Saltwater and Blood - III
This chapter contains depictions of murder.
When Lacar bowed goodbye to Perma, Bethur and Arzala in the salty breeze, he offered a longer thank-you than they were expecting, a hand on his heart. As he trudged away he knew, one way or another, that this would be the last time he would ever see them.
Guilt gnawed on his heart when he thought on how they must have followed him into this venture certain he would steer them through this storm, as he had before. Perhaps someone stronger—someone with more resources perhaps—would have found a way to save them.
Putting this dark cloud of thoughts out of his mind, he descending a flight of stone stairs, each step half the height of his leg, from the port and onto the tangled streets of the city.
Lacar had only lived on Madan for as long as the Orsand empire had been here, but already he was starting to forget he had ever had any other home. Ever since the conquerors had renamed it Reico, a shadow had been creeping over it—from the black and purple banners draped over facades, and the dull obsidian eyes of the statue of Emperor Milaston, watching over the city square—blotting out all that lay beneath.
He trudged to a stop before a stacked stone façade, nestled between two others, at the end of a barren street. A shadow lay over its right half; here was the hole he called his home, one of hundreds in the district that had been cordoned off for the sailors and workers of the port. From here the ocean could still be heard, though it was invisible beyond the wall of offices that separated the dock from the neighbourhood, and sometimes the saltwater still came racing down the streets in the torrential rain.
Wrenching the door open on its rusty hinges, he stepped out of the sea-breeze and into this home for the very last time. He had never meant to stay here long. A single large room enclosed by stacked granite slabs, the ceiling hung low enough that he could touch it with his palm. A screen divided it into two areas: a utilitarian living space where his pallet lay by the furnace, and a storeroom, in which little remained except for moth-bitten blankets, stray repair parts and bags strewn among chairs. No paper or tapestry remained—nothing that could serve as a record of history, remembered or lost.
Only a dark rusty stain, streaked across the stones before the doorway, gave an indication of what had become of its previous owner. He took care to step over it whenever he passed, a ritual for the deceased.
As soon as he had shut the door behind him, Lacar sucked in a breath. It would happen soon; the inevitability was like the tang of cold in the air. Someone on the docks would remark on the spotlessness of the ship's hammocks, the marks left by the scuffle on the deck—the misalignments between his story and the one told by the evidence.
At the first glimmer of pink in the sky, he turned the sandglass on his dining table, and at once he felt his time beginning to run out.
From the storeroom, he took his only two drawstring sacks, scooping handfuls of rusty metal pieces from his basket of repair parts into the smaller. By the rain urn he filled three flasks: these he slid into the second bag. A stack of old bandages, he finally took from the top of his dusty wardrobe, where they had lain since the day he had stolen them.
He knelt by his wall and found the old fish spear slotted into the niche at its base, considered its usefulness before conceding to a drop of sentimentality and strapping it to his back.
With nightfall Lacar did not light any lamps. There was no dinnertime chatter outside, as there had not been since the conquerors had first set foot on Madan's soil, but a lone owl—a bird from the old Madan, one which would always soar beyond Orsandin reach—sent up a call from the eaves.
Any time now, there could be heavy footsteps, a rap on the door, and then all this—surviving his town’s massacre, betraying his crew, living and living still in the face of Orsand’s advance—would all have been in vain.
Once he was certain there was nothing more he wanted to take, Lacar slung the bags over his shoulder and strode at last to the doorway. The rack by the door was all but empty, save for one weapon: his sheathed Orsand scimitar. He approached it, running a finger along the designs carved into the leather. The prize and the curse of his survival, the icon of his subjugation, it was the keenest weapon he had owned.
This he strapped about his waist, its weight offering the strength and finality he had been hungering to feel. With it, he knew he was ready to leave.
Leave. The dread of the notion almost struck him down as he stood at the brink, peering through his only window at the purple sunset over the docks. A final chill of hesitancy crept over him. What if he abandoned his struggle now, and left Liss and Noma to be picked off?
But he decided he had done that enough times today. He had already told his lies and made his play, and without their aid, it would all come to naught.
