Title: The Corsair's Crown
Summary: 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.
Updates: Every chance that I get. You can find out about updates or what I'm working on in the meantime at the story blog; google 'iceramyst livejournal'.
A/N: This is the updated, rewritten version of The Corsair's Crown. It is the sequel to The Sailor's General Superior, and I strongly recommend you read that first if you have not!
When I asked for leave to come home, I'd told my Lord Duke General Superior Paraz Asotegi that I wanted a long think about the course my life was taking. Every villager would say there's no better thoughts than those had stretched out beneath the stars on the red sands of home, or tucked away rod in hand upon a raft of my own making. But, being who I am, I'd no intention of slipping away to some lonely shore and brooding in the blue lapping gaze of the sea. No, when I told him I wanted time to think, what I actually meant was I wanted time to talk.
So when my Auntie sits me down in her round wood-and-thatch hut on my first night back on dry land and says, "Tell me all about your travels, dearest," I am all but jumping out of my boots to do just that. And when I open my mouth and no words come out, well, I don't need to hear the thunder to know I have stormy seas ahead of me.
From heartbreak to shipwreck, the woman who took in four of the most trying, dare-devil, outspoken children any other family could want to give away has been my safe harbor to pour all secrets into. Auntie's broad, round shoulders are always the first to bear the news about my latest feelings for Maria, my troubles with my old lieutenitza, my worries about never making captain, and even all my disastrous occasions with inn girls. Sometimes she just listens in silence, nodding along with her night-black eyes sharp, and other times she has a little bit of advice. Mostly, it's the act of explaining the story that clears my thoughts so I can see the solution ahead.
But here and now, as she sits there all manner of patient, her big hands working a knife across the belly of a gray wrasling and her head of frizzy white curls cocked just so, I know I can't tell her about Asotegi. Not the magic spell, not why I yanked our land's foremost General into a pond, and most certainly not about that last night I spent with him. When I'd left, I'd confided to Auntie in secret that I was planning to ask for Maria's hand on my return. How can I tell her that, scant months later, I've taken up with a dzalin? A dzalin lord, no less?
I can just picture it. I've no fear she'll drive that knife through my breast or somesuch, not as some families might at their son coming back with such a pronouncement, but she won't have to when I'll be so eager to do it to myself. "A lord, I see," she'll say, understanding-like, "and is he very kind?"
Well, no, I'll have to tell her. Half the army is terrified of his wrath and the other half finds it a cause for lusting, which always hurts my mind to consider. I mean, if they like the abuses so much, they should really talk to Ja Alim, his former lover, whose life I ruined just by existing; he's always up for a tumble. How do I know that? Well, he's always trying to seduce Asotegi into lying with him again, but don't worry, Asotegi always turns him down. I think. Well, he punched him that one time for mouthing off to me—but he won't hurt me, I swear it!
"And what have I always told you about folk who treat their beloved one way and everyone else another?"
Oh, no, I'll assure her, he doesn't actually love me. Well, he does, but it's most because he's under a spell, see, that makes him crazy about me. It's not as bad as it sounds, honest. We're forced to stay together pretty much all the time because we can't get too far apart—although that's gotten much better after I died. Er. Emelia did tell you about that, right? Anyhow, not being able to leave each other isn't so bad. He needs the reassurance that I won't leave him like all of his wives did!
The bit of driftwood I'd been fiddling with is now a pile of splinters on the packed dirt. "Saint's breath, Auntie, there's just so much to tell," I say instead, soaring to notes that a dog would wince to hear, "but I'm about dead on my feet from the journey here. Could the telling wait 'til tomorrow?"
"Of course, love," she replies, her wide, lined face all warm smiles, and I really wish she'd gone for the knife instead. "You know where the beds are."
The palette wafts up a wave of the herbs it was packed away with whenever I roll over, making my nose itch, and the packed-dirt floor of Auntie's hut seems harder than I remember, but that's not what's got me tossing the night through. I can't even tell the one who cares most about me that I'd been with Asotegi—how am I supposed to break the news to anyone else, to confide in someone and get the conversation I need?
