The Almost Last Voyage of the Wind Ship Escarpement
Set in the same world as The Cloud Roads
Jai had thought this job was a good idea for a number of reasons, but watching Flaren's face as they waited to meet with Canon Hain, she was no longer so sure. Flaren was grimly trying to contain any emotion, but his desperation was leaking out of him like he was a sieve.
Jai scratched her lip beneath the curve of her tusk, and said, as if to herself, "We could jump over the side, swim for it, until Kiev could pick us up." Foreigners and exiles were only permitted to set foot on the floating city of Issila at the trading platforms, so that was where they waited, the fresh salt-tempered wind pulling at their hair and clothes, the sun warm and bright.
The platform was on the far edge of the city, about a hundred long steps above the restless waves of the sea. Jai couldn't see much of the city from this angle, just a few gleaming copper roofs beyond the stairwell tower. The whole massive structure of wood and metal platforms, held together by hinged joints, rolled with the motion of the waves so it didn't break apart during the Ataran sea's mild storms.
She saw that Flaren did not much like her suggestion that they flee. The open stairwell tower that led up to the city's main gates was only a short distance away, and Canon Hain's party was already making their way down the long spiral. Flaren said, "It's a little late to leave."
Hain reached the bottom of the tower and started across the open platform toward them. He was older than Jai had expected, the wind whipping at his gray hair and the dark robes wrapping his body. The five others with him were dressed in light scale armor over dun-colored garments, and must be bodyguards.
Jai found the armor unnecessary, considering how well-defended Issila was and how few serious enemies the city had. Two of them even carried the long silver tubes of projectile weapons, uncommon in the archipelagos. The Issilans closely guarded the secrets needed to construct the weapons, and the minerals used to fire them were precious and rare. "You would think they go to war all the time," she muttered. "Like children playing dress-up."
"Will you stop it," Flaren said through gritted teeth.
"He can't hear me," Jai retorted. But it was better to present a cool united front to Canon Hain, not look as if they had been arguing like children. Especially if they had been arguing like children.
Hain stopped ten steps away, fixing his gaze on a point between them. "Which of you is the captain?" His voice sounded strained, pitched to carry over the sound of wind and sea.
The bodyguards were staring at Jai. She felt herself to be a striking figure by any standard, but she knew they were staring because she was kinet, from a mountain range on the mainland far to the east, and her people seldom came to this coast. She was tall and strong, with smooth brown skin like polished wood, thickened to protect against the harsh cold of the mountains. Her hair was all long wiry curls and no one but other kinet appreciated the red designs carved into the white tusks curving down either side of her nose. The guards seemed to barely notice Flaren beside her, with the same dark hair, dark eyes, and softer, dark gold skin as they had.
Jai eyed Canon Hain with disapproval. "You may address me as Captain." The kinet didn't organize themselves in a way that most other species, including Flaren, could understand, but Jai usually took the leader's role. She spread her hands, palms out, in a polite greeting. "I am Jainin dan Ethana, of the ship Escarpment, and this is my esteemed navigator, Flaren."
Hain didn't acknowledge the introduction. His small eyes still fixed on a point between them, he said, "You agree to carry the ransom to the savages who have captured our ship?"
"That is why we are standing here, yes." Jai couldn't help sounding dry, and Hain's gaze flicked toward her.
"We'll take it," Flaren said. His voice was harsh. The bodyguards might think it was anger, but Jai could hear that it was pure nerves. "We'll make sure the crew and passengers are released, and escort them back here."
The Canon looked at him directly for the first time, a brief glance tinged with dismay. He made a signal and the bodyguard on the right moved forward, holding out a chased metal box. As Flaren stepped up to take it, Hain said, "The box is spelled. If the lock is broken before it is delivered, the contents will be destroyed--"
Jai cut him off. "We are not thieves, so we are uninterested in the lock."
Hain pressed his lips together, stiff with annoyance. Jai wanted to roll her eyes, but managed not to. Issilans were touchy and deeply concerned with their own personal honor, which sometimes meant assuming that no one else had any.
Flaren said, "We need the location." Watching Hain, he added deliberately, "And our payment."
Hain nodded to another bodyguard, who pulled a small sack off his belt and stepped forward. He tried to hand it to Flaren; his arms were full so Jai reached for it. The man stared her hands, the round blunt nails as thick as claws, then blinked and surrendered the bag.
