Here, There Be Monsters
NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Gale's Storyline.
Rain was cascading down the foggy glass of the porthole, each drop marking its own path until it disappeared from view, to be followed by its brothers moments later. The rain had been falling lightly all morning, but the skies were truly beginning to darken now. In a matter of minutes, the rain would no longer be measurable in rivulets and drops, but only in sheets of water that would cover the porthole glass like a weak coat of paint. From inside, a sad sort of smile crossed the stern, somber, marked face of Gale.
Gale sighed a soulful sigh as she stared out the porthole and into the rain. She should have been thankful, she supposed. At least – at the very least – she was working on a ship once again. But this was not a ship, not truly. To Gale’s mind, a ship was a friend, a companion, a sister. But even more than that, a ship was a seaborne vessel. And the plane of Wreth had no seas. Just massive, winding rivers and endless, maddening land. The rivers were long and wide, to be sure. They were fathoms deep in places, and stretched as far as the eye could see. But rivers, by their very nature, were tame, domesticated things, imprisoned by their banks and ruled by the tedium of their unchanging flow. The sea was neither tame nor domestic. It was wild, rampant, and free.
It was everything Gale wanted to be, and it was everything that life within the cage of Wreth was not.
The people of Wreth – who had never sailed a real sea, or weathered a proper storm – referred to the Autumn Crane, the leviathan of a vessel on which Gale now served, as a ‘ship,’ but she could not bring herself to think of it as anything but a ‘boat.’ Boats float, Gale thought bitterly to herself. Ships sail. And while the Autumn Crane did actually have a sail, Gale had never once seen it in use. Instead, the ship was driven by dozens of oarsmen laboring endlessly below deck, while the riverboat’s helmsman called down directions through a long, rubbery tube made from the intestines of a great wurm. As if that wasn’t bad enough, on some crowded stretches of river where the banks narrowed, and boat traffic was too dense to permit the use of oars, the Autumn Crane was actually tethered to teams of oxen along the river’s edge, so that the yoked beasts could pull the boat along channels and through canals.
Such indignities aside, the Autumn Crane was a well-built vessel, large and sturdy and more-or-less fit for purpose. But, to Gale’s way of thinking, it was a boat that served too many purposes. Partially, it was a fishing vessel, trawling waters known as the Sailor’s Knot. Gale hated that name. It was a place where three smaller rivers – the Mongoose, the Base, and the Kyan – intersected and split into two of the seven Great Rivers of Wreth: the Archon River, flowing southwest, and the Tomb River, stretching off to the east. Fish had a tendency to converge around the large cross-currents of the Knot, and purpose-built fishing boats made a good living there.
But the Autumn Crane was hardly an ordinary fishing vessel. It also served as a cargo boat, carrying loads up and down all five rivers, although its primary route took it mostly up the Mongoose and down the Archon. That route also passed the majority of the aristocratic cities and private holdings on Wreth, and the affluent were always looking for convenient ways to quickly travel from one self-indulgent location to another. So the Autumn Crane, being one of the largest vessels to routinely run the Sailor’s Knot, provided that very service, chartering private cabins to anyone willing to pay enough to make it worth the captain’s time.
And the captain’s time, Gale had noticed, did not seem particularly valuable.
Gale was a sailor at heart, pure and simple, and there was a part of her that hated questioning her captain. The man’s name was Lonell, and he was a friendly enough sort. But the Autumn Crane’s splintered purpose was enough to prove to Gale that Lonell was also a fool. Each of the various roles the boat tried to play fought against all the others. Wealthy guests who hired passage down the rivers of Wreth demanded luxury, which was difficult to provide when the smell of fish permeated the decks. At the same time, the Autumn Crane never brought in nearly as much fishing revenue as other boats in the Knot, because the captain was in a constant hurry to deliver his cargo, and would abandon promising stretches of river long before they were fished-out. But the ease with which he could deliver cargo from port to port was inherently limited, because frequent docking might interfere with the peace and quiet of the rich patrons.
The Autumn Crane would have been a much finer boat if it were committed to catching fish, or ferrying cargo, or transporting passengers, instead of playing at all three. As captain, Lonell should have realized as much. But as long as the gold was flowing into the captain’s coffers, he didn’t much seem to care.
The other issue that drove Gale to distraction about Captain Lonell was the method by which he assigned duties aboard the boat. Gale was, by a wide margin, the most experienced sailor on the Autumn Crane, and her ability to hear, speak to, and even influence the wind and the waves made her an ideal candidate to work topside, or even to helm the boat. Meanwhile, there were others on board who were superb fishermen and marvelous cooks. However, instead of each crewman assuming the post where he or she could best serve the vessel, assignments were made quite literally at random, with everyone on the crew drawing new duties every three days. Lonell’s philosophy was that he wanted every hand to get good at every task, thus creating ship-wide excellence. Unfortunately, in practice, it usually just ensured mediocrity – a crew filled with jacks of all trades but masters of none, where lifelong fishermen stared blankly at navigational charts, while seasoned navigators tangled the nets.
That day, for instance, Gale had drawn scullery shifts in the private mess. She had spent the first three hours of her day trying to think of any chore for which she was more ill-suited, but she had been unable to come up with anything. Working in the crew mess would have been bad enough, but the private mess was reserved for those paying guests of the ship, and working a shift there usually involved serving delicate foods to well-heeled travelers and playing barmaid to soused aristocrats. Gale was decidedly poor at either task. Fortunately, there were few guests currently chartering the cabins, and the rain outside had been enough to keep them mostly cloistered inside their warm and dry rooms. So Gale had spent her time cleaning what knives and spoons and dishes she could, all the while she stared longingly out the window, wishing she had drawn a chore that would have allowed her to feel the rain on her face and to pretend, if only for a few, closed-eyed moments, that it was the sea spray from her home plane she felt, misting her face and filling her lungs once more.
