Beneath the Waves
NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Gale's Storyline.
Gale knew she was dreaming, but the knowledge didn't help. One moment she was standing on deck, bare feet caressing the slick wood, and the next, the ship rolled, and Gale was enveloped in the drink. At first, Gale smiled. The water was cold, but nothing near frigid, and a part of her welcomed it. Inside her mind, she laughed, knowing she could swim as well as any fish in the sea. Until, that is, she tried to.
As Gale kicked her legs out to regain the surface, she discovered they were bound. She panicked, just slightly, and tried to reach for her ankles, only to find that her wrists were tied behind her back. Gale looked around frantically then, but the sea was dragging her down, pulling her with unrelenting arms in an eternal embrace. She plummeted through the cool water as if through the air until she landed hard on the ocean floor.
The panic passed after a few moments, when Gale realized she wasn't drowning. She was stuck, immobile and bound, beneath the waves, but she would not die. She was merely a prisoner there, a captive to the thing she loved best. Mere moments passed before she realized she was not alone. She saw the raiders first, floating lifelessly a body's length above the sand. Some were battered and crushed, some were bloodied and cut, others were simply a sickly shade of blue, but all of them stared at her with cold, lifeless eyes.
Then she saw the crew, the men and women she had sailed with before her curse had ripped her from her home. Many of them still had the raiders' swords protruding through their chests. Unlike the dead pirates, her crew was not floating, but instead walking about the ocean floor, staring at Gale with unnatural, accusatory eyes. Gale looked back at them and tried to utter words, but her mouth filled with salt water, and she gagged as it filled her lungs.
A moment later, a large hand grabbed Gale by the shoulder and spun her around. The gasping sailor found herself face to face with her former captain, his skin discolored and bloated by the water. His dead eyes found hers, and they stared blankly as he drew his face closer and closer. Then his mouth started moving, forming words Gale couldn't hear, but that she could still somehow understand. It was your fault, he was saying. You killed your captain.
Even as the sea water flooded into her lungs, Gale screamed.
She woke up instantly, nearly toppling out of her hammock as she did. She was drenched in sweat and breathing heavily, and in her mind she could still see the eyes of her former captain, the man who had been killed as she slept the day she had been torn from her home. He had been a good man, and Gale thought of him often, but rarely like this. Rarely did she see him in her nightmares.
Gale braced her ears as a cheer rose from the other sailors in the mess. They had been at sea for a long tour, by their standards, and port meant payday for thirsty and lonely sailors. Gale, of course, would have preferred to stay on the waves. She loved her time on the Blazing Star, but one thing she had learned in her time on this plane was that they had no concept of a proper sea tour. Were Gale home, their latest tour would have been little more than a short pleasure cruise.
Still, Gale smiled. For all the differences between her world and this one, at least she was on the seas again. At least she was sailing on a true ship with real sails and a fine captain. The crew was friendly and skilled, and respected Gale nearly from the first. And the Blazing Star rarely sat at port for long, unless the winds were still. Gale's smile widened. She knew the strange, exotic songs of the winds of this place. As long as she sang, the winds were never still for long.
Gale swung her legs around the edge of the hammock and wiped her eyes clear of sleep, hoping to rub the remainder of her nightmare away with it. She calmed her breathing, allowing herself to get lost in the rolling of the waves beneath the hull. She could hear the sea's song as it sang softly. There was a storm coming. A mild one, she could tell. Little more than a summer rain and a light wind. Pleasant enough, though. They were only planning to be at anchor for a day before starting out on the next tour. Gale had planned to take her share and drink the rest of the crew under some tavern table, but the rain provided an even more attractive alternative.
"All hands a'deck!"
Gale's head snapped up as the bellowing voice echoed through the mess. Several other sailors rushed past Gale toward top deck, and she fell in line behind them. Together they scrambled up the ladder, through the hatch, and into the daylight above. As Gale's head appeared through the hatch, a gust of wind rose up to greet her, tossing her long, dark hair behind her as it did. Gale smiled again. It almost felt like home.
The crew lined up on the main deck, their faces turned toward the port. The first mate, a muscle-bound, sweet-faced man named Amargo, walked up and down the line in a quick inspection. He stopped briefly in front of Gale, nodded his satisfaction, and walked back down to take his own place at the far end. He straightened his own stance before calling out.
"Crew a'ready, Sir!"
Only a moment passed before the door to the Captain's quarters swung open and Captain Vasco stepped out. He walked out to stand at the railing of the quarterdeck above them, a small smile plastered on his handsome face. He wore his best dress uniform, a deep purple color that looked good on him. His hair was slicked back, his beard recently trimmed, and his tooled leather eyepatch sitting like a mark of honor on his right eye. Gale struggled not to laugh. Clearly, the Captain had plans for the evening.
Captain Vasco began to speak as he descended the stairs to join the crew on the main deck. His voice was booming, but calm, and as commanding as ever. "Listen up, crew. We've had a good run this tour. The seas were calm, the winds were at our backs, and there wasn't a single ill-omen. As you know, we pulled into Larseda half a clock early. What I didn't tell you then is that meant we got first pick of silks there, and first-chance prices for our pepperberries." Vasco was now standing directly in front of their line. He stopped there, and flashed his crew a larger smile. "And I haggled the hell out of them!"
The crew cheered loudly at this, but Vasco held up his right hand, and they fell silent. "Everyone here knows the fortune of the seas. We're about to pull into Torquego. Your pockets will be full, and your bellies empty. Tonight and tomorrow morning is yours. Tomorrow evening I want everyone back aboard half a hand before sundown, so I know you're all sober and awake when we pull out that next morning. Everyone clear?"
"Yes, Sir!" The crew responded as one.
"Good," Captain Vasco said with a nod. "Amargo, once we dock, you see to their pay."
“Yes, Sir!" The first mate confirmed.
Captain Vasco began to walk away toward the helm, but stopped at the end of the line. He turned sharply. "Gale."
Surprised, Gale straightened even further. "Yes, Captain?"
"You've been great luck to us since you signed on." He glanced down the line at the rest of the crew. "Wouldn't you all say so?"
The crew cheered again, and Vasco smiled. Then he turned back toward Gale. "I think it's time you take the helm, and really show me what you're made of."
"Captain?" she asked, surprised.
Vasco nodded. "Take her into port, Sailor."
Gale grinned as she felt the sea roll beneath the waves. Gale felt her pride swell with it. "Yes, Sir! Thank you, Sir."
Vasco nodded and smiled warmly, then threw his head in the direction of the helm. "I said now, Sailor!"
Gale was already moving up the stairs and toward the helm as the rest of the crew shouted after her, some offering praise, others hurling insincere insults. Gale was grinning now. This was the life of the sea she remembered. When she had first signed on to the Blazing Star, the others had been suspicious, then cautious, then impressed. But this was the first time she had truly felt like part of the crew. This was the first time she had truly felt at home.
* * *
Gale had her eyes closed and her head back. She was sitting on the yard of the mizzenmast as the Blazing Star sat at port, a cool, gentle rain caressing her face. Her shirt was half unbuttoned, allowing the rain to fall also on the face of her angel mark on her breast. She was barefoot, with one leg propped up on the yard and the other dangling lazily beside it. She absently hummed along to the exotic tune of the seas, so different from those of her home, and yet somehow the same. But most importantly, Gale smiled.
It had been a long time since Gale had been able to truly smile. She had performed the action, of course. She had curled her lips upward at some jest of a crewmate’s or some passing of a storm. She had flashed her smile at a handsome constable or a pretty barmaid, or in thanks at a rare compliment for her singing, her rope work, or her scrimshaw. She had certainly grinned when she had finally, somehow, managed to escape the landlocked hell of Wreth and find her way here to the comparative paradise of Vegante. But this was the first time she could remember since being pulled from her home that her smile had been deep, and true, and real.
Gale knew she was cursed, although she didn’t know why. She had her theories, of course, but she never allowed herself to vocalize them, even within her own head. All she could do was tack into the wind, ride out the storm, and pray that the cruel winds of fate didn’t blow her too far off course. The first world she had come to was very far off course indeed. So was the one after, and the one after that. She had no idea what was happening, or why reality decided to jettison her like so much jetsam at seemingly random intervals, but after landing on Wreth, she had nearly reached her end.
Gale opened her eyes and looked about the gray, drizzling sea. There are worse places to be cursed, she thought to herself.
