“Don’t ever leave me again.” Thelana’s cheek pressed between the scarred clefts of his torso. He longed to take her, to feel her soft hair between his fingers, but new manacles weighted his wrists.
“It was the only way.”
“Perhaps,” she said, watching him as if he might vanish. “They wouldn’t let me see you and we were so long on that damned ship! I didn’t even know if you were alive.”
The Trident was much larger and better furnished than the Nostrum. The cedar framework was sanded to a golden sheen and a pentagonal brassiere swung to the rhythm of the sea, showcasing the interplay of shadows and firelight. In the far corner, Emma sat in the folds of her robes like a bundle of laundry, humming faintly. She was becoming more willowy by the day, her cheekbones white and knobby about her raven-shaped eyes. Like a cat with a ball of yarn, she batted the hanging brassier, its faint glow making her all the more ghostly. When she did lift her head to Xandr or Thelana, something more fascinating caught her eye just beyond the doorway.
“How did they treat you?” he asked Thelana, clenching his fists as if he could reach into the past and attack it. “Were you fed?”
Thelana looked tamed to Xandr’s eyes, like a broken horse, her heels sagging lazily to the floor, her voice having lost its edge. She was not the feral woman he knew. “Whatever scraps they tossed us,” she answered at last. “But Emma, she’s had nothing since we launched. She just sits, humming that same blasted tune.”
“I don’t need food.” It came from the corner, a meager impression of the sorceress’ voice. “All I need is music. Can’t you see the music?”
Concern creased Thelana’s brow, and Xandr became aware of her aging. Time was breaking them all down. “You see? She’s been like that for days . . . muttering nonsense.”
He took Thelana’s hand in his. Emma cast them a sidelong glance, bitter and woeful. “Did you have any of the horsemeat?” he inquired.
“Horsemeat? What horsemeat?”
“Ours, Thelana,” he stressed. “Arrow, Warrior . . . Shadow?”
“No,” she replied. “They’re alive.”
His mind reeled. How long had they been from the Port of Thetis? “But . . . we’ve been starved!”
“The walls were thin on the Nostrum,” she started with some effort. “And you know my keen ears. I heard Cambses, drunk and raving in his quarters. The men begged to slaughter the horses, but he kept saying; ‘They’re my prize! Go catch fish, you lazy dogs!’ I suppose he planned to sell them. Honestly, Xandr, how long did you think we were on that wreck? Three horses would feed forty crewmen for a cycle.
“Xandr,” she murmured, her tone shifting with urgency, “who are these people? Where are we going now?”
“Not Thetis,” he replied. “Of that we can be certain.”
“What happened up there? What did you see?”
He tugged at his chains. They grew taut and slack again with a metallic chime. The desire to embrace her was like a wound festering in his bosom. “We were rammed,” he said absently. “Soldiers came over from this ship, and there was a . . . a struggle; our men, the Thetis men,” he corrected, “did not fare well.”
“Gone,” he answered. “A woman came, and–”
“Is he taken prisoner?”
“No. If he lives, it is by the grace of Sargon.”
“What happened to him?”
“Let’s just say he won’t be patronizing any brothels anymore.”
There was a rusty click and the sound of a bolt separating and the door swayed open. A boyish face appeared, framed in the opening, a fresh gash running the diagonal of his cheek. “The Captain will see you. Just you, Batal.”
The Mare Nostrum was put to the torch. It drifted through the darkness like a wraith of fire. About its hull the waters shone in golden ripples and as its beams blackened and crumbled to ash, the creak of timbers and the sloshing of the waters and the roar of the flames were like the death throes of some ancient dragon. It was a truly pitiable sound. When, finally, the ship diminished to a yellow glow, Xandr lamented its passing, though he could not tell why.
The sky was azure velvet studded with diamonds. Every god presided over the night: the horned head of Skullgrin, the spread wings of Alashiya, the tri-starred trident of Sargon, and the terrible spinster that was Fate with her loom. Beneath this heavenly tapestry, amid the soft roll of white glittering waters, the ship rocked. The bow of The Trident was more than three times the length of the Nostrum. Arinna sat on a rectangle of rich patterns before the prow. The soldiers led Xandr forward. She commanded they depart and they obeyed, leaving the Batal alone with the captain. Then a young boy clad in embroidered silks tiptoed over to them, lifting a conical lid from a red baked pot. The sweet and salty aroma arrested Xandr’s senses, making him painfully aware of his hunger.
“It’s tajinne, a delicacy in Thalassar,” she said. The coins adorning her forehead jingled as she moved. “Lamb that cuts like butter. Please, don’t be shy. It’s not poisoned.”
The meat was neatly diced, simmering among prunes and olives. “I didn’t think it was.” His manacled hand reached clumsily for the the plate.
“Don’t eat quickly. Your stomach will reject whatever you put in it too quickly.”