As Gale was wishing and reminiscing, she heard the door to the mess open and close. Gale glanced in the direction of the noise, assuming it was one of the senior crewmen checking in on her. Instead, she saw a well-dressed man shaking the raindrops off of his overcoat as he smiled back in her direction. Gale tried not to cringe in reply. She had become a sailor because she had a deep, unabashed love of the sea, not because she longed to serve drinks to spoiled, pompous men with soft skin and fine clothes. Still, the man was handsome, at least, and seemed friendly enough, and, whether she liked it or not, her duty was to offer him a smile and a drink, if he wanted either. So Gale forced herself to smile as she indicated a seat at the mess’s bar.
The man grinned and walked over, stroking the short, trimmed beard that covered only his chin and upper lip, as if to get the rain water out of it. Like many of the wealthy on Wreth, he dressed with all the needless pomp and adornment of those with more money than sense. His coat was thick and black, cut with long lapels and cuffed sleeves, in the predominant style of the southern courts. He wore a high hat decorated with tiny, evenly-spaced gems, and carried a finely crafted cane for which he had no apparent need, if his confident gait was any indication. Both of his hands were covered in dark gloves that were far too thin to be of any practical use, which he slipped off and into an interior pocket of his coat before casting the garment aside and taking the offered seat.
“Quite the storm out there,” the man said pleasantly.
Gale looked out through the porthole again, noting that the rain was coming down faster now. Still, she gave an almost unperceivable shake of her head. “This isn’t a real storm,” she said. “A storm pulls the feathers off gulls, and turns the devilfish inside-out.” Her voice trailed off, and she shook her head again. “This is just rain.”
The man said nothing, but when Gale looked back at him, she saw he was still smiling at her. Gale tried, and failed, to smile back. Then the man indicated toward her with a small gesture of his right hand. “If I might pry, may I ask where you obtained that image on your cheek?” he said.
Reflexively, Gale reached up and touched the skin of her cheek where it was marked with the points of the four winds. That mark was a part of her, something that spoke of her identity to any who knew how to read it. Had she been at home, on her own world, none would have asked her about it, because everyone would have known. But Wreth was a different world. Its people did not mark themselves the way Gale and her people did, and she found herself constantly trying to avoid the conversations which the sight of her marks always triggered. It was an odd sensation, realizing how the people stared at her for something so simple, so normal. The blank, markless faces she stared back at were, at times, so very alien to Gale. And, try as she might, she could not quite dispel a lingering conviction that every unmarked face she saw was blank because it had something to hide.
“This is just…” Gale began, then hesitated. Finally, after a lengthy pause, she let her hand drop back down to her side. “It’s just a memory of my past. It wouldn’t mean anything to you.”
The man shrugged. “You may be surprised. I do have some experience in searching for meaning, after all.”
Gale nodded in rote acknowledgment, then changed the subject. “Would you like a drink?” she said.
Gale gestured to the rows of bottles stacked along the protected shelves behind the bar. The man glanced over at where she had pointed, scanning the bottles with a look of distaste.
Gale sighed. “Any of these would be included in the cost of your passage,” she said.
The man nodded. “Of course, of course,” he said, shaking his head. “I do not suppose you have anything else? Perhaps something a bit more… exotic?”
Gale bit her bottom lip. This man was going to be difficult. She sighed as she walked over to the bar. Beneath it, there was a footlocker holding the most valuable wines and liquors aboard, most of which were enjoyed, by order, only by Captain Lonell. Gale knew little about the alcohol on Wreth, and again wished in vain that she had drawn a better duty. She pulled out the top two bottles from the footlocker and read the titles to the wealthy man.
“We have a Redvine Elite, and a Marsh Sour Continental,” Gale said indifferently.
The man curled his lip and shook his head at the second option, before returning to the first. “The Redvine Elite. Which year is it?”
Gale glanced at the bottle, taking nearly a minute to locate the tiny date written in a looping calligraphy near the bottom on the label. “719?”
Once again, the man’s face contorted slightly to a look of disgust. “No, I am sorry, but that will simply not do. Have you got anything else?”
Gale sighed audibly, but set the bottles down and looked in the footlocker again. She pushed a few of the top bottles aside, then pulled one partially out, reading the label to the man without bothering to stand up. “Prince Elimn’s Reserve?”
“A good choice,” the man replied, “but I am afraid I am not in the mood for a sparkling white. Hardly appropriate on a night like this. Anything else?”
Gale bit her tongue. Finally, she found a simple bottle near the bottom with a golden label but no name. She pulled it out and set it on the bar. “How about this?”
The man smiled widely. “Ahh! You have a Paragon Gold! I must admit, I am a bit surprised. Either Paragon is too rich for Lonell, or the old fool has no idea what a treasure he has. Tell me, how much are you to charge for this bottle?”
Gale reached into a small shelf built under the bar and pulled out an old ledger. The special vintages in the footlocker were not free, and the Captain had carefully recorded prices for each in the ledger. Unenthusiastically, Gale looked up the bottle. The word “Paragon” was nowhere to be found, but there was one entry listed under the simple description: “Gold label.”
Gale ran her finger across the page to the stated price. “Seven sovereigns,” she said.
The man laughed. “I thought as much.” He produced several coins of different values from his pocket and laid them on the bar. Gale glanced at the coins, her eyes wide. She was still getting used to the monetary denominations of Wreth, but even a cursory glance told her that there were over one hundred sovereigns worth of gold there. The man smiled at her.
“Now, young lady,” he began, “please allow me to ask your opinion on this matter. The bottle you hold is, by your own captain’s order, meant to be sold for seven sovereigns. However, that bottle is worth even more than I have laid out here. Now, how much do you think I ought to pay you for it?”
“I’m no expert on wines,” Gale replied, feeling confused. “Why ask me?”
