Look – you’ve all been very patient.
Here’s a little something to tide you over until The Cold Commands actually hits the shelves. Strictly a Work In Progress, but I doubt it’s going to change very much in final draft, so here you go:
Nothing in the known world reeks like this.
Ringil’s seen grown men piss themselves in terror at the smell, seen hardened soldiers turn pale beneath their campaign tans. It is unmistakeable. Those who’ve faced it, never forget. Those who haven’t, feed on the handed-down tales, and misrepresent it as a foul stench, which it is not. At sufficient distance, in fact, it’s drowsily pleasant – a sun-baked summertime blend of spice and perfume on the wind, sharp notes of aniseed and cardamon rising through a backdrop of sandalwood and there, right there, the wavering but ever-present hint of scorching….
Slammed awake like a cheap tavern door.
He sat up with the force of it, instant cold sweat, hand groping after a sword hilt nowhere to be found. Breath locked in his throat, staring around.
Where the fuck……?
The shape of his surroundings resolved – he lay in a bunk under a gently tilting ceiling lamp whose flame was turned down low. The fittings of a well-appointed ship’s cabin, painted back and forth with the shadows the lamp cast. Shelves, a sea chest against one wall, a cramped desk and cushioned chair. The back of the door was hung with a Yhelteth ward against evil, the painted image of some saint or other bordered in tiny significant writings from the Revelation. Above him, he heard the hurrying thud of footfalls across planking, voices calling out. Soft squeaking punt of wood on wood somewhere, a steady rocking. He was aboard a vessel, sure, but –
He hauled himself out of the bunk and sat, elbows on knees, face in hands, memories skipping off the surface of recollection like flung flat stones….
The fjord. The black-rigged caravel. Rowing out.
Hjel’s valedictory figure, there on the shore and not. Were there specks of rain in the air? In his eyes?
A reflexive thought. He reached under the bunk and found his boots, stacked neatly side by side. The Ravensfriend lay scabbarded next to them.
Crew of cerement-wrapped corpses on deck, all facing into the wind, eloquently silent in his presence. What, after all, do the dead have to converse about with the living? He is is cargo pure and simple.
More voices from up on deck, shouting. He tipped a glance toward the cabin ceiling as the feet came thumping back the other way. Someone was getting excited up there
The reek of dragon washed in stronger. He felt a muscle twitch in his cheek.
Indistinct instructions called back and forth over his head, and abruptly the whole room tipped. Around the cabin, small items slid and toppled. The lamplight shifted crazily. The Ravensfriend crept out a few inches from under the bunk.
They were coming about.
Ringil was dressed and armed and through the door in what seemed like seconds. A broad companionway led up from just beside his cabin. He climbed it at speed, cleared the hatch at the top, spilled out onto the thinly band-lit deck with a little less elegance than he would, on reflection, have liked.
No-one noticed – the rail was lined with crewmen lifting lanterns and staring out into the darkness. Others pressed in behind. Murmured dispute laced the air above their craning heads.
“…see anything out there anyway?”
“Could be it’s the Hurrying Dawn. They say this time of year she -”
“Yeah, like fuck. You and your lizard-shit ghost-boat stories.” The sceptical sailor put his head back and yelled into the rigging. “Hoy, Kerish. You got anything up there yet?”
A laconic negative floated back down to them. Debate resumed.
“…..ever did believe that shit, it’s just not…..”
“…..probably a couple of leagues off….”
“…might be from landward. Like a spice barn or something. We’re pretty far south by now….”
“….always thought the Hurrying Dawn was-”
“Look, I’m telling you, my uncle fought at Rajal beach and he told me himself, that’s what dragons smell like.”
Ringil took the stage. “He’s right.”
Heads turned. The boat swayed a couple of times before anyone thought of anything to say. Striped in band-light through the rigging, Ringil nodded in the direction they’d all been looking.
