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Chapter 2: Strangers
Vivaen – The Helit Sea
The Helit was the most tranquil sea in the world, Vivaen’s sailor friends had said. She shouldn’t be afraid to ride its subtle waves, or trust its gentle eddies, they’d assured her.
What a lot of horseshit that had turned out to be.
Storm after storm all the way since Atlin. She felt like a mouse trapped in a barrel that was about to smash against the rocks.
The cramped quarters belowdecks had been built by the Loralanders to transport exotic animals for their arenas. Loralander graffiti was still scratched into the hull, and in every berth the names of former occupants were etched alongside crude drawings of the animals—fierce bears, nimble deer, even lions. When Vivaen’s people had captured the ship, they’d not been arsed about fitting it for human passengers.
Probably they hadn’t known how—Feislander ships were much different than this great hulk.
Another wave jostled the ship, and Vivaen dug her nails into the wood of her bunk. She preferred it abovedeck, where she could at least see what was happening, but when the sickness had spread amongst the noble passengers, the crewmen had started refusing the women entry to the upper levels of the ship. Last time Vivaen had tried, she’d been all but thrown down the stairs, never mind that she was handmaiden to a princess.
Sailors were all cunts really, even the ones she called friends. As soon as the weather turned bad, or a catch didn’t fetch as fine a price as a crew had hoped, it was the women who were blamed. Women on a ship were ill luck.
And Vivaen was the illest luck of all.
She’d told her man as much months ago. Her man, as if she ever held fast to anyone long enough to lose them. Well, now she was trapped on the ship, packed up like so much luggage. She’d lost him, or he’d lost her, all so she could tip-toe after Princess Bree like a bear ready to be baited.
Across the hold, Bree retched into her bucket. Queen Eaflied was fussing at her daughter’s side and stooped beside the bunk to dab at Bree’s dirtied face with a cloth several days past clean.
Vivaen wrinkled her nose. She’d never liked Bree much. The fourteen-year-old princess was meek and boring, barely interested in anything besides whether or not her mysterious Massenqa husband would be handsome, or what kinds of fashions everyone would be wearing when they arrived. Would her blue wool dress with the silver shoulder clasps still turn heads, or would her intended think it plain? What if Prince Ashtaroth was warty all over? What if he was fat and hairy?
A stupid girl. If she had any sense, she’d be more worried over his temper, over whether he’d make an adequate lover, over whether she could both whelp his heir and survive the process.
Bree sobbed as her mother stroked her hair, and Vivaen’s cold heart tightened. This was no way to spend the voyage to meet your betrothed.
It was no way to die.
And after all, compared with Vivaen’s twenty-one years, Bree was only a child. Of course she was shit conversation. Vivaen fiddled with the hem of her skirt—she herself wouldn’t have minded a blue wool dress with silver clasps, nor a handsome face to keep her company as the sea tossed them about.
Not just any face. Her man had been as fine a catch as she’d ever made—the fire to her frost. Not that she’d told him so, for he’d been a scoundrel through and through, her fire. He’d taken his tithe in compliments from every woman in town, and Vivaen had been loathe to add to the heap at his feet. Lying and teasing were what made it fun. They were what made it safe. If you pretended not to care, you could convince yourself you didn’t, so it hurt less when it ended.
When they died.
But maybe she had melted some when he kissed her. No—not just melted, she’d been set alight. And lying beside him, she’d slumbered peacefully for the first time since she’d been a young child. She should have told him that much, when she’d had the chance. He’d fallen at her feet spilling words of love, and she’d clutched her truths to her breast and crushed his confessions beneath her toes.
Oh, but his tongue had felt good as it had teased her.
Unlikely that Princess Bree had ever been touched by a man like that, and now she never would be.
Vivaen gazed at the empty bunks dotting this part of the hull—a testament to Bree’s chances. Their small party, once composed of male guards, three more serving girls, and one of Bree’s cousins, had shrunk to the size of three: Princess Bree, Queen Eaflied, and Vivaen.
Vivaen always survived.
The thought summoned ghosts. She drummed her fingers against her bunk, fending off memories she’d rather keep buried: the smell of damp earth, the grimy walls of the pit, the rain pelting the trees. The clink-clunk of Loralanders approaching, the drag of their carts across the muddy forest floor.
She squeezed her eyes shut. Fuck, but she was stronger than this.
The ship tilted wildly again, jolting Vivaen from the memory to more immediate dangers: Bree’s sickness, the possibility of the ship drowning them all before the sickness even mattered. Somehow these thoughts calmed the panic bubbling in her lungs and throat.
At least when Bree died, Vivaen could count on passage home. The chests of gold and silver, of furs and votives, would pass to Vivaen if the disease took princess and queen both—assuming, anyway, that the sailors didn’t throw her overboard with the corpses.
