Diana Pharaoh Francis | Diana P. Francis | Diana Francis

The Black Ship

TheBlackShip200The Crosspointe Chronicles, Book Two
Reprint edition: Bell Bridge Books (October 2014)
Originally printed by: Roc (November 2008)
ISBN-10: 0451462424
ISBN-13: 9780451462428

Paperback: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-A-Million | IndieBound | Mysterious Galaxy Books

For an audio version: Audible | iTunes

“It’s a high-seas adventure with descriptions so vivid you may feel seasick while reading the second book in the Crosspointe series, which also works as a stand-alone. The worldbuilding is detailed and gives you a feeling of being there. The characters are multi-layered, with flaws and weaknesses and the plot is well-crafted.” Romantic Times, 4 Stars

The Black Ship

Original cover (published by Roc)

“In this second novel, the author takes us on a terrific high seas adventure the equal of any C.S. Forester swashbuckler….THE BLACK SHIP offers rich world-building, a highly original system of magic, and a rousing storyline. I liked Thorn and the crew of the Eidolon a lot and hope to see their return. THE BLACK SHIP is easily read and enjoyed as a standalone novel, but I encourage readers to start with THE CIPHER for the full picture and enjoyment of the Crosspointe universe.” —Sci Fi Guy review

Thorn is a member of the Pilot’s Guild—those who possess the magical ability to navigate Crosspointe’s deadly seas. When a malevolent master within the Guild bans him from the sea, it seems his life is over. Then he is kidnapped and forced to serve aboard the rogue ship Eidolon—pitch black from bow to stern—and Thorn finds himself battling a mad captain, a mutinous crew, and the terrifying magic of the sea.

But there is a saboteur on board, trying to make sure the Eidolon never arrives safely in port. Thorn begins to realize his kidnapping may have been no mere chance—and that the cargo the black ship carries may seal his doom…

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The day began with none of the usual portents sentimental novelists always deemed necessary to make their dribble interesting to mawkish readers. Thus it was that Sylbrac was not forewarned of his impending doom: the upcoming murder of his spirit, the stupid sacrifice of his soul, the end of his life as he knew it. And it was to be his own fault.

Sylbrac rose early. It mattered not that he’d been out late the previous night at the Blood Oak, his favorite tavern on the docks. It was a place no other Pilot would ever set foot inside, which was the attraction for Sylbrac. Nor did it matter that he’d put away the better part of three bottles of wine all on his own. He disliked slovenly habits and kept a disciplined schedule regardless of his indulgences. He dressed with the aid of his valet and ate a sturdy breakfast of eggs, bacon, buttered potatoes and strong cream tea.

As he ate, Fitch purred in his lap, gleefully kneading sharp claws into his thigh with the smug superiority that came with knowing there would be no retaliation. Sylbrac manfully ignored the pain. Interfering with the small cat’s fun would only result in a snarling bite or bloody scratch across the back of his hand. Nor was that the worst of it. Fitch would then compound her revenge by shredding Sylbrac’s favorite waistcoat. Or more than one.

After breakfast, he went for his usual ramble along the headland, leaving Fitch curled up on a cashmere blanket before the fire. He walked quickly, nearly running at times up the steep path and along the edge of the cliffs. He loved the briny smell of the sea, the whisper of the wind in the twisted pines along the shore, and the sybilant siren song of the water.

The sun was a glowing lemon peel, gilding the black waves gold. He climbed up onto a jutting tor. The wind cleared the last vestiges of his headache. He breathed deeply, gazing out at the horizon. Frustrated anticipation coiled in his intestines. The excrutiatingly long month of Chance was over, and riggers were scrambling to get ships ready for sailing. He’d get his assignment within a few days and would lay on deck before the month of Foregiveness was half over.

His fingers flexed. It couldn’t come soon enough. He squatted on the jut of rock, his gaze flicking to the Pale. The string of wards protecting Crosspointe hung like fairy lights a quarter of a league off shore. They were entirely green now, the color of new grass, the color of safety. Not too long ago, they and the identical string of tide wards beneath the waves, had burned bitter blue. The twin strands of wards protected the island from sylveth, a majickal substance that unravelled in tangled knots throughout the black waters of the Inland Sea. The smallest drop of sylveth could turn anybody or any thing into spawn. From rope to children’s toys to spoons…anything could transform into hideous creatures culled from the nightmares of the insane. None were alike except in mindless hunger. Hordes of spawn had been known to raven through the waves and forge onto the land like a seething mass of maggots picking clean a carcass. And they’d keep eating, right up until a knacker gang wearing special protective gear was sent to kill or capture them, or until they were eaten by the even more frightening monsters inhabiting the depths of the sea.

But the kiss of sylveth was not always a curse. Some lucky few were granted gifts, as slight as beauty and as vast as… As vast as stepping out among the stars.

He drew a deep breath, smelling the brine, the wet of the clouds and a faint biting tang of wild majick. The wards stifled his ability to feel waves, the ever-shifting landscape below the waters, the senseless twisted currents, the massive Koreion and the gluttonous vescies, and the tantalizing curls of sylveth.

Sylbrac rubbed his callused hand hard over his jaws. He’d been too long ashore, watching the Pale fade from green to blue and back to green. During Chance, the violent winter storms whipped the sylveth out of the waves and into the air and turning the wards blue. The only safe place was inside the Pale. Everyone took refuge on Crosspointe until Chance passed and the sylveth settled back down into the water in thick, heavy skeins, making the sea once again navigable. For a special few, anyhow.

Though the Inland Sea was still incredibly dangerous to sail the rest of the year, a good Pilot evened the odds out considerably, able to sense the rise of hull-ripping knucklebone weirs, the opening of bore holes and sudden uprisings of mountains from the depths. With a hand on the majickal compass installed on every ship, a good Pilot could read every chaotic change in the sea bed and the waters and direct his ship on more healthy headings. Sylbrac was an exceptionally talented Pilot. But he was still dirtbound and with every passing moment, his hunger to be free of the obdurate island and return to the sea where he belonged intensified. The need was becoming painful. Given the choice, he’d gladly spend his entire life on the waves and never set foot on the ground again.

The craving swelled and became blinding. For a moment he swayed forward. He caught himself with one hand and then pushed to his feet and climbed down off the tor.

He was too restless to return home, and instead walked down into Blacksea.

The town girdled a forested cove. It was picturesque, with exclusive shops and quaint whitewashed houses made of brick and timber. Large manor houses shouldered through the trees in rising ranks along the low ridge surrounding the town. Pilot homes. Below, a dozen coastal ketches lay at anchor in the harbor. They were painted white with crimson striping down the rails and wales. Banners floated from the tops of the masts, while crews bustled on deck, readying for sail. Smaller pleasure boats filled the marina. None had compasses or Pilots and none of them ever went beyond the Pale.

The air was redolent with woodsmoke, baking bread and wet from last night’s storm. The scent of pine, tar and salt overlaid it all. A dog nosed along the edge of the road and a pair of squirrels squabbled beneath a leafless lilac bush. Sylbrac strode briskly. His gaze slid over the the shadowy hollows in the doorways and between the storefronts with their white windowframes, blue shutters and gingerbread trim. Nothing seemed out of place. His gaze darted up alleys. He zig-zagged slightly to allow himself to glance obliquely back along the street behind him. No one followed. Not that he expected it. But the habits of survival were not soon forgotten.

Just beyond the Exchange, Sylbrac turned up a Petal Avenue. At the end was a boxy rust brick building with white shutters and doors. Over the doors hung a wooden cutlass with the words “For Bravery and Honor,” carved deeply into the wooden blade. A brass plate beside the door said merely Torsby and Sons. Sylbrac went eagerly inside.

