Captains Fury, Page 14Jim Butcher
Tavi stood in the very bow of the ship, where he would be out of the way of any of the sailors laboring to coax every bit of speed from the Slive. The ship leapt forward through the waves, and salt spray occasionally misted over him. He felt Kitai's presence a breath before he heard her bare feet tread quietly on the deck behind him. She stepped up beside him, casually pressing her side against his, and followed his gaze off to the ship's port side.
There, visible even from the level of the deck now, was the recognizable shape of another ship, its sails gleaming white in the afternoon sun, its course steadily converging on theirs.
"They're going to catch up," Kitai said quietly.
"So it would seem," Tavi said. "The crew's getting anxious. They'll start sharpening their knives before much longer. "
Kitai nodded. "I feel it, too. " She was silent for a time more, and said, "Do these pirates always attack so far out at sea? It seems to me to be a troublesome way to seek a quarrel. We could have fought on the docks and settled it there. Then we could have enjoyed the voyage in peace. "
"That would have been far more reasonable," Tavi agreed. "But I'm afraid they aren't reasonable people. "
"No. They're Alerans. " She shook her head, and Tavi suddenly noticed the absence of the usual good-humored twinkle in her eye when she made such observations. "Chala, there is something you should see. "
Tavi nodded, and followed her the length of the deck, to a narrow staircase that led down into the dimly lit hold of the ship. Within, the ship looked like any rough wooden building, except for the odd contours of the outer wall and the low ceiling. They went through what looked like a larder, full of boxes and barrels of foodstuffs, and a small workshop where various woodworking tools were stored, along with spare lumber, evidently for repairs. Beyond that, the workshop doors opened into the cargo hold.
It was damp and musty, lit with only a single pair of tiny furylamps. The wooden beams of the ship creaked and groaned around them. Kitai slipped forward, through the mostly empty hold, until they reached the foremost part, just under where Tavi had been standing a few moments before.
There, the flat planks forming the floor of the hold had been left out, exposing the curve of the ship's hull-a space the size of a couple of large bathtubs that was full of what was apparently seawater. A pair of men knelt in the water. Both of them were bare-chested, and both had long hair worn in an odd style of dozens and dozens of tiny braids. Their skin was marked with dark ink formed into abstract swirls and curling patterns. Both men had their eyes closed, their hands spread with fingers wide in the seawater, and they both kept up a constant murmuring under their breath. Their skin had a shriveled look, and they shuddered with the cold.
"The witchmen," Tavi murmured.
"No," Kitai said. "Not them. "
Tavi arched an eyebrow at her.
"I asked Demos to show me these witchmen," she said. She walked over to the thick shadows at one side of the hold. "That was when I noticed these. "
Tavi followed her, squinting. It was difficult to make out anything in the thick shadows, but his night vision had improved markedly since the bond had formed between him and Kitai. She waited in patient silence for a moment, until his eyes adjusted, and he saw what she had brought him to see.
Four heavy rings had been set into the side of the ship, spaced about a foot apart, four feet up from the floor. From each set of rings dangled two sets of manacles, heavy things that could never be broken without fury-assisted strength-and anyone locked into them would perforce be surrounded by the wooden hull of the ship and cut off from contact with the earth.
The hull of the ship, and the floor there beneath the rings was stained, and Tavi was glad that he couldn't see much of it. A faint scent lingered in the air, beneath the mustiness of the ship itself, the foulness of human waste-and blood. That was easily enough seen, dark blotches on the manacles.
"Demos is a slaver," Kitai said quietly.
Tavi took a step back before he took a deep breath. "It isn't uncommon in this part of the world. Most captains have transported slaves at one time or another. "
Kitai reached out and touched a chain, running her fingers down the links. "And you see nothing wrong with that?"
"I don't like it," Tavi said, "but men like Demos choose what jobs they will or will not take. "
Kitai gave Tavi a rather hard look. "Not that, Aleran. Do you see nothing wrong with the fact that this"-she flicked the chain hard against the ship's hull-"is not uncommon?"
Tavi blinked and stared at her for a moment. "Kitai. . . "
She turned back to Tavi, her eyes narrowed. "You told me that Nasaug called your kind monsters. So would my people if they knew you treated your own like this. "
"Not everyone does," Tavi said.
"But everyone allows it," she said, her voice hard. She stepped forward until he could see her features in the dimness. They were green agates. "Is this what you are as well, Aleran?"
He met her eyes for a moment and felt her outrage like the heat of a fire on his face. He began to speak, but stopped. Instinct warned him that nothing he said would answer her question.
Instead, he closed his eyes for a moment and dropped his hand to the hilt of his sword. He reached out to it, sensing the strength of the steel, feeling its latent energy, partially beaten into shape at a Legion forge. Tavi pressed his senses into the sword, taking steady breaths, drawing his thoughts into focus and drawing the power of the sword with them, shaping it, aligning its matter, strengthening its edge.
Then he opened his eyes, stepped, drew, and swept the weapon in a single sweep and backstroke.
Sparks flew up, metal screeched, and the chains clattered to the flooring, the ends of the severed links aglow with heat.
Tavi sheathed the weapon in a smooth, practiced motion, and turned to Kitai.
The Marat girl lifted her chin, her eyes aglow. She nodded once, the motion deep enough to be almost a bow.
Tavi responded the same way, never looking away from her eyes.
