Mbali and Ama were both wearing crowns of shimmering gemstones, and had silken capes draped around their shoulders. Villagers were offering each plate of food to the two children, letting them choose the first morsels before allowing anyone else to eat. Uduak blinked. “Baako…”
Baako laughed. “See it from their perspective, my heart. Things are dark, their children are starving, a monster preys upon them, and then out of the sea come strangers, bearing the things they need most. Answering their prayers.” He smiled. “And then, from where they sit, taking only a pittance as payment.”
“A pittance?” Uduak stared. “Do they have —”
“No, Uduak, they don’t.” He laughed again. “To them, colored pearls are common enough they give them to the children to use as marbles, and beyond that you are just asking for beans.” He leaned back against one of the trees. “Without Liam to guide us through the reefs, we’d have had only a small chance of making it here safely. What we see is something we’ve accepted as normal. They have clear eyes and so…” He shrugged. “They see the miracle.”
“Storm’s mercy, the charts to get here alone would buy us another ship.” She exhaled, then took a slow, deep breath. Her eyes went toward where a third of the crew were listening to Chidike tell the tale. Liam had killed a basilisk in single combat. Unarmored, and blindfolded. “Return the gem to the fire, and you’ll be given a gift beyond what you dreamed.”
“Speaking of gifts…” Baako glanced at the village. “The governor or whoever he is keeps trying to give me a very large rock and…” He shrugged. “I’m going to need Liam to figure out what is going on with that.”
“I’ll uh…” She sighed. “Order Adaeze to let him out.”
“Just for a little while, and…” Baako slowly nodded. “Maybe on a short leash?” He shook his head. “Storm’s mercy, I’m going to set that boy to cleaning the bilge. What the hell was he thinking with…” He clenched his fists, then took a deep breath of his own. “Should put him on bread rations and tie him to the mast and hang upside down from the rigging and…”
She shook her head and walked away as Baako was still muttering disciplinary actions.
Jurgen smiled sadly as he watched Rutger playing the flute. The clear tones echoed off the stone walls. Thirza’s eyes were half-closed as she listened, and she was smiling. Rather than interrupt, he touched Pauwel’s arm and gestured for the man to join him on the balcony. “How is Marinus?”
“Good.” Pauwel shrugged. “He’s, um…” Pauwel sighed, then shook his head. “Well, Koert was teaching him about horses and…” He shook his head before walking over to the balcony railing and looking over.
“Pauwel?” Jurgen frowned.
“Yesterday, Marinus, uh…” He exhaled. “He saw Rutger playing that lap harm and he went over to where Koert’s was on the table. He was just trying to be like his brother.”
“What happened?” Jurgen leaned on the railing next to him.
“Rutger broke his arm for touching it.” Pauwel leaned on the rail. “I tried, uh…” He bowed his head. “She told me that Rutger weren’t my boy, so I had no business disciplining him for…” He straightened and clenched his fists. “I swear, Jurgen, all I did was make him sit in the corner while the healer tended Marinus.”
“Things are…” Jurgen looked over the view. “Why don’t you and Marinus come back with me to Valyk for a visit? Petrus can help teach him how to ride.”
“He’s…” Pauwel gave him an embarrassed look. “He’s a bit scared of them cause he uh…” He winced before straighting. “Well he saw me working Nightblade on the course and I was sitting right for the jump and…”
“And you fell off.” Jurgen snickered.
“Hadn’t saddled him.” Pauwel fidgeted. “Weren’t moving the same cause I was distracted and…” He nodded. “Yeah. Fell off.”
“I’ll teach him to ride.” Jurgen smiled.
“Thanks, Jurgen.” Pauwel hesitated, going silent for a minute. “Maybe just take him. Not sure it’s smart for me to leave right now. She’s um…”
“I’m sorry, Pauwel.”
“She uh…” Pauwel’s voice was rough. “She doesn’t always come to bed and…” He rubbed his neck. “Jurgen, what do I do? She’s sad all the time.” He leaned on the railing again. “I’m not that stupid. I know she didn’t marry me for love.”
He wished he could tell the man otherwise. “She is fond of you, Pauwel. She does care.” He glanced back at the door. “She seems better today.”
“He’d make sure she had flowers in the bath.” Pauwel turned and leaned his back on the railing. “Lucky for me, he once showed me how to cut them right so they’d float on the water for her.” Pauwel smiled. “She cried when she saw them, but it was a good kind of crying, I think.” He sighed. “The last few years were good ones.”
