The Gulf was calm, its waters barely ruffled by a faint, hot breeze. The Fioradine convoy had spread every inch of canvas to catch that breath of wind. Gaily colored sails studded the brilliant blue. The stifling stillness was punctuated by creaking as the great ships ponderously tacked and tacked again, women's voices calling orders, sailors' bare feet pattering to obey those orders with world-famous speed and discipline. There might be other ships that could sail into a mere sigh of a headwind at slack tide, but only the Fioradines could do it as a matter of routine, seven frigates and a galleon heeling in unison like the world's heaviest ballet.
The galleon was named Tafine Rea Selai, the Sword of Queen Tafine, and it flew the saffron pennon of a royal flagship. At its bow rail stood the youngest son of that same Queen. Even among the bright brasswork and bright paint and bright blue uniforms of the officers, he was the brightest thing on the sea. He was dressed all in azure and canary yellow silk, with rings on every finger and ostrich plumes on his hat. His handsome mahogany face was set in an expression of faint dismay. He fanned himself slowly with an ivory fan.
"Captain," he said during a lull in the tacking process, "what is that distressing smell?"
Captain Etine Ancaillo stepped smartly to his side. She was a heavyset woman in late middle age, her tightly braided hair iron-gray, her face further aged by years of sun and wind, but she still moved like a woman of thirty. "Verdichane, Your Highness. We should sight it any moment."
"Goodness. Does it always whiff like that?"
"Occasionally a hurricane will clear the air."
"Oh, good, something to look forward to." He sighed.
Captain Ancaillo waited to see if the Prince would require anything else of her. He only fanned himself and watched the horizon. She turned to resume her duties, but paused as the Prince suddenly stiffened.
"Do you see that?" He pointed with his fan.
She sighted along it. "A small boat," she said slowly. "Seems someone's lost a dinghy. I don't see anyone in it..." She trailed off, uncertain of her conclusion. "Miss Barini! My spyglass!"
While a midshipman ran to fetch the captain her spyglass, the Prince leaned forward, shading his eyes with the fan. "There is someone in it. Lying down."
The spyglass arrived. Captain Ancaillo put it to her eye. Then, as much for a second opinion as for courtesy, she handed it to the Prince. "A dead man. Not an odd thing to find floating in Verdichane Bay, but they aren't commonly in boats."
"Not long dead, if he is," the Prince said without lowering the glass. "The blood on his face is still wet."
The captain looked at him in half-disbelieving admiration. "If you were a sailor, I'd love to have you in the crow's nest."
He raised an eyebrow at her as he handed the spyglass back. She, realizing she'd made an inadvertent innuendo, cleared her throat and returned her gaze firmly to the water. "You have very sharp eyes, Your Highness," she clarified. She cleared her throat again. "It is the custom of the sea to rescue anyone adrift if it is at all possible to do so."
"Of course, Captain. I'm curious to have a look at him myself. By all means, proceed."
"If he's suffered foul play, we may find ourselves embroiled in legal matters."
"Proceed," he repeated cheerfully.
Ten minutes later, the boat was hoisted onto the deck, and the ship's surgeon climbed into it to have a look at the man. "He's alive, Captain," she announced. "Beat all to hell, but he's breathing."
He was a white man, or had been once. Now he was lobster red from sunburn. His black hair was matted with blood, his bearded face streaked with it. Both his legs and several of his fingers were twisted at nauseating wrong angles. In a moment of silence, the rasp of his breathing was loud.
"Bring a stretcher," Captain Ancaillo commanded. "Get him to the surgery. If he regains consciousness, find out what happened to him."
"Find out who he is," the Prince added.
As their find was borne away, the captain turned to the Prince with a questioning lift of her eyebrows. "Forgive me, Highness, but the way you said that strikes me as... that is to say, is it important? Who he is?"
"At the very least, we can notify his kin," the Prince pointed out. When this had no effect on the captain's eyebrows, he began to smile. "I think it may, yes. Did you notice the dust?"
"That is odd, now you mention it."
"Quite. Adrift on the ocean, boots caked with yellow dust. Dust in his hair as well, but only a few places on his clothing. Places armor wouldn't cover. Quilted patches on the shoulders, knees, and elbows. Thick leather gloves -- in this heat! -- but no belt. And yet he retained his good boots and his earrings. Curious."
"Stripped of armor and weapons but not robbed. Beaten but not killed." The captain scowled. "Your Highness, I fear we may live to regret having spotted him."
The Prince laughed. "Where is your sense of adventure?" He paced the length of the tiny boat, studying it. He bent to pick delicately at a flake of peeling paint. "Not a ship's dinghy. A shore boat. A poor one. No oars. I doubt he got into it on purpose." The toe of his gold-buckled shoe nudged the trailing end of the rope tied to the prow. It was curiously blackened at the break. He bent to take it gingerly between two fingers and sniff it. As he straightened, he produced a handkerchief to clean those fingers. "Why would a mooring line be burned through? Simply casting it off would be faster..." He turned on his heel and strode off after the stretcher.