"That," she said, "is my Aleran. "
Tavi looked up to find that both witchmen had turned and were staring at him.
"If Captain Demos asks," Tavi told them quietly, "tell him to take it up with me. "
The witchmen glanced at one another, and then nodded to Tavi in unison.
Suddenly, there was a surge of emotion from above, a sudden wave of sharply increased panic, fear, and anger. It crashed against Tavi, and his balance wavered beneath the force of it. His hand went of its own accord toward Kitai, landing on her shoulder, steadying himself, even as she shuddered and reached out to brace herself against his chest.
The witchmen both let out quiet moans of misery and crouched even lower in the water. They resumed their murmuring, though it was louder now, faster, almost frantic.
Above, on the deck, there was an agonized scream.
Tavi turned and sprinted for the stairs again, Kitai on his heels. He didn't draw his blade-a fine mess he would make of himself if he lost his balance in the ship's roll and gutted himself on his own sword. He came onto the deck to find it in frantic activity, men hurrying back and forth as the ship's officers shouted commands. All of them were crouching, darting from place to place, and casting frantic glances to port.
"Careful!" Araris called. He had his shoulders pressed up against the mainmast on the starboard side. "The pirates have a Knight Flora with them. Crow-begotten good one, too. "
Tavi nodded and ducked to one side, putting the solid wood of the cabin between himself and the oncoming Mactis. He swept a quick glance around the deck and asked Araris, "Where is she?"
There was another scream, this time up in the rigging, and a man plummeted from above to land on the deck ten feet away. An arrow had transfixed his throat, bloodied point emerging from one side of his neck. His hips and one arm were bent a
t an unnatural angle, and the sailor made a few frantic gurgling sounds, feebly thrashing, as his blood pooled on the deck.
Araris drew his sword, his jaw tight with anger. "Not in the cabin. She must be forward. "
The door to the cabin opened, and Ehren poked his sandy-haired head out of it, looking blearily around. "What? What's going on?"
There was a hiss, a cracking sound, and another arrow smashed through the cabin's door, just above its latch and so close to Ehren's hand that its haft touched the bare skin of his wrist.
Ehren peered owlishly at the arrow. "Ah," he said, and shut the door once more.
Tavi glanced at the arrow and recognized the distinctive fletching again.
"Crows take it," he snarled. "Iris the Hawk. Navaris and the rest of Arnos's thugs are out there. "
There was another scream from the rigging, though at least no one fell to the deck this time.
Kitai leaned around Tavi and peered to port for a moment. "Four hundred yards at least. This archer is quite skilled. "
Tavi called out to Araris, and told him what he had seen. The singulare let out a sulfurous curse. "How did they catch up to us?"
"They must have used Arnos's Knights Aeris," Tavi replied. "They could have learned the ship's identity, and it wouldn't be too hard to figure out where we're headed. They got in front of us, flew down the coast until they found a captain willing to intercept us. "
"This is going to get complicated," Araris said. "Stay there. I'll go find Isana. "
"We go together," Tavi said. He didn't give Araris a chance to argue-he just darted forward, moving quickly down the deck. He shot one swift glance off to port, to see the Mactis under sail. At this distance, he could make out the moving shapes of the crew, but he couldn't make out any details. That was good news, at least. It meant Arnos's woodcrafter couldn't pick out specific targets. She was shooting at motions and outlines, not at particular men.
Tavi went forward, crouched as low as he could get, hurrying as much as he could, and had no doubt that the motion looked more ridiculous than was probably appropriate for a Princeps of Alera on the edge of battle. An arrow flashed by, several feet away. One of the feathers must have been loose and dragged the shot wide, because it made an odd buzzing sound as it flew past him.
Tavi crouched even lower and moved even more quickly. To the crows with dignity. He felt more than willing to live with such humiliations, especially when he might not without them. The Mactis was steadily closing.
They reached the bow and found Isana there, crouched behind the wooden planking of the prow. Tavi rushed forward and threw himself down beside her. Araris and Kitai were hard on his heels.
Isana flinched as Tavi landed, but when she looked back at him, he felt a surge of relief flash through her, only to be replaced with renewed anxiety an instant later. "Are you hurt?"
"I'm fine," Tavi said. "We've got a problem. "
Isana lifted a dark eyebrow, her voice dry. "Oh, dear. "
"Arnos's Knights are on that ship," Araris said, his mouth set in a tight line.
Isana's back stiffened. "I see. Can we escape them?"
Araris crouched and lifted his head up for a moment, peering over the ship's rail, and ducked down again. "I'm not much of a sailor, but I doubt it. "
"Their captain isn't going to turn back because we're sailing into the Leviathan's Run," Tavi said grimly. "Navaris wouldn't let him. "
"We have to fight, then," Isana said. "Can we beat them?"
Tavi glanced at Araris.
The man shook his head. "Not if we're outnumbered as badly as Demos believes. Navaris is extremely skilled. I'll have to focus on her completely. "
"If we can't run, and we can't fight, what can we do?" Isana asked.
"We find some way to change the rules," Tavi said. He rose for a quick peek at the other ship, then glanced quickly at the sea ahead of them. He started to drop down again, when he froze, staring.
Ahead of the ship, the relatively calm seas were washing against slate grey rocks that rose seven or eight feet up out of the waters. There were perhaps two dozen of them, any one of them large enough to smash open the Slives hull like the lid of an ale keg should the ship collide with them.