He entered into a wide, shallow foyer. The walls were painted green with a wood wainscoting the color of molasses. The floor was the same wood. Three of the walls were lined with racks containing several hundred swords of every design. The last contained daggers. Torsby was a master swordmaker, the finest in Crosspointe. People came from all parts of the Inland Sea to purchase his blades, and he was eccentrically choosy about whom he allowed to do so. Sylbrac was privileged to own three of Torsby’s swords and five of his daggers.

He went through the archway on the far wall, down a wide corridor into the spacious gallery beyond. Broad windows overlooking the winter skeleton of an overgrown garden ran the length of the back wall. The gallery was divided into three sections by low barriers topped by brass rails. On the far right and left were two smaller enclosures, each thirty feet across. Within them, three circles in different sizes had been painted on the floor in yellow, each divided into quarters. Round racks of wooden and iron practice swords stood in the corners. Beside them were bins of padded and unpadded cross staves and a variety of targets. On the walls were rows of hooks holding gambesons in varying of sizes. Also hanging on the walls were hobbles, wrist, waist and ankle weights, and an assortment of other training blocks and tackle. Two pails of powdered clamshells hung on posts on either side of the practice areas and a rack of small towels circled the posts above.

The central section was far larger than the other two, being four times as wide. It also contained a series of concentric practice circles painted different colors, but was otherwise the same in appearance. The place smelled of beeswax, sweat and leather.

Two women were sparring in one of the smaller enclosures. They’d been at it awhile and were breathing heavily. Sweat gleamed on their cheeks and foreheads. Will, Torsby’s youngest son, poked one of the women in the thigh with his staff, then rapped the other on the calf, all the while rumbling out instructions.

“Fair morn, young Thorn.”

The elder Torsby sat on a bench against the wall, running a soft cloth over the blade lying flat across his thighs. His grizzled hair hung in lank curls to his shoulders, his bald pate covered by a round leather cap. His doughy nose was red, his cheeks rough with stiff gray bristles. He eyed Sylbrac sardonically from beneath his shaggy brows.

“Been expectin’ ye.”

Sylbrac’s black brow lifted. “Were you?”

“Aye. In a foul mood, too. Looks like I was right.”

“Been reading tea leaves, have you? Does this mean you’ll be putting up a booth at market day and start telling fortunes?”

“None such. ‘Tis merely that ye be as predictable as the comin’ of Chance. The Ketirvan begins today. Truth be told, I expected ye afore dawn. Grind off a bit of the bitter edge.”

Sylbrac’s lips pulled flat. At the beginning of each new season, the Pilots Guild congregated under the guise of conducting the business of the guild. In reality, it was a vast chasm of putridness, with an overabundance of posturing, backbiting, conspiracy and scheming. Inevitably, he’d end the session with a fiery pain in his gut and an insatiable urge to kill someone. Usually more than one someone. All told, there was nothing Sylbrac dreaded more. Not even being trapped between a gale wind and a knucklebone weir to the lee. At least the latter was a quick death, and far less painful.

He removed his outer wool coat and his frock coat, loosened his collar and rolled up his sleeves. He stretched his arms over his head and bent from side to side. Torsby continued to polish the blade, chuckling softly.

“I think your hair needs a trimming,” Sylbrac said, pretending to be irked at Torsby’s amusement. They’d known each other a long time and the other man wasn’t put off by Sylbrac’s notorious and persistent thorniness. “Perhaps a little off the eyebrows as well, old man.”

“Thorn, me boy, ye couldn’t scratch me ass if ye had ten swords and I had but one arm.”

“In that case, I’d think you’d stop calling me Thorn.”

“And call ye by that blasphemous name of yourn? I’d be struck dead. ‘Sides, it suits ye better. Never met another such pain in the ass as yerself. Prickly bastard. Thorn in the side, thorn in the foot. But that has nothing to do with how ye swing a sword.”

Sylbrac laughed. Most new Pilots swiftly developed inordinately swelled heads that never deflated with time and experience. Their arrogance and hauteur was a product of the lack of market competition. No one else could navigate the Inland Sea with any degree of safety. Without Pilots, Crosspointe would wither and die. A fact which made them, quite literally, priceless. But it wasn’t as if a person became a Pilot through any innate virtue of his own. It was merely the whim of the gods. Every day Sylbrac gave thanks for the unbelievable luck that had changed his life so abruptly, opening a door on a world of unimaginable beauty and wonder. So instead of selecting an unpronouncable, self-important name from the venerated dead language of the ancestral Ekidey as was Pilot tradition, he’d chosen to borrow the pieces of his name from the sea god Braken and from sylveth, the blood of the Moonsinger Meris. Blasphemous it might be, and ironically enough, most of the Guild thought it was terribly arrogant as well. But for Sylbrac, it was a gesture of gratitude, a constant prayer of thanksgiving for the gift he’d been given. That his choice infuriated his fellow Pilots was a bonus. He relished every opportunity to prod at their superior smugness.

Still smiling, he unbuckled his swordbelt and drew his blade, tossing the scabbard down onto the bench before pacing around to the other side of the circle. He scooped up some of the clamshell powder.

“Shall we see what you have to teach me today, old man?”

Despite his years, Torsby was spry. In fact he was downright quick and nimble. Within minutes, Sylbrac was sweating. They went back and forth, swords flashing and clanging in rapid staccato. Torsby kept up a running commentary about Sylbrac’s form, jeering at his pupil’s growing breathlessness and stiff, jerky moves.

“Gotta give up that soft livin’, boy. Your turning into a loblolly. And stop pounding like ye was beating the forge with a hammer. Ye know better. When you’re in the circle with a blade in your hand, your head can’t be anywhere else.”

The reproof stung, the more so because it was true. Sylbrac laid in harder, forcing his mind to focus. Soon all thoughts of the upcoming Ketirvan faded like smoke in the wind and the nettles of tension that had been plaguing him since he’d become dirtbound unwound from his muscles.

“Aye, there ye go,” was Torsby’s only comment.

They sparred without pausing for well over a glass. At the end, Sylbrac was panting heavily, but relaxed in a way he hadn’t been since the beginning of Chance. His body felt fluid, invigorated. He returned Torsby’s salute, touching his sword to his forehead before stepping out of the practice circle. He wiped his face with a towel before dipping a tin cup into the water bucket at the end of the bench and drinking deeply. The water was flavored with mint and lemon. He gulped a second cup.

“You’ll careen yerself if ye keep drinking like that when your so heated,” Torsby commented, sipping from his own cup.

“Better a bellyache from this than the Ketirvan.”

“Ye’ll regret it when ye have both.”

Sylbrac sighed, dropping the cup into the bucket with a splash. “There’s no way around it. I am hulled. I shall have to attend and sit through the endless hours of talking and saying less than nothing. By Braken, couldn’t they just cut out my eyes and tongue, lop of my legs and toss me to the dogs like the Jutras? It would be infinitely more merciful.”

“Pilots Guild ain’t interested in mercy. Specially to a thorn like you. And who’s fault be that? I expect ye’ll be takin’ the cat again?”

“Most definitely. Fitch wouldn’t miss a moment.”

Torsby shook his head, his mouth puckering. “Ye invite trouble. Surprised ye never been tossed overboard, what with the cat, not to mention that whistling ye insist on.”

“Can’t sail the Inland Sea without a Pilot. No matter how much you don’t like him. Besides, there’s nothing unlucky about Fitch, and whistling is just music, not a summons for the wights of the world.”

“Not a sailor on this island as would agree with ye.”

“They don’t have a choice, do they?”

Torsby eyed him steadily. Sylbrac flushed and looked away.

“It’s little wonder you’re so much alone.”

