We all know that wind and weather exist completely independent of human emotions, if not of human meddling, and yet songs, poems and stories have for centuries been filled with weeping skies over scenes of mourning, and balmy spring days gracing celebrations.
The day a sole fishing boat headed eastward into the sea off the coast of Khanerenth, more than one person aboard sensed tension in a world entirely gray, from sky to sea. Tension to varying degrees had become a part of life, as Norsunder’s invasion advanced into its second year. On this particular day, it felt as if all the world held its breath.
The fishing boat had sunk the land well behind it when the command passed back to loosen sail and let the way come off the boat. Though the season was too early for winter, snow began to fall, at first the occasional flake but very soon the world closed in around the fishing boat, white stippling the thousand shades of gray.
Two coated figures stood at the prow, the crew remaining well back. The taller of the two watched as the other hurled a glimmering sphere high into the air. It vanished into the sea, and then, with a surge of water, a great Venn drakan ship appeared, of a like not seen for a thousand years. Even the present-day Venn no longer built those great curved prows meant to suggest a dragon rising from the waters; this ancient drakan even had its dragon head affixed, which had meant in the long-ago days when the Venn ruled the seas that the ship was going to war.
The fisher’s small crew—trained in stealth and martial skills all—had been warned what to expect, but the reality was so much greater that they stared upward in a mixture of awe and trepidation as ship and boat rocked on the choppy waters.
A tall, lean man sauntered to the drakan’s rail, his black clothing blending with the pure black of the slackened mainsail. Everyone aboard the fisher gazed up at his bony face and his silver-touched dark red hair, smoldering dots of fiery red at either ear: rubies.
He gazed back down, taking in the two at the prow, one tall, blond, young, the other perhaps mid-thirties, brown of hair. Both, in spite of the blur of snow and the bulky winter clothes, betraying in a hundred indefinable ways the stances of skilled warriors.
“Eh, Ramis,” he called lazily across the water. “It seems I’m back.”
He spoke in a version of Marloven that was nearly unintelligible to David, standing beside Detlev. David knew the real history behind the various legends of Elgar the Fox; he’d had to learn it, along with the version of Marloven spoken at the time, in order to be ready for what Detlev had called the Norsunder-Beyond treasure hunt. But hearing it spoken aloud was jolting.
Detlev said, “Savarend. Permission to come aboard?” He also spoke in that old-fashioned version of Marloven, or rather Marlovan.
David stared. This truly was Savarend Montredavan-An, his own ancestor—known back in those days as Fox. David peered upward through the snow at the foresail, barely making out an eight-hundred-year-old version of the infamous fox banner that had belonged to his family. Savarend and Inda Algara-Vayir had made it famous four centuries before Ivandred and the First Lancers rode it into Norsunder and infamy. Or so the world believed.
“Could I stop you?” Fox waved a lazy hand, the gesture ironic.
Detlev and David were not going to risk drawing any Norsundrian attention by even so small a spell as a transfer to get them from the fisher to the drakan, so they had to let down the fisher’s rowboat, fight their way over the heaving gray seas, and then hook the boat to the beautifully straked hull of the Treason in order to climb aboard.
When they reached the deck, Fox had already gone inside the cabin. The silent crew—who all looked like old-fashioned drawings of pirates, to the earrings with rubies affixed to them—tracked them as the two walked aft. David heard a whisper that sounded very like, “…and where are Ramis’s burn scars?”
There had to be a story behind the name Ramis, but Detlev was maddeningly reticent about his past. His rare references were almost always what he’d observed, rarely what he’d done, and never what he felt.
They’d have to pry that story out of Siamis; then David forgot the matter when he got a look inside the cabin. His jaw dropped. It wasn’t just the artistry, though he’d expected sumptuousness when he’d vaulted over the rail worked with gold leaf. It was as if he had slipped unknowing through a World Gate into another sort of existence entirely.
David had been on ships on two worlds, but on neither had he seen bulkheads carved in gilt fretwork forming interlocking circles. Between this framework a stylized marquetry tree wound upward, ending in leaves of gold. This, he knew, represented the ancient Tree of Ydrasal, which was replicated a candelabra with nine branches ending in candle holders. Over the captain’s table hung a chandelier of intertwined branches, into which twenty-seven candles would fit. All were of gold.
The cabin was fit for a king.
“Where are we?” Fox asked as he snapped open a chart. “And who is this?” He flicked a glance at David.
