Saltwater and Blood – II
Liss watched as the hills beyond the rowboat's bow drifted closer, glowing purple in the light of the sinking sun. Glena’s ship had long disappeared into the next bay, and above the slosh of water, the swampy air sat heavy and stagnant. With each stroke the land resolved into sand and forest, bands of colour and shadow muted in the fading light.
“How are you going?” she asked, limbs slackening with the relief of familiar Doganira words upon her tongue once more.
Noma lifted her sagging head barely higher than her shoulders. Her arms trembled against the oars with each stroke and her eyes were dull with exhaustion, yet she rowed still, one pull after another.
“I’m as good—as I can be.” Her voice came in stops and starts, worry knotting her brow. “Do you reckon there'll be patrols about?”
A chill ran up Liss’ neck. “That would depend on our timing,” she said, eyes on the violet horizon from which they had rowed. “If they come…there will be fewer of them than there were on Glena’s ship.”
Noma made a noise in acknowledgment and lowered her head, returning to the row with faltering resolve.
Liss knew something that few others did—something she had held close to her core from the day she had learned it, and had built herself around.
On the island of Henkor, and all across the Doganir Archipelago, the only stories the elders ever told were the ones about the people who deserved it. Each prince, monster and murderer at the heart of every legend must have done something to earn their place in it—a deed so great or terrible that it demanded to be spoken of for generations after.
Whereas the other children would squeal at every suspenseful turn of the elders’ stories, Liss had always listened with unperturbed attention, never once concerned that the hero might die in the first third of the tale. They never did.
No one told the story of the man who was mauled by a shark in the waters of his own lagoon as he rowed out in search of treasure, or of the woman who tripped on a pebble and fell to her death on her way to the battlefield. They had to do something of consequence first. Something that mattered.
As she had lived, and as life had taken turns as wild as those of the legends, Liss had come to learn that all she had to do to have what she wished was act as if it were already hers. No one else seemed to see it, how fate could be wrapped around fingers and tied into knots like a sash. Watching them she came to understand, with no small amount of pity, that none of them could possibly be more than a minor players in the story of the world—none of them but she.
And so this was why, sitting here at the bow of this rowboat, in unfamiliar Orsandin waters, Liss knew she had nothing to fear. She knew a thousand things could happen in this moment to end their journey for good. But she knew none of them would.
She couldn't die yet. She was the hero of this tale.
The rowboat’s hull finally crunched on sand as violet washed over the sky, like a dye pressed from flowers. Liss nodded to Noma, and both clambered over the side, splashing barefoot in the shallows. Noma picked up the skin-wrapped supplies with both arms. With one hand, Liss lifted the bow of the boat by its rope handle and began to drag it up the glimmering beach, oars clattering, toes sinking into the sand. She staggered out of the water, wet ground turning dry and coarse, the pink grains rustling under the hull.
At the edge of the grove bordering the beach, Liss heaved the boat into a space among the roots, squatting to shove it in. She dusted her hands on her tunic and rose, eyes sweeping the beach for her friend. Noma’s silhouette waited some ways down the beach, one arm wrapped around the packs while the other waved at her.
She began to run stumblingly to meet her. “Here,” Noma called as Liss arrived, gesturing at the parting in the trees beside her. A footpath dove through the trunks, curving into the leaf-carpeted dimness. There was no sign of how this path had formed; perhaps the trees had simply parted by their own will.
They stood staring down the passageway for a while, before Liss stepped forth and forged into the depths.
Leaves and loose gravel crunched beneath their bare toes as they tiptoed in the shadows of interwoven branches, stepping over roots in the indigo dark and swatting flies away. Noma lingered at Liss’ side, neither moving ahead nor trailing behind. The path soon broadened to encircle a dark stump with a pale centre, about as tall as their shins and an arm across; without a word, Liss dropped the pack of salted fish, water flasks and sea cake jars onto the stump’s flat top and sat down on its edge.
“Let me make a fire,” Noma said at once, dropping to her knees and scraping out a pit in the ground even as she spoke.
“And I’ll get twigs—”
“I can do that,” Noma cut in.
