Restaok

The trip to Go’art’n Port had been uneventful. We’d been met at the pier in Port of the Cascades by four Virohan requesting passage there. Picking up some additional trade bound to Go’art’n Port and accepting the Virohan made for a profitable voyage so we’d taken on the two, Virohan and trade goods, and departed under a lowering sky. After a squall that pushed us south, we’d cleared Va’yka Point in good time and had clear sailing from then on. The entire voyage had taken only 22 days to come into view of Go’art’n Port.

As we lined up with the opening to the bay, the gleaming white towers and slender, high spires were immediately visible against the green hills in the background.

“Go’art’n Ka’ar. It means Port of the Gods.”

I looked at Xinu. I was surprised to see he was wearing a turban that hid much of his face. “Been here before?”

“Yes.”

His voice didn’t seem too enthusiastic so I didn’t pursue my curiosity, filing it away for later. For now I’d just trust Xinu not to endanger the ship or crew. “Where in port should we head, then? Here, you take the steering oar. Take us in.” Xinu and I traded places before I continued, “So…Port of the Gods. It certainly looks like it.”

By now we were close enough to see thin bridges linked many of the spires and towers to their neighbors. The slender, arcing pathways looked almost ethereal. Indeed, the glare from the white buildings made the whole place look like a dream, as if seeing it through gauze. Here and there faceted windows shone like diamonds, further adding to the effect of the city seen from afar.

* * *

The port was one of the busiest we’d ever been in. Xinu threaded us through the traffic to a wharf where we were able to tie up. The dock crew helped with our lines impersonally but efficiently and moved on to the next ship needing their assistance after telling us to remain near the ship until cleared by the harbor master.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long. We had just barely finished clearing away the sailing gear and lashing everything down when we were hailed from the wharf by a harried looking man with what appeared to be five assistants constantly coming and going, giving him papers, or running messages for him. With a gesture he silenced them all and called out to the ship.

“Harbor master! Permission to board?”

“Permission granted, Harbor Master!” I called out in response as I finished tying a knot holding the furled sail to the boom. When I turned to greet him, he was already aboard and giving quiet orders to one assistant while signing a paper for another. Sending those two off, he turned to face me.

A typical Southlander, dark skinned and nearly my height, with short black hair, dark eyes, a hawk-nose, he was so weather-beaten that his age was indeterminate. We quickly went through the formalities of registering Pa’adhe as present and declaring her cargo. That done, he asked about the crew, asking if there were any undesirables such as murderers, thieves, or such ilk aboard.

“Myself and three crew, none of us that sort.”

He paused, as if waiting. When I didn’t say anything further, he gestured with his head, “Why is that man covered up?”

I glanced at Xinu, wondering what to say. “I vouch for that man, he has been with me since Pa’adhe was built.”

The harbor master merely looked at me. “Perhaps so, but I do not know you. Not knowing you, I have no reason to trust your word.”

I was about to answer when Xinu said, “Captain, allow me.”

The harbor master’s reaction was astonishing. He whipped his head to look at Xinu, his eyes trying to bore through the turban wrapped around Xinu’s face. He quickly regained his composure as Xinu came to stand beside me, facing away from the wharf. Quietly, the two exchanged a few words in the local language, then the harbor master uttered one final phrase to Xinu before turning to face me. He scribbled on the parchment in his hand and handed it to me.

“This is your dock permission. Keep your crew in control, Captain, we do not have much tolerance for outsiders breaking our laws. Welcome to Go’art’n Ka’ar.” With that, he was quickly down the plank and once again dealing with his assistants as he hurried off to yet another ship.

I looked to Xinu, waiting for an explanation.

“Captain, I am from here and don’t want people to know I’m here. It is nothing to be concerned about, nothing illegal. I had to explain that to the Harbor Master. Fortunately, he and I used to know each other, so he understood the situation.”

Waving the Virohan permission to depart, I nodded, accepting his word. “Well, we’re squared away and have our permission. We have a cargo to deliver so let’s go find the merchants and get the cargo taken care of.”

* * *

It didn’t take long to find the merchant who was to take delivery of our cargo. In short order everything was taken care of and I handed over an icon for the merchant’s crew to present to Scarle to let them pick up the cargo. Our business done, Xinu and I decided to check out the market.

As we made our way to the market the crowds grew.  When we reached the marketplace I had to stop and take stock. The Go’art’n Ka’ar marketplace was huge, larger than any other marketplace I’d been to. Xinu provided some background: Go’art’n Ka’ar was both a major port and a major crossroads for overland caravans. It was like sailing into a storm, entering that marketplace.

As we progressed through the market, we began to get jostled more and more until it seemed like people were going out of their way to bump me. I thought it was just the large number of people, until we stopped by a swordseller’s booth. I realized I was being singled out when I waited after five other people that came along afterwards. I was just turning to leave when there was a crack. Turning quickly , I saw Xinu holding the hand of a nondescript man at an odd angle. Xinu said something in his tongue  but  before he released the man’s newly broken wrist, what were obviously the local guard showed up. Even though the other man’s hand was still grasping Xinu’s knife, the guard promptly accosted Xinu, focusing on the broken wrist. That much I gathered, based on the gesturing and the smug look on the face of the thief.

The whole situatoin threatened to get out of hand. Noticing that two of the guard were keeping an eye on me, I kept my hands clear of my knife, all the while wondering how to help Xinu. Then several things happened at once to completely change things around.

The leader of the squad gripped Xinu’s shoulder with one hand, the other grabbed the part of his turban covering his face, partially pulling it free. I stepped forward. The two guard watching me half-drew their curved swords. There were simultaneous gasps from the guard and the thief.

As Xinu’s hand went to his veil, the guard released Xinu and stepped back. At that instant the thief made an effort to wrench free, almost succeeding but the pain of the broken wrist was too much for him. The two guards that were watching me shifted the main part of their attention to the thief, and the whole demeanor of everyone watching suddenly changed. In that one moment of time we had somehow gone from being outsiders to being persons of note. I looked at Xinu appraisingly, wondering just who he was to cause such a sudden change in everyone. That discovery, though, would have to wait. We still had to resolve the immediate situation one way or another. Now, though, I wasn’t as worried.

Xinu released the thief’s wrist and he promptly bolted. He hadn’t gone more than six paces when the flat of one of the guards’ sword slammed into the side of his foot, making him trip. Before he could recover and get back up, a sword was pricking the back of his neck warning him to stay put.

Turning my attention to Xinu and the squad leader, I saw Xinu left his veil hanging, apparently deciding there was no longer any point in hiding. The two were talking, the guard clearly deferential but firm. I tried to follow what was going on but could only make out a word here and there.I made a mental note that if we continued to trade in these waters I needed to learn the language. It was frustrating not knowing what was being said and I was worried about Pa’adhe and her crew.

Finally, Xinu turned to me as the guard roughly hauled the thief to his feet and marched him off. “I apologize, Captain, for taking over the situation but it needed to be dealt with immediately. Thank you for your trust.”

“You’re welcome. Now what was that all about?”

“As you probably realized, I was about to be arrested for breaking that man’s wrist. You would likely have been arrested simply because we were obviously together. You saw how things went. When Sri Kintar, Sir Captain if you will, recognized me…”

Before Xinu could finish explaining, a man in fine robes stepped up to us and stood there bowing repeatedly. Xinu looked at me apologetically, and when I gave a small nod, he addressed the man. After a brief exchange, the man gestured to a boy standing nearby, bowed low and left.

“Captain, we have been, to put it politely, strongly invited to dine with the high magistrate. I’m afraid we don’t really have much of a choice.” Xinu was speaking quietly so that only I could hear him. “Please follow my lead.” I barely nodded my acceptance.  He then turned to face the  boy and gestured.

The boy bowed and turned to lead us wherever we were going. The difference between now and then was startling. People actually got out of our way to allow us passage where before they had seemed to go out of their way to jostle us.

* * *

By the time we reached our destination, I would have sworn we’d hiked clear across the city. We’d long left the market behind and I’d noticed the buildings getting steadily more impressive. While none were walled off, there were gardens and an obviously subtle presence of guards meant to keep the passers-by out of the clearly private areas. It presented an odd mixture of privacy and ostentatiousness.

We soon came to a simple, brilliantly white building. The glare after passing through a large garden surrounding it was enough to make one wince. It reminded me of nothing so much as encountering floating ice at sea that was suddenly lit by the only ray of sunlight breaking through an overcast sky. A quick glance upward showed three slim towers, so it must have been larger than it looked. Before I could make out much more we were led inside.

The sudden coolness was chilly but welcome after the increasing heat of the day. We were led through a hall well-lit by diffused sunlight to a room with benches along the walls and a pool in the middle. With a bow, the boy left. Xinu sat at one of the benches and began taking off his sandals, so I did likewise. No sooner were our sandals off than two young girls came in with basins and cloths. They immediately filled the basins from the pool and brought them over by us. Placing their basin on the bench beside us, they wet the cloth and washed our faces, arms, and feet. Gathering up their basins and cloths, they bowed low and left. Throughout all this, not a word had been said by anyone. I glanced over at Xinu to see him looking at me with a slight smile on his face.

At that point another young man entered, bowed low, and gestured with his arm towards one of the four doorways. Following Xinu’s cue, we rose and as we stepped towards the indicated exit he turned and led us out. If I’d not believed it before, I now had no doubt that this place was huge. Our destination was a large, cheerful, colorful room, well lit by a large central opening in the roof. Under that opening was a long low table with thick pillows on the floor around it. Seated on one of the pillows at one end of the table was a large man.

