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.
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.
Rhinda knew the cut of The Sacrett better than she knew the slope of the horizon, better than she knew the shape of her shadow, better than she knew the arc of the summer sun. So, coming around the cliff face, she knew instantly that the hull itself had buckled. The ship was still half-hidden in the rocks, the waves hissing and foaming around the twisted deck, and she just tried not to imagine what it must have felt like to feel the beams break underfoot. Glancing at Jeven standing beside her, she could see the memory flick across his features. She forgot to imagine it, and her blood stilled as if she already had.
The breeze pushed their hair into their faces. Jeven took a deep breath. Then he settled the memory back into the past. Rhinda looked down, letting him pass her on the uneven path, and she smiled weakly at Kim coming up behind.
Slowly, the three of them picked their way around the cliff, carefully bringing the ship – flayed and splayed – into view.
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.
I wonder if the lighthouse keeper feels lost, even though he’s the one standing still with all his memories from daylight assuring him he’s still perched on the side of that cliff with the water always beneath him and the old town two miles down the hill behind him. I don’t imagine he sees very far out the windows, with that one running light over his head turning the whole length of night midnight-dark in contrast.
I wonder how lost the ship captain feels, always moving, but the familiar ocean always close enough to trade spit shots. He’s always perfectly centered between the equidistant edges of the horizon, with all the room he needs for his head as he stands under the domed sky. Starlight isn’t that bright, but it likes to keep nights gray beneath it.
Kimbra barely heard the order, and didn’t care. Her shoulder was pressed hard to the broken crate beside her. Her chin was bent tight to her chest, her hands were braced against the deck around one knee, and she rested back against one heel. And she didn’t feel small enough. Carefully, she picked up one hand, clenched her fingers, trying to stop her shaking. Her heart was beating fast enough, she swore just the speed of her blood was knocking her off balance.
There were too many footsteps on deck. Too many to sound right, and too many to sort through.
“Uncuff me,” Aylin said again.
Kimbra ignored her. She tried to remember how many men and women she had seen climbing over the side. She tried to measure the length of the other ship in memory, decide how many it could fit, how many it needed to stay under sail, how many it could send across the water to take the deck. She couldn’t find a number. Her blood rattled and her head spun. Someone else shouted. Dozens of people ran. The ship clacked and cracked and thundered.
Aylin shoved her hard, just one cold hand at the back of her neck, and the other on her shoulder, driving her straight down into the decking. Kimbra’s elbows buckled. An instant later, she shoved back, just to keep her head from going past the far end of the crate. All it did was push tight against Aylin’s arm, and bring Aylin’s mouth closer to her ear.
A ship could never run silently. The crew could move at the pace of ghosts, stuff cloth scraps into every gap in the mechanics, send orders around the deck in gestures and whispers, but the timbers themselves couldn’t understand the need for the hush. They groaned. They creaked. They whined against their pegs, impatient. Overhead, the breeze caught the canvas and made it clap from time to time, as if it couldn’t contain its excitement for the game.
Standing on the deck, watching the fog drift past in steaks as she sifted through the sounds of the unseen ships to either side, Kendi let out an easy breath. She could feel a smile waiting, though it seemed ill luck to let it out too soon. It simply didn’t matter.
Any child knew that they didn’t win a game of seeker by disappearing entirely, letting the sunlight shine through you as if you weren’t there. They only had to find something large enough to fit themselves behind.
The water was loud enough around them, the breeze hummed and hissed, and the ship slid through, closer and closer, without any notice.
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.
There was oil on the water, slick, and thin, and adding an unsettling sweetness below the rugged salt that the ocean laid over everything. In the near dark, the oil only showed on the water as a wrongness, a sheen that dripped off the oars, and a shine that came too easily in the last light of day.
Ahead, the oil burned. The current dragged it into long stripes, crackling orange and yellow, cowing the powerful water beneath it which should have been able to smoother it on a moment. Another wrongness, and all of it eclipsed by the unnerving cough and rattle of timber finally giving way.
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.