rial: An Heir to Thorns and Steel, 33

An Heir to Thorns and Steel is a serialized fantasy novel updating once a week for free on Tuesdays, and again on Thursdays and Saturdays if tips reach $15 and $20, respectively. Single reviews of existing stories posted to Amazon count for $5 toward the tip total.

An Heir to Thorns and Steel
Blood Ladders, Book 1
M.C.A. Hogarth

Episode 33

      It seemed incredible to me that such a vast vessel could float. As we drew closer it rose higher and higher over my head until it became as tall as a building with multiple stories studded with thick glass windows and more ominous shadowed cannon ports. I stared up at it until the back of my neck ached and my eyes watered and realized only then that they had allowed me to stand there and look until I could look no more.
      “The company’s smallest galleon,” the first mate said, “but God will forgive me for believing she’s the best. That’s the Steadfast Dreamer.”
      “Of course,” I said, because what else could she be called but something high-minded and fair?
      “We’ll be leaving soon?” Kelu asked.
      “Now that we’ve got your man, yes,” the first mate said. “We’re already done re-supplying and taking on cargo for the rest of the run. Just need to get you folk settled and we’ll cast off.”
      “Good,” Kelu said. “I don’t want to keep her waiting.”
      “Aye no, that we don’t,” the first mate said. “Go on up, then. I’ll take care of the rest.”
      I looked uncertainly at the plank.
      “Don’t worry,” Almond said. “I’ll hold your hand.”
      I didn’t have the heart to tell her that if I stumbled, she would hardly be enough to keep me from falling into the water. I just prayed my balance would see me to the top. Truth be told, I was far more interested in reaching the top than in worrying that I wouldn’t. More than anything I wanted to stand on the deck of the Steadfast Dreamer. I did not for a moment believe that I was the heir to some estate in a foreign land, nor its long-lost prince or even that I was some other race entirely… but that this trip had ruined me forever for Evertrue I believed with all my heart. The idea of living so far inland, so far from the water, was heart-breaking. How devastating to be torn between family, friends and love… and the sea. I started up the plank, Almond’s hand in mine, and thought only of my longing to leave the coast behind.
      —and of course, I stumbled, tripped and fell.
      The sea was cold and complicated with currents, and my body refused to fight it. I floated on my back, stunned by how hard I’d struck the surface, and stared up in shock at Almond’s worried face. That I could still see it clearly was a relief.
      “Taking it like a man,” observed the one who’d accompanied us. Then he waved down a few sailors to help me back on board. My arrival onto the ship’s deck was unceremonious, uncomfortable and embarrassing, worse when I found myself staring at the squared-off points of two scuffed boots. I looked up and found myself at the feet of what could only be the ship’s captain.
      “So the sea had a taste of you,” he said.
      “And spit me back out again,” I said with a tired grin. “She always so fickle?”
      “Like the girl you desperately want and can’t have,” the man said and offered me a hand up. “I’m Captain Gant of Merit.”
      “Morgan Locke of Evertrue,” I said, taking it. For once it didn’t matter how much I hurt, or that I was soggy and exhausted. I was on a ship.
      “You’re the one we’re taking to the western trade,” the captain said. “You don’t look as I was expecting.”
      “I imagine not,” I said.
      He studied me, then nodded. “Join me for a drink, eh?”
      “Happy to.”
      “Come along, fluff,” he added to Almond.
      We followed him to a cozy cabin with distracting nautical maps for wall hangings. I stared at them while the captain poured two glasses at his sideboard and did not turn until I heard his footsteps behind me. The liquor was whisky, and smelled pungently of smoke and cedar.
      “Most the crew don’t know that we trade with elves, save the scant handful I need to help me in their business offices,” the captain said without preamble. “I’d appreciate you not spreading that.”
      Taken aback, I said, “Of course.”
      “Sit,” he said, pointing at one of the chairs before his desk. I did as he bade; Almond kneeled at my feet, something that would have disquieted me had I not been so intrigued by Gant.
      “We’ll do as we always do for them,” he continued. “Drop you off at the westernmost island of their archipelago where they keep their outland-facing port, town by the name of Mene. You won’t be seeing any elves there either, only servants. What few elves live there don’t leave their houses of commerce. They are not so much secretive as that they can’t be troubled to meet with us directly, us being humans and not much better than cattle to them.”
      “How have you explained them?” I asked, nodding at Almond.
      He shrugged. “Exotics. There are enough things walking this earth to make a man accept a great deal… and a sailor anything. We see a lot, skirting the fringes of the world.”
      “I imagine,” I said, envious. I sipped the whisky, wondering only after it had singed my throat if combining it with my poppy habit was a good idea.
      “So then,” Gant said. “Maybe you can explain why the fluffs went looking for an elf and brought back you.”
      “I wish I could,” I said. “But they seem convinced that I am what they seek.”
      “And you believe them,” he said.
      I looked at him. “Why do I have the feeling you are about to suggest I do otherwise?”
      “Because safety is important,” Gant said. He looked at Almond. “Have you given him a blood-flag name?”
      Almond said, “Sir, he is a blood-flag. He is the brother of the king.”
      “He looks human,” Gant said.
      “He isn’t,” she replied, serene. Somehow she could make her contradictions sound like obedience, as if she was not correcting her betters, only stating facts so transcendently true that they were beyond anyone’s refutation.
      “What’s a blood-flag?” I asked.
      “The elves,” Gant said. “They have things like families, like noble houses. They call them blood-flags. All the important ones are a blood-flag and all the lessers owe affiliation to one… or had better, if they want to thrive. Everything an important elf owns is assigned to that flag. I am technically an asset of the blood-flag Sadar, because my ship and I and our missions are protected by the master of that blood-flag, what you might call the patriarch of it, Kemses e Sadar. He’s one of the wealthiest of elves: he has an entire city of his own, the port of Erevar on their mainland. If the fluffs want you to be safe, they’d give you a blood-flag name to claim as protection… so that the first elf that sees you wandering without one of them won’t steal you for his kennels.”
      Aghast, I said, “They really would just take me away?”
      He shrugged. “You’re human, Master Locke. You have no status in their society.” He looked at Almond. “If you want to convey him safely to whomever wanted him, you’ll give him a name.”
      Her ears flattened. “He is his own, sir. But even if he were to take such a name for protection, there is no one to write out the name and brand him.”
      “Brand me!” I exclaimed, horrified.
      “Eh,” Gant said. “I suppose we could paint it on.”
      She considered. “If we must.”
      “I think it necessary.”
      “Brand me?” I interrupted. “Do you mean to say that the elves mark their property like . . .” I trailed to a halt, remembering his original words.
      “Like cattle,” Gant finished. “Didn’t I say?”

***

Vampire genets were not creepy enough, right? I gotta work on dialing up the creepy factor. *nods*


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