“Well,” the man said, “on one side of this particular sail, your captain has given an implied order that you should sell this bottle for dramatically less than it is worth, and no doubt you should follow your captain’s orders. On the other side of that sail, you no doubt have a responsibility to your ship and your captain to see to it that their interests are protected. If you can get more than seven sovereigns for the bottle, you may have a responsibility to do so. Of course, then again, these profits will not go to your ship, will they? They will go straight into the coffers of Lonell, the very man who has made the poor decision in pricing in the first place. Had he made wiser decisions, you would not even be in this position, now would you?”
Gale looked up at the man. His words called into question much more than simply the price of a bottle of wine. Gale found herself thinking about the Autumn Crane. She was a sailor, and she would obey her captain, but she could not deny that the boat was suffering under Lonell’s command. If they were to focus on just one of their endeavors rather than spreading themselves so thin, and were the division of labor done in a more logical way, things would be better for everyone, including the captain. It frustrated Gale, but what bothered her more was how quickly and how easily this stranger had recognized all of that.
Or had he? Perhaps he was simply talking about a bottle of wine.
Finally, Gale moved her hand over to the coins. Before she touched them, however, she looked the man in his eyes. “Are you telling me that you’ll pay whatever I charge you? I want to be clear before we make any deals.”
The man leaned back with a grin tarred on his face. “If you want to charge me more than I have offered here, then I will have a decision to make. Otherwise, take what you like, and do with it as you will.”
Gale stared at him for a long time, then scooped up half the coins. She dropped seven sovereigns worth into a small, padlocked box beneath the bar, and put the rest into the pocket of her trousers.
She nodded to the man. “The captain wants seven, he’ll get seven. The rest I’ll consider a tip, and I’ll split it with the crew. No reason they should suffer for the captain’s decision.”
The man stared at her for a long time before he broke into a laugh. “I like you, Gale! I like the way you think. Would you care to join me for a drink of Paragon Gold?”
“I suppose a small one, sure,” she said, then stopped suddenly. “Why did you call me Gale? I never told you my name.”
“Nor have I told you mine, my dear,” the man said as he took the bottle from her hand. He opened the bottle and grabbed two glasses, and as he poured out the wine, Gale caught a glimpse of ink on his right hand. She hadn’t noticed it when he took off his gloves, but he bore the mark of a tapped barrel. Gale gasped. That was a mark given on her world to recognize an accomplished brewmaster.
Gale looked up into the man’s vibrant, hazel eyes in shock, but he was looking at the glasses on the bar. When Gale looked down at his hand again, the mark was gone.
The man slid one glass over to Gale and picked the other one up, taking a moment to admire the scent of the well-aged vintage. Reluctantly, Gale grabbed her glass, too, and took one quick drink of the rich, red wine, while the man took a long, slow sip. He closed his eyes for a long moment, and when he opened them again, Gale was staring at him. Neither said anything, and so the man set his glass down and collected the remaining money.
“Worth every coin,” he said with a smile.
“Who are you?” Gale asked, trying and failing to keep the edge out of her voice.
The man gave a brief laugh. “I am a man who appreciates the finer things in life. Good company, a good wine, and a good story.”
“What sort of story did you have in mind?”
“That, my dear, depends entirely upon you. You see, there are certain things which I simply cannot abide, and one of them is a fool. Particularly, a fool who purports to provide luxury passage, but who cannot even recognize the value of an excellent bottle of wine. Or of the company he keeps.” The man shot Gale a knowing glance. “And that, my dear, is why I want you to kill Captain Lonell.”
Gale’s eyes narrowed at the mere mention of mutiny. She slid her hand beneath the bar, where her fingers tightened around a nearby paring knife.
“I think you’d better explain yourself, and quickly,” she said, adjusting the knife in her grip as she judged the distance between herself and the smiling man, whose grin only widened as he studied her face.
“Forgive me,” the man said, holding up his arms in an attempt to calm her down. “I have phrased my desires crassly, and I apologize. I do not, of course, wish for you to murder your captain in cold blood, nor do I wish you to undertake such an activity without compensation. I will endeavor to explain myself more clearly. In the meantime, however, I can assure you that the course of action you are at present considering is as unnecessary as it is ill-advised.” The man tapped the tip of his cane against the top of the bar, just above where Gale’s concealed hand was gripping the knife. “I abhor violence, my dear, but I am well-versed in it. Much better that we trade words rather than blows.”
For a tense minute, Gale stared into the smiling man’s eyes, trying to judge both his intent and his capabilities. Without fully understanding why she did it, she felt her fingers loosen their grip around the small knife. Placing both hands on top of the bar, she fixed the bearded man with a look she would once have reserved for a sailor who had spoken out of turn.
“Alright,” she said. “You want to talk? Then talk. Then you’d best get out of my sight, because I don’t abhor violence.”
The man pressed his hands together. “Very well, then. Here is my proposal. For the next two days, we will be sailing through the Sailor’s Knot. That second night, we will make port at the city of Geisport, where I shall disembark. Captain Lonell, as is his habit, will undoubtedly drink himself under some table near the wharf and stagger back to the ship at dawn, when this vessel will continue through the Knot while the captain sleeps off the drink of the previous night. As it happens, that day is also the day your crew will draw its next rotation of duties. I have already made arrangements that your next duty will be at the helm.”
Gale opened her mouth to speak, but found she had no words. The bearded man must have been mad, but for reasons she could not entirely explain, Gale had decided to listen to him. She would never accept whatever plan he had, of course, but he seemed to know a great deal – about her captain, and her vessel, and her. Whether born out of a morbid curiosity or a sense of threat, Gale needed to know how the man knew the things he knew, and why. So, for the time being, she held her tongue.