With no more than another breath, Lacar lifted the latch and opened the door.
It slid aside with a creak, a gust blustering at once through his home, the damp and the rot. Before the sky had darkened completely, he had shut the door behind him, all he knew behind it, and scurried to the end the street. Out in the wind, he left the shadow of the port so that the moon lit his way. Already he had his course charted in mind, most of it spanning a grove that would take him to the coastline where he had told Liss and Noma to wait.
Looking up, he tried to discern the map in the stars. If this was no more than a fool's venture, doomed to end like a thousand others, he did not care to know it. No map could tell him where he and his newfound allies were headed: only a memory of what lay beyond these borders, and the hope that some scrap of fortune still remained for them, in this world where Orsand had stolen all of it.
“Moreni, ask the Being’s blessing for me,” he whispered in a tongue the Orsandin would never understand. Then letting his past slide back into the recesses of his mind, he made a sprint for the trees.
The crackle of distant footsteps broke through the afternoon. The noise of the padded boots was nearly imperceptible, but from their vantage high above the undergrowth, it was hard to miss the trails of rustling through the shrubs, advancing in the direction of the coast.
Liss and Noma sat perched on a branch in the understorey, a crate of cannonball fruit balanced between them by means of a pulley. The other end of the pulley rope lay clutched tightly in Noma’s hands, and both were as still as they could be, for any sudden motion would set the branch swaying.
In the centre of the clearing beneath them lay a single cartwheel, waiting to be discovered.
The rustles in the shrubbery meandered back and forth for several minutes, until at last a person burst through into the clearing, dressed in the black tunic of the gendarmery with a dark sash swinging on his belt. Noma went stiff beside Liss, pressing her free fist to her mouth.
Beneath them, the officer stumbled to a stop before the bait, walking once around it and kneeling to inspect its spokes. He rose to his feet and turned back the way he had come. “I’ve found something!” he called out in sharp Orsandin. “One of the wheels!”
Throughout the grove, the other trails paused, and turned, making towards the source of the shout.
As he resumed his inspection, Liss’ eyes swept the man in search of the glint of metal, a brief wave of worry sweeping her when she found she could see nothing but fabric and leather. “Pass me one,” she whispered with an outstretched hand in Noma’s direction as the crunch of footsteps grew louder from all directions. With a nod, Noma scooped one fruit out of the crate with a hand, which trembled with its weight—the other still gripped around the rope—and planted it in her palm.
Even knowing its weight, Liss almost let the rough-barked fruit slip out of her grip. She balanced it upon her palm, its heft lending her certainty.
The officer had resumed inspection of the cartwheel, almost dead centre between the two above. In a scattering of leaves and twigs, three more officers burst into the clearing, and then, in time, several more. There were a dozen of them now, all gathered over the wheel in confused discussion.
With one eye closed, Liss held the rough brown fruit suspended beneath the branch, and flung it at the kneeling officer.
The cannonball fruit connected off-centre with his head, but that was enough to bowl him over with a disquieting crunch. Everyone turned to their fallen comrade in a concerted motion, one of them pointing out the offending fruit, another picking it up. “Another,” whispered Liss as confusion turned to concern on their faces. Noma placed the fruit in her hand almost as soon as she reached out.
In that moment, a second officer looked up, and as her eyes met Liss', mortification contorted her face—one second before the cannonball fruit smashed into it.
At once the clearing was in a frenzy of shouts, a wave of sashes emerging from pockets and belts. "Spells!" The order resounded across the clearing.
“Dump the rest!” Liss snapped. Lips pale with fright, Noma slackened the rope and the crate tipped.
Thunder and a roar of leaves as the fruit rolled and tumbled out of the crate. With the sudden lightening of its load, the branch began to swing wildly, and Noma’s cries joined those of the officers below as a cascade of fruit the size and weight of small boulders rained upon them. Birds sprang from hiding, fleeing into the depths of the grove. Most of the officers did not make it; their screams and raised arms proved no barrier to the spherical projectiles as, one by one, they were knocked to the ground, blood spattering across the leaves.