"Captain!" Tavi bellowed. "Rocks ahead! Captain Demos, rocks ahead!"
Some of the crew took up the call, relaying it back along the length of the ship. Seconds later, Demos hurried down the deck, crouching low the way Tavi had done it, though the ship's captain moved far more swiftly and confidently than Tavi had.
"Demos!" Tavi called. "Rocks!"
The captain frowned and moved forward, rising to look.
"Scipio?" shouted Ehren's voice from somewhere at the ship's stern. "Where are you?"
"The bow!" Tavi called. "Get up here and. . . " Tavi broke off as Demos's calloused hand clamped suddenly over his mouth.
"Quiet," said the captain, his voice and face unreadable. He let out a pair of sharp, single whistles, and the sounds of sailors talking and calling out to one another abruptly stopped.
Tavi pushed Demos's hand away, staring at him, and lowered his voice. "Why?"
"Because those aren't rocks," Demos said calmly. "They're leviathans. "
"Oh dear," Isana breathed. Demos, like Tavi, was capable of concealing his emotions-or perhaps he simply didn't feel them with any particular intensity. Either way, Isana had been able to discern very little about the mans state of mind at any point during their voyage.
Right now, Demos was radiating a cold, carefully restrained fear.
He stared ahead for a few seconds more, then waved his arm in some kind of signal. The timbers of the Slive creaked, and the ship changed course slightly.
"Will we get by them?" Isana heard Tavi ask.
"We might, if we're quiet. This time of the day, they come up to the warm waters at the surface to bask. Provided people don't start shouting"-he gave Tavi a deliberate look-"and that we don't actually bump into one of them and wake him up, the witchmen should let us tiptoe past. "
Tavi narrowed his eyes, his brow furrowing. "What if we didn't have the witchmen?"
Demos shrugged. "We'd wish we did. Briefly. "
Tavi nodded, his eyes flicking around. Isana watched as a sudden, wolfish grin appeared on his face, accompanied by a surge of excitement.
Kitai, who had been facing away from Tavi, peeking at the enemy vessel and the leviathans in turn, suddenly turned around, and Isana was startled by her expression-a grin that matched Tavi's as perfectly as the green of her eyes.
"I like that, Aleran," Kitai said. "Do it. "
Tavi nodded and turned to Isana. "I'm going to need your help. "
Isana frowned at Tavi, and then nodded once. "To do what?"
Her son glanced aside at the Mactis, his eyes narrowed. "Change the rules. "
Demos finished securing the straps of a heavy canvas harness around Isana's waist. "Too tight?" he asked.
"I have no idea," Isana replied.
Demos grunted. "As long as you can breathe, it should be fine. " He held up a line knotted to a metal clip. He showed it to her, then slapped the clip against a metal ring on the harness and gave it a firm tug. "In these waters, you can only see about ten feet. Remember that the Mactis is moving forward, so you aren't just moving toward her. You've got to aim ahead of her on an angle. "
Isana nodded. 'Til be able to find the ship. I'm not worried about that. " She leaned out around the corner of the cabin and peeked at the enemy ship, now less than two hundred yards away.
He attached a second line to another ring. "Make sure you're at least ten feet down when you do," Demos warned her. "If that archer sees you coming, you'll get to experience bow-fishing from the soggy end. Go beneath the ship to the far side before you come up. Believe me, they'll have all their attention focused on us. "
"Why does it seem like you've been involved in this sort
of thing before, Captain?"
"While it has never actually happened, of course, I have made a number of plans in the event that I should ever work with a customer who wished his cargo to be loaded or off-loaded without troubling a customs inspector or harbormaster. " He tested the knots on the lines. "It is in that spirit of preparedness that I had these made for my witchmen. Though I admit, they usually tow crates, not people. "
The cabin door opened, and Tavi, Kitai, Araris, and Ehren came hurrying around the corner. Araris's sword was in his hand, and as he came, it flashed in the lowering sun and shattered yet another arrow. The enemy archer had not slackened her pace, and her shafts only became more accurate as the distance closed. A dozen sailors now lay wounded or dead.
"Can't someone else do this?" Ehren asked.
"We need a woodcrafter, Ehren," Tavi said. "You're it. "
"This will be just like the time you helped us escape that warehouse," Kitai said.
"Except for the leviathans!" Ehren sputtered.
"Quiet!" hissed several people.
"Actually, your real worry is the sharks," Demos murmured, his tone practical. "There are always dozens of sharks around leviathans, and we're about to start passing through them. "
Ehren's face turned white.
"Come on, Ehren," Kitai said. She stripped out of her tunic and kicked off her shoes without a trace of self-consciousness. "Be a man. "
Ehren blinked, and spots of color appeared on his cheeks as he turned his head away and coughed. "Oh, bloody crows. " He glowered at Tavi, and demanded, "Why do I keep on following you into this kind of thing?"
"You must enjoy it," Tavi said.
"I must be an idiot," Ehren responded. But he, along with Tavi and Araris, also began stripping down. "Let me get this straight. We hold on to the ropes. The Steadholder drags us over there underwater. I open up a hole in the hull, and we eliminate their witchmen. Then we run back here and sail away while the leviathans eat them. "
"Yes," Tavi said.
"How long are we going to be under?" Araris asked quietly.