Jai opened the sack, briefly counting the trading counters inside. They were good currency at any civilized port along the coast or the islands, and the amount was right. They had agreed to a third of the payment now, the rest once the hostages were freed. There was also a folded sheet of paper and Jai fished it out, unfolding it to see a quickly sketched map and some directions.
"You can find it?" Hain asked.
"Yes. If we can't, we'll just have to come back for better instruction--" She looked up in time to see Hain turn so abruptly he startled the bodyguards. He started away across the platform
"Father!" Flaren choked the word out as if he couldn't stop himself. Hain didn't hesitate, didn't look back. The bodyguards followed hurriedly, darting glances back at Flaren.
Jai looked at Flaren's stricken face, and felt her heart sink. A large and guilty part of her soul had been hoping for this sort of rebuff. She knew it was for the best, but that didn't make it any less painful for Flaren.
When the message had gone out for an itinerant crew to deliver a ransom, Hain had obviously not expected the ship that had given shelter to Flaren to answer the call. Hain was not going to accept his son back into his house, and nothing Flaren did or didn't do was going to change that. She thought Flaren had taken that to heart, and suggesting the situation might be otherwise was no act of friendship. But Jai couldn't stop herself from saying, "Perhaps it's guilt. He knows he was cruel and unjust--"
Flaren turned, taking a few steps away, his shoulders as tight as wire. Cursing herself, Jai waved up at the Escarpment.
Kiev must have been watching carefully. The wind-ship had been circling about two hundred paces above the platform. It dropped immediately at her signal, the
ropes dangling from the break in the railing. As the ropes lowered within reach, Jai caught them, sorting out the one that had a basket attached for lifting small quantities of supplies. Flaren joined her, tucking the box into the basket and tying the lid securely.
Jai eyed his set expression. "I'm sorry. I think it was me. I spoke to him too sharply and he took offense--"
"It wasn't you," Flaren said, and clipped a safety line to her harness.
Inwardly cursing her stupidity, Jai rendered further apologies in the time it took the ilene-powered winch to draw them back up to the Escarpment. So much so that when they stood on the boarding deck, after they detached their harnesses from the lines, Flaren took her shoulders and shook her, saying, "Enough. I accept your apology. All of your apologies. Please stop."
The kinet believed that if something was worth saying once, it was worth saying a few more times, but Jai had long recognized that this was not the way of other species. She promised, "I'll stop."
Flaren squeezed her shoulders, gave her a wry smile, and went forward to the steering cabin and the hatch that led below decks. "What have you done to him now?" Kiev asked, leaning over the rail of the small upper deck. He was also kinet, though small for a male, being barely Jai's height.
"I was rude to his judgmental bastard of a father." Jai untied the basket lid to take the ransom box out. It was heavy, the sides and sealed top ornamented with swirling designs in copper and silver. From the weight there were several heavy objects inside, probably lumps of gold or some other precious metal. She could feel a faint vibration through the surface, the outward evidence of whatever spell had been used to secure it.
Kiev lifted his furry brows. "Your plan is to sabotage his chance to return home?"
Jai hefted the box, looking up at him in exasperation. "It is not a plan. He has no chance to return home." Flaren knew that. Or she had assumed Flaren knew that. She was beginning to wonder about her judgment.
Still wondering, she crossed the small deck toward the cabin. The Escarpment had been built in a place called the Golden Isles, or at least that was what the man she had bought it from had told her. Flying islands were more numerous there, and the wind-ships were powered by a tiny piece of the mineral that lay at the heart of the islands, which kept them aloft and drew them along the lines of force which crisscrossed the Three Worlds. The Escarpment was a small example of its kind, only fifty paces long from bow to stern, with a hull constructed of light lacquered wood. Its only sail was a fan-shaped one that opened out from the single mast.
A wind-ship would not be much use in the harsh mountain winds of Jai's home, but was perfect for trading along the coast and the archipelagos of the calm Ataran Sea. Kiev, skilled in the manipulation of metal and heat that was well-known in their own mountain country, had added improvements using ilene, an energy-imbued mineral mined beneath their home city of Keres-gedin.