Liss felt her heart unclench as the last fruit landed in the leaf litter, but the triumph was premature. Four officers remained standing at the edge of the clearing unscathed, spells folded on their sashes and slingshots in their hands.
Gritting her teeth, Liss gripped Noma’s shoulder and shook her with a shout, “to the ground!” Quickly she turned her attention on the clearing, and exploded the cartwheel’s iron hub with a boom, sending one of the four sprawling on the roots. As the remaining officers shouted at each other, she crawled towards the trunk.
“But the crate—” Noma trembled, a hand still curled around the rope.
“Let go!” Liss shouted.
A slingshot twanged. The sash, knotted so tight it flew like a rock, struck the branch with a spark and a boom to match Liss’ own explosion. In a pop of sinews, the branch began to tilt. Shrieking, Noma let go of the rope—and the crate went tumbling, shattering into splinters upon the bodies sprawled below.
Arriving at the junction of the branches, Liss wrapped her legs around the neighbouring one and reached out to Noma, who was stuck crawling by inches up the tilting limb, the tear starting to gape between them. Fibre by snapping fibre, the branch sagged with her weight.
Their hands met just in time, fingers locking around wrists, grips tightening. With a cacophonous rip, the last sinews of the branch tore, and it gave way, plummeting in a showering of leaves.
Noma let out another scream as her feet lost purchase on the branch, her legs swinging in the air. Suddenly there was nothing but a drop five times her height below her, nothing but Liss’ grip keeping her from tumbling that entire height to her death.
“Liss!” she cried, fingers starting to slip. “Liss, I don’t want to die!”
Noma’s pleas were muffled by the boom of her heart in her ears. “You won’t!” Liss growled, hooking a leg around the trunk. She threw herself backward with all her weight, hand beginning to burn with the friction between their palms. She thrust her other hand towards her friend’s flailing arm.
Their free hands connected, grips slippery and aching. But Liss knew she did not have enough purchase to lift her friend onto the branch.
“Swing!” she called down to Noma’s tearful, wide-eyed face. Another projectile burst past, missing their branch and booming against the one above. Again Noma cried out, tears cascading down her face. The sound of cracking wood chorused across the clearing. “There’s a branch not far below you—just swing and let go!”
“I can’t!” she cried. “I’m not you!”
“So what?” Liss snarled.
Noma continued to sob, but she nodded.
With a kick of her legs, she swung once—twice—and as Liss loosened her fingers, she let go, soaring through the air for a fraction of a second…before her left foot connected with the branch beneath, and her right missed.
With a scream Noma’s left arm flew out to hook the branch. Her fall stopped short, and she tilted back, crawling till she was straddling it, arms embracing it, head bowed to the bark.
Right then, from the trees, another figure in gendarmery black flew into the clearing. "They're up in the trees!" the one with the slingshot called over to him, waving him over and aiming again at Noma's branch.
Liss began to curse, but her voice dwindled as the new officer drew his weapon, and a metallic glint lit up its curved edge.
Flinging thoughts of all else aside, she began focusing her eyes on the Orsandin blade. She followed its shining edge with her eyes, drawing heat from the thrill and channelling it through the air into the metal as he lifted it over his shoulder—
—and beheaded the slingshot-bearer in a clean swipe.
Liss’ focus broke. She stared, blood roaring in her ears, as the head flew, scattering an arc of blood droplets and thudding on the leaves. The uniformed man flew across the clearing and hacked another head off another pair of shoulders with the overheating blade. He turned at the end of the swing, barely hindered by the weight of the haversacks over his shoulder.
“Lacar,” Liss whispered.
The third gendarmery officer, hobbling towards Lacar in the shelter of undergrowth, lunged for his legs like a snake. He was faster than they were. He barely had to look before lifting a foot and thrusting a kick in their direction, sending them sprawling. There they lay for their last breaths, before he twisted his scimitar into the officer’s back.
They sent up a ragged scream, which ended as he drew the bloodied sword out of their twitching back.
For a minute or so after the echoes of that last cry died, Lacar stalked about the clearing, sinking his blade into chests and backs. Most did not respond, but a few, still barely living, twitched as the metal entered them.