"I've never done this before," Isana said. "If I was alone, it might take me half a minute to move the distance. Perhaps a little more. "
"Double it," Demos said, glancing away from Kitai. "At least. " He lowered a rope carefully over the side. "Are you not going to strip down, lady? That dress is going to drag quite a bit in the water. "
Isana arched an eyebrow at him. "I assure you, Captain, it won't slow me. "
"Ah," he said, nodding. "Try not to splash when you go in. "
Isana went to the rail and looked down at the sea beneath them. She had never actually gone swimming in it, much less engaged in watercrafting using salt water as a medium. She had heard that there were almost no practical differences in working with freshwater or salt water. Almost hardly seemed a comforting word, given that her watercraft was the only thing standing between them and a number of extremely violent, unpleasant forms of death.
For a moment, Isana felt her hands start shaking. What in the world was she thinking? She was no Knight, nor soldier, nor mercenary, to go hurling herself into the deadly sea for the express purpose of murdering two men whom she had never met, nor who had ever done her harm. She was a Steadholder, used to running a farm-and half the time she'd had that position, she had been traveling around the Realm for one reason or another. What could possibly make her think that she was capable of doing something like this?
Isana caught herself before all the anxiety and rising apprehension around her overwhelmed her thoughts. She took a deep breath, called to Rill, and lowered herself into the sea, parting the water beneath her so that she entered with hardly a ripple, much less a splash.
She stayed under for a moment, using the bond with her fury to reach out around her in the water. The sea was warmer than she expected, and there was a greater sense of buoyancy than in the cold streams and lakes of her home. She closed her eyes for a moment, focusing on the water around her, and immediately felt the presence of the furies laboring for the Slive's witchmen. It was crafting of considerable complexity and effort-allowing the ship to cut smoothly through the waters while simultaneously smoothing those waters only a few feet from the hulls. Isana had no idea if she herself could have managed it, and certainly she couldn't have done it for any length of time. The witchmen kept it up on a continual basis. It was a specialist's form of crafting, then, something that took time to practice and master.
It was probably why the witchmen remained so isolated from the rest of the ship-down in the depths of the hold, as close to the water and as far from the distracting emotions of their crewmates as possible.
She took a slow breath and felt Rill filtering the water. The air tasted slightly of minerals, like the hot springs in the Calderon Valley, but she had no particular difficulty. She willed herself forward and rushed through the water, banked in a half circle, and returned to the side of the Slive. It was somewhat daunting, how much water was around her. Isana had never been swimming in so much water that she could not feel either shoreline and the floor of the lake or river she was in. Here, in the sea, the water stretched out in every direction, for as far as her senses could reach, endless rolling blue all around her and endless, grave-cold blackness beneath her.
The water was disturbed behind and beneath her, and Isana darted to one side just as a smooth, sleek form more than ten feet long glided through the water she'd recently occupied. She saw a dark, glassy eye, and a mouth of jagged teeth. And then the shark was past her, and it vanished into the murky ocean in utterly silent grace.
Isana took a moment to deliberately extend her senses, so that she would have at least a little more warning should another shark attempt such a thing, and tried to slow down her wildly beating heart. Then she rose to the surface beside the ship.
Araris was halfway down the rope, leaning down, his expression drawn with worry. She met his eyes and tried to smile at him.
"Are you all right?" he murmured.
She lifted a finger to her lips as she nodded, and beckoned him. Araris turned and lowered himself hand over hand down the rest of the rope, the sinews in his back and shoulders rippling. He kept going once his feet hit the water and slid in slowly and quietly.
The rest of them came down the same way-except for Ehren, whose grip slipped halfway down the line. Isana was ready for it, and Rill was ready to receive him, a vaguely human shape rising from the waves to catch Ehren and lower him soundlessly into the water.
"All right," Tavi murmured. He treaded water beside Isana and seized one of the ropes on her harness. "Everyone grab hold. We need to hurry. "
Isana turned toward the enemy ship as the Slive sailed on, and the others maneuvered through the water to catch hold of the trailing lines. It took them longer than she would have thought, and she felt the faint fluttering sensation of at least two more sharks circling fifty or sixty feet away.
"All right, let's go," Tavi murmured. She felt his hand touch her shoulder and squeeze once. His fear came pouring through his touch, but so did a sense of almost-eager elation. Great furies save her, the boy was enjoying himself.
"Deep breaths everyone," Isana said. She waited a beat, then she oriented on the receding form of the Mactis, reached out to Rill, and dived.
She noticed immediately how much more effort it took to move. A glance over her shoulder showed her that everyone was holding on with both hands, and stripped down to trousers, their bodies moved through the water as smoothly as they could. Even so, the additional weight and resistance to movement was considerable.
Isana ground her teeth. At this rate, it would take even longer than Demos's estimate to reach the Mactis, and the others didn't have her ability to breathe while underwater. Surfacing too near the enemy ship would be suicide, and if they stopped to discuss it, the Mactis might have sailed beyond her ability to catch up.
There was no help for it. She closed her
eyes and redoubled her efforts, spreading more of her fury's attention into the water around her charges so that they cut through it more efficiently. Slowly, they began to pick up speed. The sensation of her bond with Rill became something tangible, a pressure on her temples, and she bent all her attention to her task.
She almost didn't notice it, but Rill's sudden warning made her bank sharply to avoid ramming something large and dark. She followed the contours of the object, pressing ahead. Its surface was odd, pebbly, and laced with barnacles and straggling, hair-fine bits of dark green seaweed. They passed along it for several seconds before it dawned on Isana that they were within arm's reach of a leviathan.
