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Off the Coast of Pexlia
Prince Mikil of Lortherrod, the worthless second son of King-that-was Nithanil; younger brother to current King Rikil; executioner of his grievously injured half sister, Queen Cressa, clung to a bit of mast from Shark Racer for hours, weeping and raging. He hollered until his voice grew hoarse and raw, desperate to find another survivor from the fireball attacks that had crushed his ship and Sea Pearl.
As the dark pressed in around him, waves and currents carried him farther and farther from the drowned, smoldering carcasses, out into immense solitude and guilt. He let go of his wooden spar and tried to sink into the cold depths.
Lautan, let me drown! Lautan, I beseech you, take me to your bosom.
He tumbled around in the waves, battered one way then another, losing all sense of direction. Seawater stung his eyes, entered his nose, burned his hoarse throat, and muffled his hearing. His energy ebbed; he couldn’t swim or float but no matter how hard he tried, he also couldn’t sink.
Mikil heard a rumbling laugh, neither low nor high, neither male nor female. No, little human. Thou art favored. Men live but a short span, but I would not have thy time cut short. Thou shalt live. Thou shalt live.
A wave as gentle as a giant paw lifted him up and set him down on a small half circle of gravel and sand. Each incoming wave lifted him up off the gravel. Thou shalt live. Thou shalt live, murmured the sea.
In the dawn light Mikil lifted his head and retched seawater out of his lungs and stomach until his muscles ached. Pellish limestone cliffs hung over this small beach, hollowed out by years of water eroding the rock. The cove measured perhaps twenty paces wide, and it stretched about ten paces deep under the cliff face. This appeared to be the closest place to the ships’ destruction that collected debris; Mikil saw wood beams, rigging, sails, one of Shark Racer’s dinghies, dishware, and bits of clothing and hand tools.
And bodies. So many charred and bloated bodies. The corpses were so disfigured he couldn’t tell whether the men were Pellish, Lorther, or Weir except when he could make out hair color or an insignia.
“Lautan! Have you saved only me? Have you spared me to surround me with death? What cruel mockery is this? Why didn’t you save my sister!”
He heard only laughter in the crash of the water.
With little hope Mikil crawled over to peer into the dinghy. He was startled to find an unconscious boy sprawled at the bottom. Pug nose and darker freckles all over his brown face—he recognized one of the cooks’ lads. Mikil felt for a pulse in the boy’s wrist, finding it slow but steady, and wished he had something to give him—water or wine or anything—to bring him round.
Mikil pushed against the dinghy’s gunwale to hoist himself upright and looked around with more interest now that he realized he was not the only survivor. Was there a waterskin? A bottle? He grabbed the biggest piece of sail in sight and stripped a few bodies of their cloaks. If he was going to save the boy, warmth would be important. And tools. He collected daggers, swords, a mallet, and rope from the assorted flotsam.
After he finished scavenging for anything useful he strode into the cold seawater, pulling two or three corpses back into the surf each trip. He didn’t want the boy to see them when he woke up. And the sailors, all of them—Pellish, Weir, or Lorther—deserved more respectful resting places.
Words needed to be said to mark the end of these sailors’ lives. Mikil made up a prayer for the situation, calling out to the gray-green waves:
Lautan, take these men, brave or craven,
Wise or doltish, devout or heathen.
Do not desert them, to puff and float
In the cruel sun. Take these wretches
Fathoms down, to your Palace under the Sea,
Where the mermen sing and the troubles
Of life can be set aside forever more.
As he watched, the bodies sank away. Lautan the Munificent had heard him.
Mikil checked on the boy, finding that he hadn’t stirred. The prince bent his knees, stretched his arms under the boy’s back and knees, and summoned his waning strength to hoist the unconscious body out of the wooden craft. He laid him on his side, wrung out a cloak as best he could, and covered him up. Then he stretched the other cloaks out on the sand, hoping there might be time before the tide came in for them to dry a little.
When he next had the time to glance toward the sea, he saw that the current had pushed a large wooden chest decorated with elaborate paintings toward the cove. Thinking it might hold something useful and afraid it might pass him by, Mikil waded out into the water to grab its edges. As he started to guide the chest to shore he was startled to hear thumping on the inner lid and—through a jaggedly formed air hole—a woman’s voice crying out.
A woman. Could it be that his encounter with a fatally burned Cressa had been a dream or hallucination? He beached the chest and used the mallet to smash open the latch. An arm pushed the lid open, and a woman with green bangs stuck her head out.
“Who are you?” he barked, crestfallen.
“I am Arlettie of Pilagos, Queen Cressa’s dress maid.”
“I was panicked. She let me hide in here. The chest slid—boom!—into the water. At first I was terrified it would sink, but the water only made the wood swell tighter.”
Mikil was too disappointed to make any move to assist her as she stiffly climbed out of the chest onto their small, sandy haven.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I am Mikil of Liddlecup,” he answered.
“Ah. Prince Mikil. I recognize you. And who is that?” She pointed at the galley boy.
“I don’t know his name.” At the thought of his charge, Mikil stirred himself a bit. “Are there smelling salts in that chest? Anything we could use to bring him round?”
“I wonder if this would do?” said Arlettie, offering a bottle of brandy.
“Indeed,” said Mikil.
He grabbed the bottle from her and took a long gulp himself. It pained his raw throat and made his eyes water, but it washed the salt and vomit tastes out of his mouth, and its warmth spread through his limbs. Then Mikil strode over to the boy, placed an arm behind his back, and tipped a little in his mouth. The liquid just dribbled out.
Arlettie came over and repeatedly tapped the boy’s cheeks. His eyes began to flutter. He swallowed. Mikil poured another small amount in and was pleased to see him swallow it down right away. The boy opened his eyes.
“Hey there,” said Arlettie, smiling. “Welcome back to us, darlin’.”
“What is your name?” asked Mikil.
Mikil thought the lad’s senses were addled. “No, I asked what you are called.”
“Boy. My name is ‘Boy,’ Prince. My parents first had three sons, then five girls before they had me, and they were all out of names. Lucky, really. All the cooks knew my name right off.”
“Cheeky scut. Well, are you hurt, Boy?”
Boy wiggled about, trying his limbs. “Not a bit. And you, my prince?”
“I received nary a scratch. And you?” He turned to the maid, belatedly remembering a bit of manners.
She shook her head. “Queasy, from all that bobbing around. And so cold. What happened to Sea Pearl?”
Copyright © 2020 by Sarah Kozloff
Excerpt from The Cerulean Queen copyright © 2020 by Sarah Kozloff