Jai ducked under the narrow doorway and went down the short set of steps to the living hold. The common room held the navigator's table where Flaren sat, comparing the map Hain had given them with one of their own charts. Latal and Shiri had gathered around, worriedly studying the results. Lining the walls were chests for storing the logbooks and records of their trades, Jai's small collection of books, and their money and valuables. There was also a rack that held the rolled leather tubes protecting their charts and maps. The hold was lit by squares of ilene in its non-crystallized form, tuned to give off light but no heat, another Keres-gedin innovation added to the ship. It was much safer than candles or oil lamps, especially in high winds. Eventually, perhaps by the next turn of the seasons, the energy in their carefully hoarded pieces of ilene would run out, leaving the mineral blocks cracked and dull, and they would have to return to the mountains to purchase more. Jai hoped to have enough funds by then to make the journey easy, and this job would come near to accomplishing that goal, and make them comfortable through the rest of the warm season. It was most of the reason they had decided to take it, the rest being Flaren's desire to torture himself by proximity to his betraying snake of a father and his horrid family.
Jai stowed the ransom box away in a chest, put the bag of trading counters in the ship's lockbox, then shouldered her way between Latal and Shiri. By that time Kiev had set their course and followed her down the stairs. Leaning on the table beside Flaren, Jai looked over the map. "Do we know this place we are going to?"
Flaren was frowning, his dark golden brow furrowed. "No. It's in the shallows, some distance off the Visicae archipelago where the Issilan ship was captured. Our charts don't show any notations for an island there."
"The shallows," Jai repeated. It was difficult for larger sailing ships to navigate through there without running into any of the stone shelves and reefs that lay just below the surface. "I wonder how the pirates managed this. Perhaps they use skiffs." Though from what she understood, the pirates had taken the ship when it had anchored for the night and towed it away from the shipping lanes. Skiffs would be hard put to tow even a modest Issilan vessel.
"Hopefully skiffs, and not airships," Kiev muttered. Kiev was a pessimist. "If they come after us, we can't win a race."
"We're faster than any airship," Latal said, stoutly loyal to their flying bucket. She was the youngest, and most enthusiastic, of their crew. Jai ruffled her hair fondly.
Before Kiev could retort that they were not faster than an airship, Shiri said, "These aren't just any raiders." Shiri was of a species native to the Ataran Sea, and was short, with gray-green skin and silvery gray hair, and gnarled wrinkled features that made him look old and wise when he was just as fluff-headed as the rest of them.
"Of course they aren't," Jai said. Nothing about this was going to be easy. She would be unsurprised to hear that the ransom demand stipulated that they deliver it naked and with air bladders tied to their heads. "What are they?"
Shiri rolled his narrow shoulders and looked uncomfortable. "The raiders in the shallows don't raid to sell cargo and ransom crews, like the fishers and traders that can't make their living and turn pirate. They're predators."
He had everyone's attention now. Predators. The Altanic word meant "people who subsist on other people." Like Tath, or Ghobin or Setaret, Jai thought. Or Fell, may everything that's holy curse them and keep them far away from here. She said, "But these raiders asked for ransom, therefore they are not predators."
Watching Shiri, Flaren asked, "Do you know what they look like?"
Shiri shook his head. "Just that the rumor says they come from an old sea kingdom."
"Rumor!" Latal made an impatient gesture. "Just because they're sealings, doesn't mean they're predators." Sealings were species that lived in the water, and might be anything from the civilized inhabitants of the deep sea kingdoms to the packs of barely sentient predators that preyed on fishing vessels and other sealings.
"That'll be fun to fight in the water," Kiev said sourly.
"We're not going to fight them," Jai said. Latal was right; appearance was nothing to judge by. Flaren tensed to argue, but subsided when Jai added, "We'll deliver the ransom and escort the hostages away, as we've been asked to. That's all."
Flaren gave her a small smile, relieved and worried all at once. "Are you sure? I mean, I know it's dangerous--"
"I'm sure." And she was, really. Not only would they be rescuing people who were badly in need of rescuing, stuck-up Issilan nobles though they were, but the rest of the payment Canon Hain had promised was so large they couldn't afford to pass it up. "The pirates want their ransom, we want their hostages and our payment for freeing them. If it goes well, everyone gets what they want."
Everyone nodded, reassured, and Jai felt the tension ease. Then Shiri had to say darkly, "You hope that's all they want."
It would take them the rest of the day and the night to make their way over the open sea to the coast of the first Visicae island, and then to navigate along the archipelago until they reached the raiders' lair. They each took a turn at the steering column, navigating via the compass and their charts. They kept the fansail folded, as the wind was in the wrong direction and would just push them off the invisible force-current, slowing the little wind-ship's progress.
The day remained bright and nearly cloudless, the sea sparkling beneath them, and there wasn't much else to do while they traveled except sleep, read, fret, or talk. So when Jai finished her stint on watch she found herself loitering in the doorway of Flaren's small cabin, where she could both talk and fret.