For a quiet half-hour, the girl worked alone at the firepit in the deepening darkness, digging cakes of earth out with her hands, then scampered about the clearing, scooping up twigs into the hem of her tunic and dumping them in the pit. Kneeling beside her handiwork, she pulled her sash from her pocket and folded a spell into it in the dark.
Amid the scent of smouldering wood, Liss lounged about, listening to the girl mutter about “useless damp twigs”. Noma had denied all her offers of help, so she had long abandoned the effort and now sat cross-legged atop the stump, watching Noma swing the incendiary spell at the twig stack.
In a crackle, a spark finally caught, and the warm orange glow of a flame lit up the hollow.
“You did it!” said Liss, sliding off the stump to settle in its glow, with a grin that Noma did not return.
Sitting side-by-side with the flame warming their faces, they speared the fish on the ends of twigs and roasted them. The silence seemed opaque, sludgy as the swamp almost. As the heat licked at their shins and they stripped fish meat from bones, Liss glanced rightward and caught Noma watching her, though her eyes immediately darted away. The air seemed to grow heavier.
She cleared her throat. “Thank you, for lighting the fire,” she said.
“No need,” answered Noma, looking the other way. “I’m sorry it took so long.”
“That doesn’t matter. You did it in the end.”
She drew her arms closer. “You would have done it quicker.”
“But I didn’t do it,” she answered, brow starting to furrow. “The twigs were damp. You couldn’t help that.”
“I know you’re better at these things.”
Liss sighed. “Are you upset at me?”
An upsurge of annoyance clouded Noma’s face for a moment, before she shook her head, hugging her knees with one arm. “I’m upset at myself,” she growled. Wind rushed into the hollow, making the fire gutter momentarily, wringing a shiver out of her. She pulled her legs closer.
A curious pang of protectiveness flared in Liss’ chest. “Because you took a while to light a fire?”
Noma threw up her arms. “Because I take a while to do everything! I haven’t been anything but perfectly useless to you since I left home. Right?”
“I’ve only given you twice the work since we left Henkor! Why did you take me along?”
“You fixed my arm. You caught us sea cucumbers. I didn’t even know what sea cucumbers were before you brought them! That’s not something a useless person would have done.”
Noma sulked intently at the fire.
“I told you, I didn’t ask you to come because I needed you to be useful.”
“Then why? Because I’m the only person who likes you?”
Liss folded her arms on her knees, watching her friend’s eyes glisten in the firelight. “Because you’re the only person I like.”
Noma blinked tears out of her eyes, glower softening. In that moment, the rustle of leaves became the only sound in their vicinity, obscuring even the low rumble of the waves. The unfamiliarity of everything around them—the broad-leafed trees, the coarse sand, the melody of the chirping insects—came over them like the cold.
Liss looked up; there was not much to be seen beyond the canopies, which were an unfamiliar colour in the firelight. She began to think about Henkor and its dead volcano and its encroaching aroca plantations, so far away now that they might never return to it.
“I miss home, a little,” she said.
Noma nodded. “I miss when it wasn’t overrun by Orsandin.”
Both fell silent as the thought of their ravaged home resurfaced. For Liss it had become second nature to harden herself against expressions of sorrow or rage, but Noma's shoulders sank, and her fingers curled.
“I miss everything. Even my parents. Even the mines.”
“The mines. You spent a lot of time there, you and the rest of your village. Did you help your family with mining?”
Noma lifted her head, swallowing a mouthful of fish. “I didn’t do much. I brought my parents their meals on some days. And when they needed an extra hand, I helped mine the rock. I always got home aching. And then I would spend the rest of my time reading, learning knots, and learning about the sea.”
“When were you ever not reading?” she said, a grin coming to her. “You know so much about the sea, but you never came to swim with us. Why’s that?”
She shuddered. “Half of the creatures in it could kill me.”
Liss shook her head. “When’s the last time someone on Henkor was killed by a sea creature?”
Noma looked away into the woods again. “It doesn't matter, I’m… Most of us are afraid to die. And I let that fear tell me what to do most of the time. I’m not you. You’re strong, and brave, and none of that scares you.” Tearing the last of her fish off the stick with her teeth, she finally flung the charcoal and bones into the fire. The flame began devouring it.
