47 ~ Anala

Jourd’Juno, 27th Decima

Nightfall on the fifth day since departure found Anala at Harbourtown, weary and still mired in ill thoughts. She booked a room at The Worn Blessing, sent her horse to the stables, and found her room to be dry, warm, and small. Not that space mattered to her. She was just glad not to be obliged to stay with her family.

Truth be told, ken, I should be makin’ peace with them. If I’m not ta return…

She left her thought unfinished. She had to believe that at the end of this mission she’d return to Aro’s arms, safe and whole. She had to believe it or she’d lose the courage to go on.

A ship awaited her, but wouldn’t expect her presence for two more days. She could spend tomorrow attending to her own affairs.

Tonight, however…tonight she planned on getting splendidly drunk.

Jourd’Althea, 28th Decima

She didn’t, in truth. Not splendidly. She imbibed enough ale not only to feel even more miserable than she thought possible the whole night through, but also to awake with a splitting headache the next morn. There was nothing splendid about it.

Regardless, she woke early and got out of bed posthaste. It was still dark outside. That was a blessing for her light-sensitive eyes.

She tiptoed down the stairs to the dining room of the inn, but found such caution unnecessary. The innkeeper was already up, making breakfast for early risers. She refused his offer of a hot meal politely, saying she preferred her meal a bit later in the morning.

“Some demitasse, then?” he asked.

Surprised, Anala nodded eagerly. Demitasse was grown in lands far to the south, such a rare import to Athering that commoners inland of Harbourtown knew almost nothing about it, if they knew of its existence at all. The beans of the demitasse plant were roasted and ground, then added to hot water to make a deliciously sweet and caffeinated drink. Most residents of Harbourtown held a small addiction for it – and small it was kept, for demitasse came in only once every few months, sometimes a whole year passing between shipments, and it was all gone very quickly.

Anala herself hadn’t had demitasse in years. She smiled gratefully when the steaming cup was set down in front of her.

“I keep a small store of it, ye ken. Save it for more special occasions,” the innkeeper explained.

Anala ducked her head modestly. “Well, then, I’d be thankin’ ye for yer kindness in sharing a mite with me.”

He shrugged. “Twere the least I could be doing, for the returning Hero o’ Harbourtown, Bellica.”

Anala closed her eyes and sighed inwardly. She hated this.

He hadn’t notice her discomfort, and pressed on. “Why have ye no visited in all these years, Anala? Surely ye’d been given leave once or twice. Why’d ye no come home?”

She opened her eyes to find his staring back at her. Recognition clicked.

“Sebastien?”

“Aye, Anala. None other.”

There was a tense pause. Anala shifted uncomfortably on her stool; Sebastien moved back slightly and wiped down the bar distractedly.

“Sebastien,” Anala said after a while. “I’d…”

“There’d be no need for explanations, Anala,” he said softly. “Ye’d obviously gone yer own way, and I mine.” He smiled bitterly. “Besides. Things’d never have been the same after that summer.”

Anala felt the bile rising in the back of her throat. Painful memories swept up from under the years, threatening to overwhelm her.

Hastily she excused herself and ran to the privy. Leaning over, she retched until her stomach was empty and her throat was raw. Fare thee well, demitasse. She fell down beside the toilet, tears running down her face from the pain of puking on a near empty stomach.

Why? Of all the taverns in this Goddess-forsaken town, why did she have to choose Sebastien’s?

I no should’ve kept it from him, she realised. He’da been heart-broken all these years, I reckon. It had been nothing he’d done, but since that summer she’d wanted nothing to do with men, or women, or love. How could she share something with Sebastien if she couldn’t share it with herself? Come to think of it, how could she share it with Aro?

She doubted they would understand. It was so long ago – shouldn’t she have gotten over it by now? Especially as the culprit was dead?

She closed her eyes and tried not to think about it. Inevitably, the memories surged up and flooded her senses, all but drowning her in their vividness. Fighting desperately for control, she floundered in the tide of it, clutching for purchase. She knew violent reactions would come, if the past was provoked – but I no did expect it ta be.

Her brother’s face swam in her field of vision and she almost retched again.

Control. I need ta get control.

She steadied her breathing and did a basic meditation, one Yarrow had taught her years ago. “It helps me centre my thoughts amid chaos and confusion,” she’d said. Anala had used it once or twice but had not found meditation to be to her liking. It was too relaxing.

Well, Anala, now would be a good time ta relax!

She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. The earth was a pulsating ball of ebbing and flowing energy beneath her. She breathed in and felt a tendril of energy enter at the base of her spine and go up, up, up through her body and out the top of her head. She was a tree, rooted in the earth, and on each breath she took in earth energy through her roots and Kore’s sunlight through her branches, and they met at the centre, her core, stabilising her.

She held that visualisation, and the earth transformed. It was Aro. His spirit stretched out beneath her roots; he was soil and nutrients and her steady ground. She turned her attention upwards, and the sun became a hazy apparition – Athering, but not Athering. The idea of Athering, Athering as she was sure it had once been before these dark times, Athering floating and shining behind the clouds.

A sharp rap on the door brought her suddenly out of her meditation. She teetered on the edge of control for a moment, then reined herself sharply in and stood up. She was calm, she was fine, she was a tree –

“Ye’d not be the only one who’d be needin’ ta piss, ye know!” came a shrill voice from the other side of the door, after another sharp knock.

“Just a moment, ken!” she shouted as reply. Hastily she pulled the lever on the basin; the bottom flipped her leavings down to the waste system below and looked good as new. If it didn’t smell good, there wasn’t much to be done about that.

She splashed water on her face and hands and rinsed out her mouth and left – feeling better physically, if not emotionally. The woman outside gave her a nasty look as she swept inside. Anala returned it with one that said, “I could take ye down any day with me eyes closed and one arm behind me back, so dinnae be pushing it,” and stalked out of the tavern.

She had peace to make with certain people, and she’d best be starting now.

~

I reckon that coulda gone a mite bit better, thought Anala as she left her parents’ house naught an hour later.

What she could have done to make it so, she didn’t know. But it could have gone a better way than her parents screaming at her while her little sister looked on from the staircase. She’d always loved Mara the most. The girl had been but a toddler when Anala’d left for the army. Mara had tottered after her that day, shouting, “Bye bye, ‘Nala!” as the caravan pulled away. Anala had turned to make a hand sign – their own way of speaking, developed between them before Mara could talk – that said, We will see each other again.

Today, as she was backing out the door to the sounds of her parents’ screams of hate, she looked up and met Mara’s eyes. They asked her, Is this it, then?

Anala turned and said goodbye to her parents – maybe forever – and then made one last sign to Mara.

Never forget me.

She had tried, and that was all the Goddesses could ask for. She hoped it was enough to restore her honour, and secure a place at Bellona’s side.

Her thoughts remained so mired in the muck as she made her way through the streets of Harbourtown, she did not even notice she was being followed.

 

Jourd’Selene, 29th Decima

It was her last night. She’d spent the day wandering the streets, stopping in at familiar places from her childhood, seeing old faces again. Some welcomed her presence, others seemed indifferent, even bitter, and some did not even remember her childself and were just happy to have such a hero of the army gracing their city.

Each encounter left Anala nervous for the next. By the end of the day, she didn’t want to go through any more.

One she’d been avoiding all day. Avoidin’ fer longer than that, reckon. Since….

Her thoughts cut off as she stepped into the bakery.

It was exactly as she remembered it. Demosthenes Baker, in the back, creating the goods for sale; Sappho behind the counter, taking people’s orders; Isidora, waiting on tables – but her hair was a different colour, and she was taller. Anala narrowed her eyes, about to say “Isidora, what happened ta ye blond hair?” when memory more recent slapped her in the face, and she realised it was Isidora’s sister Laurel she looked upon. It has ta be. Isidora’d be dead.

She wanted to turn around and walk out, run away from the past, but she’d been spotted.

“Anala!” Sappho’s voice carried across the room, and all went still. Anala suppressed the blush that threatened to creep up her neck. A long moment passed as people stared at her, and Anala fought the urge to bolt as Sappho quickly made her way across the room to the bellica.

“Well, be coming over here, child. Did ye think ye’d no be welcome?” Sappho brushed her hands on her apron and embraced Anala warmly.

“I’d had a thought or two o’ that ken,” said Anala, returning the embrace.

“Don’t be being silly now, Bellica. Sit yeself down and have a mite o tea. I’ll be with ye in a second.”

Anala cautiously made her way to a corner table and sat down. Business as usual resumed but people continued to steal glances at her. No one was brave enough to come over to her, for which she was grateful.

Laurel breezed among the tables, taking orders and all but ignoring Anala. Once or twice her eyes flashed the bellica’s way. Each time, Anala didn’t like what she saw in them.

By the time Sappho had dealt with the remaining customers, shooed them out, and put up the CLOSED sign, Anala was regretting her visit.

But it’s duty, an like it or no, I must be dealing wi’ it.

