It took three weeks to sail between the islands, though rough weather could turn it into a more interesting five. More interesting, because chill turned to actual cold, and there was nothing boring about being soaked hourly from scalp to heel, and the elegant sweeps that the current usually carved across the ocean’s face were hidden beneath the chopped waves of a storm. The straight shot from port to port turned into a jagged stumble, and the sails pulled twice their usual weight in the lines under the sharp wind. But five weeks on a boat three strides from port to starboard, with a crew of nine and a comfortable capacity of six, was still not the long ocean crossing on a broad ship that Eliah wanted to make.
And at fourteen, he had already made thar crossing forty-four times. He shouldn’t have been keeping count, but it made it easier to brag and complain.
Shoving his hands in his pockets, Eliah wandered farther downhill, toward the end of the street. A few roads back, he’d been walking on pavement, but now it had turned to hard packed dirt between the great square warehouses near the water. One street over, it would turn to wooden boardwalk, and then to deep, crystalline water. He was content in the dust for now. The crowds on the piers were always thicker, and while he didn’t have an particular destination, he preferred to make good time.
Up ahead, the road stopped at the base of another of Lesser island’s rolling hills. Other hills rose high as they pleased, but still dropped off into the ocean in the same general line as their lower neighbors. This one held onto its height, leaving a fat ridge of green that curved out into the ocean and shielded the harbor like a bent shield arm.
When the road ended, Eliah paused, and glanced toward the docks, and then clambered up the hill. He really didn’t have anywhere to be.
Some of the fishing boats were out still, the ones having a very good morning, and the ones hoping that the late hour would drop luck in the water. They skirted the reefs, but stayed out of the choppy water above them. The sun glinted off the small waves, turning them diamond white. Without meaning to, Eliah overlooked the spark of them, turning toward the dark water, as if he was on deck, steering the ship.
He rolled his eyes at himself. Then he continued on.
It was a half hour’s hike to the end of the ridge. The dirt wore away under his feet, and the grass thinned until it only clung to the deep ends of the cracks in the rock. At the very edge, the stone just fell away, a rough cliff made up of an uneven stack of wide stones that eventually tilted down into the water. Eliah had jumped down it enough times to know that it was possible, at the climb back up was getting easier and easier as he grew taller. He wasn’t surprised when he heard scuffling over the edge. He strode forward, hands in his pockets, and smiled down at the top of Baden’s head.
“Hey, brother,” he said.
Baden looked up, and smiled just as quickly. “Hey, brother.”
They weren’t brothers – not even cousins – they’d just been born and raised in the same house. They had never called the other anything but Eli and Bay. Until Baden came back from his first trip to the mainland. Eliah didn’t know what it meant, just that he almost laughed saying it, and Baden always grinned.
“Aren’t you sick of it?” Eliah asked.
Baden kicked off his rock, and scrambled up the next before he looked up again. “Sick of what?”
“Looking at the water,” Eliah said. He rolled his shoulders back, and glanced across the horizon. “I mean, I thought that was what you do all day now. Wake up, look at the ocean. Stow your ‘mock, look at the ocean. Eat your breakfast while looking at the ocean. Haul canvas and look at the ocean. Haul more canvas and look at more ocean. All day, every day, for months and months, right?”
Baden smiled as he scaled the last stone and twisted to sit on the edge. “Right,” he said.
“I figured, when you did get to land – what, every six months? – you’d just walk around with your nose to the ground so you’d never have to have to stop kissing it.”
Baden squinted up at him. “Nine months, usually. And yeah. I really liked that rock down there, so I was giving it a good hug.”
Eliah sank down beside him. “Nine?”
“Hit thirteen once,” Baden said.
“Stars, Bay…” Eliah shook his head.
“Don’t even look jealous over that,” Baden told him. He pulled his heel up onto the stone, leaned against his raised knee. “We’re both just hauling cargo.”
Eliah shook his head again, almost laughed.
“And you,” Baden said. “Get to go between the First Lord’s harbor…” He held his finger in the air and spun it around, indicated the ridge, the water below, the lines of ships and sun-bleached piers. “… And the Clan Lord’s harbor.” He pointed east, somewhere out of sight beyond the fishing ships and the curling reefs.”
“There’s a lot of us that do that,” Eliah said.
“What’s it like?” Baden asked.
Eliah hesitated. “There’s always boats going back and forth. It’s like being in a herd of flying fish. It’s always fast, and confusing, and mindless.”
Baden laughed quietly. “Sounds good.”
“No,” Eliah told him immediately.
“I hope it’s not that bad.”
“It’s bad,” Eliah promised. “Why do you think I’ve been trying so hard to get on a ship?”
“I guess I’m in for a rough year,” Baden said.
Eliah paused. Baden was smiling, but it was a flatter thing now, like a lid that was a little too warped to fit the box he was trying to keep shut. Eliah blinked. Then he twisted to look down at the harbor. He scanned the sails, looking for the white square canvas he’d memorized. “Where’s your ship?”
Baden shook his head. “It left without me.”
“Why?” Eliah demanded. He turned back accusingly.
Baden’s smile stretched again. “Cause I told my Captain was staying behind.” He paused, then he shrugged. “You were taking too long to join me, brother. Thought I’d come back and give you a push.”
Eliah stared at him, then slowly began to shake his head. “You’re an idiot.”
Eliah turned away before he laughed too, and looked at the open water, the long stretch laid out under the horizon. “Thank you,” he said.
My friends are all thieves! Every single one of them robbed me yesterday, and took the first line of this piece to begin a work of fiction of their own. Check them out here.