“He’s right, that is dragon you can smell. Or, more likely it’s dragon-drift, in which case it’s probably harmless. But I’m still not sure turning us around like this was smart. Who gave the order?”
The company looked at each other.
“Fuck’s it to you,” somebody muttered from the rear.
“Pipe down, Feg, you stupid shit – that’s a paying passenger.”
“Look at that sword he’s got, man. That’s…..”
“I gave the order.”
Lightly amused, like footsteps tripping out a dance measure. A voice he knew, but took a moment to place.
He turned to face her, aware that he’d been upstaged with exactly the same mannered affect he’d used to make his own entrance. The lady Quilien of Gris stood a little distance from him, head tilted with inquiry. She had wrapped herself shoulders to floor in a smooth grey cloak with a ruff at its neck, her hair was gathered back at the temples in a pair of silver clasps, and she appeared as thoroughly competent now as she had seemed insane in the tavern upper room in Hinerion. She held his eye in the lantern glow, tilted her head the other way with an intent precision that was almost lupine.
Silence across the deck.
“It’s good to see you up and about, sir. We were concerned for your health. Tell me, have I committed an error, then, with this change of course?”
“Not necessarily, my lady.” He held her gaze, held down his own unease. “If the ship is yours to command, then it is merely a question of how lucky you feel.”
Quilien took a couple of paces to one side, still eyeing him up.
“Would you class yourself an expert in dragons, sir?”
Ringil shrugged. “Well, I did kill one once.”
As if someone had just cracked a wasp’s nest onto the deck – the assembled crewmen’s voices rose and buzzed about, jeers and jumbled oaths. The lady Quilien raised one groomed eyebrow in the midst of it. Ringil opened a hand at her.
“Had some help doing it, though.”
“Such modesty. Perhaps you’d care to-”
“Reef! Reef to starboard!”
Bellowed down from the lookout, a panic stricken edge on it because – Ringil grasping the fact with told-you-so smugness and a nod – this was a reef not marked on any local chart.
The crew boiled about, leapt for the rigging, ran to look for the ship’s officers. Ringil took the opportunity to move up and lean on the vacated rail.
“It’s not a reef,” he said to no-one in particular.
When the vast, floating rafts of purplish-black marine muck first started washing up on western shores in the summer of forty nine, no-one took it for an invasion.
It was a shock, sure enough, to see what looked like huge mattresses of tangled, flowering kelp twice taller than a man, piled up along the strand as far as the eye could see. It was problematic for communities who made their living from open access to beaches and coves that were now clogged and covered over, because whatever this stuff was, it didn’t appear you could burn it, harvest it or eat it. And it was a major inconvenience for shipping, not least when one of these colossal mats drifted into a major harbour mouth or caught in the throat of a useful channel between off-shore shoals. The Trelayne sureties funds hiccupped, squabbled over payouts, re-wrote their terms. In Yhelteth, by all accounts, the merchant guilds went through something similar. In both the League and the imperial territories, some few dozen affected villages packed up and moved, north or south along the coast, in search of new fishing or rock-pool scavenging grounds. There was a certain amount of small-scale starvation here and there, but not enough to warrant military intervention by either power.
Up at Strov market, the soothsayers presaged doom – but then they always did.
And on the abandoned coastal reaches, the purple-black tangled ramparts loomed in trickling quiet, and waited.
It was almost four months before the first of them hatched out.
The lady Quilien of Gris leaned on the rail at his elbow and watched as they came up on the drift. You could understand the look-out’s error easily enough now. In the darkness, it looked the way any exposed reef would, low-lying in the water, jagged, darkened bulk ripped through with the white of foam where the ocean swells broke across it.
By now the dragon reek was overpowering.
“So it was not the Hurrying Dawn after all,” she said conversationally.
“The Hurrying Dawn is a myth, my lady.” He didn’t look at her – he was busy staring down the memories of the scent. “The usual thing. A doomed Yhelteth spice clipper, driven onto rocks by a master and commander impatient to beat the competition to market in Trelayne. It’s a tale, made up to frighten cabin boys on the midnight watch.”