They had been at port in Torquego for just over a day. The sun was approaching the far horizon, and although it was shrouded by the light, imperfect storm clouds, the crew had marked its progress. For the past hour or so, they had been filtering back in from the taverns and brothels of the wharf, anxious to beat the captain’s curfew and prepare themselves for castoff tomorrow morning. Most were half drunk or more, and staggered along the dock, onto the Blazing Star, down to the hold, and directly into their sturdy bunks.
Gale shook her head at the thought.
The bunks of the Blazing Star always baffled her. On her world, ships sported hooks on the walls. Dozens of them, sometimes hundreds for larger vessels. Any sailor worth her salt could stitch a sturdy, comfortable hammock from excess netting quicker than a topsail could unfurl, and then all she had to do was hook up and hunker down. On Vegante, though, the bunks were built in solidly, burrowed into the hull like some strange beehive. When Gale had first joined, Captain Vasco had informed her, somberly, that there were no bunks available for her, and she would have to settle for a hammock. She had only barely stifled a laugh.
Gale loved sleeping in a hammock. She loved it for the same reason she loved sitting on a ship’s yard, or being on an ocean-bound vessel in the first place. There was a rhythm to the sea, a constant, undulating motion that made the sea and everything on it feel alive. A bunk would feel that motion, but only at the whim of the ship herself. A hammock, on the other hand, was suspended. It floated in the air, moving independently of the ship, mirroring the very motions that twisted beneath the waves. There was a freedom there, a kinship with the ocean and the wind and all the grand and terrible majesty of nature. To Gale, it was like sleeping in the arms of a lover.
A sudden gust of wind kicked up, and Gale opened her eyes against the chill it carried. She could hear the song of the storm. It was beginning to build now. For the last day, the song had been low and soft, stirring only occasionally as the soft downpour surged to a momentary torrent. Below the storm’s song, she heard the accompaniment of the sea’s aria. In response to the winds above, the waters were beginning to call out beneath the waves. Gale could feel the Blazing Star lurch as the seas grew energetic. It was as if the sea were clearing its throat, preparing to sing a song that was far louder, far more passionate. She almost closed her eyes again to lose herself in the melodies when she heard something else, voices beneath the song.
Gale strained her ears, but she couldn’t make out what the voices were saying or who they belonged to. The wind was blowing, the rain was falling, and the voices were too far away. Curious, Gale looked around for their source. She was the only crew member on the yards, and here at port, the crow’s nest was unmanned. The voices couldn’t have come from above her. She looked down at the deck, where a few of the crew were seeing to routine tasks, but none of them were close enough to speak to one another, nor did they seem to be attempting to. Then Gale looked to the dock.
There, Gale’s sharp eyes spotted Captain Vasco walking toward the ship. His hair was a bit more wild than it had been when they pulled into port, and his uniform a bit more disheveled. On the captain’s left walked a small slip of a figure wrapped in a woman’s black cloak, the hood drawn up over her head to protect her from the rain. Vasco leaned near her as they walked, his right hand holding hers, his left on the small of her back. They seemed to be speaking with one another, but Gale could not make out the woman’s face beneath her hood. Gale watched them impassively as they approached the Blazing Star’s gangplank.
They came to the gangplank and stopped. Captain Vasco leaned in close to her and said something, though Gale had no idea what. She found herself smiling. In all likelihood, the captain had found some young romantic while in port and swept her off her feet. Vasco was a handsome and charming man. The girl had probably fallen desperately in love, completely unfamiliar with the life of a sailor. When Vasco had broken the news that he needed to return to the sea, she had probably insisted on coming to the dock with him to give a long, tearful goodbye.
Gale’s smile faded when, together, Vasco and the woman stepped on to the gangplank and toward the ship. Gale suddenly felt cold in the storm’s breeze. As they reached the ship’s deck, the woman stopped, let go of Vasco’s hand, and reached up to pull her hood back. Gale was at an odd angle, but she could see enough to tell that the woman was young, perhaps only a few years into womanhood. She looked around the ship, first to her right, and then left, and then upward, her eyes falling directly on Gale.
As their eyes met, Gale shuddered, and the other woman immediately looked away. Gale stared down at the woman for a long moment, before a loud clap of thunder distracted her. When she looked back, she saw Vasco leading the cloaked woman away, up the stairs to the quarterdeck, and through the door directly into the captain’s quarters. Gale felt something in the pit of her stomach then, a feeling she usually only got when the great storms were about to rage, when the seas were about to churn.
Gale looked upward, and she could swear the skies were darkening.
* * *
The Blazing Star left port just slightly behind schedule, sailing into the storm that had raged throughout the previous night. Something had felt wrong to Gale the entire time, but at first she was having difficulty figuring out what it was. The morning that they pulled out, she started to realize it. Usually, when the ship left a port, Captain Vasco spent nearly a hand of daylight inspecting the ship and the crew with the discerning eye of a connoisseur. He always ensured that no rope was frayed, no board splintered, no hem torn. On the morning they pulled out of Torquego, the captain’s inspection had taken only a few, distracted moments, and rather than take the helm himself, Vasco had retreated to his cabin and ordered Amargo to take them out.
The crew had seen little of the captain in the three days since, and even less of the woman he had brought aboard. Vasco emerged from his cabin from time to time to check on the crew and see to one or two of his duties, but largely he seemed to leave his responsibilities to Amargo and the others. Neither the first mate nor the crew seemed to mind much, but the uncharacteristic behavior bothered Gale in a way she could not entirely describe. Physically, she attended to each of her duties with the same skill and dedication she had her entire life, but her thoughts were churning like the seas.
Three days after leaving port, the Blazing Star finally parted ways with the storm. The seas were calm and the skies were clear, but Gale was no less troubled. If anything, the relative lull of the silent seas bothered the sailor all the more. Driving into a storm required constant vigilance from all hands, but smooth sailing provided far more time to think. Thought was a deeper, wider ocean than any other Gale knew, and she had been adrift in it all morning. Her hands worked at the ropes without her mind supervising them, as Gale worked at far more difficult knots.
She found herself thinking about her captain, mostly. Vasco was a good man, and a superb captain, and his faith in Gale had shown two of the traits she always looked for in a captain: wisdom and kindness. Gale was a talented sailor, a boon to any ship she served on. There was a fine line between pride and conceit, and Gale walked it like she would a yardarm. She knew she had talents that no sailor on Vegante had, and while she was no braggart, her skills were her, and she would no more shy away from using them than she would her voice. She had a great deal of respect for Captain Vasco for seeing in her what any on her home seas would have seen from her marks.
Still, what she respected even more than his decision was the kindness inherent in it. Gale was an excellent sailor, but the rest of the crew of the Blazing Star were stellar in their own right. Amargo, the first mate, knew his way around the vessel blindfolded, and could steer the helm as easily as he could walk. Estrezo and Alenta, two long-standing deck hands, were two of the most talented sailors Gale had ever served with, which was considerably high praise for her. Even Cocair, the ship’s cook, was a gifted shipsman, over and above his ability to turn meager ingredients into a palatable meal. All in all, Captain Vasco had an excellent crew.
He also had a full crew, even before Gale had arrived. And that was what Gale thought about every time she thought about Captain Vasco. Gale’s skills were impressive, but ultimately unnecessary on the Blazing Star. But Vasco had taken her on anyway. Maybe it was because he sensed her talent, maybe it was because he heard the earnest pleading in her voice when she had asked him, or maybe it was because he liked her face. Whatever the reason, though, Vasco had given Gale a place on a ship, a real ship with a true sail and a genuine sea beneath it, something she feared she would never have again. More than that, he had given Gale an even share when he knew he didn’t have to, when Gale herself had told him she’d work for nothing more than a meal and a hook for her hammock. It had been a kind gesture, a good gesture, and Gale was grateful.
As her hands continued to work in their life-long practice of knotwork, Gale found herself thinking back to another man, another captain, who had also shared with her his wisdom and his kindness. As a boy, his naming ceremony had called him Spire. He captained a sluggish but solid old trade ship called the Salt Skitter because of her tendency to jerk and lurch across the water. The Salt Skitter used the village Gale was born in as a regular port of call, buying up as much of their catch as they would sell to trade it with the larger port cities. It had been the first ship to stop there after the great storm that had given Gale her name, and her first mark, the points of the four winds that declared her a speaker.
Gale had been a young woman then, scarcely more than a girl, really, and just a few years younger than Captain Vasco’s guest was now. The elders had declared her ready to sail, and all she needed was a vessel willing to take her on. When the Salt Skitter pulled into the harbor, Gale had stood just out of the way of the traders, watching intently. When four crewmen had been led off the ship in irons for drunkenness, brawling, and theft, she had held her breath. And when Captain Spire addressed the town, saying he had room on his crew for four additional hands, Gale had practically made it aboard before he did.
