The first storm blew up three days into the voyage, shortly after Gabe ate dinner with his father and the captain, a cheerful man named Shao, in the captain’s cabin. Outside the cabin’s windows the wind howled around the ship’s masts, strong enough that the crew had run down the sails before sunset to prevent them from being torn. As dessert was brought in, the first few drops of rain pattered against the window glass and Gabe heard someone shouting commands out on deck. He waved off the fruit he was offered and excused himself from the table, bowing slightly to his father and the captain before he ducked out into the windy night.
The ship rolled under his feet and his felt his stomach roll with it, uncomfortable with the food he’d just eaten. He gritted his teeth and hurried across to the stairs that led down into the berth deck, hesitating on the first step down to look up at a brilliant flash of lightning across the sky. It was followed by a growl of thunder and a harder, cold rain, sending him down into the shelter of the berth. He braced himself against the ship’s movement with one hand on the wall, wondering if he would throw up, and heard yelling down in the hold as the feeling passed.
He hesitated a moment, looking around, then carefully made his way down the second set of stairs, pushing the sleeves of his heavy shirt up as he reached the bottom and stepped into the heat of air warmed by bodies. The captain had told him there were just under 300 prisoners down in the hold and the air was rank with the smell of them, despite the sweet-smelling packets of herbs and dried flowers hung by each cell. Gabe knew prisoners were taken up onto the deck in rotating shifts, three or four at a time, to get fresh air and some exercise, but for the rest of the time there was nowhere else for them to go.
None of the prisoners glanced at him more than once, their attention on the cell down at the end of the long row, the prisoners furthest away straining to see through the bars that held them captive. Gabe made his way down the aisle in the middle, telling himself he should turn around and get his father in case there was a problem; but even that thought didn’t keep him from moving forward. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and he felt tension crawling down his sweat-slick back like unwelcome fingers as he approached the cell where he’d met Hano and the old man on the first day.
Both Hano and the old man were on separate bunks, pressed back into corners as far away as they could get from the third occupant of the cell, who stood in the middle of the cell with his head tipped back and his arms out to either side. His fists were clenched enough that the tendons stood out in sharp relief in his wrists, and he was breathing in harsh gasps, as though he had to fight to get each breath through his lungs. The bars of his cell glowed with the light of the golden runes carved into them, invisible against the cold iron until they were activated by the use of magic.
“Get lost, preacher boy,” Hano said, his voice tight. “Nobody needs you here.”
Gabe ignored the instruction, stepping up as close as he dared to the cell. He could almost feel the runes pushing at him and the air felt thick and heavy. “Should I get a doctor? What’s wrong with him?”
Hano snorted. “Best thing you can do is turn around and walk away, unless you have a key to let us out. He’s a storm witch, preacher boy. The storm up there is calling to him and he can’t do anything about it thanks to those runes.”
“Maybe I could ask someone to let him out, at least until the storm passes...” Gabe stopped when the storm witch looked at him, hatred and pain mixed equally in his pale amber eyes.
“Out.” The word was growled through gritted teeth and Gabe took an involuntary step back. “I don’t need... your help.”
“Don’t,” Hano said, his voice oddly gentle. “Shaia doesn’t accept help. You’ll just get your pretty little head bitten off.”
Gabe chewed on his bottom lip for a moment then sighed and stepped back. “All right. I hope it passes quickly then.”
He didn’t expect an answer and didn’t get one; Shaia only looked back up at the wooden beams above him, the strain of being pulled between his magic and the magic of the runes evident in every line of his body. Gabe walked to the stairs in a tense silence and only relaxed when he reached the cooler berth deck, realizing only when he stepped into his room to change his sweaty shirt that he hadn’t felt queasy the entire time he’d been down in the hold.
The storm passed quickly and when Gabe went up onto the deck a few hours later to get some fresh air before bed, he saw the stars for the first time in what felt like weeks, sharp and bright in the sky. A cool wind brushed past his cheek and he smelled snow on it; the air in front of his mouth went white with the condensation of his breath. Further north, he knew, it had already been snowing for a few weeks. The thought made him wonder briefly of the Emperor’s infamous daughter, the Princess Kai Yi, who had been banished to a northern outpost the year before for disrespectful and disgraceful behaviour. Gabe had tried to find out exactly why, but his father had refused to allow him to read anything but the high-society papers that only told him that the Emperor felt his daughter would benefit from the responsibility of running such a remote outpost.