“You really do love her, don’t you?” Jurgen put a hand on his shoulder.
“Loved them both.” Pauwel nodded. “I just wish I…” He swallowed. “Rutger sings. Plays music. Part of him is still here.”
“What if they need me to translate?” Liam pulled at the restraints.
“We’ll think of something.” Adaeze continued calmly going over the map.
“Is there any rope left on the ship?” He struggled. She’d bound his arms behind his back, wrists bound to elbows, then she’d bound his ankles to his thighs before proceeding to continue weaving the rope around him. His knees had been brought up to his chest and secured in place after she’d made him move to the head of the bed.
And now she sat on the bed, using him as a pillow while planning their next course. “The pearls will fetch the best price in Thatela, yes?”
“They will. The chocolate and coffee too. You should go directly to Reacan and sell to the capital…” He struggled again. “How long are you going to leave me like this?”
“I’ll decide the answer to that when I’m not mad at you anymore.” She traced her finger over the map. “This time of year it won’t take long.”
“I’m going to have to make a trip to —”
“Adaeze.” He exhaled.
“I’ll let you send a letter to Jurgen telling him to meet you at that Wharf Tower thing, but you’re not going to be allowed out of my sight for a while, husb —” She looked up as there was a knock on the door to her cabin. “Yes?”
“We need Liam to do some translating.” Uduak’s voice came from the other side.
“He’s tied up at the moment.” Adaeze shrugged calmly.
“It’s either let him talk to the governor or figure out where on the ship to put a really big rock.”
He saw Adaeze tilt her head thoughtfully. “How big a rock?”
“It’s approximately the size of three longboats stacked atop each other.”
“Liam…” Adaeze turned to look at him. “What have we decided?”
Liam exhaled. “I will not leave the ship without either you or your designated watcher accompanying me. I will not get more than a hundred feet from you without your permission. I will explain any plans to your satisfaction and will not carry them out unless I have your approval. I will not be a fucking stupid jackass.” He nodded. “I will listen to Adaeze and do what she tells me because she is my wife and my captain, and knows what is best for me.”
“Very good.” She patted his shoulder, then looked back at the door. “Give us a moment.”
“It’s not…” Liam gave Efua an annoyed look. “That funny.”
“It kind of is.” Adaeze was snickering. “I mean, how did you not see that coming?”
“I was looking for…” He ran a hand down his face. “Not that.” He glanced over at where Mikaere was enthusiastically describing the battle to a crowd of other young men, all of whom were occasionally looking his way with awe-struck expressions.
“You are so delightfully stupid sometimes.” Adaeze chuckled. “Oh for…” She giggled helplessly. “How do we fix this? They’ve built a shrine to Mbali. Mbali and…” She looked over at where people were fawning over Mbali. “Liam, they sewed a cloak of silk and pearls for her pet goat.”
“I’m trying to fix it.” Liam shook his head. “But I just keep making it worse.”
“Explain the rock?” Efua had trouble getting the words out.
“No, that one is logical.” Liam started nodding. “They are going to carve it into a ship to honor Uduak, then put it near the water so we can use it as a marker should we come again.”
“That’s…” Efua smiled. “Actually kind of sweet. What did Uduak say?”
“She is currently not speaking to him.” Adaeze shrugged. Then she rubbed his shoulder. “All teasing aside, husband…” She kissed his cheek. “You did good here.” Her eyes narrowed. “Except for the basilisk thing for which you will still be doing penance until I decide to forgive you which may well take a few years and Efua don’t think for a moment you aren’t going to be getting a measure of my wrath.”
“For the log…” Efua held up her hands defensively. “He completely misled me about how big that thing was going to be.”
“He can’t lie.” Adaeze turned to glare at him.
“I didn’t lie.” He swallowed. “I uh…” He cringed. “Led her to make some erroneous assumptions and then failed to correct them.” When she kept staring at him, he winced again. “You’re not letting me out of the cabin again anytime soon, are you?”
“No.” She turned toward the campfire. He followed her gaze and saw Mikaere staring at him again. “Who does he think you are?”
“Aihuroa.” Liam exhaled. “Apparently Aihuroa laid the curse and left the basilisk as the guardian. And the legend says only Aihuroa could pass the guardian and lift the curse.”
“And this Aihuroa walked between worlds, carrying wisdom between the people and the gods. Thus, since Liam is the one that brought us…” Efua nodded. “Aihuroa.”
“And what exactly is Aihuroa the god of?” Adaeze raised an eyebrow.
