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.
Blood Ladders, Book 1
We did stop for the night, and Kelu’s helpmeet offered jerky and water. The latter I drank as if desert-born… the former I attempted, but my jaws simply refused the abuse. I waited until the others had fallen asleep and then struggled with it in as much dignity and silence as possible, abetted by the dark.
“Wet it and work it with your hands before you chew it,” the first mate said, quiet.
I glanced at him.
“It’s tough old stuff,” he said with a grin I could hear in the dark. “You learn how to get by or you don’t eat.”
I followed his suggestion in silence until the meat began to fray, then popped a twist of it in my mouth and sucked. The salt bit my tongue like sparks on skin. After I managed a swallow, I said, “Thank you.”
“Just doing the job I was hired for,” he said.
I narrowed my eyes, trying to make out his face. “You know what I mean.”
“Well, maybe I do.”
I chewed my way through half my dinner before I found the courage to ask. “What gave me away?”
There was a shrug in his voice. “Men who don’t eat waste away in a certain way. Addicts a different way. You’re wasted like a sick man. Swollen joints. Stiff.”
Something I could do nothing to disguise without swathes of clothes. I sighed.
“Nothing to be ashamed of, scholar. But take your dose, eh?”
“I’d rather not,” I said, and almost meant it.
“The good fluffies will bite me if you don’t.”
I snorted… but when the man passed me a leather jack I drank the bitterness of it to the dregs and passed it back, lips curled back from my teeth. “You’ve met the elves?” I asked.
“Aye that,” he said. “One of the few on board who have. Interesting lot.”
“Are they what Almond says they are?” I asked. “Or what Kelu says?”
The man chuffed a laugh. “And what do they say? They’re angels and demons?”
Strange words to have chosen. I said, “Something like that.”
“All I know is that they’re rich and they pay even though it’s more than obvious they think we’re the lowest dirt beneath their feet.”
“What a recommendation,” I said dryly.
“I’ll just hope they believe you’re this prince of theirs,” he said. “If you’re not, you come back to the ship and we’ll get you home.”
“I would have liked to stay and study their language and culture,” I said, “since I suspect Almond’s belief in me is… fanciful.”
“You won’t be studying any culture or language, scholar,” the first mate said, shaking his head. “You know what’s safe, do your business and go home. The Archipelago’s no place for normal folks. Everyone there is insane.”
“That’s a little strong, don’t you think?” I asked, fighting the haze of the drug as it encroached.
“You’ll find out when you get there,” the first mate said.
“You know more than you’re telling,” I said, thinking it the height of insight in my drug-softened state.
He laughed. “Not so. But I may suspect more than I’m willing to gossip.”
“And you’ll tell me on the trip to the islands,” I said. “Won’t you? I’d hate to be unprepared.”
“I’ll do my best to help you,” he said, and even through the poppy fog I could hear the sudden gravity in the words. “Now you’ll help me best by sleeping, eh? Maybe I won’t have to carry you as far tomorrow, then.”
“Right,” I said, finding that I’d become prone without remembering how I’d gotten there. “Do you believe in Heaven, sir?”
“Why?” the first mate asked, laughing. “You planning to make a trip there too?”
I struggled for an answer, but no answer seemed as important as sleeping… so, I slept.
The following morning the mate and his man and the two genets shepherded me across the plains, taking turns propping me up or carrying me. I am ashamed of how much they drugged me to make movement possible; even leaning on the genets and soaking in their delicious warmth didn’t offset the deleterious effects of the wet, clammy air, the days without proper sleep or food. Through the poppy haze I could sense the strident reluctance of my limbs, the kind that warned that pushing too much further would result in permanent damage. I would have been afraid had it been possible.
We never regained the road, so my first view of Far Horizon came unexpectedly as we crested a particularly muddy hill. Supported between the first mate and Almond, I stared at the town through the mist on my glasses, at an impression of industry and vibrancy, of brown brick and wood-smoke and carriages and motion.
And yet… and yet… for all the bustle and distraction of the town, my eyes rose past it to fix on the ocean. And there they remained.
“Ahhhh,” the first mate said with a laugh. “You feel it.”
“The elves feel it too,” his man said behind him.
“Well, he’s either one of theirs or one of ours,” the first mate said. “And he looks like one of ours, so that’s what I’ll bank on. Come on, then, scholar. Let’s introduce you to the sea.”
“The sea,” Kelu added, “is nahfe.”
“Nahfe,” I murmured, and thought of coming home.
“This way,” the first mate said, and we set off across the field. For once I stumbled not because of my body-weakness, but because my eyes refused to stay on the uneven ground we crossed. They kept rising, as if buoyed, to the horizon and the gray water there, the endless sky with its complex palette of clouds. I had never felt the size of the sky until that moment, when it dwarfed the human settlement perched on the edge of the sea with the variety, the height and the depth of its clouds, filling it like a bottomless glass.
But then a building blocked my view and I found my boots clicking on cobblestones, and we were walking along the edge of the shore where Far Horizon’s poorest fishers hove to their rude docks, barely planks nailed to a single post.
“Stinks,” Kelu said, wrinkling her nose.
“You always say that, furry,” the mate’s companion said with a guffaw.
“It’s always true,” she said.
I looked down at the genets and found them with nearly identical expressions of revulsion. The smell on the wind was pungent, yes, but… fascinating. Complex. Thick with rot and life, but wiped clean by the breeze’s briny sting, so damp it left my hair wet enough to cling to my jaw and throat.
“Good, eh?” the first mate said, laughing.
“Yes,” I said, as if punched. The word just spilled out. “Unbelievable.”
“He’ll get sea-sick, watch,” the second man said.
“I’ll wager on that.”
“Bottle of rum?”
“Cask of it.”
I listened but without urgency. All my attention was on the air, the cool wetness of it. Soft like a blanket. Restless like hunger. Playful: one moment brushing my hair from my face, the next catching it in my mouth and nostrils. Like the scent it had so much character I hardly knew what to think of it. I had taken the air in Evertrue for granted, but it had allowed me that by being bland and self-effacing. There was nothing demure about the air off the ocean.
The uneven cobbles became even ones, and then a raised wooden boardwalk, and soon our footfalls made hollow thumps as we walked past piers of increasing size and complexity, mooring vessels that could be called ships. They too fascinated me, with their purposeful lines and lacework rigging. The largest ones stole my breath entirely. Who had designed such amazingly complex things? How had they been built? They bobbed on the waves like the lightest of toys but they creaked and groaned with terrifying solidity. They had mass and weight and presence. They belonged to an entirely different world than the one I knew, and every line that defined them hinted at needs and laws I knew nothing about.
“Here we are, scholar,” the first mate said, and I looked up and out and felt my heart flutter.
“Beautiful,” I said.
“Eh, well, maybe he’s not all bad,” the second man said. They both laughed, these lined and weathered keepers-of-secrets, and I envied them.
We are only $5 from our bonus on the weekend. :)
He’s an elf in this picture, but I’ve always known about Morgan and the sea: