The Skybound Sea


Page 39



The seventh belonged to the lanky thing called Yaike, a Shen who never seemed to leave his bow behind and never seemed to stop glaring. Admittedly, it was difficult to glare with only one eye, but damn if Yaike wasn’t trying his hardest to.

Slowly, as though unaware that they were staring back, Dreadaeleon leaned over to the woman beside him and, in what he thought was a whisper, asked.

“Is this as incredibly weird as it feels, or is it just me?”

Asper made a pointed note of keeping her attentions focused only on the fish skewer in her hands. Dreadaeleon acted like he didn’t notice her discomfort.

“I mean, waiting to die, sitting next to a bunch of lizards that were ready to help us along with that up until a gang of netherlings decided to come and now they’re sitting here with us, also waiting to die and—”

“We speak your language, you know,” Jenaji suddenly interjected.

“Oh,” Dreadaeleon said, blinking. “Well, you hadn’t said anything all night, so I assumed only a few—”

“All warwatchers learn your tongue. It is part of our duty.” Jenaji leaned back. “I was using the silence to think.”

“About what?”

“The battle.”

“What about it?”

“Does that really need to be answered?”

Dreadaeleon took another bite of fish and nodded.

“About all my brothers, all my sisters, all the Shen I’ve lived with,” Jenaji replied with a sigh, “all for this battle. It takes silence to try and think why we do what we do in the name of duty.”

“What about the others?”

Jenaji glanced at the Shen seated around him and shrugged. “Maybe they just don’t like you.”

“Shiat-ay,” Yaike grunted.

“Sorry. Yaike wants it to be known that he definitely doesn’t like you.”

“Why didn’t he tell me himself? Can’t he speak the tongue?”

“He can. He just doesn’t like to.”

“Na-ah,” Yaike suddenly interjected. “Atta-wah, siat-nai, no-wah-ah tanna Shen.”

“What was that?” Asper asked, finally curious enough to look up.

“He said it’s a Shen’s duty to speak the Shen’s language,” Jenaji replied, plucking another fish skewer from the fire and taking a bite of it. “That’s not what we were told, but Yaike is the kind of Shen who likes to do a lot of things that aren’t necessary.”

“Well, he’s got a point, doesn’t he?” Asper suggested. “You . . . warwatchers, is it? You’re the leaders of your . . .” She frowned, searching for the words. “Tribes? Clan?”

“Shen.”

“Leaders of the Shen, right,” she said. “Shouldn’t it fall to you to protect your people’s heritage? Your culture? I mean, you speak for your people, don’t you?”

“The Shen have not spoken in some time,” Jenaji replied. “We have only a few words to say a few things. We use your tongue only to ask questions of you before we kill you. A warwatcher does not lead through words or through life.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

Jenaji reached up and patted the bow on his back.

“My heritage.”

He traced the warpaint on his body, a line for each life he had taken.

“My culture.”

He stomped a foot on the earth, old and dead.

“My people.”

“So, everything about you revolves around death,” Asper said, voice souring.

“All the important things.”

“No medicine? No arts? No traditions?”

“We have those. To fight longer, to celebrate the kill, to remember the dead.”

“How can a society live on those?”

“When the mortal armies freed us from Ulbecetonth, we took our oaths. The lives of our fathers, our brothers, our sons; all were offered up to guard Ulbecetonth. We do not live. We serve the oaths.”

“But what about your children? What about your trade? What about villages, religion, stories?”

“Our children are born dead. Our trade is death. Our villages are graveyards, we worship there and we pluck our stories from the cold, dead earth.”

“So . . . what? You just sit here, killing people until you die yourself?”

The Shen, save for Jenaji, nodded firmly in response.

“Huh,” Dreadaeleon chimed in. “That’s stupid.”

Only Jenaji nodded.

Asper elbowed Dread firmly, adding a scolding glare to accompany it. Dreadaeleon shot her one back, save with a little more confusion, as he rubbed his side.