Liss folded her arms. “If you want to be less afraid, you have to stop thinking so poorly of yourself. You aren’t born with it, you choose to be brave. Haven’t you ever done something you were scared to do?”
“Well, once…I suppose. When I helped save my uncle Nera’s life during a cave-in.”
This was perhaps not the answer Liss had expected. “Saved your uncle? When?” She made sure to make her surprise visible.
The beginnings of an abashed smile appeared on Noma’s firelit face. “It really wasn’t much… It was so many years ago. A mine shaft collapsed on Uncle Nera, and no one could reach him except me. I was the only one who could fit through the gaps. So for three days I brought him his meals, until the rest of the village broke down the blockage.”
“I remember that—the collapse. We were seven years old then.” Liss tossed her stick into the fire. “Why’s this the first time I’ve heard about your part in it?”
“I didn’t think it was much to brag about.” Noma choked out a laugh. “Bringing people food, that’s all I’m good at.”
“No, no—saving people. That’s what you’re good at.”
“I don’t know,” Noma said, but it was clear she was allowing herself to be pleased with her little heroic deed, for she couldn’t hide her smile.
Finishing the last of meagre dinners, they lay down in the litter by the dwindling fire and drew together mounds of leaves for pillows. Lying on her back, staring at the silhouettes of criss-crossing branches, Liss closed her eyes, and the hollowness of being so far from anything familiar began to swallow her again.
“Ship’s missing a rowboat,” Lacar shouted to Acsana over the rush of red-drenched waves as he strode down the gangplank. As he stepped off onto the dock, the ground seemed to wobble beneath his feet, as it did after he had spent a week at sea.
The inspector-on-duty fired him a frown as she made a note of the damage in her booklet. “Where is your captain?” she answered with a furrow of her brow, pressing the end of her pencil to her chin.
“She is not here, and the reason for that is for the Admiral alone to know,” he replied as he passed. She began to voice another question, but he did not meet her eye, and marched down the dock as if he had some singularly important business to attend to, Perma, Arzala and Bethur tailing him in a hushed line.
Admiral Ecata’s dock-side office was situated deep within the repurposed ferry station half an hour’s walk along the military docks, a monolith now defaced with Orsand banners and murals. The entourage behind Lacar was silent yet jittery as they traversed the seaside route; none of the sailors they passed offered more than well-wishes, with glances left and right as if they might be reprimanded for their pleasance.
In this interlude, amid the relentless roar of the waves, Lacar once again composed the lies he was about to tell.
The Admiral, who might have been a sailor once, spent more time cooped behind his desk in his cell of an office than he did out in the sea breeze these days. Now he only signed papers decreeing the movement of ships, and found he had trouble fitting his belly behind his desk.
Lacar did not mind his portliness—but his eyes, those bearish Orsandin eyes, half buried under hooded lids in the shadow of a trimmed brow, were hard steel grey and impossible to look straight into. Not years of sailing storms, not decades living on the wrong side of the law, could ready him to look into those eyes.
Even so, as he closed the door behind him and rattled out a greeting, Lacar forced himself to meet that gaze. “Admiral,” he said, touching his hand to his heart in salute. “I have bad news concerning my superior, Captain Glena.”
Ecata did not respond right away, the sound of his nib scratching away filling the silence for a minute until he finally returned the pen to its holder. “You, Lacar en Cantra…hmph, one of Glena’s, yes,” he answered. His gaze dipped back to his letter, and he blew on the wet ink through puckered lips. “Bold of you to speak on her behalf.”
“I don’t speak on her behalf. She’s dead.”
Ecata’s eyes darted back to the visitor. Whatever reply he had prepared, it died on his lips. His brow wrinkled, and once again that steel gaze tested his will. “Dead. At sea?”
“Yes, during our recent patrol mission.”
“That is unfortunate.”
“There is nothing unfortunate about it. She was a mutineer.”
If the first statement had knocked the response from Ecata’s lips, this one seemed to bring a thousand new ones, which came in an incoherent sputter. “Mutineer!” he finally spat.