Sylbrac stiffened. Bleakness suffused him. Torsby was more right than he knew. It was less than two months since Jordan’s death. His brother’s murder had left Sylbrac completely alone. No family…at least none he would willingly claim. He could never forget they were blood, but by the gods how he wanted to. As for friends…aside from Fitch, Torsby was the closest thing to a friend he had.

Sylbrac’s lip curled in silent scorn. He’d made little effort to see Jordan in the past seventeen seasons. Most of their infrequent encounters happened accidentally when they were both in port over Chance. Sylbrac had made even less effort to make friends. He reaped what he sowed. And yet he couldn’t help the ache in his gut at losing Jordan. He felt strangely adrift, as if his brother had been anchoring him through the years without Sylbrac ever realizing it, and now the anchor chain was snapped.

He sheathed his sword and buckled on his belt.

“I choose to be alone. People annoy me.”

“Do they now? And ye bein’ such a lapdog. Ye’d think they’d cuddle right on up t’ ye.”

Sylbrac snorted. “The sea’s enough for me.”

“Some men like a tickle and a tumble from time to time.”

“As do I. But there’s no need to worry. I’m a Pilot. It’s easy enough to find a skirt to twitch when I want one.”

“Then it be a fine life ye got. No naggin’ missus, no bawlin’ kiddies, nothin’ at all to disturb your sleep or aggravate your meals. Come home to peace and everlovin’ quiet.”

“A fine life,” Sylbrac agreed, but the burn in his gut intensified.

He bid Torsby farewell and returned home to bathe and dress before the Ketirvan. But he couldn’t stop thinking of Jordan, try as he might to shut those thoughts safely away. He couldn’t remember the last words they’d spoken to other. It had been too long ago.

By the time he reached home his stomach was churning. He was only a bare step away from sinking into the quagmire of his past—a past he’d worked hard to scour forever from his mind. But Jordan’s death had ripped open the levees that kept that past at bay. He felt exposed and raw. The fluid relaxation he’d achieved at Torsby’s was gone and his mood had turned foul. He dismissed his valet with a snarl, throwing off his clothing and scrubbing himself vigorously in lukewarm water before yanking on his formal clothing.

He donned a close fitting black suit made of dosken and silk. It was light and easy to move in and bore no embroidery or embellishments. The jet buttons rose up to close tightly around his throat and he wore no cravat. He pulled on a short padded leather coat—a monkey-jacket like most sailors wore. The arms were ringed with wide silver bands etched with the serpentine shapes of Koreion. Over it, he wore a sleeveless black robe. It was loose and flowing and shone with a silvery iridescence, like the moon striking the black waves of the Inland Sea. He stamped into his leather boots, tucking a stiletto into the top of the left one, and shoving a dagger into the small of his back. Weapons weren’t allowed into the Ketirvan, but Sylbrac had spent years running wild on the docks. He knew better than to trust anyone and never went anywhere without a blade of some sort.

He glanced in the mirror, and yanked a comb through his brown locks. Despite his efforts, they fell over his forehead in an untidy mop, the back of his hair hanging several inches below his collar. He rubbed at the bristles casting a scruffy shadow along his jaw. He’d be damned if he’d shave. He slipped a heavy gold ring on his forefinger. It was shaped like a quadrafoil with a sylveth compass rose in the center. It was his offical Pilot’s signet. He ignored the matching broach, shoving it to the back of his sock drawer.

When he was ready to go, he poured himself a glass of red brandy and gulped it down in a single swig. He poured another and then went to collect Fitch.

He settled the little cat on his shoulder. She dug her claws in for balance, and wrapped her tail around his neck. Sylbrac scratched her ears. She butted against his hand, purring. The sound made his stomach unclench fractionally. He’d found her almost exactly a year ago. A couple of stray dogs had cornered her on a dock and though she’d been just a kitten, she’d not given ground. Eventually she’d run them off, coming away with hardly a scratch. From the moment she’d walked away shaking her paws in disgust at the dog drool slicking her fur, Sylbrac had known she was a kindred spirit. He’d kept her with him ever since.

“Are you ready?” he asked her.

Her purr grew louder. He sighed heavily and departed for the Ketirvan.

The guildhall was located on the east side of Blacksea, requiring Sylbrac to cross through town. He took a route along the docks. The air was sharp and the wind slapped hard. The cold cleared the murk of the brandy from his head, a fact he regretted. Fitch rubbed her cheek against his jaw. He reached up to pet her.

He nodded greetings to the sailors he passed. Most Pilots didn’t bother to notice they were even alive, unless and until they were forced to be the job of protecting them at sea. But Sylbrac respected them. He’d been them, not all that long ago, before his gift…happened. Sailors lived hard, brave lives, most coming to an abrupt end in the black waves of the sea. He liked their rough honesty. He liked that they were too busy surviving to scheme and sell each other out. He liked that they spoke their minds and when they were angry, they told you about with their fists and shouts. He felt more at home among them than anywhere else.

Home. The idea of it sent a chill trickling down his spine. He remembered that last day, creeping out, a handful of coins in the pouch stuffed down in the toe of his boot, a small bundle on his back. It had all been stolen by nightfall, including every stitch of clothing he wore. He nearly died that night. And almost every night and day after for many seasons to come. But he had counted himself better off than Jordan, whom he’d left behind, knowing what must happen to him.

Guilt assailed Sylbrac, his stomach lurching as bile burned his throat. He’d not let himself think about it, not since he’d run away, and not since Jordan’s death. But now he couldn’t seem to stop himself.

A little over five sennights ago, Sylbrac had returned to Crosspointe. He arrived just a few days before the Chance storms rose, before the Pale vanished and the majickars—despite years of saying they couldn’t possibly fix a broken Pale—rebuilt it in the blink of an eye. The pre-Chance storms had been terrible and he had been so exhausted by the effort of getting the ship back in one piece that he’d slept several days away before he picked up a paper and learned of Jordan’s death. By then his brother had been dead for nearly two sennights.

The story was murky. Murdered for certain—there was no doubt about that. At first it had been blamed on Lucy Trenton. She was a royal brat—a niece of the king or somesuch—who had been working as a customs officer, thanks to the Chancery suit that had tied up all the royal family’s finances and forced most of the royal family to find their own means of support. She had been accused of smuggling blood oak, which was high treason. The newspapers claimed she killed Jordan because he was going to expose her. But when Captain Marten Thorpe had been convicted as an accomplice, Sylbrac knew there were at least as many lies in the story as truth. He’d sailed once with Thorpe. The man was a gambler and a rogue, but from the stories he’d told aboard ship and the few times Sylbrac had spoken to Jordan in recent seasons, he knew that the two were friends. It just wasn’t possible.

And then the story shifted again. A Jutras plot against the crown and Jordan caught up in it. Lucy Trenton and Marten Thorpe framed and too late to save them from the Bramble. That story didn’t seem believable either, though some said the snapping of the Pale was evidence. And then too, a storm-broken Jutras war ship had limped into the harbor only days before the Pale fell. The story was possible. But there was no way to get to the truth. That’s what chewed his innards. How had Jordan become involved? Sylbrac was certain their parents had something to do with it. They had their fingers in everything on Crosspointe. Had one of their vicious little schemes gotten Jordan killed?

Murderous hate rose up in him. His fingers flexed. From the moment he’d read the newspaper accounts, he’d wanted to go confront them. Demand the truth. But years of running and hiding from them made him hesitate. They didn’t know he was a Pilot. His parents were devious and ruthless. They wanted him back, and if they couldn’t have him, they wanted to ruin him. No one escaped them. They’d found him twice before; he knew well enough what they might do. When it came to protecting their reputation, when it came to their family pride, they were willing to go to great lengths. Horrific lengths. Sylbrac couldn’t bring himself to risk it. Enough of the terrified boy who’d run from them still existed inside him to keep him silent.