“Well, it is,” he protested.

Yaike leaned forward, muttered something to the Shen in their own tongue, and they rose in reply.

“Shalake calls,” Jenaji said curtly. “We go.”

“Is there a plan, then?” Asper called after him as he and the other Shen stalked away. “Do we know what we’re going to do?”

“We know what we’re going to do,” Jenaji said. “Do what humans do and try to survive.”

“But why?” she demanded, rising to her feet. “We can do more together than we can apart, surely.” The Shen said nothing as they turned and stalked away. She looked around for support. “Right?”

Dreadaeleon shrugged, took another bite of fish. Asper watched Jenaji as he disappeared into the crowd of Shen.

In silence.

There was something to it, though. It was not a serene silence of meditation, nor a tense, fearful silence. It was a heavy, weary silence, like there were words to say, words that had been rehearsed and repeated so many times no one saw much of a point in reiterating them.

She wasn’t sure what they were. They probably didn’t involve the words “goodbye,” “love,” or “forever.” “Kill,” “die,” and “through the rectum,” maybe.

She surveyed the assembled Shen and frowned.

“How many could there possibly be?”

“A hundred,” Dreadaeleon replied. “Probably about a hundred and a half by now.”

“A third of the longfaces’ numbers.” Asper’s frown deepened with every word muttered. “That explains it.”

“Explains what?”

“Have you honestly not been paying attention?” she asked, frustrated. “To how they’re all walking around, acting like it’s their last day alive?”

“It probably is.” Dreadaeleon’s cavalier attitude was not at all diminished through a mouthful of fish. “I mean, they’re going up against twice their number in berserker warrior women led by weird, magic-spewing males, with rocks and sticks.” He belched. “Sharp rocks and sticks, admittedly, but still.”

“We’ve gone up against the same and survived.”

“Not this many. And the times we’ve fought Sheraptus have not gone well for us.”

She wondered, idly, if she would ever stop shuddering at the mention of that name.

“Kataria’s plan . . .” she began hesitantly.

“If it works, glorious,” Dreadaeleon replied sharply. “If not—and I have several solid reasons why it should not—then the Shen seem a little wiser.” He stared into the fire for a moment. “Personally, I admire their certainty.”

“So you’re saying they’re right to act like we’re all going to die?” she snapped. “We should all lie down and wait for the longfaces to come and—”

“I’m saying that some outcomes are more likely than others. Some things, no matter how . . .” He caught himself, swallowing something. “No matter how much we might want them, just aren’t likely to occur.” His face twitched. “And sometimes, death is a more comforting thought than the alternative.”

And with that, the boy assumed the same silence as the Shen, as deep, as dark, as lamentable. To stare at him caused her to ache. Whatever words she might offer him he had rehearsed, repeated a thousand times to himself and found them not worth bothering with once again.

And so he sat.

And so she stared.

“Well, this looks a tad uncomfortable,” a voice said from nearby.

Denaos stood at the edge of the fire, a rucksack slung over one shoulder and a rather pained expression painted across his face.

“Where’ve you been?” Asper asked.

“Are you quite sure you want to ask me that? I’d really hate to get in the middle of you nurturing your philosophical erections.”


She looked and spoke flatly at him. “So, can you just not answer questions normally or . . .”

“Fine, if you’re going to be that way,” Denaos muttered, hefting off the rucksack and emptying it onto the sand. “At my insistence, our scaly friends have seen fit to allow us to look at their stockpiles to see if there’s anything we can use.”

“They have stockpiles?” Dreadaeleon asked, looking surprised. “But not pants?”

“Well, the reef catches a lot of boats, some lost, some searching for the island,” Denaos said, sifting through the contents. “The Shen come, pick off the survivors, loot them for metal, food, that sort of thing.”

“Anything they can use to kill more people and sink other ships,” Asper said, voice souring.

Denaos plucked up a stout, curved blade from the stockpile. “Just so.”

