Heather woke screaming that morning, hurled awake by the nightmare. Same one, every night, she thought to herself, as she let her body shudder through the adrenaline. Dealing with the terror had become tedious, by now: Breathe. Shake. Cry. Okay, now get up. There’s work to do.
It was still an hour before dawn, and that suited her fine. Time enough to brew a last cup of tea, and let herself out of her house into the now-quiet city streets. Now her feet carried her, in a hurry, east towards the docks. She detoured a block north for her neighbourhood chapel, to drop the deed and letter into the tithe box.
A woman’s worldly possessions shouldn’t fit into a single travelling bag. She closed the tithe box. That’s it. It’s done.
You knew this was going to happen, Heather reminded herself. Her thoughts cast as deep a pall as the rain-clouds overhead. You had to. You came back to work too early. You lied and said you were ready, they lied and said they believed you. But you’ve been getting make-work and field-training cases for months. The warehouse was your last shot at a real career again, and you blew that wide apart, didn’t you?
Even still. North. That says it all, doesn’t it?
A punishment post, so ran the common knowledge. Nobody in the Church was transferred to the far north for anything like merit. It was a place for those who managed to be just competent enough to avoid getting drummed out of the service entirely.
Nothing important ever happened in the north, and nothing up there mattered to the world at large, save the Imperial adamant mine. And that was overseen directly by the Imperial Army, well outside the scope of the Church’s authority.
Maybe I deserve it, she groused. Her path took her down stone steps, which gave way to the mist-slicked planking of Bastia’s expansive docks. Doesn’t mean it’s any easier to swallow.
The docks were quiet this early in the morning. By midday, they would be organized chaos, as four rivers worth of barges and ships came and went through Bastia.
Rounding a corner, she came in sight of a Guardsman’s back. He was clothed in Bastia greens and a simple breastplate and hard-leather helm. Both had large, prominent, easy-to-remove catches on their sides, allowing for quick removal. Never know when you might end up in the river, and a breastplate is easier to replace than a Guardsman.
Her boots rang out against the planking of the docks, and the guard turned her way. “Good morning,” she called, and froze as he turned.
It’s Simons. Her heart went numb as she saw recognition dawn on his craggy face, followed by pity and sadness immediately after. It’d have to be, wouldn’t it.
“Hea– Widow Blackthorne,” Simons said, giving his helm an awkward tip. “Early hour to be up and about, something I can help you with?”
For a moment her temper stirred at his formality. You played cards with my husband. You ate at my table, and laughed when Stephen pinched my ass and made me jump. I stopped being ‘Mrs. Blackthorne’ after you pulled an arrow out of my arm on a bust gone bad, damn it all.
Swallowing her indignation, she lifted a hand, waving the note of charter that came with her transfer orders. “I’m heading for the ore ship ‘Longeau’, Renny,” she said, putting just enough stress on his first name to make the Guardsman flush. “Is it still in slip fifteen?”
“I… Yes. Fifteen,” he said lamely, pointing vaguely southward. “It finished offloading early last night. Why, something the Church needs aboard?”
“Yeah.” Hefting her bag, she sidestepped Renny. “Me.”
“What?” he exclaimed. As she tried to brush past him, his hand dropped on her pauldron. “What’s that supposed to mean, ‘you’?”
“Means I’m done here, Renny,” Heather growled. She shook his hand off and turned to face him. “Got my marching papers, and I’m marching right off after them to some town called Frostmoor.” Get rid of him before he makes this worse. He’s going to make this worse, and he’s never been able to keep his foot far from his mouth.
“But you’ve lived here long as I’ve known you!” Renny exploded, aghast. “Been at that house eight years gone! Why would the Church send y–”
She watched it click. She watched his mouth work, and then collapse into a grimace. Renny Simons hadn’t been her husband’s closest friend, but he’d been close enough to land at their supper table enough times.
Stephen was his friend. And he’s dead now. Because of me.
She didn’t wait for his stumbling apologies. “See you, Renny,” she said quietly, and picked up her pace, leaving the man to stare at her back.
The Longeau was an ore freighter, as nothing else would bother with the high northern seas. Airships couldn’t handle the fierce polar winds and the cold. The Sending Gates operated by the Merchant’s Guild charged an obscene premium for military transit. It was a tab the Church wasn’t ever going to foot for failures like her.