Besides, even if he could go ask his father, even if he was willing to stand in front of that goat-cracking bastard again, it would be pointless; the lord chancellor was a skilled liar. And his mother— Sylbrac would sooner trust a Chance storm than a viper like her.

He turned off the road, climbing up along the headland, taking the cliff path through the trees. Below, the tide was rolling in, the strand thinning with every wash of waves. He broke into a jog, though whether to outrun his impotent rage or exorcise his depthless guilt, he wasn’t sure. Fitch hissed her protest in his ear and dug her claws deep into the padding of his jacket. He left the path, pushing up the hill through the rhododendron bracken and broom bushes that cluttered the trees.

He emerged just below the knob of a grassy hill, upon which perched the Dabloute. As always, he stopped, awe filling him. Carved from obsidian and alabaster, it looked like storm-whipped waves, rising high and falling, frozen in a timeless plunge. Almost Sylbrac could believe that he might blink and the waves would finish dropping and be gathered back into the Inland Sea. There were no windows. The walls were cut so thin they were translucent. Seeing its magnificent beauty was enough to dispel his tangle of emotions about Jordan, at least for the moment.

He skirted around to the front of the Dabloute, feeling the tide rising higher. The Ketirvan would begin at the moment of high tide and the doors would be closed against latecomers. Much as he didn’t want to be here, neither did Sylbrac want to be locked out. Guild law bound him and too much idiocy was likely to be written into the books if he wasn’t there to lend a voice of reason. Or at least of mulish obstruction.

The entrance of the guildhall was the upper half of a spectacular sylveth compass rose. The rays rose like a sunburst fifty feet in the air. They edges of each were gilded and a fine filigree overlaid the diamond glitter of worked sylveth. Ironically, as dangerous as raw sylveth was, once worked into solid form by a majicar, it was safe to touch. Above the compass points, twined in an erotic embrace, was a sculpture of Meris and Bracken, white on black. Their naked limbs grappled together, though Sylbrac was never sure if they were cleaving lovingly to each other, or if Braken was clutching at Meris to prevent her from running off to Hurn, her lover. On the inside rim of the compass, etched deeply in flowing ancient Ekidey, was the phrase “The path to becoming a Pilot is through the blood of Meris and breath of Braken.”

The entry into the Dabloute was through the center of the compass. Pilots walked beneath in pairs and clusters, heads bent together, some laughing, some arguing passionately, others silent and stern. Sylbrac ignored them, striding ahead. No one called out a greeting, but several saw Fitch and made angry exclamations. Sylbrac’s lips curved in a scythe-sharp smile.

The inside of the Dabloute was as fantastical as without. The corridors were sinuous, the rooms oddly shaped. The ceilings disappeared into skurls and ripples, the floors rising and falling in soft undulations. There were no carpets or tapestries, no paintings or curtains. Rather every surface was carved into undersea shapes: knucklebones, Koreion, vada-eels, celesties, and more. The sunlight from outside made everything seem to waver and move as if pushed by waves. Softly glowing sylveth lights set in the floors brightened the shadows. As soon as he passed inside, Sylbrac felt a soothing wash of peace. The Dabloute was the next best thing to actually being at sea.

He turned off from the main corridor, wanting a few minutes peace and quiet as he made his way to the Ketirvan. High tide was nearly fixed. The feeling was a fullness in the beat of his heart. He didn’t have much time. He hurried along, turning sideways at one point where the passage narrowed and then opened up widely. The walls were heavily rippled here, with clefts and nooks like undersea grottoes. Someone in a long blue cloak slid through the narrowed opening ahead of him. She didn’t look at him, merely brushing by with quick, hurried steps. He caught a glimpse of a tumble of red hair beneath the folds of her hood and smelled something that reminded him of wind and majick. He wondered where she was going with the Ketirvan about to begin, then promptly dismissed her, the rising tide pushing him to hurry.

He turned sideways and edged through the narrowed passage and began striding along. He halted abruptly when up ahead he heard the sound of raised voices. He took a step forward, and then there was a shark crack! and quick, angry footsteps.

The woman who stormed around the corner was short and heavy-boned. Her face was square, her skin coarse and tanned with years of exposure to weather. Her nostrils flared and red spotted her cheeks above a mouth made white by fury. The cuffs of her sleeves and the hem of her robe were edged with small silver compass roses with sylveth-drop centers. She was Eyvresia, the Pirena-elect. When she saw Sylbrac, she stopped short, her gaze flattening. Then more footsteps sounded behind her and she gathered her robe, darting past Sylbrac into one of the grotto nooks. She ground one white-knuckled fist against her lips, glaring back at him as if daring him to expose her.

Grains later a man appeared around the corner. He hardly came to Sylbrac’s chin. His short, curly gray hair was wild-looking as if he’d been running his fingers through it. His still-black mustache and beard were clipped close, his brows set in a furious scowl. Black gossamer lines like cracks in fine porcelain criss-crossed his eyes, only a few straying across the whites. Those marking Sylbrac’s eyes were heavier and more numerous, filling the whites of his eyes like a mass of tangled thread. The shorter man’s black robes were ridiculously ornate, weighted by compass roses stitched in gold thread, one covering each side of his chest from collarbone to hip, another on his back. Sylveth discs gleamed at the centers.

He stopped short when he saw Sylbrac, his mouth twisting. On his cheek was a scarlet imprint of a hand. Sylbrac grinned. What had Pirena Wildreveh said to make the Pirena-elect hit him?

“What are you doing here?”

As if he was manure someone had tracked in on his shoe. Sylbrac’s eyes narrowed as he reached up to stroke Fitch. Wildreveh’s gaze followed his hand and his mouth puckered as if he’d eaten a mouthful of salt. It was that snide expression that made Sylbrac step to block Eyvresia from view. She had hit the bilge-sucking bastard, and so she’d earned a reward. Not that he ever needed an excuse to antagonize Wildreveh. He’d disliked him from the moment he’d first met him. Wildreveh was pompous, self-serving and spiteful. He reminded Sylbrac of his father and everything he’d learned about Wildreveh over the years had only confirmed Sylbrac’s opinion. Their antagonism was mutual.

“I’m on my way to the Ketirvan,” Sylbrac drawled, aware that his slow answer goaded the other man’s fury.

“Not with that cat, you aren’t.”

“Oh but I am. She’s such a quiet thing, I doubt anyone will even notice her.”

It was a bald-faced lie. Everyone would notice her. Her presence would be like a scream in the night, like smoke in a darkened room. Little he could do would antagonize them more.

“I forbid it. I want her out of the Dabloute before her bad luck pollutes it completely. Now!”

One of Sylbrac’s brows flicked up. “I don’t believe you have such authority, Wildreveh.”

The other man’s jaw knotted. “I am Pirena of the guild. That’s all the authority I need.”

“I don’t think so,” Sylbrac said. He looked pointedly to Wildreveh’s cheek where Eyvresia’s handprint remained. “And anyway, you’re only Pirena until the end of Ketirvan. You’ve got no fangs to hurt me.”

The other man jerked back. Then his lips slid slowly apart in a death’s head grin. His square horsey teeth were stained brown and yellow. “Haven’t I? We shall see.”

With that he turned and marched away, his shoulders rigid. Eyvresia stepped out of the grotto, watching him disappear.

“I know you enjoy antagonizing your fellow Pilots, but was that wise?”

Sylbrac glanced down at her. “What can he do?”

She shook her head, frowning. “I think it would have been better to know the answer to that question before you pushed pins into him. But it is certain that whatever it is he can do, he will.” Her brow furrowed as she looked at Sylbrac. “Watch yourself. You’ve no friends here to cushion the blow.”