“Now,” the man continued after a brief pause to finish his glass of Paragon Gold, “your charted route will take you out of Geisport and down the Archon River. However, a slight alteration of course in the morning fog would go unnoticed by the crew, and certainly by the captain, and could, if the helmswoman wished, take the Autumn Crane into the mouth of the Tomb River, instead.”
“Why would I change our course?” Gale asked, incredulous.
The man smiled. “Because in three days’ time, just beyond the mouth of the Tomb, a ship called the Red Harpoon will be lying in ambush. It is a vessel of river pirates who have a score to settle with our dear friend Captain Lonell.”
“You expect me to deliver my mates into the hands of pirates?” Gale asked, hardly believing what she was hearing. She searched the man’s face for any hint of a joke, but his eyes were sincere.
Gale leaned forward across the bar, so that her face was close to the man’s. When she spoke, her voice was low, and her tone was sharper than the knife she’d held moments before.
“You seem to know a lot about me,” she said, never taking her eyes off the man. “Then you should know that the last ship I served aboard was taken by raiders. Those raiders killed my mates, so I killed those raiders. I fed them to the crabs, every last one. So what makes you believe I won’t do the same to your pirate friends? Or to you?”
The man shrugged. “I’ll grant you it is a possibility,” he admitted as he poured himself a second glass. “But hear me out before you make up your mind. While usually turning a ship over to pirates is, as you have indicated, a remarkably poor idea, these are not usual circumstances. These pirates are interested only in Captain Lonell. They have agreed to leave the cargo unmolested, and to leave the crew unharmed, so long as the crew make no move against them. Any who resist will be killed, of course, but once they have Lonell, they will leave.”
Gale shook her head in utter disbelief. She felt her blood boiling, and she had to suppress the urge to go for the knife again, and to cut the smile off the grinning man’s face. Instead, she tapped a finger against the back of her right hand, indicating the spot where she had glimpsed the barrel on the man’s skin.
“You have a mark of your own,” Gale said, “so you know what my marks mean.” She pulled back the collar of her linen shirt, to reveal the ship’s wheel inked on the side of her neck. “You know that this mark means my captain trusts me at the helm, that I have never once steered my ship into danger.” She rolled her left sleeve up above her elbow, revealing a dolphin inked across the inside of her triceps, with eight tiny hash marks beneath it. “You know that this mark means I’ve rescued eight men from drowning.” Then she undid the buttons on her shirt, and she held its front open, revealing the angel inked atop her left breast. “And you know that this mark means I saved a ship at sea, and all the souls aboard her.”
The man appeared more amused than anything else by Gale’s display, but she ignored his expression. She spoke again, and the tone she leveled at the man was blunt.
“My marks are who I am,” she said. “Do you see a single mark on my body that says I would ever betray my captain?”
“Admittedly, no,” the man said. “Not as such.”
“Then you’ll understand why your proposal insults me,” Gale said, “and why I don’t need to hear whatever it is you’re offering in return.” She closed her shirt and refastened its buttons, one-by-one. “There is nothing in this world you could promise me that would make me betray my crewmates.”
“Oh, really? Nothing, you say?”
“Nothing,” Gale said, crossing her arms and turning her back on the madman. There was silence in the mess hall for several long moments, and then Gale’s heart stopped as she heard the sound which broke that silence: She heard the song of the sea.
It was not an imitation, a reproduction, or a facsimile; it was the real thing. It was the song she had heard as a little girl on the beaches of her home village, the song that had whispered to her every moment she had sailed the free waters of her home world, the song she had been searching for in vain ever since she had disappeared beneath the warm, welcoming waves, only to reawaken upon an alien world.
Gale’s arms fell to her sides as she turned back around, and her mouth dropped open at what she saw.
The strange man was standing now, holding his ornate silver cane in one hand and pointing to a spot a few feet away. In that space where he was pointing, a sort of window had appeared in reality itself, and on the other side, Gale could glimpse the wide, churning sea of her home. She could smell the brine-scented air and knew without looking that it was on the verge of a storm, a true storm, a storm of fierce and terrible beauty. She could almost feel the roiling of the waves and hear the eternal splash of the water as it passed beneath the magical portal. But more than anything, she could hear the song. She heard it in her head, and in her heart, and it took hold of her completely.
The moment was so beautiful and so heartbreaking that Gale could not bear it. She closed her eyes and allowed the song to fill and enfold her. Unconsciously, she began to hum along with its familiar tune, allowing the music to roll through her and back out to the sea. In the half-filled wash basin next to her, the brown, sudsy water began to roll as if churned by the very forces that moved the seas of Gale’s lost home. Even the Autumn Crane itself began to heave with more urgency than the Mongoose River had ever moved it before. The man smiled as he watched the strange effects triggered by Gale’s song, but Gale was oblivious to all of them. For her, there was nothing but that sweet, profound melody of that lost, glorious song.
And then, just as suddenly, the song vanished. Gale’s eyes snapped open, and the portal to her world was gone. Panic gripped her in an instant, and Gale vaulted over the bar in one single, fluid motion as she dashed to the place the portal had been. She moved her arms around that empty patch of air for a few horrible, gut-wrenching moments, refusing to believe anything she had just seen or felt or heard, but knowing that, in this one regard, her senses could not be tricked. After a long struggle to bring her breathing back to normal, Gale reeled on the man, closing the short distance between them in an instant. She had expected the man to back away, but he held his ground without so much as losing his grin.
“Bring it back,” she said. She attempted to put a note of command into her voice, but what came out instead was desperation.
“I can do even better than that, Gale. That portal was real, and it was open. Look at the floor.”
Gale turned around to see a puddle of water below where the portal had stood. She dropped down to her knees and put one finger in the puddle, then tentatively brought it up to her lips. She tasted salt, and the taste was like a thunderclap inside her memory. There was no way that water had come from the rivers of Wreth. These were the waters of her home.
Gale stood up again, and moved back over to the man, but he spoke before she could.