Heather presented her papers to the sentry on deck. The sentry was an elf woman with skin brown as tree bark. She gave the papers a cursory glance, and nodded. “Welcome aboard the Longeau, Knight. Captain’s sleeping, but she’ll see you by eight bells. Find a berth below.”
Heather grunted assent and made her way past the sentry, eyes scanning everything. Never been on board an ore freighter before. Big ship. Rides high in the water right now. Probably unloads her ore at the coast before sailing upriver. No way the draft on this ship could handle the rivers otherwise.
It took her eyes a few seconds to adjust to the gloom inside the ship. A vacant berth wasn’t hard to find.
Unpacking didn’t take long. She owned nothing more now than a few changes of clothes, her toiletries, and a few books, all stuffed into the small latched cubby bolted to the floor. Her father’s silvered mace she kept at her side. Finished, she stowed her empty bags and dropped into the rope hammock.
She closed her eyes, trying without much luck to find calm. Out of curiosity, her senses reached out to feel out what runes the ship held.
A wet feeling on toes that didn’t exist, many meters away from where her feet ended. Water rune for the hull, to keep it watertight, and to push the bailing pumps. Breeze on a forehead and nose eighty feet overhead. Wind, for the sails. Every little bit helps even with a Windcaller or two on the ship.
Heather spread her senses wider, imagining her body expanding to fill the entire ship. Something on the Captain’s door, alarm probably. Fire suppression in the galley, to keep a fire from spreading. Couple I’ve got no idea in the hold. One on the anchor, wonder what that does. Corrosion?
It was habit instilled by her training; watch, feel, be aware, analyze, know the lay of the land and magic around her. Each rune tickled her senses, fuelled by captured emotion that had been channeled into a form and written somewhere.
Gentle sleep overtook her. An hour later, there came a polite knock came at her door, and a male voice asked: “Are you comfortable in there, Knight?”
Heather opened the door. “It’ll do, thank you. “Don’t suppose you’re the captain?” she asked.
“Windcaller,” replied the man. “The captain’s up on deck. I’m Jerome.”
Jerome had the look of a man who had the softest life on a ship, his scars and calluses on his hands fewer than most sailors, but his face was profoundly weather-beaten.
“I’m Detective Blackthorne. Um.” She thought quickly, thinking back to her waking screams that morning. “My balance on the hammock isn’t very good, though. If you hear me scream in the mornings, just let everyone know I’m okay. And the hammock’s okay. I’d rather be bruised than seasick.”
Jerome looked at her in mild concern, and he nodded. “Well, alright. If you’re sure, Knight Blackthorn.”
Heather swayed slightly on her feet. “Are we underway?”
“Yes, about a half hour ago. We should hit the Brumeau coast in four days.”
“Does that leave much for a Windcaller to do until then?”
Jerome smiled and ducked his head humbly, although by all rights he was the second most important man on the ship, after the captain. “Plenty to do. With no wind to call it’s my job to keep the currents under her keel and keep us away from any sandbars or banks.”
Heather perked; a chance to feel the flows of a Windcaller at work were something she had never had cause to study. Despite four river ports in the capital, Heather’s work seldom found her actually on the boats, and almost never underway. “Any chance I could sit with you and follow?”
Jerome smiled. “I won’t tell the guild if you don’t.”
Heather followed him down the length of the ship, and up the stairs on deck. Sure enough, the sight that greeted her around the ship was pastoral green fields and woods, the banks of the river mostly occupied by farmer’s floodplains, green shoots sticking out of the mud, or cattle and sheep coming down to the river to drink. The city could still be seen, barely, in the distance; the ruby red spire of the great Cathedral rivalled only by the proud golden spire of the Emperor’s palace.
Heather joined Jerome on deck, careful to stay out of the way of the sailors. The quiet of the ship left her plenty of room to observe, and think.
Merchant’s Guild wouldn’t do more than give me a stern tut-tut and a ticket for sitting in on this, if they bothered at all. Windcaller’s trade secrets are supposed to be protected and controlled by the guild, but they’ve been at this work so long as there’s a sea to sail.
