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The Quincense launched off the peak of a swell like she dreamed of taking flight. Her blue sails were full of the southerly wind that had been propelling them up the coast with an eagerness mirroring Teriana’s own. It had been months since they’d last been in Celendrial—and since she’d last seen Lydia. Her feet itched with excitement at the prospect of being reunited with her closest, albeit most unlikely, of friends.
The ship failed in her dream to remain airborne, crashing down against the turquoise sea and sending a salty spray into Teriana’s face, forcing her to finish tying the knot blind before wiping a damp sleeve across her face. Rising to her feet, she instinctively shifted her weight to keep her balance as the Quincense reared up on another swell. Her eyes she kept on the horizon as the ship slid around a rocky peninsula and Celendrial, the crown jewel of the Celendor Empire, came into view.
“Hello, lovely,” she shouted at the gleaming white sprawl stretching out beyond the enormous harbor, flanked on one side by a villa-encrusted hill and on the other by a towering statue of a legionnaire holding a standard bearing a gleaming gold dragon. A dozen enormous stone wharves reached out like fingers, countless ships originating from every province of the Empire busy unloading freight for sale in the markets beyond. Through the middle of it ran the river Savio, spilling its filthy contents into the harbor and turning the azure waters a murky greenish brown.
Grinning, Teriana gave the city a one-fingered salute before weaving her way back through her sea-soaked crew to where her mum stood at the helm. All Teriana’s anticipation would earn her were hours of cutting deals in the harbor market unless she negotiated some free time from the captain now.
Captain Tesya stood with one hand resting on the railing, the other holding a pipe that had gone cold from neglect, her ebony skin gleaming in the sun. Her hair was wrapped tight against her head with blue silk, but a few black curls had escaped to frame an older, grimmer version of Teriana’s own face, both of them possessing full lips, arched eyebrows, and rounded cheeks. On her mother’s neck, three small blue sapphires were pierced into the skin to form a triangle, marking her as a Triumvir of the Maarin Trade Consortium. At her elbow stood Teriana’s aunt Yedda, who peered intently through her spyglass at the coastline. Teriana caught the last of her words: “… Chersome’s sigh of relief will mean another nation is catching its breath.”
“No nation on this half of Reath left to catch its breath,” Teriana’s mother muttered. “Yet still, no good can come from them being here. Not with elections just round the corner. Might be time to take our leave. Time for all Maarin ships to take their leave.”
“Who you talking about?” Teriana asked, squinting at the coast beyond the glowering statue and outside the city proper. She could make out rows and rows of white tents rising up from the sandy beaches, marking the camp of one of the Empire’s legions. All across Celendor, along with most of its provinces, families were bound to deliver their second-born sons to the grounds of Campus Lescendor for legion training. Groomed for combat from early childhood, the legion’s soldiers were deadly and not to be crossed under any circumstance. Yet given their ever-presence across the East, she did not see how they were cause for comment.
It was her mother’s words, not the soldiers, that caused a tightening in her chest. Taking leave didn’t just mean going west—it meant staying there. And that meant never seeing Lydia.
“Don’t recall inviting you to join the conversation,” Teriana’s mother replied, turning her back to the wind to relight her pipe.
Teriana crossed her arms. “It’s my business where we sail.” Which was technically true. On her seventeenth birthday she’d been promoted to second mate, and the ship herself was Teriana’s birthright. If her mother intended to take the Quincense back through the paths, then—
“Methinks it’s self-interest and not ship’s business that’s brought you up here,” Aunt Yedda said, interrupting Teriana’s thoughts. “Am I wrong?”
The veracity of her comment warred with Teriana’s desire to know what the two had been talking about, but in the end, the former won out. “Can I leave once we’re docked?”
“You a passenger?” Tesya asked, lighting her pipe and blowing a smoke ring into Teriana’s face, which was no small feat given the gale-force wind.
“We don’t take passengers,” Teriana replied, because no Maarin ship did, but instantly regretted rising to the bait when both her mum’s eyebrows cocked.
“That’s because passengers are useless. Much like you, at present. Now hop to.”
There was no sense arguing. Her mother wasn’t fond of Teriana’s friendship with Lydia, whom she referred to as the child of a godless Cel landlubber, and picking a fight now would only see Tesya inventing excuses to keep Teriana in the harbor until it was too late to climb the Hill. Then fashioning a reason why the Quincense needed to sail at dawn. And then more reasons still why they shouldn’t come back, despite Celendrial providing them more income than nearly any other harbor on Reath. So instead Teriana said, “Aye, Captain,” and went off in search of busywork.
Bait’s voice caught Teriana’s attention as she trudged down from the quarterdeck. Her friend sat on a pile of ropes sharpening one of his diving knives, exempt from general labor for the fact that he was god marked. Didn’t hurt that he had a wide smile that could charm anyone with eyeballs.
Kicking the ropes, Teriana scowled at the approaching city. “They want to go back west.”
Bait’s dark hands stilled; then he said, “Good.”
Teriana aimed her next kick at his shins, but her heart wasn’t in it. Anytime they were in a Cel-controlled port, which was every port in the eastern half of the world, Bait had to remain on the ship. The last thing anyone needed was Bait’s, or any other Maarin diver’s, god mark being discovered. The Cel were godless and bent on wiping what they referred to as paganism from the world, which meant they wouldn’t understand his differences. And she didn’t relish the notion of having to visit her friend in a specimen exhibit for the rest of their days.
Bait’s expression softened, and he shoved the knife back into the sheath strapped to his calf. “If she won’t let you go, Magnius and I will sneak you to shore tonight.”
An echo of affirmation from the Quincense’s guardian filled Teriana’s head, and she thumped her boot heel against the deck, knowing he’d hear it from where he swam beneath the ship.
Her mother’s voice cut through the noise, and the crew devolved into a flurry of organized chaos as the massive stone wharves loomed closer, one of the trade magister’s boats already moving in their direction, crimson and gold banner snapping above the oarsmen’s heads.
Teriana turned in time to see her mum clap her hands together, golden bangles gleaming in the sun, and she gave her mother a resigned nod. Hop to.
Copyright © 2019 by Danielle L. Jensen