Like all their living quarters, it had a narrow shelf for the bed, and cabinets with basket weave doors for the storage of personal belongings. Not that Flaren had many, except a little spare clothing and the few gifts Jai and the others had pressed on him. The wind-ship's hull creaked beneath her feet, a restful sound, though their conversation was anything but restful.
Flaren put his book down for the third time, sat up and punched his pillow. He said, "I should take the ransom in alone. It'll be safer."
They had been making plans and discarding them all evening, but this was the first time he had made this suggestion. Jai gave him a derisive snort. "You want to do that."
Flaren looked annoyed. "I want to do that slightly less than I want to jump off the Escarpment's deck without a harness. But we're doing this for me. I should take the risk."
"We're doing it for the money," Jai reminded him. "You rubbing your father's face in the fact that you are alive and thriving despite his best efforts is a side benefit." She hoped that was how Flaren saw the situation.
But he shifted uncomfortably. "I know why you're doing it."
Guilt reared its pointed head, but not quite enough that Jai could hold her tongue. "What do you mean?"
Flaren said, "You want to help me go back home."
Jai fought the urge to bang her head against the wall. By home he meant Issila, back to the city and the family that had rejected him so thoroughly they had set him off in a small boat to die. If the Escarpment had not stumbled across him where his boat had run aground on a reef, he would have been as dead as if Canon Hain had stabbed him in the heart. More sharply than she meant to, she said, "You're my friend. I want you to make your home here."
"I can't." Flaren's expression was earnest. "While there's a chance to return, I have to take it."
Jai wanted to smack herself in the head. Or better, smack Flaren in the head. She had thought, or at least convinced herself, that he knew any hope of going back was a daydream and a fantasy. But maybe it was her hope that he saw the truth that was a daydream and a fantasy. "You saw the way your father looked at you. Do you truly think there is a chance to return?"
He glared at her, startled, angry, and clearly hurt. "He was testing me."
"People who love you do not require such tests!"
Flaren's stubborn jaw set. "I know you left your family because you had to. For you, it was the right thing to do. Not for me."
It was mildly infuriating that Flaren had characterized the situation that way. He had been exiled because he dared to argue with his father and an elder brother had persuaded Hain that Flaren meant to rebel against him. Jai's family had made it more than clear that they were disappointed in her personality and many faults, and that they might be indifferent to her continued existence, but they had never tried to kill her. "I left my family because I was bored with selling supplies to miners and wished to find adventure. I was selfish and willful. You did not leave your family, you were put out to die because they didn't trust you."
Flaren slammed the book down. "Then you shouldn't trust me either."
"Unlike your family, I am not a fool, or a betrayer, or the kind of foul creature who would discard a half-grown child who displeased me," Jai said.
They stared at each other. Jai thought, yes, I should probably have kept that to myself. Flaren shoved to his feet. "You-- My father-- This is none of your business."
Jai said, stiffly, "Even I can tell when I have gone too far. I apologize. We will speak of this later."
Jai turned away from the door, and winced as she heard it slam behind her. She stomped back up on deck, too aware that she owed Flaren a dozen or so more apologies, which he would undoubtedly receive with increasing impatience.
She leaned on the railing. The wind was like warm silk and there were only a few drifts of cloud, the setting sun painting the open water a glittering gold. One of the minor Visicae islands lay in the distance, its tall cliffs overflowing with jungle greenery.
Over the past two turns Flaren had practically grown up before her eyes, turning from a sulky frightened adolescent to a trustworthy adult she called friend. She did not want to lose him, anymore than she wanted to lose Kiev or Shiri or Latal, all of whom she had known longer. Maybe less, she admitted privately. She loved the others like brothers and children, but Flaren had become her confidant, perhaps the closest to her in his habits of thought and sympathies.
Jai said, "Maybe I am being selfish. Maybe I want him to turn his back on these bastards because it will reinforce my own decision."
Kiev, who was leaning in the doorway of the steering cabin, shrugged. He had undoubtedly heard the argument. The wind-ship was built for lightness and its deck and inner walls were thin, something that became spectacularly obvious whenever anyone tried to have a private conversation, or when Kiev and Shiri had sex. "I think it's both. You're being selfish, but it's true that he's better off making his own way, with us or without us, than he is with those people."
"But if he doesn't believe it, it does no one any good, and he will pine about it until he does something foolish," Jai said. Dolorous Kiev didn't even try to argue with her.
