The Fool’s Fortune rode the swells of a mellow sea kissed by a late spring sun. Ryn perched on a coil of rope in the ship’s forecastle and eyed the weapons store. The bosun’s mate had been doing counts, but he left it unlocked when called away. Ryn could see enough for a count of his own: eight doglock muskets; sixteen pistols; twenty cutlasses; twenty-four paper cartridges for each firearm, wrapped in oilskin to keep the powder dry.
A trained soldier needed only one shot to get the job done.
It would be so easy. Ryn could prime, load, aim, and fire a pistol four times in a minute. Those weapons were well-kept, flints knapped to ensure a strong spark and no misfire. He imagined the taste of cold iron on his tongue, the bite of his teeth on the muzzle, as he pulled the trigger. All over in a blast of brimstone. Fitting enough, considering the deepest Hell must already have a choice spot reserved for him.
But that would be a coward’s way out. He owed Sablewood’s dead too much to deserve such a quick end. Even now, five months later, that awful gurgle as Quintan died drilled his ear like a ravenous shipworm. He couldn’t escape the cold accusation of a mother’s and daughter’s dead eyes. Old Jaryk’s final curse still chilled his soul. And the smell…the smell lingered worst of all. The blood and shite stench of a battlefield.
Sergeant Havlock stumped across the deck, his squat, barrel body immune to the roll of the ship, swarthy features framed by a graying beard that resembled furry lichen on old bark. He wore the mail and hardened leather of a palatar, complete with his shoulder lanyards of rank and order. Ryn’s kit remained locked away, which left him feeling oddly naked in nothing but trousers and a shirt.
Havlock kept a wary eye on Ryn as he picked up the weapons store’s stray padlock. “That lad should face the lash for being so careless.” Such an offence would have been intolerable had this been a true naval vessel and not just a tubby merchantman that operated under the Holy Clerisy’s charter.
“I was keeping an eye on it,” Ryn said with forced casualness.
Havlock snorted. “I could tell. Wouldn’t be the first time a man ate lead rather than take his sentence at the Claw.”
“So I’ve heard.” Serve eight years with the garrison at Dragon’s Claw Abbey, get discharged with a clean record and a full pension. The Clerisy dangled that sliver of hope to encourage good behavior and maintain morale. In truth, the odds were poor that any man condemned to the place would survive his eight. Havlock and two other palatars had been tasked with escorting Ryn to his new command, and they let him roam the ship between ports. Out at sea, he had nowhere to go but overboard into the Deep Dark.
Ryn closed his eyes. He turned his head to relish the feel of the sun and the breeze on his face and breathed deep of the briny air. He had considered escape, even fleeing far south to Vysus where the Clerisy’s influence was weak. But fleeing to Vysus wouldn’t ease his conscience or make the ghosts of Sablewood rest any easier. Lieutenant Ryn Ruscroft—a penitent wretch who deserved his sentence, even if he and his superiors didn’t agree on why. “Only in service to others, with no expectation of reward, do we atone for our sins,” he murmured.
“I doubt Aegias had rotting in a pus pit like Dragon’s Claw in mind when he said so,” Havlock said. “You’ll not be serving much of anything.”
Ryn popped his eyes open to fix him with a hard stare. “I will be serving as second of the garrison, ensuring the safety of the sisters and their wards—and it’s still sir to you, Sergeant.”
Protect the innocent and the helpless—as he should have done at Sablewood. That was the only honorable thing, the only acceptable thing, he could do now. If that meant keeping up appearances as a dutiful palatar, so be it. He could just as easily have been stripped of rank and sentenced to a regular prison, even swung from the gallows, but Dragon’s Claw desperately needed experienced officers. The situation in that place had to be dark as pitch.
Havlock knuckled his brow, padlock still in hand. “Yes, sir, very good, sir. I’m still within my authority to knock you on that fine arse should you act out of turn, sir.”
His other hand had come to rest on the pommel of his sword, which left Ryn painfully aware of his own lack of armament. “My fine arse expects no less, Sergeant.”
“Captain says we’ll be reaching Pellagos by nightfall,” Havlock said. “Last stop before the Claw.” He tossed the padlock up and caught it. “Pardon my lack of faith, sir, but you’ll be locked below till we’re off again.”
Hot tar, rotting fish, and the piney burn of turpentine distillation.
Pellagos stank like every other fishing port Ryn had ever had the misfortune of visiting. Trapped below decks in a windowless cabin bare of distraction, with nothing to focus on but the nauseating bob of the ship as it chafed against the dock’s bumpers, the town’s complex bouquet soon left his stomach churning.
Shouldn’t a sentenced man at least have a copy of the Codex with which to ponder his sins? Not that he cared to spend his time reading the Scriptures and ruminating on doctrine. Stuck on this ship with nothing else to occupy him, Ryn had come to realize how much he now resented the Clerisy’s authority.