Entering the room behind Xinu, I clearly saw him become tense. He had been cautious before, but relaxed. Clearly, this was something or someone he was not expecting. The weight of my knives was comforting, though I knew they would not be enough to get us out of here if it came to that.

As we approached, the man rose and stood facing us. Briefly, Xinu and the man exchanged what appeared formal greetings. Xinu ended the ritual with “Go’art’n nifa’al”, one of the few Southland phrases I’d picked up and knew meant “all the blessings of the Gods”. When the two men then  bowed to each other I bowed as well, quietly saying the greeting as I did so. I caught a glimpse of a smile from Xinu and a flash of quickly concealed surprise on the man’s face.

Greetings over, the man gestured to a cushion on his right. As Xinu went to seat himeslf, Xinu gestured to the place opposite the table from him, saying “Please, be seated.” This time the other man’s expression of surprise was not so easily concealed and taking my cue from Xinu I pretended not to have seen it. Xinu and I remained standing, as was apparently the polite thing to do, until our host seated himself. When we were seated our host clapped his hands. Servants promptly entered and put plates with various fruits, cheeses, and small pastries in front of each of us. Other servants poured water and wine into goblets and placed those to our right. The man and Xinu raised their goblet of water and I quickly followed suit. Once again everyone said “Go’art’n nifi’al” and after a sip of water, we began a leisurely meal in silence. The servants kept the goblets filled and did not let any plate go bare. Keeping an eye on Xinu and our host, I noticed both drank mostly water and I followed suit, wondering what was going on and when I’d find out.

No-one spoke until the meal was over. Our host gave a signal and in silence we waited as the servants cleared the table. Finally, they placed a goblet to everyone’s right. A little wine was poured into the goblet followed by water to fill it. Everything cleared away and the final drink to hand, all the servants but one left. Our host looked over the table and nodded. The final servant bowed to the man and quietly left.

Xinu uttered a phrase in Southland and a glance from him cued me to repeat it, at which point the man at the head of the table returned a counterphrase. I guessed we had just thanked him for the meal and he had responded as etiquette demanded. After a brief pause, he said something in Southland.

Xinu waited for him to finish, then said, “Please, as a courtesy to our guest, let us speak this language.”

The phrasing of Xinu’s words surprised me. It must have surprised our host as well, but if so he didn’t show it. Instead, he paused as if thinking it over. Finally he said, “Courtesy is one of the pillars, let it be so.” He looked at me briefly, clearly wondering who I was, then looked back to Xinu. “As I said, it is welcome news that you have returned. We did not part on the best of terms, and I welcome the opportunity to rectify matters. Are you returning?”

“I am not. I, too, welcome the chance to mend matters between us, but I am not staying.”

I could sense an undertone of formality but there was something else as well, a tension like the coming of a storm.

“Why do you…”, the man glanced at me and appeared to change his words. “Why do you not want to stay? You have everything here.”

“Everything but what I really want.” Xinu, too, glanced at me. “You know that.”

“I do not.” The man’s response was as vehement as civility allowed. Again, both glanced at me and I got the feeling I was like a guest at a family fight. “I came here to neutral ground, hoping to…”, yet another glance was thrown in my direction. “welcome you back.” Again, I had the impression he had changed what he was about to say.

The anger was evident in his voice now. Now he spoke angrily in Southland. Xinu replied similarly, then insisted, “This language! Speak this language.” When the man responded in Southland, Xinu rose to his feet. The man did likewise and not knowing what else to do, I also rose. The exchange between Xinu and the other was definitely heated and judging from the tone of it, both were barely refraining from shouting. Even to me it was obvious the situation was rapidly deteriorating.

“Oh, sit down, you two!”

All three of us reacted like guilty children, turning quickly to look at the speaker. A tall, graceful woman had entered the room. She dismissed the maid with her and came to stand by Xinu. This time, she left no doubt in her tone. “Sit down, you two!”

Xinu and the man immediately sat down. When she glanced at me with one arched eyebrow, I gave her a small bow and promptly sat down. Whoever she was, she was clearly used to being obeyed. She smiled and sat on the pillow next to Xinu.

“Now, let’s try again, shall we? It was so nice of the High Magistrate to lend us this place to meet. Let’s not leave here without some understanding, please.” That last was clearly aimed at Xinu. However, she promptly let the other man know he wasn’t off the hook yet. “And you, you had agreed to listen and try to understand. Please do so.”

Both men started to reply and stopped to allow the other to speak. When neither continued, she sighed. “You two are the most stubborn men I know.” Facing me, she said, “I apologize for the situation you find yourself in, sir. Clearly, since you are sitting here, you are important to Xinu. Still, it is not a comfortable experience for anyone. Since neither of these two will introduce you to me, might I ask your name?”

Just before I answered, I caught a warning look from Xinu and changed my answer. Until I knew more, I would provide no information I didn’t have to. “Lliom of Narya is my name, Lady.”

She inclined her head. “I am Riarin L’al warei Ma’ayset Lisa’anar. Go’art’n nifa’al.”

I bowed in return. “Go’art’n nifa’al.”

“Your accent is flawless.”

“That is an honor I do not deserve, but I thank you for it, Lady.”

She smiled, and turned to the other two. “Have you two had time to calm down now?” She smiled to take the sting out of her words, but it was clear she was serious. “I will not have this break last any longer in this family. We will resolve it one way or another, here and now.”

Seeing the expression on their faces, she smiled coldly. “Now perhaps you’ll attend to this.” Turning to me, she continued, “As you have perhaps gathered by now, we are family. In fact, we are Xinu’s parents. This man, his father, is Leket R’al warei Ma’ayset Lisa’anir.” Turning back to Xinu, she asked, “Will you now tell Lliom of Narya the reason for this situation?” The question was clearly not a question, and I understood she was using me as a means of giving the two a chance to tell their sides of the story.

“I didn’t want….” Xinu’s voice trailed off under his mother’s glare. Starting again, he said, “I am Xinu S’al warei Ma’ayset Lisa’anir. This man is my father, this woman is my mother. For most of my life I was a proper son, attending to my studies and obedient to my parents.” This brought a stifled snort from Leket, earning him an arched eyebrow from Riarin. Xinu ignored both.

“When I came of age, I was expected to begin training to become the next R’al warei Ma’ayset Lisa’anir. By that time, though, I had also been taught to do my own thinking, and being the next R’al just didn’t appeal to me. I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I didn’t want that. That much I was sure of. So, I went to my parents and asked to be allowed to take two cycles to try different things and see what I wanted to be. That led to many…arguments. In the end, I packed a few things I thought I would need and simply left. The way I saw it, my sister, She’an D’al warej Ma’ayset Lisa’anar as next in line could take on the duties and become She’an R’al warej Ma’ayset Lisa’anar.” Xinu risked a quick glance at Leket and as quickly faced me again.

When he said no more, Riarin said, “And your side, R’al warei Ma’ayset Lisa’anir?”

Leket was quiet for a bit before he began. “I am, as has been said, Leket R’al warej Ma’ayset Lisa’anir. Much of what Xinu S’al warei Ma’ayset Lisa’anir has said is true. I would question his referring to himself as an obedient son, but that is neither here nor there. He had, in my eyes and before the Gods, no right to leave like that.”

From the corner of my eye I saw Xinu clench his jaw as he refrained from interrupting. Obviously, Leket also noticed for he said, “You are a…guest from beyond our borders, and may not be familiar with our names. So, let me clarify and you will see the cause of my dissent. Leket is my given name, R’al warei is my title, Ma’ayset Lisa’anir, or in the case of my wife and daughter Ma’ayset Lisa’anar, is our tribal name. R’al warei signifies, in your tongue, roughly the equivalent of King. L’al warei would be equivalent to Lord or Lady, as necessary. S’al warei and D’al warei you can likely reason out.”

When he paused, eyeing me, I nodded. Those had to be equivalent to Son or Daughter of the King. So, Xinu is a king’s son. I was not liking the situation one bit; I risked losing my first mate and a superb sailor. If that happened, it was highly unlikely I’d find a suitable replacement here.

Seeing my nod, Leket continued, “As is evident, honor and duty require that Xinu S’al warei Ma’ayset Lisa’anir remain here and take up his duties and training. I have had word of the ship, and it could be sold for a fine profit, or kept in service. Either way, he belongs here.”

Both Xinu and myself had to fight to conceal our surprise. It was evident that both Leket and Rianin were similarly hiding their expressions the best they could, but they seemed to have sensed something wasn’t quite as they thought. Leket seemed to think he may have said too much, and Rianin that Leket had made a serious mistake, though I didn’t see what it was yet. Neither, it appeared, did they quite know what it was. Xinu, though, must have for he was clearly thinking he had the upper hand now. I felt like I was lost at sea and the distant rumble of a storm echoed the turmoil I strove to hide. That distant sound of thunder, though, seemed to give Leket an idea.

“I would like to offer a choice. Before I make that offer, I would ask the two of you leave so that I may discuss it with my wife first. I believe it to be a fair offer that will resolve this unfortunate business.”

I could tell that Rianin wasn’t too happy with that, though she hid it well. Xinu and I rose to leave the room and found a servant waiting by one of the passageways, bowed low and his arm inviting us to pass through. No sooner were we through than we were directed to a side alcove to wait.

I opened my mouth to say something but before I could voice anything, Xinu shook his head slightly while seeming to tug on his ear. I merely said, “So, you are a Prince among your people.”

“More or less, though I do not see it that way, obviously.”

I chuckled. “That much I could tell. What do you think will happen next?”

“No idea. Knowing my father, though, I’m sure it will be a choice that isn’t really a choice.”

“One of those?” I grunted. “I will fight….”

