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«The Sea Watch», Adrian Tchaikovsky

Part One

 

Those Who Move on the Face of the Waters

 

One

Four years ago

Above all, what the boy remembered was the rushing of the waters as his head finally broke through. Paladrya was pushing from behind, forcing him up towards the surface. He could feel the urgency merely through her touch: she who was normally so mild.

Marcantor was ashore already, a tall, narrow form just visible amongst a labyrinth of dark and darker. The boy fell back. It was not because of the air’s bitter chill on his skin, at that moment. He did not even recognize the awful emptiness of the sky above. It was that clustering darkness, the darkness of the forest, the knotted overreaching of the clawing trees. Even with the sea still lapping about his calves he realized he was in an alien world.

Marcantor stepped forward, reaching out a hand, but the boy twitched back. The narrow-framed man regarded him bleakly: in the moon’s light his face was more than readable, and the boy saw what tight control he exercised. All the boy’s fears were written in miniature on the man’s face, and the boy knew he should offer him some comforting words, some echo of his heritage, but he had none to give.

Paladrya was beside him, the tide swirling about her legs. She put an arm about the boy’s shoulders and hugged him to her. With the seawater still streaming off her he could not tell for sure if she was weeping or not. They shivered together in the unexpected cold, a breeze from within the trees chilling them drier.

‘Get the cloaks out,’ she hissed at Marcantor. ‘He’s freezing to death. We all are. Where’s Santiren? Must I do everything?’

Marcantor was a foot and a half taller than she was, lean and angular, his armour sculpted – helm and breastplate and bracers all – into flowing lines of pale bone. He had his spear loose in one hand, its barbed-needle head dipping in the water. For a second the boy thought he would use it against her. Paladrya faced him off, though, in her expression only an angry reminder of his place and hers, and the boy’s. She was shorter, her body rounded and a little plump where the warrior’s was hard, but she had authority. Even in this illicit venture, she was the leader, he the follower. Marcantor scowled and began to cut open a package sealed with a rind of vegetable-leather, using the horny teeth that jutted from the palms of his hands. They trembled now, those hands, from cold or from fear of the unknown. The boy wanted to reach out to him, but his own fear was too great. He had looked up: there was nothing above them but the moon. The world was suddenly without limits and it filled him full of awe and terror. But that is fitting, he decided. What we have done today is also beyond all limits.

Marcantor thrust something at him: dry cloth, a cloak. Paladrya took it before the boy could, draping it over his shoulders. It was short, thin, barely blunting the wind. He clutched it to himself gratefully. A similar garment went to Paladrya herself, shrugged over the close shift that she wore. Marcantor had acquired something longer for himself, his slender frame half swallowed by it.

Abruptly another tall, thin shape was with them, a woman as lean and towering as Marcantor, each of them reaching seven feet in their peaked helms. She was already cloaked, picking her way, with deliberate care, over the arching, leg-like roots of the shoreline trees. Santiren had been Paladrya’s co-conspirator for longer, since before the boy had even been aware of a conspiracy. She had visited this freezing, boundless place before, several times. Her face held no fear of it, only the shadow of their common desperation.

‘Any sign of followers?’ she asked.

‘None.’ Paladrya was still shivering. Her face, which the boy had always seen as beautiful, was taut with tension now. ‘None yet. And I will return and turn aside any such as do come.’

‘No!’ the boy said, too loud. ‘You can’t leave me!’

Paladrya held him out at arm’s length. She had been his tutor since his eighth year, and he had loved her a long time, in that silent, awkward way that boys often love their mentors. ‘They’ll kill you,’ he protested.

‘Not if I’m back swiftly enough that they cannot suspect me,’ she said, but he knew enough not to believe her.

‘They’ll torture you,’ he said.

‘And find out what? Santiren has made the arrangements. I know your fate from here on no more than they.’

‘But they will torture you. Do you think the Edmir will not?’

Her expression was infinitely sad. ‘I have hopes that Claeon.. that the Edmir will not do so. I am no stranger to him, no unknown flesh to be torn.’

‘He’s right, you should come,’ Santiren said, and the boy’s heart leapt with hope.

Paladrya just shook her head, though. ‘I will accomplish more back in the colony. Do not fear for me. There is yet work to be done.’

He did his best, then, to memorize her face in the cold moonlight: the elegant curve of her cheek, her large eyes that the moon bleached grey but that he knew were violet, the dripping ringlets of her hair.

‘Be safe,’ she told him. ‘Your time will come.’ She hugged him to her again, and he found that he was crying like a child. ‘Santiren,’ he heard her say, his face still pressed to her shoulder. ‘Your accomplice?’

‘Is here, watching,’ the tall woman told her. ‘Fear not, all is ready.’


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