Symon rubbed the sinuous fibers of the rope between his fingertips. The habit gave him a short reprieve from grinding his teeth.
“Finally,” Symon uttered under his breath. He took to the ratlines on the side of the galleon two tiers at a time, brushing off the extended hands from the nearby sailors offering to help him.
He hurdled over the railing onto the deck, ready to address any threat presented. Only his anticipation went unmet, except by the company of the ship’s captain and Sir Everitt, whom he caught in mid-sentence.
“Your Majesty,” they both said, their heads bowed.
“Nothing taken,” Everitt replied. “At least, not at first inventory. They did manage to make a mess of everything, however, so I’ve set my men to do a second sweep of the ship to be certain.”
That bloody bastard turned out to be right. Symon nodded to his Right Captain. “And how about our men?”
Captain Danyll cleared his throat. “I saw to them personally, My King. Fifty-two sailors, guards, and attendants disembarked from the ship aboard all seven of our remaining skiffs. Forty-seven came back on our six, as expected. The seventh skiff escaped, having made its way towards the flyboat we spotted on the horizon before the fog rolled in. With any luck, those sailors on board the flyboat are truly ours, and accepted our five men and their cargo with haste.”
“And did the Ibians suspect anything amiss?”
“The Realeza didn’t bother to stick around to count the number of those who returned, having left once they concluded their search. I made certain to cause a ruckus during their raid, to sell them on the outrage of my protest.”
Symon raised his brow. “You stayed aboard?”
“I did, Your Majesty. ‘Tis my ship, after all.”
“You had my permission to disembark with the others.”
“In case the Realeza proved to be . . . more aggressive than necessary.”
“‘Tis true, Your Majesty. But this ship is my child and those men who boarded . . . I wasn’t about to leave them alone with her. Not with your permission, or even by Mar’s command.” On that last note, the Captain bit his lip, expecting an admonishment or word of further caution from His Majesty.
This one could be a Saliswater, through and through. “I would expect no less from a Marlish sailor, let alone one we’ve entrusted with a royal vessel. You have my thanks, Captain.”
Danyll clipped his heels and beat his closed fist over his heart. He bowed as he excused himself from their company, withdrawing to the other railing where his First Mate waited patiently for a word.
“That one has more saltwater in his veins than a Saliswater,” Symon admitted.
“Yes, a loyal one he is.”
“Maybe even more so than Har-Kin Furde,” Symon offered with a smirk.
“Now, now, James.”
“Fine, fine. Seriously, what say you?”
“The ruse worked. The men relinquished the ship for the raid. The Realeza searched every last one of them before they disembarked. Thankfully, they made no effort to check the skiffs, though.”
Lucky bastard, indeed. “And my quarters?”
“A bloody mess, like the captain said.” Everitt shook his head. “They tore your room apart. No respect that lot has for anything, the dastardly heathens. The Badger probably ordered them to do it.”
“Good thing you let him live then.”
His Right Captain grimaced. “What can I say? I had my orders.”
Everitt escorted Symon back to his room, where two Voiceless stood at attention outside. Within, two more waited in full armor. Having directed their attention to the disarray, they pivoted at their entrance, saluting.
“You,” Everitt said to the Voiceless at his left, “who was the fifth Right Captain to King Aethelrik?”
“Everitt, really? You already conducted a sweep with these men.”
“Aye, I swept the room. Now, I question the men, in case the Realeza planted agents capable of overtaking our guards, Mar forbid.” Everitt turned back to the Voiceless. “Answer. And raise your visor before you do.”
The Voiceless paused, looking to Symon. Symon nodded. The Voiceless raised his visor, revealing the bulbous nose and sharp brow of the knight within.
“Right Captain Sander, of Har-Kin Herbert,” the guard signed.
“And you,” Everitt said to the Voiceless at his right. “Who was the sixth Right Captain of his predecessor, King Andreu?”
The Voiceless remained still, perhaps in consideration.
“Well?” Everitt asked, his patience tried.
“I have no idea . . .” the knight answered in the language of the hands before raising his visor.