Sylbrac only shrugged. He wasn’t worried. He should have been.

Chapter 2

Sylbrac followed Pirena-elect Eyvresia as she hurried away up the passage. The two slipped inside the Ketirvan just as the chime sounded and the doors swung silently and decisively shut. They would not open again for three days.
The Ketirvan was held in an improbable room. Not even a room. An amphitheatre, an inn, a tavern, a hall. Black wave walls towered hundreds of feet in the air, bunching and billowing in static fury. The seats were situated between rolling folds and rising whorls with plush black cushions made of crushed velvet and stuffed with goosedown. In the corners were several odd-shaped entries like gaps in waterfalls. These led into the dining hall and from there, a variety of sleep cells. Down below, in the front of the cavernous expanse, were three massive thrones sitting high up in a niche cut shallowly into the wall: the largest of ebony in the middle, one of alabaster to the left, and one of heavy timbers to the right. Each was empty in the anticipation of a visit by the gods.

Below the thrones and set on a platform was a single black chair. It rose from the floor in a frozen obsidian wave, the arms and back smooth and rolling like cresting water, the pedestal a billowing flow. This is where the Pirena sat to conduct the Ketirvan. Not that Wildreveh sat much. He tended to stomp about and shout.

The room bustled with Pilots, the low rumble of their voices like the threat of a summer storm. Sylbrac glanced around, looking for an empty seat. There were always too many. Each year, dozens of ships and too many Pilots fell prey to the sea they loved. Few lived long enough to die of old age.

He climbed up a sinuous stair to a place at the top where he could have his back to the wall and see the rest of the room. Hostile eyes followed his progress. Fitch yawned widely, her tongue curling. She stretched out a paw and licked it with a studied lack of concern. The flutter of angry mutters and accusations that followed behind him made Sylbrac smile. They called cats bad luck, and mixed gender crews and whistling and an endless list of other taboos. They just didn’t want to point at their own stupidity or the whim of the gods where the blame really belonged.

He settled into a seat, lifting Fitch down onto this lap. All round him Pilots stood and moved away as if from a bad smell, leaving him surrounded by a moat of empty chairs.

A series of chimes sounded. Each note lingered, growing, echoing. They grew together, turning first to chords, then weaving together into song. It burgeoned, filling the cavernous hall and resonating from the walls. The vibrations made Sylbrac’s breath tremble in his chest and his limbs shake. Fitch dug her claws into his thigh, her fur standing on end. For Sylbrac, the pain was hardly noticeable, immersed as he was in the majick of the music.

The pressure on his flesh and bones increased. His teeth chattered together and his eyes felt as if they were about to explode from his skull. He couldn’t hear Fitch’s frantic meows as she crawled up to press against his neck and jaw. Just when he thought his body couldn’t stand it any more, the sound ceased. The air quaked with the silence. Sylbrac stroked Fitch with trembling fingers. She huddled beneath his chin, her claws digging deep into jacket, her body rigid. All around was the rustle of clothing and soft sighs. Sylbrac scanned the gathered Pilots. A few were pale and clammy, some red-faced, others sagging in on themselves, others poker-straight and stiff. He forced his own tense muscles to relax, taking a deep, steadying breath and letting it out quietly. Fitch’s tail continued to whip back and forth.

Sylbrac never got used to the beginning of the Ketirvan. Those moments of powerlessness were a reminder that they were inside Braken’s house, that they thrived or died at his pleasure, here and on the sea.

The hush lingered until Pirena Wildreveh stepped up onto the dais. He turned, lifting his face to the thrones, spreading his arms and loudly intoning a summons in Ekidey. It was a dead language from a dead land no one even remembered now. For centuries, it had been spoken only among majicars and Pilots, and only in ritual. Sylbrac found it pointless. Just another example of Pilot self-importance.

The Pirena finished his prayers and waited. Sylbrac snorted softly. Not one of the gods had ever appeared in guild memory. He eyed the thrones. Only a fool would think the gods could be so easily summoned.

After a few moments, Wildreveh turned majestically back to face the gathering and began the ritual opening of the Ketirvan. Sylbrac let the words flow around him. Despite his hostility, he felt the real power of the Dabloute coming alive. This was a place designed to worship and give thanks to the gods for the gifts they had given Pilots. He bent his head, sending prayers to Braken, Meris and Chayos. He prayed for strength, for luck, for mercy, finishing with a silent thanks. The prayers were simple, but heartfelt. No matter how much he complained, no matter how much the ceremony and endless speeches and arguments went on, he would never have missed Ketirvan, would not have missed this sacred moment. He came here each year to give thanks, to beg for clemency from the endless dangers of the Inland Sea, to pray for luck, and to give his life over yet again to being Pilot—to protecting the men and women who sailed the sea. The rest was…meaningless. An easy enough sacrifice to show the gods his gratitude.

He jerked back to himself as the roll call began. First the names of those present, then the names of those lost in the last year, then the names of every Pilot lost since the founding of Crosspointe. There was a general murmur when his own name was called. He bared his teeth in snide challenge at Wildreveh who only nodded his head with a kind of smug serenity that made Sylbrac frown. Like the other man was confident he’d have his revenge and could comfortably bide his time until then. He shook his head slowly. But there wasn’t anything Wildreveh could do. He was toothless. Even if he wasn’t stepping down as Pirena, the worst he could do was kill some change Sylbrac might want to make to guild law or policy. But the only thing Sylbrac really wanted was to get his ship assignment. There was no way Wildreveh could interfere with that, unless Sylbrac suddenly went mad and killed another Pilot or committed treason. Sylbrac shrugged, dismissing the other man.

The roll call of the dead went on for hours. The slow, sonorous listing of names deeply moved Sylbrac in a way it hadn’t before. He couldn’t help but feel the weight of so many lives over so many years, all sacrificed to the sea. He knew that none of the dead Pilots would have exchanged the dangers of the black waves for a long quiet life ashore. Doing so would be like chopping out your own heart with a hatchet. He stared at the crevices in the whorled ceiling, suddenly struck. All of these names represented men and women who had once been just like the people he shared this room with—the pompous, the inane, the smug and the condescending. And as their names went by, he realized that tangling with the anger and annoyance he felt for them was a profound…respect.

The notion astonished him and instantly he ridiculed himself for even considering the idea. Sylbrac’s gaze dropped and raked across the Pilots sitting in the hall. Respect them? But as he looked at them, he realized they were not as cold, nor as obliviously disdainful as he’d expected. Tears ran down the cheeks of many. Some sat with fixed stares while others hunched into themselves, hands covering their faces. They cared. Sylbrac’s breath caught. Then he shook his head. No. They merely feared for themselves. Their sorrow grew from their own self-serving terrors.

But doubt niggled. It made him restless. He was glad when the roll call came to end. Then came the rest of the opening ritual, and then a break to dine. Sylbrac ate alone, sitting with his back in a corner. He set Fitch on the table, feeding her bits of pork and bread from his plate. Just as inside the meeting hall, no one sat near or approached him.

“Which makes you very good luck for me,” he told Fitch in a tone that carried to the nearby tables and resulted in angry mutters and stares that would have incincerated him if they could.

He stared back, feeling malevolent. He refused to see the scars, the weariness, the lines of laughter in the weathered faces. He didn’t want them to be people. Just cold, pretentious, power-bloated leeches, feeding on the desperate need of anyone in Crosspointe who lived or died by ship commerce. Which was the entire population. He wanted them all to be Wildreveh. But then he pictured Eyvresia. He heard the concern in her warning: Watch yourself. You’ve no friends here to cushion the blow. As if he mattered to her.