“What’s this?” she asked.

“A sword, moron.”

He tossed the blade to Asper, who caught it with only miminal stumbling and bleeding. She winced at the cut, sucking her finger as she inspected the weapon. A short, ugly little thing, thin and curved like a cleaver instead of a proper sword.

“Why?”

“Look, if you keep asking stupid questions, you can’t really blame me for my answers,” Denaos said with a sigh. “Clearly, tomorrow, what with being fraught with danger and death—” he paused and cast a look at Dreadaeleon, “—certain death, anyway, you’ll need something to defend yourself.”

“Yeah, I get that, but—”

“That’s a handy one, see.” Denaos gestured as he spoke. “It’s short, meant for getting in close. You use it to strike at soft parts.” He pointed two fingers, pressed them beneath his chin. “Thrust that thing into their neck, like so, it’s near instant.”

“And this is supposed to help against . . . what, three-hundred-odd females?”

“And males.”

The intent of his voice met with the intensity of his stare and she knew what he meant.

In his eyes was a dreadful promise that, if they should fall tomorrow, if the Shen should collapse and the netherlings overrun them, if they should come to her with chains and the intent of delivering her to their Master . . .

The blade, indeed, would save her.

She understood. She swallowed that knowledge in a dry, queasy breath and nodded at him, understanding. A frown creased his face, like he had hoped she might not have.

“Is that . . . a jar?” Dreadaeleon asked, leaning forward.

The rogue plucked up the small glass container. “Kataria wanted it. Had to dig through a mountain of crap to find it.”

“So her master plan to save us . . . involves a jar,” Dreadaeleon said, rubbing his temples. “Why do we keep listening to her?”

“Because Lenk does,” Denaos replied. “For obvious reasons.”

“What reasons?”

“Obvious ones.”

“Which ones?”

The rogue quirked a brow. “You didn’t catch it?”

“Catch what?”

“The tension in her stomach? The bead of sweat running down his temple? The faint but unmistakable odor of fear, shame, and day-old fish?”

The boy shook his head, slack-jawed. Asper blanched. The rogue shrugged.

“I’ll tell you when you’re older.”

“What? What?” The boy leaned forward. “What is it you’re getting at? What did they do? What—” Though it seemed as though to stop that line of questioning would break his neck, something else caught his attention. “Where did you get that?”

“That” turned out to be something out of place with the rest of the equipment: a single stone, fragmented and decayed, attached to a black iron necklace. Dreadaeleon let it dangle before him, inspecting it carefully.

“I took it from that netherling riding the . . . thing.”

“Sikkhun.”

“Whatever.” Denaos reached out a hand to the boy. “Give it back.”

“Why do you want it?” Asper asked.

“Because throughout this whole damn episode, I haven’t gotten a single pretty thing. I took it, it’s mine.”

Dreadaeleon, without looking at him, tucked it away into a pocket of his coat. The rogue shot him a look of offense and shoved his various contents back into the rucksack.

“Fine, then. But if we find some kind of stupid book or something you want, I’m taking it.” He hefted it over his shoulder and sneered at the boy. “And I’m going to wipe with it.” He trudged away, pausing to lean obscenely close to the boy. “In front of you.”

The rogue left, presumably to dispense the rest of his deliveries. Asper cast a glance at him before turning to follow.

“I need to . . . talk to him about something.”

“Of course,” Dreadaeleon muttered as she hurried away.

When he was certain she wouldn’t notice him, he turned and scowled at her.

He watched her as she walked away without looking back at him, so brazenly strutting up to Denaos, laying a hand upon his shoulder. He could see her silhouetted by the firelight, drawing closer to the tall man, looking up at him. Her eyes were flashing in the light, bright and wet and—

They’re doing it, you know.

The thought came suddenly and unpleasantly unbidden. And like an itch that grew into a rash that grew in leprosy, it festered there.

