The wind was cold out on the docks, tinged with the sharp scent of ocean brine and harsh where it gusted across Gabe’s bare cheeks. He pulled his scarf up over his nose, breathing warmth into the wool, and stomped his boots against the slick wood of the dock to try and bring some feeling back to his frozen toes. His father stood silently beside him, broad-brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes and the edges of his long coat flapping in the wind. Together they waited patiently as the long line of prisoners being marched up the gangplank to the deck of the massive wooden ship anchored to the end of the dock.
The prisoners moved slowly in their iron hobbles, shuffling up the slanted plank under the bored gazes of a half-dozen of the Emperor’s soldiers, their hands chained in front of them. Gabe was surprised at how young most of them were; he saw one scruffy girl who couldn’t have even reached 13 yet, though she was as hard-eyed as any of her greying companions. The prisoners were all filthy, their faces wind-chapped and their clothes dirty and threadbare, but none of them complained, even when the soldiers gave them a push to hurry them up.
“Don’t stare, Gabriel.” His father’s big hand settled on Gabe’s shoulder, making him jump. “Mind your manners, prisoners or not.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry.” Gabe shifted his attention to the towering wooden ship that was to take them—and the prisoners—south to Sotakorion. In the 6 months since arriving in Barrow Bay, where his father had come to preach the words of the Solari, he’d watched the ships sail in and out every day. They continued to amaze him, from the small fishing boats to the rare hulking Shipbuilder vessel like the one they were waiting to board.
This one was called the Blessing of the Sun, its name painted 20 feet high on the smooth dark hull and followed by the symbol of the Emperor. Gabe knew the ship had to be over a hundred years old, shaped from a single enormous tree by Shipbuilder magic before being sailed from their hidden island and gifted to a captain the Shipbuilders found worthy. The ships were passed down through the generations and would only accept a captain of the same blood. Gabe had heard of ships refusing to move when boarded by pirates, despite full sails; as though the ships knew somehow and had their own subtle magic.
He’d seen a Shipbuilder once, as a child almost too young to remember it. It had passed by in a slope-shouldered, long-legged amble, its long and vaguely equine face half-hidden under its mane of straw-coloured hair. Even Gabe’s father, who topped six-and-a-half feet, had seemed small in comparison, and Gabe had clung to his father’s leg until the Shipbuilder had disappeared into the crowd. They had already stopped building ships long before then and Gabe didn’t know if anyone had seen one in the thirteen years since; they had refused to build more ships for the Emperor to bring into his fleet, and retreated in the face of the Emperor’s increasingly strict decrees against the use of magic.
“Up you go, Gabriel.” His father’s voice pulled Gabe out of his thoughts and back to the cold, windy morning. “Watch your step.”
Gabe picked up his pack and walked up the gangplank, hunching his shoulders against both the wind and the height. One of the sailors gave him a hand onto the sturdy deck and he breathed a sigh of relief at having more than just a thin strip of wood between him and the dark ocean water. He waited for his father to join him, then quietly followed as the captain showed them to a pair of rooms belowdecks, in the narrow section above the cargo hold where the prisoners had been locked in four to a cell. Gabe heard yelling beneath his feet as he walked behind his father and the captain, but it was muffled and he couldn’t make out any specific words.
He took the room on the left, a little charmed by the large white shell that had been hung, slightly crooked, on the heavy door. The room was small, with a single narrow bed and a set of dressers, both somehow carved as an extension of the wall. The floor and the walls were both bare of decoration, but the bed was covered by a brightly coloured blanket tucked neatly into the wooden frame. There were no windows, but Gabe told himself that he would only be using the room for sleeping, and he could go up onto the deck to get fresh air and see the sunlight, if it ever appeared before they reached the Southern Seas.
He set his pack down on the bed and placed his neatly folded clothes into the dresser, hooking the drawers shut again when he was finished. The floor moved gently under his feet but not enough that he started to feel sick, though he dreaded moving out into the rougher parts of the ocean, stirred up by winter storms. Even half a lifetime on one ship or another, following his wandering father from one outpost to outpost, hadn’t yet cured his seasickness.
Tucking his pack into the compartment under the bed, he stepped back out into the hallway and made his way up onto the deck. The wind snatched at his clothes and the end of his scarf, blowing his hair back from his forehead until he pulled the hood of his coat up. Around him the ship’s crew bustled around in preparation for casting off, untying lines and running up the big white sails to billow out in the wind. Gabe found a corner out of the way and sat down, huddling into his coat, to watch as the great ship moved slowly towards the mouth of the bay.
He went back down when it started to snow in big fat flakes, hesitating in the hall before cautiously taking the second set of stairs down into the hold. The air was almost hot at the bottom of the stairs, and noisy with complaints from the prisoners, now that they were no longer being watched by the Emperor’s soldiers. The cells looked cramped and uncomfortable, barely big enough to leave room for prisoners to stand between the double bunks along each wall.
Gabe ignored the jeers sent his way, trying to look like he belonged there, until a mild voice from one of the corner cells asked, “Come to stare like we’re cattle at market, preacher boy? A whole zoo for you to shake your pretty little head over?”
Gabe felt his cheeks go hot but he turned towards the cell, where a dark-skinned man a few years older than him lounged against the bars. “I’ll admit I’m curious, sir.”
The man snorted. “Sir. Can’t fault you for your manners, preacher boy, but I’m no sir. I’m Hano. Who’re you?”