“I apologise to have to bring such grave news, Admiral. I got wind of her plans four days south of Madan: she meant to take the ship and begin a rebellion. It was only a whisper among the crew at first, but three days ago, she announced it to us herself.”
Here he paused to gauge the Admiral’s reaction. The letter seemed the least of his concerns now; he watched Lacar with a deepening squint, no trace of flippancy left in his deep-set gaze.
“She demanded our loyalty, even in the face of mutiny. But the four of us—myself and the three outside—we knew and feared the consequences of such treachery. We pretended loyalty that day. And that night…we slayed the rest with our own blades.”
To this, Ecata’s answer was another testy silence. It was easier to return his stare with equal force now. He knew he had to.
And he must have done a good job of it, for the admiral’s gaze dropped. “Mutiny,” he said. “Of course it was Glena, but all the same—” The pause that ensued felt out of place. When their gazes met again, his was frigid and barren. “Leave my office, en Cantra. You will be summoned later…there will be investigations…you know the process, recruit. Do not see me again until then. Now, out.”
“Yes, Admiral,” Lacar said in a shaky breath.
With no more than a salute of hand to heart, he turned smartly to depart, every footstep seeming too loud as he walked away with the cold pressure of Ecata’s gaze on his back. He only dared let his brow slacken once he had shut the door behind himself, and the long sigh he let out as he met with the three outside brought a sag to his shoulders.
Liss pried her eyelids apart as the sunlight began to seep through the cracks. The chatter of animal cries and the rumbling of waves were the first things that faded into her senses, then the muggy warmth...and the uncomfortable stench of salted fish.
She sprung bolt upright from her waking haze, scrambling across the leaves to where their packs lay. There she found that the ropes had been chewed through, and their bundle of fish was all but gone, the remains scattered across the clearing in tiny crumbs.
Liss made her most valiant effort not to yell in frustration, but she did give herself the luxury of punching the leafy ground with a crunch. Taking quick stock of their supplies, she found that only one jar of sea cakes and one fish remained—barely a meal for both of them. She began to rearrange their supplies, tossing out useless fragments of rope and knotting the loose ends together.
Sitting on the ground beside their pitiful stack, she gazed out between the trees. With their fish gone and their stocks so low, there was not much to do but to forage for something else to dine upon.
She stood. Beside the sooty remains of the fire, Noma still lay asleep, snoring softly on the carpet of leaves. With a shake of her head and a smile, she slipped out of the clearing through a gap between two trees.
It was almost twenty minutes of picking her way through prickly undergrowth and flicking insects away, before she hit the edge of the grove, where the light began to bleed green through the understory. Peeking through that last row of trees, Liss found a bend in a cobblestone road, ploughing straight through the vegetation. Its stones had been worn down by the wheels of thousands of carriages, the bald patches of dirt between them generously scored with cart tracks.
It did not take long for a rumble of wheels to draw Liss’ gaze, heralding the passing of a gleaming carriage. The stags that drew it snorted as they passed, but did not so much as turn to glance at her. She watched lazily; it was ten minutes before the next vehicle passed, and then they came at five to ten-minute intervals. Some were run-down passengers carriages; others, carts bearing crates of cargo, slowing on the approach to the bend.
Liss counted six, seven, all rolling effortlessly along. Soon, an eighth vehicle came trundling towards her, a cart of serviceable grey wood and rattling crates in the back. Again she began to follow it with her eyes, watching the undulation of the horse's sleek flanks as they cantered along.
Then the driver met her eye.
With a yell, they cracked their whip against the horses’ flanks. The cart clattered to a stop several arms’ lengths away, the wheels grinding to a halt in the dust. The driver barked something in the incomprehensible syllables of the Greater Isles, before switching to Orsandin. “What are you doing here?”
“None of your business,” she answered in their shared language.
Their brow furrowed beneath the shadow of their hood. She watched as their hand slid under their cloak.
“You should not be in this forest!” they hissed. “Get in my cart. I’m taking you back!”
“I said it’s none of your business,” she repeated.
“Get in here, or I’ll make you!” they repeated.
