Saymel the Wind Rider, Rhompa Shipbreaker, the Mad Mage of Marrow Swamp; none of these loathsome and vicious scourges stirred a salhulker’s dread quite like Lutia, the impatient and irate dockmaster of Pelican Locks. When it came to managing her bustling harbor, Dockmaster Lutia was a ruthless scheduler and zealot of punctuality. The petty bureaucrat raged at tardiness and tormented the delayed with seething delight. Armed with her royal-certified time coil and a satchel bulging with clay schedules and manifests, the villain toiled relentlessly, stalking the docks and barking orders at her exhausted workers.
Ships that arrived late to Lutia’s domain found themselves languishing for weeks in her harbor, desperate for a berth and the dockmaster’s grudging forgiveness. Captains who chafed at her fines and fees found their ships impounded, or worse yet, denied access to the Pelican Locks’ canal.
This particular punishment worried Ahme most as she stood, rope in hand, at the bow of her salhulk as the vessel drifted into Pelican Locks. The dockmaster stood waiting, angrily tapping her foot on the pier while masticating a dark sprig of roobo root. Lutia chewed roobo constantly. It fueled her compulsive vigil over her domain, keeping her alert and vengeful, while coloring her teeth a hideous crimson hue.
“You laggers are late!” the dockmaster snapped, flashing her red teeth.
Ahme winced. The woman looked like a hyena chomping on a bloodied mouse bone.
The bow slid noisily along the pier. Avoiding Lutia’s glare, Ahme hopped down and deftly tied the rope around the nearest mooring. She was as irked by their late arrival as the impatient bureaucrat.
The salhulk snagged to a stop.
“Forgive us, Master Lutia!”
The dockmaster swung her murderous gaze midship, where Rees stood holding a wet oar.
“Traffic along the towpath is backed up for miles,” he said. To prove his point, he gestured to the column of vessels lining the eastern shore of the Thaya. All three tiers of the towpath were jammed with pack animals and foot traffic waiting to enter the harbor.
Dockmaster Lutia stretched her jaw as her tongue heaved the gnarled root from one cheek and patted it down against the other.
“Stow your excuses, salhulker!” she replied. “You lollygaggers were to arrive last night with eight hundred pounds of wheat.”
“Your wheat is here!” declared Rees.
“That wheat…” the dockmaster continued with a pointed glare, “was to stock a royal convoy of soldiers headed to Tol-Han. That convoy departed this morning, sans your wheat. I had to requisition rations from the local garrison.”
Rees lowered his oar to the deck, glowering like a petulant child. He was done talking.
“I do not care if Turoy’s Way is blocked from here to the sea,” Lutia said.
She tore the root from her mouth and jabbed it at the ship’s bundled sail above.
“You laggers have a salhulk!” she sneered. “You are not bound to the royal towpath. You have the means to sail around traffic. There is no excuse for your lollygaggery mussing up my schedule.”
Rees grimaced and folded his arms. He acknowledged his failure with a curt nod. The dockmaster did not notice. She took a clay tablet from her satchel and consulted it like it was an ancient tome.
Ahme stood next to Rees. She tugged on his tunic.
“I told you we should have set sail,” she whispered.
Rees shushed her. Ahme clenched her teeth.
“My workers will offload your shipment in one hour exactly,” Lutia said, glancing at the silver timepiece dangling from her vest.
“You best be here to meet them.”
“We will,” Rees muttered. He hesitated for a moment.
“We need to reschedule our passage through the locks,” he said.
The dockmaster launched a red comet of spittle off the dock.
“Really!?” she said, her sarcastic tone filling daughter and father with dread.
While the dockmaster searched her schedule, Ahme glanced at the canal gateway at the northern edge of the harbor. The massive wooden doors were open. Beyond the entrance, a salhulk floated inside a narrow channel, ready to be raised from the Thaya to the canal above.
“I have a spot available in two weeks.”
Rees’ jaw dropped.
“Two weeks!” he said.
The dockmaster smirked.
“We have fifty baskets of gale leaf destined for Gira,” he said. “It will rot!”
The dockmaster pulled the soggy root from her mouth and shrugged.
“Two weeks is the best I can do for lollygaggers,” she said. “Wait your turn for the locks, or lollygag up river. Your choice, lollygagger, it matters not to me. I will send my assistant to collect your docking fees, your tardiness fine, inconvenience fine, etcetera, etcetera!”
Dockmaster Lutia stuffed her tablet into her satchel and returned the red stick to her mouth. As she left, an odd look of satisfaction fought with the frown on her face.
Rees groaned as he looked down at his daughter.
Ahme folded her arms and shook her head.
“What?” her father sneered.
“You always tell me this is our ship!” stated Ahme.
“What of it!” Rees grumbled.
“If it is our ship,” she continued, “Then you should listen to my suggestions. I told you yesterday and the day before, we should use the sail or else we would be late.”
Her father scowled but remained quiet.
“You never let us sail,” said Ahme.
“Your mother was the master sailor,” explained Rees. “I am a competent bargeman, at best.”
“I can do it,” Ahme said.
“You are no better than me at riding the winds,” he said, before mumbling to himself. “I need to fetch my neb purse.”
Rees fled toward the sternhouse.
Ahme was not finished arguing.
“I am no better than you,” she said, “because you do not let me practice. We could sail upriver to Gira!”
Her father paused in the doorway leading to his cabin.
“Not on your life,” he said, turning to his daughter. “The river between here and Gira is too dangerous. Best to wait our turn for the canal and travel across the lakes.”
He pointed at the edge of the harbor. The canal gates were closing, sealing the salhulk inside. As the gates pinched together, a crescent shard of bronze on each door joined, forming a shimmering metal circle embossed with a pelican.
“What about the lettuce?” asked Ahme.
The thought of being late with another shipment, or worse, losing the shipment altogether, was unbearable to the budding young merchant.
“I will think of something,” her father said peevishly before slipping into his cabin.
Ahme looked at the baskets full of dark green leaves stacked in the hold below. A cool gray mist hovered among the baskets which shared the hold with squat jars full of grain. Ahme looked at the milky white haze and considered how expensive the frost enchantment had been. It was already wearing off.
She knew their coffers were nearly empty. They could not afford to lose this shipment.
A grotesque face rose from the the mist below, a mottled volcanic island of resentment disturbing a tranquil white sea. Biteface’s bloodshot gaze menaced Ahme as the throg munched on the hindquarters of a dead lizard.
“Gross!” Ahme said. The scaly leg dangling from the throg’s lips reminded her of the dockmaster’s roobo root.
Thoughts of the vengeful bureaucrat and Ahme’s hapless father made the girl increasingly anxious. She had to do something about being stranded with rotting cargo. She determined to go ashore and find her own solution.
The town of Pelican Locks was squeezed into a curve of the Thaya below a steep ridge with a brick wall spine. Between the river and the wall, the locals lived in doorless brick houses smeared with white clay. Homes were accessible from their rooftops via narrow, lightweight wooden ladders that could be easily lifted from above. The locals spent most of their time on these rooftops, cooking their meals or working their trades, all while socializing with their neighbors across the narrow chasms separating each tower. The people of Pelican Locks lived their lives three stories high while the streets below were more or less abandoned.
Ahme discovered that visitors who ventured beyond the hospitable fringe of shops and inns along the harbor found themselves wandering barren, featureless alleyways. As she strolled deep into town, she felt like she was haunting the empty passageways of a great mausoleum. Distant voices and laughter echoed from above. It was intriguingly strange and lonely. She pondered climbing the ladders stretched against the pale walls like giant, dried-out millipedes, but sensed doing so uninvited was taboo.
She quickly despaired that she was wasting her time being ashore. There were no solutions to be found in ghostly alleys. None of the townsfolk above were going to shout down suggestions on how to save Ahme’s rotting shipment. Feeling defeated, Ahme decided to return to her salhulk. She was about to turn around when a curious sight caught her eye.
She had happened upon a steep wooden ramp cutting through a row of houses. The sagging incline had been abandoned long ago. Broken beetle globes swamped with sand and dead insects dangled from iron hooks hung along the neighboring houses. Refuse and glass littered the buckled planks. Ahme scanned upward, her gaze climbing three stories to where the ramp paused at a landing before rising through another row of houses, then another. The ramp stopped at the top of the ridge at the base of the wall. There was no gatehouse or doorway visible above. She concluded the ramp had been used to transport stone to the top of the hill.
Pushing aside her curiosity, Ahme was about to move on when a silver flicker caught her eye. She watched as a stream of water no wider than her thumb flowed smoothly up the ramp.
“What strange brew is this?” Ahme wondered aloud.
She approached the base of the incline, astounded by the glimmering stream. The water poured from a small pipe jutting out of the neighboring house, into a large puddle. From there, though, logic released its grasp, and the liquid flowed up the crooked planks of the ramp.
Ahme traced the flow to where it disappeared over the top of the ramp. She glanced around her, wondering if anyone else knew of the stream’s existence. The doorless street was abandoned.
“Where do you go, magic stream?” Ahme asked playfully.
She immediately regretted doing so. The ramp was old and rickety. The timber groaned like a dying carpenter beneath the girl’s feet. Sometimes a board quaked like an upset stomach. Despite the audible threat of collapse, Ahme continued upward, determined to see where the mystical water ended its inverted flow.
Ahme sighed with relief as she stepped off the top of the ramp. She stood on a dirt pathway that ran below the wall defending the ridge.
The water turned sharply off the ramp and continued unsullied along the dusty trail. At a small fortification a few yards away, the stream turned and disappeared.
As she was about to continue down the trail, Ahme heard a panicked voice.
“I hear someone!”
Ahme glanced down at her toes and waggled them on the cool clay. She was certain she had not made a sound.
A second voice, deep and unwavering, replied from somewhere near the fortification.
“Stay calm,” he commanded. “I can almost reach!”
The panicked voice became shrill.
“They’re coming!” he cried. “I must go!”
The deeper voice responded angrily.
“Stay there, coward! I cannot work the lock from below.”
Angry shouts echoed along the trail. Ahme began to share the panicked speaker’s mounting fear.
“They’re here!” he cried. “I must fly!”
“Come back here, you coward!”
Ahme scurried behind a pile of unused bricks abandoned beside the wall. Just as she hid, a figure in a long brown robe sprinted by her. He was met by two guards charging from the opposite direction.
“Hold there!” one shouted as both guards lowered their spears.
The robed figure yelped.
“Thaya, save me!” he cried, turning back toward the fort.
As Ahme peered over the rubble, the frightened man in the brown robes froze at the top of the ramp. Behind him was a royal officer wielding a bronze sword and flashing a cruel grin.
“Do not kill him yet,” the officer shouted to his subordinates.
The soldiers paused while the robed figured glanced back and forth between his captors. Ahme tried to spot the man’s face, but it was hidden in the shadow of his cowl.
“I am impressed,” the officer said with a sneer. “Truly impressed. But it was not enough to save him.”
