Saltwater and Blood - I
This chapter contains depictions of murder.
“How'd you learn to do that?”
Liss lifted her gaze and her right hand from the silvery water. “To do what?”
“To make explosions without a sash and firepowder?”
Silhouetted in the blue moonlight, Noma gave the oars another faltering tug. The makeshift raft of logs bound by vines groaned and glided several arms’ lengths forward, bobbing across the choppy waves. She sagged with exhaustion before their short skim had ended.
With a shrug, Liss let her right hand drop into the water again, returning to her twofold preoccupations of steering and propelling the raft with exploding sediments. “I didn’t learn it,” she said. “I exploded a shellfish at lunch one day, and suddenly I knew I could do it.”
“What? I was sure this whole time that you had a secret teacher. Or some…other…secret. Like you met the drake god without telling me, or anyone else.”
The little wooden raft that had borne them here thus far was slightly worse for wear than when they had set out: besides the vines loosening, the wood had accumulated a few burns from failed attempts to light fires. They had solved this problem by picking up a flat rock from the seabed and lighting dry twigs from their stash atop it, but this was the only problem of theirs that had been so easily solved.
Gritting her teeth, Noma pulled the oars once again with trembling arms. Liss frowned at the sound of her panting. “Noma, give me the oars,” she said.
At once her companion dropped the oar handles. As she crawled across the raft, she was halted countless times by her hands slipping through the gaps into the water, each time growling something under her breath. Shaking her head, Liss offered an arm as a handhold, which she took sheepishly, and rose onto shaky feet, stumbling towards the rudder.
“I know as little as anyone else about these abilities,” Liss continued, taking her position at the oars. “But I know I have no secrets about them. Don’t believe the elders' drake god nonsense.” The oars creaked against the vine oarlocks as she made the first stroke.
Together, they sailed through the night, wind and water whispering about them like priestesses speaking charms. They had seen no land for days, and when the air was calm as it was on this night, the ocean became a rippling mirror in which clouds, blazing with moonlight, swam and dissolved. In shadow, the water was black as the night sky above, the endless miles beneath the raft obscured to the eye by its silver veneer.
Staring up at the sky, Noma breathed a sigh. “All this would have been easier without me, wouldn’t it?”
Liss shook her head. “You’re a physician. Wait till I find myself bleeding to death, then you’ll see that asking you along was a smart thing to do.”
“Liss…that won’t happen,” she mumbled.
Liss shrugged. “You’re the only person on Henkor who likes me.”
“If you want me here, then I’m happy to be here.” Noma began to stretch, but she let her arms drop with a yelp. “I’m hurting everywhere. It’s all this rowing…and hunting…” Sighing, she laid herself down on the raft logs and curled up to sleep, arms folded under her head.
“Aren’t you used to it? You helped your parents in the mine, didn’t you?”
“Liss…you know I only brought them lunch and dinner.”
“You’re not a real miner?”
“Don’t say that like I ever pretended I was…” she mumbled.
“You’ve fooled me for seven years,” Liss said with a chuckle, but Noma did not respond. Her steady snoring was just audible over the rumbling waves.
After their departure from Trader’s Refuge, Liss and Noma passed no islands, nor ships, for eight days. They saw the changing sea in all its moods; sometimes the water swelled beneath them as their raft was pattered by needles of rain and sometimes, the waters were flat and blue.
Here, nothing came to them that they did not seek out themselves. In the mornings, they dove and hunted with makeshift spears carved from branches, knowledge learned from years of books and conversations with elders finally serving them. Their hunts often ended in Liss bringing back four speared fish and Noma contributing shrimp and sea cucumbers found on the seabed.
It barely took them any time to begin stinking of saltwater, and even with the evaporation bowl they had built out of bambus wood and a coconut husk, they had to resort to collected rainwater to keep themselves hydrated. Often Noma mourned her lack of comforts, and though Liss did not speak of it, she too began to hunger for home, the pangs growing sharper whenever it began to drizzle and the shivers took her over.
Home was far, far behind them, and they reaffirmed their severance from Henkor each time they took their bearings against the sun and corrected the course northward.