“His name is David,” Detlev said.
“Marlovan pronunciation,” Fox observed.
Detlev did not respond to the implied question. “We are very near your old training grounds—here.” He reached to tap the ocean off Khanerenth’s southeastern corner.
“That answers where,” Fox said. “Now we come to what.” He leaned back in the curule chair, arms crossed. “When we first met, you beat the shit out of me. Not saying it was undeserved. I was a shit. Then you turned around and promised me this ship if I did certain things. I met those conditions.”
“Agreed,” Detlev said.
“Then we met up once more after you took us through the rift into Nightland.”
“That meeting was roughly eight centuries later, as time is measured on this world,” Detlev said. “But make your point.”
“You gave me a choice: you’d push us through what you called a world-gate to some other world, where we could start new lives. More truthfully, finish out our old age, as strangers. Or you would call upon us to fight Norsunder here. We chose to remain in the world we know. And here we are. I’m gathering that fight is now.”
“Now to my question. When we first met, you were part of Norsunder. You hurled us to Norsunder by their magic. What I want to know is, is this fight some rivalry between Norsunder commanders, like, ah, say, Gannan Marshig up against the likes of Boruin and Majarian for control of the strait? Is Marshig alive? Am I expected to fight him for some Norsundrian shit’s entertainment?”
“To address your last question first, Marshig was released a year or so ago, and didn’t survive a turn of the glass. His crew obeys the commands of Norsunder.”
“And yet you took him, just as you took me. For the same purpose?”
“No, he was told he would fight for Norsunder when released.”
Fox lifted his eyebrows. “During my day, I remember that you took a lot of vicious souleaters like Marshig. For what purpose? To pit us against each other?”
David stirred; famous ancestor or not, Fox Montredavan-An’s derisive tone infuriated him. At least he was having less of a problem understanding.
Detlev flattened his hand briefly. “It’s a fair question.” He turned to Fox. “You will probably face some of those pirates, but not for my entertainment. I am unlikely to be there to see it.”
“The rift magic that you remember was extremely dangerous. Powerful. Wasteful. I had to make myself the master of it, so that I controlled it, which meant entertaining those who created it, as they disliked coming forth to use it themselves. They needed to see a sufficient spectacle, which I gave them. I knew that Sharl the Brainsmasher and Marshig and their likes would be far more trouble than aid. Further, every sixth or seventh rift, I was able to push through someone like you—after establishing a suitable reputation. But you and these select others were kept elsewhere, out of Norsunder’s reach. They think they had them all.”
“Ah.” Fox sat back.
“And so, to answer your first question, I am fighting against Norsunder. I want to destroy them.”
“You’re a traitor?” Fox’s eyes narrowed.
Fox’s grin even at the age of seventy was a masterpiece of insolence. “I like traitors against those I hate.” He swept his hand to include the entire ship—which he’d renamed Treason. “Who are these select others?”
“You shall meet them today. You have maybe a week to make a fleet out of them. Less than a week, if you can manage it.”
Fox looked down, then up. He wiped his hand over his face, then blinked, as though it was strange to be feeling real wind and weather again. “You do remember that I was never the strategist. That was always Inda. And Jeje after the battle at the strait.”
“You trained Inda’s fleet.”
“I did. But a week, to prepare for a war?”
“You will not be leading them in the world’s defense. Not yet. As the situation stands now, imagine four, five times the Venn fleet you faced in the strait that year, against maybe of third of what you and Inda had. Even if we possessed twelve Indas, the enemy would still overwhelm you.”
Fox’s expression tightened.
Detlev went on, “Events have progressed rapidly. Too rapidly in some regards. Not rapidly enough in others. This latest turn in this war could make a difference, but to deflect the enemy’s attention as long as possible, we need a subterfuge.”
Fox let out a bark of laughter. “A ruse?”
“This ruse is vital,” Detlev said. “It has to be sufficiently large to…” Detlev lifted his head as though listening to something.
Fox heard nothing but chatter from his crew, and the wash-splash of the sea against the hull. Used to being in command, uneasiness tightened the back of his neck.
Detlev slid his hand inside his jacket, pulled out a rather crumpled rectangular paper, and glanced at it. “David will explain more,” he said, on a lighter note—and vanished.
Fox expelled a breath. “The only man to ever scare me. Scares me still,” he commented. “So. What type of ruse?”
“Draw Norsunder’s attention to this ocean,” David said. “And keep it here.”