He closed his eyes, his mouth screwing into a grimace as he felt the relentless memories of his childhood sliding fingers along his mind, looking for cracks—a way back into his consciousness. It was as if they sensed the weakening of his hatred, the doubt sending spiderweb cracks across the mental dam that kept him safe. Safe from guilt, from the accusations of his own conscience. Deliberately he thought of Wildreveh, snatching at the bitterness of their exchange and wrapping himself inside it like a cloak. The memories retreated.

The afternoon proceeded with business. The first order of which was the confirmation of the new Pirena-elect—the one who would replace Eyvresia upon her taking the mantle of Pirena. The ornamental speeches eulogizing the accomplishments and skills of both Wildreveh and Eyvresia went until dinner, leaving Sylbrac with a throbbing headache. After, people split into groups, some playing cards and games or reading books, others taking baths in the large bathing rooms below the Dabloute, others retiring to their sleeping rooms for more salacious activities.

Sylbrac wasn’t tired, nor was he interested in joining in any activities–not that he was invited. Nor did he want to watch them. He didn’t want to hear their jokes and laughter, hear their stories of children and homes and foibles.

He returned to the silence of the main meeting hall, sitting in a first row seat and staring up at the thrones and the rippling obsidian wave-walls behind. There was no concrete explanation of how the Dabloute had come to be. Some said that it had really been formed out of the waves by Braken. Others argued it was Errol Cipher, the first majicar. It didn’t really matter. This place was a union of the three things that ruled the lives of all Pilots. There were the black waters of the sea, mysterious, treacherous, seductive. There was the moon and Meris, who ruled the tides and spilled her heart’s blood into the waters in the form of sylveth. From their tempestuous love came all things chance. And then there was Chayos, the mother of earth and all things green, the giver of life. From her came the trees for ships. From her came solidity and truth and from her came Hurn, the stranger god, the third corner of the dreadful lovers’ triangle comprised of Braken, Meris and Hurn. And from that triangle came killing storms.

He started from his reverie when someone slid into the seat next to him. He was surprised and irritated to see Eyvresia. She did not look at him, but fixed her gaze on the thrones as he had done.

“One might wonder if you had the sense Chayos gave termites,” she said at last.

Sylbrac snorted. “I have been known to wonder that very thing.”

She sniffed and stood, crossing to the bottom of the platform containing Wildreveh’s chair—soon to be hers—and retrieved Fitch, who was testing the stone leg with her claws. She settled the little cat in the crook of her arm, stroking her. Sylbrac stared. There was more to her than it appeared.

“If it weren’t against every law to harm a Pilot, I think you might have been murdered today. If looks could kill and all that. Not that an adventurous soul wouldn’t have tried a knife or a poker up against the side of your skull, given the opportunity. So much more satisfactory than merely staring daggers. Someone still might, if they caught you letting this little pretty climb about in here.”

He watched her stroking sure fingers down Fitch’s back. “What would they think of the Pirena-elect consorting with a cat?”

Her lips tightened in a thin smile. “Consorting?” She lifted Fitch up, holding her so that they nearly touched noses. “Bad luck.” Eyvresia stepped closer and set the cat on Sylbrac’s lap. “I think you’re going to have a lot more of it than you’d like, and it’s going to be entirely of your own making. I don’t think I’ll be able to block whatever Wildreveh is up to—especially not after I slapped him—and you may trust that he is up to something.”

“Why would you want to help me?”

Her nose wrinkled in a curiously childlike gesture. “Perhaps I just don’t like him.”

“I don’t doubt that, but people usually don’t like me more than they don’t like anybody else.”

She shrugged. “Apparently Wildreveh has you beaten in that contest. But there’s still time, if you’d like to try harder.”

The corner of his mouth curled up. “I’ll do my best.”

“Somehow I doubt your best will match his, but certainly don’t let me discourage you. One Pilot making my life truly disagreeable is not nearly enough.” She turned, then paused, looking back over her shoulder. “Don’t let that cat get away from you. You might find yourself eating it for breakfast. I wouldn’t like to see such a fate for her.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Eyvresia met his gaze for a long moment. The black lines tangling her eyes were heavy and black. She had a powerful connection to the sea. Her square, sturdy presence was comforting, like an anchor hooking deep in the seabed in a storm. She would be a good Pirena. She would be a good friend. If he wanted any. Not that she would want him.

“From the moment you joined the guild, you set out to antagonize your fellow Pilots in every way you knew how. You’ve made yourself an outsider. Wildreveh knows that whatever he chooses to do to you, no one will stop him. I would, if only to annoy him, but I won’t have the necessary support to interfere. He’s powerful. If there’s something you can do to placate him, I suggest that you do it.”

She didn’t wait for his reply. Sylbrac sat back and stared unseeing up at the ceiling. Placate Wildreveh? His entire body revolted at the idea. He laughed, the sound echoing eerily in the chamber. Then he thought of what else Eyvresia had said.

It was true he didn’t fit. More than that, he made it his mission to be difficult and annoying to his fellow Pilots—a thorn in the ass, as Thorsby would say. He dragged his fingers through his hair. They reminded him too much of his father and mother, of their political machinations in the social theatre, of the way they were willing to sacrifice everything on the altar of their ambition. He’d left when he realized what they would do, what they would ask him and his brother to do—

The memories crashed over him, shattering the dam that kept them at bay. They flooded his mind, the bitter acid of pain, betrayal and rage undulled by time. He sat rigid, caught in the torrent, unable to do anything to escape.

There were things no boy ought to be asked to do, not for love nor money. His parents pretended to be so upright, so moral, so superior. But scratch the lord chancellor and his wife and you found their careful, dignified shells contained a seething quagmire of bottomless ambition. They craved more money, more power, more prestige. There was little they’d not do to attain their desires, stopping just short of crossing the line of the law. Unless they could do so without getting caught. After all, it wouldn’t do for the lord chancellor to be found breaking the law. Imagine the scandal. However, some things could be done in the dark where no one could see. And there were plenty more things that were ethically and morally revolting that the law did not regulate. And these things his parents embraced as brilliant tactics and clever strategy.

He was nine seasons old when his parents had called him into the evening salon shortly before a dinner party. The room was gilded on every surface and stuffed with expensive ornaments and knick-knacks. A sylveth chandelier overhung it all. His mother took great pride in her refinement of taste and believed her home—which shared the salon’s crass opulence and suffocating ornamentation—to be a showcase of elegance and style to rival even the palace.

She was tall and slender with blond hair and dark eyes. She would have been striking if her expression wasn’t so haughty and calculating. She wore rings on every finger, each heavy bands set with large, exotic, expensive jewels: dawn stars, a rare Braken’s Heart, bloodstone, sylveth—a rainbow of glittering gems. Chains draped her neck and bracelets circled her arms so that she jingled and Sylbrac remembered wondering how she could hold herself upright. Her touch was gelid, her eyes hot with eagerness. She looked at him and felt foreboding hook his intestines.

His father stood with his hands clasped behind his back, looking out the window. He was dressed in dark blue dosken cut in severe lines, with his chain of office around his neck. Silver embroidery decorated his high collar and the fashionably wide, turned-back sleeves of his coat. Sparkling sylveth dotted his coat and waistcoat like stars. Like Sylbrac, his hair was dark and curly, his skin pale. He stood rigidly upright with a chilly restraint born of careful attention to outside perception. He was known to be congenial with a dry wit and also a brilliant conversationalist. All of it was a role he played. But Sylbrac knew him better. At home, he was a dark, brooding presence, often angry and always demanding. Jordan and Sylbrac could rarely satisfactorily meet his expectations. Their shirts would be untucked, their boots scuffed, their eyes too curious, their voices too loud, their answers to questions too vague or too flip. It was a rare day that he didn’t discipline his sons with a stiffly pointed woven leather whip as long as his arm.