I stopped as Xinu held up his hand to silence me. He said, “That, I promise you, will not happen. Though it cost me, that will not happen.” It was clear that thought of my losing Pa’adhe was also in his thoughts. So, too, it was clear he didn’t want me saying the wrong thing.

Sitting on a low bench that lined the small room, I tried to relax, leaning against the wall, and thought about what had just happened. I suddenly realized that Xinu had stopped me from mentioning that I would have fought to keep my ship. Apparently, somehow, that little piece of information about myself and Pa’adhe was pivotal, though I could not see how it might be. Somewhere, somehow, that was the key, and Xinu knew it. I resolved to keep my mouth shut until I had a chance to talk in private. I amended that thought to include in a place I know is truly private.

It wasn’t long before a servant appeared and invited us to follow. We returned to the room with the table and his parents, seating ourselves as before. There was a tension in the room that was not there when we left.

“I would like you to deliver a package for me.” Leket was speaking to Xinu, who was carefully expressionless. “The package is urgently needed and if you can deliver it by ship a lot of people will be saved. To be honest, I can send it overland, but that will take much longer. It might cost a few more lives, sent overland, but not enough to be critical. It does need to get there as soon as possible, though, for many reasons of state.”

Xinu said nothing, clearly waiting for the other option to be stated or the destination to be announced. For several heartbeats there was silence. Then Leket smiled.

“The alternative is you return to the family to take your rightful position as duty demands.”

There was another brief moment of silence. I could see Leket was satisfied with the deal and that while Rianin thought it was likewise a loaded choice, she knew her son a little better and wasn’t quite happy with the deal yet.

“Oh, the package has to be delivered to Restaok.”

Now I was waiting for the catch. Surely it couldn’t be that easy, just deliver a package to Restaok or remain and train to be king. Either the destination or the voyage is deadly, I finally decided, otherwise it wouldn’t be a choice.

That was when Xinu decided to reveal his father’s mistake. With no indication of triumph or satisfaction, Xinu looked directly at me. “Captain, my father wishes to hire you and Pa’adhe to deliver a package to Restaok.” Leket and Rianin shot startled looks my way then looked back at Xinu as he continued. “The voyage will take you through the southern ocean known as the Ocean of Storms.”

I kept my attention mostly on Xinu as I sat there thinking. I had heard of the Ocean of Storms and word was not good. An area of perpetual storms, so constant that people believed it was the home of the Storm God. Few ships would willingly brave that area and the number of ships said to successfully sail through that area could be counted on one hand. There were no known safe routes…close to shore or far to sea, both were equally deadly. So that is the choice…life returning to what he strove to leave or probable death with freedom if he were successful.

I choose my words as carefully as I ever had. I needed answers, and couldn’t ask for them right now. Yet, an answer was required. Xinu had given me my out and my ship, now I needed to give him his escape if I could. “Xinu, please lay out for me the exact options and the outcome of each.”

Xinu gave a slight bow with his head. “As you have heard, the choices given are that I deliver a package to Restaok by ship or I must leave your employ to take up what my parents see as my duties here. Since I am in your employ, Captain, the logical way for me to meet that requirement would be for me to request you accept the job offered by my father. The fee will be commiserate.”

“Thank you. That is how I saw the situation, but I wanted to be sure I wasn’t missing a point or significant detail.” I looked up at the ceiling, not seeing it. I knew my crew would trust my skills and I knew Pa’adhe. What I didn’t know was the Ocean of Storms. I looked at the three of them. “Go’art’n Ka’ar em Restaok tala Maer Ka’ir Romst,” I said, pushing the limits of my knowledge of their language. “From the Port of the Gods to Restaok through the Storm God’s Ocean.” Briefly, I enjoyed the surprise on all three faces, but I also knew it was a risk worth taking. It would make Leket and Rianin wonder just how much I understood here. Now I had to gamble that Xinu would in turn follow my lead, and that what I had learned of their customs was correct.

“I see no reason to take on that job. Xinu hired on as my first mate, so he’s bound to me.” That wasn’t strictly true, but it could be interpreted that way. Hopefully, they didn’t know it was per voyage on Pa’adhe. That was unusual enough that they might assume it was a more standard long-term contract. “I don’t see why your problems should impact what I choose to accept. After all, I am not a Southlander.”

The consternation on all three faces was quickly brought under control. Since Leket and Rianin had been staring at me the whole time I’d been talking, I hoped they hadn’t seen Xinu’s concern. He’d recovered fast enough that I hoped he had an idea what I was doing.

“That is true,” said Leket slowly. He glanced at Rianin. “However, if you turn down the job, Xinu must leave your employ and either find some other way to deliver the package by sea or return home.” Neither Leket nor Rianin seemed convinced of what he was saying, but I knew he’d find a way to enforce that. It was, after all, his home and I was far from friendly help.

“So, you would have your son known as a contract breaker?”

Since I had been looking mostly at Xinu I saw him suddenly get an idea of what I was doing. I looked at Rianin then Leket and continued my counterattack. “That would not be good for a future ruler.”

For the first time, Leket looked at Rianin as if seeking help. This time, Rianin spoke. “That would not be good, no. However, you are in a poor position to turn down the job. We have the means to make or break your standing here.”

As she said that, I didn’t need Xinu’s slight nod to confirm it. What I didn’t expect was what Leket said next.

“Not just here in Go’art’n Ka’ar but in almost all the Southlands.”

Again, Xinu nodded slightly. I seemed to ponder what had just been said before answering the implied threat. “That is true, undoubtedly. However, there are other places than the Southland in which to trade. The danger is great if I take this job. We could all be lost.”

No-one said anything for a while. Eventually, Xinu said, “I will not ask to be freed of my contract. That would reflect poorly on me and our name. I know the Pa’adhe and I know my Captain. I will abide by what he decides. If we sail to Restaok, that is where I go.”

Internally, I groaned. I had hoped to avoid a direct confrontation over the matter, but there it was. Now I had to make a choice. For a while we bartered back and forth, me trying to get out of the voyage without losing Xinu and Leket trying to get me to release Xinu.

In the end, we had some terms set out and a pending deal established. It wasn’t ideal for anyone by any means, but it was where we deadlocked and neither of us would budge. Xinu and Rianin had contributed to the negotiations, but in the end the decision had to be made by Leket and myself. I insisted Leket had to let Xinu be his own man for delivering the package. On his part, Leket demanded that either Xinu leave my employ and return as his heir or deliver the package to be released from the obligations Leket insisted Xinu had.

Realizing we’d reached an end to haggling, Rianin had some sweet tea and light pastry brought. We sat there in silence, sipping the tea and sampling the pastries. In spite of the tense but pleasant-seeming setting, it was clear everyone was struggling with the impasse. I finally broke the silence.

“I do not see any other solution. We are both backed into our respective corners and clearly neither of us is going to give anything else. The packet for Xinu.”

Leket said thoughtfully, “I have heard a little of this ship, the Pa’adhe.” He looked at Rianin. “I believe that if any ship and captain can make the voyage, they can.” Turning back to me, he continued, “I have given my word when I stated the deal. Since you will not release Xinu, and since he will not leave your employ, I will add to the pot hoping to give you added incentive. If Xinu is released or if you succeed, every port in the Southland will be open to you and you will have high honor. But, I add one thing to the deal in return.” Leket paused to look at each of us in turn. “Every time you enter port in the Southland, if Xinu stays with you, he shall not hide his face again. Also, at every port where the family may be, Xinu shall visit.”

I answered, “I stand by my crew even as they stand by me.” I looked at Xinu. “If that is amenable to you, Xinu, then I shall accept the package for Restaok.”

When he nodded, I said to Leket, “I accept the package for Restaok under the terms and conditions stated.”

Leket looked at Rianin. After she slowly nodded her acceptance, he said, “As spoken and agreed, the deal is done. Xinu is free to do as he pleases if this package is delivered to Restaok. Go’art’n nifa’al.”

The three of us repeated, “Go’art’n nifa’al,” thus sealing the deal.

It was obvious Leket and Rianin wanted some time with Xinu now that they knew they might never see him again. I rose to my feet, and bowed, first to Leket then to Rianin. “I shall wait where we waited before.”

They bowed in return, Rianin giving me a sad smile of thanks. I left by the doorway we’d been escorted out the previous time, finding a servant waiting to lead me to the same alcove as before. As I sat down against the wall, another servant brought me a small tray of watered wine and fruit then left me to my own devices.

* * *

We were walking back to Pa’adhe when Xinu filled me in. As I had figured, he was of the direct royal line in the Southland. The key to all this had been that his father was forced by his lineage and honor to be bound by his words. As soon as he had threatened to take Pa’adhe from Xinu, he had, in effect, agreed to steal the ship since it wasn’t Xinu’s in the first place. That misunderstanding had put him on the spot as far as Pa’adhe was concerned and thus revoked that stipulation. Since it was said, it would be so, and since it could not be honestly executed, it was null and void. Though Xinu had no way to let me know, Pa’adhe had never been in any danger once Leket had said that. Getting Leket to say that had been Xinu’s goal for protecting us. The rest had played out well enough for us, but Leket would undoubtedly seek a way to get Xinu home somehow, within the terms of the deal. It was unlikely to be successful, the deal was pretty explicit, but at least it left them open to reconciling in the future. As to what the package was, we had no idea yet but would find out the next day.