He nodded, savoring the salty mix of spices, each mouthful falling into his stomach like a stone in a hollow well. Hunger precedes all things, he hazily remembered his teacher saying. “I am grateful.”
Her smile added to her beauty. “It’s seasoned and sealed in ceramic, then cooked for over a day in hot embers.”
Hesitantly, the servant boy returned, a tray of polished silver rattling between his nervous fingers. Tiny steaming cups were set between them, emitting a powerful minty scent. He lifted the cup into the light, admiring the jade coloring, the fine gold pattern etched into the glass.
“You are in luck,” she said, handling the ornate teapot. “You do drink tea, don’t you?”
He nodded. A pale of water from a mastodon’s mud-hole would have sounded good about now.
“The mint that grows on the Oukamiden is the finest in the world.” She lifted the pot in both hands and poured from as high as her arms could reach, without missing a drop. “But the trick to really fine tea is letting it breathe.”
The minty liquid scalded him as he tipped the glass to his lips, but the flavor and the scent was worth the pain. “This place you speak of . . . is it part of Thalassar?”
She sat quite a while, contemplating a star, before answering. “It is now.”
“And you are a . . . a captain of Thalassar?”
“The Captain of the Guard, second only to the governor.”
He looked at his chains again, eyeing her with suspicion. “It is not often that a captive is offered such . . . hospitality.”
“Hospitality is central to the life of my people.”
“The people of Thalassar?”
“No. My people. The city is a hodgepodge of cultures, of displaced peoples, conquered . . . vanished peoples . . . I am a Verbeer, of the Oukamiden Mountains. Besides, you are not a captive.”
“Then why am I in chains?”
“Because I must know who you are . . . you were Cambses’ prisoner. My enemies’ enemy is my friend. But were you his enemy or the last of some brigands that tried to raid him? I cannot say why he would have brought you to the ruins if not to help in some way. But you do not look Hedonian.”
“What of the Nostrum and its crew? Did you slaughter them?”
“No. All who survived the battle are prisoners. And yes, the scrolls and the relic are aboard, as is . . . the sword. Would you know anything about that?”
“You have it?” he exclaimed, catching his eagerness in his throat. “It is . . . special to me.”
“Cursed, more like. It cut halfway through the hand of the man who tried to retrieve it, and cut off another of my men’s finger . . . We had to wrap it in a tarp to avoid more accidents.”
“It belongs to me,” he replied. “It doesn’t like to be touched by anyone else.”
She rested on an elbow, studying him as if painting a portrait. “Who are you?”
“I am Xandr, the Batal, of Ilmarinen.”
“Is that so?” she said disapprovingly.
“You don’t believe me?”
“I happen to know for a certainty that all the Ilmar are dead.”
The comment struck him like a fist and Xandr felt his appetite wane. “H-How would you know this?”
“If you are who you say, convince me, and I’ll set you free. But I warn you, stray from the truth, and you and your friends shall swim back to Thetis or wherever it is you would go.”
All he could do was dig his fingernails into his palms and glare at the image of Alashiya above him, her falcon form patterned in blue flickering stars. “Listen, Captain, hospitality or no, I’ve not the patience for this. You cannot imagine what horrors we’ve endured! My companions are in need of food and—”
“Thelana and Emmalina? They’ve been taken care of, I assure you. Now tell me.”
“What would you have me say? And what would you know of my people?”
“I know that your people don’t wear clothes . . .” she said, hinting disdain.
“And in this you find fault?”
“If you must know, I think Ilmarin practices crude. Perhaps at one time, even my people, all people, behaved as you do, but humanity has moved forward. Is it any wonder that you and Thelana are the last of your kind? You are a dying breed, Xandr, as are your ideas.”
“You condemn us as though you know us,” he replied. “What is the point of this?”
She lied across her side, letting the turquoise moon accentuate her hips. “Call it my form of interrogation. Now tell me, what do you have to say to one who challenges your traditions?” But he did not take the bait. He sat quietly, eating quietly, and so she prodded him. “People need clothes. We aren’t beasts.”
“Indeed,” he answered. “Beasts do not engage in the kind of mass slaughter that we call war, or torture those of its kind that differ in some tenet of belief. So in this we are agreed. Animals we are not, though we might aspire to be so.”
Lesser people had been stunned by the kind of insightful answers given by the barbarian. But she remained unfazed. “All right, Xandr, all that may be true. But mankind has brought about as much good as it has evil. Art, for instance. Animals cannot create, or imagine . . . they simply are. What good is that? Do you propose we abandon writing, painting, and sculpting, so that we might revert to scavenging and hunting? Do you prefer a man expire of some illness, or become food for some predator, without leaving any mark of his uniqueness?”
“Your wit is as sharp as your sword. Art is a divine gift, truly, and it almost makes humanity worthwhile. But how does your argument denigrate the Ilmar?”