Those punishments were hard. The boys learned to take them silently or they paid a higher price. But that was all nothing to what his parents asked now.

Jordan stood behind Sylbrac, chin lifted, staring straight ahead as was expected. The boys were dressed with impeccable care. But surprisingly, their parents did not inspect them, twitching clothing and pinching cheeks. Instead they explained what they required. They had invited a prominent gentleman to the party, a man with whom they wished to do business. Except that he wasn’t interested. He had refused them repeatedly. So they had little choice. The Truehlem name and fortune depended on taking action. They had arrived at a plan to force his hand.

In the course of his duties as lord chancellor, Sylbrac’s father had discovered this gentleman to be a man of dubious appetites. That in itself was nothing, but with Sylbrac’s help, the situation could be turned in their favor. At the party, Sylbrac would allow the gentleman to lure him into a private room and permit himself to be seduced. Oh, certainly nothing terrible would happen. The lord chancellor and his wife would burst in before things progressed too far, but the man would be compromised. He would have no choice but to succumb or a lawsuit would be tendered. The scheme kept just to the right side of blackmail. If the gentleman succeeded in ruining the lord chancellor’s eldest son and heir, the expense of it to the family would be worth great recompense. The laws were very clear and a lawsuit was well within their right to recover damages. However, if the man chose to make that recompense without a public trial and to the satisfaction of the family, then it was not blackmail. It was business.

Sylbrac couldn’t refuse. If he didn’t serve as bait, Jordan would have to. He couldn’t let that happen.

Even now, more than seventeen seasons later, Sylbrac’s stomach churned at the hate he felt for the man and woman who’d birthed him and then served him up to their guest as a boy whore.

In the end, little of real importance had happened in that quiet room. The removal of his clothing, some fondling, a few thrusting, hot kisses—nothing to forever scar him. Except the triumph on his parents’ faces, the feigned concern, the knowledge that in time he’d be asked to do far worse.

He left the next morning before the sun came up. He’d left his parents and his home and he’d left Jordan. He’d not stopped running since.

Guilt bloomed inside him, shredding him like knuckledbones. He’d walked away, never looking back. If he hadn’t run from home, would his brother have gotten mixed up in whatever scheme had got him killed? Had his parents’ power intrigues had something to do with it? And if he’d sought out Jordan as he should have, if they’d seen each other more often than here and there during Chance, would Sylbrac have been there to help him?

The questions, the doubts, they swarmed him like sylveth spawn. They chewed at him until he felt as if he couldn’t ever escape. He couldn’t breathe. Suddenly he began to struggle, levering himself out of the chair, Fitch dropping to the floor with a sharp protest. Sylbrac stood with his feet braced wide, hands on his knees, his panting breaths ragged. All he could see was Jordan’s face, so like his own.

He shook himself, pulling himself stiffly upright. There were no answers. There was no way to make this right. If Jordan had lived…But he hadn’t. Regret filled his chest with cold lead. He could only promise himself not to be such a cowardly fool again. But the sooner he returned to the sea, the better. He wouldn’t be able to think about anything else then. The compass would absorb all his attention. It was only a couple of days away.

He rubbed his hands over his face, thinking of Eyvresia’s cautions. He sighed. Maybe Eyvresia was right. He should have tried harder. He shouldn’t have let his hatred for his parents blind him to the good in his fellow Pilots. They weren’t perfect. Wildreveh was proof enough of that. But neither was he. And they all shared an abiding love the sea.

He straighened. He could change. It would take time, but he had time. His throat knotted. It was too late to make things right for Jordan, but he could do better here in the guild. And he would.

The next day the Ketirvan continued with discussions of price adjustments for piloting services, priorities for crown missions, the projected numbers of new compasses to be made during the year, the training of ‘points’ as those newly discovered to have Pilot gifts were called, the amount of payments to be made to the families of incapacitated and killed Pilots, the percentage of personal cargo space allowed to Pilots on the ships they guided, and many other items of business.

Sylbrac found himself staying silent on most every item. Fitch slept in his lap, her belly distended with the sausage and cream she’d feasted on at breakfast. He watched the shifting currents of the political maneuverings, reading expressions and body language. It was a skill he’d acquired as a boy, before he left his parents house and after. Survival depended on understanding people quickly, especially strangers. If you made a mistake, you’d pay for it. Maybe die for it. Some like Porenydil, who was whispering behind his hand to Leevak, were adept at masking themselves. Only the tight set of his shoulders and stillness of his expression told of his fury. He’d been angling for the guild to establish a seniority ranking system, adjusting individual earnings accordingly. Junior Pilots would earn less than half of more senior Pilots. He’d managed to garner a fair amount of support, even from a number of the newer Pilots who’d no doubt die long before they reaped the benefits of that sowing. His efforts, however, were hammpered by Jeannota, a thin woman with a wide expanse of forehead, who muttered none-too-quietly and crossed her arms and uncrossed them, tapping her toes. Ironically, though she supported Porenydil, her incessant gabbling and sharp attacks on those opposing the move had begun to turn the tide against them. Porenydil was no doubt regretting his choice of allies and planning his next feint.

Suddenly Porenydil rose.

“Pilot Porenydil, do you have something to add?” Wildreveh asked warmly when the discussion quieted.

Porenydil bowed. “It appears the direction of this proposal is controversial at best, ill-advised at worst. I suggest, unless there is objection, that we postpone further discussion until next Ketirvan when the guild may comb through the ledgers and offer answers to some of the concerns that have been raised today. There is yet much to attend to this year and we would not wish to rush such an important decision.”

His gaze wandered over the room, his expression fatherly and regal. Sylbrac was impressed. It was quite a performance. Prenydil neither ratified nor rejected his own position, but postponed the discussion until he could shore up his support. He came off looking like the voice of reason, munificence, and wisdom, all of which would help generate support for the next bout. Brilliant strategy, really. Sylbrac smiled faintly. If he wanted to interfere in the other man’s machinations, all he would have to do is become a vociferous supporter. Braken’s balls, why couldn’t have thought of that sooner and done it to Wildreveh?

It was nearly the end of Ketirvan. The last order of business before closing was to install the new Pirena and Pirena-elect into office. It was a moment that Sylbrac was more than delighted to witness.

Eyvresia stepped up onto the platform beside Wildreveh followed by a slight woman missing one eye, with burn scars running down the side of her face and neck. Her mouth was twisted unnaturally by the fire damage. Delaverdia was to be the new Pirena-elect, replacing Eyvresia in that office. Sylbrac didn’t like her. She had a cold, abrupt manner and an offputting way of talking over people until they succumbed to her arguments.

Wildreveh called the crowd to order.

“My friends, before we continue, I have some grave news to report. Mosevanar has taken ill with a fever and is quite unwell. We have sent for a majicar healer, but for now, I have accepted the honor of interim Beyoshen. Never fear—you will all receive your assignments tonight, nor will there be delays in the payment of your commissions and other earnings. I hope you know that I will serve you to the best of my ability, as I have done in the duties of Pirena. I hope I will do as well as Mosevanar. As always, it is my pleasure to serve you.”

He set his hand over his heart and bowed to the assembly. The guild clapped placidly. They didn’t really care. So long as someone was sitting in the Beyoshen’s chair and handing out the letters of commission, they didn’t care who it was. Sylbrac especially.

The Ketirvan ended much the same way it had begun. Chimes rang and resonated into a deafening symphony, while the air seem to drain from the entire building. Sylbrac’s vision blurred and his chest felt as if it were collapsing. Fitch hunched down, her back arching, her fur bottle-brushing, and then she burrowed beneath his robe. And then it was over. Pilots fled like children from the schoolroom, each eager to be first in line for an assignment.

