The crash of thunder emphasized the urgency in Dita’s blue eyes. She handed me a thumb-sized cup of tincture. I drained the herbal remedy in a gulp. A tingling rushed through my body, waking me and bringing my senses to a heightened sense of alertness. The ship pitched to port, tossing me against the wall. I discovered just how aware I’d become as pain radiated through my head when the back of it struck wood. I yelped and rolled off the bed to the rug below.
Dita helped me up, snarling, “Niserie’s an awful bitch tonight, Lissa!”
My world spun from the collision as I nodded dumbly. I had heard her blasphemy, but attempting to dispute or warn against it was still beyond me as she helped me pull on my Ermine cloak. We rushed topside. Another roll, this time to starboard, staggered me. I grabbed at the net hammocks lining the hall. A kettle hurtled past me to crash at the base of the stairs and trip one of the crewmen. We skirted past the cursing sailor.
If the world had been spinning when I rapped my head below, it became a veritable maelstrom as I emerged topside. Pelting rain forced me to pull up my hood as I thanked Ithokel that he had provided me with a garment proof against cold and rain. But I needed more than a cloak to prepare for the buffeting wind and the waves washing over the deck.
A wall of saltwater over-topped the deck by a cubit, crashing through the rails, slamming into my stomach, and sweeping my feet out from under me. I tumbled head over heels until I bounced off the pilot’s box, landing flat on my back. The deck yawed, sending me skidding over the side, where the black maw of Niserie’s Sea opened to devour me. I managed to catch the railing with the crook of my right arm while flailing with my left to gather myself. My feet thumped on the hull in search of purchase as I prayed to Sharit that my Progress might not end before it began.
The Queen crashed through another swell, jarring my left hand free before I could pull myself back up. I wailed and saw the waves lapping greedily for me. Another wave crashed over me, water rushed into my mouth and nose. Sputtering, I prepared myself for the plunge into Niserie’s fatal embrace. But as my arm began to slip, Dita clamped both hands around mine, straining to hold me while Salman steadied her with both arms around her waist. The Pilot growled and pulled us both back from the precipice.
Foundering on the deck, I gasped for air as Oman tossed us both thick rope. “Lash your fool selves down! If you insist on staying topside, It’s the only way to ride out this storm.”
Nodding, I claimed it and hung on Salman as he kept an arm around my waist to guide me back to the Pilot’s box. It’s cover provided a measure of shelter from the tempest. I double knotted myself to the rails behind me and then again around my waist. Then Dita and I embraced and ensured the other was unharmed.
My gown was soaked, and the wind bit wherever my cloak didn’t protect me. Yet its magic allowed for the storm’s fury to remain bearable, if not comfortably warm. I clutched the ermine tight about me and kept my head low against the wind. Tugging on Salman’s sleeve, I pointed at the tiller. He laughed, “We’ll worry about that after Niserie has finished Her swim.” He shot me an appreciative glance and added, “I’m glad I humored you, though. Because She’s the only one who knows where we are right now.”
After making a braid of my tangled, wet hair, I stomped my feet to keep them warm. Awareness of how my gown clung to my skin only made me more grateful for my cloak. The next wave rose, and I braced myself for its impact. Catching myself before being slammed into the railing, I watched the deck, where a sailor far bulkier than myself was thrown over the side with as much ease as I had been. His rope popped taut, and though I knew he howled, his voice didn’t rise over the din. Two of his shipmates hurried to retrieve him. When they had, I saw his arm bent back at a brutal angle. Refusing to look away, I vowed to find and heal him when this passed. Still, his plight led me a perverse sense of assurance. At least Lady Niserie wasn’t only trying to kill me tonight.
Salman struggled to hold the tiller steady. His eyes shown like forged copper. Sinews bulged through the short-sleeved tunic as he cursed the storm, Niserie, and all the Lord of Arcadia and Erebus who refused to hearken to our pleas. For all I had acquainted myself with him during our nights together, now I saw him for the first time. Straining to keep our ship from breaking apart, casting his will against that of a Goddess’ as he and the Master-At-Arms hollered orders half-heard over the wind. At last I knew what it meant to hail from Marqash, the city of trade, heir to the island city of Leucia. Who needed swords to war when every venture on the sea was a battle to survive and thrive against storms, pirates, and whatever beasts lurked beneath the waves, from the Leviathan, to Sirens and monsters yet to be conjured? Niserie’s Sea might be civilized. But it would never be tamed.
But then, neither had we. During a lull, I reached for the tiller and squeezed the pouch. Tingling from the fibers assured me the magic remained intact. I focused on the connection between the two sets of filings, the Argan Tree came into view in my mind. That gnarled growth that had no right enduring so near the edge of the saltwater, a symbol of our own prosperity in the face of adversity.
“She’s taken us southeast!” I shouted over the wind.
“Salman barked a laugh. “Perfect! If we don’t run aground, we’ll be sailing Naxos’ north coast before the stick’s out.”
“Lords of Arcadia!” I breathed and then joined the Pilot in mocking Niserie’s Fury. Dita looked at us as if we had lost our senses. Nothing could have been further from the truth. They were only heightened when the storm abated, revealing the black, rugged silhouettes of the shoreline beneath dawn’s first light.