Title: The Corsair's Crown
Updates: Bi-weekly on Wednesdays, except where otherwise noted.
Synopsis: His companion is a man. A general. A noble. Not even human. The fate of their kingdom, awash in bloody war, hangs on their relationship; pirates, spells, and politics threaten to destroy them both. And all Calentine ever really wanted was to fish in peace.
Other: This is the continuation of The Sailor's General Superior. I do not recommend reading this story without reading that one first; however, I have tried to go through and explain terms and re-introduce characters so that you can do so if you really want to.
The sun sinks to the protests of hooting monkeys and the bellows of wild cattle off in the distance, and the chill in the breeze promises a cool evening for early autumn. Maybe even the first frost of the year. The farmers will hate that; the sailors will just smile grimly and turn up their collars.
I do that now as I walk down the beach, my staff making little holes in the sand alongside my footsteps. The sea is slow and dark here in the bay beside my village, calm lapping on the red sand. The houses behind me bear gifts from it: driftwood, old boards, warped logs, all glowing gold in the sunset.
Behind everything, the forest rises dark and empty, without even kudu trails to mark the way to Gullcry.
The great city, and nigh everything within it, seems like a distant dream when I'm breathing in the sea-salt air of home. There I had met our Queen, my lord duke General Superior Paraz Asotegi, a hundred others. Gullcry is the great city of the dzali, those creatures, once only known in stories, that had crossed the mountains and taken up our contested throne, to hold it until the human heir comes home. I'm one of the few who knows he isn't going to. A strange thing to know, for a sailor of a tiny village, but then again, my life has become strange indeed these last few months.
Down the shore, children had been playing in the sand, but their mothers shouted and they have gone off to chop up the evening catch for supper. The married men, their duties done for the day, have gone to their own homes, to tease their lovers away from the food or to check on their brew pots. The others like me, with no hut to call our own, have already taken a cart down to Lasthaven to drink or flirt or visit the brothel. They asked if I wanted to come, but I said no, I was going to the beach.
My staff, a relic of the war wound that leaves my knee aching, hits something hard in the sand, and I reach down to grab it. The stone is flat and round, with one of those notches that all but promises a perfect spin. Has anyone else ever picked up this particular rock, fine as it is? Tilted it back like I do, and thrown it at the water? Seems too sad, for a good rock to be thrown only once.
It skips, one, twice—but then a wave comes up unexpectedly, as waves sometimes do, and the damned thing sinks.
Even perfect rocks can fall early. Every kid in the village learns that you can dive all day, but you'll never get a good skipping rock back on your own. Most are gone forever. Sometimes you might walk the beach years later, though, and find the one with that spot that looks like an eagle, the notch in the place you remember; smaller now but ready to throw again...
You would stay with me forever? he had asked.
It's quite a decision, I had said. I'd come back to my village, to think in peace. To throw myself out over the sea, sink or skip, away from his shy, rare smile and his fingertips on my cheek...
There's a branch cracked behind me, and I spin around, hopeful. But Asotegi isn't there; just a turtle stumbling its slow, awkward way across the uneven beach. Well, of course he isn't there. He's out fighting a war without me.
Hardly a day back, and I'm already telling stories.
"The giant lifts his sword, his eyes gleaming red, and when he bellows the ground shakes and shakes," I whisper, hushed, holding my arms out wide. The children seated on the well gasp, leaning forward with bright eyes. Seated on his porch with a carving knife, old Ionness tries to look like he's not hanging onto every word.
"The General uses the last of his strength to hand me his own sword, and as I pick it up, I know there's no way I can win. But then he whispers the magic words, and I feel his strength running through me—"
In my village, telling the truth is what you do to parents and lovers. The children, though, they like a good tale.
The dark hut is lit only by the cookfire and one heavy-scented fish oil lamp, which reminds me of home so sharply it's hard to remember I'm already there. Auntie is squatting by the fire, mulling over the catch of the day. She, at least, hasn't changed any while I've been gone—the same wild gray hair, caught back in her usual leather tie; the same bright eyes, black as the bottom of the sea and as full of goodness. Her wide arms are still strong enough to haul a barrel of ale over her shoulder, although she's had one of the kids thread a needle for her lately when she's mending sails.
