Into the North...
Scarlet and Liall board the brigantine Ostre Sul, bound for a long and perilous voyage to Liall's homeland of Rshan na Ostre. The hostile Rshani crew dislikes foreigners, and Liall is determined to deposit Scarlet at the next safe port.
Scarlet has ideas of his own, though, and has no intention of leaving either the ship or Liall. With the Ostre Sul pursued by enemy vessels, a traitor on board, and the waters turning to ice, Liall must make a final decision to either keep the young pedlar in his life or let him go forever.
Someone pounded on the door at the turn of the watch, around dawn or thereabouts. Scarlet had already risen and was careful not to disturb Liall, sitting on the floor and busying himself with repairing a lace on his boot, which looked to be close to falling apart after nearly a month at sea. Liall had already told Scarlet that he was wasting his time mending, but the pedlar did not listen. He would get much better gear for them both in Rshan, and cover Scarlet’s white skin in silk.
The knock sounded again and he cracked one eye open. Scarlet glanced at him and then the door, and Liall nodded. Scarlet was safe enough with him nearby, or as safe as Liall could make him. The crew’s hatred for the foreigner in their midst was a tangible thing, heavy and onerous to live under, but there was no way around it. Scarlet got up and answered the infernal pounding as Liall’s hand crept toward the hilts of the knives he kept forever near.
The hatch opened and Oleksei stood there, eyeing Scarlet in hostile silence. He would not even speak to ask for Liall, and the unnecessary rudeness made Liall sharp when he roused himself and edged Scarlet out of the way.
“What?” Liall growled.
“Captain Qixa wants you.”
Liall nodded and dismissed Oleksei with a curt gesture. The mariner went, but not without a last glance at the object of his dislike.
“Is something wrong?”
“I do not know yet. Perhaps.”
“Can I go with you?”
“No. Remain here.”
Liall threw on a woolen coat and slid his hands into a pair of fur-lined gloves. The weather had turned steadily colder day after day, until now they huddled in the cabin most days, conserving body heat and talking about this or that, playing dice, or inventing word games and riddles to stave off boredom. Scarlet had told him so many tales about his family and of the people of erstwhile Lysia that Liall now believed he had known each and every one of them individually. He was a little surprised that his young companion proved to be such an adept storyteller. When asked, Scarlet would only reply that he inherited the talent from his mother. For Liall’s part, he did his best to remember the books he had read in childhood. Those were the tales he told, more charming and neat than Scarlet's stories of Lysia, but infinitely less frank. When he ran out of books, he told Scarlet of his years with the Kasiri tribes, and the splendor of the kingdom of Minh, the exotic provinces of Khet, and of the Wasted Lands that lay far to the west, beyond the reach of all civilization. He was sure Scarlet did not believe most of it, especially the tales about Minh, which were stranger than fiction, yet he enjoyed them immensely.
“It sounds very odd,” Scarlet would say for the tenth time. And then, once: “My brother Gerda is in Minh, among all those splendors and strange wonders. I wonder if he’d think me as odd as I’d think him?”
In moments of boredom, Liall would consider ruefully that they could have been entertaining themselves in other ways, more pleasurable and heady ones, but that open door led to a dozen others, each thornier and harder to breach than the last, so he let it be. It was enough for now that they had found some middle ground with each other. There were certain compensations: when they bedded down at night in the single cabin bunk, Scarlet lay close to Liall and sometimes accidentally pillowed his head on Liall’s shoulder after falling asleep. Liall might have sought to relieve his body then, seeking to quench the fires Scarlet ignited in his bones with the press of his body and the warmth and nearness of his skin, but he dared not. There were too many secrets between them, and Liall had not taken a lover – a real lover – in a very long time. His last experience with love had been catastrophic, to put it mildly.
Liall patted Scarlet’s shoulder. “Leave the door open if you wish. They won’t trouble you.”
“I might trouble them,” Scarlet shot back.