Gale smiled as she thought about it. She loved her little village by the sea. She loved her family, her friends, the old harbor master who had first explained to her, as best he was able, the song of the sea. Gale had been happy there. But she had known with an unquestionable certainty that her place was not on the land. She knew that she was meant to live her life in the embrace of the wind and that her grave was always meant to lie beneath the waves. She could hear them sing to her, and she knew beyond any doubt that they heard when she sang back. Children may love their fathers and their mothers, but they leave them when they take a lover. And the sea was always like a lover to Gale.
Gale’s mark had basically assured her a place aboard the Salt Skitter, and she and three other youths from the village were chosen. None of them had ever served on a crew before. As his crew started to load up the barrels of salted fish and other provisions, Spire had prepared the newest recruits. He told them their duties, explained what was expected of them, told them where and when they would sleep and eat, and exactly how small their share was going to be. Then he gave them an opportunity to back out, explaining that there was no shame in stepping away from an agreement they hadn’t truly understood. When no one walked away, Spire smiled and welcomed them aboard.
Before they took off, however, Captain Spire called Gale into his cabin alone. He stood her in front of his desk, little more than a simple table affixed solidly to the floor, and he sat down in his chair on the other side. He made her wait silently for several long minutes as he scribbled in his ledger, likely noting his newest crew members, or perhaps the new cargo they had taken on. Gale stood silently and watched him, focusing on the song of the sea in the distance. After a long wait, Captain Spire looked up at her.
“Why are you here?”
Gale had looked confused. “You…you ordered me to come in here.”
Spire straightened in his seat, and he narrowed his eyes at her. “Sir. I am your captain, and you are aboard my ship. If you want things to remain that way, you will address me as “Sir” or as “Captain.” Is that understood?”
Gale had straightened her back as much as she possibly could, and looked Spire directly in his eyes. “Yes, Sir! Sorry, Sir!”
Spire nodded. “Now, when I asked why you are here, I didn’t mean my cabin. I mean, why are you here? Why do you want to serve aboard my ship?”
Gale didn’t even stop to think about her answer. “I love the sea, Captain. I love the sea more than I can imagine loving anything else. I want to live on her. I want to die in her. She is my closest friend, my truest companion, my fiercest lover. I want to serve on your ship, Captain Spire, because your ship is on the sea, and that’s where I belong.”
The captain had leaned back then, thinking. After another moment, he leaned forward again, pointing at Gale’s cheek. “Do you know what that mark means?”
“It’s my mark, Sir. I know what it says about me.”
“I’m not talking about what it says about you. I’m talking about what it means for you. Because if you’re going to sail on my ship, you need to make a choice, and you need to make it right now.”
Gale had said nothing, because she hadn’t known what to say. Captain Spire leaned back again, and continued. “If all you want to be is a speaker, then there's really very little that I can teach you. I can show you how to read a chart, how to shorten sail, how to give an order. And that's all you really need to know. With that mark, and just a minimal amount of seamanship, you'll never want for work. You'll be able to get postings on fine ships, to sleep in good cabins, and to take a fat share of the profits. Speakers are valuable, and, if that's all you care about, then that's all that matters.”
Spire leaned forward again, an almost romantic edge entering his voice. “But, if you don't want to just be a speaker? If you want to be a sailor? A real sailor? Well, I can make you that. I'll teach you everything there is to know about ships. You'll learn to tie every knot, to rig every sail, to climb every rope. And you'll learn because I will work you harder than you've ever worked before in your life. You'll rise before the sun, and you'll fall asleep at night with bleeding fingers. But you'll be a sailor, through-and-through. And, instead of living your whole life on the strength of the one mark you already have, we'll cover the rest of you, too.”
Gale had found herself grinning widely.
“So,” the captain continued, “which do you want to be?”
There was the fury and the passion of a storm in Gale’s eyes as she answered. “When I die, it will be with ink on every inch of my body. Sir."
Captain Spire had stared at her for a long time before nodding. “Good to know,” he said. “Now, get on deck and get to work. Those barrels of fish aren't going to load themselves.”
Gale slept that night in a hammock she stitched herself, hanging from two of the worst hooks in the Salt Skitter. Her hands were sore, her fingers bleeding, and her legs felt afire, like they were about to fall off and jump overboard to cool themselves. But she fell asleep with a grin on her face, a grin she reproduced almost every night she fell asleep on the seas.
“Gale.” A strong voice shook Gale out of her recollections. She glanced up to see Amargo standing over her, smiling. “Cocair’s got supper on. You coming?”
Gale looked down at the ropes in her hands. At some point, she had finished her work. She shrugged, laughing, and climbed to her feet. The sun was touching the horizon, and the evening air was cool. “Yeah,” she said, clapping the large man on his muscular shoulder. “Is the captain joining us tonight?”
Amargo shook his head. “No, Vasco’s taking his dinner in his cabin with his lady friend again.”
Gale responded with a barely audible grunt, but Amargo seemed to hear. As she took a step toward the hatch across the deck, Amargo stopped her with a hand. “You okay, Gale? You’ve seemed…different, these last few days. Since Torquego, really. Everything alright?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “I’ve just got this feeling. Something’s not right, I just can’t chart what it is, you know?”
Amargo glanced upward at the door to Captain Vasco’s cabin. “It’s about the captain, isn’t it? Or maybe the girl?”
Gale shrugged. “How did you know?”
Amargo grinned. “You’re not hard to read, Gale.”
“I don’t try to be.”
The first mate nodded, and then tossed his head in the same direction. “The captain’s alright. He’s just, what would you call it. Smitten?”
“Smitten captains can steer their ships onto rocks," Gale said. "Else the sirens would go hungry."
Amargo shot Gale a sideways glance. "The only siren here is the wooden one on the prow," he said. "The captain's besotted, not bewitched."
“Seems like more than that to me,” Gale said. “You remember the inspection out of Torquego, don’t you? You’ve served with Vasco a lot longer than I have. You ever see him run an inspection like that?”
This time, it was Amargo who shrugged. “He’s the captain. He inspects how he wants to inspect.”
“Of course,” Gale agreed, “it’s just unusual for him. And what about today?”
“What do you mean, today?” Amargo asked, a tiny tinge of concern in his voice.
“You remember what happened with Prezo, when he was slacking off on the rope when the gust took the sail? He almost knocked Alenta overboard! Would have, too, if she wasn’t so quick. And Vasco didn’t say a thing to him.”
“Maybe he didn’t see.”
“That’s my point, Amargo. When’s the last time you knew Vasco to miss anything that happened on his decks? He may only have one eye, but it belonged to a hawk before him, and no doubt about it.” She sighed and shook her head. “It’s that girl, that…what’s her name?”
Again, Amargo shrugged. “Neither of them said, and it’s not my place to ask.”
“I’ve got a bad feeling about her, Amargo.”
“What, that one?” Amargo asked, surprised. “That tiny thing? A light gale could push her over!” Gale gave Amargo an unimpressed look. “Oh. Sorry. But you know what I mean. She couldn’t hurt a guppy even if she wanted to.”
“I get the same feeling looking at her as I get when a storm’s coming. A bad storm.”
But Amargo just shook his head. “It’s nothing, Gale. Probably just the storm we already weathered. I’m telling you, she’s alright. She’s calm waters.”
“Calm waters?” Gale repeated, then turned and walked over to the ship’s railing, staring out over the sea. After a moment, Amargo joined her. “Let me tell you something about calm waters. When I first started sailing, my captain was a man named Spire. He was a good man and a good captain, much like Vasco. And I was young. Very young. There were four of us making our first voyage, green as anything. We had barely learned the ropes, and had nowhere near mastered them. If you told me we had been at sea a month, I’d call you a liar.
“We were just about to start a long stretch out in the deep water, and Captain Spire ordered the four of us kids off food. For five days, we had nothing to eat, and only half water-rations. We had no idea what we’d done, or why we were being punished, but it was our first tour, and the one thing we all knew was not to question our captain. After five days, the ship came across an island, unsettled and overgrown. The ship pulled up to the mouth of a lagoon and dropped anchor.
“The captain called the four of us on deck and pointed to the beach. There, we could see a single, massive Sweetvine tree. Sweetvine fruit is one of the most succulent, delicious foods I’ve ever tasted, and it’s filled with a watery juice that some have compared to wine. Captain Spire told us he was putting us in a boat and leaving us there for three days while they sailed on to a nearby island for supplies. He put us in the oldest dinghy onboard, lowered us to the sea, and hauled up anchor. The four of us were already making for the lagoon.
