“Denizen, you rotten cutthroat!” Kaly yelled from under the pirate. Her voice was only slightly muffled by the floor. “Get off of me or I’ll–”
“Or you’ll what?” Denizen snarled. “Throw a cantrip at me?” He glanced at Adheera, but the other female only stared with wide eyes; she did not approach. He returned his attention to the healer beneath his knee. “I could crush you before you breathed another word if you raised your blade again.”
Kaly stilled. Denizen knew she could still fight, if she must; he’d sparred with her often enough over the years, and watched her do tricks he could never match. And he hadn’t attempted to injure her; he had her pinned, nothing more.
But most of her magics were focused on healing, not battle. And even she had lacked the skill to heal the last three people who had gotten him this angry.
“Let me up,” she said again, her voice shaking more than it should have. “Please.”
Denizen narrowed his eyes, but he finally decided her weakness was not an act. He shifted his weight to release her as he placed himself between the baby and the two women.
Kaly pushed herself to her knees, and there she remained for several minutes. “Denizen, look at his eyes,” she insisted.
Denizen ignored the command. He ran the talons of one hand, lightly, through the baby’s creamy brown fur, still slick and darkened from the birthing and the interrupted bath. He snatched a towel up and began to caress the baby’s long fox-like ears, clearly inherited from the mage, until those ears could stand upright on their own, and then he began to dry the rest of the child.
“His eyes, Denizen,” Kaly repeated.
Denizen grunted. “They’re red,” he finally replied. “So what? I’ve had crewmates with red eyes before.”
“Not like that, you haven’t,” Kaly said. “Not that shade. Those are the eyes of the blood moon. The demon’s moon.” She watched the pirate carefully. “He must be sent back to them. You cannot hope to control him; demons turn on their masters.”
Denizen flinched at the words, so like the councilor’s own.
“What if we could tame him?” Adheera asked.
Kaly and Denizen stared at the other woman.
“Tame?” Kaly echoed.
“If he is demon spawn–” Adheera began.
“Who said anything about their spawn?” Denizen growled.
Adheera waved off the interruption. “Demon marked, then.” She bent over to peer at the baby’s eyes, but Denizen snatched him up and snarled at her before she could touch the infant.
Adheera didn’t even blink. “He would be linked to their magics, yes?”
“Yes,” Kaly replied. “Which is why he must be destroyed–”
“But don’t you see? We can use that!” Adheera’s eyes glittered. “Such links go both ways. Perhaps we cannot control the demons, but the child could.” She hesitated. “With proper training, of course.”
“Sure we could,” Denizen muttered. He rolled his eyes.
Kaly frowned. “Impossible,” she said. “I am a healer, Adheera, and no one else about has strong enough magics–”
“I have,” Adheera replied. She strode past Denizen without giving him, or the infant, another glance, and fetched a book from Kaly’s shelves. “I don’t have your healing magics, Kalyptos,” she continued, flipping through the book as she spoke, “but my master has trained me in binding demons.”
Kaly scowled and opened her mouth. “But—”
Adheera looked up from the book and stared the healer down.
Kaly’s eyes lost their focus under that glare. She opened her mouth again as her head started bobbing up and down….
“No,” Denizen hissed.
Kaly blinked. She looked over to see Denizen cradle the child in his arms, sheltered from the women, shielded from their sight. Her eyes became focused again as he watched her.
“He needs my training,” Adheera protested, transferring her glare to the pirate. “Else he’ll never be more than their tool, their weapon to strike whoever strays too close. You cannot protect something like that!”
“You’d make him your tool, then?” Denizen laughed. Adheera’s eyes widened before narrowing again. “No. My crew rescued his parents; I delivered them to the healer.” He glared at Kaly. “I’ll take responsibility for him.”
“You’re not serious,” Kaly said.
“I am,” Denizen replied. “The demons will never have him.”
“If you are so certain…” Kaly gestured at the pages Adheera had opened. She turned back to Denizen. “Name him. Let us bind this power before they can use it.”
“I–” Denizen hesitated.
There was no choice. If the child was nameless, he was vulnerable. The demons could take him, no matter what the pirate had vowed.
But names had power. Any name would not only bind the so-called demon who had marked the child, it would bind the child, as well. The boy could not escape being someone’s tool.
“I cannot read that script,” Denizen said, to buy a little time. He looked away before more than a handful of letters, scattered across the page, had burned into his mind.
He shuddered at the sensation.
“Typical pirate,” Kaly muttered. “Adheera–”
“Voalt,” Denizen quickly said. Random letters, he reasoned. No meaning, but what he’ll make of it. Nothing to bind him. That should be safe… He took a deep breath. Shouldn’t it? “His name is Voalt.”
The town gathered that night to send the deceased on their way. They laid the bodies together in a rowboat, and filled the boat with offerings of grog, or coin and small treasures.