Ahme wondered what the officer was talking about. While the man wagged his sword, she noticed that the enchanted stream had ceased to flow down the trail. She turned, seeing that the stream continued up the ramp, into a puddle forming around the robed man’s feet. The puddle bubbled upward as though filling an invisible basin.
One of the other soldiers noticed as well.
“My Ja,” the woman ventured but was shushed by her commander.
“As I was saying,” the officer continued triumphantly. “It was not enough to save him… or you!”
The officer raised his sword.
The robed figure gasped. His fists shot up, blocking his face.
The puddle at his feet arched into the air, striking the officer like a white serpent. The man tumbled backward as the enchanted stream snaked through the air, turning toward the officer’s subordinates.
“Archers!” One of the soldiers shouted as the other was smashed to the ground.
Ahme heard reinforcements charging across the top of the wall.
As the robed figure looked up at the battlements, his hood slid off, revealing a thin, delicate face with narrow, frightened eyes.
He thrust down his arms and spread his fingers.
The watery serpent slunk to the ground and coiled around the mage’s feet. Ahme’s eyes widened as the water scooped the mage off the ground and carried him down the ramp.
“After him!” the officer shouted.
The guards charged down the ramp, but it was too late. The mage had already reached the bottom some nine stories below. He had escaped.
Amazed but cautious, Ahme decided to remain hidden as she watched the officer climb to his feet. He peered down the ramp.
“Chicken wits!” he grumbled, sheathing his sword. He angrily dismissed the archers on the top of the wall.
“Get back to your posts!”
The man trudged down the trail toward the small fortification.
Ahme followed, creeping like a mouse along the wall.
The officer turned and disappeared through a doorway. Ahme sidled up to the doorway and peered after the man.
Inside was a large plaza surrounded by crumbling brick walls choked in dead vines. Square metal grates covered the ground around the perimeter of the courtyard. The officer approached one in the corner. As he paused above it, Ahme realized it was the only grate fitted with a lock.
“Well now, Captain,” the officer spoke toward the ground.
“This is not your week, is it!”
A pair of hands reached through the grate as fingers wrapped around the bars.
“It has been a run of bad luck,” a voice calmly conceded.
The officer pursed his lips and nodded.
“Your mage is dead,” he gloated. “My warriors diced him up like an onion.”
“Mm-hmm,” the prisoner replied. If he believed the officer’s lie, Ahme noticed the prisoner was not upset.
“I trust you will move me to a new pit!” the prisoner said. “Seeing how this one is no longer hospitable.”
The officer chuckled.
“I think not.”
“I will drown before my trial,” the prisoner said, his tone no longer so calm.
“It is not my fault your mage botched your escape,” the officer said with a smile.
The prisoner’s knuckles turned white as he rattled the grate. Water splashed between the bars.
“Let me out of here!” he demanded.
“Your trial is in two days,” said the officer. “You are good swimmer. Perhaps you can tread water until then.”
He laughed. An unpleasant chill caressed Ahme’s shoulders.
“I will take that challenge,” the prisoner shouted.
The officer laughed harder as he departed. He strolled across the plaza, disappearing through a different door.
Ahme stood watching the fingers hugging the grate. A solemn silence filled the plaza, settling like a shroud over the empty pits scattered about the yard like forgotten secrets filled with old horrors. The prisoner let go of the iron. As his hands slid out of sight, Ahme heard the man let out a weary groan.
She was filled with fear and pity for the prisoner. Glancing around her, she stole into the plaza and crept toward the grate. She slowed as she approached the iron bars, inching toward the edge of the pit like it was the slippery edge of the Shimmer Veil.
Ahme looked down.
A man with defiant eyes peered up through wet locks of hair. He was treading water some four feet below.
“Who are you?” he asked. He did not show any surprise at her appearance.
She hesitated for a moment, thinking it unwise to share her name with a stranger locked in a pit. The man’s commanding gaze overpowered the child’s good sense.
“Ahme,” she said.
“Have you come to ogle my demise?” he asked angrily.
She shook her head. The man was churning the water slowly with his arms, trying to stay afloat. He looked exhausted.
“Did Vectome send you?” he asked, suddenly hopeful.
“Why are you here?” Ahme asked.
The man frowned.
“Of course he didn’t,” he mumbled to himself. “Useless coward!”
The prisoner punched the water.
“Why are you here?” she repeated.
“Oh, I had a bit of bad luck,” he said. “I was caught stealing.”
The girl frowned.
“That is not bad luck,” she said. “That is what is supposed to happen when you steal.”
“Ohhhhh!” the man raised his hands in indignant protest.
“Forgive me for trying to make a living! Pluck a few nebs here and there to buy a little bread and I deserve to drown in this rathole.”
Ahme did not reply. She knew sarcasm when she heard it. Yet the thief’s imminent demise did seem cruel and evil.
She looked down at the lock securing the grate.
“The mage poured water into the pit so you could float to the surface,” Ahme spoke slowly as she worked out the prisoner’s escape plan.
He watched her through the bars, a sly gleam in his eye
Ahme knew a thing or two about locks, having been taught about their workings by a salhulk captain who doubled as a locksmith. The rusty glob of iron at her feet was a crude design with a simple mechanism.
“He ran off before he could pick the lock,” she said aloud.
“Vec!” the man scoffed. “Pick a lock?! That puddle skipper couldn’t work a doorknob on his own.”
The prisoner laughed ruefully, then began to flounder. He sank out of sight into the well of inky liquid, making Ahme fear he was drowning. She knelt down to the grate, pressing her face to the metal bars.
The man burst like a crocodile from the water. Startled, Ahme flung herself backward as the prisoner seized the metal bars. He dangled there, making no other movement.
Thinking the man had been trying to snatch her, Ahme realized with embarrassment he was simply replacing the exhaustion of treading water with that of clinging to the grate.
Ahme could not bare to see the man suffer so. No thief deserved to drown for their crimes.
She crawled back to the grate.
“This is a pin tumbler,” she observed of the lock. “Two, maybe three pins.”
The thief’s eyes lit up.
“Can you open it?”
“I need to run back to my salhulk and fetch my picks,” she said. “Can you hold on for another hour?”
She worried the answer was no.
The man lowered an arm into his sodden tunic.
“Of course I can,” he said. He reached into his sleeve and pulled out a tiny cloth bundle.
“But I don’t have to if you use these,” he said.
He poked the bundle through the iron bars. Ahme took it and quickly unwrapped the cloth. Inside was a set of lock picks.
“Vec fled before he could fill this pit with enough water for me to reach the lock,” he said.
“You were going to pick a lock from below it, all while treading water with just your legs?”
Her doubtful tone offended the prisoner.
“I can pick that lock blindfolded if I have to.”
Ahme shook her head. For a man drowning in a pit that he had had flooded, the prisoner was rather full of himself. She began probing the lock’s keyhole with the tiny metal rods.
The woman who trained Ahme oft praised the girl’s talent at picking locks. She earned that praise again, making quick work of the crude device. In a few moments she had popped the pins, wrested the lock from the grate, and pried open the iron hatch.
Her triumph turned to fear as the prisoner crawled out of the pit. He rose to his feet, his surprisingly tall and muscular body casting a menacing shadow over her.
“My picks,” he demanded, extending a calloused palm toward the girl.
Ahme returned the bundle.
The man carefully rearranged the iron pins then delicately rolled the cloth around them. All the while, his eyes stole furtive glances around the fort. He searched the vacant doorways steeped in shadow, the walkways along the walls above, and the little girl standing helpless before him.
Ahme did not move, resisting a near irresistible urge to flee. She hoped it was not a mistake to free the self-acknowledged criminal.
Tucking the bundle into his tunic, the man scrutinized Ahme a final time.
“I am in your debt,” he said resentfully. “Should we meet again, I promise free passage.”
Ahme considered this strange commitment for a moment.
“Uh… Thank you?”
“You are welcome,” the man said.
Without another word, he darted from the plaza.
Ahme found herself alone and a little dazed. She glanced at the empty pits surrounding her. It was getting dark. Realizing that she was standing in a prison, and that she had just helped a criminal escape from that prison, she stifled a frightened yelp. Ahme fled.
It was dark when Ahme returned across the gangplank to her salhulk. Her father sat waiting by the kiln, munching on honey cakes while Ahme’s cat, Blood Claw, snuggled against his hip. Despite the look of cozy contentment exuded by sweet snacks and cute feline companionship, Ahme could sense her father’s fuming anger as she stepped aboard.
“Where have you been?” Rees demanded.
Ahme tried to muster defiance as her shoulders tensed toward her earlobes.
“Out,” she said weakly.
“Did you leave the waterfront?” he asked. Whenever in a town or city, Ahme was forbidden to travel beyond the harbor’s edge. Wandering the ghostly interior of Pelican Locks was forbidden, as was, Ahme suspected, sneaking into fortresses and busting thieves from prison.
Rees packed a cake into his gob as he waited for his hesitant daughter’s response.
Ahme decided to avoid the specifics of her evening.
“I was searching for a solution to your blunder!” she said, gaining some confidence.
Crumbs fell from her startled father’s mouth.
“Safety and patience are not…” Rees stopped himself, throwing up his hands.
“Nevermind that,” he said. “I worked a deal with the Bardos clan. We are taking their salhulk’s turn in the locks, three days from now. During that time, I forbid your going ashore.”
“That is not fair!” she said. “Why can’t I…”
“I spotted you from the Bardos’ rooftop prowling along the street below. You were nowhere near the harbor.”
Ahme imagined her father peering down from one of the towering, doorless houses, silently judging her as he liked to do. His spying filled her with anger.
“What about the lettuce?” she asked. “We’ll still be four days behind schedule.”
“I hired a frost mage to touch up our enchantments.”
“Well… fine!” Ahme stammered. “Good work, Captain Moneybags! How are we going to pay for that?”
“I sold Blood Claw here to some Mantoch fur traders,” Rees said, stroking the feline along his spotted, sandy colored back. Blood Claw purred loudly.
“They are going to make him into a purse!”
Ahme lunged forward.
“That’s not funny,” she said, scooping up her cat.
She folded Blood Claw into her arms then stormed toward the bow. As she neared her cabin, her father called out.
“How can I let you learn to sail if you will not obey the simple rules that keep you safe?”
Ahme stopped beside the towpost, above the hatch leading to her cabin. Furious, she spun toward her father as the startled cat dug his nails into her forearms.
“How can I become a true salhulker when you treat me like a highborn moppet?”
Rees remained quiet.
She grimaced as Blood Claw tore his way from her arms. The cat trotted away.
Ahme threw open the hatch and leapt down into her cabin.
Three days trapped on a docked ship with nothing but a handful of daily chores was a dull and loathsome punishment. As Ahme spent most hours watching the vibrant harbor just beyond reach, the girl soon felt like she was the one in prison. She knew there was really no comparison between a salhulk with a view and an iron-capped hole in the ground, but Ahme’s resentment was in full swing. She ignored her father for those three days, responding to his occasional attempts at conversation with blank stares followed by rude gestures at his back.
She tried to entertain herself with the many animals on board. She spent extra time feeding and milking Yogo, scratching the yak’s ears and commiserating on their mutual entrapment on the salhulk while they awaited passage through the locks.