Sappho approached the table and frowned. “Did Laurel no bring ye tea?”

“Ah, no. She’d a been busy with customers, I reckon.” Anala didn’t feel like asking why the girl had eyed her with such hate.

Sappho nodded and turned away slightly. “Dem!” she shouted to the back. “Could ye be kind enough ta get me an’ the bellica here a mite o’ tea?” A muffled affirmative came from the back. Satisfied, Sappho took a seat across from Anala.

She had aged considerably since Anala had seen her last, though not without grace. There were a few lines of grey in her dark hair, and wrinkles surrounded her mouth and eyes. Age served only to enhance her beauty.

Smiling, she spoke. “Ye no have had call ta visit in a long while, Anala. What be the occasion today?”

“Ye’d be right ta the point, as always, Sappho.” Anala grinned, but it didn’t reach her eyes. Demosthenes then arrived with the tea, and Anala used this as an excuse for a moment’s silence, concentrating on adding honey.

Sappho did the same and then spoke again. “I take it it’d no be leave ye were on, guessing Aro’d be with ye, too. But if it ’twere official business, what’d be a bellica doing no with her major?”

“Aye, the second question I’da asked much meself, ye ken. But classified information no be what I came here to talk about, I reckon,” Anala replied.

Sappho was quick as ever, for she sat up and briskly changed the subject. “Business’s been fine, and the kid’s been growing up very fast.” Her eyes slid over Anala’s face and the bellica nodded politely, intent on escaping into the mundane. Sappho talked at length about family life and Harbourtown gossip, occasionally asking if this or that tidbit of information from Atherton was true, to which queries, more often than not, Anala gave a noncommittal reply: “I’d no have any knowledge of that, ye ken.” So they continued, in the normal life vein of conversation until it was very dark outside.

A long pause ensued. Anala still felt no courage to speak but knew she must – I’ve no heart ta take it to me grave.

She launched right into it, unlike her style, but finding no other way. “I came to apologise, ye ken, for Isidora’s death.”

Sappho was shaking her head before Anala had finished. “There’d be no need, child. ‘Twas not yer fault she’da been captured.”

“Nae, but it remains me fault she’d been killed.”

There were two sharp intakes of breath. Glancing to her right, Anala saw Laurel watching them intently. Something clicked in the bellica’s brain, and the truth shone through. She’d been blaming me all these years, I reckon, an’ is rejoicin’ ta hear me confessin’.

It was if she could see into Laurel’s thoughts, as if every shard of malice the girl had held especially for Anala were gleaming in the sunlight, hidden and yet obvious. Laurel was not a girl anymore but a young woman, one who had loved and lost a young soldier sent off to war – and that was Anala’s fault too.

Anala shook her head to clear it and turned her attention back to Sappho. There was nothing she could say to Laurel, nothing to make the girl understand that Adem, Anala’s brother and the object of Laurel’s misplaced affection, had died through his own stupidity–and deserved it.

Nae. All I ken do now is repent the death I’d been responsible for, an’ hope agains’ hope the Bakers will forgive me.

A long silence had passed. Anala took a deep breath and plunged back into her story.

“I’d a had no control over Isidora being captured. Ta this day I’d no be in the knowing of the cause. But ’twas a moment…in tha last moments of the Battle. Mena an’ Yarrow been really headstrong and they’da been me superiors at that. ‘Twas my choice ta make but I let them silence me. I’m sorry, Sappho. Lord Exsil Vis offered us Isidora’s life in exchange fer me own.

“And we dinnae take it.”

Anala rose, wanting to leave as soon as possible. “I thank ye kindly fer the tea, and fer listening ta my apology.” Then she left, the bell on the door ringing through shocked silence.

What good was it to say that Isidora had begged Anala not to give herself up to Exsil Vis? What good to say she’d bucked against authority, saying she’d gladly die for Caelum’s fiancé and her childhood best friend?

Nae, no good a’tall. Just rationalisations to make her feel better. They didn’t do the job, at that.

Nothing would ever make her feel better again.

 

Jourd’Bellona, 30th Decima

Spume foamed up at the prow of the ship, spraying onto the deck as they bounced over valleys in the sea, hitting each swell and wave.

Anala stood on the upper deck, hands braced on the railing as she stared out to sea. A grey-green-blue surrounded them. Behind, to the east, Harbourtown was but a speck in the past. To the west, Mt. Voco had yet to loom before them. Soon there would be naught but featureless sea.

She fought the urge to go below decks to sleep. She’d had a full night’s rest; there was no reason for her to be tired. The rocking motion of the ship made her feel oh so relaxed, and oh, so peaceful….

With a start, she roused herself. It would do no good to doze here and fall overboard. Though it may be better than what awaits me, she thought gloomily.

With a small sigh, she took to pacing. The ship’s crew shot her curious glances but she paid them no mind. None but the captain knew their destination, though the sailors would guess by the next day, if not by tonight’s meal. The captain himself, a man named Lombardy Meriweather, knew something of Anala’s mission, though likely no details–merely to escort her to Voco and wait for her return. He was under strict orders to pull anchor and leave Auport if she had not returned from Clifton in a tredicem. Thirteen days. Thirteen days, and then he’d set sail without a backward look.

That revelation had shocked Anala, but only for a second before she realised it was a silly thing to be shocked over. Zardria had no love of her – a perfectly mutual feeling. Truth be told, were their positions reversed, Anala would no doubt pay the empreena the same courtesy. Less, a’that. No, she should be saving her feeling of surprise for really shocking things – such as meeting talking trees, or a treecat dancing.

Oh, wait – hadn’t she seen the second one already, at the Midsummer Ball? She’d even felt a twinge of pity for the courtiers that day–the male ones, at least, for Zardria forced no women to dance with her.

It had been obvious, too, that Zardria knew very well what kind of reactions she was causing, no matter what the sycophants said to her face – and before long she had retired the night, storming out of the ballroom in a fit of pique. To hide the laugh threatening to burst from her, the bellica had turned to speak to Aro as her eyes brushed briefly over the crowd.

Anala frowned now, seeing something in the memory she’d not noticed in that moment. Her eyes had caught Yarrow’s face, which bore a mixture of pity, resignation, and a heart-wrenching sadness. No humour rested within that bellica’s look, and Anala had almost felt ashamed.

Almost. What was between Yarrow and her sister was their business.

She thought of Yarrow on the road, when they’d said their farewells. The curses that had sprung from the redhead’s mouth when she’d learned where her sister had sent Anala had been colourful, insulting, and completely sincere. Anala had heard enough genuine swearing in her life to tell which curses lacked conviction. And the look in the bellica’s eyes when they’d said goodbye…. Yarrow cared for Anala, of that she was sure. She realised she cared for Yarrow, too. They just didn’t trust each other.

Maybe tha’ can change, she thought, her eyes scanning the horizon as she paced. If she got back to Athering–when I get back, she affirmed silently. When she got back to Athering, she’d talk to Yarrow. About what, she had no clue, but she was going to take a step towards friendship again, though the Goddesses damned her for it.

They’da damned me a’ready, I reckon.

Suddenly weary, she stopped pacing and put her arms on the railing. After a second her head followed them, resting for a moment, and she lost herself in the rhythm of the ship.

“Eh, now,” came a deep, hearty voice from her side. She started from her doze. “Dinnae want ye fallin’ overboard on us. How would I explain tha’ to Her Highness?”

The huge form of Captain Lombardy Meriweather stood beside her, one hand on the railing, the other hooked in his belt. His long beard was tucked into the belt as well, and pouches, a spyglass, a compass, a cutlass and odd accoutrements hung from the wide strip of leather. An utility belt, if Anala had ever seen one.

She regarded him, debating an answer. His face seemed serious, but there was a twinkle in his eyes, and she’d not failed to note the certain emphasis he’d placed on “Her Highness”.

She gave an easy smile and answered lightly. “Did she no’ tell ye? I’d be part mermaid.” She leaned on the railing, looking overboard at the deep blue below them and pointed to a silver shimmer under the water. “See? There’d be me family, come to take me away!”

Lombardy humoured her, glancing at the school of fish, and nodded gravely. “I see child, though neither Eorl Gray nor the empreena’s letter said aught of yer dual heritage.” The twinkle in his eyes faded, and he added, “Though I wonder if ye’d desert yer duties so easily?” His tone stayed light, but Anala heard the question underneath.

She responded in all seriousness, laughter gone from her face. “I took a vow ta’ defend Queen and country, Captain, and I’d not make light of such an oath.”

He was intelligent; she knew he’d understood what she meant. It was foolish, she knew, but death loomed on the west horizon for her – and she honestly didn’t care enough to lie. She’d always been too damned honest for her own good.

To her surprise, a wide smile broke across his face as he laughed and threw an arm around her shoulder. “Well, girl, tha’s fine but we’d no rum on board,” he said in a booming voice, and Anala was utterly confused. The sailors, however, burst into laughter, and she guessed it was an inside jest among the crew. She could speculate no further, however, for Lombardy was whispering under the cover of the laughs. “I too, took an oath to m’Lady Zameera,” and he gestured to the expanse of grey-green-blue before them.