“I will always remember how calm those waters were. There was only the slightest breeze, barely enough to ripple the water. Not that we were looking at the water, of course. We were staring at that Sweetvine tree. We were so hungry we could taste it. I know I could, anyway. All I wanted, all I cared about, was getting to shore and climbing that tree. As we were rowing, though, I got that feeling. That same feeling I was telling you about. And you know what? I ignored it. I ignored it because I thought it was foolish. Here I was, starving and thirsty, with salvation within sight. What was I worried about?”
She stopped. For a moment, Amargo waited for her. When she didn’t continue, he looked over at her. She had her head lowered, and she was shaking it. “I take it there was something to be worried about?” Amargo asked.
Gale nodded. “Rocks. Sharp, jagged, deadly rocks, just below the surface. I was so focused on that damned tree that I never even looked, never even thought…” she stopped, composed herself, and went on. “We ran aground, and those rocks tore through that boat like it was made of canvas. There we were, the four of us, at the mouth of the lagoon. It was surrounded by cliffs on both sides, so we had two options. We could swim for shore, and at least have food, but no shelter, and no way of telling the captain what happened, or getting back to ship when they returned. Or, we could try to swim back to the ship now, before it got too far, and maybe be rescued immediately. We were all weak from lack of food and water, and there was no guarantee either option would save our lives.”
“What did you do?”
“I knew there wasn’t time to debate it. The beach was the safer bet. It had food, at least, and the lagoon was less risk than the open sea. I told the others to get to shore while I tried to catch the ship. They tried to argue, but like I said, there was no time. I took off as fast as I could. I have never in my life swam so hard or so fast, and as my arms and my legs started to fail, I nearly gave up. But I knew those other three were my crewmates, my friends. I couldn’t let them down, so I just kept going. And by some miracle or another, I caught up to the ship. They hauled me up on deck, and I told the captain what happened. He sent a longboat out, piloted by experienced sailors, and got them.
“When we were all four back aboard, he asked us why we went down. When none of us answered, he answered for us. He said the reason we went down was that we were so focused on ourselves, on our own desires, that we failed to take our vessel or each other into account. He said that no matter how calm the waters are, there can still be death waiting just beneath the waves. He told us to never forget that, and Amargo? I never have. You tell me that woman is calm waters? I tell you that there is something waiting beneath, and I’m not ignoring it this time.”
Amargo stared at her for a long moment, but then broke into a smile and then a laugh. He slapped her on the shoulder, as she had done to him earlier. “You tell a great story, Gale, and you are a truly fine sailor! But I wonder if this feeling of yours isn’t something else.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe you think it should be somebody else in that cabin with old Vasco, huh?”
“What do you mean?” Gale asked, her eyes narrowing slightly at the large man.
“Oh, I think you know what I mean.” There was a smile on his face, and his eyes seemed pleasant enough, but Gale’s were growing dark. The first mate glanced down at the deck where Gale had been working, and his smile faded just slightly. “Oh, let’s forget it!” He said before turning away from her toward the hatch. “Come on, let’s eat!”
Amargo walked away, and moments later, disappeared down below. For a long moment, Gale just stood there staring after him. Then, shaking her head, she glanced down at the ropes her hands had been tying. She was surprised to see it was a hangman’s knot. A sudden chill came over her, and she turned around and looked up toward the captain’s door just in time to see it close. It must have only been open a crack. Gale was certain that no one could hear her over that distance, but the sight still brought a return of that same old feeling, that feeling that something ominous was lurking just beneath the waves.
* * *
They made port at Torantu three days later, which Gale had hoped would be the end of it.
She had watched from up high in the riggings as Vasco made his way down the gangplank. He had his female companion on his arm – “my little pearl,” he called her, a term of affection that made Gale shiver for reasons that she could not fully explain – and, as they disembarked together, Gale had said a prayer to the softly-singing sea that this was the last she would see of the captain’s current fancy.
From Gale’s limited time in Vasco’s company, she had been able to discern that the captain’s romantic attachments mimicked the form of a late summer storm – they blew in with tremendous fury, as if from nowhere, and they raged as hot as if the sea itself might boil, only to die down just as quickly as they had appeared.
So, given a few days in port, it was not beyond hoping that another shapely young figure – they were always shapely, Gale had noted, and they were always young – might catch Vasco’s eye, displacing his current infatuation.
And that, Gale thought, would be that.
So, it was with a sense of mounting dread and trepidation that Gale watched Vasco re-board the ship barely a hand or two later, with a familiar, black-cloaked figure by his side.
In the seconds it took Gale to climb down from the riggings to the ship’s deck below, Vasco had already ushered his “little pearl” through the hatch into his cabin, and he seemed to be making ready to follow after her when Gale stepped into his line of sight, and saluted to catch his attention.
“Sold our silks already, Sir?” she asked, trying hard to catch Vasco’s gaze. “You must have won quite the price.”
“Just the opposite,” Vasco said. He ran a hand through his beard, before reaching up to make a slight adjustment to his eyepatch. “It seems three galleons docked just two days ago, all of them carrying silk. Not as good as ours, mind you, but, at the moment, that hardly matters. What matters is that Torantu’s bazaar is practically drowning in silk. If we sell here, we’ll be lucky to recoup our costs.”
“A rough bit of luck, that,” Gale said.
“Yes, I suppose,” Vasco said. “We’ve had quite the charmed run of late, but,” he shrugged his broad shoulders, “fortunes change.”
“Will we stay to replenish our stores?” Gale asked. “Or should we prepare to set sail?”
“We set sail,” Vasco said. “Immediately. An acquaintance of mine in the market tells me that the overland route to Ahmara is blocked by floods, and that prices there are still high. So we’ll make a quick run ‘round the cape, and we’ll better than double our money.” Vasco offered Gale a weathered grin. “The galleons are underway for Ahmara, too, and they have two days lead on us. But I know the flagship’s captain, and, for him, a trip ‘round the cape is a fourteen-day cruise. For me, with my ship?” He winked. “I can do it in ten.”
In spite of all her misgivings – which Gale could still sense as a sort of malign undercurrent in the air all around her, like the half-heard sound of a piper’s dirge – the prospect of a fast ten-day clip brought a smile to Gale’s lips. She saluted Vasco again.
“Just say the word, captain,” she said, “and we’ll get her underway.”
Vasco returned her salute with a rakish smile, and he appeared to be about to give the order, when, with a soft creaking of salt-pitted hinges, the door to his cabin opened behind him. The hatchway only swung open by a few inches – just wide enough to afford Gale a glimpse of a shock of black hair, cream-colored skin, and two bright, green eyes – before a soft voice whispered something that Gale could not quite hear. A woman’s hand reached out through the gap in the door, tracing one slender finger down the side of Vasco’s neck, before sliding that finger inside his collar, and giving the fabric an insistent tug.
Reaching up, Vasco brought the hand to his mouth, and he kissed it.
“Amargo will take us out,” he said, before turning and following after the pale-skinned hand, which had once again hooked itself through his collar, and was now reeling him back into the darkened interior of his cabin, like a fish on a line.
“Captain—” Gale started to say, hearing the mournful pipes growing louder in her ears as the captain turned his back on her.
“—Amargo will take us out,” Vasco repeated over his shoulder, before the door closed behind him, and he disappeared from view.
Like a foundering ship beneath the waves, Gale thought, and she shuddered.
* * *
For all her sense of foreboding, Gale had to admit that the ten-day cruise to Ahmara had gotten off to a smooth start. The weather was good, and the winds fair, and the Blazing Star was so well-crewed that the ship ran like a fine clock – even in her captain’s absence.
And Vasco was, for all intents and purposes, absent – even more so than he had been en-route to Torantu. He took all of his meals in his cabin, and he showed his face above decks only twice a day – once after the morning bell, to confer briefly with Amargo and set the ship’s course, and once at high sun, to run the minute glass against the marking rope as he checked the ship’s pace.
Gale had meant to revisit the question of the captain’s odd demeanor with Amargo, but, judging by the preoccupied look that the first mate seemed to wear whenever she saw his face, Gale suspected that Amargo, too, was growing concerned with Vasco’s scarceness. Although, Gale noted, Amargo’s attitude towards her seemed to have changed, too. She could feel the first mate’s eyes watching her whenever she took the helm – which she now did for at least one shift a day, since even Amargo needed his rest, and since Vasco was not available to relieve him – and he had started asking her questions, too.
He asked her about her former captains – about Spire and Lonnell, in particular, but about the others, too. Things like where they were from, and what had become of them.
He asked her about the ships she had crewed on, and, even after she had described each one in exacting detail, he pressed her for their names.
