“Don’t tell me you slept up here all night.”
Gabe opened his eyes and squinted into the early dawn shadows until he recognized Amelie as the owner of the voice that had woken him. Her amusement was plain even in the dim light. He sat up, wincing a little at the stiffness in muscles that had spent the night curled up on the unyielding wood of the deck, and wiped a hand across his dry mouth. “I didn’t want to miss seeing Su Kin-yi.”
“Trust me, you won’t.” She handed him a steaming mug of tea and a small woven basket covered with a cloth, then pushed herself up from her crouch. “Watch for the sun today. You’re still light enough to burn.”
“I will. Thanks.” Gabe rubbed at his eyes as she walked away and took a sip of the tea, enjoying its warmth in the still-cool morning air. He’d tucked himself into a corner in the raised section of the deck, out of the way of the crew but still able to see most of the ship and the blue-green water they sailed through. As the sun rose, the crew began to get ready for the day, in numbers that Gabe suspected were more than strictly necessary. Movement by the stairs proved to be his father, who lifted a hand in greeting to him before continuing on to the captain’s cabin.
By mid-morning, when the Blessing passed over the invisible boundary line that separated the Southern Seas from the territory of Jiao An, the northern sea goddess, the sun was hot enough that Gabe stripped off his shirt. He rolled it up and tucked it behind his neck, fidgeting to get comfortable, and watched a big white seahawk stoop into a dive towards the calm water. It came up again a few moments later with a glittering silver fish wriggling in its talons and winged away towards a hazy blob of green and brown that Gabe assumed was its home.
A shout from the crow’s nest pulled his attention away from the rapidly disappearing seahawk. Gabe looked up to see the woman up in the nest leaning out over the rigging, pointing towards the open ocean. He followed the line of her arm and saw the gentle movement of something big and fast coming underneath the water. Shoving himself to his feet, he stepped towards the railing, but stopped a few feet away, mindful of his father’s warning not to get too close. The air felt heavy and he glanced up again at the sky, almost expecting a storm, but no clouds marred the blue perfection. He thought briefly of Shaia, wondering if the energy in the air would affect a storm witch, then all thought fled his mind when the long nose of the seadrake bull broke the water’s surface.
Its head rose up and up, almost endlessly, until the woman in the crow’s nest could almost look at it eye to massive orange eye. Beneath its massive craggy head its neck was long and supple, curving down to meet the breadth of its shoulders. Its body was easily the length of the ship itself, and when Gabe risked a quick look over his shoulder at the sound of splashing, he saw a long tail flick out of the water, curling around the Blessing’s stern. Dark golden scales covered the length of its body, gleaming in the sun, and a delicate fringe ran down the length of its spine, the same lighter gold as the underside of its neck. Ivory horns jutted from either side of its skull and Gabe saw the glint and glitter of a hundred spears and arrows stuck in its hide.
For long moments the seadrake seemed to study the ship from the heights, then it dropped its nose towards the deck, so suddenly that a number of the crew yelped and scrambled away. Gabe thought he saw something that almost looked like amusement in the seadrake’s great eye as it nosed at the deck with surprising delicacy, its nostrils flaring wide with its breath. Water dripped from its jaw onto the ship, which rocked gently in the waves caused from the seadrake’s movement.
With his heart pounding into his ribs hard enough to make breathing difficult, Gabe could only sit where he was, fingers digging deep into a chunk of bread he’d absently taken from Amelie’s basket while watching the seahawk. The seadrake’s head swung towards him and it rested the point of its chin on the deck in front of him, opening a mouth so wide he could have easily walked inside, if he’d ducked under the teeth that hung like stalactites from its upper jaw. It breathed out the scent of brine and half-rotting fish, creating a damp breeze that blew Gabe’s hair off his forehead and made him squint his eyes almost shut, trying not to gag.
Trying to breathe shallowly, Gabe carefully moved the basket to his lap without taking his eyes off the gleaming teeth only a few feet from him. He reached inside and felt around until his fingers touched a neat bundle of jerky strips, took them out, and tossed them onto the seadrake’s long purple tongue.