In the evenings, she cuddled with her cats and read stories from her father’s collection. She forgave Blood Claw for the red lines on her forearms, treating the tempestuous feline to a cup of Yogo’s milk.
She held her daily gossip sessions with the hens and ducks, per usual. When Rees was off ship, Ahme fed his parrot, Oggy. The loquacious bird had long since stopped accusing her of thievery every time she entered the cabin, instead calling her Clever One or Ahme-Give-Me-Treats-Now! She was not particularly fond of Oggy.
By the final night of her punishment, Ahme was so desperate for company that she visited Biteface. The throg was initially stunned as the girl voluntarily entered the main hold with a basket of salted fish and a blanket. He only snapped at her twice as she used the blanket to wipe ice crystals from his tufts of matted fur. After devouring the fish, Biteface was polite enough to give Ahme a head start to the stairs.
Ahme’s only human conversation during those three days was with the frost mage hired by Rees. It was less a conversation and more of a failed interrogation. Ahme was fishing for information on the enchanter she had seen a few days ago, while clumsily trying to hide her own involvement with the prison break.
She approached the frost mage, Meripet, as he stood on deck, silently working his spells on the hold below, while Biteface growled and snapped at the thickening mists.
“Cool afternoon,” she greeted, standing beside the man in his long white robes. Meripet was young, no more than twenty, with a topknot of hair adorning his otherwise bald head like a doorknob glued to a melon. Startled by the girl’s sudden perky appearance, he shot her an annoyed grimace before returning his focus on the swirling mists below.
“Is that a joke?” he asked.
“Is what a joke?” she asked.
“Saying ‘cool afternoon,’” he shot back. “‘Cool afternoon, frost mage!’ Har! Har! Har!”
“No,” Ahme said, taken aback. “It is just a polite greeting!”
“Sure it is,” scoffed the mage. “Like complimenting a leper on their weight loss.”
“By the Thaya, I did not mean anything by it!”
An awkward silence followed, broken by the throg’s snarling protests below. Biteface had had enough cold weather.
The moody enchanter swept his hands slowly through the air. The mist began to rise.
“That’s some great magic,” Ahme said, then cringed at her pathetic attempt at flattery.
The mage let out a sigh before muttering under his breath.
“Let’s see where this goes,” Meripet said to himself. He turned back to Ahme and fixed a broad, joyous grin to his face.
“I am so glad you think so,” he said gleefully.
Meripet’s bright grin attached below his dark, dead eyes reminded Ahme of a slain shark she had seen at the Rash-Ha fish market. Determined to find information, she ignored the man’s unsettling expression.
“What would we do without magic?” she said, shaking her head as though the answer was tragic. “It solves so many problems.”
She paused, pretending that a thought had just occurred.
“Speaking of problems, we could really use a water enchanter. Do you know any?”
Meripet dropped his false enthusiasm.
“Seamless transition,” mumbled the mage. “Sorry, there are no water mages in town.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” Ahme lamented. “We could really use one.”
“What for?” asked Meripet.
“Are you sure there isn’t one passing through town,” Ahme continued, ignoring the mage’s question. “I thought I saw some water moving under a spell. Maybe a local mage practices on the side…”
Meripet’s eyes narrowed as his indifference was replaced with earnest curiosity.
“What did you see?” he demanded.
“I saw some water flowing up an abandoned ramp,” she said, before hastily adding. “I have no idea where it went. It looked unsafe and I dared not climb it.”
“How wise of you,” Meripet said, unconvinced. “What did the mage look like?”
“I did not see any mage,” Ahme said.
Meripet’s penetrating gaze made her throw out additional lies.
“Maybe it was an illusion,” she said. “A light mage, perhaps. I saw some at a party once…”
“There are no illusionists, here, either,” Meripet replied.
“Perhaps they were visiting from…”
“Look,” the mage interrupted her. “The only water mage around here is Vectome. And he would not dare set foot in Pelican Locks. Not unless he grew tired of his head and wished to have it removed by some accommodating royals.”
Ahme nodded her head.
“Oh,” she said. “Okay.”
She decided to bow out of the conversation. She turned to leave.
“If you come across Vectome in town,” Meripet said, “You would do well to tell the nearest guard. Or better yet, the nearest mage. He is dangerous.”
“I will,” Ahme said meekly. She walked away, glancing over her shoulder as she did so. The frost mage had resumed his work.
The day finally came for their departure from Pelican Locks.
Lutia’s workers guided Ahme’s salhulk into the lock then sealed the outer doors. Water poured from sluiceways capped with bird statues with large gaping beaks. The lock filled, raising the vessel some twenty feet. Another set of doors opened and the workers towed the salhulk into the canal.
Ahme watched the entire process, fascinated by the precision of the water system. Her father had taught her the history of the locks and canals that connected the lakes to the Thaya, bypassing a turbulent stretch of the great river. Khet Turoy had conceived of the massive engineering marvel. Along with the royal towpaths, the locks, the carved waterways, and the salhulks that utilized them all, Turoy the Wise had left an engineering legacy on Nebetta second only to the Great Gardens.
Although Ahme was still upset with Rees, departing Pelican Locks smoothed over her anger toward her father. The transfer from the river to the canal felt like passage toward reconciliation. She could leave behind her adventure with the thief and her imprisonment on her own ship.
With Yogo doing the heavy work, Ahme and Rees guided the salhulk north along the narrow canal, to Pelican Lake. The largest and southernmost body of water in the lakes district, Pelican Lake was ten miles long and twice as wide. It was dotted with loggins and shoreline fishing villages. While its eastern and southern shores were bordered by desert, the rest of the lake was bordered by jungle with little farmsteads hacked out of the dense foliage.
It took a day to traverse the towpath along the lake’s western shore. They arrived at Ibis Locks in the evening. The next morning they passed through the locks and floated onto Ibis Lake. It was there that Rees made his own attempt at reconciliation.
“Lower the sail!”
Ahme was convinced she had misheard him.
“What did you say?”
Her father pointed west, across the water. Lake Ibis stretched away from their ship like a sheet of mottled glass. Thick flocks of birds painted the early morning sky with dark swirls. Frogs and insects hummed along the shore. It was a beautiful day.
“The water is calm,” he said. “The wind is firm but not too fierce. A good beginner’s wind.”
Ahme hopped with excitement.
“Thank you, Rees!” she said.
Her father smiled.
“We must work together,” he said. “Listen to my instructions. There are only two of us. A salhulk riding the wind is meant to have at least three competent sailors. We are barely two.”
“You and mother sailed alone.”
Rees shook his head.
“That was because your mother was worth three sailors combined. She could sail the open ocean in a cyclone with dueling mages battling on deck.”
Ahme paused, astounded by the images conjured by this description.
Rees caught her curious look and clarified himself.
“Not that she did those things,” he said. He paused, losing himself in memories. “Not all of them. Or at least, not all at once.”
“Mom sailed on the ocean…”
Rees waved his hand as though shooing away a fly.
“Do you want to sail or not?”
She drew silent, nodding her head eagerly.
“Well, then,” Rees smiled. “Lower the sail.”
Ahme clung to the tiller, her arms taut and aching as her heels dug into the roof of the sternhouse. Her hair flew wildly in and out her eyes. Her face was sore from the giddy smile that had bunched her cheeks into rosy piles for the last hour.
She had never felt such speed. The salhulk cut across the lake like a bird skimming along the surface before landing. The thrill made Ahme giddy.
She kept a wary eye ahead of the ship. Small fishing boats were scattered about the lake. A few larger vessels were visible several miles ahead, but none she had to worry about. The lake was hers.
“Tighten that sail!”
Her father’s admonishment broke Ahme’s smile. The lake wasn’t hers alone, unfortunately.
The sail spread over the forward half of the salhulk like a grand pavilion over a bazaar. Rees stood on the deck beneath the canvas, pointing at the billowing ripples disturbing the lower corners of the sail. The ship was losing its hold on the wind.
Ahme relaxed her grip on the tiller. The vessel turned slightly to the south and the wind topped off the pocket behind the sail. The canvas stretched around the invisible force. The ship gained speed. Ahme’s grin returned.
Rees jogged along the port rail. He paused alongside Yogo’s pen and patted the apprehensive yak’s skull. Like Rees, Yogo did not care much for speed.
“You are doing well,” he said after joining Ahme atop the sternhouse.
“You are my equal at the tiller,” he added, searching the horizon.
Ahme beamed with pride.
“But,” Rees continued, deflating his daughter’s pleasure. “Did you notice that?”
He pointed behind them.
Ahme gazed over her shoulder to stern. She goggled with surprise.
A sleek merchant ship, twin masted and bushy with sails, was a mere hundred yards behind.
“Where did they come from?” Ahme demanded.
“They are gaining on us,” warned Rees.
The sneaky ship filled Ahme with a competitive urge. She returned her sights to the bow.
The small town of Gira lay ahead, a brown pile of huts and small warehouses rising from the jungle wall on the shore ahead.
“Did you hear me?” Rees asked.
She pulled on the tiller, angling the vessel directly at the settlement. The salhulk skidded slowly into the path of the merchant ship.
Rees shook his head.
“The larger ship has the right of way,” he said angrily.
“Not if we stay ahead,” said Ahme.
“You need to turn to port.”
Ahme felt her frustration grow.
“Why are you afraid of a little speed!”
She stared angrily at her father as the man reached for the tiller. Rees paused, taking in his daughter’s icy stare. He pulled back his arms and folded them. He puckered his lips.
Ahme ignored her father’s dour expression. She watched the horizon, holding the salhulk’s course, while her father’s eyes bore holes into her confidence.
The wind began to flag. Ahme watched with vexation as the sail rippled and sagged.
“What is happening?” she cried out. She worked the tiller back and forth, trying to recapture the wind.
The merchant ship whooshed by, its angry crew crowding along their rails.
“Lose your wind?” one sailor jeered.
Ahme cringed. Rees continued his cold stare, seemingly unaware of the ship passing behind him.
More sailors cried out.
“Serves you salhulkers right for cutting us off!”
“Learn to sail, ya fishheads!”
As the merchant vessel cruised ahead, the wind returned.
Ahme struggled to understand what had happened.
Rees arched an eyebrow.
“Confused?” he asked.
She nodded weakly.
“When you refused my instruction and held your course,” Rees explained slowly, “Their sails intercepted our wind.”
“I see,” Ahme replied quietly.
“Perhaps you should heed your sailing instructor from now on.”
Rees unfolded his arms. He turned to leave before a thought made him hesitate.
“And since you asked,” he sneered, “I do not fear a little speed! I am wary of the danger of inexperience. You would be wise to recognize that you are a novice sailor and should therefore practice caution. That means do not go racing faster ships.”
Ahme nodded. She felt thoroughly chastised.
“Should we stow the sail?” she asked sadly.
“And row the rest of the way to Gira?!” her incredulous father asked. “I think not. Instead of riding the wind like the Khet’s personal chariot, let us accompany the wind, like it is Yogo with an upset stomach.”