He asked her about the routes she had sailed, and, again, whenever she attempted to skim past the names of cities and ports that she knew would hold no meaning for Amargo – or for anyone else on Vegante, for that matter – he was loathe to let the matter drop.
“Go on,” he’d say, and he’d tilt his round head sideways, as though engrossed in her tale. “Tell me the names of the traders you met there – I’m always interested in finding new suppliers.” Or: “That galleon you mentioned, what was her captain’s name? I might know the man.”
Gale was a poor liar, and, at any rate, she had too much respect for the chain of command to be dishonest to anyone she served under, so, whatever Amargo asked, she answered. And, if any of the answers she had given him gave the first mate pause, he had been careful not to show it. But Gale could not help but feel that, ever since she had voiced her concerns about Vasco – and about the woman who seemed to have him wrapped around her finger – her warning had seemed to have the opposite effect. If anything, Amargo seemed to have grown suspicious of her, rather than Vasco’s comely companion.
Whoever that woman was – and no one had yet heard her name – there was danger lurking beneath her surface. Gale was certain of that. She could feel it, deep within her bones.
She just didn’t know how to make Amargo see it. She didn’t know how to make Vasco see it. She didn’t know how to open their eyes.
Those were the thoughts that occupied Gale’s mind – dark as thunderheads, and just as portentous – as she stood at the wheel of the Blazing Star on the fourth day out from Torantu, and prepared to guide the ship around the cape. She had the clipper on the heading that Amargo had specified, going east by nor’east a quarter east, and was carrying a full load of sail, when she felt the wind from the west freshen, and she heard a new voice sing out to her. The voice was warm, and sultry – a westerly trade wind – and it started out soft as it lent its voice to the song of the sea, joining in almost shyly at first. It started by filling the silences between verses, where the other winds paused for breath, before growing and swelling into a rich and melodious counterpoint that complemented and heightened all of the song’s other strains.
It was a beautiful voice, sibilant and seductive, and Gale could sense both its power and its promise from the way its rhythm worked deeper and deeper into her body, until she could feel it stirring in her soul.
Gale could hear the wind’s voice, and she could hear that it wanted to sing.
So Gale sang back. She closed her eyes, and she sang. Just a single note at first, low and soulful.
An invitation to the gathering westerly. A chance to duet, if the wind wanted to.
Gale heard the tradewind’s voice rise to meet hers. She felt the wind gather its strength behind her, felt it freshen from a breath to a breeze, felt it roar from a breeze into a full-bodied gale. She could hear the wind singing now, could hear its voice soaring with hers as it filled the Blazing Star’s sails and set her long hair swirling.
Gale did not have to open her eyes to know that the Blazing Star’s sails were rounded and full, straining at the mast with all the force of a hurricane west wind. But the clipper felt good beneath her feet, and the wheel felt steady beneath her hands, so, using the same soft touch with which she would have stroked a lover’s cheek, Gale gave the wheel a quarter turn to larboard. Beneath her, she felt the Blazing Star respond, and she knew that the ship understood what she wanted it to do.
As she sang her high, clarion song, Gale tacked one point east, so that the fast clipper was perfectly positioned to ride the roaring wind.
And ride the wind she did. Gale could feel the ship gaining speed. Wind whistled past her cheeks, sea spray salted her face, and the ship’s deck began to pitch beneath her feet as it crashed harder and faster into the rising waves. At first, the pitching increased, as the waves grew higher, and the ship grew faster, until each skip sent a little shudder up Gale’s spine. But Gale knew that the Blazing Star was still just stretching her wings. Once the clipper was up to speed, and her bow was high above the sea, she would practically fly across the waves, barely skimming their white-capped tops.
She was a fast ship, and Gale was going to take her fast. With this wind in her sails, she’d make the ten-day cruise in nine days flat – or less.
“Riding her a little rough, don’t you think?”
Gale’s reverie was broken by the sound of Amargo’s voice. She opened her eyes to see the first mate standing next to her at the helm, holding on tight to the railing as the Blazing Star bucked beneath him. Gale, meanwhile, held the wheel with just a loose, one-handed grip as she turned to face Amargo.
“She’s just finding her rhythm,” Gale said. “Give her a minute, and she’ll be smooth as glass.”
“You’re carrying too much sail,” Amargo said, glancing up at the billowing canvas with a worried look on his face. “If the wind turns, it’ll dismast us.”
Gale shook her head.
“This wind will blow straight and true,” she said, and the westerly sang its agreement. “We can show her every stitch of canvas we have, and she’ll fly us to Ahmara.”
Amargo gave her a skeptical look. His knuckles were white where he gripped the railing.
“We should shorten,” he said, “and tack two points south. Ride out the worst of it, then repair our heading.”
“The worst of it?” Gale said. She had to close her eyes for a moment, and she could not keep the incredulity she felt from creeping into her voice. “This is a fast ship, and we could not ask for a finer wind to sail her by. Yet you want to shorten, and tack south?”
“It’s too dangerous to carry this much sail,” Amargo said, shaking his head. “If the wind turns, you’ll be dismasted,” he repeated.
“The wind won’t turn,” Gale insisted.
“How do you know?”
“I know because I know.”
Gale closed her eyes. There was no use trying to explain.
“Just trust me,” she said. “I can hear it. I know.”
Amargo was silent for a moment. Then he shook his head, and repeated his earlier position.
“We should shorten,” he said, “and tack two points south.”
Gale forced the first mate to meet her gaze.
“Is that your order, Sir?” she asked.
She stared at Amargo, and Amargo stared back.
“It is,” he said.
“Aye-aye,” Gale said, and she gave the first mate a stiff, overly-formal salute.
Then she gave the wheel a half turn to starboard.
She watched the Blazing Star’s sails slacken, as the ship angled away from the howling gale, and she could hear the note of sadness in the west wind’s voice as it bid her a melancholy farewell. Gale sang a brief note of parting in reply, before she turned to face Amargo again.
“Two points south, Sir,” she said, taking no pains to hide her displeasure at having the wind stolen from her sails. “Shall I make ready to shorten?”
“Yes. Find Estrezo and Alenta, and see to it. I’ll take the wheel.”
Gale threw Amargo a final salute. Then she left him at the helm while she went to fetch the deckhands.
* * *
That night, there was music below decks.
The sea had grown choppier as day turned to night, so that, as the wine-red sun dipped beneath the midnight-blue horizon, the Blazing Star bucked atop each swelling wave like a cork bobbing in wine. So, after the evening meal had been served, and the mess tables wiped clear, Cocair had broken open a cask of strong, dark, Torquego rum, and he had filled every hand’s cup to overflowing as the crew gathered together around the warm glow of the ship’s stove.
Estrezo brought out his fiddle first. Years of resting beneath the deckhand’s stubbly chin had worn the lacquer right off the instrument’s top, revealing well-seasoned wood beneath, and the fiddle was missing one string. But Estrezo played with all the skill of a master, and, in his hands, even his humble instrument sang. As he raised his bow, the crew began to stomp their feet, and to clap their hands in unison, and Estrezo began the night’s first song by bowing a low, resonant chord. Alenta joined-in next, playing a bright, ascending scale on the leather and whalebone squeezebox that she kept in an old case beneath her berth. She sang along as well, in a beautiful, silky contralto that echoed around the low ceiling and filled the mess’s close and comfortable darkness with soulful music.
Sitting next to Alenta atop an overturned barrel, Gale closed her eyes, and she tapped her foot in time and sang wordlessly along with the rollicking melody of an old Vegante chanty that she did not know, but which still stirred her to her bones.
On any other night, Gale would have lost herself in the music. She would have let the sound and feel of it wash over her like a warm, welcoming wave. She would have allowed the music to pull her under, to carry her away on a tide of pure pleasure, until she was one with the song, and she could no longer tell where her own body ended, and the music’s embrace began.
But, on that night, Gale found it impossible to relax. She found herself unable to let go, even as the chanty’s haunting rhythm tried to take hold of her, body and soul. She was still smarting from the lack of trust Amargo had shown her earlier in the day, and she still found herself worrying about Captain Vasco, and what had become of him.
Her heart was troubled, her thoughts were clouded, and her restless sense of ill-omen would not grant her respite, no matter how beautifully Estrezo and Alenta played.
As the chanty wound its way to a close, Estrezo bowed one final note, exquisitely long and high, which Gale and Alenta chased with their voices. Booted feet pounded against the boards, and mugs banged atop rum-slicked tables, forming an impromptu drumroll which grew and grew until it crescendoed right along with the fiddle and the two singers.