“Yes, I believe I’ve heard it. We are not as rural as you might imagine in Gris. The captain called up a sorcerous storm to hurry his passage, did he not? And the Salt Lord drowned him for his presumption, then condemned him to run before the wind with his vessel for all eternity?”
“Something like that.”
“And now, by some set of circumstances or other, the same wind is supposed to carry the scent of his lost cargo. It’s a warning to-”
“It’s a senseless yarn, is what it is, my lady. Ignorant chatter to make sense of a world that resists any more robust interpretation.”
“Chatter that you do not lower yourself to, I take it?” Something like delight trickled into her voice – dilettante salon sacrilege, he imagined, must be as popular among the upper echelons in Gris as anywhere else. “You reject belief in the Dark Court?”
Dakovash stalked at the margins of his memory. He held down a shiver.
“I am, let us say, indifferent to the Dark Court, lady Quilien. I ask nothing of them, and expect the same courtesy in return. In any case, whether they exist or not, I think it unlikely that such beings would concern themselves with one small cargo vessel and its grubby, spell-chanting captain.” He gestured at the darkened slop of the dragondrift beyond the rail. “And I think that there you are probably looking at the true origin of legends like the Hurrying Dawn.”
“You’ll not feel it necessary, then.” The delight was still there, rich and thick in her tone. “To offer prayers of thanks to any of the Court? Given your escape from Hinerion before the quarantine came down, I mean.”
“I’d say that any gratitude I owe belongs to you, my lady.” Gruffly – he didn’t like being in anyone’s debt. “You appear to have been my saviour in this. Though I’m at something of loss to understand the exact-”
“Yes – I know. You must be confused.” Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a small smile playing about her lips. “The last thing you remember, after all, is being aboard a vessel with black sails, crewed by corpses.”
It jerked him round to face her. Tiny finger of chill at his nape. She looked back at him blandly.
“At least – you did mutter something along those lines while I watched over you at one point. The ship’s doctor says it must have been delerium. You were running a very high fever when we found you. Some feared it was plague.”
“As did I. I am doubly indebted to you, then, for bringing me out of Hinerion.”
“I could hardly leave you as you were – sprawled reeking of cheap alcohol on a pile of trawl nets, alone. You thought perhaps you would drink it away, the plague? Was that the plan?”
“I thought perhaps I’d try to die drunk.”
“Such ambition. And this from a dragon-slayer.” The smile was there for certain now, but secret and somehow turned inward around the eyes. “Somewhat misguided as well, since it now seems you did not have the plague after all. Or at least – short of divine intervention, I can see no way for a man to make a full recovery from the disease so rapidly. Can you?”
In Majak lands, Egar had once told him, you could cheat the plague of its victim if the tribe could find – read, in the constant tribal ruck of the steppes, capture alive in battle – a suitable substitute to sacrifice in place of the original sufferer. Given a man or woman of comparable rank and blood, the hovering plague spirit would take the offered life instead and depart with it. The original sufferer didn’t just recover, they came back stronger than they had ever been before. Often they would rise to become tribal leaders or shamans in their own right. Such recoveries apparently took place overnight, sometimes, if the shaman had the dwellers’ favour, before the planned sacrifice had even been carried through.
“It does seem remarkable,” he said tonelessly.
Quilien snorted in an unladylike fashion. “No – remarkable is that when we found you, you’d not already been robbed and stripped naked where you lay. Remarkable is that, despite your apparent lack of interest in your own continued welfare, you were still possessed of that magnificent blade you own.”
If she was flirting, it was clumsily done, and Ringil could think of no adequate response. Nor did he much like the idea that everything he remembered from the grey places had been a fever dream. Recollection would fade anyway, he knew – Seethlaw had speculated that it was the only way humans could cope with the unconstrained probabilities in the Aldrain marches and not go insane – but Ringil still held to a stubborn differentiation between dream and reality. Hjel as a fond but fading memory was something he could live with – Hjel as a figment of his feverish imagination and longings was a lot less palatable. He pushed the thought away. Concerned himself instead with current events.