Anala knew he referred to the late queen, and not the sea she’d been named after. She smiled and whispered back. “Ye have a friend in me, Captain.”

He smiled and released her from the grasp of his ursine arm. “Call me Merry, child. And I’ll leave ye to yer thoughts, fer ye’ve looked like a storm cloud’s been following ye for a while now.” He turned to go.

“Nae,” said Anala quickly. “Stay, if ye can, and talk ta me. I’d be falling asleep, and I’d no wish ta be falling inta a winter-chilled sea, mermaid or no.”

This brought a chuckle to his lips and a touch of concern to his face. “Did ye no sleep well, then?” he said, placing his hands on the railing.

“Ah, no, I’d slept fine,” she said, and paused, suddenly embarrassed. It seemed such a silly thing. He was looking at her strangely, however; so she sighed and dove in. Teach me ta open me big mouth. “Tha rocking of a ship or, ta a lesser extent, a wagon, makes me sleepy. Has for the longest time.” She laughed a bit as memory struck her. “Why, back in 4015 I slept all the way ta battle and all the way back! Me comrades no could make heads nor tails of it,” she said, quiet now as she remembered that time so long ago. Will I never shake the sorrow?

Lomba–no, Merry–looked thoughtful a moment but his face cleared and he chuckled. “I’ll do me best ta keep ye awake, Bellica, at least during the daylight hours. Did ye do much sailing as a babe?”

She shook her head. “Nae. Me parents cannae swim.”

Surprise crossed his craggy features. “Harbourtowners who cannae swim? Or did yer family come from another town?” The question was casual, but Anala sensed some deceit here, as if he already knew all the answers but did not want to arouse suspicion by not being curious. It was like talking to Ghia.

She shook the feeling off impatiently. Merry was a sea captain who’d never met her before. He couldn’t possibly know about her life, save the details every Harbourtowner knew. “Me mum did,” she said candidly by way of answer. “Me father grew up in town but he’d been afraid of the water all his life. When she came ta town an’ they settled down, she no had time to learn something so useless as swimming.” She heard the sarcasm lacing her tone. “They jus’ concentrated on raising a family and doing their business. Did no’ require sea-going, anyway.”

He nodded, accepting the truth though his face still held traces of incredulity. I dinnae blame him, she thought. What self-respecting Harbourtowner does no’ know how ta swim?

A thought occurred to him. “Ye’d be a Tanner, then,” he said matter-of-factly, and Anala saw no need to argue with the truth or even ask him how he knew. Most of his Harbourtown generation knew about the couple who didn’t swim. Wasn’t that why she’d become so good at the skill as a child? To show the town that the last name Tanner did not mean she had no self-respect, to erase a stigma that came from her parents? Tha’ reason, among others.

Merry was nodding, half to himself. “I’d heard they’d sent a couple kids off ta the military. Shoulda figured it out earlier, I suppose, but I’ve had things on me mind,” he smiled down at her. She returned the expression wanly, dreading where the conversation would go next. “Did ye no have a sibling in the army, too? What was his name…cannae remember. How’s he doing?” His nature was genial; a friendly inquiry into the well-being of her family.

No. one. knows, she reminded herself sternly. No one save Tenea.

Forcing herself to be civil, she bit back the anger and nausea that suffused her. “He’s dead,” she said a little more stiffly than she’d intended. She hoped he’d drop it but he took the stiffness in her voice for sorrow, not anger.

“Ach, I’m sorry, child,” he began, but she cut him off, forcing a smile onto the tightened muscles of her face.

“Dinnae be. It’d be years past now.”

Unsatisfied Merry sighed and relented. Anala breathed in gratefully, forcing herself to relax, and changed the subject quickly. “Tell me: yer name’d be Lombardy but ye call yerself Merry. Why?” She’d guessed already, but she needed to stay awake and not talk about her family. This seemed easier than dunking herself in the cold waters below the ship.

“Ah, well,” he said, smiling widely. “As ye no doubt know, me family’d be famous throughout Harbourtown history fer being tha best seafaring folk around, most especially as captains, on account of the perpetually good weather on any of our sea voyages.” His eyes twinkled again at her and she smiled. The Meriweathers were indeed well-known for their sunny nautical history as seafarers, whether merchant or mercenary. It was rumoured they were descended from Sea Sorceresses who had ruled the area in the Second Age, which did not hurt their current business, for all the people feared magek. When faced with the very real possibility of a bad storm dashing you upon rocks versus a millennia-old legend that cast shadows on your potential captain’s heritage, the practical route of avoiding bad weather usually prevailed. The Meriweathers were able to charge exorbitant prices and not get run out of town or burned at the stake – a pretty good living for a family that had started out as the most dreaded pirates this side of the continent. Oh, Anala knew her history very well, at least that of her hometown, but she did not stop him, liking to hear his story in his own words.

“When I was on me first boat, I was naught more than a cabin-boy, and known only as Lombardy to the crew. I was no treated too kindly; none of us were, for it was an un-Guilded ship and dinnae follow Guild rules, but I remained cheerful nonetheless. It was an adventure to me, a young boy, bored with the tedium of town, and me constant smile and jesting soon earned me the nickname ‘Merry’. I laughed a’that, for it’d be a greater jest than any I coulda told, and done by them all unknowingly. Tha name stuck, even when I became Captain – ye’ll hear a Captain Merry or e’en jus’ Merry from me crew – and tha’s how I came ta be called Merry. Me friends were shocked when I finally tol them the truth of it!” He laughed uproariously at his own jest, and Anala lent a polite chuckle, though she doubted he heard it. “It’s been easy enough a keep up, now, and I’ve never wanted fer another nickname – or even me real one.” His story finished, he turned back to looking out to sea, first giving her a kind, avuncular smile.

Anala smiled and joined him in watching the waves but her placid attitude belied the roil of thoughts in her mind. She had no doubt of the truth of his story, but was mulling over what he didn’t say.

There were un-Guilded ships, of both merchant and mercenary persuasion, but no Meriweather would serve aboard one, unless she was disgraced with her family. Then she’d have no choice – the Guilds wouldn’t touch an estranged Meriweather with a depth pole. Everyone knew that once a Meriweather was disowned, her magek left her. There were stories of Guilds taking on disgraced Meriweathers but they always regretted the choice.

Looking up at the man from under her lashes, she saw his scarred face and decided it hadn’t been a merchant ship he’d served on. No, Merry had been on an un-Guilded mercenary ship, to judge by the rough look of him, and – she decided, sweeping an eye over the men on board – so had his crew. Yet she was the only female on board.

Curious. Un-Guilded merc ships were more likely to hold all-female crews, un-fettered as they were with the Guild equal employment laws. It was a vicious job, and women alone at sea for extended periods of time, with no laws to govern their behaviour…not many men wanted to subject themselves to that. With un-Guilded ships, it was rare to see a man on board, though if it happened, it did so on a merchant ship. Merch ships attracted a different sort from what merc ships did. While the two classes worked together by arrangement from time to time, there had been an on-going class war between them for most of their long history.

Whatever the reason for the strange gender arrangement of Merry’s crew, they were Guilded now, and she was gladder to be part of a merc ship then a merch. She didn’t want to be the only capable one in a fight.

If it came to that.

It suddenly occurred to her that, if they were Guilded, they should have some female crewmembers. It was possible that when the ship made the switch, Merry’d pulled some strings, since expecting the crew to adjust flawlessly to Guilded life from un-Guilded was a rather tall order. Or mayhap when they were un-Guilded they sailed too often under the banners of other nations, those with cultures alien to Athering’s way of life, like Voco. From what she had heard and witnessed, women were treated none too kindly on the island.

It certainly explained the stares and whistles she’d received upon boarding. Merry had apparently given his men a tallking-to, however, for the unwanted attention had ceased. Anala was grateful. She had no wish to kill one of his crew if the man couldn’t tell the difference between rejection and playing hard to get.

With her, it should be easy to tell, as she never played hard to get, but there had been…mistakes before. She didn’t understand the precept with playing that game – she knew some people did so, but it didn’t make sense to her. It was so dishonest.

When Aro had kissed her, she’d been genuinely surprised, and had responded avidly because it felt right. She’d not thought about love for years, except to make disparaging mental assessments about those who threw it away or abused it. The fact that her major loved her and had loved her for some time, apparently, was…strange, for lack of a better term. She didn’t precisely know what to do with the information, and was glad that something seemed right about them, and that she wanted to be with him, because she didn’t want to see him hurt. She didn’t know if she loved him or not. She didn’t think she could.

She had been sure that you got only one chance at love, and that was it – and tha one chance was Sebastien. She could not have foreseen the event that tore them apart – tore her apart – any more than she foreseaw Aro’s feelings for her or hers for him. She felt wonderful in his arms but remained guarded and wary, waiting for the other boot to drop. Even if she was capable of love, could she afford it? On her salary? Treason didn’t pay well.