“The portal works in both directions, my dear. I can open it for you again, and you can step right through. All you need to do, Gale, is what I have asked of you.”
Gale looked back at the saltwater pooled on the floor at her feet, and then back at the man eyeing her with an expectant look.
“You’re a monster,” she said.
The man smirked. “I am no monster, my dear; I merely appreciate a good tragedy. You may call me Raiker, if you like. Raiker Venn.”
“You can’t… I can’t…” Gale managed before giving up, slumping her shoulders.
Words were such leaden, inadequate things. There were no words for what she wanted to say.
Raiker nodded, gathering up his coat and the half-empty bottle of Paragon Gold. “You do not have to answer now, my dear. In fact, do not attempt to put this all into words. That is my job, anyway. Your answer will be given when you make your decision. I will not be on this boat when you do, but you have my word, if you take me up on my offer, I will see you again, and very soon. I honor my agreements.”
The man threw on his coat and walked over to the door, tipping his hat to Gale as he opened it. “Just remember, Gale. In three days’ time, you could be home.”
Raiker Venn stepped out of the private mess, laughing to himself. Gale stood in the center of that room for a very, very long time, as tears flowed down her face and fell to the deck below, where they joined the pool of saltwater at her feet.
* * *
The rain continued on through the night and into the next day. As twilight approached, it grew in strength and intensity, until water was pouring down from the steel-gray heavens in a veritable sheet. It was a hard, driving rain, which stung eyes as it fell, soaked men to the bone, and filled the bilges of the Autumn Crane so quickly that the crew was pressed into double shifts at the pumps, lest the giant riverboat founder beneath the weight of accumulated rainwater.
Below decks, the hands spoke about the rain in hushed, superstitious tones. The younger mates called it the worst storm they had seen in their lives, and the older hands – usually quick to conjure up tall tales from their long, manufactured memories, all the better to keep the greener hands in line – made no effort to contradict their less-seasoned peers.
It had required great effort from Gale to bite her tongue from sunup to sundown, to suppress the urge to tell her mates that this rain was no real storm at all. A real storm meant wild, whistling winds, blowing in from all points, carrying the distant crackle of thunder. A real storm came with rain, to be sure, but not like the simple, straight rain which fell from the sky above the Autumn Crane. A real storm came with rain which rode upon the wind, so that it seemed not just to fall from above, but to fly in from all sides, and even up from below. A real storm could send your spirits soaring as high as the thunderheads, even as it struck fear into your heart. A real storm was vibrant, electric, and alive.
The rain that fell in buckets on the Autumn Crane was none of those things. It was heavy, leaden, and lifeless. And, in that respect, it was the perfect mirror to Gale’s feelings as she climbed the rope ladder to the crow’s nest, to assume the midnight watch.
As she stood in her perch atop the large, lumbering boat, staring out at the rain-mottled surface of the wide, muddy river that stretched as far out into the darkness as her sharp eyes could see, the memories of her old life, worlds away – where she had sailed aboard a fine, single-masted cutter, plying the warm, blue-green seas that had been her only true home – were all too readily at hand, and they tore at the very fabric of her soul.
Aboard her old ship, one of her purest pleasures had been to climb to the top of the riggings whenever the winds freshened, and a storm roiled the sea. On nights like those, Gale loved to walk to the end of the yardarm, where she would straddle the timber, let loose her long hair, and close her eyes, smelling the scent of the sea in her nostrils, feeling the spray of the waves on her face, and feeling the wind through her hair as it carried her long tresses out behind her like the train of a gown. On nights like those, the wind and the waves sang to her in a chorus of terrible and beautiful voices, and she would fill her lungs with warm sea air and she would sing along, crying out her own aria at the very top of her voice, until her song and the storm’s became one.
That was a memory of pure and intense pleasure which could not have been further removed from her current reality of keeping watch atop the Autumn Crane. The riverboat beneath her neither pitched nor yawed like a proper ship. It just floated lazily along as it plied the tired, silent river. And when she closed her eyes and listened to what little wind there was – for the winds on Wreth never seemed to freshen beyond a lazy, listless breeze – that wind spoke to her in muted, hushed tones, and in a language which was pedestrian and plain, without a note of music in it. She could understand its speech, and could learn its habits, but it didn’t cry out to her, it didn’t invite her to converse with it. Gale felt more like an eavesdropper than a confidant, so that every time she spoke with the local winds, it heightened her sense of abandonment and loss, like a painful wound that had been reopened.
Which was why, as rain streaked her face and soaked her hair while she kept a senseless watch for other boats which were nowhere to be seen, Gale found her thoughts returning to Raiker Venn, and the proposition he had put to her.
Raiker Venn – just imagining him filled her mind with dark clouds. From the look of him, she had pegged him as a soft man, used to soft living. His hands were clean and uncalloused, his nails were square-cut and even, and his skin was smooth and pale. Everything in his manner had gnawed at her, from the way he dressed, to the way he spoke, to the way he carried himself – so confident, so self-assured, as though he had done something to earn her trust. The way he knew so much about her. The way he seemed to take it for granted that he had nothing to fear from her, whereas he could offer her something which she wanted.
That was the rub, though. He could offer her something she wanted. He could offer her the thing she wanted more than anything else in the world, more than she wanted life itself.
He could offer her the sea. He could offer her music. He could offer her a way home.
He had shown it to her. She had seen it. It was no illusion. She had smelled the salt. She had felt the breeze. She had heard the song. It was a song which no other person had ever heard, which no trickery could ever duplicate. And, for those few, precious seconds when it had sung out to her through the bearded man’s portal, she had felt every fiber of her body attune themselves to its magic, had felt the sea’s siren song breathing life back into her.
