hurry n' gets the girl all stocked up, and we's bring this fellow along—his name is Dragha Polaugh, Augustinian, works as a crewman on the ferry 'tween Sontai Island and the mainland, low rankin', has managed to keep out of the Lottery somehow—and we's set out to find you's. And thanks the Dragon Mother we's did!"
"Where are we now?" asked Anurag.
"Smack-dab in the middle of the
, more n' fifteen
hunert misons due east of where we's founds you's!" He laughed.
"You's wouldn' believe what we's had to do to Heals you, Cap'n ... We's
knew you's shark Transform was gravely injureds, and we's knew you'd'a died had
we not gotten you's to Transform into one, so we's hop into the oceans, all
three of us, you's over Cap'n Kaza's shoulder, and we's held you under hopin'
that insteads a drownin' you'd'a Transform into a shark so that Dragha could
Heal ya's! But you's be a bleedin' like a sieve as a human, an' unconscious and
a-jibberin' and a-pukin', and so's there was the chance we's jus' drown ya's,
but we's had no choice, see, else you's was a goner anyhow! Verisimilius
“So we's hopped into the ocean with you's an’, holdin' you's tight, see, we's kept you's face down in the water. Well, you's finally flashed, you's did, and you's nearly ate all three of us! Ol' Dragha got his hands on ya's for long enough, we's hoped, an’ you's swam off bleedin' shark blood every which-a-wheres. You's’a disappeared for days, and we's feared that other sea beasts got to ya's. We's didn' know what to do—go sailin' off in search of you's, or stay wheres we's were. We's decide to stays, and thank the Dragon Mother, you's came a-swimmin' up to the Ari days later likes you's was a-sleepwalkin', but as a big fish, see? We's had to get you's to flash back to human, 'cause you's shark body was Healed, includin' you's eye. You's got scars all over you's; but somehow we's got to you's before Healin' didn' work no more. But we's knew your human self was close to death an' we had little time."
Anurag considered how fortunate he'd been on this voyage—not just once, but multiple times. It was fortune so potent that it felt now like purpose.
He had never entertained the notion of a god or gods watching over him. He couldn't resolve the problem that if there was indeed a god, that he would be nothing more than a pawn on his or her grand chessboard. But if this death-defying journey to the Eastern Tangent had any significance beyond his service to the Saeire Insu, it was this: that there indeed was a God, and he was entirely free to move around in His or Her universe. If he was a pawn, it was his choice to be one, and he could therefore unmake that choice.
The King of the Saeire Insu didn't accept pawns into this kingdom, nor did he treat his subjects as pawns. Anurag had met him. He was a great man who had no interest in hoarding power and surrounding himself with sheep.
Perhaps that was what made him so great, he considered.
Perhaps God reigns the same way.
He came back to the present and gazed at Tray.
"How did you get me to Transform back to human?"
"We's didn'," said Tray. "But you's circled about the Ari a coupla times, then swam up to her stern ladder, pure chance you’s did, an' you's giant nose bumped up agains' it a coupla times like you wanted to be's aboards her, and suddenly you's flashed and there you's were! We's jus' got a holds of you's before you's sank. We's fought and fought to get you's onboard; you's was bleedin' an' pukin' an' a-fightin' us, but somehow we's got you's aboard and Dragha got his Healin' hands on you's; but truly, Cap'n Anurag, we's thoughts you's was a goner by then. You's looked horrible, jus' horrible!"
He gave Anurag's shoulder a grandfatherly squeeze.
"We's got you's into the cap'n's bed, an’ we's forced Gaian medicines into you's, and Dragha stayed with you's day n' night for the better part of a week. Meantimes, we's be sailin' for the Tangent. I's captained the Ari and Cap'n Kaza captained your girl. Been steady seas, all told, jus' a small squall a coupla days ago. The Imperials that had you's couldn' find you's in Cap'n Kaza's Storyteller fog; he sent the demons offa you's with a couple more blasts of Storyteller winds."
Anurag patted the wizened hand on his shoulder in gratitude.
... And thank God for that, too.
The Gaian concoction Tray had him drink had beyond any Healing abilities the side effect of making him very drowsy. Tray fixed him some breakfast—vesusk fish eggs and a Gaian delicacy called "jam and toast," and a red, juicy succulent fruit from August called poyshe—and he ate them in an increasing haze. He finished and looked up from his plate.
"Yep,” said Tray. “You's be a-headin' right back to bed now, Cap'n. No arguin' from ya's, come on now, theres you's go ..."
He stumbled into the bathroom and relieved himself, noting the scars he'd gotten during his torture aboard La Argentina. They criss-crossed his chest, back, and abdomen, very thin and white like a wild mish-mash of spiders' webs. The Imperial Healer wasn't skilled enough to Heal all of his injuries, or the whip was made of partially aecxal materials that left scars that resisted the Healing touch. Or both. He turned and gazed into the mirror and got a bigger shock when his face showed the same thin criss-crossing lines of scarred flesh just visible in the weak light.
The consequences of this journey would be with him forever, and visible to all.
He stared at his face for a long time, until the promise of deep sleep dulled the anger coursing through him. He was tremblingly weak from his long recovery, but a new day had dawned for him, one that would see him regain his strength and resolve, and add to both.
His friends had come to his rescue and saved him, and because of that he felt certain now that he would make it to the Eastern Tangent to lead the Saeire Insu into battle against the vile monsters that had done this to him.