“I will,” Ahme replied. She was grateful to continue sailing, even at a cautious speed.
They docked in Gira with ease and unloaded their cargo immediately.
Meripet had cast his enchantments with timely precision. As locals unloaded the baskets full of cold, crisp gale leaf, the frost spells gave out. The swirling mists dissipated into the sultry air, leaving a sweltering empty hold.
Biteface was relieved. The throg found a patch of sunlight, arched his little hunchback, bristled his scales, then collapsed with a guttural moan of satisfaction.
The Sorna-worshipping little beast seemed to be the only happy creature in Gira. Ahme and Rees noticed a forlorn mood hung over the workers as they emptied the salhulk hold. The gloom extended over from the docks across the entire town.
Ahme wondered what could cause such widespread despair. While baking dinner that evening, she peered out over the town, noticing how folk seemed to trudge between buildings, returning to their homes as though bearing grave tidings. Gira was in mourning.
Rees had gone searching for work. He returned to the salhulk as his daughter pulled a sizzling tray of fish dressed with oil and herbs. As daughter and father dined, Rees shared his news from town.
“There is no work here,” he groused. “The town is battening down for a storm, so to speak. They are expecting hard times.”
Not having cargo to haul was bad news to a salhulker. Their own stores were low, and their money was almost gone.
“We have to find work,” she said aloud. “Where will we go?”
“We will head back to Pelican Locks, and fast!” Rees explained.
Ahme’s eyes lit up.
“We can sail back across Ibis!” she eagerly declared.
Her father shook his head.
“No. We will cross the levy here and take the river back to Pelican Locks. It is faster.”
Surprised by this suggestion, Ahme frowned.
“You said the river between Crane City and Pelican Locks is dangerous. That is why we always take the canals across the lakes.”
Rees glanced furtively at the shore. He leaned toward his daughter and lowered his voice.
“The river has become much safer as of late,” he whispered. “That is why the locals here are so upset.”
Ahme’s confusion deepened.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“The river between Crane City and the Locks is infested with pirates,” he explained. “Or was! I just found out the reason everyone in Gira is walking around like their favorite grandmother choked to death on raisin bread! Word arrived that Captain Elwezance was captured in Pelican Locks.”
“Elwezance the Ruthless, the most fearsome of river pirates!”
An excited gleam entered Rees’ eye as he described the pirate captain and his infamous history of daring criminal activities. Ahme wondered aloud why the people of Gira would be saddened by his capture.
“Because,” Rees said, “Captain Elwezance is the foundation of Gira’s economy. He attacks and captures ships on the Thaya, forcing the rest of us through Gira, onto the lakes. His plundered goods fill the local markets. More than likely, he employs some locals on his ships.”
Ahme was amazed a pirate could be so beneficial to a town. She had never considered that criminals could have their own benefactors besides themselves. It made sense. Even criminals had families to feed.
“That is why everyone here is so devastated,” Rees continued. “With Elwezance stuck in the royal pits awaiting his execution…”
A vision of a dank, flooded pit topped with a rusty iron grate filled Ahme’s head, pushing out her father’s voice. Could she have unwittingly freed Elwezance the Ruthless?
“When was Elwezance captured?” she blurted out.
Surprised by his daughter’s interruption, Rees paused a moment to recalibrate his thoughts.
“When?” he repeated. “Oh, well… the fishmonger I spoke to said word arrived two days ago. Elwezance was probably captured three or four days ago.”
His eyes lit up.
“Probably while we were in town!” he said. “Just think! We were in Pelican Locks during the pirate khet’s capture.”
Her father beamed with excitement. He had the makings of another story in his head, yearning to be written down.
Ahme did not share her father’s good mood. She had a terrible suspicion that she had aided a murderous pirate. She tried to convince herself that she had freed a petty thief, not a bloodthirsty villain. Perhaps a local pickpocket who happened to have a cowardly, although extremely powerful mage for a friend. Maybe Elwezance was captured the following day.
Despite her feeble rationalizations, Ahme could not ignore that she had freed the one and only prisoner.
The only thing that gave her hope was the miserable people of Gira. If she had freed Elwezance, why were the locals so depressed? As far as they knew, Elwezance was gone.
Ahme wanted to warn her father without admitting what she had done. Whether she had liberated a thief or a full-fledged pirate, she knew Rees would be furious to learn of his daughter’s assistance in a jailbreak.
“I was really hoping to sail back across the lake,” she said, putting on a sad frown.
Rees squinted, peering right through Ahme’s insincere pout.
“We need to find work as quickly as possible,” he said. “The river to Pelican Locks takes a day. The lakes take two. Longer if the canal is busy and we have to wait our turn.”
Deflated, she nodded. Then a new thought occurred.
“Aren’t there other pirates around here?” she said. “What makes them less dangerous?”
“Do not worry,” he said. “Elwezance’s rivals are to the north. Sure, they will move down river now that Elwezance is gone, but the Thaya should be clear for a while yet.”
“What about his crew? Are they still around?”
“Probably scattered,” Rees replied. “Pirates are not the most loyal crew members. Without Elwezance, they will turn on each other. Power struggles and the like.”
Rees reached over and patted his daughter on the shoulder.
“Do not worry,” he said with a warm smile. “I would never put us in harm’s way.”
“I know,” Ahme said.
She was worried that if anyone had put them in harm’s way, it was her.
When they departed Gira the next morning, the inhabitants were as visibly dejected and hopeless as the day before. Ahme used their misery to convince herself that Elwezance had not returned. That, or he was locked up or dead. The Thaya between Gira and Pelican Locks was safe to travel. She did not have to tell her father of her involvement with the thief.
They rowed their salhulk from Gira’s small harbor through a narrow opening in the jungle encrusted levy that divided the River Thaya on one side and Ibis Lake on the other. Here, the river was over a mile wide and it took them almost half an hour to paddle to the center of the broad flow. Once the salhulk entered the heartstream, they stowed their oars. Rees climbed onto the sternhouse and took charge of the rudder. Ahme tended to her morning chores.
It was a rare cloudy day. Although desert hills were visible to the west, the banks of both shores were lush and green. There were no farms along this stretch of the Thaya, only tangled forests and thick walls of grass and papyrus hiding countless coves along the river. Ahme nervously took note of the landscape and saw that it was perfect for concealing a fleet of pirates.
As the day wore on without incident, Ahme’s fear of attack subsided. The heartstream moved quickly and the salhulk made quick progress along the short stretch of river between Gira and the Locks. By lunchtime, Ahme was at ease. With a basket of fruit and a heel of goat cheese, she joined her father atop the sternhouse. They sat together, enjoying a leisurely meal under the cool grey clouds.
Rees was in a cheerful mood. He sat with his legs crossed, gazing across the bow as he hummed a tune from his homeland. His sunhat lay on the roof beside him. The wind stirred the laurel of hair around his ears. At one point he turned and smiled at his daughter.
“I am sorry we could not practice sailing on the lakes.”
Ahme shrugged. She thought about the unpleasant conclusion to their last practice session.
“I am sorry I did not listen to you,” she said.
The apology moved her father.
“You are a bold one,” he said. “Like your mother.”
He grew wistful for a moment.
“It is a good thing,” he said quietly.
Ahme did not know how to reply. Instead, she looked out over the river. It was especially wide here, like a broad lake.
“We could practice again,” she said.
“Here?” Rees said, glancing to either side of the ship.
“The river is wide,” Ahme pressed. “The wind is good. We could shave an hour or two from our journey.”
For a moment, she saw in her father’s clenched jaw and apprehensive gaze, that he was at least considering her proposal. Rees looked downstream. The Thaya flowed calmly due south for miles. A loggin sat in the distance. There was not another vessel in sight.
“I do not think we should,” Rees said, shaking his head.
Ahme groaned with frustration.
“Why not?” she demanded.
“Let us take it easy today,” he said. “The heartstream will get us there quickly enough.”
Ahme clamored to her feet, clenching her fists at her sides as she stood before her father, blocking his view to the south.
“This is a salhulk!” Ahme said. “We should ride the wind!”
“The Thaya is unforgiving,” Rees countered, although his voice was meek. “We should save our practice for the lakes.
“What are you afraid of?” Ahme said. “You know this river as well as any salhulker! What other dangers are there?”
Rees avoided his daughter’s angry gaze.
Ahme’s frustration with her father’s timidness toward sailing had exploded into anger.
”The river is deep and nearly two miles wide,” she shouted, spreading her arms.
“What could go wrong?” she demanded.
Her father’s expression hardened.
Ahme shook her head.
“You said there were no…”
She was interrupted as her father leapt to his feet.
“Pirates!” he said, pointing to the southeast.
Ahme spun around.
Three ships were visible about a mile downstream. Two were salhulks, their sails spilling down from their yardarms as their crews paddled the vessels away from the loggin along the western shore. The third vessel, a galley, emerged from the forest along the eastern shore. It was longer than a salhulk, with sleek lines and a taller mast. As the galley slid along the water, a sail the color of blood flowed from its masthead.
Terror seized Ahme. She turned to her father and was surprised to discover Rees assessing the situation downstream with a preternatural calm. His cool composure lessened Ahme’s own fear. She, too, turned and tried to calculate their best course of action.
She saw immediately that the pirates weren’t aiming for their ship.
“They are trying to cut us off,” she said.
“Can we turn back?” Ahme asked.
“No,” Rees said, leaning against the tiller.
“The salhulks are facing a headwind,” he said, aiming their ship toward the village on stilts.
“We will pass those two before they reach the heartstream. We will squeak by before the blockade closes!”
After putting two-thirds of the Thaya’s width to port, Rees straightened their course. While the other salhulks floundered against the wind, the galley gathered speed. The red-sailed ship cut smoothly toward the center of the river.
“We need all possible speed,” Rees said.
Ahme looked at her father, sharing a knowing glance.
“The sail!” she said.
“Quickly, now,” he said.
Ahme sprinted across the roof. Nearing the edge, she slid feet-first across the dried fronds and dropped to the deck below. Yogo snorted with surprise as the girl bounded by the yak’s pen.
She flew along the port rail, up the rigging, reaching the yardarm in moments. Her hands made short work of the knots binding the sail along the wooden beam.
The sail fell like a curtain as Ahme scrambled down the rigging.
“Good work!” Rees called out.
She could not believe Rees had time to offer praise. Ahead, the salhulk crews had abandoned their sails, seizing oars in a desperate effort to paddle ahead of their prey. The galley was almost halfway across the river.
The sail formed a tight curve above Ahme as the wind filled the canvas. She secured the sail’s lines.
“Take shelter,” Rees shouted.
Confused by the command, Ahme nonetheless obeyed. She climbed inside Yogo’s pen. The yak responded by scooping up a pile of straw with his shovel of a jaw and began munching contentedly.
Rees threw himself down on the roof of his cabin, disappearing from his daughter’s sight. Angry shouts filled the air as their vessel passed the sluggish salhulks. The shouts were joined by an ominous clatter. Ahme glanced over the wall of Yogo’s pen as arrows rained across the deck.
“Rees!” she cried out, aware that her father could do no more than lie flat beside the tiller.