As I crouch beside her, she flips a blue and white ossler over, looking for a good spot to cut it open. "I know that look on your face, whether I'm looking or not," she says in her craggy voice. "Indulge an old woman, would you, and tell me your thoughts?"
"No thoughts worth telling," I say. "Only this unproductive sulk I can't seem to shake, and the only cure for that is time." Picking up a fish and my own knife, I get to work. How is it that the knife seems too small for my hand now? I'd only been gone a season.
"Might be you just need to tell someone what's on your mind, dear," she says. "Besides, if you don't start talking, I might have to start telling stories of my own, and, oh, my bowels this morning..."
Always one to give others their privacy, the woman who took me in from the sea and raised me has kept her questions mild-like these last few weeks. But I did get my curiosity from somewhere, and the saints know I get mad as a trapped pike to have it thwarted. A smile finds its way onto my face.
"The Queen wants me to go West, past the twin forts and Lasthaven to a city on the sea, and convince a dzalin duke to join her war," I tell her, brushing aside a head with the flat of my blade. "Might take years to do it. She didn't even tell me whether I could come back and visit, nor whether I could rejoin the fighting again."
Nor had she said specifically that in all that time I couldn't go and see her General, either, but it had been hinted in her words.He believes that if he can survive a short absence away from your side, so he can survive a longer one... Ill words, for an aching heart. And hence why I had fallen into this uncharacteristic funk, putting the decision from my mind as long as I could. It was a request, not an order. But does royalty ever really make requests?
There are a few dull thuds of a knife. "The Queen, dear?"
"The one and only."
"Well. Seems to me, the Queen gives you an important task, you don't sit around and sulk about it."
My smile fades into a sigh. "She asked me to do this because the General Superior wants me out of the war," I say. "He's worried I'll get hurt. Of course, he doesn't seem to have thought at all that this duke might still hold a grudge for me blowing up his castle anyhow, so I can't see as how it makes me any safer."
Auntie sets down her knife, turning to give me a long level look. "I think, dear, that you are going to have to do a little more explaining than that."
"...But she is the General's daughter, and she will not give in. Stealing her courage, she marches into the tent, and all the officers stare at her. 'I am here in my father's stead,' she declares, 'as scion of the house Asotegi. I will lead in his place.'"
"Do they listen to her?" my oldest listener asks skeptically, drumming his fingers against the wooden post he leans against.
"Not at first. They don't laugh—the dzali don't laugh when they're being cruel—but they do give her looks of great pity. 'Do you really think you can speak for your father?' they ask. 'It will be very difficult. Far too difficult for you.' And she tells them, 'I have personally fought every one of our soldiers. I know their strengths and weaknesses far better than any of you, because I have felt them, not merely watched like you have. I can tell you how to win this war.'"
As the days pass, I tell Auntie what I can. About being the naval advisor, and the General's friend; going to the inn with his daughter Jara, my steadfast friend; laughing with Laris and Majerern and the other soldiers. Not about how I've kissed him; not about how I keep dreaming of his smile, and waking up sometimes with an uncomfortable ache, sometimes with tears on my cheeks. Not yet, at least.
"That is quite the tale," she says when I finish.
No doubt even she thinks I'm making up half of it. I don't have the heart to say it's a thousand time more incredible than what I've told her. I am your sword, to direct as you will, he had told me, his big green eyes solemn and true as a keel; how can any man, no matter how besotted the magic made him, really say that?
"This General, you're sure of him?" she presses. "That he values you as you do him?"
"Sure as a man can be." If she could only see him blush...
Auntie frowns, taking down the whetstone from the shelf over the bed and starting to sharpen her knife. It's never a good sign when she does that, not in the middle of a job. "I don't like that he's had all those wives, though. Shows faithlessness."
"The dzalin are different from us," I say. It is a fact long in coming to me; I can't say I am any closer to understanding their ways than I was before, but I am starting to know them. "Besides, Auntie, you can't fault the first one for dying. And the third time, they both wanted it."
"Yes, but you said the second one couldn't get away fast enough, and he just up and left the last one." I'd done a small edit on the story of Ferrax Alim—the General's sharp-tongued former lover—that he probably wouldn't appreciate. "I'm sure they thought he was their friend, too."