Its mouth snapped shut so fast its teeth clicked, then it lifted its head and slid gracefully along the side of the ship, sinking slowly down until it vanished beneath the water. Its tail flicked one last time, as though in goodbye, before the ocean around them settled again into perfect calm. Gabe let out his breath all in a rush, feeling lightheaded and almost giddy. He knew the grin he gave his father, when his father came to ask if he was all right, was more than a little goofy. He accepted his father’s hand up and flushed when the first mate teasingly asked if they should call on him whenever they had trouble with the seadrakes in the future, bending down to scoop up the basket of food to keep his red face hidden until it cooled.
“Are you all right?” his father asked quietly, steering him away from the chattering crew. “You look a little pale.”
“I’m fine, honestly. That was... frightening, though, I’ll admit. I didn’t know he would be so big.” Gabe smiled a little. “I’m just glad he ate the jerky, not me.”
“I think we’re both glad for that, lad.” They both looked up when Amelie climbed the stairs and called to them, and Gabe hung back to let his father go forward to speak to her, trying to listen without looking like he was listening. He heard Amelie murmur something about an old man, then the mention of the storm witch made him follow them down to the hold at a discreet distance.
Silence had settled over the hold, making the hairs on the back of Gabe’s neck stand on end as he quietly followed Amelie and his father down to the cell at the end of the aisle. He tensed a little when his father gestured for Amelie to unlock the cell, remembering how quickly Hano had moved to grab him, but Hano only stepped back to let Gabe’s father duck into the cramped cell. The old man with the grey beard was lying on the bunk, his hands folded on his chest, and it took Gabe a few moments of careful watching to see that he was still breathing. As his father knelt down beside the bunk to begin last rites, Gabe moved cautiously to the side of the cell, glancing first at Hano, then at Shaia, pressed into the corner again as though the walls on either side of him were a comfort.
“You stare too much, preacher boy,” Hano said softly, without taking his eyes from the old man. “Have you never seen someone die before?”
“Too many,” Gabe replied, watching his father bow his head to pray. “I’m sorry. Did you... Were you close?”
“Only as close as you can be to people you share a cell with.” Hano turned away, moving to lean his broad shoulders against the wall beside Shaia, who didn’t look up from studying the floor. “Get him out of here. At least let him die out of this stink.”
Gabe’s father paused in his prayers to glance up, then gestured to Amelie, who went to yell up the stairs for some of the crew to come down. Keeping as far back as he could, Gabe watched the sailors carry the old man out of the cell and up the stairs. He started to follow after Amelie had locked the cell door again, then remember the basket of food, half-forgotten in his hands. He took the last of the bread and cheese out and offered it to Hano, trying to keep his fingers from trembling. Hano only stared at him for a moment, long enough that Gabe almost gave up, then he came forward and delicately took the food, the tips of his fingers brushing Gabe’s palm. He nodded slightly in thanks and retreated back to the corner; as Gabe headed for the stairs, he heard Hano order Shaia to eat before he ended up just like the old man.
“What happens now?” he asked Amelie when they reached the top of the stairs. “With the old man, I mean.”
“Your father will say the last prayers, then when the old man dies, he’ll be put overboard.” Amelie smiled a little. “You look a little shocked. Did you think we would keep a rotting body onboard?”
Gabe chewed on his bottom lip and shook his head. “Won’t the... won’t the seadrakes eat him?”
“Most likely. And if they don’t, something else will. It’ll only be a shell then, you know that, don’t you?” She studied him, her eyebrows knitting together in a frown. “You are the son of a preacher.”
“Yes, I know. Logically, I know that.” He managed a smile. “It’s just hard to know it logically when real people are involved. And all the deaths I’ve seen before have at least been on land, where they could be cremated and their ashes sent to the sun as well.”
“The rules on the sea are different.” She ruffled his hair. “Come, help me make dinner. It’ll help take your mind off it.”
She set him to work baking bread once they reached the kitchen, and he had to admit that working the dough made him feel better. Rolling and flattening it under his hands stretched the muscles in his arms and shoulders, and the smell of it baking after he slid the trays into the big iron stove made his stomach growl. He took one of the buns off the tray as soon as they came back out, tossing it from one hand to the other until it cooled enough for him to tear it apart, slathering the inside with butter that melted almost as soon as it came in contact. Amelie gave him a mock disapproving look from her position stirring the big pot of stew that was that night’s main course, but Gabe only grinned at her from around a mouthful of warm, fresh bread.