He shivered a little in the rapidly cooling air and went back down into the berth deck, pausing a moment at the stairs into the hold to listen. He heard nothing but low conversation and a few snores, but before he could decide if he dared to go back down, his father passed by and ordered him to bed. Irritation flashed through him—he wasn’t a child now, and too old to be given a bedtime by his father—but he only said good night and went into his room, to lie on his bed and stare at the ceiling for almost an hour before sleep claimed him.
By the end of the first week the air had started to warm, enough that Gabe spent most of his days up on deck, enjoying the bits of sunlight that came through the clouds. On the days when it did rain, and the seas were calm enough to keep his stomach settled, he helped Amelie in the kitchen, enjoying her stories of sailing all over the Empire on the Emperor’s business. She told him she’d even seen the Emperor once, when he’d come to inspect the ship shortly after hiring its captain. He’d brought his son and heir, Wei-lin, with him, but the visit had been so short she’d barely been able to bow to them before they moved on.
“The son seemed bored,” she said, slapping fresh dough down on the floury counter in front of Gabe. “And his father seemed distracted. Overall, not that impressive.”
Gabe laughed a little, digging his fingers into the dough to start kneading it. “You’re not supposed to say things like that.”
“And who’s to hear me, out here in the blue? I don’t think our Emperor has quite managed to get the sharks and sea turtles to spy for him.” She tasted the soup bubbling on the big stove and made a face. “More salt. I’ll be glad to get supplies down in Sotakorion. Do me a favour, Gabe, go and ask the first mate if he can arrange for some fresh fish. Might as well get it now, before we get into seadrake territory.”
Gabe paused in the doorway, absently wiping his hands on his pants. “Seadrakes? Already?”
“They’re moving further north, but they’re smaller up here. Wait until we reach the Southern Seas and the big bull comes to inspect us.”
“You’ve seen him? I’ve heard they call him Su Kin-yi, for the sun god.”
Amelie snorted. “Mostly we just call him the Big Bastard, but you didn’t hear that from me. Go. I have work to do.”
Gabe went, jogging up the stairs to the deck and shading his eyes against the bright light of the sun. The first mate was standing with a handful of crew near the railing on one side of the deck, absently watching the four prisoners who were walking in a circle in front of them, chained together by shackles on their wrists and ankles. As Gabe approached, he saw that two of the prisoners were Hano and Shaia, but though Hano nodded to him, Shaia only kept his eyes down on his feet, his narrow face showing no expression.
Gabe passed along Amelie’s message, unable to keep from watching the prisoners while the first mate debated with the crew. He couldn’t see any signs of actual injury on Shaia, at least not on what skin was bared by the grey pants and long-sleeved shirt, but there were dark shadows under Shaia’s eyes and his skin looked sallow. Gabe hesitated a moment, remembering what Hano had said about Shaia accepting help, then drew the first mate aside to quietly tell him about Shaia’s reaction to the storm.
“We know.” The first mate patted Gabe’s shoulder. “You’re a good lad, but taking a storm witch out of his cage during a storm? That’s asking for trouble.” He lowered his voice to barely above a murmur. “I like this situation even less than you, but it is what it is. We try our best to keep them fed and healthy for the three weeks it takes to sail down south, but they are prisoners. They don’t get special treatment. Run along, now, tell Amelie we’ll have her fish tomorrow.”
Gabe did as he was told, waiting until after dinner to seek out his father. He found him up on deck, leaning on the railing and watching a pod of brightly coloured jeweled dolphins leap out of the water in the ship’s wake. The light of the setting sun gleamed on the dolphins’ sleek bodies and turned the bits of grey in his father’s hair and beard gold and red. Gabe paused a moment before approaching, wondering if his father had always looked so old, then walked quietly up and leaned on the railing beside him.
“How’s your stomach?” his father asked, eyes still on the dolphins.
“All right for now. The cook, Amelie, she gives me teas that help.” Gabe rubbed his thumb against the railing’s smooth wood. “I... Do you approve of these laws against magic? Arresting people just because of how they were born?”
“All witches have the option to register with the Emperor,” his father said mildly. “Are you talking about the storm witch? He wasn’t arrested for being born with magic. He was arrested for breaking the law. There is a difference.”
“How long until the law is no magic at all?” Gabe studied his father’s face. “It just doesn’t seem right, and you taught me to always do what’s right.”