Then it had vanished again, and the horrible feeling of hollowness that she had felt ever since she had been parted from the sea had returned. That emptiness inside her was a pure and unending agony. It felt like being severed from an extension of her own body and soul, like being cut off from everything that was magical, and musical, and good, and Gale knew – as sure as she knew that night followed day – that, if she did not make it back to the sea soon, that emptiness would consume her from the inside. It would kill her.
And now, suddenly, this man had appeared, and had held out to her the promise of a passage home.
The only thing she had to do to claim it was to kill her captain.
Gale closed her eyes, and gritted her teeth, and she fought the urge to scream.
She was a sailor, pure and simple. A sailor’s life was the life she had chosen, and it was the only life she had ever wanted to live. And sailors lived by a simple, inviolable code: You stood by your mates, no matter what.
The sea was a treacherous home, and life aboard a ship was fraught with perils. To stay alive, every sailing crew had to work together, so that a collection of individual hands moved as though guided by a single mind, and united by a single purpose. From the captain on down to the lowliest galley mate, every man had a role to play, and every man knew his duty. And every man’s survival required him to place his faith in his fellows, and to deserve their faith in return. There was no higher honor than to be trusted by those you served with, and there was no greater dishonor than to betray your captain or crew.
But that was exactly what Raiker Venn wanted her to do. He wanted her to break a code which she had honored her whole life. It was a code which she had never once questioned, because it had never once occurred to her that she might live any other way.
So why did she find herself considering Raiker Venn’s offer, despite having refused it in her mind a hundred times over?
What loyalty did she owe to Captain Lonell? He was a figurehead, and a fool, not a captain. The foundation of a captain’s command was an implicit trust that the captain took his men’s interests to heart – that he understood their work, and their duties, and that he would not ask them to do a thing which he would not be willing and able to do himself. That was the sort of commander her last captain had been, and it was exactly the sort of commander Captain Lonell was not. Lonell had no head for leadership, and no real knowledge of his own vessel, or of the men and women who served aboard it. He had never so much as swabbed a deck, let alone risen through the ranks. He had gained his command not through merit, but through the fact that his wife’s father owned the fishing fleet. Sure, he sometimes took the wheel, when the ship was entering or exiting port, but he wouldn’t have known which way to turn it had the helmsman not been standing next to him and whispering directions into his ear. Captain Lonell cared more about the comfort of his guests, and the safety of his cargo, and the fit of his uniform, than he did about the lives of the men and women who served under him, or the health of the boat he nominally commanded.
And, when Gale had joined his crew, Lonell had offered her no oath, and she had sworn none to him. In and of itself, that marked him as unworthy of his rank.
Gale found herself thinking about marks, and reflecting – with some bitterness – that, had marks been invented on Wreth, Lonell would have none. Marks had to be earned, and Lonell had earned nothing.
Gale thought about her own marks, then, and how she had earned every one of them. Her marks told the story of her life. They were more than just a record of her deeds – they were a testament to her character. Only they were a testament that no one on Wreth seemed to understand.
Gale thought about the angel on her breast, which she had bared to the smooth, self-assured man who had asked her to kill. Almost without meaning to, she reached down with a finger and traced the mark’s outline across her wet, rain-soaked skin, and her memory travelled back to the day she had earned the right to bear that angel on her body.
It had come at the end of a nine-month cruise along the spice routes, just as she was preparing to bring the cutter into port at Saffron Bay. The seas had been rough that day, with waves cresting heavy and high, and winds blowing fast and full. The captain had been standing atop the focsle, with his glass in hand, and she had been at the helm, when they turned the rocky point and saw a grounded galleon straight ahead, reefed upon the corals at the mouth of the bay and listing dangerously to larboard.
The entry to Saffron Bay was always a tricky channel to navigate, even under benign conditions. Its waters were known for their strong, swirling currents, and the winds off the point were always fickle and changeable. The mouth of the harbor was littered with rocks and reefs, so dense and so sharp that the local sailors knew them as The Devil’s Teeth.
The reefed galleon – a three-masted beauty named Mermaid’s Kiss – had been midway into the channel when she had come to grief. She’d been carrying too much sail when the winds swung four points and gusted, taking her flat aback and dismasting her within seconds. In a moment of panic, her helmsman had ordered his crew to shorten sail on the remaining masts, which had stabilized the ship but robbed him of his ability to maneuver. The currents had taken hold of the ship, and had pulled the Mermaid’s Kiss right across The Devil’s Teeth, where she ran aground on a shallow reef. Rocks had raked her below the waterline, and she’d started listing and taking water even as she was stuck on the coral.
The helmsman’s earlier mistake had been foolish, but pardonable. What he did next was not, for he abandoned his ship to her fate.
Left stranded on the rocks, the crew of the Mermaid’s Kiss had faced an unenviable choice. The ship was in sight of the port, so those hands who knew how to swim could take their chances with the crashing waves and the swirling currents. Many chose to do so, and some made it to shore. But many more were swept under by the riptides, or were smashed against the jagged rocks, so that their broken bodies bobbed in the water all around the base of the ship. Those hands who could not swim stood helplessly atop the listing deck, clinging to the railings and screaming for help, since their ship was resting at too severe of an angle to lower any boats.
As Gale’s ship had come up upon the wrecked galleon, her captain and first mate had been discussing whether they could launch boats to pick up survivors, or whether any boats they sent on that task would wind up as crippled and doomed as the Mermaid’s Kiss herself.
That was when Gale had cleared her throat, and called out for her captain.
“I can save her,” she’d said.
The captain had turned to look at her, his concern plain on his face. The Devil’s Teeth had already claimed one ship that day. For the cutter to maneuver close enough to free the galleon would mean bringing a second ship within arm’s length of an identical fate.
“You understand what you’re asking me,” he’d said to her. “You’re asking me to place the lives of every man and woman aboard my ship in your hands.”
“Begging your pardon, sir,” Gale had replied, “but I already have your lives in my hands.” Then she had nodded her head in the direction of the reefed galleon, atop whose decks men and women cried out for rescue. “I’m asking you to place their lives in my hands, too.”