Right in front of you, like they don’t even care you’re here—because of you, I might add. You saved them—again—from the netherlings, from Bralston. You’re the one who knows magic and they haven’t even thought to ask your advice. No, instead they ask the shict because she smells like fish or something. That moron Denaos didn’t even think he might have something here.

He pulled the stone from his pocket and studied it. To all appearances, it seemed to be just a chunk of rock on a chain.

But is it? Did Denaos have something here?

Well, possibly not. It looks like just a piece of rock. But there’s no sense in being stupid about this. Rocks on chains are not something I trust netherlings with, considering what we’ve seen.

The stones, yes?

The red ones, right.

The ones that could achieve limitless power by avoiding the price—

Transferring. Transferring the price.

Apologies. The ones that could take your illness away from you. The ones that could make you the strongest, the most powerful, the most—

One moment . . . am I talking to myself or is there someone else there?

He shook his head violently, throwing the thoughts from his head like gnats. He turned, teeth clenched and scowling at the pale figure standing behind him. Greenhair stared back impassively, glistening against the fire, a slight smile upon her lips.

“Damn it, stop doing that!” the boy demanded angrily.

“Apologies, lorekeeper.”

“Oh, good. At least you’re sorry.” He rolled his eyes. “What need have I for things like sanctity of thoughts when I have the apologies of sea-tramps?”

“I merely intended to—”

“Ah, good, because for a moment there I thought all I was going to get from you was apologies, invasion of thoughts, and convenient betrayals that sell me and my friends to perversile longfaced lunatics. But so long as I get intentions, I’m fine.”

“There’s no need to be—”

“There is every need.” Dreadaeleon held up a single finger. “You helped us once. Just once in a series of mishaps that have led us to nearly being killed and, in those moments when we’re not, you’re in my head, telling me things I don’t want to hear. You may have helped us out at Komga, you may have kept the Shen from killing us, but that’s no reason to trust you.”

“Reason and trust are squabbling siblings, often disagreeing,” the siren replied as calmly as though she hadn’t had a litany of accusations leveled against her. “That which demands trust needs no reason, that which possesses reason does not always require trust.”

Riddle-speak and cryptic gibberings. Dreadaeleon drew a sigh inward. But the logic is at least a little sound.

Thank you.

“I said stop that,” Dreadaeleon snapped. “I suspect you had a point in coming to me beyond making me hate my own tremendous brain.”

“A point, an offer, a promise.” Her eyebrows raised a hair’s breadth. “You are going to die tomorrow.”

“And is that a point or a promise?”

“Both, if a plan is not formulated.”

“Kataria has one.”

“I have doubts in her abilities. As do you. As does everyone. The thought echoes inside their heads, loud and screeching, begging for someone to draw upon a vaster intellect, a stronger knowledge.”

Watch yourself, old man, he cautioned himself mentally. The flattery is only slightly less subtle than that step she’s taking toward you . . . that thigh sliding out of her silk . . . that glistening, porcelain thigh . . . He shook his head, forced his eyes back upon hers. You should protest, tell her she’s not going to get to you like that.

His eyes flickered downward. The silk rode dangerously upon her hip, as though just one more movement might send it slithering down her body completely.

Then again, maybe it’s enough that you know and that you don’t act on it, right?

“The Shen are strong, it is true, but the longfaces are stronger, more numerous, their powers unlimited.” Her smile was slight, suggestive, edged with just a hint of greed. “As yours could be.”

While he had been rendered speechless by many things ranging from a well-placed barb from Denaos to that one time Asper bent over a bit too far, rarely had Dreadaeleon been rendered thoughtless. And while he could certainly guess at what the siren was suggesting, he couldn’t quite bring himself to think of the specifics, of the implications.

Of the cost.

“No,” was the sole word he could manage.

“I have seen him, lorekeeper. I have watched him. He presumes the world, and all in it, bows to him as his warriors do. That is why your friend’s plan will fail. He cannot comprehend of a world that allows him to die.”

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