Her heart leapt into her throat, crashed back down into her belly, and began beating very quickly. The creature was huge. It literally stretched out of sight in every direction she looked. They were passing along what might have been a tail, she supposed, a long column of flesh and hide, ridged with bony, protruding plates down its center. Ahead of her, she saw a protuberance of some kind, then they passed over what might have been a flipper, broader than the Slive, its end impossible to see in the murky water.
Next she passed several rows of what looked like trenches, or perhaps ex-trabroad furrows in a field. Ribs. They were the creature's ribs. There was a dull, heavy throb in the water, pressing rhythmically against her, and Isana realized that she could actually feel the beating of the leviathan's gargantuan heart.
They continued on, passing another flipper, and then another column of flesh that must have been the leviathan's neck. The whole of the beast, then, must look something like an elongated turtle with no shell.
Its head came into sight. Its skull was very nearly as large as the enormous stone barn back on her steadholt, a structure that could house two hundred various animals, the farm's equipment, and stored food besides. It, too, was almost turtlelike, complete with a jagged-edged beak. Each eye was the size of a small cottage, great glassy black orbs that were almost entirely closed.
From its mouth hung bits of what Isana could only assume was some kind of pale flesh. Whale blubber, perhaps? Even as Isana watched, a chunk the size of an oxcart fell with deliberate grace from the leviathan's maw, and was promptly set upon by a veritable cloud of smaller fish, only to scatter from the path of a dozen sharks. Rill warned Isana of several more sharks nearby but out of sight in the murk, all of them arrowing toward the free meal. Isana's heart beat even faster, and she tried to increase their pace again, desperate to avoid tempting the hungry sharks with the others, literally dangling like bait on a line.
She glanced back behind her as one of the sharks began to edge a bit too near, and found Tavi staring at the leviathan in undisguised curiosity and glee. He saw her look back and glanced up at her. He pointed at the massive leviathan, and his grin widened still further, his smile so sharp and bright that she found herself mirroring it.
By contrast, Ehren, holding on behind Tavi, had his forehead pressed against the line with his eyes tightly shut. Isana could not help but feel that the young Cursor had a perfectly serviceable amount of common sense.
Tavi, after all, had a point. Certainly, the business was dangerous-but they would have been in danger regardless of what they did. And how many people in Alera could claim to have seen something so utterly awe-inspiring as this? Septimus would have had exactly the same look on his face. . .
Which, Isana realized, was important. It said something about him, as a man. His father had always counseled him to caution, to calculation, to committing all of his attention and focus to the task of ruling the Realm. In one of the letters to his son that Isana had read, Gaius had called rule a practical matter of survival. Survival, to the First Lord, was all but indistinguishable from duty.
Septimus had quietly, gently disputed the point with his father, but until now, Isana had never truly understood the simple truth of what he meant.
Survival was not the same thing as living.
Septimus had gone into battle beside his men, despite the inexcusable risk to his person. He had traveled the Realm in disguise, experiencing life outside of Alera Imperia. It was, in fact, upon one of those incognito jaunts that Isana had met him, when a furious cook had turned upon her little sister after she'd broken a plate, and Isana had smacked the woman hard on the cheek and pushed her away from Alia. Isana stood facing the angry cook until the woman muttered something and stormed away. Then, Isana had helped Alia to her feet, and the two of them had walked away with at least a little dignity.
A man she had never seen before came to her with a simple offer of work, and Isana had gladly taken it. Anywhere would have been an improvement over that scullery.
She'd had no idea, at the time, that she and Alia had just become the maids to the senior officers of the Legion, Septimus's singulares, and to the Princeps himself.
It was after that that they had begun to talk to one another. To fall in love- and to wed for love, and not for political gain.
Survival was not enough. One had to live.
Septimus had never articulated it: He had simply lived it.
Septimus had been fiercely determined to live. So much so that he had died for it.
Living was a dangerous past-time, and often quite painful-but there was also such joy in living, such beauty, things that one would otherwise never see, never experience, never know. The risk of pain and loss was a part of living. It made everything else mean more; beauty was more pure, more bright, pleasure more full and complete, laughter deeper, more satisfying-and contentment more perfect, more peaceful.
She had, in a sense, betrayed Septimus in how she had treated Tavi after his father's death. She had been focused completely on protecting the boy-on forcing mere survival upon him. How much more would Tavi have seen, and done, and learned, if she had chosen differently? How much different would her own life have been? In reducing Tavi's existence to a matter of survival, she had sheltered him from some pains, but exposed him to others, and robbed him of what he might have had-and in doing so, had robbed herself as well.
The past was gone. Nothing could change what had already been. Looking back at it, letting its wounds fester, indulging in regret was just a different, slower way to die. The living moved forward.
Isana felt the wild beating of her heart and realized that it did not race entirely and purely with fear. There was also a sense of elation there, of joy. She felt more alive, there in that danger-filled murk, than she had felt in all the years since Septimus had died.
She would have to be a fool actually to enjoy this.
She would have to be a liar to say that it didn't have its appeal, as well.
The pressure on her temples increased sharply, and then suddenly faded. Isana was never sure precisely what happened, but they were suddenly streaking through the sea, more swiftly than any shark, and Rill's presence swelled. Isana's senses expanded, exploded, becoming so intense that for a moment she thought that the whole of the ocean had suddenly turned as crystal-clear as a Calderon spring.