Whether a palatar was a commoner sworn to the Peers Order or of noble birth and sworn to the Aegian Order, he vowed to follow in Aegias’s footsteps, to live and die by the Nine Virtues—Humility, Piety, Courage, Diligence, Truth, Moderation, Chastity, Justice, and Brotherhood. The circumstances of his birth, his station, his class—none of it mattered.
But the Clerisy demanded a second oath, one that prevented the Orders from ever functioning independent of its authority. Instead of champions of mercy and justice answerable only to their brothers, palatars for centuries had been little more than the Clerisy’s private army, used to enforce the Clerisy’s code of conduct and discipline upon the Four Kingdoms.
Ryn had lived with that contradiction all his life. He had thought he could serve in the Peers Order and be true to Aegias and the Virtues while also giving the Clerisy the obedience it demanded.
So he’d thought…until Sablewood.
It would have been easy to blame the Clerisy for what had happened on that night, but Ryn blamed no one but himself. His actions, his choices, had been his own. Rather, his resentment stemmed from what had come after—he’d been lauded a hero by their superiors while Quintan had been damned as the villain. His one true friend, condemned to a traitor’s unmarked grave. The injustice of it all burned worse than lye on an open wound.
At last, a parade of boots sounded on the deck above with orders shouted to make sail. A small group came down and passed by Ryn’s door. An indignant voice cried out, too shrill for a man.
“Pipe down, missy,” Sergeant Havlock said. “Now here, make yourself at home.”
The door of the adjoining cabin slammed shut, followed by a bolt thrown hard. Keys rattled.
“From what the townsfolk say, she’s a witch,” said one of Havlock’s men.
“If her cleric thought so, she’d sure as Hells not be aboard,” Havlock said. “So, shut your gob and don’t repeat gossip. Understood?”
Ryn banged on his door. “I could use some fresh air.”
A key jiggled in the lock and the bolt slid back. Havlock greeted him with a smirk. “There you are, sir. Was wondering if you needed your slop bucket dumped yet.”
Ryn swallowed and hoped he didn’t look as green as he felt. “We have a guest?”
Havlock thrust his chin in the direction of the other cabin. “Some girl run strange, cursed maybe, bound to become the sisters’ ward at the Claw.”
“Cursed?” Ryn had too often seen that word used as an excuse to brutalize poor souls who were simply ill in the head.
“I’ve a sealed envelope to hand over to the abbess personally. Beyond that, don’t know, don’t care.” Havlock patted the keyring on his belt. “But I want the last leg of this merry jaunt to be as dull as the rest, so she won’t be leaving that cabin before we’ve dropped anchor at the Claw.”
A scream jolted Ryn awake that night.
Feet came stomping from the crew’s berth. A key rattled in the lock of the cabin next door. Havlock barked at the woman to keep quiet before shutting and locking the door again.
Ryn drifted back to sleep as muffled sobbing seeped through the cracks of the cabin bulkhead.
The screams came again the next night, and the next. Each time, Havlock peeked in, grumbling and cursing. But it was Ryn who remained to hear the woman’s grief and despair. He could barely imagine how she must feel, torn from all she knew, locked up and condemned to the Claw. She could at least do with some fresh air and a kind ear for company. The gods knew he could do with some of the latter himself.
But Havlock wouldn’t have it and insisted on keeping her locked up alone.
“I could just have her gagged, sir,” he said when Ryn pushed him on it.
Ryn knew nothing about this woman, not her name, what she looked like, or what had condemned her. His idle mind came to entertain ridiculous thoughts—the two of them somehow escaping this fate together, like some sappy pair in those terrible Sturvian romances his sister would read. They could go to Vysus, become bone hunters and make their fortune. Ryn had heard tales as a boy about the bone hunters who worked the pilgrim routes into the Empire, searching for relics of Aegias’s war with Xang. Before he’d even thought of becoming a palatar, Ryn had dreamed of becoming one of these adventurer-scholars.
On the fourth night, it wasn’t her screams that woke Ryn, but the words of old Jaryk’s curse as he relived Sablewood’s massacre.
Ryn bolted out of the dream and smacked his brow against the cold lantern on its hook. Gods be damned. Dawn must have been near considering the swell of his bladder. He fumbled around in the dark for the bucket and relieved himself. The slow-build satisfaction of an overdue piss was sometimes a better tonic for the nerves than a hard drink.
Not on this stubborn night—a fidgety restlessness still gripped him after he’d buttoned up. The already cramped cabin squeezed, vice-like, around him, so much so he expected to hear the creak and crack of straining oak. Ryn pulled on his trousers and boots and headed out, grateful that Havlock saw no reason to keep his door locked between ports. Lantern light spilled down the stairs. His attention drifted to the adjoining cabin.
Its door stood ajar. The lock lay on the floor. His first thought was rape. But the cabin lay empty—no rutting sailor with pasty moons bared to the ceiling and no woman. He picked up the lock. She might have been carried off, but that was bound to attract unwanted attention.