His father didn’t take dinner with them and the rest of the crew in the mess, though Gabe heard from the first mate that the old man had died shortly after they’d brought him up to the deck. He didn’t try to find him, knowing from experience that his father preferred to be alone after presiding over a death. He went to his room after dinner instead, with a book borrowed from the captain’s small library, and read until sleepiness blurred the fine text on the page. Yawning, he placed the book carefully in the top drawer of the dresser and turned off his lamp before snuggling back under the blanket. Just before he drifted off, he sent an awkward prayer to the gods for the old man’s light, murmuring the words even as he slipped into sleep.
The slam of thunder very close brought him awake some hours later, eyes wide in the darkness, his heart hammering against his ribs. He could hear yelling from somewhere nearby, and as he tried to get out of bed, the ship lurched heavily to the side, spilling him to the floor in a tangle of blankets. Scrambling up, he made his way to the door, gritting his teeth against a curse when another roll of the ship slammed him into the dresser. He used it to steady himself for a moment, bile rising up in his throat as his stomach twisted, then forced himself to take the last few steps to the door, yanking it open.
The ship lurched again and he tumbled out into the hall, coming up against the opposite wall. He took a few deep, steady breaths to try and keep from throwing up, then pushed himself unsteadily to his feet and walked towards the stairs. Rain poured down them, making the wood slick under his bare feet, and under the thunder he heard yelling both from the deck and from down in the hold. As he reached the top of the stairs, hunched over to keep from being tossed back down them by the way the ship lurched and heaved from side to side, lightning flashed so bright he was almost blinded. He grabbed the railing on the side of the stairs and blinked rapidly to try and clear his eyes, feeling the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end with the electricity in the air.
He waited for the ship to go through another roll then threw himself up onto the deck, rolling away from the hatch. The rain hit him like a physical blow, cold and stinging at the exposed skin of his arms and face. In the darkness caused by the purple-black clouds overhead, he couldn’t make out much more than shadows on the deck, until another brilliant flash of lightning showed him Shaia standing by the middle mast. Thunder roared and the ship rolled to the side as a wave smacked it, high enough on its starboard side to splash cool ocean water over the railing. Ears ringing, Gabe was aware that someone was shouting at Shaia to stop—the captain by his voice, laced with fear—but the sound was almost drowned out by the rising shriek of the wind.
He grabbed the nearest sturdy object and used it to haul himself to his feet, belatedly wondering how Shaia had escaped from the cell in the hold. The next flash showed the crew cringing away from Shaia, clinging to bits of the ship as the raging ocean tossed them from one wave to the next. Shaia himself barely seemed to notice, his eyes fixed on the sky, his arms held out as though welcoming the pouring rain and the angry muttering of the thunder. The wind snapped in the sails and Gabe thought he saw one of them come partially loose from its mast before rain-swept darkness descended once more.
He looked for his father, shading his eyes with one hand to try and protect them from the hard rain the wind was sweeping into his face, but the shapes on deck remained indistinct. Grabbing for handholds wherever he could, he made his way forward, the half-formed idea that he could stop Shaia settling into his mind. The deck heaved under his feet and he lost his footing on the rain-slick wood, landing hard enough on one knee to tear his pants and the flesh underneath. A hand hooked under his armpit and yanked him back to his feet, and when the lightning flashed again, he saw it was Hano holding onto him, dark curls plastered to his skull and fear plain in his eyes.
“What are you doing?” Gabe yelled at him. The wind almost whipped the words out of his mouth.
Hano grimaced, bracing himself against the movement of the deck and leaning in to put his mouth almost against Gabe’s ear. “Making a mess, preacher boy. I didn’t expect Shaia to conjure up something this big.”
“Give yourself up!” Gabe saw Hano frown and opened his mouth to repeat himself, but before he could Hano shoved him against the railing and lunged for the captain and the first mate, standing only a few feet away.
