“Keltorax!” Kelta shouted.
The men aboard the ship spun around, looking for the owner of the voice, and spotted Kelta standing down on the pier. They gave her curious looks that changed to stares as they saw what she wore around her neck.
“I have a letter for Haias Ganat,” she said calmly, but keeping the authoritative ring to her voice.
“I’ll call him,” one of them said, and gave her a hasty salute as he ran down the nearest hatch. It was the trophy hanging from her neck that earned her the salute. A travel-worn fifteen-year-old wouldn’t normally merit any respect from the warriors of a mercenary ship like the Keltorax.
Kelta waited patiently on the pier, looking up at the small ship. It was a suitably ordinary vessel: sharp and narrow in the prow, with triangular blue sails and a long row of oar ports along the hull. The only unusual feature was the skeleton of a drachon mounted as the ship’s figurehead, with its eye sockets painted red and its long claws and fangs painted gold. Kelta touched the matching fangs that hung around her neck on a leather cord. She didn’t believe in omens, but it felt right that she had killed her own drachon just before reaching this port and this drachon-ship.
The man who had gone in search of the captain re-appeared, followed by an enormous man with unbraided hair that flew around his stern face like a lion’s mane, shining gold in the sun. His eyes were bright blue, his cheeks tanned and scarred. The large man, presumably Haias Ganat, strode across the deck and came to the head of the gangplank, looking down at her.
“Pharon says you have a letter for me?” he asked. His eyes lingered on the trophy around her neck before moving back to her face.
“From Grand Haias Kastor,” Kelta said, and all along the rail, the watching men started whispering eagerly to each other. Kastor’s name never failed to get a reaction.
“Well, then, you’d best come aboard,” Haias Ganat said. Kelta followed his gesture up the ramp, her hand darting into her bag to retrieve the scroll tube as she did so. She held it out to Ganat as she reached the weather deck, and he took it, examining the embroidery around the cap with interest. “Did you come all the way from Poravia to deliver that?” he asked.
“He asked that you read it in private,” Kelta said, bypassing the question.
Ganat’s eyes widened with surprise, but he nodded. “I’ll read it in my cabin, then. Wait here.”
He returned the way he’d come, and Kelta stepped aside to avoid blocking the ramp. She purposefully moved away from the men clustered by the rail. Most of them reluctantly returned to their work, but a couple lingered near Kelta. One was the man who had run to fetch the captain, a middle-aged fellow with the carefully not-listening air of someone looking for gossip to spread — Pharon, the captain had called him. The other was a boy about Kelta’s age, his cheeks soft with youth and his limbs too long and gangly for his own good.
They tried to start a conversation, but Kelta barely heard their attempts at introducing themselves. She stood stiffly and kept her expressionless gaze fixed on the hatch where Haias Ganat had disappeared. After a moment, the pair gave up trying to talk to her.
“Now that’s discipline, Exion,” said the older man, Pharon, sounding half approving and half frustrated. “She hasn’t moved a muscle since she came aboard. You learn discipline like that, and you’ll finally beat Samos in a sparring match.”
“What does standing still have to do with sparring?” Exion asked.
“See how she doesn’t even look around?” Pharon said. “She doesn’t even shade her eyes against the sun. I doubt there’s anything in the world that could distract her. She’d never look away from her target, not with focus like that. And if she does look away, it’s probably a trap.”
“Oh,” Exion said, sounding embarrassed at his ignorance. Kelta could practically hear him flushing. She was fighting a blush of her own at the praise. Pharon was probably trying to get a reaction from her, though, and that knowledge helped her keep tight control over her feelings.
“She’s not even blushing,” muttered Pharon. “Like she hears people saying such things all the time.”
“Well, someone her age who walks up here with a trophy from one of the Four Teachers had better be talented enough to hear it all the time,” Exion said admiringly. If he added anything more, Kelta didn’t hear it: at that moment Ganat’s head poked up from the hatch and he caught Kelta’s gaze.
“Kelta, come down to my cabin, please,” he called.
Kelta crossed the deck, concentrating to compensate for the gentle roll of the harbor waves beneath the hull. She had been to sea before, but not recently; it would take her some time to get her sea legs again. She followed Ganat down the ladder into a surprisingly small cabin. The ships Kelta had been on before had large stern cabins with long tables for the captain to entertain guests, but Ganat’s cabin was cramped by comparison, with only a small square chart table, two chairs, and a padded bench under the stern windows. Doors to either side presumably led to even smaller spaces for sleeping and whatever else filled a captain’s time. Maybe one of the rooms was storage for charts and navigational instruments.
Ganat circled the table, where Kastor’s letter lay on top of several maps, and took the chair facing the door. Kelta closed the door behind her and stood to attention.
“Please, sit.” Ganat gestured to the chair across from him. Kelta saluted him formally, then drew out the chair and sat down. She found herself moving carefully, measuring each step and gesture. Her heart beat faster as the unhelpful voice in the back of her mind asked her quietly what she would do if Ganat refused Kastor’s request. That was extremely unlikely. But — what if he did?
