Life is Dangerous and Unpredictable and That’s What Makes it Precious
“The government up north is divided into five provinces,” Sharon told Pax, leaning against the rail of the ship with him in the rain. She was in green today. “Each of them ruled by a local leader. They say the five provinces harken back to the old tribal days, but that’s probably not true.”
“I shouldn’t think so,” Pax muttered, watching the water. He wished it would stop raining. “That’s a long line of continuity to keep.”
“Exactly. More likely it’s a relatively recent invention that they use the five ancient tribes to legitimate. It’s probably the pieces their empire split into after what we call the Flame War depleted their resources. The five governors form a council of leaders that runs the nation—if you’d call it a nation—together through decision.”
“Do they vote?” Pax asked, squinting. “Or are decisions unanimous?”
“That I don’t know, I’m afraid. I do know that three of the provinces have their people select the leaders by vote. One bases leadership on the completion of a series of trials. Only one of the five provinces has a hereditary lordship like we’d recognize.”
“And yet their society hasn’t collapsed.” Pax smiled, looking at Sharon. “Nobody had better let that get out, or we’ll all realize we don’t need hereditary leadership to get by and then what would happen?”
“Something unpleasant, I’m sure.” Sharon smiled behind her veil. “It may not surprise you to learn that in their attempts to colonize, Aergyre is having the most success in the province ruled by hereditary leaders—and not only because they’re the ones with most of the coastal territory.”
“Because they’re the ones most nervous about staying in power,” Pax guessed.
“I suspect so. And of course because they’re the ones who have the most potential investment in a destabilization of the five-province system.”
“And the reinstatement of an imperial regime.”
“Which benefits Aergyre just fine, which I suspect I don’t need to tell you.”
Pax smiled. “Make them a throne, marry one of the empress’s sons to the daughter of whoever’s sitting on it, wait twenty years, continue to be economically secure while the north dissolves into chaos at the change in leadership, and suddenly you’ve got one empire instead of two.”
“I do wonder what Dolovai and Kyaine will do in that case.”
“Panic?” Pax asked, shrugging. “They may consolidate. They’re already trying by marrying the southern prince to the northern crown princess, right? Maybe they’ll move east, try to expand territory that way.”
That was Pax fishing. He suspected Sharon was from the far east, but had no proof.
“They might, I can’t say. Safer to start a proxy war in the northern continent, keep that region from stabilizing so the empire is distracted.” Sharon was very smart, especially when it came to politics and not revealing things about herself.
“They may not have to,” Pax added. He was pretty smart too. “The empire won’t have that easy a time getting power over the far north. Their armies don’t fight in the cold and they’ve consistently underestimated the north for twenty years, I don’t think they’re likely to stop. The hereditary leadership of the costal province will start to collapse in the next few years and you’ll get organized resistance against imperial presence. Then they won’t have an inroad into the consolidated north, because the three elected governments will rebuff them—they have the central parts of the continent locked up, and that’s where the resources are that don’t come from the ocean.”
“Oh? I’m starting to think you knew more about the north than you were letting on, Pax.”
Pax smiled. “I never said I didn’t know anything. Just that I wanted to know more. The real problem is going to be that ritually-selected leader. You’ll get them deciding that they’re the real heirs to the old empire, and…” Pax frowned, pointed out over the rail. “There’s a ship out there.”
“So there is,” Sharon confirmed, seeming to frown.
Pax looked up to the crow’s nest, where Peak wasn’t ringing a bell. With a sigh, he pushed off from the rail. “I’d better go tell the captain. I’ll be back.”
“I shall wait here and keep an eye on them for you.”
“Thank you.” Pax smiled as he set off. He had no doubt that Sharon was not getting off in Bright Harbour.
Natalie was in her cabin and Nate was at the helm, so Pax headed for the cabin, rapped on the door. “Captain.”
“Come in,” Natalie called, and Pax did. “What is it, sailor?” she asked, sitting at her writing desk, reading something. Which was really a misuse of the writing desk. He would have to build her a reading desk or something.
“There’s a ship coming at us from the north,” Pax told her. “And also I’m going to subject Peak to forty lashes for not ringing the bell.”