When we got back to Pa’adhe, I studied my maps. If we lost no time, the voyage to Restaok would be at least 8 days. For Pa’adhe, in good sailing weather, from Inalinohe Headland to Amynini’a Headland would be a two day voyage. In bad weather…who knows? One thing was certain…the Ocean of Storms was bad. It was clear the only way we could make any kind of timely run to Restaok meant going through the Ocean of Storms. To go the other way would take far longer than going overland would. Even to sail to the closest landing and cross overland would take much longer because of the mountainous terrain surrounding Restaok. I wrapped the map back up in it’s oiled leather covering and went on deck. Staring unseeingly at the city at the other end of the pier I began planning the voyage, working out what we needed and how much. Three ships were known to have survived the Ocean of Storms and I was determined to be the fourth. Unfortunately, there was nothing known about the Ocean of Storms. I’d never had a chance to talk with any of the three captains, and for all I knew, they’d never really sailed around both Inalinohe Headland and Amynini’a Headland on a single voyage but possibly only into and right back out from the Ocean of Storms.

My mind finally made up, I stretched a cramp in the back of my neck and looked around. Cook was leaning against the railing nearby watching me. I didn’t recall him being there before I looked. “Been there long?”

“Just waiting, Captain. You looked like you were thinking hard about something so I waited.” He straightened up. “Xinu says we’re sailing soon for Restaok and I need to know what provisions to put in.”

I saw Scarle and Xinu working on one of the lines and called them over. When we were all present, I said, “Xinu and I are committed to sailing to Restaok.” As Scarle opened his mouth to say something I held up my hand to forestall him. “Eight days if we’re lucky but at least two of those days are through the Ocean of Storms.” I hid my grin as Scarle’s mouth snapped shut.

“Aye. Through the Ocean of Storms. There’s no way around it, the long way would take far longer than overland. I am willing to risk myself and Pa’adhe and Xinu has no choice.” I glanced at him and saw his slight nod. “Cook, Scarle, you have a choice. You know where we’re heading and what we have to go through. I won’t hold it against you if you decide to leave.”

Cook spoke first. “I have heard of this Ocean of Storms. We’ll have to store the provisions differently.  I’ll figure three days through the storms.”

Scarle looked at Xinu, Cook, then me. He shook his head then looked at Cook again. When Cook looked back he said, “Can you believe these two, Cook? Trying to keep all the fun for themselves?” He shook his head again then looked back at me. “When do we sail?”

This time I grinned. “Sometime tomorrow.”

Nodding, Scarle poked Cook in the chest. “You better get something special to celebrate with. I know of only one ship that has sailed the Ocean of Storms and lived to tell the tale. Going to be two when this is done.”

“You know one ship?” I asked.

“Aye, Captain. My uncle’s ship.”

“Cook, get the provisions, and splurge on something like Scarle suggested. Xinu, take care of supplies for Pa’adhe. We’ll probably need extra lines and canvas. Scarle, I want to talk to you.” The other two headed off to take care of business.

“So, your uncle’s ship? You talk to him about it?”

“Aye, Captain. Several times I’ve talked to him about it. Or rather, he talked and I listened. To hear him tell the tale, it’s a fearful place. They came through the other way from us, and came out this side having lost three men, one mast out of the two-masted ship, and suffered heavy damage from cargo slamming around. The exhausted men left were barely able to stand on their feet. So bad were the storms that they had no idea how many days they’d been sailing nor where they were. They’d lost all sense of direction until the sun finally set that day and the stars showed them the way. They limped into port three days later and spent a week repairing the ship. My uncle never tried sailing the Ocean of Storms again and wouldn’t go near the area.”

“Anything about winds and waves?”

“Nothing good. High winds that would shift suddenly, limited visibility due to the heavy spume, and huge waves. He said two waves, at least, were as tall as his mainmast and swears he saw one taller.”

I was about to ask more questions when I noticed a woman coming down the pier. She was completely covered by her hood and cloak but from her walk I knew she was someone of stature. As I watched, I saw a man get up from a cask he was sitting on and approach her. As he did so, two men began to move in, their hands moving to swords at their sides. I headed for the port side rail, intending to leap to the pier and go to her aid. As I reached the rail, the man held out a piece of fruit, offering it to the lady. The lady reached out and took the apple, bowing to the man. The two men approaching relaxed and seemed to lose interest in what was happening. Obviously they were her not quite inconspicuous bodyguard. The first man bowed low to the lady and returned to his cask as the lady continued down the pier.

As I turned from the railing, the woman called out, “Greetings, Captain. Might I have word?”

Turning back to face Rianin, I bowed. When she bowed back, I gestured at the plank linking Pa’adhe to the pier. “Please, my lady, be welcome on board.” I waited until she was on deck before continuing, “How might I be of assistance?”

“Can I not dissuade you from sailing through the Ocean of Storms? I can make it well worth your while.”

I looked at her eyes, the only part of her visible. They were determined. I was fairly sure she was here on her own. “Even if I now wished to do so, I am bound by the contract to follow it through.”

“Is there no way?”

Her voice was clearly that of a mother worried about her son. I took a chance and switched to being informal.

“I’m afraid not, Lady. Leket is bound by his position, the law, and his honor with no way to back out. I am likewise bound by law and honor. Xinu is bound by loyalty, honor, and law. And stubbornness.”

She smiled slightly at that last. Nodding, she said quietly, “I expected no less but I needed to try.” She was silent for several heartbeats. “May I visit with Xinu for a while?”

“Please.” I gestured to where Xinu was working, obviously aware his mother was here. “He is excused and can finish his work later if need be.” I watched as she went to hug her son, then turned back to my work. From time to time I glanced their way and once or twice saw Xinu looking thoughtfully in my direction.

As Rianin left Xinu I went to meet her by the plank where we exchanged polite farewells. Before she left, she said quietly, “After you leave port, talk to Xinu, Captain.” Before I could say anything, she turned and went down the plank to the pier. With a last glance and raised hand to her son, she left, her not-so-secret bodyguards falling into place around her.

* * *

The measured tramp of a military squad on the pier was easily noticeable over the clamor of various ships getting ready. Stretching, I stood up from where I’d been modifying a sail for the Ocean of Storms and looked towards the city. Coming down the pier was a platoon. Although marching in step as if at parade, they were clearly alert and ready for action. There were two point men plus flankers and a rear guard. In the middle of those was a double square of twelve soldiers surrounding two soldiers attached by chains to a hooded prisoner completely covered from head to foot. It was a good thing the pier was so wide since they were forcing everyone else to the sides. I watched as one sailor hurrying aside almost fell off the pier before his fellow grabbed him.

I watched their progress with amusement until I realized they were headed towards Pa’adhe. I beckoned for Xinu to join me by the dock plank. The group halted with the prisoner opposite the plank. Quickly they cleared out everyone in the area and blocked off the pier at both ends. Only when that was done did an officer with the group approach the plank. He made no attempt to come on board. Looking straight at me, he asked, “Is this the Pa’adhe?” It was more a statement than a question.

I looked over the group before answering the officer. Every man had good equipment and none of it was anything other than serviceable. Even the officer’s equipment showed use and his hand rested familiarly on his hilt. This was clearly no court officer and every soldier appeared to be a veteran. The officer showed no impatience at my delay and the soldiers paid us no attention other than those watching this side of the pier.

“This is the Pa’adhe and I am her captain.”

The officer gave a brief nod and pulled a roll of parchment from his belt. Extending the parchment to me, he said, “Leket R’al warej Ma’ayset Lisa’anir sends his greetings to Lliom of Narya, Captain of the Pa’adhe. This is the package that is to be delivered to Restaok.”

Before I could react, Xinu walked down the plank and took the parchment. Returning to where I was, he held it out to me. Taking it, I unrolled it and looked it over. Not being familiar with the Southland script, I handed it to Xinu. Xinu read it and said, “Captain, it sets out the deal that was made and is the same as was voiced and agreed to. It also states that the package is the person being delivered by this officer, Ronic Mand a Comer, of the forces of  Leket R’al warej Ma’ayset Lisa’anir. It states, too, that Ronic Mand a Comer and four of his men comprise the rest of the package.” With that, Xinu handed the parchment back to me.

“You are Ronic Mand a Comer?”

“I am, Captain.”

“I apologize for not being able to read the script of the Southland.” Ronic started slightly at that politeness and recovered with a slight bow of his head. “You understand that I had no idea what the package was until now? Please come on board so that I may discuss the delivery with you.”

After Ronic came on board, I politely offered him water, which he as politely declined. I waved Xinu over, saying “In case there is any difficulty communicating, I have invited my first mate to join us. I hope you don’t mind.” I gave Ronic an opportunity to object. When he said nothing, I continued. “I cannot leave right now. This package, and its guards, necessitates more supplies than we currently have on board. I will have to send a man to market for the additional supplies and at best we will leave on the evening tide. Otherwise, we will have to wait until tomorrow’s tide.”

After a moment’s thought and a long look over Pa’adhe Ronic simply said, “The sooner the better.”

I nodded my acceptance. “Please make sure both your men and the package stay clear of where my crew must work.” When he in turn nodded acceptance, I said, “Bring them on board. I will get us ready to go.” With that we both left to take care of our respective tasks, Ronic to get his men and the package on board and I to send Cook for the additional supplies and to begin overseeing Pa’adhe getting ready to sail on the first tide.

* * *

The first stars were coming out overhead as we cast off from the pier. It didn’t take long to get out of the harbor and we were soon sailing along with the lights of the city reflected in our wake. I looked over to my left, where Ronic stood staring at the city. As I watched from the rail it seemed to me that a brief expression of sadness flickered over his face, illuminated by the full glow of Lady Moon. I looked away, leaving Ronic with his thoughts and looked over Pa’adhe, checking her sails, the lines, her course, and feeling the ship sailing along under the stars.

After Ronic finally left the stern deck, Xinu came to lean against the rail by me. After a bit, I said, “Your mother told me to talk to you after we left port.”