The raiders' lair wasn't what Jai had been expecting.
She had thought they would find a small island with a fishing village or town, abandoned or with a few inhabitants barely holding on, that had been temporarily taken over by the raiders. But these raiders had no island at all.
Outlined by the waves it created, a round stone ridge stood just below the surface, forming a great flooded cauldron. Jai couldn't tell if it had been built to stand in the water and had sunk or been flooded as the sea rose, or if it was some natural formation. A shelf stretched across about half the cauldron, forming a platform only a scant pace deep, then dropped away into impenetrably dark water. That had to be a cave entrance, possibly built by the sealings, probably a passage down into whatever structure lay further under the surface. That inhabited darkness made her flesh creep.
And she saw why the Issilans had preferred an air-going craft to deliver the ransom.
The captured Issilan ship lay some distance from the outermost edge of the cauldron, and it was caught inside a giant ball-shaped net. Jai had seen a great many things in her time but nothing like that.
The ship was a sailer with a graceful ironwood hull and three masts, the sails now furled. A metal spine curved up from the water in front of the ship's prow, arched over it, and disappeared below the surface behind the stern. The mesh of the net attached to it was very fine. It must be impossible to cut or surely the crew would have freed themselves already. Jai saw the trap must have laid flat in the water and been brought into place beneath the ship where it sat at anchor. Then some mechanism had allowed it to spring up and enclose the ship, like a hunter's trap for a big land predator.
The crew and passengers had come out on deck at the sight of the Escarpment, calling out and waving. Jai saw they were all heavily armed, with tools, clubs, fishing spears, swords, and several crew members held long metal projectile weapons.
Beside her, Flaren said, "So they trapped the ship in that thing, and then hauled it here. Have you ever heard of anything like that before?"
"Never." Jai leaned on the railing. The air between she and Flaren had been heavy with the memory of their argument, and they hadn't spoken this morning. But the sight of the trapped ship had swept all that away for the moment. She wished Canon Hain had seen fit to give them more information, and not sent them off expecting ordinary pirates. "But how did they haul this thing from Visicae to here? I see no ships of any kind." She shook her head. "Shiri is partly right, as much as I hate to say it. They must be sealings."
Latal said, "If they pulled it through the water themselves, there must be a lot of them."
"Or they are very strong," Jai said grimly. "Take us over that thing, Kiev."
"It's a stand-off," Flaren said, as Kiev guided them closer to the trapped ship. "The ship can't escape, but the crew is too well-armed for the pirates to get near it."
"Yes." Jai waved a distracted hand at Shiri, who interpreted the gesture and went to get the speaking tube from the steering cabin. "It would be nice if we could throw down a hook and haul it away, but we can't possibly pull it through the water." The Escarpment was far too light to drag a sailing ship like the one below, let alone the weight of the mechanism that held it. And she would bet Shiri's share of the pay that the net device was securely anchored from below. Shiri brought the speaking tube, and Jai used it to call to the figures below, "Are you well?"
"For now!" One of the men below shouted up to her. "Were you sent to help us?"
"Yes, we have a ransom for you, sent from Issila! Have you tried to cut through that mesh?"
"We've tried! It's some sort of metal."
That was that. "Be patient! We will get you free!" Jai handed the tube back to Shiri and told Kiev. "Go to the cauldron."
The deck angled beneath their feet as Kiev turned the ship back toward the cauldron. Jai tapped her nails on the railing, thinking. This was going to be tricky.
"I still think I should deliver the ransom alone," Flaren said, his jaw set in a stubborn line.
"I still don't care what you think," Jai told him, and added to Latal, "Get two harness lines ready, just in case."
Latal lifted her brows. "Just in case?"
"I'm hoping we can do this the easy way." They were over the cauldron now, about a hundred steps above the surface. There wasn't much wind today, so it was fairly easy for Kiev to keep them in place. Jai took the speaking tube and leaned over the railing. She felt like a crazy woman, talking to a bare circle of water, but there was nothing else to talk to. "We have come from Issila with your ransom! Let the captive ship leave, and we will lower it down to you!"
She stood back to see all the others staring at her. She shrugged. "It's worth a try."
"No one's coming," Latal observed after a moment. "Maybe they can't hear you from under the water."
Flaren muttered, "They're probably laughing too hard."