“I did. Would it surprise you to know that I have no real answer to give you, Gabriel? I can only tell you to respect the gods and respect the Emperor. While we may not agree with all of his... choices, he works to benefit everyone and we have to believe that he both knows what he’s doing and is doing it with the support of the gods.”
“Do the gods care?” In the beat of silence Gabe almost regretted asking but he stayed quiet, waiting for his father to answer.
“Yes, but perhaps not in the same way we do,” his father said finally, turning to face him. “What seems huge to us may seem very small to them. You know this, Gabriel.”
“Yes. You taught me. I’m just...” Gabe gestured with one hand, a move of frustration. “It doesn’t seem fair.”
“I know. It will improve once we get off this ship.” His father straightened and ruffled Gabe’s hair with one big hand. “I’m going to bed. These old bones don’t take to ships very well anymore.”
Gabe smiled a little. “You’re not old. Good night. Dream well.”
“Don’t stay awake too long.” His father moved towards the stairs, quickly becoming little more than a tall shadow in the twilight.
Gabe watched him until he disappeared down the stairs, then turned his attention back to the ocean, squinting to try and see if the dolphins were still leaping around the ship. He didn’t see them but caught a glimpse of something that glowed faintly green keeping pace with the ship, only a few feet away. In the darkness it was impossible to see what it was under the water, and when the glow faded, he pushed himself up and went to bed.
Commotion above his head brought him awake shortly before dawn and he stumbled, yawning, up onto the deck to find the crew preparing one of the whaleboats to launch. The first mate called to him to tell him that he could come along on their fishing trip if he hurried to dress, and laughed when Gabe almost tripped over his own feet in his hurry to go back down to his room. He ran a brush quickly through his shaggy hair just to get it out of his eyes and threw on his boots, pants, and a shirt before running back up to the deck, accepting the first mate’s help into the whaleboat before it was gently lowered down to the still-dark water.
Accepting a piece of bread and some strips of salted meat, Gabe settled himself near the bow, craning his neck to look up at the Blessing’s deck, a long way above him. The whaleboat moved smoothly away from the ship, its oarsmen moving in practiced unison. Above them the sky lightened from grey to pink as the sun rose, its light casting gold on the tips of the waves. For a moment Gabe’s stomach felt queasy but the bread helped settle it, and the sea remained calm around them. In the distance he saw a small island, little more than a crescent of rocky beach and a hump of land spotted with stunted trees, and when asked, the first mate confirmed that they would be going ashore.
Gabe pulled his boots off as they approached and scrambled out of the boat almost as soon as its nose bumped up onto the beach, drawing laughter from the crew. He smiled a little himself, especially when he moved out of the water and found he couldn’t quite adjust to the sensation of land not moving under his feet. Giving up on trying to walk, at least right away, he found a dry spot to sit, turning his face up to the heat of the sun. It was warm enough that he rolled up his sleeves and felt sweat along his upper lip. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he carefully got his feet after a few minutes and followed the first mate to a small tidal pool, where he was set to collecting as many mussels as he could fit in a bucket.
Most of the morning passed before they started back towards the ship, laden down with fish, mussels, and a bundle of greenery that one of the crew said was for the ship’s doctor. Gabe watched the island retreat behind them, feeling sleepy with the sun, and was beginning to doze off when the sound of a splash caught his attention. He opened his eyes again, squinting against the glare on the waves, and saw the water a few feet behind them part to reveal a serpentine head half the length of their boat. Its scales gleamed a deep emerald green under the sun, lightening almost to yellow under its jaw and down what he could see of its neck. It turned its head to regard him out of an orange eye that sparked with intelligence, the lazy flow of its body under the water barely causing a ripple.
“Seadrake,” the first mate murmured, settling a hand on Gabe’s shoulder. “We’re safe in this boat.”
“We’re not in the Southern Seas yet, are we?” Gabe asked without taking his eyes away from the seadrake. Something about it made him think of Shaia and he had to stifle a snicker, his muscles relaxing as some of the fear drained away.
“Not yet, but within a day or two, depending on the weather. Then we’ll see the Big Bastard. He inspects everything that comes into his territory, and eats what he doesn’t approve of. This one’s a worm compared to him.”
“I look forward to it.” Gabe blinked and almost missed the seadrake slipping back down into the water, which closed with barely a ripple over its head. He watched until they were hoisted back onto the deck of the Blessing but the seadrake didn’t reappear, and the Blessing sailed on without a glimpse of anything but a couple of seabirds.