Serial: An Heir to Thorns and Steel, 34

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

Episode 34

      “Do you have one of these?” I asked.
      He lifted his arm, unlaced his cuff and pulled it down. His wrist had been tattooed with an encircling band of round glyphs like the ones on my pendant.
      “You let them do that to you?” I asked, incredulous.
      “Small price to pay to keep their wars from spilling onto my ship and crew,” he said. “A little time, a little ink, and I can do business in one of the most lucrative and secretive ports on the sea under the protection of a powerful elf. It was a good trade.”
      I looked down at Almond. “And who will protect me?”
      “As I said to Captain Gant,” Almond said, “you are your own blood-flag, Master.”
      “And if no one believes me, as I am currently masquerading as human?” I said dryly.
      She licked her nose, ears drooping, and said, “Then you will have to go under Lady Amoret’s name.”
      “Fine,” I said. “As long as I have a name to give.”
      “Write it on your wrist before you disembark,” Gant said. “Just to be safe.”
      I glanced at Almond, who pointed at the tag hanging from her collar. “This is her sign.”
      “All right,” I said. I found I had finished the whisky without realizing I’d been drinking and set the glass aside.
      “You’ll have a cabin to yourself and the fluffs,” he said. “You’re our only paying passenger this round out. Your luggage will be put there.”
      “Ah, yes,” I said. “Would that I had luggage to put there.”
      He glanced at Almond, who said, “We ran into grave misfortune on our journey, sir. Not only did we lose the master’s trunk, but his medicine as well.”
      “Medicine,” he said, looking at me now.
      “Kelu has arranged for the purchase of more,” Almond said. “You will be repaid by the Lady on arrival.”
      “I trust so,” Gant said. “As medicine is not cheap.” He stood and offered his hand. “Welcome aboard, then, Master Locke.”
      “Thank you, Captain,” I said. And then because I could not resist, “I have never been aboard a ship before… and to be on such a beautiful one… I am looking forward to the trip.”
      He smiled, and perhaps there was approval there; hard to tell on such a face. I could tell he was accustomed to keeping his own counsel.
      We found ourselves outside the cabin on the deck, and there I drew in a long draught of the heavy, salt-brightened air. I couldn’t help a grin. “Ah, Almond. So invigorating!”
      She beamed at me. I ruffled her hair and together we went to investigate the room we’d been assigned.