Efua immediately started laughing again. “Oh for…” Liam glared at her.
She could barely get the words out. “Aihuroa is their god of prophecy and fire. Guess what they use to represent him.”
“Storm’s mercy.” Adaeze giggled. “A phoenix?”
“It is.” Efua slid off the rock she’d been sitting on as she shook with laughter.
“You’re not helping.” He said the words through gritted teeth.
It had taken more urging than he’d expected, but Marinus was on the horse. White as clouds, but on the horse. He was almost as proud of Petrus for not teasing as he was of Marinus getting on the horse.
“Come on, Rien.” Petrus trotted Flower a few steps ahead. “This way. I want to show you something.”
Marinus took a deep breath before urging his steed to follow. Jurgen walked with him, hand on the lead rope. He left it slack to keep the horse following Marinus’s directions, but Winterstar took after Lavender in brains and temperament. Despite her size, the young mare was gentle as a lamb and as loyal as a dog. Petrus had even taught her how to play fetch.
By the time he took the lead rope off, Marinus was laughing as the two boys rode through the pasture. Jurgen smiled as he watched them play.
“Please don’t do that.” Liam exhaled, then went to his own knees in front of the boy and pulled him up from the ground. “Mikaere.”
The boy’s eyes were huge and luminous. “Aihuroa, the mines.” He smiled widely. “My father says my family will reclaim the mines.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” He patted the boy’s shoulder awkwardly. “But I am not Aihuroa.”
“Father says mining may be dangerous work, but with your blessing we will be successful.” Mikaere’s head bobbed up and down as the boy nodded. “He is glad I have pleased you, Aihuroa, and hopes my life will continue to do so.”
“It…” Liam blinked. “What?” He caught Mikaere’s shoulders when the boy tried to kneel again. “Mikaere, what did…” His eyes widened in sudden realization. “Oh.”
Mikaera caught his hands and kissed them. “I swear I shall serve you well in the between, Aihuroa.”
“I…” He took a few deep breaths, then tried retrieving his hands. “I am not Aihuroa. My name is Liam. I am…” He shook his head. “Tell your father I do not want a sacrifice.”
“I…” Tears suddenly filled the young man’s eyes, and his expression turned frightened. “Have I displeased you, Aihuroa?” The child went prostrate again, and grabbed hold of Liam’s ankle to kiss his foot. “I’m sorry, Aihuroa. I will do better.”
He let out curses in every language but the one Mikaere understood. “You have not displeased me, Mikaere.”
The boy gave him a relieved look. “Oh, thank you, Aihuroa.” The eager smile returned. “Will you come to see the forge light?” Mikaere stared up at him, eyes wide and worshipful.
“Mikaere…” He suddenly nodded. “Tell your father I will give him fire from my ship to light his forge, but in return you will serve me in this world.”
The boy’s face nearly split from the grin. “Oh, Aihuroa…”
Liam tried not to roll his eyes as the boy went prostrate and tried kissing his feet again. He exhaled and switched to Ilael. “Now I just need to figure out how to explain this to Adaeze.”
“He doesn’t even speak our language.” Liam banged his head on the wall.
“He’ll learn.” Adaeze put her hand on his shoulder. “Liam, it’s…” She sighed. “It’s a thousand times better than the alternative. You could never live with yourself if they sacrificed that boy because you tried to help them.”
“Is it always going to be like this?” He turned toward her. “Every good thing I do turning on me?”
“Turning on you?” Adaeze shoved him into the chair, then straddled his lap. “Liam…” She touched her forehead to his. “Uduak told me of a young boy that found a home on an Ilael ship. He found a family there, fell in love, and he’s…”
“Happier than he has any right to be.” He wrapped his arms around her.
“Liam, that boy is absolutely ecstatic every time you let him follow you around. You were kind to him, he saw you kill the basilisk and break his family’s curse, and he’s a thirteen year old boy. He’s the envy of all his friends.” She laughed softly, then kissed him. “And this is what you get for scaring the salt out of your wife.”
“He thinks by serving me he can ensure his family’s good fortune continues.” Liam sighed.
“You may not be his god, Liam.” She shifted to make herself more comfortable. “But you can’t deny being his hero.”
“If he tries to wash my feet again…” Liam hit the back of his head against the wall. “I’m going to —”
“Ask him nicely to stop.” She reached down to fondle him. “And send him on his way with a piece of candy.”
“I…” He gave her a resigned shake of his head, but he was smiling. “Yes.”