“Save the forty lashes and just pester him about it for weeks, you’re going to do that anyway and it amounts to the same level of suffering,” Natalie told him, standing up. She grabbed her hat and spyglass and followed Pax out into the rain, heading over to join Sharon at the rail when Pax pointed. “Get Nate, will you?”
Pax nodded, went to the helm. “Nate. There’s a ship.” He pointed in the general direction, trusting Nate to notice Natalie and Sharon standing there and pick it up from there.
Nate did, in fact, manage to figure out what Pax meant, and he frowned. “Alright.” He gave a look out at the ocean, then let go of the wheel, waving for Pax to follow him over there.
“We’d better not hit anything while you’re not driving the ship,” Pax chided, though there was nothing for them to hit that he could see.
But then, it was always the things he didn’t see that Pax tended to hit. Unless he was trying to hit something, in which case it was only the things he could see, because Pax had good aim. Though sometimes he aimed and hit things he couldn’t see too, because that was how good his aim was.
“Well, I considered leaving you at the helm,” Nate told him as the walked. “But you wanted to come over with us because you’re too curious not to, so I decided it was a crapshoot to even give the order.”
Pax narrowed his eyes. “I wouldn’t have disobeyed an order.”
“I know. But you’d have been annoyed about it.” Nate smiled. “These kinds of high-level decisions are why I’m in charge around here.”
“Funny, last I checked I was the one wearing the captain’s hat,” Natalie said as Nate came into her hearing.
“For now,” Nate teased, leaning against the rail beside her and peering at the ship as Natalie looked at it through the spyglass. “Navy?”
“I don’t think so,” Natalie mused, handing Nate the glass. “It’s heading right for us, though.”
Frowning, Nate looked out now. Pax watched him, and watched Natalie, and they both looked concerned, so Pax got concerned too. “Another merchant ship?” he asked, though he suspected it wasn’t.
“Maybe,” Nate said, in that way that people said the word ‘maybe’ and it meant ‘definitely not.’
“It’s impossible to be sure at this distance,” Natalie explained.
“But you think it’s pirates.”
Natalie didn’t say anything.
A moment later, Nate dropped the spyglass, handed it back. “Hard to tell in the rain, but it looks like a white shark on a black field.”
“I don’t know that insignia,” Natalie said, mostly to herself.
“Neither do I.”
“They’re coming right for us,” Natalie said, sighing. “We could try to outrun them. But I’m not sure how successful we’d be. They’re moving fast.”
Discerning how quickly a ship was moving at this distance was not a skill Pax had developed in his time on the ocean, so he assumed Natalie was right about that. “Are we going to fight them?”
The crew of the Sparkling Wind wasn’t exactly the most fighting-ready group of people. Pax knew most of them could use a weapon, but he had a feeling he was the most competent fighter onboard. Which was…concerning.
“We may not have a choice,” Natalie said. “I’ll try to barter with them first. Alert the crew. Sharon, it would be best if you went in your cabin until this is over.”
“I’ll stay out here,” Sharon said, shaking her head. “If everything goes badly, a door isn’t going to keep them out, now is it?”
A door with miles of magical wards on it might just keep them out, Pax thought, watching Sharon.
“Pax,” Nate said, tugging his arm.
“The crew. Come on.”
“Right,” Pax said, casting a glance at Sharon over his shoulder as he went with Nate. It took them fifteen minutes to alert and arm the crew, who arrayed on the deck, holding the few weapons on the ship with varying levels of competence. Only Cedric, who was holding a cleaver, looked ready to fight someone for real.
It was raining, and that made it hard to get to his knife harnesses, so Pax took off his shirt. He couldn’t be slowed down if it came to a fight.
“Hey,” Nate said, as the ship drew closer. He pulled Pax into a hug. “It’s going to be okay.”
“Yeah,” Pax agreed, hugging back. He could feel Nate’s medallion against his chest. “I know. I won’t let anything happen to this ship, Nate. Or the people on it.” This was his home, and these people were Pax’s family.
“Neither will I. To you, either.”