Successful rebellion could. This was why she must live.

But if I dinnae….

Her heart clenched. Something of her work must be left behind; some instructions; some help for Aro.

She had no possessions to bequeath save a little clothing and her sword, the latter of which would always be with her and as for the former, she couldn’t see Aro wearing her best peplos. I could give tha’ to Ghia, she thought resignedly even as the thought of Aro wearing something aught than a pair of pants or a fustanella made her grin. No, she had no legacy for him, other than something to help him carry on without her. She would leave him help.

“Merry,” she said softly, voice breaking through the noisy silence the sounds of the ship and sea provided.

He looked down at her. “Aye, child?”

She cleared her throat nervously. Why was she nervous? It was just business. Part of her bellica’s benefits package–a will that none would care to contest. “I was wondering if ye’d some writing materials on board, and the time ta do some captain’s business. I’d… there’s business….” she stopped, at a loss for words.

Merry nodded, understanding instantly. “Aye, child,” he said gently. Strangely, she found she didn’t mind the diminutive endearment. The word child from anyone else would send her into a fury. Well, he does have twice yer years, Anala. Maybe more. “They’d be in me office,” he continued, “as well as me seal.” He turned to go below decks, motioning for her to follow him.

Anala swallowed the sudden lump in her throat, sighed, and followed him into the darkness of the ship, her back straight and her resolve strong. It was now or never.

 

Jourd’Umbra, 32nd Decima

The crossing to Mt. Voco took a total of four days in good weather.

The stowaway was discovered in the dark morning hours of the third, just after midnight.

Anala had spent her first afternoon and evening finalising her will, witnessed by Merry, and writing a series of letters to be delivered and read only upon her death. After that lengthy and depressing business, she’d joined the crew for the evening meal, sitting next to the captain and laughing at all their bawdy and ribald stories and jests.

The next day she slept a long, long time, much to her disgust, and then got up and paced the deck, occasionally stopping to talk to Merry, who quickly became like the uncle she’d never had. She was grateful for his friendship and kindness. He had a rough exterior but a heart of gold.

She learned of his niece and heir, a young girl around Mara’s age named Morgan. “She’s right quick, a sweet if feisty girl. I normally have her on as part of me crew, though this voyage’d be a mite too dangerous,” he’d told her. “She was right furious at staying home. She’ll be madder when she hears I ‘ad Bellica Anala on board and she no got ta meet her!” he said, and let out a whoop of laughter.

Anala laughed as well. “I’d be pleased ta meet her, after me mission is complete.” She had resolved to not think of the alternative to coming back safely. Her will was done. It bore no more thought. “Though I’ll admit surprise,” she added, and Merry raised his bushy eyebrows. “That ye’d allow a young girl on board,” she finished, gesturing at his crew.

“Ah, that,” he said, and chuckled. “Ye’d be a quick one, child, no mistaking. Me crew is loyal ta me ta a fault, but they’d been un-Guilded fer so long, and away from Athering’s…influence. So while no woman would normally come aboard as crew, those women normally ain’t me family. And me crew knows how I feel about me family.” A dark look crossed his face, transforming him, and Anala suppressed a shudder. She wouldn’t want to tempt Merry’s wrath. “‘Sides,” he continued in a lighter tone, clouds leaving his features, “Morgan’s one o’ the crew now! The boys love her. She’d be our regular cabin girl, and everybody’s darlin’.” He smiled at that, obviously pleased that he didn’t need to force the acceptance of his heir. “Her mother worries a mite, but there’s no need. Morgan’s safer here than at home,” and his face darkened again, but briefly.

Anala did not ask but filed the information away for future speculation. Instead, she commented on the current cabin boy. “I’d thought he looked…out of place,” was the best way to put it.

Merry nodded, his eyes drifting to the boy for a moment. “Aye, that’d be Ros. I hired him on a whim, getting a tip he was lookin’ for a shipside job. He’s no experience but is a fast learner and eager ta please. I figured working with a Meriweather’d be good fer his resumé,” he said as an afterthought, and Anala guessed he felt the same way about his celebrity as she did hers.

She glanced at Ros again, then looked away. There was something about him that bothered her, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. She shrugged and chalked it up to his being new and not quite fitting into the rhythm of the ship.

She’d retired soon after the evening meal, sated with good food and lulled by the rocking ship. Her journey already half over, she tried to suppress her growing unease.

She woke in the dead of night and lay in the sleepnet for a moment, wondering why. With a sharp pain, her bladder reminded her and she jump-fell out of the hammock, not wishing to fall asleep again only to awake hours later, relieved but damp.

She allowed her eyes to adjust to the dark and made it slowly out of her cabin, down into the hold, to the privy, or the head as the sailors called it. She stumbled only a few times and exited the tiny water closet feeling much better.

On her way back to bed, she heard a commotion above deck and was awake enough to be curious.

“A spy! A spy! Cap’n Merry, I found a spy!” a crewman was saying loudly, though not loud enough to wake the entire ship.

“Now, now, Jerry, calm down. Ye’re too damn excitable,” said Merry. Anala came on deck and saw three figures by the helm: Merry, his hands on the spoked wheel that steered the ship, and Jerry, who was holding a small figure by the arm. The figure was trying to get away, but Jerry held fast. Anala moved closer, wanting to help and curious simultaneously. The figured struggled some more, then cried out in a high, young voice “Let me go! I’m no’ a damned spy!” This gave Anala pause; the voice was familiar. It sounded like….

Jerry gave the girl a shake. “Tha’s just what a spy would say, innit?” he said.

“If I were a spy I wouldna hide out in the hold but be part o’ the crew! Now let me go, ye cretinous, ignoble, spurious cat-herder!”

“Cat-herder! Why, ye little…” Jerry spluttered in anger, obviously feeling his job was more vital to society than herding felines. He raised his other arm to strike the girl across the face, then cried out in pain a second later as Anala’s hand closed on his wrist in a bone-crushing grip. She twisted his arm behind his back in one fluid motion and forced him to his knees. She had her belt-knife at his throat a second later.

“Touch me sister and I’ll see fit ta do much, much worse, Jerry,” she said in a soft, deadly voice. She applied just enough pressure with her knife to make her point; his Lucian’s Pomegranate bobbed as he swallowed nervously. “Now let ‘er go.”

Instantly Jerry let Mara go and she stepped as far away as possible, rubbing her arm. “Jerk,” she said defiantly, but subsided when Anala glared at her.

The bellica then released the deckhand, who rubbed at his wrist and throat, whimpering. He almost looked fit to give Anala a piece of his mind, but thought better of it when she sheathed her knife very deliberately. He sketched a sloppy salute to Merry and scampered down into the hold. Anala felt no remorse. She’d not done any permanent damage. And he was fixing to hit Mara.

Which she wanted to do herself, admittedly. Mara looked terrified, however; so the bellica settled for grabbing the girl and shaking her. Her sister squeaked in fear but Anala didn’t hear her.

“Mara, what in tha name of Bellona and Juno and all tha’s holy were ye thinking? Were ye thinking? What good could possibly come of ye stowing away on a boat full of rough mercenaries wit’ no time fer a young girl who’re taking me on a classified mission?” In her anger her voice had risen, and tears were in her sister’s eyes. With effort she controlled herself, letting go of the younger girl. “Mara, what….” she trailed off, at a loss for words. Sighing, she walked to the railing and leaned over, wishing, not for the first time, that she was anywhere but there. Maybe Suncoast, where they kept their women locked up like possessions. Or one of the moons. That would be nice and safe. Forgotten World–she’d even settle for the castle in Athering. At least Aro would be there.

“It’d not be safe, Kiddo,” she said, her voice quiet. “Now I hafta worry about ye, whether ye’re safe or not, instead of concentrating on the mission. Dammit, Mara,” she cursed again, but her heart wasn’t in it. She turned to face her sister. Mara’s head was bowed and her shoulders shook silently. At the helm Merry stood placidly, seemingly unperturbed by the events unfolding around him. Did the man never sleep? Anala admired and appreciated his calm steadiness. Mara couldn’t handle yet another person yelling at her. For all the girl’s defiance and fire, she was a tender flower, and shy, spending all her spare time at the Library. She’d been reading too much again, to judge by the insults she’d flung at Jerry. An educated and quick-as-lightning girl. Anala could hardly wait for Aro to meet her – he’d love her.

Anala’s heart clenched again. She put aside her thoughts of her lover and major. Mara was silent, sobs subsiding. Anala sighed. “Why?” The girl was smart! Why would she do something so stupid?

Mara gulped for air, rubbing her face on the edge of her sleeve and sniffling. “Because,” she said, her voice miserable. “Ye can’t go alone! And I dinnae care what Mum and Dad say, ye deserve a family. And ye have me, cause I love ye, Anala, and dinnae want ye to go ta the end without yer sister. And…and…” The girl paused, seeing the lack of convincing material in her argument to stay. “…and I could help ye! I’ve been reading about pirates and the high seas and military tactics and such; I’m sure I could help ye out!” She said this last part with such enthusiasm Anala almost laughed.