Jerome moved around on deck as he worked; his hands busying themselves with ropes and rigging, inspecting knots, checking the caulking of a seam on the deck, never standing still. The real work, though, couldn’t be perceived by Heather’s eyes alone.
She rubbed at her arms as the feeling of water trickling and flowing seemed to reach through her skin. Jerome noticed her motion and cast her a sympathetic smile.
Heather grimaced back good-naturedly. “Feels like I’m up to my shoulders in water, if my arms were as long as the ship anyway.”
“It all sounds like music to me,” Jerome confided back. “Waves and wind given notes and rhythm.”
“That sounds pleasant,” Heather said. “At least for this line of work.”
“It is!” said Jerome, his face lighting up. “Makes it tough to work in a storm, though.”
“I don’t imagine that’s easy for any Windcaller.”
“True that,” allowed Jerome. “I can’t stand the noise and din of the cities. Must be worse for you, though. I can’t imagine tolerating the feeling of spells crawling all over you all day long.”
“You get used to it,” said Heather. “It’s like passing your hand through a cloud of gnats, or wearing a sweater. Different parts of the city have different textures, with all their different runes. Some buildings are really nice to visit. The big cathedral always feels like I’m sliding on some rich silk gloves.”
Jerome smiled at that thought, and then politely held up a hand for silence as the ship approached a lazy bend in the river. He strode to the wheel, and gave it a nudge to starboard.
The sudden feeling of the Windcaller’s flows reaching out so far ahead and behind the ship left Heather with momentary vertigo, as her proprioception adjusted to the scale of his work. Jerome bit his lip in concentration as conjured water roiled around the hull and lifted the bow of the boat. The magic left Heather feeling like she’d plunged her hands and nose into the river, full of fast, busy currents.
Jerome’s just using water flows, right now. No need to use anything else. They’re not terribly strong flows either. Just conjure some water here or there, nudge the ship away from a little sandbar.
It took Heather a few minutes to appreciate the level of skill the craft demanded. The ship is too massive to move moment-by-moment. He’s conjuring currents twenty or thirty seconds ahead of them reaching the ship. So he has to plot the river bottom, juggle the orientation of the ship, the speed and heading and all the drifting currents. And then he’s patching up the river bottom in our wake, for the benefit of the next ship. All at the same time.
“Captain on deck!” one of the sailors eventually called, though the tone was casual, more of a dutiful greeting than a warning.
The captain was a red-haired woman with arms as solid as a blacksmith’s; she waved off the sailor and promptly hauled herself up the rigging to check a rope tie, with a simian ease. Her hands pulled apart one of the rigging ties and re-bound it, but Heather’s powers of observation couldn’t find a difference in the knot. Might just be the sort likes to re-do things right, even if they’re fine. Not the worst habit for a sailor to have.
“You’re the Knight headed all the way north?” she called from the rigging. “I’m Amila. I’m warned northbound church-folks are sometimes trouble. You’re not going to be trouble aboard my ship, are you.” It wasn’t a question.
Heather didn’t hesitate to nod and reply. “I’ll be no trouble. Little rusty on the hammock. Don’t mind if you hear me yelp.”
“Alright,” said the captain. “Just stay out of my crew’s way and do as they say when we’re at work, and we’ll get along.”
Heather knuckled her head. “Aye aye, captain.”
Jerome cracked a little smile. “I’ll keep her out from underfoot, Amila.”
“See that you do, husband. Knight Blackthorne, you’ll be with us for about six weeks, weather allowing. Could be as long as eight if storms slow us down. Hope you brought some books, or something to keep you occupied. Cook’s got a little library if you ask nicely. We’ll be making a few stops, so you’ll have the chance to stretch your legs in a few towns. Check with the crew before you disembark, and make sure you’re back before our departure, or it’ll be a long swim.”
“Yes Captain,” said Heather. “Anything I can do during the journey to be useful?” she asked, squaring her shoulders.
“I’m sure the sailors wouldn’t mind if you’d lead them in prayer. It’s good luck to have a servant of the Saints on board. Can’t think of much else.”