Jai took the high road and ignored that. Time stretched on, and she tapped her fingers impatiently on the railing. She was supremely reluctant to simply drop the ransom box into the sea, with no idea whether the hostage ship would be released or not. Or if the pirates had grown tired of waiting, abandoned their captives aboard the trapped ship to starve to death, and left the area to look for easier prey.
"There," Flaren breathed, and a moment later Jai spotted movement in the water below. She leaned forward, staring.
Water churned in the center of the cauldron. Then a figure climbed up out of the foam onto the shelf that was just below the surface, standing knee-deep in the water.
It was a tall thin man with gray skin. Kiev nudged Jai's arm, handing her their distance glass, and she took it, focusing the lenses on the figure. With the glass, she could see the man had scales, long tangled hair like green sea wrack, and clawed hands. He wore no clothing except for metal armbands. A sealing, obviously. "He doesn't look that frightening," Jai said aloud, not quite sure she believed it. There was something about the figure that gave her an uneasy feeling.
"From a distance," Shiri pointed out nervously.
The figure looked up at the Escarpment, and began to make motions with his hands.
After a belated moment, Jai realized what he was doing. "Shiri, what is he saying?"
Shiri leaned over the railing. The sign language was an old one, used by the myriad inhabitants of the Ataran coast and islands when common language failed them. Jai had never mastered more than the rudiments but fortunately Shiri was expert.
After a moment, Shiri reported, "He says we're to bring the ransom down to him, and he will release the ship."
It was as ridiculous as Jai's initial offer. She shook her head. "Tell him to release the ship, and we will give him the ransom."
The figure signed back, and Shiri looked surprised. "He says to bring the ransom halfway down, and he'll release the ship."
"That is...quite reasonable," Jai said, startled herself. She had expected a much longer negotiation.
"Too reasonable?" Latal whispered to Jai.
It was certainly an opinion shared by their pessimist Kiev, glaring suspiciously from the doorway of the steering cabin. "It's a trap," he hissed.
"How?" Flaren asked.
Kiev withdrew from the doorway.
Jai studied the cauldron, the sealing, the glittering but uninformative surface of the sea. The shelf of rock a step or so below the surface was visibly bare and innocent of any trap. The sealings seemed to want the ransom, as a substitute for the trapped ship they could not approach for fear of being shot. And she could not see how this could turn into a trap for a wind-ship. "I think we will have to do it anyway."
"I'll take the ransom down," Flaren said immediately, giving Jai a look she could only interpret as mutinous.
"We will do it together," Jai told him firmly, and sent Latal for the ransom box.
"Be careful," Shiri said, twitching with nerves as he watched Flaren and Jai put their climbing harnesses on.
Latal put the ransom box into the basket, securing the catch on the lid so it wouldn't fly open on the way down. Then she fetched two long fighting clubs from the steering cabin, used only when they docked at the rowdier ports. "Take these, just in case."
Jai fixed her club to her belt, made sure Flaren had done the same, then they secured their harnesses. Jai led the way though she had to elbow Flaren hard in the ribs to do so, stepping through the break in the railing and letting the ropes take her weight. Latal manned the ilene-powered winch, lowering Jai and Flaren down toward the water.
Jai watched the surface come closer. Over to her left, the dark stretch that marked the entrance to the underwater cave grew darker and colder the closer they approached it.
When they were about thirty steps above the surface, she called up to Latal, "Far enough!"
They jolted to a halt, and waited.
Time seemed to crawl. The sun was warm even on Jai's thick skin; she worried that Flaren would burn bright gold by the time this was over. The sealing waiting below them stood like a statue. She saw the crew of the ship watching, too far away to make out any detail or expression. "What are they waiting for?" Flaren said, keeping his voice low.
"Perhaps for us to give up and drop the ransom," Jai replied. She had no intention of doing so.
A loud clang made Jai jump, but it was only the metal trap around the Issilan ship releasing. Finally, she thought in relief. The mesh sides fell back into the water with a huge splash, creating a small wave that rippled the water below her dangling feet a few moments later. The crewmen climbed with frantic speed into the rigging, and the sails dropped and billowed.
They waited until the ship began to slowly move, its sails catching the wind, its progress helped along by the emergency oars that shot out of the portals below the railings. When it was well underway, Jai turned to the basket, pulling it toward her to get the ransom box. And then everything went to the cold-hells in a hamper.
Flaren yelped in pure alarm, his voice higher than she had ever heard it before. She whipped around, startled, just in time to see a giant brown object shoot up out of the deep water. It spread gracefully in the air, revealing itself to be a giant net. Then it struck the side of the Escarpment. The wind-ship jerked downward and dropped at the sudden weight, and Jai landed in the water with a tremendous splash.