Instead, she sighed and knelt before her sibling, taking Mara’s shoulders in her hands. “I’d be very happy to hear ye say ye care for me so, Mara, and I want ye ta know I love ye very much. Ye’re a very smart girl and I’d be proud ta call ye me sister,” she said, gently wiping the tears away. Mara smiled at her sister, beaming in the light of Anala’s affection. “But,” said the bellica, a little more sternly, making Mara’s face fall, “Ye cannae help me. I know ye’re very smart and ye read a lot, but books dinnae help any in the things I do. Especially not where I’m going. Besides,” she said as she saw the protest on Mara’s lips, “it’d be far, far too dangerous fer ye, child, and I willnae be able to do anything right if I’m ta be worrying about ye all the time. I’ll be worrying about ye as is, but at least ye’ll be safer on board with Merry here than ye would with me where I’m going. Do I make meself clear?” Mara nodded vigorously, and Anala sighed resignedly. “And I’m afraid we cannae take ye home. It’ll anger the crew, and I dare not waste any more time on this mission.” She rose and brushed off her knees, turning to Merry, who had observed all the goings-on with nary a protest. He looked at her expectantly. “Merry, can me sister stay on board if’n she’s ta do exactly as ye say, obeying yer every order?” she asked, adding emphasis for Mara’s sake.

Merry smiled widely. “A course! It’ll be just as if I had me niece Morgan on board!”

Mara’s nose wrinkled. “Ye’re Morgan Meriweather’s uncle?” she asked, sadness forgotten with this new information.

“Aye, child, do ye know her?”

Mara hesitated. “Nae,” she shook her head. “I’ve…seen her around, is all. She talks about ye a lot. I’ve heard,” she added, looking sheepish.

Merry’s smile widened, if such a thing was possible. “Does she now? I’ll have ta ask that young scamp jus what it is she’d be saying about me,” he said good-naturedly, and laughed. “Ye’ll be perfectly fine aboard my vessel, Mara, so long as ye mind yer sister and dinnae cause her grief. If ye like, I’ll teach ye about knots tomorrow.”

Mara nodded happily and sketched a quick bow. “Aye, sir, I’d love that – I was readin’ about them on one of those pirate books, but the book dinnae say anything else about them. I’d be a mite curious.”

Good on Merry for guessing the girl’s need ta learn everything under tha sun, thought Anala, and she reminded herself to thank him at length later on that day. After sleep. She was so weary.

She nodded to Merry. “Thank ye sir. I trust yer men will understand the situation?”

Merry nodded, his face serious, voice light. “I’m sure they do already, Bellica, from what ye did ta Jerry!” He grinned. “But I’ll speak ta them all the same.”

Anala felt immensely relieved. “Thank ye,” she said again, then grabbed Mara and led the girl to their now shared room. “Come on, ye rapscallion. Bedtime.”

In the morning she’d sort things out further. Right now all she wanted was sleep.

 

Jourd’Aradia, 33rd Decima

The next day dawned bright and sunny with a fair breeze, showing the truth of Merry’s family legacy. Anala got out of the hammock, careful not to wake her sleeping sister. Despite the rocking of the boat, she’d not slept well after returning to her bed: she was too tense with wariness. She could not sleep with her sword and scabbard belted on but it made her nervous to sleep with just her belt knife. Funny, how before she’d not even thought of her own safety with these roughneck ex-pirates.

For that was what they were. Guilded merc ships were pirate ships with the right to plunder, and a wider array of skills than pirates. “Mercenary” was just a nicer way of putting it. As well, mercs were beholden to none except the highest bidder, while true pirates abided by some obscure code that no one truly understood, and pillaged without discretion. Pirates had no clients, and no one to answer to except Mare Herself. Ach, well, change a Goddess for one with the most coin and there’d be no difference, not really, thought Anala.

The bellica sighed. She wanted more sleep! But she had Mara to think of now.

Damn the girl’s loyalty! Her stowing away had been foolish and dangerous and presented Anala with a host of new problems, not least of which was keeping the girl safe. What would their parents do? They loved Mara – once they found she was missing, they’d tear Harbourtown apart looking for her, and the fact of Anala’s presence in town a day or so prior and her immediate departure could leak out. This could blow the cover of the mission, which would hardly please Empreena Zardria.

Shite. What if Anala did not return? What of Mara then? She trusted Merry to keep her sister as safe as possible – but he could not be all places at all times, and Mara was of an age to get into mischief. The girl was too damned trusting.

If – no, when. When they got back, Anala would be ripped apart and devoured by their parents, no matter what Mara said in her big sister’s defense, for not bringing their parents’ youngest back as soon as the stowaway had been discovered. Tyvian! They’d find a way to blame her for Mara’s disappearance in the first place and kill the bellica for that. A mite ironic, if I survived Mt. Voco a second time ta be killed by me parents in a fit of pique, she thought with a ghost of a smile.

All of those problems loomed on the horizon as surely as Voco soon would, and she felt her concentration ebbing. She’d not even addressed her heart yet. She had said her goodbye to Mara, and had walked out of her old home expecting never to see her sister again. Then she’d done her business and made peace – moved on. Mara’s reappearance in Anala’s life was reopening the bellica’s grief for herself. She felt ridiculous, revisiting the pain.

With a start she realised she’d been standing in her cabin, frozen by her thoughts. She shook her head briskly, and stole a glance at Mara. The girl was curled up in the hammock, sleeping peacefully in the rocking of the ship. All she was wearing was a fustanella and linen shirt; she had no shoes. Anala sighed again. The first thing she had to do was get Mara some better clothing. Shoes could wait; the girl wouldn’t be leaving the ship until they got back to Harbourtown anyway. Anala didn’t want the girl walking around in such impractical clothing. Impractical and…masculine. The girl was nearly sixteen years old and more of a tomboy than Ghia — yet where Ghia was headstrong and tough, as a woman should be, Mara seemed to take on more boyish traits from her style of dress. She was shy, timid, and more concerned with her books.

Well, tha’s what she has me for, thought Anala, heading down the hallway from her cabin. Big sisters have a duty, I reckon.

She rapped her knuckles on the door in front of her and waited. A moment later Ros opened the door and looked at her perplexedly.

“Ros – do ye have a pair o pants that I could be borrowin’?”

He looked even more confused, but nodded. “Aye, Bellica.” He frowned and looked her over. She was easily twice his height, and filled out in ways that he wasn’t. “Though why would ye be needin them, if I may ask?”

Anala growled softly and ran her hand through her hair, undoing it from its club. “Ye may ask, though I willnae answer. Ask Merry–he’ll tell ye in a bit anyway. May I borrow the clothes or no’? Ye’ll get em back tomorrow.”

The boy shrugged and disappeared into his room. Anala waited patiently and he reappeared moments later, clutching a bundle of clothing. “Here,” he said nonchalantly, confusion in his eyes.

She took the bundle. “I thank ye kindly. Ye’ve done a great service ta me today.” She strode down the hall, heading for her room with Mara’s new wardrobe clutched tightly in her hands.

~

Anala stood on deck, staring at the waves. The sun, though weak in winter, beat down on her head, making her hair shine blue-black.

Merry sat by the main mast, Mara beside him, lengths of rope spread between them. True to his promise, he’d been teaching Mara everything he knew of knots for several hours. Anala smiled to see them so: Mara was alive with learning, positively glowing with enthusiasm. Merry had a huge smile on his face, putting into Anala’s mind the image of a very happy bear. It was such a wonderful picture, the bellica felt her worries disappear for a moment.

Mara seemed to be adjusting to ship life well. The girl was nothing if not adaptable. Merry had announced her presence and a warning to the crew when they broke fast that morning; there had been an interested look and murmur at the “young boy” in their midst, which had quickly subsided at Merry’s promise of a good keelhauling to anyone who so much as looked at Mara the wrong way – and that was after he let Anala have at the culprit. Some crewmen glanced at Jerry, confirming that the man had spread tales of his treatment at Anala’s hands when he’d mistreated her sister. Anala wondered how much he’d embellished the stories to make himself come out on top in them; she almost hoped the answer was “a lot” so that she could cut him down to size – again – when the time came.

Despite Merry’s assurances, Anala found she could not keep her eyes off Mara for more than a minute or two at a time. I’ll be a right case on Voco if I dinnae let meself trust the captain.

Seeing no cure for it, she walked over to join Merry and the girl by the mast.

“Anala! Lookit what I’ve learned!” Mara held up a tangle of rope eagerly.

Anala peered at it, not being able to make out what it was supposed to be, and smiled at her sibling. “Tha’s very nice, Mara. What is it?”

Mara giggled. “It’s a Carrick Bend. It took me a while, but I can finally tie it properly. Right, Uncle Merry?”

Anala blinked at the honorific. Tha’ was quick.