Twice a day, they lit their cooking fire on the flat stone that had become their makeshift stove, and then ate in communion with the silent ocean. They chewed on the eyes and gristle, and spat bones back into the sea. At one point, a bone got lodged in Liss’ throat: she reached into her own throat to hook it out.
On the humid ninth evening of their voyage, while they sat at the fire tearing fish meat from bones beneath a heavy, glowering sky, Noma bowed her head and began to sob.
Liss felt an unfamiliar pang. “Why are you crying?” she asked.
It was long seconds before Noma managed to choke out a reply. “What are we even looking for?” she asked. “We’ll run out of supplies, and then we’ll die out here in the open sea. That’s what’s going to happen.”
A thought long-overdue—that Noma had followed her away from home blind, and buoyed on nothing but trust—crossed Liss for the first time. “Don’t you worry, I promise we're alright,” she said then. “It is a nine-day sail from home to the Greater Isles. There will be land soon. We have been on the sea for eight days. It can’t be long now.”
Barely had she spoken those last words when thunder sounded over their heads.
The sky had been darkening steadily, the clouds pregnant with the luminescent red light of the sunset. Only now did the lighting crack through them, the first drops begin to patter. The surging waves lifted them stomach-turningly higher until, at last, one of them flung the raft through the air, a few of the vines snapping as it crashed back to the water in a white spray.
Noma shrieked as they landed and the cooking fire went out, as their slab of stone spun off and plunged into the sea. Liss’ limbs locked with terror. “We’re alright,” she said. She planted her heel on the nets to secure them, and laid an arm about her friend’s shoulders. “It can’t be long now.”
Liss looked up. Noma’s eyes were fixed on the horizon behind her, the dawn glittering in her irises.
“Liss, Liss, I think there’s a ship passing, over there,” she exclaimed. She had been rowing all morning, but not a word—no greeting nor complaint—had left her till now.
Turning around, Liss squinted out in the direction Noma was looking. And there, silhouetted against the pink-and-blue, unmistakeable with its tall, proud masts, was a warship.
Without a word, Liss snatched for the rudder handle and yanked it to the left so the raft’s course began to turn.
Although the clouds were thick and drearily grey, their spirits had lit up. Their raft skimmed over the water, flying faster than it had for all ten days prior. By then, the ship had ceased moving, and flashes of light from a lamp on the deck, brighter than the sunrise, told them they had been seen. Before long, a red-and-green rowboat was being lowered into the water, a rider in black onboard.
Now they could see that the ship flew the flag of Orsand, the sight of which made Liss’ heart sink. Even so, Noma rowed onward on Liss’ orders, oars splashing in the water. It was the best they could hope for in these waters.
From the distant warship, the rower made a swift course for their raft where it drifted. It was not long before the rowboat’s hull bumped against the edge of the raft. Lunging over the side, Liss grabbed onto the rope hanging off the hull, hands splashing in the water. She pulled it close enough for them to clamber onto, both doing so with profuse thanks.
“Do not let yourselves feel at home quite yet,” answered the rescuer, refusing to meet their eye as he steered the rowboat in a tight arc with a few oarstrokes, and began towards his vessel.
The thrash of the waves against the hull of the war ship grew louder as they neared. From the deck, the pulley ropes began to descend, reaching the surface of the sea by the time the rower pulled up alongside the towering blue hull. He hooked the rope to both sides of the rowboat and gave it two tugs; almost at once, wheels began to creak overhead, plucking the boat out of the water and hoisting it up at a head-spinning speed.
No sooner had they swung over the side and leapt off onto to the warship’s deck, than did they find themselves sandwiched between two closing ranks of crew. The captain strode down the corridor they formed, carved teeth flashing. Her brown coat was trimmed in silver, and several charm knots swung on the broad brim of her hat.
“You’re so young,” she said in drawling Orsandin. “You must be exhausted from your travels.”
Eyes narrowing, she signalled to her crew with her hand. Liss felt coarse hands fold her arms behind her back, the rough bindings of rope biting into her wrists. As it tightened, she stared up at the woman and the repulsion spells folded into her ribbons.
