The night air was chill against his bare, sweat-soaked arms, and Lares wished he’d not forgotten his coat below decks. Well, the chill would keep him awake. He did not want to sleep just yet.
He reached for his smokebox and pulled out a small brown cigarette. Putting it in his mouth, he searched his vest pockets for his box of matches, and realised he’d forgotten it in Voco. Can this day get any better?
It meant he’d have to save his smokes till Athering, he reflected as he put the cigarette back in its box. As they were an expensive South Island import, he doubted he’d get any more – even on Voco he’d only been able to claim such perks through his closeness to Lord Exsil Vis.
Supposed closeness. In Athering, he’d be…nothing. Worse than nothing.
He felt like punching something. He hadn’t wanted to leave home! Still didn’t want to be gone from Voco, bleak though it was, for home held Hope, and he wished to be back by his lady’s side. But my actions tonight pleased her. To do otherwise…well, it would have been selfish. Maybe he had been selfish, with regard to Hope, in choosing to be by her side always. Torment me with what I can never have, she’d said. Did that mean she loved him, too?
He shook his head. No. She’d meant something else with those words. If she did love him, obviously it paled in comparison to her feelings for Maurice. Otherwise she would have fled with me.
It’s complicated. Mayhap it was. She was incredibly old – near a century! That sort of lifespan surely gave much time for things to tangle up. Become complicated.
God, his life was complicated, and he was only thirty. What would it be like when he was Hope’s age? Would he reach Hope’s age?
He doubted it. His line was not terribly long-lived.
It was unbelievable how old Hope was and yet she could look so young. He doubted Maurice knew. And if he did, how long would it take him to drop her? Not long, he supposed, and made a sound of disgust in his throat. He would never stop loving Hope, regardless her age or looks. Never.
He would show that love by protecting Anala, with his own life if need be. At the moment, she hovered between the two opposing states. He hoped his rudimentary healing skills would keep her alive until they got her to a real healer. He doubted it, but all he had to hold onto was hope. Just as in the past twelve years.
Maybe prayers? He’d never been particularly religious, but nothing could hurt at this point. His God was not a particularly cruel or capricious one. He took a deep breath and decided to give it a shot. Vulcanus, Lord of Fire Almighty, You may not recognise me, for I’ve not gone to many services, but I am one of Yours – Vocan to the core – and I have never committed great blasphemy against You. I’ve never asked for anything before, but now I pray to You – please let Anala Exsil Vis live. Please do not take her to the afterlife too soon.
He didn’t expect an answer, but low rolling laughter sounded in his head, and a woman’s voice – no, more than woman, female with the depth of the oceans and the expanse of the sky – spoke: Silly boy…you think your God has any power beyond His own jurisdiction? You’ve entered Our domain – and We decide when Our daughter will join Us, not Vulcanus with His little light show! There was disdain in the voice.
Lares felt his heart skip a beat, paralysed in terror. Please, Great Ladies, have mercy!
A snort of laughter boomed like thunder in his head. He trembled, but then a kinder – but no less powerful – voice broke into the conversation: Fear not, little one. My appointment with Anala is not soon.
He heard no more, though he got the sense of Goddesses bickering in the aether.
Lares’ head snapped up from where it rested on his arms. Had he fallen asleep? Should be more careful…could fall into the water….
He stared into the sea, thinking about his strange dream, and for a moment he thought he saw a woman’s face in the moonslight on the waves. She winked at him and was gone, and Lares stumbled backwards in fright.
“What…” he heard his voice say, but he could think of nothing to finish the sentence. What indeed.
“So. The Lady spoke ta ye.” Lares spun to face Captain Merry, who was leaning against the mainmast with a knowing look on his face.
Lares looked helplessly between the sea and the captain. He was wide awake now. “What Lady?” he heard himself ask. No! Stop! This is crazy!
“Why, the Lady Muerta, o’ course,” said the captain. “Daughter o’ the One Goddess, Lady Ocean, an’ savior ta humankind. At least,” he added, coming to stand at the railing, “a least tha’s what a Paixemortienne would tell ye. Ask the ‘igh Priestess and ye’d get a different answer.”
Letting his curiosity get the better of him, Lares went to stand beside the captain. “What would the High Priestess tell me?” And High Priestess of what?
Merry shrugged. “O, that Muerta’d be Lady Death in a larger pantheon o’ Goddesses. Dinnae matter which ye subscribe to fer it’d be Muerta who’d take ye in tha end, regardless. But those who She’d speak ta…they ‘ave a look about em.” He glanced at Lares, and Lares knew exactly what the bigger man was thinking.
He shook his head. “It was just a dream. Just a crazy dream. What would your Goddess want with me? I don’t even go to services for my own God – I doubt any deity, especially one of Athering, could take an interest in me.”
Merry shrugged and looked back out to the sea. Having nothing else to say, Lares joined him, and they stood in a not un-companionable silence.
After a while Merry spoke, voice low. “So. ‘ow long till we’d be expectin’ company?”
Lares felt his respect for the captain go up a notch. “A day, at most.”
Merry nodded, taking in that information. “And what o’ tha weapons they’d be carryin’?”
Ah, this was the real test. Merry may have said he had no reason not to trust Lares, but he had no reason to trust him either. He was seeing how loyal Lares was to them. Or rather, how un-loyal he was to Lord Exsil Vis. “Depends on what kind of ships he chooses, but I’d expect cannons, muskets, pistols, and your general hacking and slashing tools.” He had no reason to lie, and every reason to tell the truth, to prepare the captain for what was coming. There was a brief pause, and then Lares added: “You’re in luck, however, for the Vocan navy does not use deathtree for its ships. We ran out of deathtree years ago.” It was every Vocan child’s history lesson – a warning against using too much of the earth’s bounty too fast, for they lived in a place that struggled to replenish itself. “They’re made out of blackwood – which is lighter, and does not have deathtree’s useful attributes. They’ll be able to catch up with us because of their speed, but one spark….” he trailed off.
Merry nodded slowly, and Lares was glad to see he hadn’t needed to finish his sentence. “Tha’ is a piece o’ luck, then. Do ye know how ta work a mounted crossbow?” he asked abruptly, and, surprised, Lares nodded. “Good. I havenae had a chance ta train tha boys, and the thing’s been sittin in the hold fer some time now. I’ll ‘ave them wheel it out and set it up fer ye.”
“As you wish, Sir,” he said, glad they had something on board. “May I have my musket and pistols returned to me as well? I could probably hit a closing-in ship with a few shots, at least.”
A nod. “Aye. They’d be in the steward’s store cupboards. Ye’d find the pitch and flint and tinder there as well,” he added as Lares headed to the hatch. Lares turned to look at Merry, who smiled chillingly. “Wouldnae want their boats ta be without tha Fire Lord’s blessing, now would we?” He laughed then, a deep, disturbing chuckle.
Lares found himself laughing with the man.