The captain had thought about that for a long moment. Then he’d put away his glass, and nodded his head at Gale.
“Do it, helmsman,” he’d said.
“Aye-aye, captain,” Gale had said to him with a salute. Then she had eased that little cutter beneath the stranded galleon’s lee, holding the two ships so close that her crewmates could reach out and touch the wooden flanks of the larger vessel with their bare hands. Yet, somehow, with the winds whipping at the cutter’s sails and the waves churning beneath her, Gale had held her ship dead steady while the men aboard the galleon lowered ropes to the cutter’s deck. Gale had never listened as closely or as intently to a storm as she had that day, the whole of her attention hanging on its every lilting note, its every keening wail, as she hummed along beneath her breath, her hands making a constant series of reflexive, minute adjustments to the wheel as she did. She knew the sea so intimately in that moment that she knew her own ship’s every pitch and shudder before they happened, and she would trim or tack in advance to counter the ship’s movement, so that the little cutter seemed to hover in place, as though floating above the raging sea. The cutter never once touched the stranded ship, and it never so much as brushed the jagged reefs lurking below.
Once the galleon’s lines were secure, Gale had tacked hard to starboard, and, catching the wind full in her own sails, she pulled the Mermaid’s Kiss off The Devil’s Teeth. Cheers erupted from aboard both vessels as the galleon drifted free of the reef, but Gale was not among those celebrating, for she knew that her job wasn’t even half done. She knew that the galleon had broken deep, and that time was of the essence. So she surrendered the helm to her captain, before stripping down to her skivvies and diving over the railing into the frothing sea.
Even as the waves had crashed over her head, and the swirling currents had tried to pull her down onto the rocks below, Gale sliced through the water with the ease of a dolphin, swimming alongside the freed galleon and diving below her to locate the hole in her hull. Surfacing for breath, she’d called for the men still aboard the Mermaid’s Kiss to weight a sail and lower it down to her on ropes. They had done so with commendable speed, and, after a series of dives to position the sail, Gale had managed to cover the hole in the galleon’s side. The difference in pressure held the thick canvas in place, and the tightly-woven sailcloth stemmed the flow of water into galleon’s hold just enough to give that ship’s hands a chance at using the pumps to keep her afloat.
With her patching work done, Gale had called for a rope, and the crew of the Mermaid’s Kiss had hoisted her aboard. Not a soul on deck objected as she made her way to the helm and took the galleon’s wheel. Dismasted and hulled, the galleon felt sluggish and slow in her hands. The ship was riding low in the water, and her main mast lay broken across the deck, so every maneuver Gale tried to make meant fighting the ship itself as much as the sea beneath it. But Gale coaxed the crippled ship to life, and she steered it through the treacherous channel and into the calm heart of Saffron Bay.
Stunned men and women lined the docks a dozen deep as Gale brought the wounded galleon into port. And, from the moment she’d stepped off the ramp, to the moment the cheering crowd set her down inside the nearest sailor’s tavern, her feet hardly once touched the ground.
That night ashore had been one of the loudest, happiest, and proudest of her life. Glasses were raised in her name, songs were sung in her honor, and she’d had her pick of the crew. As dusk fell, someone had sent for the Master of Inks. Gale had lain on her back atop the sticky, sweaty bar, and she’d been given her mark right there, as the crowd cheered and sang and stomped their feet. She’d been so flush with grog and song and pride that she hardly even felt the needle’s kiss.
Now, in the crow’s nest, atop the Autumn Crane, Gale rubbed rain from her eyes and looked down at her angel, and she remembered what earning that mark had meant to her – what it still meant to her.
She also remembered what had happened later that night, ashore in Saffron Bay, when she and the survivors of the Mermaid’s Kiss had found that ship’s coward of a helmsman hiding in a waterfront garret and deep in his cups. They’d carried him downstairs, and they had lain him down on the bar, too. And, as he kicked and screamed, and made his desperate excuses, one of his former mates had fetched a mulling poker from the fire, and Gale had helped to hold the helmsman down as the sailors he had abandoned burned the wheel from his neck. Gale remembered the smell of melting flesh, the look of pain and terror in the drunken man’s eyes as the mates he’d betrayed removed his most precious mark. Then they gave him a new one. No one bothered to summon the Master of Inks this time – one of the galley hands had produced a needle and had carved the black mark into the screaming helmsman’s forehead: a black snake, curled into a circle, with its fangs sunk into its own tail.
That was the brand of a traitor, the mark of a man who had put his own life above those of the sailors he served with. To carry the black mark was a fate worse than death, for those who bore it would never sail again.
As badly as Gale wanted to go home, to return to the sea, to hear its song once more, what Raiker Venn had asked her to do was nothing short of mutiny. If she did as he asked, if she led the Autumn Crane off-course, and led her captain into an ambush, then she would be a mutineer, a traitor. She would be someone who deserved to bear the black mark.
For a moment, Gale closed her eyes, and she tilted her face up to the pouring sky. She tried to picture herself in her mind’s eye, to picture her own face with a black, fanged serpent marked upon her forehead.
But she couldn’t do it. She could not imagine the black mark on her own skin.
That was not who she was. That was not who she would be.
Alone in the crow’s nest, Gale opened her eyes and exhaled deeply, knowing that her decision was made.
* * *
As the Autumn Crane sidled gracelessly up to the docks at Geisport, Gale waited until the riverboat was secured to its moorings, and Captain Lonell was preoccupied by his dealings with representatives from the customs house. Then she made her move.
She had found excuses to linger on the foredeck all day, untangling lines and washing portholes and checking glasses against each other, all the while keeping one eye on the passenger deck just below. Her perch had afforded her the perfect vantage point from which to keep tabs on Raiker Venn’s cabin, and she had been pleased to note that, after leaving from his dinner at the captain’s table, the bearded man had entered his quarters alone, and had not left them since.