“As much as I hate to aggravate you after your time at sea,” the captain went on, “I must make sure that you are—in fact—deserving of rescue.” The last word, spoken in a hiss, made Liss’ blood run cold. “Answer me a few questions, and answer honestly.”
Liss put on a brave look. “Of course,” she said with an ingratiating bow, and Noma quickly followed.
“You are soldiers.” The captain traced a line under one eye to indicate the initiatory tattoo. “It is quite odd that you should be out here on a raft, sailing in the direction of seemingly—nothing. How did this come to be?”
Slamming into the brick wall of inadequate preparation set Liss reeling for a moment, and it was all she could do not to let her gaze waver. “We lost our way—on patrol,” she said. “A storm caught us off guard and capsized us. We ended up on a desert island—and that was where we built that raft, hoping to return home.”
She folded her arms, eyes darting from one face to another. “Where were you patrolling?”
“Doganir,” she said.
“Doganir, indeed. There were brief reports of an incident there, thirteen days ago. I only hear there was an explosion, resulting in the death of good General Ylcor. You must know about it. What happened?”
Her testy gaze made the skin on the back of Liss’ neck burn. “An explosion, yes,” she replied, mind racing to lay the paving for her subsequent lies. “Someone had rigged the firework cannon to make it explode. It did so, killing everyone in the first two rows of the audience.”
“I see…” Again the woman glanced back and forth, eyes narrowing. Liss felt her palms grow clammy. “A sad waste of life…but was the culprit found?”
Liss nodded, the booming of her heart almost as loud as the captain’s voice by now. “She was subdued on the town square and taken to the black houses to be re-educated.”
At that, the captain’s mouth curved into a fanged smile. “What a glib liar you are.”
Liss froze. Every crew member’s face changed at once, and she felt the rope tauten around her wrists. From her scabbard the captain pulled a sharp sword, its blade tapering to a needle-point.
“If you’re in the business of lying, get a friend who can keep a straight face when you’re doing it,” she sneered, jabbing the sword in Noma’s direction. The sound of her friend whimpering brought a hot surge of anger. “No, the culprit wasn’t executed. And you…you were not patrolling, nor were you capsized. Let’s try again. What are you doing in the waters of the Greater Isles?”
Liss swallowed, hands curling into fists. It was clear no silver-tongued diplomacy could save them now, so, as the second wore on, she began to calculate. She was weak from two weeks of aimless rafting. But this crew did have such a fondness for jewellery.
She focused on the ropes between her wrists, her attention as sharp as the captain’s sword. None could feel the heat of her ropes burning from inside but herself.
“We had been…” Liss bowed her head. “We had been sailing for ten days from Henkor on that raft. We were escaping from Henkor. After the attack, we didn’t think it was safe for us to remain on Henkor.”
“So the culprit was not executed.”
“No,” replied Liss, clenching her fists. “It was me.”
With a boom, the sword was torn by an explosion of fire and smoke, taking an index finger with it. The captain stumbled back with a screech, droplets of blood spraying across the ground. With another look, Liss set off the beads on her hat, each one severing its charm from its thread.
“I killed your filthy Orsandin commander. I killed Ylcor!”
With a single jerk, she tore her weakened ropes apart. That seemed to unleash the crew: from the corner of her eye she saw them lunge to ambush her, and she whirled around to pummel the first assaulter in the jaw.
Line after line they threw themselves at her, a blur of bodies that she could barely focus her eyes on. One landed atop her, but she flung him off with her feet and then detonated his earring so that he collapsed with a shriek, rivulets of blood pouring down his jawline.
With hands outstretched, she blew chains on necks and buttons on shirts apart, every explosion laced with blood and sending dismembered body parts spinning across the floor. Noma yelped and leapt with each boom, falling backward against the bulwark and curling up beside it while puddles of blood began to pool on the floorboards.
Stinging pain lit up Liss’ right arm: the captain had landed a blow with the blade of a borrowed cutlass. She bit back her shout and snatched the woman’s sleeve, flinging the blade back at her face and blowing it to pieces as it cut her between the eyes. A henchman took the opportunity to lock her in a chokehold, but she twisted her arm behind her back and gripped his belt, exploding the alcohol sloshing in his belly. His grip loosened with a shake and he collapsed backward, sputtering blood.