Then the makeshift ensemble fell silent, and the mess erupted into cheers, and, for a single, fleeting moment, Gale felt a sense of happiness, and release.
That feeling did not last long.
“Let’s have another song!” Cocair called out as the cheering died down. He moved in a circle around the gathered sailors, topping-off each raised mug with a generous measure of bracing rum. “Let’s have a round along with our round!”
“Yes,” Estrezo agreed. He put his mug to his lips and threw his head back, downing its dark contents in one, long swallow. “Let’s have a round!”
Sitting next to Gale, Alenta nodded her head, and winked. “I was hoping we might have a chance to sing together,” she said, as her eyes turned to Gale with a look that was barely short of a proposition. “How about we sing ‘A Lover in Every Port?’”
As the gathered musicians waited for her answer, Gale found herself feeling uncharacteristically out-of-balance. Her sense of unease came not from Alenta’s sudden attentions – which, while unexpected, were certainly not unpleasant – nor from the prospect of being asked to favor her new mates with a song. Rather, the problem was that Gale did not know the song they wanted her to sing. She did not know any of the songs favored by Venagte’s mariners.
The songs Gale knew by heart were those of her own composition – soulful, wordless melodies that she sung to suit her own passions. They were the chanties and the old songs that she knew from her home, which, while they were as much a part of Gale as her blood or bones, would sound foreign and strange to the ears of her mates.
“I’m not sure that I would know all the words,” Gale said, hesitantly, not wanting to admit to the full extent of her ignorance, even as she dreaded being asked to explain the reasons behind it.
“That’s no matter,” said Alenta, whose hand was now resting atop Gale’s thigh. “You must know at least some of ‘A Lover in Every Port.’ Just sing whichever lines you know, when the round comes around to you.”
Gale was going to make another attempt to demur, but, before she could think of the right words to say, Estrezo had put his bow to his strings, and Cocair had begun to sing:
I keep a lover in every port,
though not one of them knows me by name!
I know them by their predilections,
for no two of them love me the same!
Inside the mess, hands clapped and feet stomped. Then, as Cocair finished his verse, all eyes turned next to Alenta, who leapt at her turn to sing:
My girl down in Yargo’s a screamer,
she squeaks like a badly-oiled wheel!
And my lad up in Largo’s a spanker,
he only smiles when I’m hauling his keel!
And, with that, Alenta’s verse ended, and the eyes of the assembled crew all turned to Gale.
For the briefest of seconds, Gale drew in a deep breath, and she opened her mouth to sing. The song’s rhythm was a simple one, and its theme clear enough, so that Gale hoped she could improvise a suitable quatrain on the spot. But, before any words could pass between her lips, the dark, wailing dirge that had been haunting her thoughts for days suddenly surged inside her ears, and a series of images – each one clear, vivid, and terrible – flashed unbidden before her mind’s eye.
She saw a man, naked and bound.
She saw a sea of blood, a flashing knife, a swinging noose.
She saw her dead captain, bloated and blue-faced, sinking beneath the waves.
Gale shut her eyes tight, and she almost screamed. Shaking her head, she tried desperately to banish each grotesque thought back to whatever dark depth it had surfaced from.
Then she opened her eyes, and she realized that every hand aboard the Blazing Star was staring right at her.
“I need some air,” Gale managed to stammer, before standing as quickly as she could and bolting for the nearest hatch.
From behind her, she could hear voices calling her name, and she felt fairly sure that they were not imagined. But she did not turn back, and she did not stop running until she was above deck, where she filled her lungs with moist salt air in deep, greedy gulps.
Moving to lean against the nearest railing, Gale stared silently out across the shimmering, night-black sea, and she tried desperately to make sense of everything that had happened to her since the Blazing Star had set sail.
“You’re different,” said a small voice from close behind her. “Aren’t you?”
Gale spun around so quickly that she nearly crashed into the voice’s diminutive owner.
It was the woman from Vasco’s cabin.
Gale had never been so close to her before, and, for the first time, she got a good, clear look at the young woman who seemed to have the captain under her spell. She was shorter than Gale, with soft, cream-colored skin that looked almost white beneath the pale moonlight, and dark, jet-black hair that seemed to fly away in all directions, as though it would not be tamed. She wore a simple black dress with a simple white shawl, and the plainness of her features actually seemed to lend her a stark sort of beauty. Her only adornment was a black, teardrop-shaped pearl, which she wore around her neck on a thin golden chain. She stood at a distance which was just slightly too close to Gale, yet her whole body seemed preternaturally still, as though she were carved from stone.
Except for her eyes.
Her eyes, which were a bright, penetrating green, did not remain still. They seemed to be in constant motion, as though their owner were searching ceaselessly for some unseen danger.
They were eyes that seemed to look everywhere at once.
Everywhere, that was, except for directly at Gale.
“What do you mean, ‘different’?” Gale asked, still trying to recover from the shock of her experience below deck, and from the surprise of seeing Vasco’s companion outside his cabin.
“I’ve been watching you,” the young woman said, even as her eyes continued to avoid Gale’s. Her voice was soft, and shadowed, like a whisper on the night wind. “I’ve been watching you watching me.”
Gale could feel her jaw set. She stared at the strange woman who stood before her, practically daring her to stare back.
“Who are you?” she asked.
The woman said nothing in reply. She just blinked.
Gale took a step closer, so that her face was just inches from the woman’s. She had to bend slightly down, so that their eyes were at a level.
“What have you done to Vasco?” she demanded, her earlier shock now forgotten.
The woman was silent for a long time.
“At first, I thought he was the one to watch,” she eventually said. “But it’s not just him, is it? It’s you, too. Because you’re not like the others. You’re like me. You can see.”
“Who are you?” Gale repeated, this time even louder.
Again, the woman just blinked.
“You see too much,” she said, her words barely audible above the breaking waves.
Then she turned and walked silently back to the door that led down into Vasco’s cabin, but not before whispering a few words that sent a shiver running down Gale’s spine.
What the woman had said was: “I’ve got my eye on you.”
* * *
Gale did not sleep well that night. She tossed and turned in her hammock like a roiling sea, never finding a comfortable position for more than a few moments. Never throughout her entire life on the water, from that first night on the Salt Skitter to her last night on the Autumn Crane, had she ever had the trouble sleeping she had now. And even in those instances where she found sleep, they were filled with dreams she would rather forget.
Gale dreamed of her former ships, their crews, and their captains. She dreamt of Captain Spire and the sturdy, sluggish decks of the Salt Skitter. She dreamt of the way her crew had treated Gale at first. The mark on Gale’s cheek, that rare and precious mark of the four winds, had made some of them try to pamper and coddle her, desperate to be on her good side until Gale had made it clear that they were to stop. She still remembered the smirk on Spire’s face the day Gale had erupted on them like a deep-sea volcano, and then asked permission to relinquish the charts in order to swab the deck.
She dreamed also of her beloved cutter, and relived once more the day it had been taken by raiders and lost to the foam. She once again saw the dead, accusing eyes of her captain and crew. She even dreamed of Wreth, and her time aboard the Autumn Crane. In this dream, though, she was not herself. She was another Gale, one who took that monster Raiker Venn’s offer and steered the boat into the river pirate’s ambush. Gale watched in horror as her dream self supervised their slaughter. Just as Gale tried to turn away from the sight, the other Gale turned to look at her. Even in the dream, Gale froze at the mark of the serpent on her dream self’s forehead.
As she stared in disbelief, the dream version began to shift and change, growing smaller, paler, and more sinister. In seconds, Gale realized she was no longer staring at herself, but rather at the woman sharing Captain Vasco’s cabin. She had the same soft features, the same wild hair, the same vibrant yet unfocused eyes. But she still bore the image of the black serpent on her brow. She still wore the mark of a traitor.
Gale shuttered so hard that it woke her up. She was panting and drenched in sweat, and even with her incredible balance, she had to fight to steady herself. She held the hammock where it bunched together with one hand, and with the other, she wiped the sweat from her forehead into her hair and tried to catch her breath.
“Can’t sleep, sailor?” She heard Amargo’s voice from a short distance away. Gale looked over at him. He must have been passing her heading to his bunk. Or had he been standing there watching her?
“No, Sir,” she answered, choosing not to elaborate any further.
“Well, a lot of things can cause that,” he noted in a not-quite conversational tone. “Rough seas, nerves, embarrassment…” he stopped, meaningfully. “Guilt.”
“Sir?” Gale said, putting an edge in her voice.
“G’night, sailor,” Amargo said, turning toward his bunk. “If you still can’t sleep, go topside and count the stars.”
“You don’t really think that will help me sleep, do you, Sir?”