She knew, if the Orsand authority had worked its way into their mind the way it did every captive’s, that this cart-driver would not leave her be.
Sure enough, they leapt from their seat and lunged at her through the first row of trees, dagger flashing.
Even expecting it, Liss was not quick enough to react. The blade tip tore through her tunic and bit deep into her skin, the pain shooting down her arm and igniting sparks in her eyes. A chill of terror swept her as she noticed, through tear-clouded eyes, that the blade was ivory. Tough as bone. Impossible to detonate.
Clenching her jaw, she shoved them away before their knife could find any deeper purchase. She had almost forgotten the feeling of fighting for her life, the way the fear squeezed the air out of one’s lungs and made one’s fingers numb. They wrestled for the weapon, and with each jerk the tip left another bleeding gash. Their strength was almost matched, as was their terror. But little by little, Liss wrangled the assaulter into a vulnerable position until the moment was ripe, and she sprang, yanking the weapon out of their grip.
They froze for barely a moment, before pouncing to reclaim it, and the surprise almost wrenched a cry out of her. It was almost by luck that Liss managed the next sequence of manoeuvres: she side-stepped the opportunistic lunge and whirled back as they passed, thrusting the knife into their side.
Eyes going wide as she tore the blade out of their flesh, the driver collapsed forward and crumpled to their knees. Over and over they muttered some phrase in their language, a hand pressed weakly to the gushing wound.
Kneeling beside them as if to listen, Liss drew back her arm and plunged the knife into their back.
The reek of iron seemed to stain everything as it pooled on the leaf litter. Clutching a hand over her chest wound, now sticky with her own blood, Liss raced back to the cart that the attacker had left in the roadside dirt. The horses were pawing restlessly, tossing their heads.
“You won’t work for anyone ever again,” she said. Working away at the reins with the bloodied knife until she could tear them with her hands, she freed them both of their bonds, and watched as they bolted away across the road.
Now that the cart was completely deserted, Liss clambered into the back and lifted the lid of one crate. The scent of salt and dried meat hit her at once, and she peered in: countless woven straw packages were piled up inside. Choosing and unwrapping one, she discovered it enclosed a flaky stick of jerky.
She swallowed an exclamation of surprise. Sparing only a few seconds to marvel at the find, Liss leapt out of the cart and kicked a few rocks into the grooves under the wheels. With a clench of a fist, the rocks exploded, sending the cart bouncing and cruising down the slope off the road, loose reins trailing on the ground, until the driver's seat bumped against the first tree and snapped off with a crack.
She became aware then that she could hear the approach of another distantly clattering set of wheels. Without another wayward thought, she flung the knife in among the trees and dove behind the cart, by the broken remains of its seat.
Perhaps the sight of wrecked carts was no rarity on Madan, or perhaps this driver had judged that leaving the accident uninvestigated was more prudent than becoming entangled with it. The cart passed without slowing, and Liss finally clambered out of hiding when the rattle of its wheels had finally deserted her hearing range.
"Where’ve you been?" Noma sprang from her seat the moment Liss stumbled into the clearing, hugging the crate with both arms. “You made me panic!”
“You should look at this.” She dropped the crate on the ground with a rattling thud, heaving a sigh as the pain of the wound ebbed somewhat. She lifted the lid, and at once her friend’s frown morphed into a gape.
Before Liss had even begun reaching out for a packet, Noma had already snatched up her own, tearing the straw wrapping off. “Where did this come from?” she gasped, already ripping generous chunks of the jerky off with her teeth. “How far away did you—”
Noma's eyes grew wide as the moon as they crossed the fabric tears and knife-wounds criss-crossing Liss’ chest for the first time. She swallowed her mouthful of the meat in a gulp.
“Liss…did you fight someone for these?”
Liss folded her arms over the wounds. “No, I ran into a cart full of them,” she replied.
Noma’s mouth curved into a frown, and she reached out to push Liss’ forearm down so that she could squint closer at the wound. “And the cart stabbed you,” she muttered.
“That’s not a stab wound, physician,” she replied with a smile, then winced at the pressure of her friend’s fingers near the wound site.