His voice carried over the sternhouse.
“I am fine,” he shouted. “Stay down!”
Ahme knelt beside the yak’s hairy haunches. The beast gave her a sideways glance as it ate. Yogo was unperturbed.
The murderous hail stopped.
Rees appeared over the brim of the sternhouse.
“We are clear,” he shouted.
Ahme scrambled from the pen, searching the waters around the ship. The pirates had fallen behind.
“We did it!” she cheered.
“If we stay ahead until the river narrows then they will have to lower their sails. We should be able to keep ahead all the way to Pelican Locks!”
Ahme scaled the ladder, joining her father’s side atop the sternhouse. The galley was giving chase a quarter mile to their stern. The salhulks languished further back, their sails flapping like disturbed milk while the oarsmen slapped their oars out of sync.
Ahme had never seen salhulks crewed so poorly.
“Those salhulkers are terrible,” she said.
“There are no salhulkers on those ships,” her father said grimly.
Puzzled, a moment passed before Ahme understood.
Chilled with understanding, she looked downstream toward their salvation. About a mile ahead, the Thaya made a wide curve to the east. If her father was right, then another mile or so beyond, the river narrowed. Sails would be dangerously impractical.
Ahme noted that the galley was gaining, but not quickly enough.
We are going to make it,” she said, relieved.
“By the Thaya, we are!” Rees said.
Ahme and Rees toppled backward as the river rose up beneath them, lifting the nose of the salhulk toward the sky. There was a loud crash on the deck below as Yogo stumbled through the side of her pen, crushing the wall of the sternhouse.
Clinging to the dried palm fronds bound to the roof, Ahme looked down the slope of her salhulk at the water swirling around the stern. Rees was below her, his arms twisted around the tiller while his toes splashed in the Thaya.
The ship had stopped moving.
“Hold on,” Rees shouted, reaching toward her.
Ahme barely heard him. Her attention was lost in the motionless, ten-foot swell holding their ship like a wooden clog presented on a plump brown pillow. She was amazed but not dumbfounded. She understood that magic had raised this impassable barrier. She knew she had seen the powerful enchanter’s work once before.
The galley caught up to them. As it drew near the imprisoned salhulk, the pirates let the wind out of their forbidding red sail. As the crimson canvas fluttered and fell, two familiar figures were revealed standing near the bow.
Vectome the mage was at the front, his arms raised and his palms stretched wide. His fingers were barbed at the sky.
The man Ahme had freed from prison eagerly rubbed his hands together as he stood beside his mage. As his ship drifted to a stop, Captain Elwezance tapped his minion’s head.
Vectome lowered his arms.
The frozen wave was reabsorbed back into the Thaya without a splash or ripple. The salhulk was released, gliding smoothly backward alongside the galley as Ahme and Rees rolled across the pivoting deck.
Screaming pirates leapt aboard, scrambling like ravenous vermin over the vessel.
Ahme climbed to her feet. She was too stunned to do much else. She barely noticed as Rees scooped her up in his arms, shielding her like she was still his precious toddler.
On the galley, Vectome sat down. The exhausted mage gasped for breath.
“Nice work, Vec,” Captain Elwezance declared, surveying his prize. “This almost makes up for your cowardice.”
“Thank you, Captain,” the mage replied between heaving breaths.
“Almost!” Elwezance said.
He spotted his new prisoners, focusing his attention on Rees.
“Cool afternoon to you, Captain!” the man shouted gaily. “I am Captain Elwezance.”
Rees replied with impressive calm.
“Captain Rees,” he said.
“You have fine ship, Captain Rees,” the pirate declared. “Or rather, you had a fine ship.”
The pirate chortled, no doubt having used the line before. Behind him, Vectome rolled his eyes.
“Thank you,” Rees replied dryly.
“You are most welcome,” Elwezance said, turning his attention on Ahme.
She filled with a profound dread; a sickening, curdling sensation as Elwezance’s eyes brightened with recognition.
“I know you!” the pirate exclaimed.
Ahme felt her father’s arms tighten around her.
“You busted me from prison!”
Rees dropped his daughter like she was basket of snakes. Ahme’s backside rang as she struck the roof. She groaned.
Laughter erupted from the pirates. Elwezance glanced at Rees’ stony expression then smiled with delight. The pirate cocked his head at the girl lying on the deck.
“Ohhhh!” Elwezance chided. “Someone’s in trouble!”
Ahme admitted to herself that her knowledge of prisons was in its early stages. She was a new scholar on the subject, with little experience or study, yet possessing more knowledge than the average person. Drawing from this basic academic foundation, she concluded that her current imprisonment in a cage suspended over crocodile-infested waters was far preferable to the iron-grated pits from which she had rescued her captor a few days prior. The cages were far superior. They caught a nice breeze. They were more spacious. The view of the pirates’ jungle cove hideout was particularly pleasant.
She looked at her father, suspended a few feet away in his own cage, and considered sharing her thoughts on the matter. Rees shot his daughter an angry glare. Ahme held her tongue. Instead, she distracted herself from their harrowing situation with the view.
The large cove was crammed with battered ships and wooden hovels connected by a half-submerged maze of docks. Of the hundred or so pirates under Elwezance’s command, apparently none were carpenters.
None were shipwrights, either. Not one of the vessels hidden in the cove was riverworthy. Elwezance kept his galley and salhulks hidden elsewhere. He had secreted Ahme’s own ship several miles downstream from his hideout. She supposed the pirate liked to keep his resources scattered in case of attack. The man who had nearly drowned himself in his own prison turned out to be surprisingly cunning.
“You should have told me,” Rees grumbled.
Ahme wilted inside her cage. She felt sick as she recalled her father’s expression when Elwezance shook Ahme’s hand and thanked her for liberating the pirate from prison.
“I did not know who he was,” she said pathetically.
“And that makes it okay? Sneaking into a royal fortress and freeing a criminal from his cell?”
She thought back over her actions. She regretted sneaking around Pelican Locks without her father’s permission, as well as climbing that dangerous ramp and infiltrating the prison. As she recalled the sight of Elwezance treading water in his flooded pit, Ahme realized she did not feel any guilt.
“He was going to drown if I left him there,” she said. “No one deserves to die like that.”
She waited for her father’s reprimand. When none came, she looked up at Rees.
He had turned away.
Feeling dismal and alone, Ahme reached through the wooden bars of her prison, stretching her hand toward her father’s back.
“Rees,” she whispered.
Elwezance appeared from the forest nearby, striding toward their cages with his mage and an entourage of cutthroats trailing behind.
Ahme’s hand snapped back into her cage.
“Empty!” the pirate captain shouted angrily. Elwezance and his little band stomped onto the dock and crowded around the cranes holding the cages over the water.
“All your holds are empty!” Elwezance railed, pointing at Rees.
“You better have some wealthy kinfolk!” the pirate sneered.
Before Rees could reply, Elwezance steered his finger toward the man’s daughter.
“Set her free,” the pirate commanded.
Two subordinates quickly obeyed, manipulating the crane and depositing Ahme’s cage on the dock. Before she knew it, Ahme was out of her prison, standing on the dock amidst a semicircle of pirates.
“You may go,” Elwezance said with a dismissive wave. The pirate turned back to Rees.
“Where do we send the ransom demand?”
“You are letting her go?” Rees said.
“Answer my question before I change my mind and have you executed instead,” the annoyed pirate replied.
Ahme recalled the cryptic promise of free passage that she received after helping Elwezance from his pit. Keeping her father and ship did not seem to be honoring the deal.
“No one is going to pay my ransom,” said Rees.
This response infuriated Elwezance.
“Well, then,” he said. “No ransom, no head! You hear that, salhulker? Your failure to have rich relatives means I detach your head.”
“No!” Ahme cried out. “We have relatives on Crane Lake. They might pay.”
Elwezance folded his arms.
“Well, they better!” he said before gesturing to his men. “I have crew to feed, right men!”
The dozen or so men and women in his entourage let out a hearty cheer. One of them, a wizened man with a gray beard and band of fabric bound across his left eye, spoke aloud with a sneer.
“I ain’t waiting that long for a meal, captain!”
The old pirate scowled.
“You promised you’d return from the Locks with a score that’d see us through winter. Now we’re back to pinching empty ships.”
While some of the pirates fidgeted uncomfortably, a few others muttered in agreement.
Elwezance turned on the old pirate, throwing his arms in the air.
“Patience, Ios!” he bellowed. “I’ve been back a day, and already we have a score!”
“An empty salhulk ain’t no score,” Ios replied. “Their store’s empty as ours!”
“There are animals aboard,” the captain replied. “Cook ‘em up!”
Another pirate called out, a filthy woman in rags who’s foul odor afforded her a little extra space wherever she stood.
“You can’t eat throg,” she said. “Too gamey. And I’m not about to try that exotic northern beast they got. Flesh could be poison.”
Realizing the pirate was referring to Yogo, Ahme chimed in. She could not stand the thought of her beloved yak being devoured by brigands.
“Very poisonous,” the girl said sagely. “You’ll get brain warts!”
The ragged pirate smacked her thigh.
“Brain warts!” she said, pointing a thumb at her chest. “I knew it!”
The crew mumbled angrily.
“Are you challenging me?” asked Elwezance.
His pirates fell silent.
“What of it, Ios? Do you want to be captain?”
The old pirate grimaced.
“Go ahead, Ios,” goaded Elwezance. “Knives is your weapon, isn’t it! Challenge me to a stab-off!”
Ios nervously eyed the ground.
“What about you, Tumen?” Elwezance spun around. “You have your bow? An archery contest, then! Try me!”
Elwezance began pacing back and forth between his subordinates, calling them out, one by one.
“Slings? Spear fishing? Three Step? Challenge me to any contest! Try it! I dare you! Best me and you deserve to be captain.”
Elwezance puffed out his chest as he swept his angry gaze over his humiliated band. Everyone was kowed. All except Vectome who stood slightly apart, looking bemused.
“That is what I thought!” the captain sneered.
“I challenge you!”
Ahme and the pirates turned toward her father’s cage.
Rees sat confidently, waiting for Elwezance’s reply.
“You?!” laughed the pirate, although his expression was wary. “You are not in my crew. You cannot challenge for captaincy.”
“How about a challenge for my freedom,” Rees replied. “Or are you afraid?”
The pirates jeered, shaking their heads at the foolish hostage. Captain Elwezance’s lips curled into a wry smile.
“I am the most dreaded pirate between Mantoch and Golia!” he said. “I…”
“River pirate!” interjected Rees.
“What did you say?” he asked.
“You are the most dreaded river pirate!”
“What does that mean?”
“As opposed to an ocean pirate,” Rees said.
“River pirate, ocean pirate,” Elwezance said, “We are all pirates!”
“By definition, I suppose that’s true.”
Elwezance folded his arms.
“Of course it is,” he said with deep satisfaction.
“A river is a much smaller body of water than an ocean.”
The river pirate frowned.
“So the dread that you instill covers a much smaller area.”
“The Thaya is the greatest river under Sorna’s Sight!”