Merry’s smile got wider and he ruffled Mara’s hair affectionately. “Tha’s right, Mara. Ye’d be as quick as me own niece.”

Anala could not help but notice Mara’s face fall a little at mention of Morgan Meriweather. She resolved to ask Mara about it later, for she was sure there was a problem between the two girls, and that her sister had lied when she’d denied knowing Morgan. Anala could read Mara as easily as the girl could read a heavy tome from the Library.

“Anala – tie knots with me. I’ll show ye how ta do it!” There was such eager hope on Mara’s face Anala could not but agree. Besides, the best way to test one’s knowledge of a subject was to teach it, and knots would be important for Mara to know inside and out. That was just a feeling that tugged in her gut.

They passed the time happily tying and retying and untying knots, bonding as sisters should but as they’d never had the chance before. Merry disappeared at some point, realising the two women needed some time alone.

Anala didn’t know how long they’d sat there, playing with rope, but by the time the shouts of Land ho! reached her ears she was confident enough with knots to be able to tie and untie all but the most complicated with her eyes closed, and she made sure Mara could as well. At the announcement of land sighted her stomach jumped and she dropped the knot she was working on. Her eyes connected with Mara’s and she could see the other’s realisation that their time together was coming to an end.

The bellica smiled, putting a brave face on for her sister. “C’mon,” she said, rising and reaching a hand down to Mara. “Let’s go see what there’d be ta be seen, eh?” Together they walked to the prow of the ship, where they stood beside Merry, staring at the smudge of land that was becoming rapidly larger on the horizon.

“Through the Valley I walk, ever the Lady at me side, though I’d be not afraid, knowing I come to rest forever in Her embrace, home, home, home at last,” came Merry’s voice, quieter than usual. Surprised, Anala looked up at him. She’d not expected to hear that particular prayer, though she supposed it fit. Most of the Paixemortiennes’ prayers did, when one was at sea.

Merry caught her glance and gave her a grim smile, mouth half-quirked. “Surprised? Aye, I read from tha Book from time ta time,” he said. “Brings me comfort.” He went silent, staring at the land ahead. What shadows haunted Merry, Anala wondered, that he would follow Paixemor? It was a fringe religion of Athering, with most of its followers in its birthplace of Harbourtown, though she supposed there were a few more across the nation.

Paixemortiennes were monotheistic, believing in the one true Goddess, the Lady Ocean, or Mare to the rest of Athering, who had sent Her only daughter Muerta to ease humankind’s suffering, and to absolve them of their sins in the eternal embrace of death. It was a view of the Goddess of Death rather different from that held by the rest of Athering. Paixemor also had a Book, a collection of prayers, stories, moral parables and some accurate history, that its followers had been reading and printing for at least several centuries.

Despite its small following, Paixemor was a very old religion, almost as old as the teachings of the Aradian Order which the rest of Athering more or less followed.

Anala shrugged. Merry being a Paixemortienne didn’t change anything. After all, their small numbers offered no threat to the loosely theocratic power in Athering. Even if they did, she couldn’t bring herself to care. Divine right of Queens, me arse. If the Goddesses did have a hand in the royal ascension, then Yarrow’d be Queen, not tha’ bloody treecat.

Merry stood silent, on guard. Anala placed a hand on his arm and squeezed gently, letting him know he need not worry about judgment from her. Doubtless he worried about it enough already.

After a time Merry followed his crew back to their jobs, leaving Anala and Mara to watch the now large mass of volcanic rock before them.

“Ye’ve never seen tha place afore, have ye?” Anala asked her sister, keeping her tone light.

Mara shook her head, eyes never leaving the island. “Nae. I’ve read its history, though, ancient and recent….” She trailed off, and Anala heard what she didn’t say: I’ve read of the Battle of Voco. Was it really like the book version?

Anala bit her lip and turned to look at the mountain, looming black and ominous. She did not want to speak of the battle. She did not want to think of the losses.

Isidora.

She swallowed a sigh and pushed the memories away. How in Bellona’s name was she going to keep her temper in check when faced with Isidora’s killer? How on Althea’s green earth was she to ignore the past and focus on the mission?

Grudgingly she acknowledged Zardria’s cunning. Of course, the empreena expected these feelings would arise in Anala. That was why she was sent.

Ruthlessly she pushed her thoughts away and vowed to keep the mission – and only the mission – in her mind’s eye. Let that be her focus. She would not give Zardria the satisfaction of making her squirm.

“”Nala?” She started at Mara’s use of her childhood nickname.

“Aye?”

Mara hesitated, biting her lower lip. “Are ye…are ye scared?” she said in a rush, desperation and her own fear clear on her face. Anala saw her sister’s hope, that if Anala admitted her fear, she wouldn’t have to go. That was the real test – admission of emotions.

The bellica felt her heart break in the face of her sister’s innocence. She hoped Mara would discover the truth of life gently, for she wanted no pain for the tender girl.

“Aye,” she said honestly. “I’d be terrified.”

“Then tell the empress. Maybe she’ll send someone else!” Mara’s eager words tumbled on one another.

Anala sighed. Looked as if she would be the one to crush her sister’s innocence. “It doesnae work that way, child. In books, maybe. But no’ in real life.” She said it as gently as possible, but Mara looked crestfallen, beaten into a reality she’d never wanted to face. Anala cast about for something to say to lighten the mood, maybe even make the girl laugh. Anything but this sorrowful silence. “I’ll be fine, Mara,” she said with more confidence then she felt, and was rewarded by hope in Mara’s eyes. “Have I no survived our parents in anger?” She let her eyes twinkle and Mara let out a hesitant giggle. Good.

The bellica put her arm around her sister’s shoulders and they watched the land speed up to meet them. Now Anala could make out a few details: the white of the lighthouse in Auport; glitters of light from the mica in the houses in the towns of Perch and Precarious; the Eternal Flame of Tellangia; and a large sparkle from the palace at Clifton.

Her stomach clenched. She well remembered that palace, that black hole of pain and suffering. Had it changed much, she wondered, or was Isidora’s blood still on the black floors, pooling and glistening in the lights of the torches?

She shook her head violently. She would not do this. Not now; not later.

“‘Nala?” hesitantly spoken, like a decision after a long period of deliberation.

“Aye, child?” Her stomach roiled: what loop would Mara throw her for now?

“Ye said…afore ye said our parents. Well…they’re not.”

The deck seemed drop out from beneath Anala, but she stayed calm and collected as her reputation dictated. “What do ye mean, kiddo?”

Mara sighed, as if regretting her decision to speak. “I heard Mum and Dad arguing the other night. They said…Mum said they no’ should have taken ye in, no matter what Tenea said. They said it was tha worst decision they’d made; that ye did no’ deserve the family ye’d gotten.” She looked up at Anala in misery before plunging on. “But they’d be wrong, Anala. They dinnae deserve ye! …I don’t deserve ye!” She said the last a whisper, and burrowed her head into her sister’s chest, sobbing.

Automatically Anala’s arms went around Mara, stroking her hair, and she made soothing noises in her throat.

Her world tilted. She was sure there was no ground and no sky, just a terrible exultation-rejection-sorrow-anger-relief-clarity pulsing through her.

Taken her in, Mara had said.

Foster-parents, then. The pang of loss was small and momentary before it was pushed aside by a wave of relief. No parents could hate their child that much, she was sure. Suddenly the past twenty-eight years became clear as the sea on a summer’s day, and she felt confusion and pain lift from her heart.

Who were her parents then?

No matter what Tenea said.

Was her aunt her mother, who’d convinced the Tanners to raise Anala alongside their own son (and, later, daughter)? Who was her father then? Would not Tenea have told her? Thinking on it, she dismissed the notion outright. She didn’t even look like Tenea! Or the rest of her family, for that matter.

No, it was unlikely she was Tenea’s child. But her aunt had convinced her foster-parents to take her in, meaning Tenea knew who her real parents were.

Or I’d a been left on a doorstep wi’ naught but a note, she thought, and immediately dismissed that idea too. It felt wrong.

Resolved to corner and grill Tenea upon her return to Athering, she came back to the present and the crying girl in her arms. Mara’s sobs had lessened, though she still shook.

“Shh, shh,” said Anala, stroking Mara’s hair and back. “Mara, dear, calm yerself. I’d not be upset, so ye no’ should be either.”

Sniffing, Mara drew back and wiped her eyes, looking up at Anala. Her nose was as red as a cherry and her eyes looked puffy. “Ye’re not?”

Kneeling to wipe Mara’s face of tears, Anala shook her head. “Nae. And yer parents were right.” Anala took the girl’s shoulders in her hands and looked the girl in the eye. “I dinnae deserve a sister like ye,” she said solemnly, and instantly regretted it, for fresh tears sprang to Mara’s eyes.

“Hey, now,” said Anala, increasingly awkward with all the emotion in the air, “no more tears, kiddo. Let’s go finish up yer knot lesson, a’right?” She got up and took Mara’s hand, heading to the mast and the pile of ropes they’d left there. Mara nodded, dried her eyes on her sleeve, and followed her big sister willingly.