Xinu looked around, ostensibly checking out Pa’adhe. Then he said quietly, “My mother told me what the package is. The package is a lady who is the ruler of a small kingdom, a ruler of fierce mountain nomads. She  was captured by Ma’ayset Lisa’ani after years of savage fighting on both sides. For the past year she has been held by my father to enforce the surrender of the Sta’aume. Recently, she swore allegiance to the Ma’ayset Lisa’ani but still was not allowed to leave to return to her homeland. Of late, the Sta’aume have been getting restless, demanding the return of their R’al warei, their Queen. Minor fighting has broken out again and is being led by her daughter who is demanding her return. With no choice, my father acquiesced and stated he would send her home as soon as possible and the Sta’aume gave him a deadline. He has waited until the last possible time that would let him make a good faith attempt to get her there. He believes that her return will simply restart the violent fighting of before, and so….”

“And so he sends her home through the Ocean of Storms, hoping she is lost at sea,” I finished for him.

“Aye. That way, a threat he sees is removed and he is not to blame.”

“Even though no real proof seems to exist that any ship has ever survived a voyage from one side of the Sea of Storms to the other?”

“Aye, though there is record of three ships having survived, so it is possible. If she is returned, and keeps her word, then many lives, both Ma’ayset Lisa’ani and Sta’aume, will be saved. If she does not keep her word, or is lost at sea….” Xinu’s voice trailed off as he spread his arms in the universal gesture of “who knows” and shrugged.

“I see. I intend to survive and deliver her.” A thought struck me. “Can Ronic Mand a Comer be trusted?”

“My father trusts him. Why?”

“Something I saw as we left port. I wonder, if perhaps part of his duty is to see she is indeed lost overboard?”

Xinu looked at me thoughtfully. “He is my father’s man. I would not put it past him. If he were given such orders, he and his hand-picked men would consider it an honor to die in my father’s service. They may not seek death any more than any other man, but they would not shirk their duty either.”

So quietly so that not even Xinu could hear me, I said “I will deliver this package, or die trying.”

* * *

Late afternoon the third day we raised Inalinda Headland on the distant horizon. even with a clear sky it was difficult to make out the headland against the pervasive band of dark clouds that came into view the same time. Even lit by the afternoon sun, the cloud band was a black band low on the horizon. Already we were beginning to experience subtle wind shifts from the distant storms. Once we passed Inalinda Headland, it would be rough sailing until we passed Amynini’a Headland as we came out the far side of the Ocean of Storms. Xinu and I, standing on the stern deck, looked at each other.

I finally said, simply, “Better batten down, we’ll be in a storm tonight.”

Xinu snorted mirthlessly and left to supervise getting the ship ready. I took over the steering oar from Scarle and asked him to send Cook to me. After Cook finished lashing down some gear and made his way to me, I gave him his instructions.

“Tonight, we’ll be hitting a storm or two. By tomorrow night’s end, though, we’ll be deep in the Ocean of Storms. I want you to try and make one last hot meal, a big one, as tomorrow’s last meal. After that we’ll have to grab what we can when we can until we’re out of the storms. As soon as we hit calm water and leave the Ocean behind, we’ll take a break and have a relaxing hot meal again. We’ll need it, from all I’ve learned about the Ocean of Storms.”

Cook nodded and I could see he was already thinking about what to make.

“There’s one other thing.” I could see that got me his full attention. “I want our guests to have some extra spices in their portions, and only their portions. I want them to sleep for the next two or three days. I don’t want them in our way.”

Cook looked at me, a slight grin on his face. “Wouldn’t do to lose the package, would it, Captain?”

I grinned back. “Been talking, have you? “

“Oh, Xinu mentioned something about keeping an eye on our guests so they don’t fall overboard.”

“Good for him. We need to ensure they all partake at the same time, otherwise the two not chained to her will be alerted. So time it for when they’re all awake. You got what you need?”

Cook nodded again and left to help get Pa’adhe ready for the storms.

I watched the crew getting everything lashed down and getting the storm sails ready to run up on separate lines. I kept going over what Scarle had passed on about his uncle’s voyage. We weren’t going to have time to change sails, we’d have to drop one and run up the other. If the lines fouled we’d be in serious trouble. Suddenly remembering a childhood event, I called Xinu over and gave him instructions to prep a very small sail to run up the forestay. As I described the sail I saw understanding in his eyes as he nodded and hurried off.

Already the winds were getting stronger and the seas rougher. Still nothing to worry about, but after tonight it was going to be interesting.

* * *

The first two storms hadn’t been that bad, but back to back they were a clear warning of what was to come. The sky overhead was as angry as the sea, and both were a like color, bordering on pure black. The sun was no longer visible. As soon as there was a break, Cook came to confer with me. Looking around at the sea and sky, I gave the order to make the meal and serve it. With Scarle on the steering oar, I went to confer with Ronic.

Approaching where he was conferring with the two guards not chained to the woman, I waited until he finished and turned to see what I wanted.

Speaking to be heard above the wind, I said, “We’ve had a couple of small storms, but from the looks of things, from here on out we’re not going to have much time between storms until the other side of the Ocean of Storms. It’s going to get worse before it gets any better. I’ve ordered Cook to serve up one last big hot meal, now, while he still can. Everyone needs to eat as much as they can. Once everyone’s fed, that’s the last meal we’ll likely have for a couple days. We’ll grab cold cuts where we can, but the entire crew will be taking care of Pa’adhe so there will be no time to serve you and your men any regular meals until this is all over.”

“I understand, Captain. We’ll stay out of your way. Where should we be?”

“Ideally, in my cabin.” When Ronic shook his head at that, I said, “I thought you might refuse that option. I’ve noticed you keep the guards chained to your charge at least ten feet from her at all times. That would be a little difficult to achieve in the cabin. So, I’d like you to establish yourselves along here…” I pointed out an area of the ship just forward of the raised aft deck. “That will keep you clear of the lines and out of our way. We’ll also tie lines to you so that if you get knocked over or washed overboard we can hopefully rescue you.” I saw the slight narrowing of his eyes at that. “We’ll also be tied to the ship, and just in case, make sure you each have a knife handy in case you have to cut yourselves free.”

“We’ll do that. I can’t let you approach my charge. When you’re ready to tie us to the ship, my men will tie the rope to her….” Realizing his slip even as he said it, he resolutely continued, “and we will be sure to have our knives to hand.”

I nodded acceptance and left to check on the new sail Xinu and Scarle had created to my specifications. With Pa’adhe’s non-standard rig, I was pretty sure from sailing a similar rig as a child that in the coming storms Pa’adhe would be much more controllable with that sail on the forestay than would be possible by reefing the mainsail. The necessary lines were already run to the mast top and the sail hooked to run up the forestay. A simple pull on the sail lashing to free it was all that was needed before hauling it up. I turned to look over the rest of Pa’adhe. Everything that could be done was done.

Seeing Ronic giving his men their instructions, I stuck my head in where Cook was cooking the meal. The smells and heat were overpowering. I reached out to snare a piece of meat. Without turning around, Cook smacked my hand with his spoon. Grinning, I left without my spoils. We’d be getting fed soon enough.

* * *

I was on the steering oar when Cook began bringing out the food. Fortunately, we were between storms at the moment, though one could argue that. I knew what was coming and compared to that, it was nice weather right now. Good timing for eating. Scarle, being closest, was served first, then Cook made his way over to Ronic and his men. His back to the wind and balancing on the heaving deck, it was fascinating watching Cook dish up the assorted food to the squad. Once everyone including the package had their heaping plates of food and were crouched against the windward rail eating, he headed to where Xinu was hunkered down then up to me.

Dishing up a heaping plate that got my mouth watering even in the spray, he covered it with a bit of canvas and set it against the railing before taking the steering oar from me.  I crouched against the rail for protection from the wind and rain and began eating. As I ate, I glanced at the squad then at Cook. He simply nodded.

As I handed him the empty plate and took the steering oar back, he said, “It’s slow acting but will put them out for two or three days. I had to guess at the amount. The prisoner will likely sleep longer, not being as big as the guards.”

“When?”

“About a hand or two.”

I looked around at the storms all about.  Without knowing how, I knew we’d be battling yet another, stronger, storm not much later than that. Nothing we can do about it, I thought. Aloud, I said, “It’ll be close, we’ll be in a stronger storm about then. On your way back, when you collect their plates, check their lifelines are properly tied, all of them. You’ll have to guess at the knot on the prisoner but try to get a good look at it. It may be all we have for a bit to keep them from going over. Keep an eye on them and be ready to secure them as soon as they fall asleep.”

I watched as Cook collected the plates, checked their lines were tied properly, and made his way forward to put things away. Already, I could feel the storm surge even in this angry sea. A sudden gust of wind laid Pa’adhe over a bit before I could ease off the course. Xinu and Scarle sprang to the mast and with a quick glance to me for verification began reducing sail even more. Even with the reduced sail, we were still moving along at a good pace. For a brief moment, I lost myself to the storm, sea, and Pa’adhe. It was exhilarating, wild, and free.

I suddenly noticed the soldiers staring at me. Xinu and Scarle glanced my way, at each other, then went back to fastening down the lines and the reefed sail. I felt the grin on my face, but made no attempt to remove it. Storms made me feel alive, and for some reason I didn’t fear them. I had a huge respect for them, but it always felt like we were checking each other out or playing a game.

* * *

It wasn’t long before I saw Cook grab Scarle and head towards the guards. The two of them quickly checked guards, then Scarle held up a sword, looking at me. I nodded, and they collected all the weapons before proceeding to tie up everyone. Cook and Scarle looked at me, startled, when they got to the prisoner. I shrugged and gestured at the cabin with my head. They went back about their work and shortly all six passengers were tied and stowed in the cabin.