"He still is—look, Auntie, this doesn't have anything to do with my going and doing the Queen's bidding."
"No, but it has to do with you feeling guilty about it." She flicks the knife towards me, gray brows raised. "Now, Cale, you have always spent your life taking care of others, and this is a fine thing, save for when you take it too far. You want to disobey an order given to you by the Queen herself, to go and kid-sit a General who might have lived a hundred years just fine without you?"
"And who made a right mess of his life," I point out, gesturing with the fish in my hand. "You've not met him, so I'll just say, he—he's hopeless, sometimes. He lets some people walk all over him and is too cold to others and—"
"And, he's his own person," she corrects gruffly, making me duck my head. "Now, this task that the Queen wants you to do, talking to this duke, it sounds like something you can do for yourself. Take this chance, boy! Let your General make his own mistakes, or not, as he chooses. Besides, wouldn't your friend be impressed if you managed to do it? What reason do you have to disobey?"
There's no point in arguing, not when she's right. This stabbing in my chest, at the thought of being away from him for what might be years—time might heal it. Might not. "None really," I murmur. The touch of his gaze isn't a winning point.
"See, that was easy." A wry smile breaks on her weathered, wrinkled face. "If he's your friend, he'll wait for you."
I haul at the net, and the spray hits me in the face, water flying off a thousand shimmering fins onto the wood and my skin. "Haul left!" I shout to Mendora at the tiller, and she grunts and pulls against the wind. We will all eat well tonight. The harder I work, the less time I have for thinking.
I go and take dinner with Dominica and her new husband, Andrei, in their mostly-built hut. She is still all warmth and smiles, laughing even as she laments about not being able to sail to the castle attack. "Such marvelous stories our cousins came back with," she says, chuckling as she spoons another large dollop of shredded greens onto my plate. "And here I thought finding a scorpion in the roof reeds was exciting."
Of all of my cousins, she is the best cure for heartache, as closed-mouthed as Auntie but far more willing to pull you into a hug without question. I try to let her light-hearted banter soothe me, joking back best I can as I let myself sink into a world that Asotegi has never been in.
After dinner, Andrei invites me to join him on their dock, where he's built a sturdy bench and a few poles for guests. He's always been quiet, smiling rarely but never with a bad word for anyone. His hair is nigh as long as my old sweetheart's, his sister, though it is pulled back into a man's knot rather than a woman's thousand of tiny braids, and his arms are nigh as slender. Not the man I would have expected the chattering Dominica to pick, but he seems a good listener.
Now, though, he hands me a pole and says, "I heard you talked to Maria. She says it went, er, well, but we always thought you two were bound together..."
"I waited for you," Maria says quietly, her smile shy on her lovely skin. She brushes back a thin, dark braid with her fingertips, and I remember wanting to press my lips to her firm wrists, long ago. Nearly three months, now. "I wanted to make sure you wouldn't be—hurt."
"It's a nice thing you've done, nicer than almost anything else anyone's done for me," I admit, and set my hands on her shoulders. "He'll treat you well?"
"Very," she admits, ducking her head to the side. "He's sweet, Calentine. Not as funny as you, maybe. But he's teaching me how to make bread, and I'm making him a sharkshin coat. I think it will work."
"Good," I say firmly, and press a kiss to her forehead. "If he treats you poorly..."
"I know I can always count on you." Her dark eyes glimmer, curving warmly. "I always have."
"I wished her well," I say, tossing my line in without bait; I've no real need for a catch, and sometimes they bite at night without anyway. "She's a fine friend."
"What?" he asks, startled. "Friends with your old sweetheart, really?"
So Asotegi has worn off on me after all. Andrei's right that, a year ago, I'd have wanted to cut my heart out with my fishing knife and never see her again. Now that just seems foolish as trimming my nails with his sword. Why shouldn't I wish her well, and keep the company I'd enjoyed all these years?
"Must be the dzalin influence," I say, flashing him a smile in the dark. "You know, some of them have a bunch of wives and husbands behind them. If they didn't keep civil company, then none of 'em would ever talk to each other, long lived as they are. Mind you—if you leave Dominica, I'll have to keelhaul you."