Heather let out a subtle, disappointed breath. Six weeks without much in the way of duty to do. I should have paid for the sending gate myself. “Alright. Thank you,”
Three men in crimson cloaks and hoods stood around the open casket in the sprawling graveyard of Fort Ouestin. In the shade of the fortress, the summer breeze was pleasant, and so excused the smiling faces of the men come to mourn.
The priest read from his prayer book, fingers weaving in the air over the grave as he prepared wards against necromancy. Wards that would prove useless against the magic already secretly imbued in the body.
“I will make of my grief a seed, and plant of it an orchard, which will bear the sweet fruit of compassion for the living. Nothing is lost, all is preserved, as the Pope and Alektos promise us. The sacred pact endures,” intoned the priest.
“Born of Venicia, buried in Ouestin, we say farewell to our brother Lucien Gavardi. Today we bury our grief, tomorrow it grows our orchards. Farewell, brother Gavardi.”
“Farewell, brother Gavardi,” chorused the three men in red.
“I’ll let you pay your respects,” the priest said, folding his book and bowing respectfully. “Then I must complete the wardings.”
“Of course, thank you Father,” said the youngest of the trio.
He waited until the priest had stepped away, and then bent down to whisper over the open casket. “Sleep until you are called, be still as the dead. When you feel my magic again, break the wards, and raise all the bones you can.”
The corpse in the casket gave the slightest of nods of acknowledgement, and then went perfectly still again. It would stay until called.
The men in the crimson cloaks closed the casket, and then lowered the pine box into the dirt. They stood vigil until the grave and ward atop was complete, and then turned for the city gates.
“Come on,” said the youngest. “We’ve a ship to catch.”
Little enough to recommend Ouestin as a port of call, unless you’re a fan of brutal architecture, Heather thought as she leaned on the deck railing. The cliffs and fortress of Ouestin rose from the point where the river met the sea. Up and up on grey, unforgiving basalt rock the cliffs rose, overhanging the river, undercut by eons of waves and tidal bores gnawing relentlessly at stone. The cliffs rose as tall as the highest spire of Bastia’s grand Cathedral, and the brutal lines of the fortress battery tower added another six stories.
Fort Ouestin might have been beautiful if they’d used quartz stone, mused Heather, as her eyes traced the squat, hexagonal tower of the fortress, high overhead. The fortress did, in fact, look sort of like a crystal, only one made of great slabs of basalt granite. The fortress side facing the ocean was covered in gigantic slabs of matte grey adamant metal.
The sheer number and power of the runes built into the walls and armor plates made her teeth hum. Up high, she could barely make out the great batteries of the naval cannons that protected this vital river and the Montaigne Empire beyond.
The ship creaked occasionally against the dock, while sailors and cranes loaded supplies.
Three men in dark red cloaks emerged from a tunnel near the dock, and walked up the gangplank of the Longeau. Heather’s mouth went dry momentarily, lips pursing hard. Anyone on a journey by sea northbound isn’t going without a good coat and cloak, she had to remind herself. And crimson’s a common colour, cheap to dye. I can’t keep twitching like a long-tailed cat by a rocking chair every time someone throws their cloak on.
Nevertheless, she couldn’t help but stare suspiciously. The three men looked nothing like the man from her memories and nightmares. One was a tall, bearded man with tousled brown hair and kindly blue eyes. He was laughing uproariously at something the lanky, smiling man beside him had said. Trailing in their wake was a more sickly-looking gentleman, perhaps fifty years of age, with a gaunt face and sharply hooked nose.
They were welcomed aboard by the Captain, and given the same instructions Heather had been subject to, more or less. They were pictures of solicitous compliance; earnest nods and polite, attentive smiles, the bearded one eager to shake hands.
The gaunt man behind the other two kept shooting glances at the crate being lowered to the deck. Heather found herself rising to her feet, strolling up towards the three with a knight’s measured pace. It was the sort of stroll that always brought knots of conversation to a halt, a stiff-legged but smooth gait that implied the casual niceties of the day could be swiftly ruined by the judicious application of lawful violence.
“Gentlemen, this is Detective Blackthorne,” said Amila, casting Heather a long look, concerned that her passenger would, in fact, be trouble after all.
The bearded man smiled broadly and extended a large, soft-looking hand. Heather removed her gauntlet to return the handshake.