Haias Ganat glanced down at the letter again, then back up at her. His eyes went to the ancestral pattern embroidered into the breast of her jacket with colored threads and beads. “You don’t show much,” he said after a moment. “But what you do show is impressive.” He raised an eyebrow at her, inviting her to explain why she only showed her clan, school, and teacher — Grand Haias Kastor himself. Kelta said nothing, but lifted one shoulder in a shrug.
“Not very talkative, are you?” Ganat said dryly. “I suppose you let your trophy do the talking.” He eyed her necklace of drachon fangs again. “Interesting, that your first trophy is a drachon when you’ve clearly studied far more snake style,” Ganat noted, “but I suppose it would be hard to meet a fathom snake if you haven’t gone to sea much before?”
Kelta gave a slight nod of agreement but declined his invitation to share more. As much as she wanted this position, she valued her anonymity more. He would either have to take her at Kastor’s word, or not at all.
Ganat sighed, visibly frustrated but not angry. He looked down at the letter, then back up at her again. “Kelta, if I’m going to make you a sorhaias on my ship, I need to know a bit more than what Kastor says. I’m fully prepared to take you on at his word; I believe him when he says you’re the finest student he’s ever trained. But then, why would his finest student want to become an officer on my obscure little ship instead of working your way up through his school or building a school of your own?”
Kelta pursed her lips. It wasn’t an unreasonable question, nor was his concern for his crew unreasonable. He wasn’t even asking her for important information, just some sort of assurance that she did, in fact, want to be here and serve as one of his officers. An unwilling sorhaias would be frustrating at best, dangerous at worst.
“I met the drachon on the Path of Autumn,” Kelta said.
Ganat’s expression instantly softened. The Path of Autumn was meant to guide people through grief. “I see,” he said. “And having walked that path, you don’t want to return to Kastor? I’m not sure I know anyone who would pass up an open invitation to study with him.”
Time for some calculated, empty truth. Kelta had found that there were many ways to keep a secret, but the two she favored most were plain silence or measured revelations of truth that satisfied curiosity without actually revealing anything. She had practiced both for years and considered them as much weapons as the two short swords belted at her hips.
She took a careful breath, glanced away from Ganat, let her gaze drop to the table, then slowly looked back at him without quite meeting his gaze. “I’m — I’m not ready to go back,” she said, letting her genuine weariness and pain seep through just enough to let Ganat glimpse the constant struggle of keeping her feelings under control.
Understanding filled Ganat’s face. Understanding and compassion. “It’s too familiar, I suppose. After a great loss — it can be hard to return home. I hope you can go back someday. It would be a great privilege to support you on your return to Kastor’s tutelage. But in the meantime, you are family, so you’re welcome aboard the Keltorax.
“Kastor tells me you have little experience at sea, but I know I needn’t question your fighting prowess. I’m going to place you before the mast for at least a season so you learn the business, but after that, unless you’re stunningly bad at sailing — and I’ve yet to meet someone who can’t be taught at least something of the trade — I see no reason to waste your skills by keeping you there. You may spend more time as a sorhaias than some others to make up for coming late to the trade, but I promise it will be time well spent.”
Kelta nodded, a remarkable amount of relief settling into her stomach. She allowed a little of it to show, and Ganat’s lips quirked into a smile. “You’re the only woman I have aboard, so even though you’re starting before the mast, I won’t make you berth with the seamen. There’s a small passenger cabin you can have. It’s not much, but on a ship this small you can’t expect more than that. You’ll work and mess with the rest of the crew, though. I’m not sure what considerations you’re accustomed to in Kastor’s school, but I run a fair ship. You’ll advance and earn favors based on your skills and character, not our relationship or your history.
“However, you will be treated with the respect due a woman aboard this ship. If anyone so much as gives you an inappropriate look, I want to hear about it. And—” He picked up the letter and rolled it back up, making sure to draw her attention to it— “you are my niece, even if we haven’t met before, and you’ll have the respect that relationship merits.”
He slid the letter back into its tube and tossed it behind him onto the bench. “We’re planning to set sail by the end of the week to accompany a convoy of Neborite merchants back to the far western coastlands. They’ve had some problems with Alokite pirates crossing the open mouth and circling around to prey on them at the cape. When can you be ready to sail?”
“Now,” Kelta told him.
Ganat gave her small shoulder bag a thoughtful look. “You travel light, I see. Well, then, move into the cabin when we’re finished here. I’ll show you where it is. Kastor asked that I not question you too closely or try to find out too much about you, so I won’t, but it is my habit to write to the parents of my sorhaiasi before we set sail. You’re not officially a sorhaias, but I mean to make you one as soon as you learn the basics of shipboard life. Do you have someone you’d like me to contact?”
Kelta’s lips stiffened and she felt herself drawing back as she shook her head.
“No one?” Ganat asked, mildly surprised.
Kelta shook her head again.