The procession went on all night, as other ships pulled in to port, and their crews learned the tale and left their own offerings to the dead.
Finally, when the sun’s first rays touched the sky, Fahd stepped forward and knelt in front of the deceased pair. “I pray that your gods will forgive us,” he muttered to the bodies, “strangers who do not know your ways, and cannot spare a better ship for your journey.”
He raised his voice. “We come,” he said to the crowd behind him, “many peoples, from many lands, to honor these strangers as our own. We knew them only days, and they knew us not at all. But in their deaths, they were as our own. No matter the troubles that led to their fate, we pray, each to our own fashion, that they reach Fiddler’s Green, or whatever land they call their final home.”
A gentle murmur flowed through the crowd.
At Denizen’s nod, Fahd took a torch and lit the funeral boat before pushing it out to sea.
The pyre grew high as the boat floated out of sight.
After the funeral, Denizen’s crew prepared to return to their ship as quickly as etiquette allowed.
Denizen waited until the land was out of sight before sticking his head into the brig. “You can come out now.”
Jericho climbed out. “I still say I should have gone with you.”
“Among that crowd?” Denizen snorted. “Not a chance. No telling if any of them worked for that councilor of yours.”
The young man’s face paled.
“Maybe not all pirates are the villains we’re made out to be,” Fahd added, “but enough are. You can’t afford to let on that you’ve survived. Not yet.”
“I feel like…like I dishonored them by hiding,” Jericho insisted. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “Like I disrespected the Goddess.”
Fahd placed a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “You show them greater honor,” he said, “by surviving. You will show your goddess greater respect by telling your people what happened.”
Jericho stared at the desert man for several moments. Then his shoulders slumped, and he sighed. “I can’t do that, sir.”
“Why not?” Denizen asked.
“You didn’t kill him, did you, sir?”
“I was tempted,” Denizen admitted. “But your navies leave well enough alone when we only rob people. I’ve no wish to invite their wrath if your mages find us murderers. Not for the likes of him.”
“But I can’t go back home, not if he survived. I’d never have a chance to tell anyone. I’d be dead the moment I set foot on the island. Or he’ll go after my girls. Or I–”
Fahd snarled. “You’ll shirk your duties to your goddess, is what you mean.”
Jericho flinched. “I have always accepted my duties,” he insisted, “if they are within my abilities.”
“Aye, and who’s to say they’re not?” Fahd replied. “Can you gauge your skills better than an experienced pirate? Or better than your goddess?”
“You’re wasting your breath, Fahd,” Denizen growled. “We’ll just drop him off at the next port.”
“But–but, sir—” Jericho tried to protest.
Denizen shook his head. “No. I’ll not have any freeloaders on my ship. You can fend for yourself; you choose not to.”
“I can learn,” Jericho insisted. “I can help, you know I can! I’ve proven my worth in the storm. Your people can teach me to fight.”
Fahd snorted. “Why? What’s the use of learning if you never use it?”
“I will!” Jericho snapped. “If I have to. When I go back…” He blinked. “Back to…Ierne…. ”
Denizen and Fahd exchanged glances. Then Fahd started laughing.
Denizen grinned. “Welcome to the crew, signer,” he said.
The entire crew congratulated the stunned youth for several hours before Fahd could get Denizen alone again. The desert man handed over a crystal medallion, cut to the shape of a leaf.
Denizen peered at the medallion closely. “Wasn’t the mage wearing this?” he finally asked.
Fahd nodded. “I took it for the boy’s inheritance,” he replied, “along with a few other trinkets.”
“You took it.” Denizen lifted an eyebrow. “From the mage.”
“Aye, sir. And well that I did.” Fahd growled deep in his throat like the cat he was named for. “A mage’s belongings should be destroyed on his death, or passed to one who would use it well. Not left with his corpse for anyone to find.”
Denizen shrugged. “We’re not responsible for every fool grave robber out there–”
“Aye, but when the thief robs us of our offerings, I wonder at his intent,” Fahd replied.
Denizen scowled. “Our offerings? What do you mean?”
“I kept watch all night; I saw what was left. But when I prayed over them, every stone we’d left was gone!”
Denizen’s scowl became a stare. “What of the other ships’ offerings?”
Fahd shook his head. “From our crew, only.”
“The other ships left more than we could ever give,” Denizen said. He frowned. “Why would someone go to that trouble, to only rob from us?”
“Perhaps the thief did not know they were offerings,” Fahd muttered. “The mage came from our ship. Perhaps the thief thought they belonged to the dead.”
Denizen’s eyes grew wide. “Who would be fool enough to steal from a mage?” He shuddered. “Especially from his funeral trappings.”
“Who indeed, but another mage?” Fahd snarled. “And who else could do it under my watch?”
Several minutes passed before Denizen broke the silence. “I think it will be a while before we return to that port.”
And with that, we have the end of the prologue and the end of the free sample of this novel-in-progress.
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