Sister of Starlit Seas
In the late-night hours of the second day of the full moon, I slip from my concealment to begin my latest mission. I will be instantly visible should I leave the shadows, so I stay close within their cover, my thoughts on my intended rescue and the importance of its success. I am young still—I know this—yet I am much more capable than my seventeen years might suggest. Well seasoned by three years of hard living and perilous adventures, I can now do what many others cannot.
When I left Viridian Deep, I was considered little more than a wayward and somewhat difficult child: Charlayne—known by all as Char—the youngest daughter of Ancrow the Magnificent. (My bitter appellation for a mother I never really knew and have come to resent.) I had three other sisters and a brother who were all so much more accomplished and well regarded than I was. So I was bold and careless and ready to risk my life on every occasion just to gain some attention, and was therefore considered a needless risk-taker.
But to me, it never felt needless. There was always something in me that drove me to recklessness, as if there was a part of my being that lay undiscovered and unfulfilled. And if I could just locate that part, then I would finally be able to settle down instead of always searching around the next corner for whatever adventure or revelation might await.
I have not yet found what I am searching for, but my restless wandering has led me to Jagged Reach, a large island in the Helles—a warmer and more tropical sea than the one that bordered my homeland. There I joined a pirate crew—and in the peril and risk and freedom of life on the open seas, I almost found what I was looking for.
Better yet, I have finally fallen in love.
And if that love is to have a future, I remind myself sternly, then I had better get on with what I am doing.
The docks are layered with dew from a midnight fog, not to mention scattered raindrops and the constant swell of brine. The dampness makes the wooden slats underfoot slick and treacherous, but I have no fear. I never have. It is what makes me such a good pirate.
I tread carefully in the blanketing darkness, stepping slowly, carefully, and purposefully. I am a warrior, a paladin, an archangel of fire and fury. I carry my weapons strapped across my thighs, down my back, and about my waist, and I wear my heart on my sleeve—for I am all that stands between death and my intended. Without me, he will surely perish—and that I cannot allow.
And perhaps—perhaps!—this rescue will finally prove how much he needs me.
With a surge of hope, I continue on. I have a destination, and I need to reach it before sunrise.
The way forward is clear. It is late, and those who work these docks are mostly asleep. There are night watchmen on patrol, but I know their ways and can avoid them. Also, each ship keeps a nighttime watch, though the sailors assigned mostly only come out on the half hour for a quick look around, then hastily retreat back into the warmth of their cabins. There are dangers in the dockland world, to be sure, but while death has nodded my way more than a few times, it has never come as close to me as it has to others.
Down the shore, the oyster catchers are readying their craft to enter the adjoining rivers that feed into the Helles. I can hear their stays being tightened and their anchors being raised. Men’s deep voices rise up in the dark, intermingled now and then with the higher-pitched shouts of women. Fishing is an equal-opportunity endeavor, where both sexes work together. Not all professions are so balanced, but fishing requires a closeness—a trust and a sharing—that some types of work do not. Duties are shared, and earnings are spread out equally. I could have chosen this work once, back when I first came to the island of Jagged Reach and the city of Pressia. But I chose another way—a better way, which shares many of the same advantages—and I am not one to look back.
I have never been, and never will be.
I slip past the oyster piers and continue on to where the warehouses loom in huge dark blocks of timber and stone. Here the docks are longer and more heavily timbered, to handle the oceangoing freighters and monstrous haulers. Here the heavy-laden carriers must load and unload their goods—everything from timber and steel to woolens and appliances. Yet what comes here is not what goes out, because their services benefit two worlds. This island lies between the Fae lands and the Human provinces, so the bonds of trade—some of it illegal—bind our two peoples in ways that transcend both worlds. In most places, there is a defined separation—a refusal of the one world to even believe in the presence of the other. But on these islands, in the safety of the waters of the Helles, it is possible for each to engage with the other. Here the wards that separate the two worlds have weakened sufficiently to allow for Fae and Human to interact and coexist on a different and more productive scale.
It surprised me at first, this forbidden intermingling of Fae and Human. I had been taught it was an impossibility—that the wards of the Fae forbade it from happening. But as with so many things we are taught in our childhood, there are exceptions to every rule. And Jagged Reach has been one such exception for a thousand years. Yes, there are rules governing the exchanges between Human and Fae, and yes, some restrictions still apply. But people, no matter their origins, gravitate toward one another, and the more you interact, the harder it becomes to see your neighbor as all that different from yourself.
It is one of the things I have come to love most about my life in Jagged Reach, how I see around me every day a multiplicity of people, all different from me, amid which my own green skin and leafy hair stand out not a bit. Besides, how else can you explain my having fallen in love as I have? How else can you explain my willingness to risk so much for a Human—someone who is considered by most of the Fae as an impossible match?
I slide along the walls of the nearest warehouse, deep within the shadows, looking hard at what lies about me. Discovery now would be disastrous, so I cannot make a wrong move at this point. My eyes shift from one docking site to another, from one vessel to a second, from one worn plankway filled with movement to a score of others so that nothing escapes my notice.
I spy the dock lookout as he approaches from some distance ahead of me, well out in the bright exposure of the moonlight, his attention fixed on the piers. I know him instantly. He is a mean piece of work we call Crouch for his tendency to walk with a bent, lurching gait, his head lowered. He shambles rather than walks, but his strength is enormous. I have seen him brutalize more than one unhappy soul in the supposed pursuit of his duties. Mostly, I think, he enjoys hurting others—especially when so many he encounters are smaller and weaker than he is. I once watched him kill a man by twisting his head about and dumping his lifeless body aside like so much garbage.
I don’t want anything to do with him, but he is not near enough to see me yet, so I must hide before he gets much closer and let him pass. He carries a triad staff, the better to employ the inish he commands. I do not fear him, but I do not underestimate him, either. He does not command the inish power of a Watcher, as Harrow does, but then neither do I. So I must not engage him.
I settle into the relative concealment of a warehouse entry where the shadows are deep. With his eyes fully exposed to the moonlight, Crouch’s vision will be severely limited. He will pass me by unknowingly, and I will be little more than another piece of the shadows that hide me. All I need to do is remain still and make no sound—something I am immensely good at these days.
I wait patiently for his passage, already frozen in place. Favor smiles on me, for he passes me by without a look and goes on down the dock without glancing back.
I wait until he is out of sight and proceed once more, easing my way toward the Faraway Trades Company’s Warehouse #3, where I will find what I am looking for. Gulls perch on pilings and abandoned wharf ends, resting in huddled groups. A few calls ring out, shrill and somewhat chilling, but none move or startle as I pass. From farther back, cranes draw in heavy ropes, and chains clank in an endless clatter, as the unloading of a heavy cross-channel freighter commences. I welcome the disruption of these sounds, which draw attention away from me. I give them a few moments of continued activity, then push on.
Time is passing. I feel it slipping away.
I move more quickly now, sliding along the warehouse fronts, counting off the piers projecting out into the water, their lengths littered with machinery. Cranes for heavy pallets and boxcars. Lifts for fishing gear and light surplus. Spans for drying and cleaning nets and harpoons. Bins for fish before they are washed and prepared for sale. Racks for weapons and light armor. Tubs for gear that will need cleaning and drying.
I give it all a careful look as I pass. There are too many hooks and gaffs for my taste. Too many blades and spears. Too many ways to bring things to ground that wish only to be free.