Symon held his breath. Everitt’s hand fell to the pommel of his sword.
“. . . because King Andreu had only three Right Captains during his reign, not six.” The Voiceless held his hand at the ready, prepared to reply again if prompted. The light blue eyes of an earnest guard met Everitt’s inquisitive stare.
“Very well.” Everitt turned to Symon. “I recognize these men. Newer guards they are, having joined our ranks shortly after your coronation. Their eyes – and responses – ring true.”
“I’m sure of it myself.”
“Good night, James.”
“Don’t stay up too long yourself. We sail at dawn.”
“I’ll oversee the final sweep, then retire.” Everitt tilted his head toward Symon before marching out the room.
As soon as the door closed, the Voiceless to his right removed his helm. “What stick up his rear does Everitt have this time?” Ely asked.
“He’s on edge, ‘tis all.”
“For the past thirty-some-odd years.”
“Was it that bad ashore?” Gerry asked as he took off his helm. As he did, the interior glanced upon his nose, putting it askew. The result smudged the prosthetic against his left cheek, giving an appearance both grotesque and comical.
“Aye, what he said,” Ely added, chuckling.
“Aye,” Symon confirmed.
Ely perked. “So I was right, wasn’t I? Say it, brother. Say it!”
“You were . . . partially correct.”
“Your guess about the Realeza proved true, I’ll admit.” With their arrival at the Harbor of Arinn, Ely had sent ahead their flyboats to gather intelligence from the capital. The resulting reconnaissance provided tales of a city – and kingdom – on guard, with the news of Castle Seylonna having reached them only the day after its fall. In the wake of such details, Ely suggested a bold move to protect their recently acquired maps from Ibian eyes. Symon, then Gerry, resisted his proposal, believing paranoia had overtaken their brother. But the raid proved their more irrational sibling to be right, much to their chagrin.
“Then what was I wrong about?”
“The Grand Duke, unfortunately. He wasn’t by His Majesty’s side, as expected. He moved north, supposedly to rally the support of other kin necessary to respond to the recent threats.”
“Taresa –” Gerry uttered.
“Will be fine,” Symon insisted. “We intended to pick her up with haste anyway, having sent word ahead by flyboat to the royal estate where she stays.”
“Right, the flyboat . . .”
“So His Majesty orchestrated the raid on our galleon,” Ely said. “I’ll say, a bold move by our father-by-marriage.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Oh, come now. You’re going to stand there and tell me –”
“I’m not going to tell you anything!” Symon growled. He shot a disapproving glance to Ely. Gerry placed his hand on Symon’s shoulder only to receive the same glare. Symon shrugged off his little brother’s gesture to retreat to the corner. There a flagon of wine waited along with three glasses. Symon ignored the glasses as he uncorked the bottle from the table. He took a long draught as his brothers watched in silence.
The drink dripped down his chin. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve before glancing at the words etched onto the flagon. “Rosi . . . rosaa?” He slammed the bottle back onto the table with a thud. “Damn Ibian language! And their accents!”
“Brother . . .” Gerry whispered.
“It’s all wrong. Since we came here. The feasts. The galas. The show of force, only to miss the enemy by so little, before they, they . . . taunted us. Uhhh!” Symon threw his hands in the air. “So much useless, idle talk. And for what? Nothing!”
Symon rubbed his temple while Gerry shrunk back. Ely, grinning, stepped between them. “May I speak now?”
“You needn’t fret, brother. We have the advantage.”
“Advantage? You’re mad. Bloody mad.”
“Am I? Consider our situation. We are allied with Ibia at long last, which in our dearly departed father’s eyes was a union decades in the making. We have maps from the Grand Duke of Seylonna, Mar bless his soul, which no one seems to know about. They have dates of voyages, details of manifests, in short, more details a ring of spies could ever hope to discover. Once Dawkin sets his eyes upon them, I’m sure he’ll sort out their meaning. And finally, we – or at least him,” Ely snapped, jerking a thumb toward Gerry, “has Taresa.”