The crack of the pistol was almost as loud as the thunder, and for a moment Gabe thought that’s what it was. Lightning flashed and he saw Shaia stumble, going down on one knee and clapping a hand to his shoulder. For a second the wind died and calm settled over the ship; in the stuttering flash of the lightning, the crew, Shaia, and Hano remained in frozen tableau. Gabe felt his heart beat once, twice, the sensation almost slow and dreamy.
Thunder roared like the voice of an enraged beast. Gabe felt the ship shudder beneath him as it slammed down into the trough between waves, twisting to the side as the wind shrieked again, pushing against it. Lightning arced down from the roiling clouds and struck the tallest mast, setting its top ablaze with near-white fire. The flames raced down the mast to the deck of the ship, burning so fiercely even the driving rain couldn’t put them out. Gabe watched it in horror, unable to move, as though his feet had been nailed to the deck.
Something groaned, deep within the ship, like it was a living creature in pain. His nose filled with the scent of heavy smoke, Gabe turned and stumbled towards where he thought the stairs into the berth deck were, his only thought to find his father. His father had always fixed things before. He stumbled with the erratic movement of the ship and caught his shoulder against a pile of boxes fighting to escape the rope binding them down, the impact strong enough to make his arm go numb. His stomach heaved and he bent over to throw up, almost falling in the mess when the ship crashed down into another trough. Something cracked with a sound even louder than the thunder and the wind, and he looked up to see the mast that had been struck by lightning leaning crazily to one side. Even as Gabe watched, it smashed down into the railing, splintering the wood into kindling.
Someone grabbed him and shoved him towards the whaleboats hung along the side of the ship, where some of the crew were already trying to get the boats ready to launch. Gabe shook the hand off, stubbornly turning back to try and find his father, calling out even though part of him knew that the thunder and wind were too loud for anyone to hear him. The ship tipped suddenly, struggling to stay upright against a massive wave that tossed it around like a toy, and his feet slipped on the deck, tumbling him backwards until he came up against the railing. He felt it crack under his weight more than he heard it but for a few dizzy seconds it held, giving him almost enough time to get to his feet before it snapped fully and he fell towards the dark, churning water.
He hit hard enough to drive the air from his lungs, dragged under and tumbled around until he didn’t know which way was up. His chest already burning from the need for air, he fought to find the surface, panic building up inside him. He’d learned how to swim as a child, but that had been in a calm pond, and he’d never been very good at it even then. He’d never had to fight against an ocean that seemed determined to drag him down into its depths, clutching at him and tossing him around as though it had a mind of its own.
Something grabbed his arm and he screamed despite himself, the last of his air bubbling from his mouth. It yanked and he found himself gasping in salt-tinged air suddenly, before a wave smacked him in the face and choked him with a mouthful of cold water. He was helpless to resist as he was dragged forward and up against something hard, until he realized the object under his free hand was wood, a chunk of the ship bigger than the mess tables. He scrambled up onto it with a strength born of terror and threw himself onto his belly, gasping for breath. The chunk of wood spun wildly in the churning water and brought him around to see that the entire ship was on fire, flames racing from one end of it to the other even as it started to break apart with groans and shrieks. Gabe stared at it, feeling numb, and in the light of the fire he saw the seadrakes, churning up the water as they snapped at anything that moved.
“Stay down!” someone yelled in his ear, and he realized he’d started to get to his knees, as though he could do anything about the ship sinking. He looked to the side and saw Hano, his dark skin ashy-grey in the firelight, and beyond him, Shaia sprawled across the wood, blood leaking from his shoulder to mix with the water that swept over their makeshift raft. Shaia’s eyes were closed, and in the dim light Gabe wasn’t even sure he was still breathing.
The wind began to die as the storm muttered itself out, until the water around them moved violently with the seadrakes instead of in the grip of the wind. As the ship went down, Hano grabbed him and covered his eyes with one hand, roughly telling him not to watch. Gabe couldn’t find the energy to pull away, dimly wondering if the emptiness he felt inside his head and his chest meant something was wrong with him. He let Hano cover his eyes, taking in each breath and letting it out, and didn’t flinch even when something bumped their raft hard enough to spin them to one side. Even the terror he’d felt in the water was distant now, belonging to someone who wasn’t drifting alone on the ocean with two prisoners, his entire world lost on a ship that was never supposed to sink.