“Not you,” Amargo admitted. “But it might help the rest of us.”
Gale looked around and saw several sets of eyes glinting in the dark, staring at her. Gale hopped down from the hammock and turned in the direction of the ladder. “Good night, Sir.”
Amargo mumbled something, but Gale was already moving. She was thankful for the darkness below decks, because it meant that Amargo couldn’t clearly see her face. If he had, he might have thrown her in the brig, on the off-chance that looks could kill. Gale scaled the ladder, crossed the deck, and made her way all the way to the prow, where she stood staring out across the moonlit sea. She allowed herself one deep breath of fresh, ocean air as she tried to calm down. Vegante was different from her home world in many ways, but the feel of the ocean breeze on her face and in her lungs was so similar that, when she closed her eyes, she could almost believe she were home.
“Not at the helm tonight?”
Gale turned around instantly, almost shocked to hear Captain Vasco’s voice, considering the past few days.
“No, Captain. Amargo felt…” she paused. “Amargo felt Terciero would be better suited tonight.”
Vasco glanced across the ship toward the helm, then shrugged. “Terciero’s a good lad, to be sure. But I’d have picked you, personally.”
Gale looked away for a moment as two words floated across her mind like flotsam: wisdom and kindness. “Thank you, Sir.”
Gale turned around again to stare at the sea. A moment later, Vasco stepped up beside her. “I’ve seen the way you look at her, you know.”
“I’ve seen the way you look at her,” Vasco repeated. “I’ve seen that fierce storm in your eyes, that look of determination. That look that nothing is going to stop you. That look that there is nothing in this world or any other that will keep you away from her.”
“Captain, what do you…”
“Don’t deny it,” Vasco interrupted. “Obviously, I feel it myself, every time I look at her.” Vasco inhaled deeply, then turned his head to look straight at Gale. “You truly, truly love the sea, don’t you, Gale?”
“The sea?” Gale said, smiling in spite of herself. Without thinking, she raised her hand to touch her cheek, unconsciously tracing the lines to the four largest points of the windrose. “Words have never been my expertise, Captain, and I don’t have the right ones to say how much I love the sea. Words come from up here," she paused to tap the side of her forehead. "The love I have for the sea comes from someplace different, someplace deeper."”
“I can see that,” Vasco agreed. Gale looked over to her captain, who was staring at her with his good eye. “Well, these are just words, but I hope they’re worth something to you, because they’re rare words, treasures I don’t give out to just anyone. Gale? I want you to know that I made the right choice back on that pier that day. I’ve met more sailors and captains in my time than I would ever want to count, and my memory is like a ledger book. I know them all by name or by face, but I have never met a finer sailor than you. I mean that.”
Gale smiled. “Thank you, Sir.”
Vasco looked back toward the rest of the ship, his eye cast downward as if looking through the deck itself. He smiled. “I love Amargo like a baby brother, and I have a score of the best sailors on the seas aboard this ship, and I’ve never been more sure of the future of the Blazing Star than I am now that you’re here. I never thought much about retirement until…recently. And with you and Amargo, Alenta and Estrezo, I know I’d be leaving her in good hands.”
“Sir, you’re not truly considering retirement, are you? With her? You just met her, after all.”
“Did it take you a lifetime to fall in love with the sea? She’s much like the sea, my little pearl is. I know she seems calm and quiet, but there is passion there, I assure you.”
“Captain, I don’t think…”
“She said she spoke with you,” Vasco interrupted. “Is that true?”
Gale shook her head. “We exchanged a few words, but…”
“That’s more than she’s been able to muster with anyone else,” Vasco said. “She’s shy, Gale. Terribly shy. That’s why she hasn’t come out much. She’s afraid the crew won’t like her, I suppose, or some other nonsense. But she likes you, Gale. She’s told me. She says she senses some kind of a connection with you. It would mean a lot to me if you made friends with her. It would let her know that she can open up a bit.”
Gale looked away. “Is that an order, Sir?”
Vasco laughed a hardy, honest laugh. He slapped her on her shoulder. “How does someone who spends her life on the water develop such a dry sense of humor?” Vasco laughed again and wiped a tear from his eye. He took another deep breath before he continued. “She had a wonderful idea. She wanted to know if you would join us for a late dinner tomorrow night, after you are relieved from your duties. Would you?”
“I don’t know, Captain. I…”
“I would consider it a personal favor, Gale. Please?”
Gale looked back at her captain. She could see the honesty in his face. Her shoulders slumped as she nodded. “Alright, Captain. I’ll be there half a hand after shift.”
Vasco grinned wide. “Thank you, Gale. I won’t forget this.” Vasco clapped her on the shoulder one more time before moving back toward his cabin.
Gale turned back to watch the sea as the Blazing Star sliced through it like a knife through a canvas sail. She found herself wondering just what it was that was lurking beneath the waves. She knew that whatever it was wasn’t being pushed away by the ship’s hull, but rather was waiting within the captain’s “little pearl.” Gale found herself thinking back to the Salt Skitter, the night she had run aground on those rocks in the lagoon. Captain Spire had called her into his cabin. He had looked at her sternly, and said, "You told me once that the sea was your lover? Well, that may be. But it doesn't mean that she won't still kill you. Lovers kill each other all the time. Never forget that."
And Gale never had. And she never would.
* * *
The next day passed by agonizingly slowly for Gale. It had originally been planned for her to take the helm for several hours in the morning, but Amargo had changed his mind and decided to steer the Blazing Star himself. Gale hadn’t argued. She knew it was pointless. Whatever was bothering the first mate about her wasn’t getting better any time soon, and Gale knew it. She would catch him watching her from time to time throughout the day, always with the same, suspicious expression on his face.
It bothered Gale, but Amargo’s changing attitude toward her wasn’t the only one on board. The entire crew seemed to cast repeated glances in her direction throughout the day. Everything had changed since they had first pulled into port at Torquego. When Vasco had first given her the helm, the crew had cheered for her like one of their own. Now, they looked at her like an outsider, even more than they had when she first signed on. The Blazing Star was her home now, but somehow she felt more like a stranger.
The skies were clear and the wind nearly nonexistent as they completed their turn around the cape. Had they ridden Gale’s westerly, they would have been past it already, and probably caught up or even passing the trade Galleons they were racing toward Ahmara. As it was, they were at least a day behind them, and they would never catch up with this wind. The ship moved like the day: slowly. The crew passed the time in comparative idleness for a sailor at sea. Decks were swabbed, ropes were knotted, and pleasant conversation abounded.
But no one spoke with Gale. No one approached her during the day with a smile or a friendly word, no one shouted across the deck for her attention, no one came to help with whichever task she engaged in. For the most part, this was not something that bothered Gale, at least until it became clear that it was intentional. Once, when the sun was nearly straight overhead, Alenta was just about to climb the mainmast to the riggings, and Gale approached to help her. Alenta suddenly decided she had pressing business elsewhere, and Gale was left standing by the mast alone.
Gale’s time aboard the Autumn Crane on Wreth had accustomed her to strange glances from her mates, but even there, they had never outright ignored her. To some degree, Gale couldn’t entirely blame them. From Amargo’s questioning to the crew’s songs to Gale’s nightmares the previous night, there was a lot about Gale to raise their curiosity. And Gale knew she could not satisfy that. Any name she could list off would make no sense to them. On Gale’s world, the marks spoke for the sailor, not the other way around. Now more than ever, she found herself wishing she were home.
The bulk of Gale’s day, however, was spent dreading the coming night. She had given her captain her word that she would join him and his “little pearl” for dinner, a thought that gave Gale a shiver repeatedly throughout the night. She had no idea what game the young woman was playing, but whatever it was sat poorly with Gale. Vasco had said that the woman invited her after they had exchanged words, but the words they had exchanged were hardly ones of friendship. Perhaps she meant to turn Vasco against Gale, too, just as the rest of the crew had turned on her. Gale didn’t know, and she wasn’t particularly eager to find out.
As the day darkened, so did Gale’s mood. Near evening, clouds started rolling in from the east, but Gale found she couldn’t even bring herself to enjoy the storm’s song. When her shift ended, Gale went below deck to lie down for a few minutes. She didn’t even try to sleep. She wouldn’t have had time anyway, but even if she had, she knew she couldn’t. The rest of the crew were laughing and joking on the other side of the mess, undoubtedly preparing for another night of mirth and music. Gale remained in her hammock for as long as she dared to before begrudgingly rolling out, and climbing the furthest ladder up to deck.