One by one she added corpses to the slew at her feet. With each one, Liss’ grin grew wider, until she had begun to laugh. Murder came so easily. There they had stood, with their swords and sashes and she, with nothing but her hands—and yet half of them were dead! And now two-thirds of them, she thought as she slung another lifeless body at the bulwark, her shaven head thudding against the wood.
“Stop! Stop, please!” The whimper of surrender pierced her euphoria, shrill and faltering.
Dropping the corpse she held, Liss turned to find its issuer: a young woman, kneeling by the mainmast, clutching at her eyes as if to blind herself. The heat fading from her limbs, she glanced about amid the rising scent of blood: she counted only four more living crew members, sitting, kneeling, or sobbing with their heads between their legs.
Kicking the captain’s limp body aside, she swept up the hat she wore and turned to the survivors, placing it on her head, severed strings dangling from its brim. “I am Liss Legra,” she announced with a grin. “I am your new captain until we reach the Greater Isles, and you will follow my orders. Unless you want to end up like the rest.”
There was much whimpered assent in response. She smiled and strode towards them, picking a coil of rope up off the floor. One by one she corralled them into the centre of the deck with kicks. One of the four was bleeding from a cut in his cheek, the stream of red staining his dirty collar; otherwise they looked unscathed.
“Which of you is the best sailor?” she asked, standing before them.
“Lacar,” said one, glancing at the bleeding man. The rest nodded, except for Lacar himself, who bowed his head and said nothing.
“Get up,” Liss said, kicking at his feet until he did as told. She looped the rope around his wrists and pulled the knot taut to form a leash of sorts. Then she turned to the other three. “No poor behaviour from you. Understood?”
Amid their frantic nodding, she knelt and began binding their ankles to each other’s, then stepped back to admire her handiwork.
“Very good, now you stay right where you are until I call upon you again. Easy.” She turned to her friend and adjusted her new hat, grinning. “Noma, how do I look?”
Noma looked up. “Very nice,” she said, seeming at once startled and embarrassed. “You would look...even smarter with a coat.”
Liss beamed back, then winced, gripping her right arm where the cutlass had sliced it. “Lacar,” she snapped, tugging on his leash. “Show us to the sick bay.”
Liss kicked several corpses out of the way as they picked their way through the mass towards the stairs to the lower deck. “We should get rid of them before they start to rot,” she muttered.
“I’d suggest it too,” Lacar put in.
“You don’t...want to bury them?” Noma said.
“The sea would be a fitting grave for them,” he replied, and then lowered his shaggy head again.
At the sick bay, Noma seated Liss on the edge of the sick bed and began searching baskets and crates till she had found salve, rum and bandages, and arranged them on the tabletop.
As she washed the wound out with the alcohol, Liss flinched and almost tugged her arm out of Noma’s grip, the cut smarting as if the blade had sliced it a second time. Her friend shushed her and renewed her grip on her wrist, beginning to slathering the sticky green salve over the cut.
When the bandage had been knotted securely around her arm, Liss lifted her hand to test it, twisting it so her palm faced up. Already, the throbbing pain was beginning to smoulder out beneath the comforting pressure of the bandage.
“And you ask why I brought you along,” she said, lifting her gaze.
“Because no one else on Henkor liked you?” Noma answered.
With a laugh, Liss turned to Lacar. He had taken a seat on the floor by the wall; two tugs on his rope brought his attention. “How about that steering now?” she said.
Again, he grunted in assent and began to stand with the assistance of the wall. “As you wish,” he said, leading the way back to the stairs.
Out on the corpse-strewn deck, where the salt breeze mingled with the rusty stench of blood, Liss tied Lacar to a baluster beside the helm. She tested her grip on the wheel and gave it a turn, the mechanisms beneath the deck groaning.
“Could you free my hands?” Lacar said.
She frowned. “Just tell me how to sail this ship.”