She felt the heavy, drowsy presence of the leviathans (twenty-three of them, to be precise) and the endless, mindless swirling of the sharks (three hundred, give or take a dozen). She guided them past another leviathan's tail, noting the brightly colored crustaceans crawling among the barnacles and scales, found the Mactis beyond them, and shot forward, beneath the enemy vessel. They rose on the far side, and Isana made sure that they surfaced in total silence.
The others labored to keep their breaths quiet, but they nonetheless gasped for air after the long trip underwater. Isana kept pace with the Mactis, just outside of the watercrafting that concealed the presence of the ship from the sleeping leviathans. The witchmen of the Mactis, Isana noted, maintained a far more slender watercrafting than the witchmen of the Slive. Their work was no less complex, but there was much less of an allowance for the turbulence of the sea-probably because their ship was so much larger th
an the Slive, displacing much more water, and they had a considerably more difficult task in hiding it.
"Ehren," Tavi whispered hoarsely. "Make us a hole. "
Ehren swallowed, and kicked over to the ship. He released Isana's line and immediately sank one of his knives into the hull. He hung on, dragged through the water by the ship, put his free hand on the hull, and closed his eyes.
Isana extended her senses toward the ship, and again felt surprised at the sheer clarity of what her crafting revealed. It was almost like when she performed a healing, sensing the pains and damage of a patient's body. She could feel the water all around the ship, in contact with the hull-including a number of places where the patient, gentle force of water had found flaws in the hull, and begun to slowly, steadily seep inward.
She waited for a moment, but when Ehren shook his head in frustration and slid his hand to the next board, she angled her course in closer. "Lower, and about a foot toward the bow," she said quietly. "There's a leak there. They've patched it with tar and sailcloth, but the planks have begun to weaken. "
Ehren gave her a quick, surprised look. Then he moved his hand to the spot she'd suggested, and his eyes widened. He closed them and his fingers stiffened, forming something like a claw. He shoved down, forcefully, and his fingers sank half an inch into the wood. He made a satisfied, growling sound and repeated the motion several more times, until his hand had sunk to the base of his fingers into the ship's hull. Then he took a deep breath, made a twisting motion of his arm, and pulled.
There was a soggy-sounding crack, and the plank peeled away from its companions in the hull and snapped. Ehren tossed a two-foot length of board away, grasped the plank just below the new opening, and after another moment of concentration, snapped a second length of board away.
Isana felt intense attention directed at her, and she turned to find Tavi watching her, his green eyes narrowed. He leaned closer to her, and murmured, "What happened?"
She stared back at him for a moment, then shook her head. "I'm not sure. "
"Are you all right?"
"I'm. . . " She shook her head. "It's all one fury. All of it. The whole sea. If you can commune with any of it, you can speak to all of it. There's so much of it there, and I can't-" She broke off suddenly as Tavi's hand covered her mouth.
"Shhhh," he said quietly. "You were raising your voice. Are you sure you're all right?"
Isana closed her mouth and nodded firmly. "But hurry. We need to hurry. The sun is going down. I can feel them beginning to stir. We don't want to be in the water when they wake. "
There was another crack, and Ehren pulled himself up to the hole he'd created and thrust his head in. He leaned back a moment later, his nose wrinkling, and reported, "Bilge. Give me a moment to get through the other side. " Then the little Cursor vanished into the hole. He reappeared shortly, and nodded at Tavi, then held out his hand.
Isana felt the elation in her son at the intense experience of the adventure suddenly fade, and she felt it replaced with regret and steely determination. He kicked through the water, seized the knife Ehren had left in the hull as a handhold, and with the Cursor's help clambered inside. He had to go through the hole one arm at a time, his shoulders had grown so broad, and Isana was again struck by how very large the boy had grown.
Kitai went next, though the Marat girl hardly seemed to need Ehren's out-stretched hand to help her in. From Kitai, Isana could sense only what she almost always felt in her-a kind of detached, feline amusement at the world around her, and an intense involvement in her senses and environment. Finally, Araris went, though he paused to glance back at Isana. She felt his worry for her very clearly.
"Oh for goodness' sake," Isana whispered, flipping a hand at him. "Go. I'll be safer than you'll be. "
Araris frowned at her, hesitating.
Isana felt the direction of his thoughts, the sudden, irrational heat of them, and she felt her face heat up. "I like the way you look all wet as well," she told him. "But now is not the time. "
His eyes widened, and Araris gave her a sudden, very boyish grin and a wink. Then he, too, swarmed up the side of the ship and through the hole in the hull.
Isana bit her lower lip and waited, pacing the ship. Her sharpened senses continued to flood her with their newfound clarity and depth, and it made what would otherwise have been a very simple process-remaining steady beside the ship-difficult to focus upon. The motion of the waves, the mindless and purposeful movement of the sharks, the swirling of the smaller fish feasting on what fell from the mouths of the sleeping leviathans, all blended together into something beautiful, almost hypnotic, like a vast dance being performed for no one but her. The sea around her stretched out, boundless and powerful, merciless and bountiful, and she could feel it all, to such a degree that for a few seconds, she lost the feeling in her own limbs, their nerves and muscles vanishing among all the endless motion of the living sea.