“Might I enquire, my lady, where we are bound?”
“Oh, to Yhelteth.” She gestured at the horizon, as if the lights of the great city might at any moment appear there, painting the sky with pale yellow glimmer. “It suits my eventual purposes well enough to go there, but really, there wasn’t a lot of choice. I arrive at the harbour to see the Marsh Queen’s Favour standing out to sea without me, and half the other vessels along the wharf preparing to cast off. Plague panic everywhere, and me with a sick man in my retinue. This was the first ship, the only ship in fact, I could persuade to take us aboard. Its destination really was the least of my concerns.”
Ringil nodded at the approaching drift. “And you’ve time enough for detours.”
Quilien lounged languidly on the rail, one hip outthrust. She tilted her head and favoured him with a side-long smile. “Well, sir, I confess I am a hopeless addict when it comes to mystery and heroic tales. You and your Black Folk blade, and now, on the same voyage, a floating spice island of the lizard folk? Who could resist seeing something like that?”
Someone who’s seen it before, he thought about saying. Someone who’s been a little closer to the lizard folk than titillating after dinner tales.
Instead, he left her question hanging there, and they watched in silence as the ship manoeuvred closer to the drift. Ringil spotted the ragged gashes and hollows in the texture, filled now with sea-water that roiled and poured as the matted surface undulated with the sweep of the waves. It was more or less what he’d expected, but he still felt the tension rinse out of him like the last dregs of a hangover.
Perhaps she did too. “So – this is harmless?”
“Yes.” He pointed out over the rail, old memories roiling like the water. “You can see where the dragon tore its way out – that long, ragged hollow near the front, the pieces that flap about when the swell hits. The dragon comes first, it’s like a mother bird protecting its brood. Then there’ll be a couple of hundred smaller hatching gouges further back where the reptile peons and the higher caste Scaled Folk came out afterwards. Once that happens, the whole raft starts to rot. It loses a lot of its bulk and in the end the currents carry it back out to sea. This has probably been drifting about out here since the early fifties at least.”
“You really killed one of these beasts?” She was watching him keenly now, he knew. “With that blade you carry? Now that is remarkable.”
“I suppose so. As I said, I did have help.”
“Even so. Are you not proud?”
Ringil grimaced. “If you’d seen some of the other things I’ve done with this blade, you’d perhaps be less enamoured of my feats.”
“And perhaps not.”
Was she rubbing herself against him at the hip? Ringil turned to face her, met her eyes, caught the gleam of saliva on the teeth in her grin.
“My lady, I don’t quite know how to put this to you gently, so I won’t try. You are wasting your time with me.”
“Am I?” The grin was still there. “That’s a hasty judgment.”
Ringil sighed, pressed thumb and forefinger to his eyes. Was he really going to have to fuck this mad-woman before they made port.
“Please don’t consider me ungrateful, my lady. It is simply that I am not made to please your kind.”
“Perhaps you mistake what my kind is.”
There was a bite to the words that drew his gaze back to her. She stood a little further from him now, sober-faced. Had produced a pair of krinzanz twigs from somewhere in the folds of her grey cloak and held them up like an apprentice carpenter offering nails to his master.
Just what you need, Gil, fresh from your fever.
He took one anyway, noted that it was expertly rolled, waited for courtesy while she put the other to her lips. A hitherto unsuspected manservant, somewhat hunched, scurried forward from somewhere and offer a low wick lamp to light each twig. Ringil watched the lady Quilien tilt her head to the flame, draw deep on the twig until it fired up. There was a curious immobility to her features in the flaring light it made, as if, suddenly, her whole face was a hollow, porcelein mask with nothing behind it but darkness. The servant turned, a twisted black shadow on the margins of the light and offered him the flame. He took it and drew deep.