“Martin Andrews,” offered the bearded man.
His hand was smooth and soft on the palm, but weatherbeaten on the back. A small fleck of paint lay in the crease of a knuckle. You spend your time outdoors, but keep soft hands, Heather thought. No rough labouring for this one.
“An artist,” remarked Heather. “Landscape painter?”
“You know my work?” inquired Martin, eyebrows raising in pleased surprise.
Heather shook her head. “Lucky guess,” she said, fixing him with an intense stare ingrained from her training: Rattle them up, see if anything shakes loose.
But Martin just laughed, loud and easy. “That’s a hell of a guess, Detective! Painting’s my passion, but it doesn’t pay the bills. This here is Daniel DuCroix,” he indicated the young, smiling man at his side. “And this is Victor LaPaix,” Martin gestured behind him with an easy smile. “We’re going to try our fortunes at the fur trade this year.”
Heather nodded towards the crate. “Those are your trade goods? Do you mind if I have a look, see what you have to offer?”
Her eyes swept the three faces for any signs of concern. Victor frowned in disapproval, but Martin looked delighted at having a chance to open shop early. “A little early trading? By all means, if the Captain doesn’t mind us taking a few minutes before we go below?”
Captain Amila’s eyelids came down in momentary consideration. Heather read her expression: You don’t like it, but if a Church Knight has reason to want to see a crate opened, better to find out now while we’re in port, rather than later.
“We’ll be underway in the next half hour,” answered the Captain. “As long as your crate is closed and ready to be stowed in the hold by then, I don’t mind.”
She met Heather’s eyes. “I wouldn’t mind having a look myself, come to think of it.”
Martin strode to the crate and opened with a pleased flourish. “I’ve got a few outstanding orders up north, so I can’t part with it all, but I’ve got fine paints of many colours, good paper and brushes for sale, for those northern savages more culturally inclined. Trade goods, some fine Venician knives, good steel. Arrowheads, fish hooks, if you’re inclined to hunt and fish. Two good iron cook-pots. Some cheap crystal earrings for petty trade. Some beginner textbooks for the Frostmoor mage guild library. Four good bottles of red wine from the vineyards this year, don’t tell the customs man,” said Martin with a practiced wink.
Heather hid her disappointment. The contents of the case were humdrum, even the minor bit of smuggling, the tariff for the wine would have been scarcely worth a piece or two of silver. Heather sincerely doubted the customs man would have even bothered with the paperwork.
“I count five bottles,” said Amila, amused.
“I count four,” said Martin, smiling, as he lifted one and passed it to the captain. “Four for trade, one for luck.”
“One for luck,” agreed Amila, as she accepted the bottle.
The lifted bottle revealed some wrenches and unfamiliar tools to Heather’s eye, and she peered in for a closer look. “And those?” she asked.
Victor made a sour, stern noise. “Those are my tools, and they are not for sale,” he said emphatically.
“Oh? What sort of tools?” inquired Heather.
“I’m an artificer,” grunted Victor. “I repair mining automatons.”
Heather nodded absently, eyes scanning the large crate. But there was nothing amiss. The paper and paints were an unusual choice for trade, but luxury items had a way of trading well in strange places, and who was to say there might not be painters eager to work? The rest all seemed logical; the knives and arrowheads and fishhooks all standard fare for northern trade, and the tools unremarkable, if unfamiliar. Recalling the captain’s warning about the long sailing ahead, Heather plucked up the textbooks, and thumbed through them.
Fundamentals of Metaphysical Calculation. Teferi’s Arcane Thermodynamics. First-year study reading. These take me back. Heather drummed her fingertips on the back of the books, and nodded to Martin. “Are these for sale? Wouldn’t mind a bit more reading material.”
“Well, they’re for Frostmoor’s mage college, but I’ll tell you what, Detective. I’ll loan them to you, and if they’re still in good condition when you return them, no charge.”
“That’s kind of you. Thank you,” said Heather. She bought a small ream of paper from the stack, to be polite. “For some letters home,” she lied. She hadn’t spoken to her mother since the funeral, hadn’t read or returned a single letter.
When they were finished, Heather turned towards the smiling young man who’d been watching the goings-on from a polite distance. “And what about you. It was Daniel, right? You’re headed up to trade furs as well?”