“You are correct,” conceded Rees.
“Thank you!” Elwezance sarcastically declared.
“But it is nothing compared to the vast, treacherous expanses of storm-ravaged waters that make up the ocean. Pirates that dare tread those salty, monster-ridden depths, they are truly fearless… and truly feared.”
Elwezance’s angrily folded arms began to resemble a self-comforting hug.
“I’ve sailed the ocean!” he set petulantly.
His crew glanced doubtfully at one another.
“You have?” Ios asked, genuinely surprised.
“Well, I’ve seen it,” Elwezance admitted, throwing his arms wide. “Twice!”
There was sniggering amongst the crowd. Ahme stifled a smile.
“Good for you,” Rees said, his voice pleasant despite Ahme knowing her father was making great fun of the insecure pirate. Rees continued.
“Someone so brave and worldly has nothing to fear from a simple salhulker!”
Visibly uneasy, Elwezance tried to muster his bravado.
“Let’s hear your challenge” he bellowed.
“I propose a swimming contest,” Rees said, threading an arm through the bars of his cage. “From here to there.”
He pointed across the cove.
Elwezance’s incredulous expression teased laughter from his subordinates.
“It’s full of crocodiles,” he said.
“What of it?” Rees asked.
The laughter stopped. Elwezance searched his challenger’s face, perhaps trying to gauge Rees’ sanity.
Ahme was likewise disconcerted by her father’s desperate offer. The cove was nearly three hundred yards across. Opposite their cages was a mucky stretch of beach with a half-dozen crocs laying about. Ahme searched the rest of the cove, spotting four or five other scaly reptiles lounging along the shore. Most were under seven feet long, but there was one gray man-eater, a male, that looked to be fifteen feet from snout to tail. The beast was resting on a round little island of mud near the center of the cove.
She was not the only person to notice the dangers lurking along the waterside.
“We’d be lucky to make it halfway across,” Elwezance said.
Ahme nodded her head in agreement.
Rees was unphased.
“I thought that would make the contest fair,” he explained. “As I am undoubtedly the faster swimmer, the only way you might win is if I am devoured during the race!”
Ahme’s eyes widened as she witnessed her father’s mad boast. Rees was clever and could hatch schemes like a chicken eggs, but this proposal was suicidal.
The agitated pirate’s face twitched as he struggled to find a way to turn down Rees’ challenge. Ahme realized that some compulsion inside Elwezance kept the young man from refusing.
“Vectome!” he called out, crooking his finger toward the startled mage.
The enchanter rushed forward, bending his ear toward his captain as Elwezance whispered. Vectome listened, his eye wandering from Rees to Ahme then to the far shore of the cove. As Elwezance drew silent, the mage took a moment to ponder his captain’s words.
“I guess so,” he said with a shrug.
Elwezance spun back toward Rees, a broad grin on the pirate’s face.
“I accept your challenge!” he bellowed. “The first to swim across the cove is the winner!”
It was obvious to Ahme that the pirate and mage were going to cheat. Rees was also undoubtedly aware, yet he was eager to go through with the race.
Before Ahme could talk her father out of whatever ploy he had in mind, Rees and Elwezance stood side by side on the dock, preparing for their race across the crocodile gauntlet. Both men stripped down to loincloths, leaving their tunics bundled on the planks by their feet. While Elwezance handed over a bundle of gold and silver necklaces to Ios, Rees carefully knotted his crocodile tooth necklace so that it would not slide off in the water.
Ahme jerked her father’s arm. Rees looked down.
“I will find the ransom myself,” she said. “I’ll ask Pethos’ mom and dad. Or Neri-Teri. She owes us!”
Rees shook his head.
“I am not waiting here while you walk all the way to Shimmer Veil,” he said.
Tears sprang from the corners of Ahme’s eyes. Her father was a very strong swimmer, but no person could outswim a crocodile.
He leaned his face close to his daughter’s.
“Nothing bad is going to happen to me in that water,” he whispered.
Her father’s warm, reassuring tone stopped Ahme’s tears. His eyes glimmered with knowing. Rees was not the least bit afraid.
“Ready, old man!”
Ahme turned an angry eye on the blustery young captain goading her father.
Elwezance hopped up and down, fueled with excitement. The rogue was a head shorter than Rees, but leaner and more agile. The pirate’s shoulders were broad and muscular. His legs were long and his feet wide like fins. Elwezance’s eyes flamed with determination. Flames with small, shimmering wicks of fear.
Long shadows stretched across the cove as Sorna slipped behind the treetops. The forest was dark along the shore, save for flashes of phosphorescent insects dappling the black with their green and yellow lights.
“I am ready,” Rees said, curling his toes over the edge of the dock.
“Call it, Ios,” Elwezance ordered. He crouched, ready to dive.
Vectome, Ios, and the rest of Elwezance’s band crowded behind the competitors. Around the cove, other pirates caught word of the contest and took up places along the docked boats and crocodile-free stretches of shore. Cheers echoed across the water.
“On three,” Ios said
From the corner of her eye, Ahme watched Vectome square his shoulders toward the water. The mage cupped his hands.
The pirates roared as the swimmers dove into the cove.
Dark silhouettes darted beneath the surface of the water. Elwezance surfaced in a flurry of spray and cartwheeling arms. Rees emerged a moment later, just ahead of his foe. The salhulker began scooping his way across the cove.
The pirate churned the water with raw frenzy, a hungry tigerfish tearing after its meal. Rees labored forward with his head down, a diligent catfish doing his best. Ahme cheered as her father built upon his lead.
Her joy was short-lived as some pirates across the way let out a lusty, vicious cry. Ahme followed their pointed fingers and saw a tail slithering off the island into the brown waters. The gray maneater had joined the race.
“Look out, Rees!” Ahme shouted.
Her warning was lost in the din. Rees had settled into his pace, his ear perhaps catching syllabic shards every few strokes when he raised his head to vacuum air. He did not hear warnings of the fifteen footer angling toward him.
Elwezance was just as oblivious of the approaching peril as the pirate smashed through the salhulker’s wake.
Grayback surfaced ahead, his amber reptilian eyes choosing between astoundingly stupid prey.
The pirates cheered the beast. Ahme was flummoxed by their mad joy. Loyalty had been thrown aside. The brigands yearned for either racer’s gruesome demise. Perhaps both.
Grayback made his choice with a swish of his tail.
“No, no, no!” she whispered into her fingers. She could not look away as the crocodile closed in on Rees.
Without warning or reason, the crocodile swerved to the left.
Rees and Grayback swam past one another.
Ahme blinked, stunned by her father’s miraculous good fortune. Around her, the cheering petered out as pirates groaned with disappointment. They roared again as Grayback opened its jaws to receive their pirate lord.
Beside Ahme, Vectome stacked his hands and slid them sideways as though opening a screen door.
The fifteen foot leviathan was shunted through the water by the mage’s powers. The beast curled its back and snapped its yellowed teeth at the invisible forces driving it aside. Grayback lurched after Elwezance.
Vectome motioned again with his hands. Grayback plowed the waters of the cove as though strapped sideways to the head of a charging hippo.
“You’re cheating!” Ahme accused the mage.
Vectome did not answer. He was too busy working his spells. The old pirate, Ios, replied in the enchanter’s stead.
“He’s giving no speed to the cap’n,” the pirate explained. “No advantage. He just stopped the toothy beast from interfering.”
Grayback tried twice more to catch Elwezance. Twice more, Vectome dissuaded the crocodile. The confused beast finally surrendered its chase, resting in the water like an overturned canoe.
Elwezance and Rees continued on the final leg of their race.
Ahme realized Ios was right. The mage had not given any advantage to Elwezance. The race between pirate and salhulker was still a fair contest. Sort of. These pirates had a code of ethics, although it was certainly skewed.
Even with the crocodile out of the contest, Ahme’s fear did not subside. Three-hundred yards was a long way to swim. Rees was growing tired.
The salhulker’s young competitor was indefatigable. As the swimmers came within twenty yards of the far shore, Elwezance pulled alongside the weary northman.
“One last push!” Ahme urged her father.
Rees continued to flag. Elwezance swam ahead. A moment later, the pirate stood on shore, basking in the adulation of his fickle crew.
Defeated, Rees dragged himself onto the muddy bank.
Ahme covered her eyes.
“What were you thinking?” she demanded.
Wet and tired, Rees sat with his legs crossed, reinstalled in his cage.
Ahme leaned against her father’s prison. Their captors had not yet lifted it over the water. Separated by wooden bars, daughter and father were more or less alone on the edge of the dock. They eyed the pirates milling about the cove, illuminated by torches and cook fires. Elwezance and Vectome were sharing a wineskin atop a pile of stolen cargo. Ios and a few other rogues crowded around a barrel on shore, trading coin. Ahme had not noticed before, but apparently bets had been placed on the swim contest. From Ios’ expression, it appeared that the grizzled pirate had wagered on the salhulker.
“Honestly, I was certain he would be eaten,” said Rees. “The mage ruined my plan.”
“And what about you?” Ahme said angrily. “What was to keep you from being eaten?”
Rees pulled his tunic over his head, covering his chest and necklace. He shrugged.
“Luck?” he asked.
“You do not believe in luck,” Ahme said knowingly.
Her father smiled.
“Well, then,” Rees hesitated. “I suppose you could say, I was confident your mother was looking after me.”
Ahme was startled by this strange, sentimental notion. Despite the myriad of idols, gods, and spirits inhabiting Nebetta, her father shunned them all. He never mentioned an afterlife. Rees was not a spiritual man. He had passed that skepticism onto his daughter.
“I am the only one looking after you,” she snapped. “Me! Your child, looking after you, an adult!”
“You need to go,” he said gravely.
She shook her head. While Rees was being stuffed back into his cage, Ahme had considered her observations on pirate bargaining and ethics. She reexamined the terms of her father’s disastrous race, as well as the details of her pass. Ahme understood Elwezance a little better. She decided it was up to her to get them to safety.
“My turn,” she said, turning toward the pirate captain and his magical accomplice.
“Ahme!” Rees hissed as Ahme stormed across the dock.
“You’re still here?” Elwezance asked, startled by the angry child appearing before him.
“Let me make something clear,” the pirate continued. “You did me a service back at the Locks, but I have repaid that in kind. My grand generosity has limits. Begone, before your pass expires.”
Ahme responded without hesitation.
“When, exactly, does my pass expire?” she asked menacingly.
Exasperated, Elwezance glanced at his mage and shook his head.
“Do you believe this girl?” he asked.
Vectome humored his employer with a light chuckle while watching Ahme carefully.
“When!” Ahme pressed.
“I don’t know,” Elwezance said, throwing up his arms. “You have a day. A day, and after that, if I see you again, you are subject to the daring exploits of Elwezance the Ruthless and his brave and savage crew!”
The pirate captain leaned back, tickled by the sound of his own voice. A few pirates cheered him on. Vectome shook his head.
Ahme carefully considered her next words.
“A day. Twenty-seven hours, then!”
Elwezance again shook his head, screwing his face into a goofy, slack-jawed grin.