Sylbrac trailed behind. Now that it was so close, he could stand waiting a few more grains.

The line diminished rapidly, each Pilot entering the Beyoshen’s office and leaving rapidly with a crisp, linen envelope. At last it was Sylbrac’s turn. He sauntered inside the office where Wildreveh sat waiting, turning an envelope between his fingers. He smiled unpleasantly as Sylbrac filled the doorway.

“I have been looking forward to this. I suspect that you are quite ready to be back to sea.”

Sylbrac couldn’t help his spurt of eagerness and fervent nod. “That’s true.”

“Well, that makes this all the harder then.” Again that smile. “Bad luck really. Seems you’re going to be at loose ends for awhile. The ship you were scheduled for can’t use you after all.”

He held the letter of assignment up and slowly dropped it into the fireplace. The paper blackened, the edges curling as the flames caught. Sylbrac watched, hardly understanding. He lifted his gaze back to Wildreveh, waiting stupidly for the joke to end, for his commission to be revealed.

“They can’t use you,” Wildreveh repeated, sitting forward and lacing his fingers together. “No one can. So long as I am Beyoshen, your anchor’s in the dirt.”

“You can’t do this. I’ll— I’ll take it to the Pirena.” Sylbrac’s voice was barely a whisper, his throat closing in panic.

“As you wish. But she is barred from interfering with the decisions of the Beyoshen. She must have the backing of the membership, and I doubt there is anybody would go against me for the likes of you. And even if they would, all of them are even now scattering to their ship berths. In a few days, they’ll all be at sea. But perhaps at the next Ketirvan you can convince them. It will certainly be entertaining to see you try.” He sat back, folding his hands over his stomach. “Which one of us lacks fangs now?” he gloated softly.

Sylbrac could only stand and stare, his hands loose at his sides. This was impossible. Pilots were too needed, too valuable just to strand on land for petty hatreds. His tongue unlocked, his voice rasping out. “You’re a mother-dibbling bastard. What would the Merchant’s Commission say? Or the crown?”

“The business of the guild belongs to the guild. They will not interfere. As far as I’m concerned, I am protecting ships by keeping you dirtside.” He pointed to Fitch where she perched on Sylbrac’s shoulder. “You’re bad luck and a disgrace–worse than no Pilot at all. Luckily we have some points coming along in their training. I’ve no doubt they’ll be ready by Mercy or Passion, if not before.”

Wildreveh stood, his hands flat on the desk as he leaned over it. “You are no longer needed in this guild. You most certainly aren’t wanted, and you can bet on Braken’s cods that you aren’t going to get another ship. Not on my watch.” The last was said with a snarl.

Sylbrac flinched, the words striking him like sword blows. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see, couldn’t think. Wildreveh could not…would not…do this. It made no sense! The man was surely not this vindictive? How could Sylbrac have missed seeing that? Then reason fled. He felt as if he was dying, his entrails yanked out and spread across the ground. Not go back to the sea? It was inconceivable. Jordan’s loss was nothing compared to this.

Feral instinct roared up inside him. His vision narrowed on the gloating former Pirena who now stood between him and everything he lived for, everything he was. He leaped forward, swinging his fist wildly. He heard Fitch’s startled howl, then the thud of flesh. Pressure shuddered up his arm, and he felt the satisfying give of bone and the warm spurt of blood. Wildreveh reeled backward, stumbling over his chair and crashing against the mantle. His head bounced off the marble and he slid senselessly to the floor.

Sylbrac came around to stand over him, wanting to beat him. He felt the dagger in the small of his back. Almost he reached for it. He could make Wildreveh change his mind. Or kill him. Wildreveh dead would mean a new Beyoshen. A taut thread of reason held him in check. Killing another Pilot was the only thing that would get him expelled from the guild. He could still think enough to know he shouldn’t do that. If he walked away now, he still had a chance to return to the sea on ship.

Abruptly he turned about and fled before he could change his mind. He stumbled down the twisting hallway, hardly knowing where he was going. Fitch rode his shoulder, clutching close to his neck, a growl emerging from deep in her throat. He turned a corner and saw Eyvresia at the far end, her back to him. She was speaking to someone. They turned when they heard his footsteps. Sylbrac caught a glimpse of red hair and pale skin as Evreysia’s companion put a hand on the Pirena’s shoulder and pulled her hood up and strode rapidly away.

Sylbrac ran to Evreysia. Hope nearly choked him as he slid to a stop before her. His voice was strangled as he struggled to explain.

“Wildreveh has taken my ship. I am grounded. You must help me.”

She didn’t speak for a moment, her expression taut. Then she gave a slow shake of her head. “I cannot.”

“But— Won’t you speak to him?” Tears were running down his cheeks. Desperately he clutched her arm, begging as he had never begged his parents. Help him. Save him.

She looked down at his hand, then gently removed it. “No.”

“Why not? I— I don’t understand. I am needed. I don’t deserve this. It’s a waste of me. A ship will sit at anchor if I don’t stand the helm. Wildreveh is— He’s insane. He must be. You have to relieve him of duty and put someone else at Beyoshen.” The words spilled out, tripping over each other, his voice rising.

“I cannot interfere.” She paused. Something flickered over her face and then her countenance stilled. She drew back, smoothing her hands down her robes. “I am sorry for you. But I did warn you. You won’t get a ship this year, unless Mosevanar recovers or Wildreveh steps down. Perhaps next…if you can convince the membership to support you.”

She paused again. She reached out and ran her fingertips gently over Fitch’s head. “It appears you have made yourself…dispensible.” Her voice hardened oddly on the last and she dropped her hand, color rising in her cheeks. “I never thought I’d say that about a Pilot. I’m sorry for you,” she repeated. “But now I must be about my duties.”

She turned and then stopped, looking back at him. “Fair winds and following seas,” she said, the traditional farewell among sailors.

With that, she walked away. Sylbrac could only watch her go, heavy hot pain knotting in his gut. No! This was not possible! But it was. By Braken’s heart, it was.

An accusing voice in his mind whispered. You were wrong. Too late for Jordan. Too late for you.

What the Reviews say

It’s a high-seas adventure with descriptions so vivid you may feel seasick while reading the second book in the Crosspointe series, which also works as a stand-alone. The worldbuilding is detailed and gives you a feeling of being there. The characters are multi-layered, with flaws and weaknesses and the plot is well-crafted.

— Romantic Times

The second Crosspointe tale (see CIPHER) is a superb fantasy in which the hero’s shanghaied ocean voyage leaves the audience feeling they are on board the ship; as Diana Pharaoh Francis’ water building is incredible. The story line is fast-paced, but it is the setting along with a fully developed crew, captain and the disgraced pilot who make for a strong thriller.

— Genre Go Round Reviews

A fun, rousing adventure.

— Locus

Thorn’s story was mesmerizing from the outset. Even without the court intrigue, the workings of his head and the Pilot’s guild was enough to make for an outstanding story. Add in the very interesting character of Plusby and the charmers whose cause Thorn championed, it has all the makings of an epic tale. It doesn’t disappoint either. The story was fast-paced and it seemed as if the plot took a new twist every second page…. I can’t wait to read the sequel to this story, I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for it.

— Night Owl Romance

In this second novel, the author takes us on a terrific high seas adventure the equal of any C.S. Forester swashbuckler….THE BLACK SHIP offers rich world-building, a highly original system of magic, and a rousing storyline. I liked Thorn and the crew of the Eidolon a lot and hope to see their return. THE BLACK SHIP is easily read and enjoyed as a standalone novel, but I encourage readers to start with THE CIPHER for the full picture and enjoyment of the Crosspointe universe.

— Sci Fi Guy review