“Because you are nihilistic. You reject the most basic qualities of humanity. People need—want—to adorn themselves. People need individuality. Clothing does not serve merely to protect against weather or to restrain lust. It is a mark of culture as a whole, the textiles produced by its seamstresses, the colors and patterns chosen by its citizens, the entire pageantry of fashion and style; it is art. But you restrict your communes to conformity, nobody looking any different, just the same naked body from one day to the next.”
Xandr was perplexed. He had not the strength for argument, and could not imagine what his captor would have cared for an extinct culture. Nor had he ever matched words with such a foe. Ultimately, he found himself rebutting, rather feebly, “We do not prohibit clothing, Arinna. We choose the freedom to be without.”
“Well, of course you do, your people have been sheltered from the outside world. Since the Ilmar were brought into the open, they’ve abandoned their primitive habits. Who does not wish to hide his ugliness in fine woven fabric?”
“Wait, why do you speak of ugliness?”
“Admit it, Xandr; most men aren’t made as perfectly as you. Long ago, humans gazed in still waters and recognized their own ugliness.”
“But . . .” he muttered, “no one is truly ugly. How can you believe that? To the Ilmar, nothing is more beautiful, or sacred, than the unclad body.”
She swallowed a laugh. “You’re joking.”
“I have never been known for humor,” he admitted. “And you are greatly mistaken about the Ilmar. We are patrons of art, and our love of the human form attests to it. Fine fabrics and jewelry are cherished in our culture as well. But what is the shoe compared to the foot? Or the bracelet to the hand? How more noble in craft is every sinew and vein . . . How flawless in design is each organ? We are not meant to shun our own bodies, but to draw inspiration from it. That is the highest art man can achieve.”
“You may be inspired by the sight of some fair maidens, perhaps,” she replied with a wicked grin.
“It is a great evil that men should pervert the human form to something shameful, to elicit our basest instincts.”
“Come now, Xandr, you mean to tell me that your pulse does not quicken, or your phallus swell, at some wench without clothing? Clothing which can only impede the seizing of her?”
“I command myself, through reason, not instinct. That is what makes one human.”
“You would refuse me then, here and now?” she asked, as she slowly loosed the laces of her jerkin.
He studied her for a moment. She was so much like Thelana, but softer, less scarred, having known less of the sun. “You are beautiful, Arinna,” he admitted. “Woman is the fairest of all creatures.”
“Enough,” she said. “Only a true Ilmarin could speak as you do.” She motioned toward him and he noticed the key between her breasts. Yet he pulled away, tugging at his chains with a growl, until the manacles separated from his wrists, rattling loosely against the deck.
She slipped hard against her chin, astonished. “Y-You could have done that all this time, yet chose not to? Why?”
“You were testing me,” he said, rubbing the soreness from his wrists, “and I you.”
“To what end?”
“The same as yours, to decide where my allegiances lie, with Thetis or Thalassar. Do you believe the Ilmar and the Verbeer so different?”
“No,” she said quietly, “we are more alike than you know.” Her dull gold eyes searched the sky for gods invisible to him. One star shone brightest, and at this she fixed her gaze, and spoke. “We were a peaceful people . . . once . . . high in the Oukamiden, between Hedonia to the west and Nibia to the east. I was a shepherd in my other life. My sheep grazed the single winding road that ran from plains red and rocky as the Dead Zones to peaks white as the Pewter Mountains, through green terraced fields and homes built into the cliff face. Ours was a vertical world; we climbed as you might walk. My home was near the peaks, where snow melted and dashed against stacked boulders to become the river far beneath. We had no knowledge of the outside, until he came . . .”
“Yes,” she admitted. “We were just a stain on his map, another name to be added to his log of glorious campaigns. Before we understood what had happened, we were a colony of Hedonia. It was not their swords and spears that defeated us; it was the markets, and the new gods, and the new temples. Our ways were deemed crude, simple, but they were our ways. We could have resisted. The Oukamiden Mountains are too high, too remote for any empire to hold for long. But my people brought doom upon themselves, by buying and selling and trading, moving down into the cities. I’d never seen level ground before I was sixteen.”
“At least you kept some traditions,” he replied. “Your hospitality, your food, that sword of yours.”
In a single swipe she unsheathed it from behind her. At an instant she might have opened his throat. The flat of the blade, disappearing on edge, glimmered with silver leaves and flowery patterns. Red, corded silk draped from its minaret-shaped pommel. “Yes, we have a saying, ‘you can remove the girl from the mountain, but never the mountain from the girl’.”
Charred onions and two morsels of tajinne were all that remained in the ceramic. His stomach ached for the last of it, but etiquette swayed his hand. “What is that star you keep looking at?” he asked finally.
“It is not a star,” she answered. “It is the famed lighthouse of Thalassar. By morning, we will have arrived.”