Maybe that's the snaring reef, I think, hopeful-like. Maybe Auntie is too close to my heart, and it'll be better with the other villagers. Start small, work tall, like any other feat.
The kids all turn out in fleet when I go to the stump by the storytelling fire the next night, and no few of the adults too, the ones that aren't still out at sea. I manage just fine for a time, telling my wide-eyed, kneeling listeners about the army, the march to St. Anton, the battles all manner of peculiar. But when I'm describing Asotegi's foe, the hulking and terrifying Ajax, a girl in front asks breathless-like, "And the General beat him anyhow?"
"Er," I say, and, because it's a story and stories go a particular way, I say, "You're telling me you think the hero of the Mud Crown could lose?"
My fellow villagers won't understand for a moment why he would have gone out there, knowing, and getting, the defeat he expected. It's not fisherfolk way. Our heroes are heroes because they take on the sea monster and win. The ones who were eaten are foolish folk who shouldn't've been there in the first place.
I'd thought the same, the day it had happened. Now, knowing well how proud the General is and how he'd thrown it all away anyhow just to keep someone else from suffering the same blow—I still think it's foolish, but maybe a certain kind of brave in its own way. And that'd be just all manner of puzzling for my listeners.
When I start describing his daughter, my grinning friend Jara, and her mother, the beautiful Lady Imojene, the sailmender's son interrupts, saying, "You mean to say she's the General's wife, right?"
"Oh, they aren't married anymore," I answer without thinking, and have to force a grin at a sudden sea of frowns. "That is... that is, the dzali have a law, see. They can only stay married for so many years, and then they've gotta find a new husband or wife."
Many strange laws and customs the dzali have, but that's not one of them. My audience cries out at my words, against the cruel customs of saintless folk. How can I explain, though, that the lord and lady were just poorly suited and didn't get along? Everyone in my village knows of husbands and wives who didn't get along but stuck to their vows, worked out things between them and found accord or otherwise managed, even fell in love years after. Lady Imojene had told me they were better friends now than they ever had been. I could say that, but—"Why didn't they get married again?" my audience would ask, and I'd have no answer, not without making Asotegi an oathbreaker.
I take one last stab at the story, cutting out the massacre at the Kingfisher to spare the kids and skimming over the long march as quick as I can, to latch onto the tale of our sneak into Rzalez City. I show them my staff, letting them ooh over Alim's magic, and tell them how even though I was bedridden for three days, the General would not leave my side. It's a detail that makes a few of the girls sigh, but one older lad frowns and asks, "Wasn't he abandoning his soldiers in t'middle of a war?"
"Er," I say, "well—"
"It's brotherly love," the girl next to him snaps. "You can't think someone as faithful-like as the General would go tearing off in the wind when his folk is hurt."
"One folk is nothing compared to an army. He should have shored up and got over it."
"And you're just gonna abandon your loved ones when they're hurt too, right?"
"Hey!" he protests, scowling as he crouches down. "A sweetheart is one thing, and a soldier a clear 'nother. Sailor Calentine's just his naval adviser. It doesn't make any sense."
"Er," I say.
It only occurs to me after, going over my words that night as I always do when I'm fixing up a story for the next telling, just how many times I'd had to dodge or drift or twist the truth or flat out lie when talking about my summer. Inn drinkers are like to say that the best tales are those mired in truth with a great heaping of the fantastic about them, but I've never held with such thinking. I want to tell the truth; it's fantastic enough. And yet, I hadn't. Not mentioning our relationship in front of the kids makes all kinds of sense, when I don't know how the villagers will take it. But what does it matter if they know he's divorced? How am I supposed to tell someone about my relationship with the General when I can't tell them something so much easier?
I'd never dreamed that I'd be ashamed of my dealings with a lover, but there's no mistaking the ripping feeling in my chest. I can't bear to say anything that might make him look poorly, because—why, because it might make me look poorly by association? It's worse when I consider the taunts I know he must've gotten for spending so much time around a human, that he'd borne with nary a complaint. Asotegi had never tried to stick me in his tent and pretend I wasn't there.