Though her long-dead father had been an eastern chieftain—a digan—in his own right, Vivaen could never have been content playing Bree’s part. Ostentation was a trap. Bad things happened to you when you were noticed. Better to be forgotten, but alive and happy, loitering at the docks to sell her wares, listening to stories and playing coy with the handsome visitors to Atlin’s harbour.
That was all over if Bree lived.
Vivaen swallowed, gaze fixed on the golden-haired girl currently heaving her guts out into a pail, and hope blossomed in Vivaen’s belly. If it came to it, she’d rather Bree fall to her fever than be forced to continue the voyage to Qemassen.
Already she missed her home in Atlin, with its surrounding swathes of flatland, its fens, its thick forests of oak and elm. She smiled for a moment, glancing at the wood chest at her feet. All it would take was the wrong vial from Vivaen’s collection of medicines, and she could be sure they would make it back to the Feislands.
She wouldn’t really do it, of course. She was a bitch, but she wasn’t heartless.
A wave rocked the ship, the planks groaning. At the docks back home, sailors told stories of tempests like this, of the monsters the storms whipped into a frenzy. Maybe a monster circled the boat now, battering its serpentine body against the hull, coiling and squeezing the mast till the wood cracked, snapping off the oars.
Bree wailed and Queen Eaflied beckoned Vivaen over. Vivaen made a face, but grabbed her medicines and crept, wobbly from the ship’s tipping, to her mistress’s side. Bree’s eyes were sunken, her lips pale and trembling. Her beautiful curls were limp, scraggly, and puke-caked. Her mother held back her hair while Vivaen rifled through remedies.
“There’s not much left,” Vivaen warned Eaflied. She shook the small vial of mint and yarrow decoction, making calculations in her head. “We ought to save it.”
Save it for people who had a chance. Bree was more than pale; she looked a corpse already.
Eaflied glared at Vivaen and snatched the vial. “She’s sick now. We can worry about later when later comes.”
If later comes.
The queen’s lips were drawn in a thin line, but tears threatened to burst from her eyes. Eaflied was beautiful like her daughter, though her hair was coarse and grey, and her face heavily lined. She had hard blue eyes to match a calculating stare. The queen was the kind of woman men sang songs about, full-bodied like a shield-maiden. With her colouring and figure she could have been an Aeshcommaeni warrior from the far north, and maybe she did have some of their blood in her.
Vivaen was out of place in such company. Men liked Vivaen’s ample bosom—Eaflied’s words—but her dark brown eyes were too large in her narrow face, a face others had called sneaky in the past. She was raven-haired, like most of her tribe, with cream-white skin that burned rather than tanned. She might be a digan’s daughter, but she was no princess.
Bree coughed and spat more vomit into the tin pail in front of her. “It hurts,” she bubbled.
“Be strong, child. You’ll be well soon. Drink this.” Eaflied’s voice was uncharacteristically soft as she emptied far too much of the remedy into a small cup. Vivaen let it go. Kindness was costly, but so was arguing with a queen over her dying child.
The girl downed the draught and slumped against the dividing wall, eyes closed. Her breathing was strained and irregular, but the mint should settle her stomach.
Queen Eaflied got up, leaving her daughter to rest, and Vivaen followed her on unsteady feet to the opposite corner of the cabin. Before Vivaen had a chance to sit down on her modest bunk, Eaflied grabbed hold of her elbow.
Vivaen flinched, fighting the urge to run.
You’re safe, you’re safe, you’re safe. Be still.
She laid her own hand over her mistress’s, calm as she could.
Eaflied’s blue eyes caught Vivaen’s like a fisherman snaring a stick of eels. “She’s dying, isn’t she?” Eaflied asked. “She won’t make it to Ashtaroth’s bed.” She let go of Vivaen’s arm.
Would Eaflied prefer the truth or a kind lie? Vivaen wasn’t so good at kindness, but lies came easily enough. In the end though, she chose the harder path and nodded slowly.
The queen didn’t crumble at the answer. She cracked her wrists, her face a mask. “We can’t lose this alliance.”
Or the Loralanders would come.
The threat of conquest hung in the space between them. It was the threat of Lorar that kept Eaflied steady, Vivaen realized.
Her fear is her shield.
She envied Eaflied her strength, if strength it was. Whenever Vivaen thought on Lorar, on the possibility they would cut deeper into Feislander territory, on the notion that even the dignae and jorlmen’s alliance behind King Ossa wouldn’t save her people, her instinct was to run. She could tell Eaflied had never considered running in her life. It must be why Eaflied was queen, and Vivaen was no one. Better to be no one than be dead.
She cast her gaze downward, running through their options. “We’ll catch a ship back from Qemassen, find another bride. There’s Aoiffa Odicsdottir, or Raethaena.” Vivaen counted the possibilities. “Eshmunen’s waited twenty years, he can wait a few months more. They need us as much as we need them.” She said it as much to convince herself as Eaflied.
But Eaflied scoffed. “Aoiffa is barren as salted earth, and Raethaena is four. You know what these southerners are like, so fixed on ceremonies and promises. It took my husband years to convince these people he was a king proper. The Loralanders could be at their gates and they’d still be niggling the details.”