"I don't plan to," he mutters, glancing away. I can't tell in the low light, but if he was Asotegi, he'd be blushing—and with that dark hair, it's almost like—startled, I realize that my cousin's husband is handsome. Not that I'm in the least tempted, no more than I'm tempted to court the nigh-as-lovely moon, but I can tell it now. It's a strange thought, to be sure.
Something tugs on my line, lets it go again, and I turn back with a sigh. Fat lot of good telling handsome men is going to do me. Humans aren't like dzali. And there's only one that I want, anyway.
One time, I had woken up choking with sobs, images of the men who had burned at my orders screaming through my head, and he had pulled me to his chest without hesitating. Now I dream of that chest, running my hand down it, listening for his gasps, and wake drenched in sweat. We'd only had one night. Does that make us lovers? The word seems so strange.
Maybe between men, sex is counted different than not. I have no way to figure it. I can hardly wander hut to hut asking if anyone knows the answer. Sometimes sailors would sneak off to a lonely corner of the ship, what little there was, but they always went back to their wives on the shore. I wonder if those men consider themselves lovers; I'd never thought to ask.
All I know is, that night had been too short. I don't know a hundredth of what he likes. I want to know everything.
I can't even tell my dearest loved ones that I want him.
How can we be lovers, if I can't even speak the word?
Cousin Emelia comes home for a day, back from a pirate-hunting expedition that's put a good dent in her lady's side. The closest thing our village has to a shipwright is down at Lasthaven that day, visiting his sick aunt, but we reckon that we can fix it ourselves.
She takes me out on the water on her little outrunner, a wooden oarboat with slab boards for seating and notch to hang a pole over the side, while I scan her ship with a critical eye. "Now, where did it get hit?" I ask.
"Bit more starboard, parallel to the second mast—there," she says, pointing, and I pick up the oars again and pull us closer. There isn't a hole yet, but the wood is dented and straining, barnacles creeping up again the edges towards the warmth promised within. I don't blame them; the air is getting colder still.
"Got any ideas?"
"I've got some tingles with me," Emelia says. "Hold her still." I reach up and grab one of the details on the hull as she lifts a plank from the bottom of outrunner in one hand and a hammer in the other. "Nails at your feet."
"Good place for them."
She fits the board over the dent and I lift one of the sharp iron stakes into place, trying not to flinch as she gives it a tap with the hammer. "So," she says, "now that we're alone on the water, no crew, no chattering villagers, I've been waiting to hear you talk about that General of yours."
"Then you've been missing out, because I've been telling stories about him for weeks."
"Tales so tall they stretch past the clouds. Spill it, cuz."
Villagers sometimes guess that I'm the closest in kind with my cousin Helene, found on the same raft as me floating on the sea when we were just babes, and the only other blonde-haired, gold-skinned person on the whole coastline—the whole kingdom, like, as the similarly fair hillfolk are independent. Or my cousin Stephano, the only man of the bunch. Or Dominica, since we were always the ones who did the planning when the village needed something done, always the first to offer comfort to anyone hurt or needing it.
But Emelia, sharp-eyed, sharp-minded, is the one I turn to in times of need. The oldest of a group of youngsters can sometimes lead a rough life, but she weathered it well, coming out of our childhood as fine as the steel swinging at her side. I've always trusted her.
And yet I still say, "Not much to tell," as I fetch up another nail and hold it for her. "He's a good friend."
"So you say, but I've never seen a man wail as the General did, when you were hurt. And you stayed in his tent."
More than one of her crew had to have some feelings about that. "I did," I agree.
Emelia lowers the hammer to scowl at me in exasperation, her long braids sliding over her shoulder as she shakes her head. "Calentine, you get one thing straight," she says. "You're a bad liar and a worse fooler. I don't care about what you're doing and who you're doing it with, so long as you know what you're doing and have all the advice you need. Do you care for him?"
Her words sound well, and they're warming, but it still takes all my will to nod, and even as I do so, I'm thinking up excuses, the sea's just bobbing me, the boat's not still.
"Fine, then. Will he do right by you?"
"I don't rightly know what that means," I point out carefully.
She sighs loudly as I set another nail up. "I mean, will he provide for you? Keep your care, lodging, whatnot? Let you on the sea when you want or not as you please?"
