The basin of Aldret’s harbor was overflowing with fog, buried in the shifting weight of the seasons. Summer had faded. Heavy fall had stepped into its place, with all the threat and promise of heavier winter pressing in behind. The air was stiff even while the wind wasn’t bending bone, and the world seemed to have shrunk. The sharp tips of all three of the Catis‘ masts were cut off in a sky hung too low.
Tamra waited at the rail of the upper deck as the ship drifted into port. She had gone still, minutes or hours ago, hands relaxed, stance balanced against the roll of the deck. She measured a long breath in and a long breath out, dumb in an unreasoned belief that her steadiness mattered.
The water sighed. Every echo hid in the damp air. The timbers creaked. The Catis‘ canvas was bound up in silence and the hull eased through the water, heavy and careful.
The first time Ashlynn heard it, ‘lost at sea’ sounded like a fake way to die.
Her mother had sailed across oceans a hundred times, and the water never managed to steal her away. A chest-carving cough had taken her little by little, bloodying her teeth with unseen fists. But the ocean always gave her up with a sigh, as if it missed her when she wasn’t there to make ships dance on the waves.
Ashlynn’s father had only sailed out two or three times. Ashlynn’s memory was too young to give a real count. It seemed absurd that he could get lost so easily.
Heroes in plays were lost at sea. Very old ships in very old poems were lost at sea. A great-grandfather she couldn’t remember the name of was lost at sea.
The Captain that arrived to say her father had been swallowed by a wave was joking.
Kath made his decision the same way he always did: slowly, quietly.
For some uncounted number of days, he rolled his reasons over, tucking them under every other thought of the day until they disappeared behind oatmeal breakfasts and afternoons hauling lines and shoving the wind to the proper side of the ship with the crack of supple canvas. Under afternoons trading coins over a barrel top with the gentle direction of hands won and lost. Under the taste of salt always on the back of his teeth. Under the roll and rush of waves that roared and shouldered their way beneath the hull. Under the creak and whisper at midnight, lulling him to sleep after his watch.
And then it was there, a conclusion heavy as iron, enduring as stone.
At the age of ten, my father knew exactly what he would be. Like his mother and his grandmother, he woke one night to an over-warm room, the walls glowing in cascading white-blue-black from the liquid flames pooled around his hands. Like his mother and his grandmother – all keimon born from keimon – he had known it was coming, and did what any ten-year-old should have done in the quiet confidence of midnight: he raised his hands and let the light chase the shadows for hours.
By the time he woke up, he had figured out how to shape the fire, so rather than tell his mother the precious good news, he walked a delightfully clumsy starburst of an animal across her path. He said it was a fox. She said it was a little monster with three legs and a second head where its tail should have been. They both grinned at each other.
Trad’s grandfather had owned and captained a dozen ships. When Trad was thirteen years old, he took him aboard one, showed him deck and cargo, canvas and lines, wheel and rudder and the dance of the waves which really only earned a tempo once they left somber port behind. The port gates was the midnight line: All respectable folk stayed tucked on the proper side of it, while the rest of them made a revel of the open night on the other side.
The crew had laughed at him as he swayed on his feet, and his cheeks had burned. Clinging to the rail and the lines, he made sure it was the last day they had the opportunity to take their fun at his expense. He walked up and down the deck until dark, until he found the sweet balance of his feet. He learned every lesson his grandfather had to teach.
A decade later, it still wasn’t enough to keep him from gaping as he woke for his watch and found the horizon flattened to a perfect line of blue-green water touching blue-white sky.
As far as lunatic schemes went, this was the best he had ever conjured, and they both knew it. It was elegant, so simple in its execution, and grandiose in its aim, that the desperation of it almost faded out of notice. It had flair and more than enough opportunities to show off for people who were actually waiting to be impressed. It was even possible that their names might be written down somewhere afterward, in a way that wouldn’t point to them as delinquents. And it would be fun.
“All right,” he said. “You can stop looking like that.” Leaned all the way back in his chair with his heels kicked out under the table, he waved his mug at her.
She turned her head, looked at him sideways. “Like what?” But she couldn’t stop herself from smiling, and smiling wider, as the brilliance of the plan bloomed in front of her.
“Stop,” he insisted, dragging the word out, even though his eyes were bright with it too.
All his life, Taavi had been dully aware that the Captain was always the last to leave the ship. It should not have come as a surprise to him that Erya’s promotion would mean that he could no longer meet her on the docks in the morning, as he had when she was a little cabin bird. He could not find her for a late lunch like when she was a full member of the crew, could not even share dinner with her as he had when she was an officer. Erya arrived home only after the sun had set, having registered with the portmaster, inspected the ship, dismissed the crew, contacted the banks to reserve coinage for the payroll, arranged the cargo dispatch, finalized the logs, reported to the ship’s owner, and finally, packed up her own things in the dark.
She came through the doors with her shoulders rounded, but smiling as if she’d caught a falling star in her pocket.
“Hello, Da,” she said.
It wasn’t unusual for an officer’s briefing to be interrupted by ferrets’ chittering. The furry things were sly and slight enough to work their way into any space they liked, and as a general rule, they had the run of every cabin aboard ship. If the sailors felt it absolutely necessary, they could clear the ferrets out for a few minutes, but it never took for much longer than that. The ferrets liked to be chased.
They scampered through the crew decks unchallenged. They wove between the cargo stacks and the ballast and stole loose treasures for their hidey-holes. They slept halfway off the officer’s bunks as if they had forgotten they had spines and shook themselves awake shamelessly. They hunted and they played and they leapt through their wild circles and they chattered through briefings, and sailors learned to ignore them with a smile.
But they didn’t usually sit so still beneath the officer’s table, two or three or four of them chittering from a particular officer’s chair.
Terius wished he could be surprised. The most he could manage was a dull look in his cousin’s direction.
Silas watched The Winter Woman carefully as he approached along the short dock yard, feeling as if he had just woken up late and come down the stairs to find his mother rearranging the house for a party that no one told him about.
The ship was covered in the same sort of tight, happy flurry, the sailors in their uniforms moving smartly in all directions exactly the way his mother’s servants would take to their invisible courses with their arms full and feet flying. They called instructions back and forth in the same way, threw jokes between them in the same way, and carried on their conversations in bits and pieces in the same way, sharing the work. Even the Captain, her hair wrapped in a tight tail that turned carelessly loose after an inch or two, stood as the center that the rest referenced as they spun while simultaneously threading her way invisibly to put hand or shoulder just where help was needed, like his mother.
He just couldn’t recall his mother ever chartering a crane to bring in supplies, or allowing anyone who worked for her to hang off the side of netted freight that swung about twenty feet overhead.
Captain Britomartis was grinning up at the deck hand though as Silas approached the boarding planks.
He knew, all things considered, she didn’t need him. Not even a little bit. She was steady as oak and rosewood, and as constant as sunrise and nightfall.
She had been sailing for years before she even met him. She had seen oceans he had only heard stories about, and pulled hard in storms that he would have paid months’ wages just to keep out of his nightmares. She had raced winds both sweet and rough, kissed suns too hot for his blood, tolerated waters too cold to touch. She held her own before he even saw her.
He had crossed her path on a whim and a wish a very long time ago – decades ago – and he supposed, after all that time pretending that he had been the one keeping her together, he could admit that she was the one keeping him breathing. Standing on the docks, watching her balanced at anchor in the wide harbor, seeing her masts as tall as they had ever been, her canvas bright as it could be, months after he had said his good byes and took his last step off his post, he could admit that.