“Gabe.” He took a cautious step closer, feeling a little thrill of both nervousness and excitement go through his chest. He’d heard the group of prisoners on the ship, all bound for the southern labour camps, had all been arrested for serious crimes. There were two other men inside the cell with Hano: an old man with a long grey beard, watching them with narrow eyes, and a youth barely older than Gabe, sitting in the shadows of the corner and seeming to pay them no attention.
“Why are you curious, Gabe the preacher boy?” Hano looked him over, dark eyes unreadable in the dim light from the covered lamps attached to the walls. “Never seen the dregs of society all locked up in one place?”
Gabe thought of the city of Jinh, where they’d spent almost a year before travelling on to Barrow Bay. His father had taken him to the city jails after he’d been caught sneaking a few pieces of candy from a neighbourhood store, to show him why he never wanted to let himself become a criminal. “I have. They were all... much older though. I suppose I want to know why you do it.”
“Because we’re not all as special as you.” Hano glanced back over his shoulder at the youth in the corner but got no response. “Some of us can’t help who we are.”
“Who are you? Who’s he?” Gabe took a step closer, trying to get a good look at the stranger in the shadows. The ship lurched suddenly under his feet and threw him against the bars, where Hano grabbed him by the front of his coat, the movement shockingly fast. Gabe yelped, feeling his heart slam against his ribs, but after a moment Hano only flashed a surprisingly white smile and let him go.
“Only joking, preacher boy. I wouldn’t hurt you.” He held up both hands to show Gabe his empty palms.
“Leave him alone, you rotten bastard.” The old man heaved himself to his feet, limping over to the bars. He was much shorter than Hano, but Hano still took a step back from him. “If I was your father, I’d’ve drowned you like a kitten in the well, saved us all the trouble.”
Hurt flickered across Hano’s face, there and gone in an instant, before he shrugged and gave the old man a lazy smile. “We all make mistakes, grandfather.”
“Don’t call me your grandfather. I would be ashamed to have you in my family.” The old man turned to Gabe and gave him a shrewd look, his eyes—tilted in the distinct Shintamo look, like Gabe’s own—almost disappearing into the mass of wrinkles around them. “Go fetch your father, boy. I doubt I’ll survive this journey and I want to talk to a man of the gods before they throw me overboard.”
Still trying to catch his breath, Gabe nodded and turned away, forcing himself to walk normally towards the stairs, rather than flee like a scared rabbit. Laughter followed him up to the hallway and he took a moment to straighten out his coat and run a hand through his hair before he knocked on his father’s door.
“Are you all right, child?” his father asked when he opened the door. “You look a little pale. Is it the seasickness again?”
“Maybe a little.” Gabe mustered a smile. “I, uh, went down to the hold and a man asked me to send you down. He’d like to talk to a preacher. The old man with the beard, in the last cell.”
His father gave him a narrow look. “You should avoid that area, Gabriel. They have nothing for you and you have nothing for them.”
“Yes, sir.” Gabe smiled a little, more naturally, when his father squeezed his shoulder on the way by. “I think I might lie down for a bit.”
“I will wake you for dinner, if you’re not up by then.” His father lifted a hand then started down the stairs into the hold, the sound of his boots heavy on the wood.
Gabe went into his room and lay down on the bed, taking deep breaths and letting them out slowly until he felt completely calm again, if a little ashamed of his own reaction. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep, but the growing movement of the ship made him feel dizzy. He got up instead and went for a walk through the ship, eventually ending up in the galley. The smell of cooking food made his stomach twist queasily, but before he could leave again, the cook gestured him forward and handed him a mug of hot lemon tea.
“Drink that. It’ll help with the seasickness.” She wiped her hands on her apron and went back to stirring something in a big pot.
“That obvious?” Gabe asked, blowing on the tea and taking a cautious sip. It was just sweet enough to taste good without making his mouth feel sticky, and the heat of it sliding down his throat was almost comforting.
“I know that green look. I’ll make you something easy to digest for dinner, and hopefully you’ll get over it soon.”
Gabe sighed. “I never get over it, not really. I’m not really made for sailing.”
“You’re the preacher’s boy, aren’t you?” She glanced over her shoulder, raising a dark eyebrow slightly. “I know a man bitten by the wanderlust when I see one. But you look almost old enough to go your own way.”
“I'm 17.” Gabe lifted a shoulder in half a shrug, taking another sip of the tea. “Seasickness or not, I like the travel. I just don’t like days or weeks spent on ships, even Shipbuilder ones.”
“I’ve heard the Emperor is researching dragons and insists they’re real, hiding somewhere in the world.” She flashed him a sharp grin as she took freshly-baked bread from the oven and moved it to cool on the counter. “Wouldn’t that be nice, to fly instead of sail?”
“That’d probably make me sick too. Heights...” Gabe shook his head. “Just give me solid land.”
“Well, lad, you have a few weeks before we reach solid land again, so if you need anything, you let me know.” She offered him a hand dusted with flour. “I’m Amelie.”
“Gabe.” He shook her hand.
“Good to meet you, Gabe. Now get out of here so I can finish cooking.”
He smiled a little. “All right. Thanks for the tea.”
He took the mug with him, climbing back up onto the deck to finish drinking it. The movement of the ship wasn’t as obvious up here, though looking at the white-tipped waves moving along the ship’s wooden sides, especially from such a great height, didn’t help him feel less dizzy. He looked up at the sky instead, studying the dark clouds, and tried not to think about spending the next three weeks trapped on board a ship in the middle of the ocean.