“Oh, I’m more of a young, strong back than a trader yet,” admitted Daniel with a self-deprecating laugh. “Martin’s the real salesman. But I’m looking forward to learning the trade.”
Heather gave the young man’s cloak a little tug. “Those are some handsome matching cloaks. You sell those too?”
Daniel shook his head, eyes glinting in amusement. “They were on cheap. Victor’s terribly frugal. Said he wouldn’t pay a penny more on our venture than we had to.”
So Victor’s funding the trip, but it’s Martin doing the trading. Daniel’s along to be useful and learn the trade. Perfectly ordinary, Heather thought. Still, three matching crimson cloaks. It set her on edge, but left her nothing concrete to grasp at. Heather finished with the pleasantries, and let the traders take their leave.
The sailors came and stowed the crate in the hold, and the men in the crimson cloaks excused themselves to find their berths. Heather was left sitting disconsolate on deck, watching the sailors work.
Two ordinary traders, and an Artificer concerned about his working tools, that’s all, thought Heather glumly. I guess I can’t trust my instincts when it comes to people wearing red cloaks.
She made an unhappy sound, and turned her eyes up to the cliffs and docks as the last mooring line was detached.
Heather’s eyes strained upwards against the sunlight, trying to make out the two legendary scars of the fortress.
The ever-smoking crater offered up little more than the odd wisp of smoke nowadays, but the blackened, shattered crater was nevertheless impressive. Burned deep into the solid adamant. But all the magic in the world doesn’t mean a thing when you’re trying to blast through adamant and stone that thick.
The Great Ripple was the other famous scar; like a pond with a stone dropped in, the adamant plates rippled outwards in concentric circles, in heaving waves of deformed metal. Heather’s eyes went wide as she studied the wall, thinking to herself: How much energy do you need to deform adamant plates six feet thick?
Hanshu had taken her best shots. Their first had resulted in the Ever-Smoking Crater. The eastern nation’s naval Spirit-Walkers had worked in concert across the entire fleet to summon some great and terrible smoke-shrouded thing. The history books of her youth said that ‘an arrow of fire, brighter than the sun, leapt from the smoking hulk’, and had burned a fire so bright and hot it had struck men blind just to witness it.
The Great Ripple had been caused by a cannon built upon a barge, occupying the entirety of it. The cannon had fired but once, destroying itself in doing so, and sank burning. Whatever the shot had been, it had not been enough. It was notable for being the only naval war in history ended with only one shot fired. When the great cannon had failed, the Hanshu fleet had simply turned and left, and a month later a peace accord was signed.
There were countless other smaller scars, dents, and craters, superficial marks standing evidence of the history of assaults repelled. The indomitable fortress was a proud symbol of the country she was leaving behind. Heather tried to summon up some nostalgia, or patriotism, and failed. Fortress protects a nation from armies beyond. Doesn’t do much for the bastards already inside, now does it?
Jerome caught her staring, and smiled. “First time seeing the two craters?”
“I’ve seen the illustrations in the history books,” Heather said. “Never laid eyes on them myself, before.”
Amila chimed in: “When it was only a few decades old, my grandfather used to lower sausages down a wire when he was a guardsman, says he used to cook his supper by the heat of it. Some parts are still hot enough to burn a hand.”
Jerome added, “The heat once set a passing schooner’s sails on fire, about a century ago.”
Heather nodded slowly. “Why’d they never change the plates out, there?”
“Oh, they did,” replied Jerome. “They weren’t about to leave Ouestin with damaged armor. They unbolted the great plates, and mounted new ones underneath them, and re-attached the old, damaged armor atop. Not much else to do with thousands of tonnes of adamant, really. Mostly though, I think it was the morale effect. Hanshu took her best two shots at us back then, and all her great mages and mighty weapons couldn’t break through.”
Heather smiled grimly. Hanshu had never taken Ouestin, and neither the Thousand Kingdoms to the west, nor Venicia to the south, had ever bothered to try. There might be war in the west now, but the Montaigne Empire knew peace on every other front, and Ouestin was no small part of the reason why.
She gestured to the enormous plates of adamant. “This is where all the adamant ore ships in, right?”