“Duh! Twenty-seven hours! That’s how long a day is, you dumb little throg!”
“You captured us about noon,” continued Ahme, ignoring the man’s mockery. “I have until Sorna’s peak tomorrow to leave with my ship and crew.”
Elwezance grimaced with puzzlement. A smile of delight brightened Vectome’s face.
The perplexed captain sneered.
“I am Ahme of House Aser,” Ahme said defiantly. “My family name is on the salhulk’s charter stone.”
She pointed to her surprised father. Rees was watching her intently, hanging onto his daughter’s every word.
“He is my crew,” explained Ahme.
Elwezance jolted to his feet. His face twisted with fury as he spat on the ground.
“What are you on about?” he shouted.
“You promised me free passage,” Ahme continued. “That is my salhulk and my crew.”
“He’s the captain,” Elwezance said, shooting his finger at Rees.
“My name is on the charter! I own the salhulk,” Ahme shot back. “That makes the captain and crew mine as well. Taking them away means breaking your promise to me.”
The pirate captain began to stammer, vexed and confused by his own piratical code as it was wielded by a bright twelve year old girl.
“Captain,” Vectome cautiously interjected. “She is right.”
Elwezance spun on his mage. Vectome winced.
“I don’t care if she’s right!” the pirate snapped. “I will have her ship and her father’s ransom.”
The mage spoke, avoiding his captain’s angry gaze.
“She saved your life,” Vectome whispered. “The crew knows this. If they hear you violated our piratical code…”
Elwezance silenced Vectome, although Ahme could see that the fuming pirate heeded the mage’s warning.
After a long, thorny silence, Elwezance let out a long sigh.
“Very well,” he said, turning back to Ahme.
“You have until noon tomorrow.”
A cruel smile played across the pirate’s lips.
“Let’s see how far you get before my ships run you down and my crews raze your precious salhulk to the waterline!”
Masking her fear, Ahme nodded. Her skin seemed to bake under Elwezance’s wrathful glare. It took all of her courage to keep from looking away. Although she had saved the pirate’s life, she did not doubt that Elwezance intended to destroy her salhulk. She suspected he meant to destroy her as well.
Vectome and Ios escorted Ahme and Rees on the long walk through the dark forest. The prisoners were led to their salhulk, concealed in a snug inlet walled in by papyrus. The tall grasses pressed against the ship’s rails and brushed the eaves of the sternhouse. Only the mast was visible from the river.
As Ahme hastily put out the beetle globes, she was surprised and relieved to see that their vessel was barely disturbed. A few crates and jars had been searched, but the scant goods in the hold were untouched. Biteface had evidently seen to that. The throg patrolled the deck below. He growled at the pirates, and Ahme, as they moved above.
Yogo was a little more receptive, grunting for hay from inside her pen.
“Good to see you, too” Ahme chided the yak.
The girl jumped as something brushed her feet. She looked down and smiled. Blood Claw was thrilled at her return.
Rees stared inquisitively at the pirates as they loitered on deck.
“Are you coming with us?” he asked dryly. “Deserting your captain?”
“Not tonight,” he said sadly. “How about you, old man? Time to abandon your life of crime?”
Ios shrugged before pulling a bag off his shoulder.
“Can’t!” he said, delving into the ponderous sack. “Too many debts. Too many enemies.”
Ios retrieved a set of manacles linked together by a thick iron chain. He turned to Rees.
“Give me your hands,” Ios said plainly.
Ahme and Rees glanced at one another.
“What is this?” Rees asked, turning to Vectome.
“A twist on the deal,” the mage said, his voice tired and indifferent.
“What about the piratical code?” Ahme asked.
“The code says to honor a wager” explained Vectome, “while adjusting the odds.”
“What does that mean?” she asked.
Rees replied for the pirates.
“It means that when you are challenged to a swim race across croc-infested waters, use your mage to hinder the crocs.”
He held out his arms.
Confused and outraged, Ahme watched as Ios fitted the thick bands around her father’s wrists.
“This isn’t fair,” she said.
Ios chuckled as he retrieved two locks from his bag.
“The cap’n mentioned you’re good at picking,” Ios told the girl. “Good luck picking these!”
The pirate proceeded to fasten a lock to each wrist. The weight of the locks was so severe, they dragged Rees’ arms down to his thighs.
“All done,” Ios said. “Let’s go.”
Vectome nodded. As Ios shuffled across the plank, the mage followed. He stepped on shore then paused.
“My advice,” he said, “Abandon the salhulk and head south on foot. He won’t follow you across land.”
Rees remained silent, waiting for the mage to leave. Ahme was less civil.
“My advice,” she called out, “Grow a spine and help us. That, or pee yourself a puddle and use it to surf your butt out of here.”
She could feel her father look down at her in shock.
Vectome was far less disturbed than Rees. The mage curtly nodded his head before strolling off into the jungle.
“What a thing to say!” Rees said. “And what’s this about you picking locks?”
Ignoring his questions, Ahme raced over to inspect her father’s chains.
Each lock was different. They were expertly crafted and annoyingly complicated. The first lock was a bulbous glob of iron afflicted with warty-looking bolts. Its keyhole was large enough for a mouse to crawl through. The device must have weighed twenty pounds.
Ahme discovered to her dismay that the second lock did not have a keyhole. Nor was it metal. It was a tangled pod of vines with no discernible opening or combination. Ahme was not even sure how Ios had attached the lock to the wristband.
She did not have time to puzzle over her father’s bonds. She glanced at the stars overhead.
“It is almost dawn,” she said anxiously. “How are we going to get out of here? I can’t row by myself.”
Rees hefted his manacles.
“I can help some,” he said. “But you are right. You are mostly on your own.”
Ahme felt overwhelmed with despair. Before she could row the salhulk a mile into the heartstream, she had to somehow dislodge the vessel from the grassy inlet. There was no towpath here, no space for Yogo to drag them into the river. The Thaya was perhaps twenty feet away, but with her father shackled and their yak stranded on deck, the great river might as well have been twenty miles distant.
Defeated, Ahme collapsed onto the deck.
“I never should have freed that fiend,” she cried.
Mindful of his heavy manacles, Rees carefully lowered himself down beside his daughter.
“He would have drowned,” Rees said.
“So!” Ahme threw up her arms. “He has probably killed lots of people.”
She thought about the captured salhulks that had tried to intercept them the day before. Ahme suspected their original owners had not been released like she had.
“One does not become a dreaded pirate by being quirky and merciful,” said Rees. “Elwezance has killed many.”
“And I helped him,” muttered Ahme.
“You did nothing of the sort,” Rees argued. “What you did was you saw a defenseless person facing a cruel, torturous death. You recognized his evil plight and you stopped it. Never feel guilty for that. Your actions in that prison have nothing to do with all of this!”
Rees raised his metal bindings.
“Be proud of what you did,” he continued.
Ahme looked into her father’s stern but loving gaze. She nodded slowly.
“Good,” Rees said. “Now help me stand up. We have work to do.”
It was well past sunrise by the time they freed their salhulk from the cramped inlet. Under her father’s guidance, Ahme completed the lion’s share of the work. Armed with a scythe, she spent an exhausting hour hacking through the tall grass on shore, clearing a space for Yogo to trundle onto land. Draping his chained arms over the yak’s yoke, Rees piloted Yogo with calm commands and the occasional shoulder nudge. Ahme secured a rope to the beast, running the line around a tree, then back to the salhulk’s bow. With this crude system in place, Yogo plowed through the tall grass in one direction while towing the salhulk the other way.
Plucked from the inlet, the salhulk was reined back to shore. The gangplank was repositioned and Yogo was driven back into her pen.
Ahme helped her father balance an oar atop the starboard rail. Together, they pushed the salhulk into the Thaya.
“We are running out of time,” Ahme said, glancing at the time coil. “They will be after us before we reach the heartstream.”
“Get to your oar,” Rees replied. “There is no time to complain.”
Ahme obeyed, sprinting around the hold to the starboard rail. She leveraged her own blade into the water and began to pull. The bow turned slowly toward the center of the river. After a few moments, Ahme realized she was turning the ship around by herself.
She looked to her father.
Cuffed and weighed down by his locks, Rees could barely move his oar. His face was pale and his tunic was soaked with sweat. Ahme watched his hands as they fumbled around the handle. Blood trickled from beneath his metal bands and dripped onto the deck.
“This isn’t going to work,” Ahme muttered to herself.
She thought for a moment.
“We’ll ride the wind,” she cried out to her father.
Rees shook his head and rattled his chains.
“A salhulk cannot be sailed by one person!” he said.
Ahme was adamant.
“We have no choice,” she said, abandoning her oar on the deck.
She expected her father to protest more. As she leapt onto the rigging, intent on lowering the sail, her father’s next words surprised her.
“We will need the other sail,” he shouted.
Ahme froze. She peered at her father through the ropes holding her over the deck.
“What other sail?” she asked, confused.
“The racing sail,” Rees said.
“The racing sail!?”
Ahme’s sense of peril was replaced by an incredulous anger.
“We have a racing sail!” she cried. “What is a racing sail?”
“It is in the corner of my cabin,” he said.
“That giant pile of blankets?”
Her father had not forgotten the murderous criminals who were likely mustering to their ships.
“Go get it!” he snapped.
Ahme swung down from the rigging. In a moment she was inside the sternhouse, tearing into the pile of linens and blankets piled in the corner of her father’s cluttered quarters.
At the bottom of the pile she uncovered a large sack with knotted drawstrings. Using both hands and all her strength, Ahme could barely drag it across the cabin floor. After wrestling the baggage outside, she undid the drawstrings and upended the sack. She slid the covering off, revealing a folded roll of fine canvas dyed the color of mint leaves.
Ahme tingled with excitement as she pulled the folds apart, stretching the sail across the deck. The rich quality of the canvas and the brilliance of its hue was startling. The sail’s edge was hemmed with sturdy thread and lined with polished copper grommets. She was stunned that something so beautiful, and expensive, existed on her family’s salhulk. She could not believe she never knew of its existence.
“Where did this come from?” she asked.
Rees had no time to explain.
“Drop the yardarm,” he said. “We have to trade out the sails.”
As they worked to replace the worn, yellowed canvas, Ahme could not contain her questions for long. As she ran a line through the shimmering copper rings, she again asked after the sail’s origin.
“Your mother made it,” Rees replied as he carefully scrutinized Ahme’s work.
Already feeling an instant affinity for the mysterious sail, the fact that Ahme’s mother had crafted the dazzling green windcatcher made the girl smitten.
“Why is it called a racing sail?” she asked.
“Salhulkers used to hold sailing contests,” Rees said.
“I’ve never heard of that.”
“The contests were banned by the last khet,” Rees said. “The races were fiercely competitive. Too many salhulks were destroyed. Lives were lost.”
Ahme finished tying.
“Did you and mother race our salhulk?”
“She wanted to,” Rees replied. “The ban was passed not long after she finished making the sail. Secretly, I was relieved. The races were frightening. That, and it would have meant hiring more crew. I do not care for strangers living on my boat.”