Her walk toward Captain Vasco’s cabin was as slow as a guilty sailor’s walk down the plank. She could neither forget nor ignore everything she had felt since leaving port at Torquego. She remembered the foreboding, the danger, the fear of something coming. She remembered her vision of the captain’s woman with the mark of traitors upon her brow, and her deep-seeded, intuitive knowledge that something was waiting beneath the waves of those calm waters. She remembered her conversation with that woman, as well as her warning that she had her eye on Gale. As she stepped up to the Captain’s door and prepared to knock, she felt like she were standing in the eye of a hurricane, preparing to step into the ferocity of the tempest.
Gale knocked on the door softly, but there was no answer. She waited for a long, impatient moment, passing the time listening to the storm’s song as it slowly increased in strength above and around her. She knocked again, louder this time, but there was still no reply. Annoyed, she pounded harder on the door and announced herself, speaking a bit louder than she had intended to. Gale glanced around, noticing one or two of the few crewmembers still on deck looking at her. They quickly looked away as her eyes fell on them, and Gale focused on the captain’s door once more as the rains started to fall. Frustrated, Gale simply tried the door’s handle, and was surprised to find it unlocked. Confused, Gale stepped inside.
Gale recognized the odor she smelled the moment she stepped into the cabin. Gale was a sailor, not a warrior, but in defending her ships from pirates and raiders over the years, she had smelled her share of blood before, and Captain Vasco’s cabin reeked of it. And it was fresh. Gale’s jaw clenched instantly, and she burst down the short stairwell that led into the cabin. There, she saw a sight that challenged even her otherwise sturdy constitution. Vasco was lying on his bed, naked and tied by his far hand to the post. His other limbs had been tied recently, from the look of them. The woman he had brought aboard was astride him, dressed and smiling as she worked to untie the final strap from his wrist with one hand while clasping a needle-thin dagger with the other. She did not look up as Gale entered, but started to speak anyway.
“What have you done?” Gale spoke more in a challenge than a question as she stepped forward.
“Staring,” she said. “Always staring. Evil hides behind one eye. They hide the things they think. Gouge the monster, make it die! Before you dare to blink.”
“I said,” Gale spoke, taking another step closer. “What did you do to my captain?”
The woman shot Gale a sideways glance, then smirked. With her free hand, she caressed the far side of Vasco’s face, then pushed it toward Gale. The sailor’s stomach clenched as she saw that Vasco’s good, left eye had been completely removed, the wound still bleeding onto his lifeless face.
“You…” Gale started, her mind filtering through a thousand vile curses to hurl at the woman. Somehow, none of them seemed strong enough in this moment. “The brig’s too good for you, and the sea’s too merciful.”
She advanced toward the woman then, but the girl was quick, and she threw her knife at Gale with the hand of an expert knife thrower. But Gale was far quicker, and was expecting trouble from the murderess. She wheeled away and deftly caught the blade, still dripping with Vasco’s blood. The other woman’s eyes widened in shock at the display, and she quickly scrambled off the captain’s body as his final hand fell to the bed. The woman backed away into the corner behind the bed, but she had nowhere to go, and Gale wasn’t about to let her try. Even as the ship pitched in the storm, Gale vaulted over the captain’s bed and moved toward the woman. The murderess put up her hands as if to plead, but Gale was no fool, and knocked them away, grabbing the woman by the black pearl pendant she wore.
Gale brought the knife up, trying to slide it toward the woman’s neck. The smaller girl fought to push Gale’s knife hand away, but Gale was stronger, and kept inching the blade closer. As she did, she stared into the green eyes of Vasco’s murderess.
“You took his eye? Well, I’m going to take your head.” Gale paused, leaning in closer. “Because that’s how you kill a snake.”
The other woman panicked and started to scream, a blood-curdling sound that made Gale wince. She shook the woman once by the pendant, glanced down at Vasco’s body, and then looked back at the dark-haired woman.
“Scream all you like. It won’t save you now.” Gale said, finally forcing the blade up within a finger’s length of the girl’s throat.
The word felt like a dagger in Gale’s heart as she looked back toward the door, where Amargo and several of the crew were staring at her in shock. Gale stared at their faces, the round, sweet face of the first mate, the alluring face of Alenta, the pudgy face of Cocair. Gale looked at each of them in turn, and then she looked down at Vasco, dead by a dagger to the eye. And then she looked at her own hand, holding the bloody dagger. Gale looked back to the crew, but before she could speak, the woman she had cornered pulled away, the strap of the pearl pendant breaking as she started screaming again.
“She killed him! She killed my Vasco! Please, help me! She’s going to kill me, too! Help me!” As she finished, the woman scrambled desperately over the bed and body of Captain Vasco to seek refuge with the crew.
Amargo took a strong step forward. There was a sword in his hand. The rest of the crew stepped in behind him, several of them holding weapons, as well. Gale was stunned. She had never been so stunned in her entire life. Even at her darkest moments, that was one word she had never imagined could possibly be leveled at her. ‘Mutineer.’ In one hand, she held the weapon that had murdered her captain, and in the other, she held his murderess’s pearl. The crew, who just days earlier had made her feel so at home, now stared at her with a mixture of fear and hatred. They would never believe her now. Not after the past few days. There was no captain on Vegante who could vouch for her, no city she could take them to that would speak for her character. Gale looked down at the lifeless form of Vasco, remembering how kind he had been to her, how much trust he had shown her. For a long moment, Gale didn’t know what to do.
And so, she did the only thing she could think of. Gale began to sing. This was no lively sea chanty. This was no sailor’s lament. This song was low, and rumbling, and terrifying. This was a primal song, one without words or melodies. A song of deep, buried yearning, a song of heartbreak and fury. The crew froze where they stood. The storm around them still raged, but something strange was happening. The ship was no longer pitching and tossing in the water. It was still. Perfectly, eerily still. The crew of the Blazing Star could hear the wind and the waves pounding the hull from without, but it was as if nothing stirred beneath the waves.
Then, Gale started to shake. It was only a little at first, but then it spread throughout her, as if the song were claiming her entire body. The needle dagger slipped out of her hand, but Amargo made no move to advance on her. He and the crew were transfixed by the horrifying experience. Gale felt a pit well up deep in her stomach as her entire being gave in to the song. A clap of thunder struck so loud and so near that the crew ducked for cover. Gale barely heard it. She looked down at Vasco’s body, and willed her song to bid him farewell. His mutilated face was the last thing she saw on Vegante as the world faded to black around her.
The next thing Gale felt was the sensation of falling through a heavy mist. Her feet struck something hard, and her surprise overpowered even her incredible balance. Before she even realized that her feet had struck a ship’s railing, she was falling again. She heard a sudden call of “woman overboard!” a mere moment before she struck the water hard and sunk fast into the frigid sea. A sea, she managed to think, that was much colder than the tropical waters of Vegante. The force of the impact pried her hand open, and the small, teardrop-shaped black pearl pendant slipped from it, sinking beneath the waves.
Gale was contemplating joining it as her lungs filled with saltwater. Her vision began to blur when she suddenly felt an arm wrap around her waist. A moment later, she was flying upward toward the surface. She and her rescuer burst into the air and Gale coughed, expelling some of the water, but not enough. A few seconds later, a rope was hauling them both back aboard the vessel, but Gale was fading. Her vision was once again going black, but differently this time as she felt something pressing hard on her chest. Then, in a fit of pain, she lurched forward, purging the liquid from her lungs and gasping for air.
As her vision cleared, she found herself staring at a strong, striking, redheaded woman. The woman was soaking wet, and looked concerned. “Are you alright?”
Gale shook her head, struggling to talk. She failed. The woman stood up as another woman walked over with two large blankets, offering one to the woman and the other to Gale. As they both warmed up, the red-head spoke again.
“Who are you, anyway?”
Recovering just enough to speak a single word, the sailor responded, “Gale.”
“Well, Gale,” the woman said. “I just saw you appear out of nowhere on my ship. And that can only mean that you are a mage. And Foraine is a very dangerous place to be a mage,” she glanced behind her, then refocused on Gale. “Especially now. So I have a deal for you. We will protect you, if you will sail aboard my ship. What do you say?”
Gale forced herself to smile through the pain in her body. She failed to see the downside. “And you are?”
The woman smiled. “I am Captain Valerie, and this is my Galleon. Now, what do you say?”
Gale struggled to her feet, noting the motley crew that had gathered around. Gale nodded. “I say, do you prefer ‘Sir,’ or ‘Ma’am,’ or just ‘Captain’?”
Valerie laughed heartily at this, and extended her hand to Gale, who accepted it. “I think ‘Captain’ will do just fine. Welcome aboard the Mourning Reign.”
Blink 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.