      Thus began the most pleasant month in my recent memory; in perhaps my entire memory, for I was hard-pressed to recall any finer stretch of time. What nausea afflicted me was only my habitual illness, not any sea-inspired ailment, and so daily I walked the length of the ship, staring at the waters, at the sky, at the horizon where they met in endless variations. The weather grew softer and warmer the longer we were at sea, relieving some of the worst of my pains. At times I would sit in quiet contemplation of the waves, entranced by the patterns formed by current, scent and sound… and when the hypersensitivity rose, when it succeeded in piercing the poppy fog, I wept silent tears for the beauty of the sea.
      My vigils won me friends, though I did not note it at first. My language lessons continued unabated in our chambers with the genets; in addition, I discovered the captain had a broad mastery of the language and begged his aid, finding in him a delightful depth and complexity of vocabulary. Over our dinners in his cabin I began to understand and marvel at the subtlety of the tongue, and what strange things it chose to differentiate: for instance, the elves had not one single word for light, but multiples, the light of the sun, of the stars, of the moon… light cast by a torch, light changed by the seasons, light caused by reflection, even light that came from within.
      “Such a fascination with it,” I mentioned to Gant, who said only, “Yes,” and commented on the matter no more.
      Outside these private sessions I found that many of the sailors spoke the elven tongue with varying levels of fluency, a fact that surprised me until the captain shrugged and said it was the only language spoken at the western port; to them it was just another foreign tongue. When conversation proved inadequate to the subtleties Kelu wanted me to learn, I resorted to translating some of the folk and historical tales I’d been studying at Leigh and these stories brought me audiences. I became the Steadfast Dreamer‘s folklorist, the cripple who loved the sea, and they made allowances for me I never noticed or understood until much, much later.
      Of all the stories in my arsenal, the most requested were those of the Red Prince and the King. My repertoire of elven words did not suffice to explain the ancient roots of these characters and how they’d been twisted to suit the recent war for independence, but I did my small best. My scholarly interpretations of the connection between these ancient tales and recent history proved of far less interest to my listeners anyway. They wanted the gore, the epic battles and the perverse subtexts of the originals.
      “Was the Red Prince the King’s son? Or a stranger?” Kelu finally asked, exasperated.
      “Or his brother?” one of the sailors said, picking his teeth. “I heard brother.”
      “Cousins,” someone else said. “Them’s cousins.”
      “No one knows,” I said.
      “That’s an important detail to leave out,” Kelu said.
      “It wasn’t left out,” I said, laughing. I could laugh—the sea made everything better, made it bearable. “It changed. In the beginning they weren’t even related. They were from different families. Then as the stories were retold, people changed them to suit their tastes.”
      “But which is the truth?” Kelu asked, tail bristling.
      “I don’t know,” I said. “There might not have even been a Red Prince and his King.”
      “Aw, no,” said my third listener. “There’s a Red Prince and King, sure as storms.”
      “How do you know?” Kelu asked him.
      “Because there had to be,” he said.
      I grinned and pushed my spectacles up my nose. When Kelu looked at me, ears flattened against her hair, I said, “Stories have to be told.”
      “So the Red Prince is bad—” Almond said.
      “Sometimes,” I interrupted.
      “And his King is good?”
      “Sometimes,” I said.
      “Well,” Almond asked, “which story do you prefer, Master?”
      What an impossible question. I loved the Red Prince and King stories in all their permutations… I had to, for I’d studied them at length. And their most recent incarnations as masks for the evil of the monarchists… well, I’d grown up with those versions of the story, and it was hard to escape their power.
      Then I remembered one scrap of a tale that I’d seen written only once, in the margin of a manuscript so old I’d had to turn it with metal tongs to keep the oils on my fingers from destroying it.
      “Hist,” I said, grinning. “I’ll tell you a secret story about the Red Prince and his King.”
      I swore they leaned toward me as if I had something delicate to divulge. And perhaps I did. “Once in time,” I began as tradition dictated, “there was a bleak glade, a bare copse of a place lit only by wan moonlight, seared by war and harrowed into silence by the guardianship of wights and crueler things. The shadows there were so dark and wet they clung to anyone traveling through them. It was a place of sorrow and peril. And it was there that the King found the Red Prince in a moment of repose.
      “The King lifted his gory sword, but found himself too exhausted to swing it. So instead he bit the earth with its tip and leaned on its hilt and gazed upon the face of his foe.
      “As if sensing his regard, the Red Prince woke. He did not reach for his weapon. He did not rise. He met the eyes of the King and said nothing, nothing at all.
      “At last, the bloodied King knelt beside the Prince and asked, ‘Will you not cease to prosecute your war against me?’”
      I paused, gathering in the eyes of my enrapt listeners. I lowered my voice and said, “And the Prince said, ‘I will not.’ And then… he wept.”
      I leaned back.
      “Then what happened?” one of the sailors asked.
      “The words ended there,” I said.
      “Ah, that’s a short tale,” the second said.
      “He cried?” Kelu said. “What good is that?”
      I laughed. “All right, all right. More stories about the violence.”
      That won me cheers and I went back to it. I gathered a few more sailors, lost a few, and eventually the dark came and I was left to recoup my strength and listen to the waves slap the hull. Almond remained at my side, head leaning against my thigh. I found myself idly stroking the edge of one of her ears. She was so easy to caress; I thought I should be appalled, but she seemed to enjoy it. Surely it did her no harm… and the softness of her fur soothed me.


See, he does have some good moments. :)

We are $15 or three reviews away from Thursday’s edition! The new novels could use some reviewing love if you’re looking for ideas on what to do; Mindtouch (since Mindline’s coming soon), Rose Point, Earthrise, suchlike.

Mirrored from MCAH Online.

About M.C.A. Hogarth

Genderqueer sci-fantasy writer, animal geek, conlanger, pyrographer, painter, doodler, jewelry artisan, web designer, Kemetic, and musician. Snake-crazy.
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