Captain Ancaillo took the time to properly pass the helm to the first mate before following. By the time she reached the surgery, the surgeon and her assistant had already stripped the man. Naked but for his jewelry -- the earrings the Prince had noticed, a gold chain with a little key on it, and a silver ring with a green stone -- he was white as a fish everywhere below the neck. The injuries thus revealed were enough to make the captain's gorge rise. She was no stranger to violence, had seen decks awash with blood more than once, but a body that was more bruise than not... the implications turned her stomach.
The surgeon said what the captain was thinking: "Looks like somebody set out to break every bone in his body, then got bored halfway." She cautiously palpitated his left thigh, which was swollen twice as thick as the right, skin stretched taut and purplish-black. "This one's bad. This isn't just a bruise." She gestured to her assistant. "Get a screw eye from the carpenter. And a couple yards of sailcloth. At a run, girl! He don't get better while you dawdle!"
The Prince seated himself atop a medicine chest near the patient's head. "A screw eye and sailcloth?" he prompted.
"Going to elevate that leg and put a compression bandage on it," the surgeon said absently as she set out her tools. At a throat-clearing from the captain, she added, "Your Highness."
"Will that save him, do you think?"
"Don't know. Won't make him worse, anyhow. Seen internal bleeding like that in the torso a few times, always fatal. Never saw it in a limb. We'll see. Highness."
The assistant returned. Captain and Prince did their best to stay out of the way while surgeon and assistant rigged a sling around the man's calf and secured it to an overhead beam. Then they began the long process of splinting everything else. At last the surgeon frowned at the still purple thigh, shook her head, and wound a tight bandage around it anyway.
"I don't know," she said. "I just don't know."
The surgeon's assistant wet a clean cloth in a dipper of water and used it to work the man's cracked lips apart. He didn't suck it, but when she squeezed a few drops in, he swallowed weakly. After some time of this, he began to twitch and whimper. The surgeon hurried to unlock the drug cabinet. The man's eyes opened, glazed with agony.
"Here's a drop for the pain," the surgeon said. "Open your mouth, lad."
He moaned through his teeth, eyes rolling.
The Prince stood and moved into the man's field of view. In Semnian, he said, "It's tincture of opium. The doctor wants to put it under your tongue. Try not to bite the dropper."
The man's eyes found the Prince's face, and gratitude softened his expression of suffering. He opened his mouth and let the surgeon dose him.
"Good," the Prince soothed. "That'll start working soon. You'll be all right. What's your name?"
The man took a labored breath. "Kastor," he croaked. Another wheeze. "Auberlane. Uh. What's yours?"
The Prince smiled. "Cavino."
"You're um. Fioradine." He sniffed. "Izza ship. Why 'm onna Fioradine ship, friend?"
The captain, who understood Semnian, though she didn't speak it as well as the Prince did, corrected him sharply: "That's 'Your Highness' to you."
"Uh?" The man's eyes roved, not finding her, and he smiled forgivingly. "No... not 'nymore. She divorced me." Then his eyes rolled up and he lost consciousness again.
The captain looked away, inexplicably embarrassed. "Raving," she concluded.
"Perhaps," the Prince said slowly. "Perhaps not." He looked to the surgeon, and suddenly his mask of affable decadence was gone, his black eyes hard as stones. "Do not let him die."
She gulped. "Yes, Your Highness."
He nodded and went out. The captain followed him. He waited until they were both once again at the bow rail, out of earshot of anyone else, before speaking. "Do you know what Auberlane is?"
"It... rings a bell, Highness, but I can't quite recall."
"The ruling clan of the Kyri."
"They're up north somewhere, right?" She gave an apologetic shrug at his look. "I've never been much interested in landlocked countries."
"It's quite a large clan, and few of them are really considered royalty. And perhaps Kastor is a common name in that land. But by a curious coincidence, their Queen did, some few years ago, have a husband by that name, and I did hear she divorced him over some bit of superstitious nonsense."
"The only thing I heard about the fellow himself was that he was a great tall lad. Our guest is, as far as I can tell given his supine position, a generous hand over six feet. But of course we mustn't go jumping to conclusions. After all, how would an exiled Kyri prince end up floating in Verdichane Bay in a skiff, looking like the bottom layer of a barrel of salt pork, hm?" He snapped his fan open and turned his eyes to the horizon, where a pale jumble of city and commerce-choked harbor was just beginning to resolve against the distant green of the shoreline. "It occurs to me, however, that in nearly every culture of the world, people are reluctant to kill those of royal blood, whatever else they may do to them. And someone has certainly gone to a lot of trouble to let Mother Sea deliver the final blow. I wonder what his story is..."
The Captain stared at him with undiplomatic directness for quite some time. At last she said slowly, "Your Highness, I have a feeling you're going to find out."
He smiled his delighted childlike smile. "I think I may enjoy Semnia after all!"