“That’s right, what they don’t smelt at Frostmoor anyway. They load it all using the great cranes.”
Jerome pointed upwards, and Heather’s eyes rose to study the structure at the top of the canyon the river had carved. The large crane structure overhanging them was poised to take cargo from the ships in the river-mouth side of the point, guaranteeing a supply line even if the fortress were besieged by land. The cliffs had been undercut and shored up into mooring docks centuries ago, protecting ships from assault by sea and the land alike.
“They can load it a few thousand tonnes at a time. Sometimes they dry-dock ships using the cranes. Not sure I’d care to take the Longeau for such a ride,” Amila said.
“I’ll be glad to leave this city behind,” said Jerome. “The din from the runes of the walls is intolerable.”
“Loud, for you?” Heather asked.
“Like someone’s doing a drum-roll on a great kettledrum, without pause,” said Jerome. “You?”
“It feels like I’m scraping my teeth down smooth metal, all the way up there. Non-stop. Just a skull-deep humming vibration,” grumbled Heather. “It must take weeks to acclimatize to.”
“Less time than you’d think, I’m told. Not that I care to put up with it long enough to find out,” admitted Jerome.
Me neither, Heather thought. They must have laid a rune and spell on every damn brick and plate putting that thing together.
Her eyes played out over the horizon of the ocean past the mouth of the river, watching the distant whitecaps sparkle in the day’s sun. Breeze blew up her neck a hundred paces up, and water trickled down her back thirty paces behind her, as Jerome set his magic to work.
The ship’s sails caught the breeze, Jerome standing beside his wife, her proud arms bared to the sun as she took the wheel. Longing for the open water filled their eyes; and together they pushed breeze into the sails, gentle magic joining the wind coming from shore.
They were the classical picture of a Captain and Windcaller in love. Heather rose on silent feet, and headed for her cabin, hugging the books to her chest. Not even the warm sun on Heather’s face made it worth the pangs of missing her husband. She walked swiftly down into the ship, so her tears would not betray her.
She could count every day since she’d seen last seen Stephen smile at her that way.
Victor’s gaunt face intruded into the cabin of the man calling himself Martin.
“Oh, don’t hover at the door, Victor,” said the bearded man, still smiling easily. He gestured to his little cot in the spartan, cramped cabin. “Play your part, come in, have a seat.”
Martin Andrews wasn’t his real name. Of the trio, only Victor LaPaix bore his real name aloud. It was a necessary risk. Artificers of mining automatons were rare enough, and in a field with so few people in it, a recognized name far from home raised less suspicions than an unknown name.
The man calling himself Daniel joined them moments later, shutting the cabin door behind him. His youthful face was, as ever, earnest and attentive. Martin liked Daniel. The young man might be more of an idealist than a cell could afford, but his earnest energy made him easy to work with, unlike Victor’s gaunt scowling.
“A knight on board the ship!” snapped Victor, as he sat. “And you’re all smiles and doing her favors.”
“Lower your voice, Victor,” said Martin. “We’re merchants for a while, and a customer is a customer. Don’t be dour just because she caught you staring at the crate. She’d never even have known it was ours if you hadn’t been staring. Relax. It’s going to be a long, pleasant journey, so let’s not sour our tempers.”
“We could remove the concern,” said Daniel, in the tone one might use to suggest adjusting the curtains.
“We’ll do no such thing,” said Martin, voice tinged with asperity and amusement. Saints preserve me from zealots and men without a gambler’s face, he thought, looking between Daniel and Victor. “It would call far too much attention. A disappearance like that? We’d be questioned even if it was an honest accident during a storm, much less on a calm sea.”
“What if she didn’t disappear?” inquired Daniel. “I could-”
“Even worse,” interrupted Martin. “The church folk up north might be the dregs, but they’re trained to fight necromancy. And we absolutely cannot risk them learning of that work yet. So for now, we do nothing.”
“Well, I don’t like it,” said Victor, through gritted teeth. “We should all stay away from her.”
“On that we are all agreed,” said Martin, as if they’d come to decide upon a bottle of wine with dinner. “Keep to ourselves, be civil and polite and dreadfully uninteresting. That way, when we act, it will be that much more fun.”