“You are….” Tightly, holding the breath in. “Too kind.”
She shook her head, wreathed in exhaled smoke. “It’s your supply. I found it in your things.”
She met his gaze in silence for a single beat, widened her eyes around pupils already stretched black and broad. Then she burst out laughing.
The ship butted solidly up against the dragon-drift – Ringil heard the eerie scrape of its fronds against the timbers. Crewmen mobbed past, lining the rail again, craning over to look down at what they’d found. Someone yelled for boathooks – voices sounding a little distant now, as the krin came on in his head like cold fire.
“Ah, captain.” Quilien gestured with her twig at a tall, richly-attired figure approaching across the deck. The smoke ribboned off the motion into the dark. “There you are. And as you can see, our convalescent man of mystery is awake and well. Lacking only for a formal introduction, in fact.”
The captain bowed, somewhat curtly.
“Dresh Alannor, master and commander of the Famous Victory None Foretold.”
“Uhm, yes.” Alannor. Glades shipping nobility. Fuck. The krinzanz stepped up, greased his response, put a lightened version of the stock Yhelteth accent on his lips. “Laraninthal of Shenshenath, imperial levy, retired.”
“Indeed?” Dresh Alannor either didn’t believe him, or didn’t much care for imperials. But his manners held. “Then we’re honoured to have you aboard, sir. I’m glad to see you’re feeling better. My lady, is it your intention to walk the drift?”
Quilien plumed smoke and looked at Dresh Alannor through it. Something seemed to be amusing her.
“I’m not a thrill-seeker, captain. I wished merely to take a few samples.”
“I think there’ll be no shortage of samples.” Alannor nodded sardonically along the rail, to where the more adventurous of his crew were already lowering a rope ladder. “You can sell dragon-drift cuttings for a handsome price in port. We’ll be here a while.”
“Then I may as well descend and investigate with your men.”
“The drift is awash, my lady. And not stable in the water.”
Quilien took a last drag on her krinzanz twig and pitched it over the side. “Captain, you appear to have misunderstood me. I may not be a thrill seeker, but nor am I entirely feeble. I have boots, I have a sense of balance. And of course, I would invite you to accompany me.”
Which neatly took care of any ribald tendencies the crew might have down there. Alannor looked glum, but in the end he was dealing with a wealthy paying passenger. He sketched another bow.
“Of course, my lady. Nothing would give me greater pleasure.”
Ringil watched them go, feeling a wry twist of sympathy for the other man. Bad enough the Alannor family fortunes were such that they still depended on actual sea-faring from their scions – but catering to the minor whims of other nobles with paid passage, worse still rural nobles with paid passage…..
Along the ship’s side, Alannor handed his passenger down the rope ladder with schooled grace. He shot a last speculative glance back at Gil, then climbed down after.
Ringil masked his disquiet behind the ember of the krin twig, drew deep and leaned impassive on the rail to study the reactions below. There was some cat-calling down on the drift when the crewmen saw the lady Quilien swaying down the ropes – but it damped down fast enough when Alannor stepped onto the ladder after her.
The Famous Victory was a tight ship, it seemed.
He didn’t think Dresh Alannor had made him – he certainly couldn’t recall ever meeting the man face to face – but memory was an odd thing, and Ringil’s fame in the war years had been pretty widespread. Not to mention his now newly kindled notoriety as the Butcher of Etterkal. And there was no way to know how many days the Famous Victory lacked for journey’s end. With favourable winds, a fast ship might make the run from Hinerion to Yhelteth in less than two weeks, but he didn’t know if this was a fast ship, how long ago it had set sail, or for that matter how its course was being plotted. They might be on a leisurely stopping cruise for all he knew. And given a long enough voyage, who could tell what Alannor might recall.
Ringil allowed himself a grimace. It was not exactly a recipe for restful convalescence.
Patience, hero. It was like another voice speaking in his head. One thing at a time.