“Then let them niggle.” Vivaen’s voice was firm, though her heart thudded in her chest. “We’ll survive on our own.”
They wouldn’t. Vivaen would. She always survived.
“We might survive, but at what cost?” pressed Eafied. “You’ve seen what Lorar does to those who refuse their rule. Would you see it again?”
Vivaen shuddered, her earlier panic banging at her own gates. It was the same threat Eaflied and Ossa had used to force her onto this ship in the first place. Bree had needed women to accompany her, and Vivaen had been a prize, with her knowledge of the language and her experience with the Massenqa sailors who traded in Atlin. There’d been another daughter before Bree, a much older girl who’d grown up learning Massenqa so she’d be prepared for her marriage. But that girl had died. Bree was all that remained.
For now, anyway. If they needed a sign from the gods the venture was cursed, this was it.
“We set sail for Qemassen,” Eaflied continued, “and Qemassen is where we’ll land. Ashtaroth will make do with what’s at hand.”
Vivaen’s heart may as well have stopped in her chest. An animal noise—half grunt, half whine—escaped her throat, like she wasn’t in control of her own body. “I don’t want to.” Her voice sounded small. She balled her fingers into her fists, burying her nails in her palms, reopening old punctures.
“It wasn’t a question.” Eaflied’s tone softened. “It no longer matters what you want. What difference does it matter if you live in Qemassen as a servant, or as a queen? Did you think you could sneak your way back home after a few years?”
Vivaen glared. “I’m no better than Aoiffa or Raethaena. My father’s a dead digan—they won’t even know his name down south.”
“Your father won’t be dead once we reach Qemassen.”
She shook her head, lip trembling, and collapsed onto her cot. “I’m no princess,” Vivaen hissed. “Bree was bred for this. What will Eshmunen do when he finds us out? They called me a whore in Atlin. Do you want them to call your daughter a whore?”
The queen’s brow twitched in distaste. “A little lost dignity is worth the Feislands.”
Vivaen met the queen’s gaze. “I won’t survive. You don’t know these people like I do.” A Massenqa sailor was good for a tussle, but they were people of ceremony, of pedantry. Maybe to Eaflied, Vivaen’s identity was a tiny detail, but the Massenqa traded in detail.
Eaflied gripped Vivaen by her shoulders. “But you’re supposed to, and you’ll live better than my daughter did. Your king doesn’t need you to be loved or respected by the Massenqine, only married to one. You’ll take my daughter’s name, whether you deserve the honour or not.” Her eyes were stone.
The waves lulled for a moment, but the creaks of the ship mirrored the creeping dread that shivered across her skin. She stroked her arm. “They say the prince is sickly. What happens to me if he dies? Where do I go?”
“Wherever they tell you to go.”
Vivaen shook her head, turning to face the wall, but the queen grasped her chin, forcing her head back.
“You’ll be what I tell you and no less,” said Eaflied, her words tense as her fingers as they pinched Vivaen’s jaw. “I gave up my only living child to this gamble. If you refuse me, I’ll throw you to the waves, and if the sea doesn’t swallow you, I’ll hunt you down myself and toss you into a hole so deep you’ll find Caern’s serpents waiting at the bottom.”
A hole so deep . . . .
Vivaen’s open skies, her fields and fens. Her lover’s fire snuffed out in Atlin’s harbour as he searched for her along the dockyard.
The vessel lurched to the side, and Vivaen and Eaflied grabbed hold of each other to stop from falling to the floor. Vivaen knew, in that moment, that if they landed in Qemassen alive, she would never sleep soundly again, for the baying of Caern’s hounds would follow her always, and the rank earth of the Loralander’s pit would be her resting place.
And if her man should search for her, should follow her trail all the way to Qemassen? Even if he found her, she would be so very far above him, so very high. She shuddered, thinking of the punishments meted out to wanton women, the tortures her Massenqa contacts had described for her in such riveting detail. It wasn’t so riveting now.
Across the room, Bree wailed again, and Eaflied let go of Vivaen to brave the quaking floorboards and coo tender reassurances at her daughter. Vivaen could only fall back onto her bed, pressing herself into the corner of the walls as far as possible, hands clamped over her ears as she tried to remind herself where she was.
You’re not in the ground, you’re not in the ground, you’re not in the ground.
The screaming in her head grew louder with the storm-ravaged screeching of the ship: the memory of two children sobbing in the mud as the dogs circled above them, the heavy clanging of their masters’ armour. The oaks seemed to reach for the stars, calling out to the gods to save them. The phantom fingers of her parents hung down like roots, tickling her skin, impossibly long.
“It’s all right,” she whispered to herself, and to a dead sister who would never let her rest. “It’s all right. I won’t leave you. I won’t. I won’t leave you. See? It’s light out. The dawn is coming. It’s all right. I won’t leave you.”