by Sarah Ann Watts
Kyran, a king’s son, has been disinherited and exiled to a remote temple. One snowy morning, a messenger arrives to recall him to court, where he is to serve as governor of the king’s other children. Kyran is a seer and a child of the Falcon, but his paranormal abilities do not protect him from court intrigue. He must ultimately set out on a quest to find the Winter Ship and its destination.
Chapter 19: Changeling
When I wake at first light, Kras has pulled himself up and is leaning his back against the mast. He still looks ill, but he is watching the deck and holds his knife in his hand.
There is no sign of Daan. Already the sun lays a path of gold to our bow. The world seem to be a bowl, and we may be tipped over the edge and sail on among the stars.
‘Strange thoughts.’ His voice is weak, but it is Kras, and he is smiling.
I told you to stay out of my mind. He bows his head as if accepting a rebuke. I have said nothing.
His eyes are bright. I fear he is feverish and place my hand on his brow. His hair is damp from the spray of the sea and the blue of his eyes is dimmed beneath those long eyelashes.
Even without his paint, pale and wan, he is beautiful... and deadly. There is something fey and wild about him. Although he looks so young, he is aeons older than I.
Again he reads my thoughts. He shifts my hand away and winces as if in pain. I check the bandage on his arm. My stitches form a criss-cross pattern, and the wound is inflamed.
I rinse a cloth in the wine and clean it and then wind a new strip of cloth around it. He submits but with the patience of a wounded lion that rests until he grows strong again.
‘Where did you learn leech-craft, Prince of Shades?’ Then at my look, ‘They told me of your title, and other things besides.’
In the morning light, the shadow of the blood wraith troubles me less than it should. ‘They call you harsh names too, Soul Thief.’
‘Murderer,’ he says. ‘We make a pretty pair of outcasts, don’t you think?’
I shrug, having no answer. Let him think of me what he will. His hand hovers, as if he might touch me and call back the words, but it is too late.
I still have questions for him. ‘I know you lied to me. Tell me the truth now. How old are you?’
For a moment, he looks confused. ‘How old are you, Kyran?’
I have to think about it. It’s been a while since anyone celebrated my feast day, and I lost track of time when I was a slave. In the end I say, ‘twenty’. Not because I’m sure but because it feels about right.
He nods. ‘Then I am the same age as you, or I will be when I heal. You’ll have to forgive me. I’m tired today. Tomorrow maybe, I’ll be better.’
With an effort he moves his wounded arm, and I watch as he tries to smooth lines of pain from his forehead.
‘You should rest.’
He closes his eyes. ‘I should tell you the truth, Kyran. No more lies. Immortality is a myth. We age more slowly, but we still die. Mostly my lovers want me to be young and beautiful.
‘In this world I wear the face they choose. You know there are other worlds, though sailing off the edge is not the best way to find them.’
With that he closes his eyes, and I draw the cloak around him and try not to remember how it felt to fly.
* * *
The pattern of our former voyage resumes. They bring us food morning and evening. The Guardians keep their distance when they take the air on deck in the evenings. Only Lorcan comes near to tend to Kras’s wound.
Kras submits to his care, and the wound heals cleanly and quickly, leaving no scar. But he feels the effect of captivity and broods.
As for me, I drift, waiting for the new moon. I keep a careful tally of the days. I’m scared that I’ve forgotten much of what happened before I set sail on the Winter Ship.
Finally, when the moon is dark, the crew lights torches that cast flickering light over the ship.
That night everyone comes up on deck. They surround me and give me lots of wine. I drink it and pretend I don’t wake when Razvan slips the iron on my wrists. I don’t suppose he is deceived, and neither of us say what we know, that the iron wouldn’t hold me if I were a blood-wraith. I imagine the manacle is supposed to still the murmurings of the crew and give them an illusion of safety. I go along with the pretence and, when the sun rises, they set me free.
Razvan unlocks the key himself and gestures to Daan. The iron crumbles in his grip and leaves a rusty trail on the sea when he casts the remnants overboard.
All this time, we’ve seen no land since we sailed from Keroessa, the gateway to the Empire, and set course for the open sea again. I remember watching the fire from the lighthouse sink over the horizon and wondered why the Immortals did not follow the shore and explore this vast new land. This world is obviously far bigger than I thought.