As Scarle headed back to midships to tie himself in by Xinu, Cook made his way to the railing by the steering oar. As he tied himself to the railing, he came to crouch by me. Shouting to be heard over the increasing storm, he said, “That was a woman!”

“Aye.”

He looked at me, waiting. When I said nothing more, he said, “They went under pretty fast. Must have been more tired than I thought. They’ll sleep well through the storm. Lashed them all into place and locked away their weapons.”

“Good. Timing couldn’t be better, we’re going to be battling storms non-stop from here on until we come out the other side.” I paused, looking around. Something wasn’t quite right. My gaze lingered on the reefed sail. I was about to look away when something seemed to scream at me. I looked at Cook, Xinu, and Scarle. They, too, were looking around, as if trying to find something. The wind seemed to scream again just as I looked at the reefed sail again. I struggled to see further into the storm, but the blown spume, driving rain, chaotic seas, and lack of a clear horizon revealed nothing.

Pa’adhe shuddered the same time the wind seemed to scream again. Almost immediately there was a flash of sheet lightning as well, the crash of thunder easily heard over the storm. I knew, not knowing how I knew, that we had to act now.

“Get that main down! Get the new storm sail up! NOW!”

Somehow, Xinu and Scarle seemed to hear me and looked my way. Cook stood up, gesturing at the sail and began untying himself. Xinu and Scarle both nodded, making their way immediately to the mast, Scarle trailing along a third lifeline. When Cook joined them, he quickly tied on the new lifeline, at the same time telling Xinu and Scarle what I’d ordered. Xinu immediately broke for the bow where the storm sail lay lashed, ready to go, while Cook and Scarle began struggling to get the rest of the reefed sail under control, lashed to it’s booms, and the booms fastened in place. Xinu ran up the storm sail then fought his way back to the mast to set it and help with the mainsail.

The ravening storm threw a wall of water across Pa’adhe, hiding the three from my sight. I felt the ship literally shake as if throwing off the water and was relieved to see all three of them at the mast, Cook and Xinu on their knees. As soon as they came out of the water, they were back at work taming the mainsail and setting the storm sail.

With the small storm sail set and the main finally lashed down, Pa’adhe seemed to come alive, dancing with the waves and wind. The already massive storm increased in violence, beyond anything I’d ever been in before, and showed no signs of doing anything but increasing even more.

Even with the ridiculously small storm sail on the forestay, I feared my ship was finally reaching her limits.  Worse, I knew we had only just started fighting the storms. For a quick moment, I thought we were all going to be lost as Pa’adhe suddenly buried her leeward rail in the sea. Over the storm I seemed to hear laughter, as if the storm was chiding me. With no effort on my part, she righted herself, seemed to once again shake off the sea, and surged ahead against the rising wave before her. I felt a sudden rush of elation so great I had to scream with joy.

* * *

As the storm raged I lost all sense of direction as I concentrated on sailing according to the waves and wind. I knew we were making progress but had no idea where we were. For all I knew, we could be mere feet from the rocky shore or far out to sea. The only thing I knew for sure, somehow, was that we were making our way through the Ocean of Storms.

On and on we sailed, with only a brief respite here and there when the unending storm seemed to lessen slightly as if gathering a breath before assailing us again. Cook managed to bring each of us a few mouthfuls of food and mead. I marveled at how the crew seemed to take turns grabbing a few minutes of sleep jammed against the railing. I felt no need for sleep, though I had no idea how long we’d been sailing. Except for when Cook brought food and drink, I had been manning the steering oar nonstop. I knew I was tiring but I couldn’t hand over the steering oar to anyone.

Deep inside me, something began to grow. At first it was like an itch that slowly grew until I felt as if I had had a few mugs of mead. It spread until I felt warm, almost feverish. Then my head began to feel like it was going to explode from the pressure like a waterskin filled to the bursting point. Everything began to fade from view except the water off the steering side of Pa’adhe. Mesmerized, I watched as the waves seemed to slowly quiet.

Shaking my head to try and clear the pressure, I seemed to hear a voice saying, “Not yet.”

Quickly looking around, I saw no-one standing near enough to have said that. Looking back to the waves, I saw they were no longer so chaotic. Instinctively, I began to steer towards the quieter water.

“Enough. Now straight.”

I didn’t bother to look around for anyone. I knew no-one was nearby. I simply followed directions and straightened out Pa’adhe without knowing why.

Suddenly, there was much less wind and the seas around us were relatively smooth. I now felt as if my whole body was about to explode like an overfilled waterskin someone was sitting on. I started to scream, only to hear that voice once more say, “Not yet, O My Captain.”

That startled me enough to seem to relieve the pressure. At the same time, Pa’adhe began to lean to her port. Straining to see forward, I suddenly realized the cause of the calmer water and lessened wind. We were in the wind shadow of a wave, a wave that I suddenly saw clearly rising before us. Following the wall of water, I craned my neck, vainly trying to see the top of it. Pa’adhe began to climb up the face of the wave, slowly as if she were tired. The pressure in me began to increase until it threatened to distract me from sailing up this wave.

“Just a little further, O Captain!”

Barely able to stand the pressure, or to keep my footing on the steeply slanted deck, I risked a quick glance around. Cook and Xinu were jammed against the railing, staring at me. Scarle was braced against the mast, hanging on with both arms thrust through the lines. Scarle, too, was staring at me.

I had no time to think why they were staring at me, I had just seen the crest of the wave. Still high above the masthead, I couldn’t look away from the impending disaster. Risking a quick glance behind me, I was appalled to see how far down the chaotic sea was. It was easily ten times the length of Pa’adhe from where we were to where the wave started to meet the raging seas.

Already, the steeply canted, wet deck was beginning to cause me to have to fight to maintain my footing. With the wave steepening above us, I had no choice but to angle more across its’ face. It was a challenge keeping the railing from digging into the wave face and for a bit that took my mind off the building pressure.

All too soon, the pressure was back, and building so much it was becoming a physical sensation, as if I were on fire. I wanted to scream, hoping that would help but not daring to. Shaking dripping water from my head, I tried to see where we could cross the crest of the wave. All above us and to either side as far as I could see, the wave was beginning to break. Even as I looked, I saw that we were just about to enter the curl of the wave-top. Desperately, I began to try to steer us towards the crest, hoping to smash through the curl to the back of the wave.

Before I could move the steering oar more than a few inches, I heard an exultant “Now, Captain! Now!”

I screamed. I screamed in sheer relief. In agony. In joy.

In that instant, the pressure seemed to leave me completely. Before us, I saw the curl of the wave part, as if the breaking water had been pushed aside by a strong wind, yet I felt no wind.

The sudden release of pressure left me weak, barely able to stand. Yet, I knew I had to drive Pa’adhe through that break or we were lost. Desperately, I pulled the steering oar and was thrilled by the immediate response as Pa’adhe responded, turning her bow directly into the break. As soon as we were aimed to the center of the break, I set the steering oar straight.

Up we angled, and as the mast cleared the crest, the wind caught the little storm sail. Pa’adhe lurched to port, almost burying the rail. I felt the steering oar lose it’s bite, then her bow slid up over the crest. The wind caught the forward hull, slewing it towards the oncoming breaking curl. At the same time, I felt the steering oar bite again into the wave and fought it to keep us angled over the crest.

In moments we were past the half-way point and Pa’adhe’s bow suddenly dropped. As the stern was quickly thrust into the air, hanging off the crest of the wave, I was thrown high into the air, only my grip on the steering oar keeping me over the deck.

Just before I fell back to the deck, I managed to get a quick look around. Everywhere I could see was the raging storm and rough seas, most of them higher than any I’d ever seen. At that very moment, off into the distance I saw a break under the storm clouds, a thin line of clear sky below a faint reddish tint.  And on that horizon, I saw the barest tips of mountain peaks. All that I grasped before falling back to the deck.

Winded and bruised from where the steering oar had slammed into me as it once more dug into the sea, I quickly forced myself back to my feet. Desperately, I leveraged the steering oar, trying to keep it in the water as we began to fly down the back of the wave. The full force of the storm winds were trying to force Pa’adhe to roll into the back of the wave. If that happened, we would lose all steering and be lost. There was no way to bring her about, to keep the steering oar on the same side as the wave’s back. Desperately, I gestured at the sail. I fought the steering oar, forcing it to bite into the water so far below, trying to turn us away from the back of the wave so that the port rail wouldn’t go under. A quick glance showed Scarle struggling with the lines to the storm sail. Xinu was attempting to make his way to the mast to help when the sail suddenly eased out from the wind. As it did so, Pa’adhe eased up and the steering oar bit solidly into the wave. The sudden shift in the deck knocked Xinu to his back and he slid back to the railing where Cook managed to cushion his impact. Scarle lost his footing as well, but woven into the lines as he was, he managed to stay at the mast and somehow maintain control of the storm sail’s sheet, fastening it to one of the pins there.

As we began surfing down the back of the wave towards the distant storm-ravaged sea at its base, I recalled the angles of the rays of sun that I’d been fortunate to see. I knew our direction now, at least for a while before I lost track again in the storm, but for now I knew which way to go. Land! There was land to the south! I almost lost control of Pa’adhe as I suddenly realized what I had seen. There was land where no land was known to be! Deep in the south of the Ocean of Storms was new land. Someday, I had to go there!

Faintly, I seemed to hear laughter just as the steering oar slammed once more into my bruised side, bringing me back to my surroundings. Just in time, too, as we were about to enter the chaos of the sea behind the monster wave. Picking my spot, I surfed Pa’adhe across the last quiet section on the back of the wave and into the chaotic sea. Even though the storm didn’t let up any, it seemed that we’d passed the midpoint of the Ocean of Storms. The wind was more constantly from what I’d determined to be the south through west. In the dark under the black clouds it was difficult to keep a steady course and the rushing waves didn’t contribute to a steady track either.