“Yeah.” Pax let Nate hold him there for a minute. “It’s going to be fine.”
He wished he didn’t think he was lying.
The pirate ship drew closer and closer, until it was right up beside them. Their insignia was indeed a white shark, the kind whose head looked like a hammer, against black canvas. It was painted on their sail in rough paint, and also on the side of the hull over where the name should be.
Across the deck of the other ship, a number of men and women stood with bows and arrows, nocking and aiming at them. “Surrender or die!” Someone shouted, a man in a long coat. That, Pax thought, was really very trite and tacky.
“Parley!” Natalie called back. “We’ll speak with you.”
“You’ll throw down weapons and surrender your cargo,” the man shouted back.
Oh, dear. Pax put his hand on his knife. He wished there weren’t so many archers. Sharon was standing beside Natalie. Nate put his hand on Pax’s shoulder, not impeding his movement. “Get onto their ship and get their captain,” he muttered.
Pax nodded, already planning his route.
“We’ll do no such thing,” Natalie said. The pirates were carrying boarding planks to their rail, preparing to lay them down.
“Prepare to be boarded. Fire!”
Pax wanted to close his eyes, but he couldn’t. He watched the archers carefully. “Everyone down,” he called out, raising his hand to the crew behind him.
The pirates drew back, and fired. Arrows flew. Miraculously, they all missed, hitting the deck harmlessly.
Planks were lowered. “Charge!” The pirate captain shouted.
Pax drew his heavy knife, smiling sideways at Nate. “Keep the captain safe,” he said. “Don’t worry about me.”
“I’m going to worry about you.”
There was a crack, and all the boarding planks fell into the water between the ships, broken in two. “What…” Nate asked.
Pax looked at Sharon, who’d raised her hand. “I won’t allow it,” she said, and suddenly both ships rocked, pushed apart by a great force that had water splashing over the rails and several additional meters growing between the two vessels.
Pax struggled to keep his feet, eyes on Sharon.
“Holy fuck,” Nate muttered. “She’s magic.”
“Yeah,” Pax agreed.
“Okay.” Nate used that tone that suggested they weren’t done talking about this, which was fair. Maybe keeping that particular secret for Sharon hadn’t been the best decision.
But instead of worrying about it, Pax just watched as Sharon pointed at the pirate ship. “I shall give you one warning. Retreat now and do not return. Or else.”
There was silence for a moment. And then a solitary arrow flew from the pirate ship, aimed right at Sharon.
In the pouring rain, the arrow burned away before it could touch her. Sharon shook her head. “Very well.” She waved at the ship.
In the pouring rain, it burst into flame. Every surface, every piece of wood, everything, on fire. The air was filled with screaming, with cracking, with burning. Pax felt a little nauseous. Sharon gestured, and a massive wave crashed into the ship, capsizing it and dousing the fire. There was no more screaming now.
All of them stood, watched the pirate ship sink, bodies and detritus floating in the water. Nobody spoke. Pax let go of his knife, held Nate’s hand instead.
When the last of the ship disappeared under the water, Sharon turned to Natalie. “I apologize for the…brutality. It was in poor taste.”
“No,” Natalie said, shaking her head. “It’s no more than pirates deserve. Thank you for saving my ship.”
“You’ve made it a home to me since I’ve been here. I could hardly let someone harm it. Or you.”
“Thank you.” Natalie took Sharon’s hand, turned to the crew. “Return to your duties,” she said simply. “And…thank you.”
A cheer went up among the crew, celebrating the victory, if that was what it was. Pax cheered too, and so did Nate, but only once each. Nate put his arm around Pax, pulling him close. “I’m just glad you’re safe.”
“I’m glad you’re safe too, Nate,” Pax said, leaning against him, an island of calm in the loud. He watched Sharon, standing there in the rain with Natalie. “I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Sharon looked over at Pax, and they shared a look. After a long moment, he turned away, looked up at Nate. “Told you there was nothing to worry about.”
“Pretty sure I told you that, actually.”
Pax smiled. “Well, one of us told the other, and we’re a unit. So either way. We were right.”
“Yeah,” Nate said, kissing Pax. “We were right.”