Sometimes I ask Lorcan where we are going, but he does not answer. He seems wary of me, and I can’t blame him, though I’m sorry to see it. I remember his gifts of the flints and the stone knife. I’m sorry that I lost them so carelessly.
Once I ask him if he has sailed these waters before and if he will tell me of the wonders of Kota Samur. But he shakes his head and does not answer.
Kras will hardly speak to me. I fear he blames me for his captivity. There is trouble in his look and finally, three nights later, he opens his heart.
* * *
It happens as I am trying to sleep under the moon. I feel its pale light on my face, and I dream of the girl, Karishma, who tended me on the Fortunate Isle.
The scar at my throat itches, I remember her touch and I shiver. If she came to me now, I would reach for her and ask her to take me with her. To be strong, so I could run and fly again. I would pay the price of any sacrifice, surrender my soul.
Then I feel a feather touch my skin, and I am fully awake. The lamps burn low on the deck, and the helmsman is a shadow in the morning mist.
At this hour before the dawn, the ship glides like a ghost over the waves, and the sails are like the wings of some great white bird spread for flight. Best not to think of that. I shrug away memory, though it lingers like a bee sting. There is something pricking my heart, sticking my shirt to my skin.
I’m alone, save for Kras, who is sleeping beside me. He is a huddled figure shrouded in a tangle of blankets. Even in sleep there is something defensive about him that seems to say, don’t touch me.
I sit up, my eyes sandy. This restless night has still some hours to go. A feather drifts through the grey light. As I shift, it falls into my lap. I reach for it, and a hand grips my wrist.
I didn’t hear Kras approach, but he stands, looking down at me. The blankets are merely the shapeless form of him; he has made them look as if he were there, sleeping.
He stows the feather away beneath his cloak and then, without saying a word, turns his back on me, staring out towards the bow of the ship. I move to touch him, and he senses my gesture and faces me, saying in a whisper, ‘What will you do?’
At that moment I hardly know, myself. All I can say is, ‘Why did you come back? Why didn’t you fly away?’
He lowers his eyes and then shrugs and says, ‘You should know better than I, Kyran. How come you don’t fly away at night?’
I don’t answer, remembering fire and Majvaz wielding his knife on me. Falling with a broken wing and what it felt like to be lame. Daria stripping my crushed feathers and burning them, all save one that she locked in a casket with my circlet and handed as her bride gift to my brother. Another scar cut deep in my flesh that was slow to heal.
All I say is, ‘I can’t,’ and cover my face. My hands come away wet but I don’t care.
After a moment he says, ‘I’m not strong enough yet. I can’t fly that far. I’m like the raven in the old tale, sent out to find land. Kyran, there is none. I never saw so empty an ocean. So I returned.’
‘So your talk of starving in the boat was a lie. You would have watched us sail out of sight then changed form and flown away. Why didn’t you leave when you could?’
He is angry, but he keeps his voice low so as not to wake the ship. ‘I told you, I was hurt. I couldn’t fly far. Ask me rather why I helped you over the rooftops.
‘In that city don’t you think they took pains to clip my wings? It was one of the more exotic diversions they had on sale. My lovers paid for the pleasure of teasing out my feathers every new moon. They were trophies. At one time, the nobles in the city wore them like jewels.
‘Then, when that fashion faded and it became a less exclusive amusement, they swept them up and hoarded them in sacks sold to stuff pillows. I was a prisoner for a long time, Kyran, more years than you can easily count.’
At his words, I shiver. I forget he can read my mind and shock has opened it to him. He looks at me, face lit by the setting moon. ‘Don’t your feathers grow back, Kyran?’
Indeed, I had not thought of that. But then I remember my circlet and the feather, locked away in my brother’s castle on the other side of the world.
‘You don’t need a circlet to fly.’ His voice is soft and he is right. But I don’t want to know. It has been so long since I even dreamed of testing my powers. And now... to try and perhaps to fail.
I lash out at him, hating him because I thought I was resigned to my lot. He has brought back the anguish of my loss. ‘Leave me alone! Fly away if you can. I won’t try to stop you, and no, I won’t tell Razvan or anyone else.’
He seizes me by the shoulders, and for a moment I wonder what he might do. Then he presses the feather into my hand. ‘Keep it for me.’ Then he stretches out, pulling the blankets around him, and soon he is asleep.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts