They sailed two days from the port of Thetis, along the Hedonian coast, toward what had been the most trafficked harbor in the world. None of the fifty oarsmen or their captain, Cambses, believed they would find any ships moored at its docks, unless manned with corpses. It took three days to reach Hedonia or what remained of it, but as the final day neared, the wind and waters became deathly still, a canopy of clouds obscured the constellations by which they navigated, and the air became wet and heavy. Fog unfurled over their ship, turning even the occasional reef into a danger. Tales of fishermen daring to venture too near the ruin already stretched across the land.
The ship was the Mare Nostrum, a pentaconter. Including the short drummer rhythmically directing the oars, there were fifty-one in their crew, a man for an oar, pentaconter meaning “the fifty”. Compared to the one hundred and seventy-oared trireme, it was small for a warship, having been selected for stealth, to enter the harbor unnoticed. Oars were used for battle, for sudden bursts of ramming speed and sudden evasive changes in direction, but now this maneuverability helped navigate the troubled waters. After retracting its folding mast into a compartment at the center of its hull, the fifty sailors manned their benches. With mechanical precision they tugged at the fifteen foot cedar planks extending from the apertures alongside the ship, and the pentaconter lurched forward. They were not slaves, but well trained professionals. Warships were as expensive as temples, taking years to build, and near impossible to control. An unskilled rower meant the difference between ramming or getting rammed. And each man was a fighter, with a scabbard at the waist.
Thelana was on deck, clutching the railing, surprised by the ship’s sudden quickness. Pentaconters were unusually designed, from what she knew of ships, as the upper deck, where she now stood, was mostly bare save for the compartment with its folded mast and sails. The lower deck consisted of their quarters, supply rooms, and stables. She imagined the interior could be rearranged to suit any number of containment needs. Between the upper and lower decks, down a short series of steps, the oarsmen situated themselves in the middeck, in niches set for rowing. It was an unenviable position, since the lower decks did not comprise of enough room for all, so the oarsmen were accustomed to remaining on their benches throughout the night, close enough to the sea to taste the salt air, being roused at times from their dreams by the cold sea-spray.
The cold air permeated the thin weave of her tunic, making her shudder. With nothing to see but fog, Thelana decided to go below. Down ramp, she came to a passage as broad as her shoulders, where she ducked into the six-by-six room. Emma lay on her fold-down bed, droning lazy notes on her flute. Xandr knelt beside a narrow shape swaddled in rags that, even slantwise, chaffed at the plank roof.
“Do you pray for us?” she asked.
He turned to her. “The Goddess rarely leaves my thoughts.”
“But,” she said, stepping closer, “you pray on the sword.”
“Thelana,” he replied, “I do not truly know anything about it, only that it seems to–” possess my destiny, he thought to himself, but instead remarked, “–thirst for blood.”
“What do you mean? It’s your sword. The sword of Batal.”
“I am Batal, Thelana; I have accepted it. But the people of Enya have made me so. In darkest times, men seek hope among champions. The sword has nothing to do with me. It just is.”
“It gives you strength.”
“But did you see how the brigands outside of Thetis reacted to it? They covered their ears, ran off stricken with dread.”
“Well, the sight of such a blade, in the hands of man like you–”
“No,” he interrupted. “It has never done that. All I know is that the monks kept it in a kind of altar. I retrieved it as a boy before the monastery was lost to the fire. QuasiI told me that it came in the talons of the Goddess, but, Alashiya has never mentioned it.” Gently, he pulled the cloth from the shaft, as if unraveling a mummy. There, the face stared at them, more ghastly than ever. “The sword mirrors my soul,” he said. “I see in it all the faces of the men I’ve killed. It is my burden to carry, and though I long to be free of all trappings, I must endure it.”
“Curious that this should be so,” Thelana replied, “that an Ilmarin should be chosen to shoulder such a thing, when even the slightest of clothing, for us, becomes wearisome.”
“I’ll tell you what I think,” said a vaguely familiar voice behind them. It was Cambses, fully armored in his battle-worn breastplate, bronze greaves and armbands, with his red-plumed helmet under his arm. “I’ve seen that monstrosity you lug everywhere. If we’re missing an oar, I’ll know where to come.” On his finger, Emma noticed an unusual ring of rough-cut granite, with an imprint of some kind—a royal seal.
Thelana spun on the ball of her heels. Her mind raced for a witty response, but all she could come up with was, “Oh? And what would you know?” Then she winced at her own dimwittedness. Verbal dueling was not her forte.
“I know war, miss. It is my business. Wars I fought made the Empire. Now take this here,” he said, sliding his sword effortlessly from its scabbard. He twisted it in his palm, pommel toward her. The blade was of a highly polished silver-bronze composite, shorter than three feet and sharp enough to cut the stubble from her thighs, with a beautifully carved hilt made of bronze and gold. “Feel its weight, its balance,” he added, almost seductively, and to demonstrate, he let the weapon teeter on its hilt across his two-fingers. “Your sword, Batal, wounds, but my gladius kills.” The last word rolled off his tongue with relish.
“Kills men, merquid, perhaps,” answered Xandr. “But against dragons, it falls short.”
Cambses’ battle-hardened face broke into a laugh, as if he was uncertain whether the Batal was joking. “Against the likes of dragons, my friend, we all fall short.”
Emma, who lingered like a ghost in the room, shot up and broke between them. “Oh, what nonsense! What difference does any of this make? Boys and their toys!”
The Hedonian raised a finger in rebuttal, but shouts rang down from the top deck, giving them pause.
“Man over the starboard bow!”
The four rushed to the prow of the ship, where many of the oarsmen were gathered. “You there–” Cambses commanded, stammering for a name, “–Meridius! Who’s missing?”