Fear and sudden agony hit her like a slap on the cheek. She had drifted ahead of the Mactis, and she hurried to return to her place. There was another stab of confusion and pain from somewhere in the ship-great furies, she couldn't have felt that from here, not with such perfect clarity. She couldn't even see whoever had been hurt.
Panic native to her own heart clutched at her. Had something happened to one of her own? The bond between loved ones and, especially family, had long been well established as a factor that enhanced a watercrafter's already-acute empathic senses, and if Tavi or Araris had been injured it might account for-
The ship suddenly shuddered in the water. It wasn't a large motion-just a gentle bob, out of rhythm with the waves around it, as the watercrafting around the Mactis s hull abruptly failed.
The next wave crashed against the bow of the ship with a roar like a miniature thunderstorm, and a great cloud of salt spray flew up from the impact.
Isana felt a sudden surge of emotion from the Mactis. Disbelief gave way to panic and terror, and every single facet of emotion was blindingly intense. They slashed at her like razors, and she could hardly keep herself moving through the water. On the ship, men began shouting. Boots hammered on wooden decks. The nearest of the shouts weren't twenty feet away, up on the ship's deck above her.
Isana fought to contain her agonized senses, to draw away from them, and as she did, she felt her pace suddenly slow, her progress through the water becoming noticeably more difficult. She gritted her teeth and left herself open to the painful flares of emotion and held pace beside the ship, though her teeth had begun to chatter in sheer, nervous reaction to the fear.
Another minute went by, and no one appeared at the hole in the ship's hull. There were more, harsh shouts from inside the ship, and the ring of steel on steel. Then there was a hissing sound and a low howl of tortured wood, toward the bow, where the witchmen were usually stationed. It repeated itself twice, and then Araris's bare foot kicked a triangular section of wooden hull away from the ship, its edges as clean-cut and smooth as if done with the finest saw. The severed planks fell into the sea. The singulare looked out from the hole, spotted Isana, and waved a hand at her.
Isana surged forward through the waves, just as Tavi appeared in the newly cut opening and tumbled into the sea gracelessly, as if he'd been pushed through. Isana darted through the water and pressed one of the lines into his hand, then caught up to the ship again, just as Ehren leapt out and hit the ocean heels first. Kitai came next, diving through the hole, her arms extended, to enter the sea in a graceful dive.
Isana rounded them up, made sure each of them had a solid hold on the line. It was getting increasingly difficult to concentrate, and Isana suddenly realized why.
The leviathans had woken.
The very water of the sea itself had all but begun to boil with a slow and monstrous anger.
They had little time.
Isana pressed as close to the newly cut hole as she dared. There was little point in stealth anymore, and sh
e called out, "Araris! Araris, hurry!"
Steel rang on steel inside the ship. A man let out a cry of agony.
"Araris!" Isana called.
"Crows take it," Tavi snarled. "I was supposed to be the last off. "
A dim shape appeared in the opening, and steel clashed again. Isana saw an explosion of violet sparks raining against azure as the blades of two master metalcrafters clashed, and then a sword's blade, scarlet with blood, plunged through the planks of the hull beside the opening.
Araris appeared, weaponless, and stumbled sprawling from the hole in the hull to fall into the sea. The water around him immediately became stained with streamers of crimson.
Isana stared at him, suddenly unable to focus, to think of the proper course of action. Panic upon the ship and rage within the sea pressed against her from both sides, a paralyzing weight.
Tavi reached out and got one strong arm under one of Araris's. Moving as if in a choreographed performance, Kitai seized Araris's other arm, so that he was suspended between them, his face just out of the water.
"Go!" Tavi shouted. "Go, go, go!"
Just then, a sound surged up from the depths. Isana had never heard anything like it. So deep that it rattled her very bones, rising to a louder whistle or shriek that pressed against her eardrums like a handful of dull needles. The surface of the sea itself shook with it, sending up a fine cloud of spray that only rose a few inches above the waters. The sound hit her, and with it came a timeless, inhuman, unthinking rage, and the sheer volume, the emotional mass of it, left her arms and legs shaking with impotent terror.
And then it happened again, from behind them. And again from ahead. And again, and again, and again, as the leviathans sensed the presence of intruders in their sea.
"Uh," Ehren panted, clearly terrified. "Uh, uh, uh. That can't be good. "
Isana felt the leviathans begin to move as they came alert, motions so vast that they made the ship seem like a child's toy bobbing on the surface of a millpond. The other creatures of the sea swirled in frantic response, the smaller fish scattering, while the sharks became more restive and eager, moving in swifter and more erratic patterns.
Isana felt it with terrifying clarity when several of them picked up the scent of Araris's blood in the sea and began slicing toward them.
Men on the doomed ship began to scream.
It was too much. Too painful. Isana knew she should have been doing something, acting, but the agony of all that motion, of all that emotion, had become a precise and inescapable torment that no amount of writhing could lessen. She clutched at her head and heard herself screaming through clenched teeth.
Then a strong hand gripped her own, closing with power that barely avoided crushing bones, and Isana grasped at that pain as an anchor in the overwhelming, fluid world that had overwhelmed her senses.
"Isana!" Tavi called. "Mother!"
That word, from those lips, came as a sudden shock, brighter and warmer and more terrible than all the others, and her eyes snapped open.
"Back to the Slive!" Tavi shouted. "Take us back to the ship! Hurry!"