Qixa was on the quarterdeck, his breath steaming in the frigid gray dawn. He did not need to ask Qixa what he wanted. The schooner was on the leeward side in the near distance, still far enough away yet, but she was faster than the larger, heavily-laden brigantine and her gaff sails were trimmed for speed. Obviously, she was trying to catch the brigantine. Liall observed the red and yellow flag she flew at high mast.
“Arbyss colors,” Qixa said, not believing it a bit.
Neither did Liall. “Not at full sail this far north. What are they hurrying to, an iceberg?” There was no trade in the winter with Rshan, and that was the only land that lay on this course. Besides, the schooner moved too swiftly even for full sail. Her holds were empty. Liall surveyed her lines. “No cannon,” he stated. “It could be worse.”
Liall knew they were in deep trouble. So, apparently, did Qixa. The captain turned and barked orders at Oleksei: secure belowdecks, douse all fires, break out the weapons. Qixa gave Liall a look that spoke much.
“Not my doing, ap kyning. You can believe it.”
“I do. This is Faal’s work coming home to roost, I suspect. That schooner is not after our cargo.”
There was no other sense in the schooner’s pursuit: she could not carry away a fifth of their holds, laden with wood and oil and spice and furs, and there was better piracy in warmer waters without the hazards of ice and wind and a well-armed crew of giant Northmen. The Rshani brigantine was altogether too much trouble for mere pirates. No, the cargo they wanted was roughly man-sized and white-haired. Liall did not know for certain who wanted to prevent him from reaching Rshan, but he had a good idea. Now, he resolutely turned his thoughts away from Rshan and to the present. There was to be a battle. Once more, he fiercely regretted last night’s wine.
Liall returned to the cabin and found Scarlet seated on the floor mending his boot. Scarlet looked at Liall’s face and rose immediately.
“What? What’s wrong?”
Liall put his hands on Scarlet’s shoulders. “Now, you must listen to me, and do as I say. In a while, perhaps less than an hour, you will hear some noise from topside. I want you to bolt the door and be quiet.” Scarlet’s own Morturii knives were on the bunk. Liall took one up and slid it from its sheath, putting the hilt in Scarlet’s hand. “If anyone tries to force their way in, kill them.”
Scarlet looked at the edge of the dark, eerily beautiful knife and then at him. “What’s happening?”
“What always happens with men like me. You would have been safer going into the Wasted Lands than following me, little one.”
Scarlet seized his arm when Liall would have left quickly. Liall could not look at Scarlet. He was too sick at the thought of what would happen to the pedlar if the crew were not strong enough, if they did not prevail and drive their pursuers back or burn them into the cold sea. He could see the scenario unfolding in his mind’s eye: the crew dead, himself fallen or taken, and the bloody raiders finally discovering the bolted cabin and its lone inhabitant.
Beauty, like gold, is coveted everywhere, and being male had never guaranteed Scarlet’s safety from certain kinds of assault. There would be the inevitable joking and leers. They would take their time, no longer being in haste, and they would have him as they willed. Liall quailed to think of it, he who had seen so much of blood and death, but the thought of what they would do to Scarlet’s flesh made him weak.
It was then, after months of denial, that Liall began to realize he no longer had a choice in whether or not he loved Scarlet. Fear welled up in his chest and he pushed it back savagely. He had loved once and men had died for it. Many futures had been lost, his own among them. He would not make the same mistake again only to watch his world fall apart. Yet, at that moment, he could not imagine any future at all that lay beyond Scarlet’s death. The world seemed to drop off at that point; a far vista abruptly severed into a hopeless void.
Liall made to go, keeping the words he wanted to say behind his teeth.
“No,” Scarlet urged, stepping after him. “Stay here.”
“It’s a small difference, but I can be of more use above.”
“Then I’m coming with you.”
“No!” Liall turned and grabbed Scarlet’s shoulders, shaking him hard. “You’ll do as I say!”
Scarlet gaped at him, shocked by his sudden violence, and Liall’s anger vanished. “I crave your pardon,” Liall said in shame.
“I’m not afraid, Liall.”
“No. I am the coward here, not you, too weak to watch your blood being spilled.” With that, he had no more words to share. Liall shook his head helplessly and released him.