Struggling to her feet in the thigh deep water, gasping a curse that was incoherent even to herself, Jai dragged the club off her belt.
Flaren staggered to his feet and struck the sealing as it lunged for him, but the club glanced off its thick skull. It grabbed him, staggering him back. Jai swung at it, aiming for the spine in the middle of its back rather than the head. The blow landed with a resounding crack, and the sealing jolted forward, knocking Flaren down into the water. Jai struggled to reach Flaren, and more sealings popped up from below the surface.
She laid about with the club, striking everything that reached for her, having some satisfaction in that these greedy creatures clearly did not expect her to be as strong as she was. Her harness tugged at her, pulling her across the stony shelf; she had no time to look up but feared it was the Escarpment being dragged down by the net. Whacking a sealing across the face, she caught a glimpse of cables stretching up from the water, drawn tight with the strain as the Escarpment fought to escape.
The last sealing fell before Jai and she sloshed forward to Flaren. He was down, splashing frantically as he wrestled a sealing determined to drown him. Jai grabbed the sealing by the fins on its shoulder blades, wrenching it back and away. Flaren flailed free and Jai had a chance to look up.
The Escarpment was heeled over, the net caught on the folded sail and the steering cabin drawn tight, dragging the ship to its doom. But Shiri and Latal, wearing climbing harnesses, cut at the cables with a big cross saw meant for severing fouled anchor lines. We're not dead yet, Jai thought, and shouted at Flaren, "Get up there and help them!"
Flaren shoved to his feet, and Jai reached for her harness, fumbling for Kiev's emergency trigger device which she swore by all that was holy she would never make fun of again. The trigger would activate the winch, drawing them up, and Kiev had been very proud of it even though they had never needed it before.
Both their lines dragged in the water, slack and limp as the Escarpment was forced further down, and she hoped the thing would still work. Then something struck her from behind, slamming her face-first down into the water. Sealing teeth crunched into her shoulder, grinding against her leather harness strap. Shoving against the stone, Jai managed to get her legs under her and push upward. The creature hung on, claws scraping at her skull, defeated for a moment by her harder bones. Then it went limp and she flung it off.
She turned to see Flaren stood bent over the creature's limp body, still holding his club. More sealings shot up from below the surface and charged toward them. Jai found the trigger-thing and told Flaren, "Go, hit your thing!"
It wasn't very coherent, but she knew he understood her. She knew because he held up the frayed end of his line, slashed apart by one of the sealing's claws. Jai cursed, grabbed his harness and said, "Hold on!"
He wrapped his arms around her, grabbing onto the back straps of her harness. Jai hit the trigger, and with relief, saw her line jerk and start to spool up toward the ship. It went tight and she felt her feet leave the stone, then the water, dripping away. Flaren slid down to her waist but held on. And she made the mistake of thinking, We're going to make it!
Flaren gasped, and they jerked to a halt. His voice grating, he said, "They've got me." She looked down to see two sealings hanging off his legs. She heard the trigger mechanism whirring as it strained to lift the extra weight.
"Damn these persistent bastards," Jai said, racking her brain for a solution. She had lost her club, not that she could reach the sealings with it anyway.
"I'll let go," Flaren said. He didn't sound as if it was the fondest wish of his heart, but she felt his hands loosen on the straps.
Jai tightened her hold on his harness. "If you let go, I will come down there and beat you like a drum."
He glared up at her. "There's nothing else we can do!"
Jai was damn tired of being the only optimist on this crew. "Shut up and let me think!" She looked up at the ship, which was alarmingly close to them, only about twenty steps above her head. Latal and Shiri had managed to saw through one of the cables attached to the net and were at work on a second but three others still held. The deck angled toward her and she saw the winch, the ilene sparking in the grip of its case-- And remembered what happened when ilene touched water. "Latal," she screamed at the top of her lungs. "Throw the lamps in the water! The ilene!"
Latal almost dropped her end of the saw, looked down, her face a desperate mask of terror and resolve. Jai knew she must look much the same.
Latal shoved away from the railing, shouting to Kiev. Leaving Shiri to saw at the cable as best he could, she scrambled up the deck and into the steering cabin.
The sealings were trying to climb Flaren's body like he was a ladder, even as he kicked and struck at them. The trigger-thing sung in Jai's ear, straining against the weight, and couldn't last much longer. Then the whole case of their spare ilene blocks tumbled past Jai's head and hit the water's surface.