Ahme had more questions, but she had finished rigging the sail to the yardarm. Rees was out of patience.
“Let us not forget the pirates intent on racing us, right now!” he said.
Together, Ahme and Rees pulled matching lines, raising the yardarm with its new sail.
As the yardarm climbed the mast, the racing sail unrolled. Ahme watched with excitement as a green field bloomed in the desert sky. The racing sail was half again as wide as their usual sail. Yet the green canvas was lighter and caught the slightest breeze. Before the sail was half-deployed, a dark brown shape appeared against the lush background. Arm over arm, Ahme pulled the rope faster. She watched as the brown shape was revealed to be some kind of beast. It possessed a large head with almost comically small ears, a round body, squat legs, and thick, intimidating claws.
“What is that?” Ahme said.
“A bear,” he said. “From the northlands.”
Ahme frowned. Her mother was Nebettan. Not a northerner.
“Why would my mom put a bear on her sail?” she asked.
“She didn’t,” Rees said. “I did.”
Ahme looked at her father. The man wore a proud, slightly playful grin.
“With her permission, of course,” he added wistfully.
With the yardarm secured and the sail expanding like the chest of a hearty sailor at work, the salhulk was soon underway. Rees, exhausted from holding up his chains, lay on the roof of the sternhouse, beside the tiller. He watched as Ahme stood beside him, piloting their escape.
The wind was blowing meekly from the northwest, yet the racing sail filled as though catching a gale. The salhulk slashed diagonally across the river, riding the wind toward the left bank. As they drew near shore, Ahme shifted the tiller, angling the vessel smoothly back to the right. After each turn, Ahme would bound across the ship, working the lines and adjusting the green canvas above. She kept the sail taut like a bowstring and full like a thundercloud. A true sailor, she guided her vessel at top speed. For the rest of the morning, the thrill of sailing made her forget the peril of their voyage.
Sorna reached her daily zenith. Back atop the sternhouse, Ahme joined her father as they searched upstream for Elwezance’s ships. None appeared.
“Where are they?” Ahme asked nervously.
“I do not know,” Rees said. “But I suspect more trickery.”
They passed the point of their capture from the day before. As the river curved eastward, Ahme felt a queasy, doubtful sense of hope. They were leaving pirate territory, with no sign of being chased. Elwezance, it seemed, had given up.
“Turn into the wind,” Rees said. “The river narrows ahead. We need to slow down.”
Ahme reluctantly obeyed by adjusting the tiller. The salhulk angled north. The sail fluttered and the vessel slowed.
Downstream, the Thaya squeezed between jagged shores. The forest gave way to shrubs as the land rose toward dry, rocky highlands. The narrow mouth of the constricted river was flanked by a large village to the south, and an abandoned loggin to the north.
As they drew near to the latter, Ahme spied amongst the naked pilings and collapsed docks, streaks of crimson.
“The galley!” she said, pointing the hidden ship out to her father.
Resting his manacles on the rooftop, Rees climbed to his knees.
“That scoundrel!” he cursed. “He must have sailed past us in the night.”
Her father was right. Elwezance meant to block their passage, just as he had tried the previous day. Only this time, he had chosen a much narrower stretch of river.
Ahme jerked the tiller. The salhulk turned and the racing sail shuddered once before filling with wind. Sharp cliffs and narrow channels be cursed, she was determined to speed past Elwezance before he could emerge from his hiding place.
Rees watched silently. He did not protest. He knew his daughter was their best hope of escape. His wrists chained and his sailing ability surpassed, there was nothing more he could do.
The salhulk accelerated like an osprey catching a gale.
Their speed must have caught Elwezance off guard, for his ship was slow to emerge from the loggin. The pirate captain was expecting the undermanned salhulk to drift like a log atop the heartstream, not race by like a dolphin rider.
The salhulk skimmed between the loggin and the village. Ahme watched the crimson sails billow as sailors scurried around the galley like angry termites. Elwezance stood at the prow, shaking his fists at his crew. He shot a vengeful glare at Ahme and her father as they bolted past. The galley caught hold of the wind and sped into the salhulk’s wake. The blockade had failed, but the chase was on.
Ahme eyes searched the galley as it fell behind them, desperate to discover Elwezance’s mage. Vectome was nowhere in sight.
“We need to drop sail,” Rees said.
Ahme glared at her father as though he had suggested Ahme find her own set of chains and lock herself to Biteface’s lower jaw. Catching her incredulous gaze, he gestured downstream.
The river shrank into a hundred yard channel funnelled between jagged twenty-foot cliffs. There was no room to maneuver a salhulk under sail.
Ahme tightened her grip on the tiller.
“No,” she replied.
“The river is too narrow,” Rees said. “We cannot…”
“We need speed to sail over Vectome’s waves!”
“It’s too dangerous, Ahme!”
“If you want to lower the sail,” she spoke angrily to her father, “you go ahead.”
Rees glanced from Ahme’s determined expression down at his manacles. At that moment, his metal bindings were more pliable than his daughter’s will.
The cliffs siphoned the wind as well as the water, driving the salhulk toward the southern cliffs. Ahme leaned on the rudder, tilting the vessel to starboard. The salhulk tilted like a lopsided scale. Yogo groaned in protest as she leaned toward the sloping deck.
“Careful, now!” Rees protested, anchoring himself to the sternhouse roof with his locks.
Dark brown boulders seemed to reach out toward the salhulk as the vessel whizzed by.
Ahme glance over the stern.
The pirate galley was under full sail a hundred yards behind, with no sign of letting up.
Elwezance straddled the bow rail of his ship, armed with a spear and a mad grin.
She looked ahead.
The river continued to narrow as the rocky walls climbed higher still. The wind howled in Ahme’s ears. Despite the danger, she began to smile. The racing sail made their ship faster than the galley. Much faster. They were pulling away.
Somewhere unseen, Vectome unleashed his power.
Ahead of the salhulk, the waters of the Thaya lifted and curved toward the sky. The river flowed sharply uphill, rising to the dizzying height of the cliffs to either side. Ahme gaped at the enchanted slope of water. She spotted fish in the watery peak above, shimmering like fossils caught in amber.
Tracing the knife edge peak of water joining the opposing clifftops, Ahme spotted the mage. Vectome’s hands were stretched toward the sky as the enchanter stood on a plateau along the southern shore, With one step, the powerful mage could have placed his toe on the back of his enchanted wall of water.
The salhulk raced toward the base of the wave. Rees jumped up from the rooftop, hooking his shackled arms over the tiller.
“Brace yourself,” he shouted.
Ahme clutched the tiller as their salhulk shot upward. Yogo grunted as he crashed into the sternhouse while ducks and chickens squawked and fluttered across the decks. Furniture toppled over noisily in the cabin. The green sail snapped inwards.
Ahme and Rees clung to one another as the salhulk raced toward the crest of the enchanted water. As the bow mounted the peak, the vessel stalled.
Their salhulk was trapped.
Ahme glanced back at the mage.
Vectome’s left hand scooped up and down, shoring up the stern of the captured ship with magic. Ahme realized he was keeping their vessel from sliding back down the slope.
She turned back.
The galley was rapidly drawing near. Its captain leered over the rail of his ship.
Frightened, Ahme called out to her father.
He pressed his forehead to hers. For a moment, she listened to his anxious breathing. The howling wind in the canyon had been replaced by the strange babble of the enchanted river, accompanied by the faint sound of distant drums. From the corner of her eye, Ahme saw a great shadow chase the silvery fish from the peak of the watery mountain. Curious, she turned and watched as the shadow gave way to a jagged spire of ice that burst through Vectome’s magical wall.
The babble gave way to the roar of a cataract as the enchanted water was split apart. The sundered wave collapsed.
Daughter and father were thrown across the sternhouse as their ship plummeted into a maelstrom of foam and churning rapids. The salhulk was tossed about like a toy as waves washed over the deck and flooded the hold. Ahme crawled across the heaving roof to the edge of the sternhouse. She peered down in horror as the river poured into their sinking ship.
“No!” she cried.
White jets of water shot out of the flooded hold. Ahme watched, amazed, as the vulnerable opening transformed into an enchanted fountain, spitting great arching plumes into the Thaya. In moments, the fountains ceased. Most of the water in the hold was gone.
Ahme fought to regain her feet and her senses. She looked around her.
The river had landed angrily back into its channel. Where the enchanted wall stood, now floated an indominatible island of ice.
“An iceberg,” her father said aloud, his eyes wide with wonder.
Ahme turned from the frozen island in search of Elwezance’s ship. The pirate lay capsized upstream, overwhelmed by the tidal wave unleashed by Vectome’s broken spell.
“They’re going down!” Ahme cried, leaping up and down with joy.
The galley sank quickly. Pirates swam away from the dying ship. Elwezance was nowhere to be seen.
“How did this happen?” she asked.
With the noisy river settling back into its natural flow, Ahme again heard drums. Her ear guided her attention downstream, past the glistening monolith of ice, to a large ship rowing toward them.
“A war galley,” Rees said.
A hundred oars moving in perfect unison propelled the heavy vessel upstream. Royal soldiers armed with spears glittered along the edges of the ship.
Rees and Ahme cheered as the war galley churned past. A few soldiers waved, while most kept their grim attention on the pirates ahead. At the stern of the ship, Ahme spotted the cruel officer from Pelican Locks. She felt a pang of pity for the fleeing pirates as she considered the officer’s gloating face.
She looked further down the ship, finding another familiar face.
“It’s the frost mage,” Ahme said.
Rees nodded, waving to Meripet. The mage spared a nod before turning his attention to the clifftops above. The frost mage was surrounded by a half dozen men and women dressed in snowy white robes. Ahme could tell they were all mages.
“They’re searching for Vectome,” Rees said.
Ahme searched the cliffs. There was no sign of the water mage.
“He’s gone,” Ahme said, uncertain how she felt about the realization.
She was surprised by how little hostility she felt toward the pirate enchanter. When Meripet and the other mages broke Vectome’s wave and swamped Elwezance’s galley, the mage saw that his captain was defeated. Vectome must have taken time from his escape to jettison water from the salhulk’s hold.
Their ship was a drenched mess. Standing on the front edge of the sternhouse, Ahme surveyed the tangled ropes and tools scattered across the deck. Bedraggled fowl were scattered about the ship. There was still at least two feet of water in the hold. Biteface sloshed about in the flooded compartment, snarling blamefully at the girl above.
Ahme admired the green sail hanging like a wet blanket above. If they had not used the racing sail, Elwezance would have caught their salhulk, even without the help of his mage.
Rees staggered up alongside his daughter.
“You did well,” he said, nudging Ahme with his shoulder. “I promote you to sailmaster”
Ahme grinned proudly.
“As owner of this salhulk,” she said, “I promote myself to sailmaster.”
“Fair enough,” her father replied. “And since I am the captain of your ship, I order the sailmaster to fetch the locksmith and have her get these cursed chains off my wrists.”
“Certainly, captain.” she said. “The locksmith will see to those chains, immediately.”
She stifled a yawn, realizing she had not slept in over a day.
“Right after her nap!”