“It could fester and kill you if we don’t wash it.”
“Definitely not, this scratch can’t kill me.”
Noma shook her head. “We have some water left, I’ll get it.” Then, glancing at the crate, she grimaced. “Liss, what if they come searching for all this jerky? You don’t think they’re going to miss that much?”
“If they do,” she said, “I’ll just do what I always do.” The pain was beginning to aggravate her, and she did her best to reserve her response to a pursing of her lips.
“Liss, you need to stop marching into every fight like you've already won,” she replied.
Liss shrugged. “What, do you think they can beat me?”
“Yes! I said stop, please!” Noma snapped, snatching her wrists so suddenly that she stiffened. Those wide, brown eyes met her own, the pleading so fervent in her gaze that it was almost terrifying to keep looking. “Look at yourself. You’re bleeding all over your clothes. Whatever fight you were in, you weren’t about to win it easily.”
Liss’ frown softened. “I didn’t have any metal to work with, that’s all,” she said. “Just bad luck.”
“And it could have been worse! Without metal or rock to explode, you’re just as strong as anyone else.”
She sulked. “Slightly stronger, I’d say.” But she let her shoulders slacken, and conceded with a tilt of her head. “Alright, I suppose you want me to prepare in advance? Tie some knots? How do you prepare?”
“That’s the trouble with you, born with the island’s blessing and all that. Are you even any good with knotwork?”
“Hey, I know how to fold an incendiary spell.”
“The incendiary spell is the least useful one for you.” Noma’s expression, too, had grown mild; her huge eyes were put to good use staring up at her friend. For a while Liss tried to read that look—growing aware, above the throbbing of the wound over her heart, that her wrists were still locked in her grip.
"Are you…going to get the water?" she said, verging on a laugh.
Immediately Noma snatched her hands away. "Yes, minute—a few—give me a few minutes," she choked out, racing towards the pile of their supplies by the stump.
Liss frowned as she waited, pacing back and forth in circles. It was hard to bite back her arrogance, but she knew Noma was right. If one cart-driver had been carrying an ivory knife, there was no saying everyone else on Madan didn’t.
She continued to ponder as Noma returned to drag her to the stump. Her friend pointed to a spot between the roots, and she sat down in the niche they formed.
Noma worked confidently but with care, pulling the collar of Liss’ tunic aside to expose the tattered undershirt. The sharp sting of water in the wound interrupted her thoughts, a cry tearing itself from her throat. In response she received a shoulder-pat and more water.
Her friend seemed satisfied after some prying that nothing remained lodged in the wound site. The application of a small lump of salve from a jar smuggled from the ship began to ease the pain away.
Liss watched with bewilderment as Noma went to work, first unravelling her left leg wrap, fighting with the fabric until she had torn off a rectangle and winding the wrap back around her ankle. About the clearing, she began to pick and shred leaves off the shrubs. Somewhere, she paused to inspect a large fruit the size of a cannonball on the ground, then glanced up at the tree from which it had fallen, studying its bark.
Her eyes widened as Noma began to fold a spell she did not recognise. Pressing the knotted fabric against the trunk with a palm, she gave the end a tug, and all at once the spellwork unravelled, a stab of force cracking the bark and sending the girl stumbling back with the recoil. A hole gaped like a wound in the tree's side, brownish sap oozing out of it.
Though she was not one to admit to admiring another, Liss could not help calling out, “You have to teach me that, that's amazing!”
By now, Noma had returned to Liss’ side, beaming despite herself and curiously unable to meet her friend's gaze as she reached into her pocket and patted the shredded leaves over the wound. “It’s the best I could make,” she said. The sap-treated rectangle of fabric came next; she pressed down to seal the edges of the makeshift patch in place.
Liss lifted her left arm and swung it back and forth to test it, before Noma gripped it and pushed it firmly back down.
“Don’t aggravate it for no reason,” she scolded. Liss, now diminished to a disgruntled charge, made a noise of half-hearted agreement, and Noma knelt down beside her, her inquiring look returning. “Have you decided what we’ll do if someone comes looking for the jerky?”
Liss nodded. “We'll prepare an ambush,” she said.