The water crackled, hissed, steam rushed up. The sealings screamed, high piercing cries. A moment later Flaren cried out and then Jai added to the chorus. It was like invisible fire had rushed up from the water and raced over her skin. She kicked desperately at the only sealing in reach and it let go, falling away. Its fall jolted the next; it lost its grip on Flaren and dropped. Jai and Flaren jerked into motion as the winch hauled them up toward the ship.
They reached the railing and Jai seized it with her one free arm as if she never intended to let go. Her hands were numb and her skin sparked with pain, the fading effect of the ilene, and the railing seemed as far they could get. Then Latal leaned over to grab Flaren's harness, planted a small foot on the railing for leverage, and flung her weight back, pulling them both on board.
Jai collapsed on the tilted deck, highly aware they were still a hair's breadth from unpleasant death. She shoved herself up and gripped the railing, looking down.
The sealings had vanished out of range of the sparking ilene but the remaining cables attached to the net were still tight with the strain of holding the wind-ship. The water below steamed, but she could see the effect dissipating as the ilene expended its energy. "Flaren, get another saw," she croaked as he stumbled to his feet.
"Wait!" Kiev bolted past her, pausing to slam the door to the hatch that Latal had left open. "I have an idea! Everyone hold on!"
Latal grabbed the railing next to Jai and Flaren, and Shiri wrapped himself around the clamps at the base of the mast. Kiev darted into the steering cabin and shut the door. A moment later, the ship's deck tilted further, down toward the water.
"I see," Jai muttered to herself. Without anyone to man the device below, the cables went slack. The way the island heart kept the wind-ship suspended in the air didn't give them many options for maneuvering down toward the ground, but Kiev could roll the ship on its axis.
The weight of the net began to work in their favor as the ship tilted, pulling the mass of lines free from the mast to dangle down toward the water. As Jai and the others clung to the railing, Shiri climbed the mast like a treeling and tugged at the edge of the net, finally managing to drag it free. It fell from the ship, taking their cross-saw, a lamp, and a water bucket with it. "That's it!" Jai shouted to Kiev. "Go, go!"
It was a vague command but Kiev interpreted it correctly. Gradually the Escarpment righted, then turned, moving with the wind and away from the sealings' trap.
The ransom box had been drawn up with them, still in the basket, unnoticed as they fought for their lives. Wordless, Jai retrieved it and set it on the deck. The metal was no longer vibrating; whatever spell had protected it had ended once the ransom had been "delivered." She used the prybar Flaren silently handed her to batter the lock open.
They all gathered around to look. Inside were three large water-polished rocks, such as the ships of Issila used for ballast.
"We were the ransom," Flaren said quietly. "The sealings couldn't get to the crew of the trapped sailing ship because they were too heavily armed. They offered to release the ship if they were given a substitute for their prize. So the Issilans offered to send them another ship to take its place."
Kiev took a harsh breath. "They would have been disappointed, when they sat down to eat. Only four of us aboard, for a ship with at least forty crew and passengers."
Latal hugged herself. "They wouldn't know that. They couldn't see our deck."
There was nothing to say, so for once, no one said anything. Jai picked up the box and pitched it over the side.
It took them some while to recover their nerves, but by the time the ship had been restored to order, Shiri had cried a bit on Kiev's shoulder, and they had all eaten some salted fish for dinner, everyone felt much better. Though Jai refused to consider a suggestion to catch up with the freed Issilan vessel in order to dump their garbage on it. She suspected the captive ship had known nothing of the arrangement the pirates had made with Canon Hain. And she didn't think the Escarpment could catch the faster craft, anyway.
The sun was setting when Jai found Flaren leaning on the railing. She went to stand beside him. They were passing over a large collection of miniscule rock islands, each capped with a miniature jungle of greenery, and the sun was deepening the sky's blue to purple. Flaren seemed lost in thought, and Jai said, "I am sorry I spoke harshly to you."
Flaren shrugged it away. "You were right to."
"No. If I had been persuasive rather than strident, you might have been more inclined to listen."
"Maybe not." He smiled with somewhat bitter amusement. "Maybe I needed the slap in the face."
Jai differed. "No one needs to be slapped that hard."
After a moment, Flaren said, "My father does."
It surprised a laugh out of her. Flaren smiled. She clapped him on the shoulder, and their little wind-ship sailed on.
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© Martha Wells 2011
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