Anala sighed inwardly and offered a silent prayer to Mare, that the day would hold no more surprises for her. I dinnae think I can take another.

~

The tension in the air was thick when they dropped anchor in Auport’s harbour, flying a blue and green flag to signify they were on a diplomatic mission and, therefore, enjoyed amnesty from the cold war between their nations.

Whether the Vocans would respect the flag remained to be seen.

The crew was skittish. They’d not been to Mt. Voco for years, as long as the cold war had continued. Anala didn’t blame them. She herself was nervous.

Soon a small rowboat left port and made its way to where their ship waited. It held a party of six men, all armed with swords and…some other thing Anala couldn’t identify. Surely it was a weapon. Curving at one end to create a short handle made of polished wood, it attached to a long metal cylinder. Anala stared at the weapon in the man’s belt until her eyes watered, but she could not make heads nor tails of it.

The boat pulled alongside of them and the man in front, obviously the leader, stood to address them.

“These waters are closed off to Athering. What business have you here?” He spoke as if he had better things to do than to deal with a bunch of uncouth barbarians from the nation across the sea. Anala saw the men bristle, fingers twitching over their cutlasses. She stepped forward, forestalling Merry’s response with an upraised hand, and spoke as civilly as possible to the Vocan man.

“Bellica Anala of Athering’s Second Regiment on a diplomatic mission to Lord Exsil Vis of Mt. Voco. I’d be having a message for ‘is Lordship.”

The man smirked at her, and though she could guess what he found fit to laugh at, Anala felt angry all the same.

He gave her a deep mocking bow and addressed her directly. “Ah, Bellica Anala, was it? Welcome to Mt. Voco. Unfortunately I cannot let a host of Atherians into our fair land, diplomatic mission or no, so if you’ll just give me that message I’ll be sure to bring it to my lord….”

“Ah, no, sir, I’d be afraid I cannae do that, fer ye see I’d a been told ta deliver it into ‘is hands personally, Monsieur….” She paused for his name. When he did not provide it, she pressed on testily. “I’d no’ be leaving until ‘is Lordship gets tha message and gives me a response in turn, so if’n ye’d be so kind as ta let me go ashore I’d be much obliged.” She stared the man down. She was not going to tuck tail and run from this rude man. Whatever awaited her in the clutches of Lord Exsil Vis would be nowhere near so bad as her reception in Athering should she return empty-handed.

The man returned her glare and they remained locked in a battle of wills, neither giving any ground. Anala’s eyes burned and she was about to give in when a large swell hit the rowboat. The man stumbled to regain his footing and their eye contact broke. She’d won.

He looked up angrily, flipping the queue of his hair back over his shoulder, and glared at her, daring her to gloat. She kept her face carefully neutral.

“Very well,” he snapped out, not pleased. “You and three of your men may come ashore. Three only, mind you – any more and your lives are forfeit. An escort to conduct you to Clifton will be waiting at the edge of town. Do try to make haste,” he added superciliously, raking her with a disapproving glance.

Anala inclined her head graciously. Now the man glared, upset that she’d not risen to the bait. He barked out some commands to his men. The boat started back towards shore and he took his seat in a huff.

Anala sighed once she was sure the man was out of earshot. There was no honour in her victory, but she felt triumphant all the same. The sooner I get tha’ treaty signed an’ get out a here the better, she thought. Voco was corrupting her already.

Merry was shouting orders, and with a start Anala realised he’d been asking for volunteers for her escort ashore. She protested.

“Merry, I dinnae need an escort. I’d be appreciating the thought, but – ”

“Not a word more, child!” He cut her off. A sweep of his huge arm took in three men standing at attention, some of those who’d been friendlier with her and to whom she felt kindly. “Now, Dagon, Trent, an’ Merrik here will guard ye as if ye were their own sister. Good men in a fight.” The men sketched sailor’s salutes at her, eagerness lighting their eyes.

She shook her head vehemently. “I cannae accept the offer, Merry. This’d be my mission an’ mine alone.”

“Aye, an’ in order ta see ye complete it I’d be sending me men wi’ ye.” Merry said this in a tone that brooked no argument – to one under his command. Anala suffered no such disadvantage and returned his stare evenly, unwilling to be worn down.

“If there’d be a trap – which I do expect – then yer men’d be no good ta me – no offense,” she added with a glance to the three. “Vocans outnumber us here and tha only chance I’d have o’ escape would be if me whole Regiment were here! And I dinnae think we would at that. I willnae endanger yer men, Merry,” she said, in a bellica’s command tone.

One of the men – Dagon, she thought he was – cleared his throat. Both Merry and Anala rounded their glares on him. “Wi’ all due respect, Bellica, we’d a volunteered fer the honour o’ escorting ye. We’d a wish ta be o’ service ta ye.”

Anala narrowed her eyes and moved to stand in front of the man. They were of a height, but Anala’d been a bellica for years – she could make herself taller than any one of a lower rank. Even Aro, who towered nigh a foot above her–she could make him cower in fear.

“Oh, really?” she asked, her voice low.

“Aye, Bellica,” Dagon didn’t flinch, but Anala could see him perspiring.

“Tell me, soldier, as I’d be oh-so-curious. Just what did ye expect ta do when we’d be surrounded by a score o’ Vocans, mayhap more, armed wit’ no’ a damn thing ‘sides our sword and cutlasses, just the four o’ us, and they’d got reinforcements at the ready an’ what ever in Tyvian those strange weapons on their belts’d be. Tell bawdy jests till they die o’ embarrassment?”

She was in it now, the space she entered when lecturing her troops. She was not the kindest of bellicas, not by a long shot, but her soldiers stuck to her like deathtree sap, and would not let an insult to her go by without incident. Bellona knew they’d been involved in most bar fights in Atherton in the past decade. Anala didn’t understand it. She called them maggots, scum of the earth, sorry excuses for Atherians, treecat dung. She insulted them until some cried and she was just plain mean, for Bellona’s sake! But it worked. Her Regiment was loyal to her to Tyvian and beyond. So Aro said.

It was working again. Despite his fear, the man’s eyes shone with that same admiration and loyalty. She glanced at Trent and Merrik and saw the same look in their eyes. Briefly she wondered if all she ever attracted were masochists, but suppressed the thought for future speculation, as Dagon was speaking.

“Nae, Bellica. Me an’ the boys here – we’d be the assurance of yer safety – no’ our own.”

A moment passed before the meaning of his words hit Anala, like a slap of salt water in the face. “Ridiculous,” she said, unable to believe it. “Ye hardly know me; ye cannae know what ye’d be offering.”

“Aye, Bellica, we hardly know ye, but we’d be quite sure o’ what it is we offer. See, we’d been sailing wi’ Merry fer nigh on thirty years an’ – ” He broke off, looking nervously at the captain, and Anala saw that Merry was levelling a hard glare at the man. Curious, she thought as she turned back to Dagon and raised her eyebrows, prompting him to continue. ” An’ we’d all be proud of our very own Harbourtown Hero, is all. We’d been there, at Voco – we’d heard the stories o’ the battle from who’d seen it. We know what ye’d offered.”

It was obviously not what he’d been going to say at first, but it effectively distracted her. How many of her Regiment had seen what happened there in the palace? Enough, it seemed, if news had reached a guilded merc ship that had merely served as transport for the army. Was that the source of their devotion, then? The source of Aro’s?

She expelled a rush of air, not wanting to think on things long past, and tired of arguing the point any longer. She’d wasted time enough already.

“Fine. Get yerselves ready. And remember – ye’d be under my command now. Ye follow my orders. Clear?”

As one, the men dropped to their knees and made the sign of fealty. In one voice they swore allegiance to her. It was not the Oath Aro and her Regiment had sworn, but it moved her all the same – perhaps more, spontaneous and unexpected as it was.

She turned to Merry, whose eyes were glistening – with pride in his boys, she guessed. She bowed to him. “I’ll bring yer boys back safely, Merry.”

He shook his head, his long beard, no longer held by his belt, flying from side to side. “Nae. They’d be yer boys now, Bellica.”

The men rose and nodded assent, then hurried off to make ready the landing craft. Anala sighed again. Wha’ have I gotten them into?

Turning, she saw her last bit of business waiting tearfully at the entrance to below decks. In three strides, Anala stood in front of the girl; she knelt and wrapped her sister in a tight hug. Leaning back, she gave her a kiss on the forehead. “Now,” she said, wiping a tear off Mara’s cheek as she rose, “I’ll not be saying farewell, fer I’d be back in a few days, ye ken?”

Mara nodded and wrapped her arms around Anala in one last hug. Reluctantly Anala pried the girl’s arms from her waist, ruffled her hair, and walked away.

She did not look at her sister’s face as the boat lowered into the water, did not glance at Merry again, did not look at all that was Athering to her in this strange place. She kept her eyes focused on Voco, ever on the future.