If anyone's surprised when I start volunteering for every boat out instead of hanging around the night fires after that, well, no one says so to my face.
Most days, hauling on the ropes or figuring out the best way to manage my staff on a skiff keeps my mind well occupied. But when the seas are calm and the fish are swimming in other waters, then there's naught to do but think about that gnawing feeling. I don't like lying, but I like doubting Asotegi even less. I'd felt privileged when he'd told me about why his wives left him, why he'd stood up to Ajax—honored that he'd trusted me that much, to tell me things that had naught to do with the bond between us. It seems a betrayal I'd never intended when I flinch away from his truths, even if it's just in my own head.
With a sinking feeling so vast it's a wonder I don't plunge through the deck and end up walking on the seabed, I wonder if maybe he's better off without me, not because I'm a human and he's a lord, but because I can't be good enough for him. Not because I limp, or stand out, or don't know when to shut my mouth when I should, but because I'm not good.
That night Auntie sets me down in front of a pile of coriander seeds with a broad hand on my shoulder, presses a pestle into one of mine, and says, "You always did speak easier with something to do. Little Trito is running a fever, and she's been begging for spice tea all day." It warms me some that she knows, even unsteady on my feet, I will always lend a hand towards helping folk.
I take up the stone, grind down so sharply that one of the pods flips away clear into the center fire trailing smoke up through the roof, and order myself to tell one sure truth. "The General lost to Ajax in that fight," I blurt out.
That was clearly not what Auntie was waiting for, but she blinks and asks readily enough, "And?"
"And I said he didn't because I didn't want anyone to think badly of him," I say, calming my strokes to keep the seeds together this time. "And I'm worried that the General'd think I was ashamed of him, if he ever finds out I lied like I did."
"Then lets say he does find out," she replies, always practical. "And he demands to know why you did it. What do you say to him?"
The worst-case thinking isn't as bad as Auntie knows, because Asotegi wouldn't demand to know why, just quietly pack the knowledge away and feel poorly. But if he did... "That I only did it because I knew no one would understand, and I wouldn't ever want him to think I spoke badly of him."
"Caring about your friends' opinions are all well and good," she says, "but you've always valued your integrity above all. If he is your friend, I should hope that he would too."
I have to laugh a bit and say, "No, he appreciates the truth well enough, but he'd say the most important thing is to not reveal someone else's secrets—"
The pestle squirms away from my damp palms, and it takes me a few tries to pick it up again.
Auntie gives me a long look. "Just how important is this lord to you, dear?"
"Er," I say.
Lying in bed that night, I think about kissing him for the first time, shy and doubtful and wondering if this is what he would want, if this would make him happy. It had. It had made me happy, too. I've had a lot of joy in my life, but I can't think of a time before that when I'd felt more than when he'd pinned me down and started giving back good as I'd given. Not because of the kissing, fine as that had been, but because, I realize, because I'd known him well enough to do right.
I wanted—I want to do right by him. And if the villagers all like him, if they think well of us both, then if he should ever come by... he'll know I spoke well of him.
He'll be glad to have known me.
If there's anything that I want to have come of this past summer, no matter how long I am from his side, if I find a wife or he takes back up with Alim or any of the other things that might befall us, it's that. The very thought yanks out the hook from my skin, leaving me smiling and easy for the first time since I stepped onto that ship out of Gullcry. I want him to be glad to know me. I want to be, and continue being, a person he'd be proud of.
It also reminds me that I might have let some things slip by the wayside in my sulking.
Like how the Queen had asked me to go to change the course of a war by turning the mind of the stubborn Duke Rzalez.
She's just as beautiful as I remember, the blue ribbons woven in between her braids setting off her skin to a fine glow, and her smile warmer than the summer sun when she looks up from her mending. For some reason she's still smiling when she squints up at my face, raising a hand to shield her eyes from the sun, and says, "Nearly everyone in the whole village has come up to me sometime in the last weeks and assured me that you have been gripped by the coldest feet a fisherman can get this far west, but I know you, Calentine, and I know that if you were here to marry me, you'd have gotten up the nerve on the very first day."