“What’s she have to do with all this?” Gerry asked.
“She’s our, um, how would those maritime merchants put it? What with their contracts, trade routes, handshake deals. She’s our collateral. Nay, our insurance.”
“She’s neither contract nor coin.”
“Aye, she’s better. For whether we’re taunted by Xain, the unknown menace whose been attacking these castles, or King Felix himself, none would dare to strike our queen.”
“You’re damn sure?”
“I am. Damned and sure. We all are. She’s bloody protecting us, she is. If ever a fool were to harm her, the Ibians – King and all – would rise in arms.”
“They’re doing that already,” Symon quipped.
“True. The Ibians want justice, as do our lot. But in this conflict, brothers, we do not stand at the front lines. Those talks you abhor, Symon, are our salvation. They buy us time. Resources. Even allies. Albeit not the most savory ones, but allies nonetheless. Don’t you think Father tried a hundred-thousand times to do the same during the Century War? But do you ever recall him saying his attempts ever became fruitful? Never. But, here and now, we have the opportunity to do what he could not. Not as one. Rather, four. We can be the diplomat he never achieved. This shared conflict – or nuisance or threat or whatever you want to call it – can bind us to the continent’s superpower. If only we show this chance the restraint, the respect, the cunning, it deserves.”
Ely looked to his brothers. Blank stares met his eagerness.
“I, I don’t know, Ely,” Gerry confessed.
“Your passion is, say, notable,” Symon added.
“But you’re a tad . . . How would Dawkin say? Naïve.”
“Agreed. The Ibians aren’t pawns. We can’t count on gaining any momentum by trifling with –”
“Shut up. Both of you.” Something outside the rear cabin window had captured Ely’s attention. He strode across the room as his brothers followed. They leaned over the bench bordering the window, straining their eyes for a closer look.
Adrift, a skiff floated. Unmanned. A swell rocked the boat. As it did, the lantern placed upon its center bench came to life.
“Is . . . Wait. Are those oreflares inside the lantern? How are they . . .” Ely’s voice trailed off, puzzled.
“I know how,” Gerry said, beaming. “Remember? You take a handful of large oreflares and jostle them around. They brighten due to the motion. They never stay lit for long.”
“Smart lads,” Ely mused. “I didn’t even ask them to do that. I merely suggested they include a sign of some sort, one to signal their departure from Ibia yet one not so obvious as a shining lantern, lest the steady brightness tip off the King’s agents in these waters. Hmm, not bad.”
Symon looked upon the empty boat. Never before had he ever been so glad to see a vessel unmoored and unmanned.
The maps are safe, at least. Our sailors managed to escape. Dawkin will be warned – as will Grandfather, and the rest of Marland – ahead of our homecoming.
“You did well, Ely,” he said in earnest, knowing the fight ahead would be far from fair. “We need more of that wit from you. And from our men. From all of us.”
“Your accolades unnerve me, brother.”
“As they should.”
For even with our advantage of intelligence, with our secrets and all, the enemy still assails us. Here, during our royal union. Abroad, during a mission of diplomacy. Perhaps even at home? Is Dawkin safe from the threats we’ve faced? Are any of our countrymen?
Symon set his jaw. Whatever their circumstances – with all the world of possibilities, however improbable, swirling in his mind – he knew one thing to be true: They would act. For they had to, as waiting in the shadows and biding their time benefited not them but their enemies. Yes, they would put a series of events in motion. With haste, in the face of immediacy. With prudence, when favor allowed. With force, to show those at home and afar that Kin Saliswater was never to be trifled with.
“We will use your spies, Ely,” Symon announced as he looked out the window, as much to himself as to his siblings. “Gerry, your modesty, what with your delicate appearance, to deceive our enemies. Dawkin, with his mind, as annoying as he is with his book knowledge and such. And I . . . with shield and sword. We will stop this threat, using every trick and edict at hand, no matter how questionable. We must stand against this . . . tide . . . This surge rising from the continent, which seems to assault everything we touch. We must plan. Move. And strike.”208Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡHvTEk6rlJD