“No one, sir,” answered Meridius, his eyes gone white and wild. “We’re all accounted for.”
Cambses peered over the railing as if the man’s response was irrelevant. “If nobody is missing, who’s in the water?”
There was a body, facedown, bobbing carelessly off the pentaconter’s prow, froth lapping gently about its unusually large torso.
“Do you think he could be . . .?” Meridius murmured.
Cambses cut him short, anger tinting his voice. “Don’t be a fool! That was over a year ago. This poor bastard sailed too far in—a reef probably claimed his dinghy in all this fog.”
Emma stepped forward, her robes and raven-hair exceedingly dark in the midst of the white vapors. “There is only one way to know for sure. Bring him up.”
“All right, bring him up!” Cambses echoed, and the men titled their oars flat, halting the procession of the pentaconter with uncanny suddenness. They went to work fastening a harness out of thick mooring rope and after some disorderly scrambling and nervous hands, the looped rope was lowered into the water. No one volunteered to jump from the ship, though it was common habit, and with the aid of those skilled in net casting, the corpse was brought up.
The sight did not alleviate their anxieties, and a number of men stepped away with wrists pressed to their nostrils, so offensive was its odor. The man, or what had been a man, had not been of larger proportion in life, as was presumed, but had only lately increased in girth from the water absorbed by its corpse. Its skin was pallid as could be, a green-tinted white, slick to the touch like the raw innards of an oyster. Dust sized crab mites skittered between its teeth and lolling tongue. But most perverse was the way in which its lidless eyes stared, like egg whites pitted with brine, only an impression of pupils noticeable beneath the recess of white, ocular orbs much like those of a hanged fish at market.
Cambses bent like a man defeated, his shoulders weary. “Give me some space, for gods’ sake!” he bellowed. With thumb and forefinger, he separated a hem from the white flesh, flesh both peeling from and becoming part of the disintegrating clothing. The vaguely discernible pattern, popular among Hedonian nobles, could not be denied. No sailor would take to the sea in such attire, he knew.
“This man has been long dead,” said Meridius.
“We should throw it back!” said another, appearing to have been made more ill by the sight, or stench, than the others.
There was a clamor of disagreement, even as their captain called for order. It was not as though they’d never seen the morbid renderings of Death. But with the continual torrent of pale fog overlapping, blinding, passing through them, and the newly discovered corpse that, to their experience, should have long littered the seabed floor, their soldierly resolve was beginning to splinter. Only Cambses remained unshaken.
Just as the men quieted down, Cambses face contorted with confused terror. Like brittle timbers, the corpse’ fingers enclosed about the captain’s throat. He stumbled backward, slipping upon the wet flooring, and it was quite a sight for the others, who had never known their captain to flinch even in the worst of battle. Before he could catch his breath, words escaped from the corpse’ dead lips; from what tongue formed the words, or what collapsed lungs drew air to give capacity for speech, no one knew. As strange a spectacle was this, so was the pattern of its speech.
The words escaped between its teeth, through its body cavities like air passing through a windpipe.
Cambses wrestled awkwardly with the dead body, tearing the lifeless fingers from his throat. He groped for his gladius, as though he had forgotten where it was, and drawing the blade, severed the limb at the wrist. Seized with terror, he continued to hack at the corpse, removing its head. The oarsmen did not hesitate, but tossed the body and all its members back to the sea, where it was, at last, swallowed up by the waves.
Emma came forward quietly, robes shifting in the subtle wind. “This place, all around us, I sense great sorrow. It permeates the air, the water . . . it is all thick with sorrow.”
Cambses turned to her, annoyance creasing his brow. He was not a man of feeling. “Do not offer us your thoughts unless asked.”
In the corner of the Mare Nostrum, away from the others, Thelana quivered and reached for Xandr’s palm. He clasped it without word. She was a creature of sensation, as all Ilmar, but here she felt nothing . . . the goddesses of the wind, the water, the sun; they did not speak to her, and she tucked at her all-too thin tunic more tightly. “We should not have returned,” she whispered. The Batal had no answer.
Pushing through the crowd, a man came hurriedly up to Cambses. He was smaller in frame than the others, and in his hands he held a compass and a makeshift looking glass. “Captain, there is a problem.”
“What is it now, Nabonus?” It seemed nothing would please the Hedonian today.
“We’ve been drifting, sir . . .,” he stumbled for words, “and there was a numerical error in my trigonometry . . .”
“Can you not speak plainly, man! Just tell me what it is or keep to yourself.”
“Right. It would appear, sir, that we should be there already.”
Cambses stared at him as though he would toss the navigator into the sea. “Where?” he shouted.
“In the city, captain. We should have hit land by now.”
As if affirming this statement, the whole of the pentaconter groaned from prow to stern. Cambses led the men away in a hurry, to the opposite ends of the ship, and where the fog grew thin a white slab materialized, hitting the hull, a Korinthian pillar fashioned in the flowery style of the famed architects of Korinth. It was the base of a wide flight of steps, and somewhere in the distance, disappearing and reappearing in the haze above, an ornate rotunda beckoned.
Meridius gasped. “We’ve breached the outer wall and didn’t even know!”
“I remember this . . .” Thelana murmured, finding it awkward that none of the Hedonian citizens recognized a landmark of their own capital. But then again, a thief had to know location details, routes for quick escape. “It’s the library.”
“This isn’t what we’ve come for,” Cambses replied.
Xandr spoke, his voice heavy but certain. “Perhaps not. But navigating the waterways inside the city will be dangerous. Let’s explore this ruin, and we may learn what to expect throughout the rest of the city, if it is, as we suspect, cursed.”