"Er," I say, and, bravely as I can manage, "Can I join you?"
Maria shifts over on the blanket she's spread out in front of her hut and I fold up my long legs beside her, tucking my staff out of the way of her work. There was a time when sitting this close to my childhood sweetheart would leave me all atremble, but while being with Asotegi hasn't taken my appreciation for women away, my heart thunks slow and steady. It's not even a poor feeling; it's kind of nice to be able to watch Maria's slim fingers tug the needle up and down and just appreciate her skill, not think about how much I'd like to take them into my hand.
"You're right that I'm not here to ask that," I admit quietly, watching a tear in the worn tunic disappear with her thread. "And I should've come sooner to tell you that, but I've been too locked up in my own head to think about other folk, and—and that was wrong of me."
"It was," she agrees, and there, at last, is a little stiffness that I well deserve. "Because there was something I wanted to tell you, but my friends all but tied me up until I agreed to let you come to me first."
"Oh," I say, wincing a bit. "Well, I'd be glad to listen now."
"You would, wouldn't you." Maria laughs softly; I'd had four different dreams about her laugh, back in the day. "Anyone else would just be saying that, which is why I thought that—if it was going to be anyone here, it would be you, Calentine." I'm not sure if I've ever felt more pleased and more wretched at the same time.
"But," her voice lowers somewhat, tucked away into the cloth in case anyone might have come this far down the beach to spy on the girls' huts, "I realized while you were gone that this really isn't the life for me. I don't love the sea as much as you or any of your cousins do, and—and I don't want to spend the rest of my life at the end of a dock. I want to go to the city and see if I can't find someone there instead, someone different from..." She waves her hand at the tunic, the sand, and the sea to our left. "all this, as foolish as that might sound. I just didn't know how I was going to tell you, if you came back and still wanted to wed me. I never wanted to break your heart."
The consideration makes me smile, makes me feel more hopeful than I have in days. "Doesn't sound too foolish," I reply, lifting my shoulders. "I know a woman who has a shop in Gullcry; works with leather. I can give you her name. I'm pretty sure she'd take you on, if you'd like a place to start."
Maria sets down her needle and laughs and laughs, until I'm smiling even if I don't quite catch the joke. At last she stops with a gasp and says, "Oh, Calentine. Thank you. You are the best man I'll never marry."
"Well, then there'll never be a woman I'm as honored to not wed as you," I reply, mouth twitching. And then I suck in a breath and say, quick as I can, "It's not you, I mean, that's not why I'm not here to ask for a dock. There's someone who I met. Someone I'm not sure if I want to marry, or be with forever, or even talk about, but someone..."
"Someone who?" Maria asks, tapping my hand when I don't continue.
"Someone who I want to tell you all about when I know the answers to all those questions," I say firmly, to her and myself.
She smiles and says, "Alright." And it's as easy as that.
All folks make mistakes. There's no doubt in my mind that when—if—Asotegi tells stories about me, he ought to change some of the details. No one needs to know about the way I chewed him out at St. Anton over matters I didn't understand, or the time Jara and I were plotting so badly he thought we were lovers.
But I'd like to live my life so that any altered story he tells, he can think, they just wouldn't understand, and not, I'm embarrassed to have ever known him.
Around the campfire, I'd never gotten to the end of my story. I'd not told how the sailor and the General part their ways, because there'd been nary a thing to say about it, barely a few words breaking up a lot of complicated looking on that clear, warm morning, us standing together on the dock while the ship loaded its other goods. But the thought that the ending will always be the sailor returned home and broke all his promises and never did anything again, well. I have a few things to say about that.
That's just going to be the middle of the story, like, when the teller gets to down a mug of ale and everyone gets their own drinks refreshed by the innkeeper. And when my throat's no longer dry, I'll continue:
"When are you going to see this mysterious lover of yours to get those answers?" my old sweetheart asks me with a playful sort of smile.
"Soon as I can," I reply, "because clearly we've some matters to discuss. But first I've got to sail to Rzalez City and convince the Duke to join our Queen in war."
"What!" they'll cry as she did.
"Oh," I'll say. "Did I forget to mention that?"