“How else will I show you how to sail?” He held out his wrists. “I have less than no desire to harm you. I just want to return to Madan.”
“Don’t try anything,” she snarled, beginning to loosen his ropes with her right hand, her left pointed at his chest where his buttons were sewn.
Once she had slipped the rope off his wrists, she knelt to loop the noose onto his left ankle, shoulders tensed, ready to spring at the first provocation. But his betrayal never came, and she finished the knot around his legs with not so much as a complaint from him.
He was already testing the wheel by the time she rose. “Now show me,” she said.
“Alright, give me a minute,” he muttered. “You children truly have no patience.”
Despite his prickly demeanour, Lacar was a patient teacher. By the latter half of the afternoon, Liss was helming the ship fearlessly, with the man providing the guidance of navigation. By then, she had decided it would be easier for everyone if the captives’ ropes were to be replaced with metal necklaces, so they spent the afternoon clasping chains around their necks and melting the hoops together.
Liss had learned the three remaining crew members’ names—Perma, Arzala and Bethur—and then ordered them, by name, to throw their ex-crewmates’ bodies overboard. They resumed their duties as if the ship had not changed hands, raising and trimming sails as their course arced towards the blue sliver of shore in the distance. As the last pink light of sun trickled out of the sky, they went to dine below deck; Bethur brought sea cakes and fish soup, and they even dared laugh among themselves as they ate.
Dinner gave way to drowsiness. Liss was almost dizzied when the exhaustion tackled her bodily, the sleepless nights on the raft finally starting to weigh on her. Wariness alone kept her awake at the helm, where Lacar, too, was dozing off in the rotting chair Noma had brought him. Noma herself lay on the steps, curled up in a fitless sleep.
“Liss,” said Lacar.
She turned. “What?”
Rising from the chair, Lacar shuffled over and laid a hand on the wheel. “Have some sleep. There are hammocks below. I’ll watch the ship through the night.”
Without sparing him a look, she shook her head. “Why should I trust you not to tie us up in our sleep?”
He glanced left and right, as if suspecting the shadows of harbouring monsters. “I told you, I have no desire to harm you,” he whispered. “Nothing about this ship, or this job, commands my loyalty. Only fear. I was…molded to their will by fear.”
Liss folded her arms. “If you follow their will so eagerly, then I’m sure you’d happily tell lies in their name, too.”
Silently, Lacar slid a hand into his shirt pocket, and pulled out his sash. At once Liss leapt into battle stance, pointing a hand at the chain on his neck. But he only offered the sash to her with an insistent look, fingers loose.
Her brow furrowed. Besides the roar of waves and Noma’s gentle breathing, perfect silence framed the scene.
Quietly, Liss snatched the sash out of his hand, eyes never leaving his. “Are you sure?” she said, wrapping it about her hand. She stared down at the fabric: nearly pitch-black, trimmed with silver borders.
Lacar nodded, his hair fluttering in the chill wind. “I can no longer live this life,” he replied. The lines deepened to hollows in his face. “You—” he chuckled—“you struck fear into me, for the first time since I learned to be Orsandin. And now their spell over me is broken. I cannot keep living the life they marked upon me. They know when our minds are changed. They will take me away. Please—let me aid you.”
Like a clawed hand, the words closed about her heart. Liss glanced again at the sash in her hand.
“Tomorrow,” she said, stepping away from the helm, “we’ll talk about this again.”
While Lacar took the wheel, Liss strode down the steps, coming to a stop beside Noma. With a shake of her head, she squatted down and slid her arms under her, hefting the girl in her arms. In the dark, she staggered with Noma’s weight, picking her way down the stairs and towards the corner where she had seen the hammocks before, checking every few steps that her friend was still asleep. She snored away in Liss’ arms, oblivious to all that was happening.
Eventually Liss felt a hammock brush her knee. She lowered her friend into it, then slipped into the neighbouring one, falling asleep almost as soon as her eyes had closed.
As promised, Liss met Lacar at the helm as soon as she woke the next morning. She ascended into the morning chill to the sound of gulls, a sure sign that they must be approaching land.