After glancing quickly in all directions, to be sure that she was not observed, Gale dropped the coil of rope she had been winding and crossed the distance to the railing in a few quick, sure-footed steps. Planting one hand on the railing, she vaulted nimbly over it, somersaulting once in the air before landing softly on the passenger deck below. She crept slowly over to the door to Raiker Venn’s cabin, and tried her hand on the knob.
The door was unlocked.
Gale gritted her teeth. She had two messages to deliver to the bearded man inside.
The first message she carried in her pocket, where she felt the weight of forty-three gold sovereigns. Raiker Venn could have his money back – she didn’t want it any longer.
The second message she carried in her hand, in the form of a boning knife with an ivory handle and a thin, flexible blade, sharpened to a razor’s edge. Gale didn’t know where a needle and ink might be had on Wreth, but she could make do without them – there was more than one way to mark a snake.
After one last look up and down the deck to make sure that she was alone, Gale opened the door to Raiker Venn’s cabin, and she slipped inside.
The stateroom was silent and dim, lit only by the flickering oil light from a single ship’s lantern, which swung in slow, lazy arcs from the ceiling above. Amid the dancing shadows cast by the swaying flame, Gale saw a desk, a chair, a chest of drawers, and a neatly-made bed. Nothing else. No books, no clothes, no luggage. No silver-tipped cane.
Most of all, no Raiker Venn.
For a moment, Gale couldn’t believe her own eyes. She had watched the bearded man go into the cabin, and she had seen no one come out. She felt her grip tighten around the bone-handled knife as she tried to make sense of the impossible.
Then, suddenly, a realization dawned on her, and she groaned audibly. She thought about the mark on Raiker Venn’s hand, about the things he had known which he had no business knowing, about the portal which he had been able to summon to her own world.
Raiker Venn was more than just a snake, Gale realized with a start. He was a wanderer, just like she was. And he had already disembarked – not just from the Autumn Crane, but from Wreth altogether.
She had missed her chance.
With a deep sigh, Gale lowered herself into the nearby chair. She set the boning knife down atop the desk’s ink-stained blotter, and she thought about the curse that she and Raiker Venn evidently shared. She thought about her accursed spark, which had robbed her of a good death in the arms of the sea she loved, which had condemned her to live out her days on wretched worlds like Wreth, far away from the music that her soul ached to hear.
They had no mark on her world for the curse she bore. She would have to invent one, if she ever managed to return. She thought about what that mark ought to be. A broken heart, perhaps, or a single tear.
She was pondering that question when she looked down at the desk in front of her, and noticed that its main drawer was slightly ajar. Pulling the drawer open, she found two things inside.
The first was a bottle. She recognized it as the bottle of Paragon Gold which Raiker Venn had bought from her in the private mess two nights before. Except, instead of wine, the bottle now held inside it a tiny model of a ship.
Gale had seen miniature ships inside bottles before. Many of the men she had sailed with had built them as a hobby – something to do to pass the time below decks – and had sold them in ports up and down the trade coasts. But those had been crude models, carved from spare bits of wood and done up with whatever dyes and polishes were ready to hand.
The model inside the bottle of Paragon Gold was a different thing entirely. It was an exact representation, in miniature, of the single-masted cutter which Gale had spent the happiest years of her life sailing. She had loved that ship like a sister, had known its every inch by heart. The model she held in her hands was perfect in every single respect, right down to the tiny figure of a tanned, long-haired woman behind the cutter’s wheel. And the sea atop which the miniature ship floated was no mere painted background. Instead, it seemed to ripple and roil like the sea Gale remembered and loved. Its surface churned with tiny, white-capped waves which broke against the little cutter’s prow, sending tiny plumes of spray into the air.
Inside the bottle was the life Gale had lost, in miniature. It was an acute reminder of everything her heart pined for, and it cut her deeper than any knife.
It took every ounce of strength Gale had to set the bottle down atop the desk, and to pick up the second item from inside the drawer. It was a single sheet of writing paper, with some lines written upon it in dark, black ink:
A poem by Raiker Venn
A dozen feet above the roiling waves,
There floats the angel who, in mercy, saves.
The countless miracles that she performs,
Uplift the air beneath her needled wings,
The haunting melody of brooding storms,
Will lift her head and heart until she sings.
But even angels fall to shaking knees,
When ripped by lightning Sparks from out their seas.
She soars in vain through countless, foreign skies,
Her soul aflame in agony acute,
The song is stuck within her throat and dies,
As down she plummets, deaf and blind and mute.
The seas themselves will weep upon the foam,
For those who won't regain their wayward home.
For a long time, Gale just held the poem in her hand, reading its final lines over and over, and trying to remember how the sea had sounded, when the winds whipped the whitecaps, and the air was thick with salt. With every passing day, her memories of the sea and its songs grew fainter and fainter.
Then Gale set the poem down on the desk next to the ship in a bottle, she closed her eyes, and she sang.
She sang an old sailor’s lament. A dark, droning dirge, meant only to be sung on the longest of nights at the darkest of hours. It was a song of grief, and pain, and loss, and she sang it as loud as she could, as long as she could, until her voice gave way to a ragged, indistinct sobbing.
Gale sat alone, with her head in her hands, feeling like she had broken deep, and she cried until she couldn’t bear the sound of it any longer. Only then did she open her eyes and wipe away the remnants of her tears, before slipping the knife, the poem, and the bottle into her pocket, and returning to her randomly-assigned duties.
Raiker Venn is an original character created by RavenoftheBlack for the Expanded Multiverse.
Magic: Expanded Multiverse is not associated with Wizards of the Coast. This is a transformative work of fanfiction, protected in the United States under the laws of Fair Use.
All works copyright their respective creators.