            Pa’adhe’s constantly pitching deck, the steering oar constantly fighting my control, the shifting winds, the limited visibility due to spume and storm spray were all contributing to a feeling of being lost. Hoping that what I had seen was indeed sunset and not sunrise, I battled to keep us on course. Stubbornly, I refused to give up the steering oar through it all. Pa’adhe was mine, the crew was mine, the package was mine to deliver and I was going to see it through these unusually strong storms.

* * *

Wearily, I slowly realized that for some time now the strength of the storm had been weakening. Shaking my head to clear it and shake some water off, I realized that I had been semi-dozing on my feet, steering Pa’adhe purely by instinct. Looking around I saw the ship was a mess, but nothing that would endanger us if we were careful. All three of the crew were now tied directly to the rail rather than at the end of a lifeline, exhausted, and trying to sleep.

Groaning to myself, I looked beyond the bow, trying to pierce the darkness. I grimaced, shifting my raw hands on the steering oar trying to get a more comfortable grip. A film seemed to pass before my eyes and I squeezed them shut. When I opened them, it seemed I could see further ahead of Pa’adhe. My salt encrusted clothing was rubbing in spots I didn’t remember existed. Looking at the small storm sail, I had to blink a few times before I could see it clearly. The doubled canvas was still holding, for now, but it likely wouldn’t hold much longer. I could see where it was straining against it’s weave, threatening to split. I turned Pa’adhe into the wind a little more to ease the strain on the sail. I didn’t think I could shout loud enough to wake my weary crew to adjust the sail anyway. Pa’adhe seemed to groan in relief at the change.

Sailing by instinct alone, I have no idea how long it was before I realized there was a faint light on the distant horizon. For a while I stared at it uncomprehendingly, watching it increase in brightness then fade to a faint glow. Then, the storm whipping the seas all around us and stinging us with salt spray, I began to laugh. Unable to contain myself, I was soon doubled over in agony from laughing so hard. Soon enough, I quit laughing, feeling at once so stiff and sore that I could barely move but at the same time it felt as if my muscles were finally relaxing after years of being tense.

I had just seen dawn breaking on the far side of the storm. At long last, we were almost out the other side of the Ocean of Storms.

A sudden, strong gust of wind blew sharp salt spray into my eyes, reminding me we weren’t out of danger yet. Seeing the edge of the storms, even as far off as they were, reinvigorated me, giving my weary body what seemed to be it’s hundredth second breath since we’d passed over that monster wave.

By now we were in a strong storm, but of a strength we were more used to. Violent, angry seas would cause sudden shifts in the deck orientation. The wind would quarter from north to west but was beginning to be more and more steadily out of the west. After a while, Cook brought around an assortment of foodstuffs and mead, making sure that we all got as much as we wanted. While I ate hunkered down by the railing, he informed me that so far the guards and prisoner were still asleep.

“I don’t know if it’s due to the amount I used or if we’ve only been sailing less than two days and nights.”

“It must be the amount of drug you used. My body is telling me we’ve been sailing for a week or more.”

Cook laughed wearily. I glanced where Xinu and Scarle were struggling to re-lash a dislodged water barrel into place.

“We’re all tired,” I said, “but until we get out of these storms it’ll be hard to tell how long it’s really been.”

“Any idea when we’ll be out of here?” he asked, gesturing all around at the world. “I can see some faint light to the east, it looks like sunset somewhere.”

I forced myself to my feet and took the steering oar back, handing him my plate. “I saw the dawn and now the sunset. Tomorrow evening we should be at the edge of the storm, if not out.”

* * *

We were near the edge of the dark clouds. The stars were beginning to come out in the distant sky before us when I called Xinu and Scarle over.

“Get the guards out and back where they were when we drugged them. Give them back their weapons.” As they left to attend to them Cook stopped by. “You might want to start thinking about what to serve tomorrow. I think we could all use a good, hot meal again.”

I heard the cracking as Cook stretched. “Already planned since we picked up supplies ten years ago.”

I laughed. “Only ten?”

“If I haven’t lost track of any years, yeah.” He stretched again, swaying easily on the pitching deck. “You know, after that storm of storms, this seems like a mere heavy wind.”

I nodded. “Yeah. It can still kill us, though.”

We watched as Xinu and Scarle brought out the still-sleeping group of people and arranged them more or less as they had been when they succumbed to their drugged sleep. As they were restoring their weapons to them, a thought struck me. Glancing at Cook, I said, “See which of you is most tired. The two of you that need sleep most, get it now.”

“We should be…OH!” He looked at me, understanding dawning. “The package.”

I nodded grimly. “Send Xinu to me as soon as you decide who sleeps.”

Shortly Xinu came to the steering oar. “Cook says you wanted to see me?”

“Ronic and his package. We’re going to have to watch him closely.”

Xinu nodded slowly. “Most likely. I’d forgotten about that. Cook and Scarle are going to sleep first. Cook has no idea when they’ll wake. The stuff he gave them is pretty strong and a wave hit while he was spooning it into their portion.”

“Let’s just hope it lasts long enough for us all to get enough sleep to make it to Restaok while still keeping an eye, and if need be, stopping Ronic.”

* * *

Most appropriately the sun was just rising as we finally sailed clear of the Ocean of Storms.  Looking behind us, I was awed by the sight. From as high as the fading stars to the very sea, the sky was a blood red mess of dark storm clouds and lashing rain. We were scuttling along under a powerful wind, but we’d been able to switch back to the reefed mainsail. The sea was jumbled, but generally running west, allowing us to make good time.

We’d been able to get two watches of sleep and Ronic’s group was still asleep. I watched as Cook stopped by the sleeping group then glanced at me, shrugging. Cook had taken no more than three steps when there was a very audible groan. Beckoning Scarle to take the steering oar, I went to watch them wake.

Ronic was the first to wake. He looked blearily around, forced himself to his feet, started to say something, then ran for the rail. As I watched him heaving I sent Cook for some watered down mead, enough to give to every one as they woke.

Ronic gratefully took the mead and sipped at it. A faint smile pulled at the corner of his mouth as one of his men repeated the process. As he looked over his group, his eyes narrowed. Again he started to say something when his attention was drawn to his prisoner, who was struggling against her chains to get to her feet. I gestured, and Xinu moved in to help her. He removed her hood just n time. Even though their stomachs were empty, dry heaves weren’t exactly dry.

Ronic started to move towards them and I held up my hand, stopping him. His hand went to his sword hilt so I put my hand on his chest, easily pushing him back against the railing. The obvious indication of just how weak he was made him release his sword.

“Much better,” I said. “None of you are fit to do anything if we don’t want you to. Just let it go for now.”

Ronic glared at me. Looking over his waking group, he nodded abruptly. “This isn’t over yet.”

“I imagine not. Now listen, and listen well. You were drugged on my orders.” I grasped his upper arm to steady him on the still pitching deck and led him away to where we could talk more privately.

“As I said, my orders. I have been charged with delivering you and your package to Restaok and I intend to do so. Look at how bruised you are. You were all drugged, disarmed, and carefully bound in the cabin with as much protection as we could manage, and yet you were still bruised.”

I grinned mirthlessly as he stretched against the stiffness and obviously resisted looking for bruises. “I had no intention, once I saw the true nature of the Ocean of Storms, of having any of you underfoot. Look around,” I said, gesturing over the ship, “what you see is still after we’ve already been trying to fix the effects of the storms on Pa’adhe for at least a full day now.”

I gave him time to look before I continued. “Maybe you’d have not been underfoot, maybe you’d have been able to ride through the storm without getting in our way or needing attention. Know this, sir: Twice at least I almost lost my crew. Once I almost lost Pa’adhe, and once even I lost my footing. Think you that you and your group would have fared any better?”

When he didn’t answer, I said, “If my crew was almost lost, and my ship disarrayed this much, you would have most likely been lost overboard or hurt even more than you were.”

I stared hard into his eyes. “My ship, my crew, my passengers, my law. I made the call I believe best for everyone’s safety. Since you would not go into the cabin and I wanted you out of my way and out of my concerns, you were drugged and stowed away as best we could. When conditions warranted, you were brought back to where you were and to the same status. I don’t care if you like it or not, as far as I am concerned it was necessary.”

Ronic glared back, giving as good as he got. For a several heartbeats, we stood there face to face. Then Ronic looked around the ship, this time carefully. When he looked back at me, he was still angry. “I accept your actions as necessary. I still don’t like it, and if I could I would make you pay for drugging us. That rankles even though I would probably have done the same if I were in your place.”

Abruptly, he turned away, leaning on his hands on the rail, staring off over the sea. I watched him silently, wondering what was going through his mind. Mentally shrugging, I left him there and went to tell Cook to give them all some food and to caution them to eat a little at a time. I also told him to prepare that celebratory meal for this evening. Taking the steering oar from Scarle, I sent him to help Xinu getting Pa’adhe back into shape. Standing there at the steering oar, I watched as the guard and prisoner recovered. Ronic returned to his group, talking with them. He looked at his prisoner for a while but made no attempt to replace the hood.

Eventually, things settled down though there was an obvious tension between the two groups. I could only hope it would ease before we got to Restaok, two days and a night’s sail away. Mostly I was worried about Ronic and his passenger. With a sigh, I admitted to myself that was something I had no control over. What will be, will be. I thought I felt a gentle touch on my shoulder, but looking around I saw nothing to cause that.