"He, ah, built me a whole room just for hot baths," I admit, that being a luxury none in my village would have ever had. "In the Queen's castle, no less."
"Saint Anton's will I get me one of those. And do you love him?"
"That's a tricky question," I say. It is, although the answer doesn't seem as hard as it used to. "What is love, anyway?"
I raise the last nail, and this time she does hit me. I yelp, yanking my hand back as Emelia grins apologetically.
"Then here's an easy one. Does leaving him hurt more or less than that?"
"How handsome is the doctor?" a wide-eyed girl gasps, leaning to the side as her sister beside her tosses another log onto the fire. "Ja Alim?"
"His hair is as red as that," I say, tilting my chin towards the flames, "and longer than even your mother's, and his eyes are green as the first grasses in spring. But they are shiny like a cobra's, and his smile is always trouble."
"And does he have a fisherwife yet?" her sister wants to know.
I shake my head and grin, saying, "Who would take a husband like that?"
"But you said the General was his friend," the first girl argues. "Why didn't he tell him to be nicer? Why did he give up on trying to make him nice, before he turned so mean?"
"Well, you see, the General has a terrible spell cast upon him, on them both, and their rivers split apart..."
The shipwright's daughter is named Adelphe, and she sways up to watch me repair the thatch on their roof for the fifth day. "It's hot work, isn't it?" she asks again. "You should take a drink." Against tradition, her long, dark hair is bound only at the top, the rest hanging around her hips. I'm not certain she's aware the view her dress displays from atop a roof, as she hands a clay mug up to me.
I take it gratefully and start to tip it back, until I realize that there is no grain ale within, but red, sweet wine. I realize the season, guess the probable date, and sigh. Then I pass it back to her, undrunk.
"I'm sorry," I say to her stricken look, "it isn't you. My heart isn't mine to give away, not now."
She nods stiffly, clenching the cup to her chest. "I—your dzalin lady, yes? I've heard some of the tales you tell in the village. But I thought—"
"No," I say gently. "I'm sorry."
Spinning, she flees towards the woods. I couldn't say anything different, but I still feel like quite the cad. Shaking my head, I lash another bundle of wheat to the frame beneath.
"Lady Imojene is as pretty as a song, her smile bright as the sun on a summer's day. But she and the General never loved each other. They were too different, too—"
"Does the General love you?"
I shut my mouth tight through the startelement of it, and that might have given me away, had not the other kids leaped on the little girl's words. "You don't ask that!" her sister says, blushing red, as her brother scolds, "Men don't do things like that together, dummy."
"But the General hasta love somebody," Elsi insists, scowling. "And it's not the Ladies, so why not Calentine?"
"Because men don't do things like that!"
I let them argue while I think, until I finally raise my voice and say, "There is one person the General loved. Ja Alim, the doctor."
"What?" the eldest daughter gasps, staring at me agape.
"You see, the doctor saw him at our Queen's wedding, and thought the General so beautiful..."
And in one small way, the world of my village opens.
"I think I've got it figured," I tell Auntie as I set the last gleaming knife on the high shelf. "I'll do as the Queen asks for a year, and try my damndest to do my task sooner. If I fail, well, no one could say I hadn't given it a try." I'd be leaving Asotegi for a year. I try not to think of that, try to think—if I still feel this bad in a whole year, then I'll return to him with an easy conscience. It will be a hell of a year and no mistake.
"That sounds very clever indeed," she says, and I try not to puff up like I'm a boy just given his first knife. But then Auntie stops mid-word, tilting her head; there are children shouting outside, odd for this time of evening, their voices growing louder. Someone frantically scratches at the flap, and an unfamiliar young man bursts inside along with several of the village children, his sides heaving. "Message, from, upsea," he pants.
Auntie makes a sharp gesture, and one of the older girls goes and fetches him a cup of water, which he gulps hastily. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he manages, "The General's been captured. Held by King Wzaritec at the castle. Holly on the Sea. Your General, Calentine."
I am on my feet in an instant, but Auntie's dark fingers are firm as a cattrap on my arm. "What about careful thinking?" she demands.
"Find out where the nearest ship is," I tell the young man, who nods and takes off again, the children on his heels. To my aunt, I say, "I'll think as soon as he is safe. I promise."