"Aleran!" Kitai cried. There was the sound of water being thrashed to foam, and then a shark arrowed by them, streaming a cloud of dark fluid behind it. Isana turned to see the Marat girl lift a bloodied dagger to her teeth, and seize the unmoving Araris.
"The ship!" Tavi thundered, his voice ringing with command. "Crows take it, you are the First Lady of Alera, and you will return us to the ship!"
Her son's voice carried pure steel in it, iron control, and Isana grasped at that strength through the contact of their hands. Somehow, it strengthened her, and she was able to push the overwhelming power being unleashed all around her from her thoughts. Reason returned in a cold, focused rush, just as another shark, the largest yet, made a run at the wounded Araris.
Isana called to Rill, sudden rage at the beast giving her strength, and the shark was flung from the water with violent force, arching into the air to land thrashing violently on the deck of the Mactis overhead.
"Hold tight," Isana growled. She could feel the leviathans rushing toward them, the pressure wave of water that surged out ahead of them. The nearest had dived, sinking a mere five hundred feet or so beneath them, and it was rising swiftly toward the ship, rising with nightmarish rage and power, and Isana could all but see what would happen to the ship when the ridge of scaled plates on its back struck the vessel's keel.
She called to Rill again, and they surged forward with such speed that the canvas harness bit into her skin, even through the fabric of her clothing. They shot forward, skimming the surface of the water, and she could hear Ehren's breathless shout of fear blending with Kitai's sudden whoop of excitement. They sailed forward, and Isana banked back toward the Slive. Their passage kicked up a curtain of water ten feet high as they turned, barely avoiding the bulk of another leviathan cruising toward the Mactis.
Isana called out to Rill, to the sea, and as they flashed toward the Slive, the water rose beneath them, building up into a wave that lifted them from the surface of the already-roiling ocean, so that as they reached the ship, and the wave broke upon the watercrafting around it, they simply washed up onto its deck.
Demos was standing there as the furycrafted wave washed over his feet and rocked the Slive hard to its starboard side, and his eyes were wide with shock. The ship righted itself in the water, and Demos stirred, turning back to his men, and bellowing orders that could barely be heard over the bellows of angry leviathans.
Isana turned to Araris at once, crouching over him and laying her hands on his abdomen. There was a gaping wound in his side, just below his lowest ribs. She grasped at the split flesh with her hands, pushing it back together, pressing her attention down through her fingers. The wound was massive and uncomplicated, but if the bleeding wasn't stopped, and soon, he would not live.
"I did not go through that torture at Ceres to let you die now," she heard herself snarl. Then she willed Rill down into the wound, found its edges with the fury's help, and began to bind them together, to contain the blood trying to rush from his body. It was difficult, and Isana felt her strength swiftly fading, but it had to be done. She did not relent in her efforts until she felt the artery mend, felt the pressures of his body begin to stabilize.
After that, she finally relented, slumping, gasping for breath, and weary in every fiber of her being.
She looked up to find Tavi staring at her.
She looked around. Kitai was watching her as well, her canted eyes brilliant in the lowering light. Ehren's face was awed. Demos, too, stood watching her, as did a dozen sailors.
"Bloody crows," one of the men said. "She didn't even use a tub. "
Isana blinked and stared down at her bloodied hands, at the unconscious man beneath them.
Bloody crows, indeed. That was impossible. Only the most powerful watercrafters in the Realm could. . .
There was another vast, sea-shaking bellow.
Isana looked up, as did everyone else on the Slive, to see the first leviathan attack the Mactis. It rose from the sea, a mountain of armored flesh and frenzied rage. It lifted the Mactis from the waves, and the crack of timbers snapping as its keel shattered cut through the twilight. Men screamed, falling from the ruined ship, rendered into toys by the distance and by the sheer magnitude of scale. Some of them splashed into the ocean. Some fell upon the bulk of the leviathan, its hide no more forgiving than the rocks of a hostile shore. Half of the ship stayed afloat for a moment-but only until a second leviathan rammed the first, crushing it between them. Men thrashed desperately for life, insects among the angry titans of the sea. Some of them had managed to get a few of the small boats into the sea, but they could not long remain afloat in that maelstrom, and the growing darkness, the surge of furious leviathans slamming into one another in their rage, and the tortured sea swallowed them as
the Slive sailed on.
Isana felt the horror in those around them-and the sympathy. She realized that these men, though pirates and scoundrels, though struggling to say alive against a foe who would surely have killed them, had just witnessed one of their own nightmares. None of them desired to see another sailor die the way the men of the Mactis had.
Isana shook her head, struggling to separate her senses from those around her. It was too much, and her head had begun to pound again.
"All right," growled a voice whose tone brooked no dissent. Her son, she thought dully. "Show's over. Ehren, get the cabin door. Kitai. "
Isana looked up dully as Kitai, still shirtless, calmly picked her up as she might carry a child. The Marat girl gave Isana a small, encouraging smile, while Tavi picked up Araris.
"It was well-done," Kitai murmured to Isana quietly. "We're back safe. Time to rest now. "
Isana began to protest. She'd closed the worst of the wound, but Araris would need more attention-and she didn't even know if any of the others had been injured. She began to tell Kitai to put her down and fetch a healing tub.
But somewhere between drawing a breath and using it to speak, she lost the will to keep going and embraced the promise of silence and peace in her exhaustion.