The boat had survived somehow – her design, perhaps. Others were smashed and broken but theirs was still moored, tied to the remnants of the quay. She’d laid him gently next to the tiller, feathers and all – he wanted to laugh again, but it hurt too much.
Now they were out amidst the ships, the galleys, the floating castles of the harbour – captured vessels permanently anchored and bristling with weapons; and in and around and between them, half-sunken wrecks to catch the unwary. It was a landscape designed for death, it was Seagrave’s ultimate defence. And it was untouched, as far as he could see – all the wave’s power had been directed at the shore, not at the harbour.
When they got far enough out she stopped rowing and raised the tiny sail – she knew what to do without asking and seemed unfazed by the effort required to haul the canvas. Then she put the tiller in his hands:
He’d been studying for weeks. Watching the harbour, the ships, the routes taken by the pilots, and the ones avoided: those that trapped, those that killed.
“Of course,” he said to her, to the night, to no-one in particular, “everything looks different in the dark.”
Behind them, the lights of Seagrave were few and faint; and ahead, titanic shapes loomed lit here and there by torchlight and fire-brand only: sentries stood watch, or patrolled, and all of it served to confuse him…
Until he saw the monstrosity that was the Golden Barbican in their path, a solid wall of wood and stone and the hellish steel chains anchoring it, capped with iron barbs and crenellations, scorpions and ballistae. And beyond that, the three hulls of Dreadmaker lashed together, the Deadeater’s Kraken and Reid’s Bloody Vengeance, and somewhere between them the wreck of the twice-sunk Dakyrosian Unblooded’s Sword.
Now he knew where they were.
He steered them as close to Dreadmaker as he dared. The wind was strong and steady at their backs and they picked up speed quickly. One of the sentries – some poor bastard who’d drawn duty during the storm – looked down on them with sullen eyes as they passed, but he raised no alarms.
They had to weave between a trio of anchored ships then – pirate vessels – but once they were past them they’d be out of the harbour and beyond the reach of Seagrave altogether. No-one would follow them. Not for a long while.
Of a sudden the rain stopped – they passed some threshold and he looked up, saw the clouds parting, and the stars like bright eyes coming out clear and powerful in their multitude.
“When I saw you…” he said, still not sure if he was addressing her or some other, unseen thing. “When I saw you, that first time, I knew… I knew it wasn’t over. All of it, from the beginning – the stories they told me as a boy, and the things Hostur said, and all that Truthseeker dreck too. All of it – it was true, it was real, and it was here. When I saw you…” He licked his lips, suddenly so dry: he wished the rain back, but it would not come.
“The First Lords and the evling, Colm and Cadmus, the Imperian Empire, the Invicti – so many things I thought I’d never see, but I wished… I wished… And then you, sitting there, looking at me, knowing me – my failures most of all… I had to do something, didn’t I? I had to prove that it was worth it. Because if you are what you are supposed to be, then that means it matters, doesn’t it? Whether we live or die?”
He realised that he was rambling, but he couldn’t help himself – the words came out and he could no more stop them than the blood pouring from his wounds, the life receding from him into the dark.
“I made promises – I promised her, and she died because of me. I’ve killed so many, and for what? Nothing. Dust.” He spat over the side, slid down off the tiller – he couldn’t breathe anymore, the weight of it was crushing him, and he wanted to be free. “But this,” and his voice was a whisper now, faint and faraway, “this was important, wasn’t it? Please, tell me it matters. Please.”
She was leaning over him, the lantern at her back, a dark shape against the night sky – a clear, calm sky – ringed by light. She didn’t say a word. In her too-deep eyes he saw great depths of sorrow but when she bent down to plant a kiss on his forehead he felt only absolution.
“Thank you,” he breathed, so faint. “Thank you.”
Somewhere, far off, he could hear the beating of his own heart, like waves on some distant shore.
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