A light breeze blew in across the sea, causing little wavelets and ruffling the sails of Merry’s ship. He stood on the stern, arms folded, facing the town on the shore. The lights of Auport flickered in the darkness, sending bits of light dancing over the restless sea.
It was an old merc trick, to face the ship to sea whenever and wherever in harbour, a custom Merry had found no reason to drop. It aided in a speedy getaway.
They might need it on this trip. He’d been waiting for nearly a sevenday now, and still no word from Anala, whether she lived or no. The boys stayed in Tellangia; Merrik had come down once to inform Merry of those orders. They said they would stay until Anala’s return to the town.
“And if’n she’d not be ta return?” Merry had asked his former crewman.
Merrik shrugged defiantly. “Then we’d be waiting forever.”
That had been that. Merry could not have swayed the boys’ loyalty from Anala, nor would he have wanted to. She’d need an honour guard, for she was truly alone here.
She had Mara, if the bellica made it back to the ship, but the girl was no good in a fight. Or hadn’t been. After knot lessons, Merry had taught Mara a few basic knife-fighting techniques, and had even given her a dirk for her belt. She’d been a bit frightened of fighting, but Merry had made it as much fun as possible and soon the girl had warmed to it. Good. He was sure Anala would want her sister to know such things. Still, a few moves did not a fighter make. He may have given her no more than the ability to survive a few more minutes than she otherwise would have in a bad situation.
He stole a glance to where Mara kept her vigil, leaning against the railing as she’d done every night since Anala’s departure. Some nights, she almost fell asleep on her feet, but she never left until Merry told her to go rest. A quick girl, but loyal to a fault.
He could see how Anala inspired such loyalty, even if the bellica herself couldn’t. She had a strange charisma, no doubt inherited from the strange powers that defined her mother and aunt. Those attracted to her usually wanted to obey her every word.
Usually. The charisma had not, apparently, extended to her foster-parents or the Empress and Empreeena – but why count them?
He was glad Anala’s gift for inspiring obedience, which she’d had since she’d been a babe in swaddling clothes, had held true for her foster-sister. He did not relish the idea of having to watch the child all hours of the day.
Mara had grown a great deal since she’d been discovered on board. Merry had barely known of her save for hearsay and he could see the changes already. It was if that small internal thing that made one a child had snapped in her, letting adulthood flood in and take hold.
Oh, she was still quick to smile and laugh, and had that joyful spontaneity that Morgan also had, but Merry sensed a newfound seriousness and resilience in the girl.
He was glad for it. Things could get rough in the near future, and Mara would need to be as strong as the one she so idolised.
He stole another glance at her and saw her head was nodding, her chin drooping to her chest, eyes half-closed. He gave a sharp, short whistle, and her head snapped up and she looked at him sheepishly, knowing what he was going to say. “Get ta bed, child. I’ll not have ye fall overboard, ye ken? Anala’d have me head,” he would add if she looked rebellious.
She sighed and headed towards the hatch. “Yes, Uncle Merry,” she said, flashing him a quick smile to show there were no hard feelings.
“G’night, child,” he said, smiling at the honorific she’d used.
He was her uncle, truly – or would have been, had Tenea not refused his proposal all those years ago. He sighed. Someday their respective careers wouldn’t interfere with their love. They’d never stopped caring for each other. Her letters to him confirmed as much. They had their duties – she in Atherton, so she could watch over Anala, and he in Harbourtown, so he could keep an eye on the Tanners. Someday the girls would be his nieces in truth.
A flicker on the ocean, between ship and town, caught his eye. A strange sight. A mist, illuminated from within, floated in off the sea to hover above the deck.
He frowned, his hand at his cutlass automatically, and he tensed, ready to shout the alarm if need be. The mist landed on the deck and coalesced into a humanoid and familiar shape.
Merry relaxed a bit at seeing Anala’s aunt – her real aunt. “Charity? I thought ye’d gone ta Mudflat.”
The figure shook her head, and Merry realised this must be Hope, Anala’s mother. A’course. Charity’s hair’d been much lighter. Aside from that small difference, the two women could have passed as each other; so he forgave himself his mistake. At least he had not been totally shocked at the mist: from what Charity had told him twenty-seven years ago, he should expect this sort of thing from her sister. He was glad he’d remembered what she’d told him.
He bowed, deep and respectful. “Lady Exsil Vis. What can I do for ye?”
The figure spoke in a thin, wavery voice, and Merry guessed it took some strength for Hope to maintain it, for he could not imagine Anala’s mother as having a weak voice or spirit. “Anala will be coming shortly, but she will be in need of help, and a speedy retreat. You did me a favour once before, Captain – I ask you to save my daughter one last time. I promise you whatsoever you wish in return.” The figure flickered, once, twice. She was losing power.
Merry shook his head. What he wanted she couldn’t give. “I’d need no recompense, Lady. When’d Anala be coming, then?”
Her features were blurring into one another as she struggled to remain present enough to reply. “A day…mayhap more. She’ll have…man with her. Stout-Heart,” she gasped out and then the apparition disappeared, the mist dissipating into the chill evening air.
Merry sighed. He had a ship to get ready.
He turned to raise the silent alarm among his crew and caught sight of a figure retreating below decks.
Mara? What was she still doing up here? No, it couldn’t have been Mara – the figure was shorter. It was Ros, he realised. Why would Ros be up here when he was not even on duty….
His musings trailed off as the realisation hit him like a slap of cold water on a hot day. Merry set his mouth in a tight line as he headed below decks. Looked like he had more than Anala’s imminent escape to warn the crew about.
At least now Mara would have a chance to test out those knots she’d learned. He’d be damned if he let a spy of the Empress escape the justice of his crew.