~

They arrived at the exit from Auport over an hour later, earning a glare from the dour man who’d addressed them in the harbour.

Anala did not care. She’d had business in town; it wasn’t her fault the merchants here were so damn stubborn.

The first order of business had been to acquire some horses. She’d left her own mare in Harbourtown, as much as because the horse suffered seasickness as because it was a fine animal, too good to sacrifice to this mission. Besides, now she had an escort: three old tars who needed mounts as well. So they’d gone to the horse market.

It had been slim pickings. Whether there were few good mounts to be had on Voco or if they’d hidden all the better choices from the Atherians, Anala did not know. After much searching, haggling and bickering, she managed to get four sturdy mounts with fairly good gaits. Not ideal for flight, but she hoped it would not come to that.

When she’d pulled out some gold to pay, the merchant had balked.

“What, are you trying to bankrupt me?” he’d asked angrily.

Anala stared at him, unsure of what to do. “Would ye rather I’d pay ye in copper?” she asked a touch sarcastically.

The man’s eyes widened and he dropped his voice, looking around to make sure no other merchants had heard. “Do you have any?”

Anala had to bite back a laugh. The man wanted pence? How rare was copper on Voco? she wondered. She did not dare a glance to her escort, for she knew she’d lose her composure if she did. “Aye,” she said in all seriousness. “I’d have a bit. Small amount, ye ken.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a few pence. The merchant nearly leapt at it, unable to keep his excitement hidden. Anala pulled out one more piece and placed the money into his hands.

He grabbed it greedily and put it away, thanking her over and over again for her generosity. She inclined her head and said magnanimously, “It’d be a trifle,” before turning away with her escort and purchases.

They managed to hold in their laughter until they were out of the merchant’s earshot.

Her second errand should have gone more easily, now that she knew what to expect.

She’d found the clothier without issue. The boys waited outside while she searched for what she needed. In short order she found three pairs of sturdy pants, two shirts of the same tough material, and some underthings, all in her sister’s size. She would have been in and out within minutes, but for the merchant hearing her accent.

“Oh, no, we don’t serve your kind in here,” she’d said, and made to shoo Anala away as if she were some irritating summer insect.

“My kind?” Anala asked with deceptive mildness.

The woman sneered. “Atherians,” she said as if the word tasted bad. “Most especially Harbourtowners – parasites preying on honest folk like myself.”

Anala raised her eyebrows. “I suppose if tha’ twere true I’d a just walked out wi’ the clothes, now wouldn’ I?”

The woman flushed but held her ground. “You’re still parasites. If it weren’t for Athering, well, then….”

“Then what?” Anala asked her when she didn’t finish. The woman blustered. “I can see ye no have an answer fer me, and I’d no have time ta be listening ta yer nonsense. Here’d be me copper fer the clothes.” She dropped a pile of pence on the counter and the woman stopped short, staring at the wealth in front of her in shocked silence. Anala grabbed some paper and twine and wrapped her purchases herself while the woman hastily gathered up the copper and hoarded it. “Have yerself a nice day,” said Anala as she left, but doubted the woman heard her in her paroxysms of greed.

After that it was only a matter of getting the package to Jerome, who waited in the rowboat just off shore, with instructions to give the clothing to Mara, and then get to the exit of town.

“You took your sweet time arriving,” the man whose name she did not know sneered.

She shrugged. His thoughts were something she could care less for and she doubted he posed any threat to her. Not much o’ one, anyway, she thought, eyes straying to the strange weapon on his belt.

His eyes narrowed as he saw the direction of hers. He patted his belt and smiled, but it was not a friendly gesture. “Admiring my piece, are you? They’re reserved for Lord Exsil Vis’ elite guard. More efficient than a crossbow for they’re not so clumsy and do more damage than those bolts. I suppose you have no equal in Athering?” His tone said he thought he’d won some victory over her.

She shrugged. “Ah, well, in Athering we’d prefer weapons as take some skill ta wield, ye ken.” It had been a bluff, for she knew nothing about the weapon he held, but his expression told her she’d guessed right and struck a nerve.

“I’ll have you know I could take you down in any combat, any time, any where – say the word, and we will duel,” he hissed at her, desperate to regain face in front of his men.

She smiled disarmingly at him and was glad to see his confusion. “It’d be tempting, no doubt, but I’d hate ta kill ye afore we reach ‘is Lordship’s palace. Be awful embarrassin’, ye see, what with me on a diplomatic mission an’ all….”

This was too much for Merrik, who guffawed loudly. It set off Trent, and both collapsed into paroxysms of glee, Dagon the only one keeping his composure and looking at his companions with a hint of disdain.

The man of the dour countenance huffed, sputtered incoherently, and rode on ahead, tossing his head like an angry horse.

When the boys had recovered from their mirth, Trent turned to her and spoke: “Aye, Mi Lady, I’d a known it’d be the right thing ta follow ye. A woman o’ worth, ye can cut wi’ words as well as steel!” He and Merrik burst into chuckles again.

Anala allowed herself a small smile at her victory, but resolved not to push her luck. Death-trap or no, she wished to make an effort to come out alive.

A moment or two later Trent’s voice broke out in a bawdy sailor’s song, with Dagon and Merrik joining in on the choruses. The man looked back at them, glowering, but Anala just gave him a friendly smile and he turned away again, confused.

She kept her smile on as they continued their slow climb up the winding road, ever onwards to Clifton, the song of her sailor escort booming off the cliff walls around them.

Despite it all…she was having a bit of fun. But only a bit.

~

Tellangia came upon them suddenly. Too soon for Anala, for it meant they were half-way there.

They stopped to water and feed their horses, and her escort disappeared into the tavern – to use the privy, ostensibly, but Anala knew better. She found a privy somewhere else to use, and then returned to check on the horses.

Frowny-face came upon her there; he’d stopped speaking with a sneer about an hour ago, obviously deciding it was effort wasted on her, as she only smiled or bantered with him.

“Bellica,” he said neutrally.

Better than disrespect. “Aye?” she responded equably, patting her horse.

“I’m afraid your men can go no further. They are to stay here in Tellangia, while you ride on to Clifton.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Ye said I’d be allowed an escort. Are ye going back on yer word?”

“I said you could take three men ashore with you,” he reminded her. “I did not say how far they may go.”

Thinking back, she realised this was true and nodded an apology for her hasty words. Then she frowned, thinking. “Why did ye no mention it afore?”

He paled, his face pinched, but his tone was civil. “I did not know till now. A courier for His Lordship has been waiting for us here. He told me of the, ah, recent developments.”

Anala stopped her sigh. There was naught she could do but she dreaded telling the boys the news. It was vexing, to be sure, but she’d just have to be on her guard – even more than she had been. Any more and I’ll shape-shift into a shield.

“A’right. I thank ye fer telling me,” she said with another disarming smile, then nodded farewell and walked into the tavern.

He gave her retreating back a long, long look before returning to his men.

~

Needless to say, the boys were less than pleased. They bucked at it and railed at the unfairness, causing such a scene the tavernkeeper kicked them out. They then found a target for their anger in the dour-faced man, and started hurling a string of invective and insults at him, threatening him, trying to bully him into letting them come.

Before the man could respond Anala, suddenly filled with an awesome anger, grabbed Trent, the most vocal of the three, by the ear, twisting until he cried out, and slapped him across the face.

That got their attention.

“Ye sorry lot o’ maggots! Need I remind ye we’d be on a diplomatic mission here? Oh, a fine job ye’re doing representin’ Athering, ye slovenly lot o’ no-goods. What am I ta tell Merry when we get back? That ye threw a fit like a bunch o’ ten year old boys?” She glared at them. They all gained a sudden interest in their feet and what exactly they could do to the ground by scuffing at it. “Now,” she continued, no longer yelling, voice a deadly calm that did nothing to reassure them. “Ye’re going ta book a room here, at the inn – the one ye dinnae get kicked out a – and ye’re going ta wait fer my return. Clear?”

The men exchanged glances, and Merrik spoke up. “But, Bellica – ”

“An’ tha’s an order, soldiers,” she said, cutting him off. “Clear?”

They nodded and mumbled something that may have been “Aye, Bellica,” looking miserable and for all the world like boys being sent to their room without supper.

Feeling a twinge in her heart, for she knew they were only acting out of fear for her, she called out to Trent. He raised his head hopefully. “Catch,” she said, tossing her coin purse at him. “Should be some copper left – book the room an’ buy yerselves a round on me.”

The men smiled widely and bobbed quick bows. “Aye, Bellica,” they said with vigour, running off to the inn.

“Spend it wisely, ye ken!” she shouted after them, but they were already gone.

She turned to her Vocan escort to find the not-so-dour man staring at her, a strange but not unfriendly look on his face.

“Aye?” she said, eyebrows raised. He shook his head and looked away, as if breaking from a spell.

They mounted then, and left, heading up to Clifton again.

“So,” Anala said genially, pulling abreast of him, “Do ye have a name, or should I just continue ta refer ta ye as Frowny-Face?”

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