As she climbed the steps to the helm, she braced herself to revisit the subject of Lacar’s change of heart. But his eyes burned with purpose, and he must have spent the night pondering—for almost as soon as she arrived, he began to speak of plans.
“I have an idea of what we must do now,” he said without turning. “I’ll have you and Noma lowered in a rowboat long before we reach the port. That will leave me free to return this ship to the docks without suspicion.”
“Without suspicion? How do you mean to cover up the murder of all but four of the crew?”
“Whisperings of mutiny. We heard that Captain Glena meant to steal the ship for herself and start a rebel navy. We executed them in their sleep. As far as we are concerned, that is what happened.”
She folded her arms. “The rest—Arzala, Bethur, Perma—will they agree with your story?” she asked.
Lacar nodded once. “Admitting to defending the ship poorly would cost us our superiors’ trust. I think we would all prefer to tell this lie.”
“And will they believe it?”
“Perhaps, perhaps not. Glena was not trusted in the upper ranks, they made that much clear.”
Folding her arms, Liss recited the plan in her mind. “So, what then, when you’ve lowered us in the rowboat?” she asked.
“You will row out to a secluded part of Madan’s shore, and make camp in the forest for two days. Once my business with the navy is cleaned up, I will find you, with supplies, and we may plan the rest of the journey then.”
“You know...they won’t buy your lie forever.”
“I am not hoping that they will. I only need to delay their realisation until we have moved out of their reach.”
On returning to the main area of the deck after lunch, Liss discovered that most of the bloodstains had been scrubbed from the wood. On the port side of the ship, a rowboat was already hoisted on pulleys, hanging half a foot from the bulwark, a stepladder pushed up against the balustrade. Arzala waited with the rope in her hands, offering Liss a greeting in halting Orsandin. With a sigh, she sat down on the lowest rung and propped up her chin on her elbows.
Noma did not arrive on the deck until half an hour later. She came up the stairs hugging a bundle of supplies—sea cakes, dried fish, water skins—wrapped in a net, and began towards the rowboat once she had regained her bearings, tottering under the weight of the pack. At once Liss leaped out of her seat to call out, but she did not return the greeting, glancing warily back and forth between her and Arzala instead.
“Liss?” she whispered on arriving. “I don’t understand. Bethur told me the plans earlier. But why are we trusting them to help us?”
“It is...a bit of a story. Lacar and I talked last night. He’s decided to join us.”
When Noma finally met her eye, she looked stricken. “You’d just trust him? I mean…I know you wouldn’t let them lie to you, so maybe you know for sure that he’s being honest, but…but how do you know?”
Wordlessly, Liss reached into her tunic pocket. When she pulled out Lacar’s sash, Noma’s eyes widened. “Even if he does turn on us,” said Liss then, “I will best him. You know I will.”
While Noma continued to gape, Liss turned back to climb the stepladder, swinging herself into the rowboat. The tiny vessel swayed like a pendulum on the pulley ropes when she landed in it, and she felt the wind through her untied hair, cool and wild and tasting of the sea. When it had stabilised, she turned back to find her friend still standing where she had been. “Coming up?” she called, reaching out.
Looking up, Noma finally began to climb the stepladder, taking the offered hand when she reached the top. She clambered over the side of the rowboat, and promptly lost her balance, landing over the thwart with a bump and a shriek. Liss laughed while she crawled onto the seat in front of her, blushing so hard that the flush was visible through her skin.
As she was righting herself, the pulley began to creak, and the boat began to sink through the air, both pairs of oars rattling. They watched as the balustrade ascended past their heads, then each blue plank of the hull, the waves growing louder until, with a jarring splash, the boat slammed into the water, misting them with seaspray.
Once the boat was steady in the water, Liss unhooked the rope from either side of the boat and gave the pulley two tugs, watching it retreat back to the deck above. Masts and ropes creaked above them, the sails rising to catch the wind. The ship passed them in a roar of currents, its tail of turbulence gurgling and then fading into a froth of seafoam, leaving them adrift alone in the waters. The vast island of Madan undulated to the north, blue and impenetrable from this distance.
Each picking up a pair of oars, Liss and Noma began to row towards the shore.