He took the advice, whoever it might be from. He smoked slowly, staring down at the sluggish ripple of the drift. The odours swarmed him. The krinzanz performed its customary trick, like some heavy parchment missive unsealed and unfolding in the space behind his eyes.
Got any suggestions how we do this, then?
Egar, bellowing between cupped hands as they rode headlong neck and neck along the cliff-top at Demlarashan, trampling the scattering lines of reptile peons. The relief of the wind on his face, finally chasing out the murderous heat, as he yelled back.
It was your fucking idea!
And the awful, sun-burnished gleaming bulk of the dragon as it became aware of them and twisted sinuously about to face the new threat. His heart jammed up into his throat as he understood that this, finally, might be it.
He never truly deciphered the component grammar of his fears that day – but he came to understand that beyond the terror of dying, and the terror of the scalding, searing dragon’s breath and what it might do short of killing him, there was something else entirely, something far darker, which did not like to be looked at in the light. Something he found inside himself that day, something that would come thereafter when he called for it, but was not often so easy to put away again.
It was there at Gallows Gap, screaming from his mouth as they charged the reptile advance in the pass. It was there at the siege of Trelayne, screaming inside, filling him, when they threw the Scaled Folk back from the walls.
Screaming, inside and out. Screaming hard enough that he sometimes thought it must tear him open and let the inside out.
And sometimes, in his darkest moments, he believed it never stopped screaming – that he had only found some dungeon space deep inside himself to keep it, where it went on screaming forever but into walls that muffled the sound.
He blinked, back to the present. There was screaming, a cacophony of desperate yells down there on the dragon-drift, jittering torchlight converged at a single point beside the hull. Combat nerves spiked through him, his hand was already halfway to the Ravensfriend’s gnarled grip. He craned over the rail, tried to see down to where the crewmen were gathered in a tight, yelling knot.
After all this time? Can’t be. Cannot be.
At some level, he’d already dismissed it. An unhatched peon or higher caste lizard, somehow still alive in the water-logged slop of the decaying drift, and conveniently set to wake just as human feet walked over it. It was something out of a fireside scare story, things like that just didn’t happen…..
And besides, Gil, you don’t gather in a witless knot when you see a lizard come snarling up out of the drift. These men would be fleeing in all directions – those that hadn’t been slashed apart before they could unlock muscles from the disbelieving shock.
He saw Quilien in the glow the torches cast, standing apart, one hand up to her mouth. She seemed to feel his gaze from the rail – she looked up.
Somehow, without transition, he found himself on the rope ladder. He jumped the last four rungs and hit the dragon-drift at the bottom with a soggy splash. Slogged up to the gathered men and their torches. One of them turned, and seemingly found something to cling to in Ringil’s face. His eyes pleaded.
“It’s the captain!” he bawled. “He’s gone down in the gap!”
“Get a boathook down here,” someone was yelling, over and over. “Get a boathook!”
But Ringil forced his way into the knot of men anyway, pushed and shouldered through until he saw the closed-up gap between the bristling fringe of the dragon-drift and the rising wooden wall of the ship’s hull. It was all he could do not to nod in confirmation.
Not a chance.
“Someone get over to the other rail,” he said, for something to say. “Maybe he swam down, under the hull, made it across.”
But even as the call went out, he already knew it was futile. The mat went down, at a guess, about fifteen or twenty feet, tangled with half-rotted nooses and spines of drift weed. The draught of the vessel would not be a lot less. A man falling into the momentary gap between, mashed back against the unyielding hull as the gap closed up again, stunned by the blow, tangled in the fronds…..
Not a chance.
He stood aside and let a couple of hugely muscular crew-members strain mightily at the Famous Victory’s hull. The rest of the men piled on. They managed finally to open a useless, foot-wide gap for a few moments, and then whichever currents held the ship close slammed her back against the drift. Cries floated across from up on deck, said there was nothing to be seen on the other side. Ringil heard the splash of a couple of sailors going in for a closer look.