From what the townsfolk say, she’s a witch.
He denied the notion with a curt shake of his head. As Havlock had said, her parish cleric had already ruled out the possibility. One of Havlock’s men would have brought the woman her dinner earlier. The sergeant would have the trooper’s hide for boot leather for being so careless.
Ryn hung the lock on a lantern hook and climbed the stairs. After ten days aboard, he’d gotten his sea legs and learned the night-time routine of the Fool’s Fortune well: one man up in the crow’s nest; one at the wheel; four on call, gathered around the brazier amidships playing cards. The other fifteen were bunked below, while the captain had his own quarters in the stern.
That made it easy for someone to slip out of the cabins below decks without being seen, provided she kept to the shadows behind the wheel and took to the sterncastle on light feet.
Ryn made a point of being heard when he stepped out behind the helmsman. He exchanged brief pleasantries before taking the ladder up to the sterncastle.
A slight figure, swaddled in a dark cloak, stood barefoot on the railing. Only a few fingers touched the post of the ship’s stern lantern for balance.
Ryn’s breath caught. The rest of him froze, too, certain that a single footstep, even a loud breath, might snap whatever delicate balance kept her from plunging into the hungry waves. He thought of himself a few days ago, eyeing that weapons store, considering the merits of a quick end.
She didn’t fall, or jump, but rode the roll of the ship with effortless grace. Preidos hung low in the eastern sky—the greater moon’s stormy face bathed her in a rosy glow. Little Supeidos had already slipped below the horizon, no doubt eager to avoid being witness to tragedy.
Ryn took a step, then two.
“She calls to me, you know.” The Fisherfolk brogue colored her speech, but milder than that of most people Ryn had encountered from Morlandia’s north coast. That suggested a more refined upbringing, like his own.
“She?” Ryn peered over the rail but saw only whitecaps brushed rose by the moonlight. Staring too long at that toss and churn threatened to bring his sea sickness back.
“Do you know Dragon’s Claw?”
He’d feared for her virtue, but she appeared to give it no thought at all, alone with a man she didn’t know. Maybe despair had stolen the sense to care. He wondered what she’d been told about the Claw. Noblewomen who couldn’t bear sons, mistresses on the wrong end of politics, deflowered daughters deemed unfit for a favorable marriage—these were the sorts who ended up wards of the cloister, discarded and forgotten.
“Only what people say,” he said. Then there were the grenlich of Dragon’s Claw. The Clerisy claimed grenlich were demon spawned. Whether that was true, he’d seen for himself their brutal savagery.
She snorted. “Never had much reason to trust what people say.”
Ryn itched to snatch her from the railing, but still feared to make any sudden move. “You’d best come down before you fall.”
“If I were gonna fall, worry-wump, don’t you think I would have by now?”
She hopped down and turned to him. A pale and slender hand pushed back the hood. Freckled cheeks and an upturned nose. A mess of copper-red curls. Two big eyes of a deep sea-green. She might have been nearing twenty, but those eyes belonged to someone much older. Tired, drawn, stripped of all joy, as if they’d witnessed the world’s sins for centuries beyond count. Eyes that begged for company to share their misery. He had enough misery of his own. Still, a man could drown in such eyes without complaint.
“My name is Ryn,” he said.
She sniffed and wiped at her eyes. “You’d best be careful, making friendly with me. They say I’m cursed, you know.”
Cursed. She spoke the word with a bitter hardness that put him on his guard. He sidestepped away and leaned against the lantern post, trying to make the move look casual to hide his unease. Here he was, a seasoned soldier, spooked by this slip of a woman. “And why do they say that?”
“There you are.”
Havlock stomped up onto the sterncastle, pistol in hand.
The aggression in Havlock’s stance prompted Ryn to step between them. “Stand down, Sergeant.” He had nothing to counter that pistol but the hollow authority of a rank that meant nothing until he reached the Claw, but he’d couldn’t stand for such a heavy-handed threat.
The pistol didn’t waver. “I locked that door myself, missy—how in Hells did you get out?”
“I don’t—” she began.
“Was that before or after you started in on the crew’s grog?” Ryn asked. The obvious answer had to be the right one. “Think about it, Sergeant—what makes more sense?”
Havlock held his ground for a spell longer before stowing his pistol with a couple of choice curses. “I’ve no reason to expect it, but can I ask for your discretion?”
Ryn didn’t appreciate how tense he’d become until the relief flooded through him. “I’ll not say a word,” he said with an earnest nod.
The woman stepped past him. “I guess it’s back into the crate now, isn’t it?”
Havlock took hold of her arm and prompted her to the ladder. “Best get used to it, missy.”
Ryn found himself strangely out of sorts, like some pimply faced boy who’d missed his chance at a kiss before the girl he was sweet on got herded off by her father. Utter nonsense.
She paused partway down the ladder to look at him. “Josalind,” she said, and then she was gone.