* * *

By evening land was once again within sight. Barren, rocky, and mostly cliffs, it was as inhospitable a shore as I’d ever seen. Even the beaches, when we could see any, looked to be more boulder fields than beaches. If there was any sand, it wasn’t visible from as far out  as we were. The wind and sea had settled into a more consistent state, though there was still some evidence of the Ocean of Storms in the swells.

Cook served the meal near the end of the watch. I didn’t blame Ronic for refusing to let Cook serve the two guards warding the prisoner. None of Ronic’s men would touch the food until both Scarle and Cook ate first. Even then, they waited a bit before they dished up their own meals. Stomach growling, I was anxious for the watch to change so I, too, could eat.

Having handed the steering oar off to Scarle, I joined Xinu where Cook had the food still cooking. Plates heaped with hot food and full mugs of mead in hand, we went to the windward rail and settled in to eat. Few words were exchanged between us, most of our conversation consisted of grunts of acknowledgment and murmurs of satisfaction.

When we had slowed down, Ronic came over and gestured at the deck beside me. When I nodded, my mouth full, he settled in with his third servings and a mug. For a while we all three ate in companionable silence. When Xinu went to refill his plate, Ronic spoke.

“Tomorrow’s eve we reach Restaok?”

“Aye, if the winds hold.”

Xinu started back and I shook my head. I watched as Xinu went up to chat with Scarle on the steering oar.

Ronic took a drink from his mug. before speaking again. “Do you know why her head was covered?”

“No, and it’s none of my business.”

“True enough. She is beautiful, isn’t she?” When I nodded agreement, he continued. “Since we’re past the Ocean of Storms, it no longer matters. Beauty like that can turn a man against his own.”

I glanced at Ronic. “I can see that happening.”

“She’s a Wilding. Or so the Council thought. In the cold desert of her homeland, her elemental is Water.”

This time I looked at Ronic then the prisoner. “Heck of a time to find out that.”

Ronic grinned. “And if you’d known?”

I rested my head back against the rail, shrugging. “Nothing.”

“Even so, it seems she has to have contact with water for her Wilding to be effective. Now that we’re past the Ocean of Storms and she can tell that we’re really going to deliver her, it doesn’t matter any more. The chains should be sufficient.”

I opened my mouth to speak then shut it.

“You disagree?”

“Like I said, it’s none of my business.”

“But you know something? About Wildings?”

“No, not really,” I said slowly. “No more than anyone else anyway. I was just wondering if she’d have been able to help with the storm. All that water, you know?”

This time it was Ronic that looked at the prisoner thoughtfully. “Maybe that’s why Leket R’al warej Ma’ayset Lisa’anir sent her by sea.” We were both quiet for a while before he spoke again. Rising to his feet, as he left me sitting there he said, “Please let me know when we are within sight of our destination.”

* * *

The sun was low on our left the next day as I compared the distant shore against the map in my hands. We had made excellent progress and I was looking for the entrance to Restaok Bay. Far off in the distance I spotted a ship beating its way out from land. That had to be Restaok Bay if my maps were right. Satisfied, I rolled up the map and sent Scarle to have Ronic join me at the bow.

When Ronic arrived, I pointed. “There’s Restaok Bay. We will be there after the sun sets but  before midnight.”

“Can you wait until morning?”

“Weather willing, we can. Why should we, though?”

“The lady should enter her homeland in style. She is, after all, R’al warei al Sta’aume, Queen of the Sta’aume.”

I shrugged. “Another night sailing won’t matter.”

I watched Ronic thoughtfully as he headed back to his small group. Something was definitely up, but what? The thought reminded me of the look on Ronic’s face as we’d left Go’art’n Port. I headed towards the stern, wondering. Is he going to kill her, finally? At the mast I waved Xinu over to me. No sooner had he joined me by the mast when Ronic acted.

At Ronic’s signal, the two men chained to the lady released the chains from themselves and came to join the other two guards in a loose arc behind Ronic, facing the lady. Ronic went up to the lady and quickly removed the chains from her. I saw that the manacles had been heavily padded to protect her skin. Stepping back to stand before the arc of his men, Ronic drew his sword. At the same time the four men behind him drew their weapons as well.

I had just started forward, reaching for my knife when the five men dropped to one knee and presented the hilts of their swords towards the lady. I halted, wondering what was going on.

As Ronic spoke, Xinu translated what was being said.

“R’al warei al Sta’aume, we kneel before you, we who once were your guards and now are offered to you.  By command of my master, Leket R’al warej Ma’ayset Lisa’anir, on this day in sight of Restaok, your bonds are struck away, your oath is reminded to you, and we are yours to command from this point on, until our release or our deaths, as is yours to decide.”

The lady shook her hands briefly then walked to where Ronic knelt. Reaching out, she took his sword. Raising it high over her head, she brought it down swiftly. With skill and strength, she stopped the blade at the junction of Ronic’s neck and shoulder. A thin line of blood appeared along the edge of the sharp blade. Ronic neither flinched nor took his eyes off her. The four men behind him likewise never moved.

“You leave R’al warej and seek to serve me? Why should I not slay you here and now for such treachery?”

Ronic’s eyes never wavered from her face. “I do not and I would not leave the service of Leket R’al warej Ma’ayset Lisa’anir. It is by his command I do so and not by my choice.”

As the lady looked at each man in turn, they likewise stated the same. When she looked at Ronic again, she asked, “I ask again, why should I trust you at all? Why should I not slay you here and now?”

This time, Ronic didn’t answer immediately. When he did he said, “Because I have been commanded by my R’al warej to serve you even as I would him.”

She let the blade drop onto its side, resting on his shoulder. For a while she studied the five men before her. Each man remained kneeling, their eyes on her. The four swords were still offered hilt-first to her.

“I accept you into my service. My word is your law, my command is your life.”

The five men said in unison, “I swear you my loyalty. Your word is my law, your command is my life.”

She removed the sword and presented it to Ronic. He kissed the blade and she returned his sword to him. Gesturing them to their feet, she said, “Until I tell you otherwise, you are my bodyguard. Remove those sigils of Leket R’al warej Ma’ayset Lisa’anir and toss them over the side.”

Only after they did so did she give any attention to us. “You are?”

“Captain of the Pa’adhe.”

“I will retire to my cabin for the rest of the night.”

“You may use my cabin for the rest of the voyage,” I said.

She smiled briefly and nodded, turning to go to the small after cabin. After she entered, Ronic stationed two of his men on either side of the companionway, dismissing the others before he went to stand by the stem, looking over the sea towards Restaok Bay.

Xinu looked at me. I shrugged, saying “Well, it wasn’t the lady going overboard that we had to watch out for. The look I saw as we left Go’art’n Port was his own life he was seeing gone.” I looked at Ronic up by the bow. “He’s not going home again, is he?”

Xinu followed my gaze. Together we stood there looking at Ronic and beyond him the dark shadows of the mountains surrounding Restaok Bay. “No, he’s not.”

* * *

The sun had been up for a full hand before we rounded the headland and entered Restaok Bay. Restaok itself lay nestled at the far end of the bay, surrounded by trees and backed by high, white-capped mountains on all sides. Tall mountains also completely surrounded Restaok Bay and slender, straight trees came to the very water’s edge. To our left was a glacier that wound it’s way down from the mountains, the sunlight bouncing off its pure white face blinding anyone that looked directly at it.

I glanced up at the masthead. There, under my banner flew another banner provided by Ronic earlier this morning. It was, he said, the queen’s flag and would announce her to the people of Restaok. It seemed to be doing its job. By the time we got close enough to see the harbor itself, I could see there was activity on one pier and that a ship was being moved away from the end of the pier towards another. I set our course for the newly opened berth.

As we approached and began preparing to dock, the lady came out on deck. Close enough to be seen, cheers arose from the dock and the soldiers lined up there snapped to attention. Dock hands ran to take our lines when we got close enough. I felt like a new captain again…I better not screw up this docking with everyone watching.

I should have known better than to worry. Xinu, Scarle, and Cook were so practiced now that all I had to do was steer us in. They handled the lines, dropped the sail smartly, tossed the dock lines, and handled all the myriad details of docking a sailing ship without more than the occasional unnecessary command from me to keep things moving smoothly. In very little time, we were tied up to the pier.

As soon as the plank was in place, a guard formed up on it with an officer waiting at the bottom. Not knowing what else to do, I went over to the lady. Offering her my arm, I escorted her to the top of the plank. At that point, Ronic gave me a quick glance in parting and went to the bottom of the plank with two of his men. His action forced the officer to step back and the three of them formed a hollow. The lady went down the plank, followed by Ronic’s remaining two men and stood there surrounded by her new bodyguard.

After some exchanges not audible from where I stood, the whole group moved off except one soldier who asked to talk to the captain. I went down the plank, closely followed by Scarle.

“I am the captain of Pa’adhe.”

Sir, I am to make note of your ship’s name. Pa’adhe I believe you said?” When I nodded, he continued, “And your name, sir?”

“Lliom of Narya”

He stood at attention and saluted. When I returned his salute, he announced, “In the name of the Queen of the Sta’aume, by Her command it is stated, by Her command it will be entered in the polls thus: In recognition of his skills as Captain and his service to the Queen, thus shall it be that Lliom of Narya, Captain of Pa’adhe or any other ship under his command shall be welcome in Sta’aume, shall have preferred status, and shall be under the protection of the Queen from this day forward. As it is said, so shall it be recorded.”

As I stood there, surprised, he said, “Go to the harbormaster this afternoon and you will find your documents waiting for you.” With that, he saluted and left.

Watching him make his way down the pier, I heard Scarle say, “And all we had to do was sail through the Ocean of Storms?”

Laughing, I said, “Apparently. I think I’ll take the northern route home, though.”

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