Good luck with that.
The lady Quilien of Gris was abruptly beside him, stumbling slightly in the rolling squelch of the drift. She fell against him, he caught her upright, set her back on her feet. Mingled band and torchlight flickered across the mask of her face.
“It was horrible,” she said, though he was hard put to hear any trace of horror in her tone. “The gap just opened up right beside us. He slipped and he was gone. Do you think he’s dead?”
And for just a moment, there and gone in the uncertain light as she leaned against him, he had the overwhelming impression that the words were mouthed, like some ceremonial hymn she had memorised in a language she did not know.
“Yes, I think he’s dead,” he said flatly.
They poked about in the water for a while nonetheless, finally got the Famous Victory turned about and away from the drift, sent a pair of wiry, sombre-faced divers down to take a look. The selected men stripped purposefully to their breeches, drew sailor’s knives and dropped smoothly enough into the ocean swell, but in the dark it was a pointless enterprise, a defiance of truths they all already understood. The two men hauled themselves out a dozen dives later, stood bent over on the dragon-drift, hands braced on knees, dripping and panting – nothing to report.
Dresh Alannor would not be coming back.
“He is,” one of the men spoke the sailor’s formal valediction between deep-drawn breaths. “At peace. In the Salt Lord’s halls.”
The other man raised his head and shot his companion an incredulous look. He straightened all the way up, looked straight at Qulien and Ringil in the light of raised torches, and then spat into the dragon-drift at their feet.
“Drowning’s a filthy fucking death,” he rasped, and took his shirt back from another crew-member, and walked away.
Later, Ringil stood at the rail and watched the luminous white splash of waves on the dragon-drift as it receded into the dark of the ocean to stern. He thought of the man they’d left behind, tangled up and caught fast somewhere ten or fifteen feet down on the submerged wall of the drift, eyes wide and staring out into the black. Or perhaps already carried off into the cool gloom by currents or something more toothed and purposed.
Dresh Alannor. Son of Trelayne, Glades noble, commander of men.
There was a chill across his shoulders like a wet towel.
“I have been thinking about what you said.” Quilien, abruptly at his side in the pallid band-light, dark hair hanging loose so it obscured her profile. Somehow, he hadn’t heard her approach. “Why the Dark Court might concern itself with the petty affairs aboard one small vessel. With the fate of that small vessel’s captain.”
“Indeed, my lady?”
He wasn’t really listening. Most of his attention was on the crew as they went sullenly about their tasks around him. The first mate had them on a pretty tight leash, but even so, there was a palpable anger pulsing through the shipboard air. Alannor had been well-liked. Ringil thought he might be careful walking the deck at night from now on. He thought he might warn the lady Quilien to take similar care.
“Yes, the mistake would surely be to see such behaviour as a single act, unrelated to any larger tapestry of events outside that one fireside tale. But is it not more likely that such a captain might in fact serve as a sacrificial piece on a larger board. A piece in a game that the nobles of the Dark Court like to play.”
It was such a trite piece of coffee house pondering that he almost laughed.
“I have heard this suggested before, my lady. Numerous times. It never much impressed me as a thesis. Why would such ancient, powerful beings concern themselves with anything as banal as a game played out among humans?”
She leaned out on the rail then, let the wind take her uncovered hair and blow it away from a smile turned oddly wolfish.
“Well,” she said, without looking at him. “Perhaps the game itself is so ancient that they have forgotten how to do anything else. Perhaps it is webbed into every memory they have, into the fibre of their being, and they cannot unlearn the habit. Perhaps, despite all their age and power, they have nothing else.”
She tilted her grin towards him in the scuffle of the dark breeze. Raised her voice a little.
“It must be difficult, after all, to give something up, when you are so very good at it. Don’t you think?”
And he thought, with a tiny, creeping unease, that her gaze as she spoke was directed less at him than at the sword across his back.