Ganat frowned, and again glanced at her family pattern — or rather, the lack of any family connections stitched into her pattern. “Kelta, are you in some danger that I need to be aware of? Something that might affect the safety of my crew? I can protect you, and I’m more than willing to do so. You are, after all, my niece. But I need to know.”
Kelta shook her head. Her mouth felt suddenly dry and she let her tongue flick across her lips to moisten them as her gaze darted away from his again. The drachon teeth hanging over her collarbone clinked with the motion, and she drew a sharp breath, feeling as if she was drawing from the strength of the drachon she’d killed. “I have walked the Path of Autumn,” she said firmly. “There is no one to contact.”
Ganat’s eyes widened, then softened again. “I see,” he said softly. “Your whole family — I’m sorry for your loss, Kelta.”
Kelta swallowed and nodded her appreciation of his misplaced sympathy.
Ganat nodded again, then stood up. Kelta followed suit. “I’ll show you to your cabin,” he said. “Then I suggest you get yourself a couple more sets of clothing. Speak to my quartermaster about other equipment you might need. I’ll pay for everything. You’re family.”
Kelta followed him to the tiny closet of a cabin and set her bag down on the bunk. Ganat disappeared briefly and returned a moment later with a short, graying man with twin tattoos of dog faces on either cheekbone. “Gaphys, my quartermaster,” Ganat introduced him. “See she has everything she needs and help her get settled.” He nodded to Gaphys, then to Kelta. “I have business to finish ashore, but I’ll inform the officers about you before I go. Speak to any of them if you need anything.”
Kelta nodded, then saluted him. The merest hint of a smile played across Ganat’s lips as he watched the precision of her salute. Then he shook his head again and walked away.
“You studied with Grand Haias Kastor himself, eh?” Gaphys asked eagerly as Ganat left.
There was a moment’s awkward silence as Gaphys waited for her to say more; then he cleared his throat and continued, “Well, you’ll need the key for your chest there,” He reached into his tunic and nodded toward the bunk, which had a somewhat battered sea chest waiting under it. “Passengers don’t usually have their own chests, so we keep that one here. You could replace it if you prefer, but for now, here you go.” He handed Kelta a small iron key. “And if you don’t have it already, you’ll want a sailor’s kit, and some tough needle and thread for repairs. The chandlery next to Amphia’s on the Dolphin Temple street has what you want. You’ve got good shoes, and I assume you know your business with those swords. No need for a razor, I suppose…” He continued detailing a list of equipment he thought Kelta might need. It wasn’t a long list; sailors had few needs that weren’t provided by their floating homes. Kelta mentally added a few more items like soap, shampoo, a good comb, and a writing kit.
“Now, Ganat said I was to give you the coin for all this.” Gaphys’ hand darted back inside his loose tunic, overflowing with bulging items that really should have gone in pockets.
“I have money,” Kelta told him.
Gaphys raised an eyebrow. “When your captain offers to pay for something, most people jump at the chance.”
Kelta hesitated, wondering if Ganat would be offended if she didn’t let him pay for her needs.
“You’re family,” Gaphys said, watching her hesitate. “He’ll take care of you. Save the coin to get yourself something nice in Nebor.” He pulled out a rough leather purse and counted out a handful of square Taxian coins. He didn’t give them to her directly; it was rude to put money into someone’s hand. Instead he laid them on the tiny writing desk. “Get the good quality stuff. Can’t have the captain’s niece falling to threads after the first voyage.”
Kelta nodded, and the man gave her a friendly smirk. “Real talkative, aren’t you? We’ll break you of that habit in no time, I promise. Sailors gossip like old wives, you know. Need someone to go with you?”
Kelta shook her head, and Gaphys shrugged. “Well, I suppose I’ll see you aboard later, then. Good luck.”
He left Kelta to get settled in. She locked her bag and her trophy necklace in the chest under the hanging bunk, then unfastened the chain around her neck that held her lucky stone and slid the key onto it. The little metal key slid down the chain to rest against the tear-drop shaped piece of jet, and she put it back around her neck.
The chest was secure enough — or would be when she had anything worth securing. She went to the door and inspected it. It had a simple latch on the inside. Kelta frowned, displeased by how easy it would be to flip from the other side. She wondered how much attention it would draw if she asked the ship’s carpenter to put a proper lock on the door. But such a move would alert everyone aboard that she didn’t trust them, which would only heighten curiosity.
Kelta needed to assimilate; it was the only way to maintain anonymity. She would simply have to get used to leaving the door unlocked, just as she would have to get used to sharing the head with men. She had prepared herself for that lack of privacy as much as possible, but she knew it would be difficult.
But she’d get used to it. She had to. Aboard ship, in close quarters, she couldn’t keep thinking of every man as a threat. She couldn’t run away from the men she worked with. That was one of the reasons she’d chosen to come here. Shipboard life would force her to face her fears. It would teach her a new kind of strength.
And maybe someday, like Haias Ganat had said — maybe someday she’d be ready to go home.