Kicking a cannonball fruit gently out of the way, he looked up through the foliage.
“Was it your idea to kill them with fruit, Liss?” he called.
“I take half the credit,” she replied.
A smile broke through his stone-hard grimness. “You young ones have such wild ideas.”
Liss began her descent, climbing in shaky stops and starts from one branch to the next. At Noma’s branch, she came to rest, sitting down and locking gazes with her. In answer to her quiet, firm look, Noma offered a wavering one.
She knew Lacar would be getting impatient right about now, but she refused to move on until the terror in Noma’s gaze had settled.
“Time to go,” she said, reaching out to grip her hand. “Alright?”
Lacar greeted them as they scampered the last leg’s height down the trunk. His eyes were sunken with exhaustion, but as unfalteringly as he did everything else, he handed Liss the bag of parts as they arrived.
“Do the authorities know yet?” she asked, snatching it out of his hands.
“They well might—even if that Acsana left it till this morning to put her suspicions together.” He made a grumbling noise. “Get your supplies and meet me here. This fight's wasted enough of our time.”
The three trudged across the beach as the sun began to burn white, stepping over flotsam and shards of shells. Lacar dragged the rowboat behind him while the other two carried the oars, Liss holding them in the crook of her right arm, Noma hugging them against her chest.
From behind the trees, they watched till a patrol boat passed, its white sails gleaming. It would be half an hour before the next one came—half an hour to pass unseen into the unknown beyond Orsand’s reach.
They paused at the fringe of the water, waves splashing their toes and boots. Without a word, Lacar dropped the rowboat to the sand with a thud. He shoved it out onto the first lapping waves. Untethered from the ground, it glided an arm’s length across the glassy water.
“Keep your eye on those,” said Lacar, pointing out three dim islands upon the blue horizon. “If we row fast, we can make the leftmost island before the next patrol passes.”
Liss leapt across the water, landing in the boat with a thump. The contents of her bag jangled, and her fingers moved to run along its outer surface, feeling the bumps of nails and nuts inside. While the vessel bobbed and drifted, she dropped to the thwart and secured her oars in their locks, rowing it gently back towards the others.
Lacar waded out knee-deep into the water. With a palm he tipped the boat just far enough to step in, which he did easily with his broad, towering frame. He took his place on the centre thwart, between the first pair of oarlocks.
“There’s an old warehouse a five-day row from here. A hive of activity for black market traders and smugglers, before the atuis industry dried up.”
“Atuis?” Liss frowned.
He turned to her. “Didn’t your grown-ups tell you what it was they were smoking? I refuse to believe it never reached Henkor’s shores. The largest illegal industry in this corner of the world—and most of it went through the den we’re headed for.”
“How does a place like that go missed for so long?”
“It was a haven of outlaws...its location wasn't chosen for being easy to find. The triumvirate of the Greater Isles never found it in the two decades of its prime, and the Orsand authority will not find it either...at least not for a while.”
“How will you find it?” muttered Noma from outside the boat.
He turned to her and gestured for the oars, which she dropped beside him across the thwart. “I’ve been there several times,” he replied, loosening the oarlock bolts.
Liss felt her jaw clench at these words. “You’re avoiding my questions,” she snapped, turning abruptly. “If you won’t speak openly, then you’re no better than Orsandin to me.”
Lacar looked on back, gaze giving away nothing.
Right then, Noma finally struggled over the sheer and landed inside the boat with a bump. Releasing Lacar’s gaze, Liss wasted no moment in beginning to row, pulling faster and more vigorously on the oars than she ever had. They shot out into the blue, past the line where the bed sank away and the seawater grew dark beneath them. Soon, she heard the splash of oars meeting water, and the doubling of their pace told her Lacar had joined.
“Ask what you will,” he said once they had gathered momentum. “I’m not trying to hide anything from you.”
“Right. Why were you at a smuggler’s den so often?” Liss answered.
She had half anticipated yet another explanation that led nowhere, so it almost did not register when Lacar said, “What do you think? I was a smuggler.”