Before they continued on, Life consulted the map again. “This is about as far as we ought to go. We don’t want to end all the way back in Rajnar.”
“It might be easier to sneak back onto the Lightning if we did.” Kovel leaned close to peer at the map. “How exactly are we supposed to get out to the Tykovalt docks to reach the ship without being caught?”
Life stared at the map, noticing how inaccurate it was in many ways. It gave a good general overview of the city, but it was only that: an overview. Some streets didn’t connect to the alley the way it said they did. Others ran clean through. Landmarks didn’t match up or were not to scale. “It’s late,” he finally said, “and cold. We hope the docks aren’t being closely watched. We’re a pair of seasoned sailors, aren’t we? It’s simple: we’ll steal a ship and send out lamp code for the Lightning to find us.”
“What if they don’t?” Kovel jabbed a finger at the map. “What if they got caught in Rajnar?”
“Then we’re all lost anyway.” Life put the map away. “What about her?” he said, nodding toward the girl. “What does she do? Does she have any skills?”
“Out of the bed, that is.”
Life glared at Kovel.
Denny stepped away from Life. “She told me once she was the daughter of a rich aristocrat.”
“So, she’ll want to go back to her family.”
Denny stared at her solemnly. “I think they’re dead. I’ve seen her embroider, weave and spin, before. She’s educated enough to read the Korvalstieniav script.”
Sensing they were talking about her, Mila turned and posed a question to Denny.
He spoke to her in Korvalstieniav, before glancing back to Life. “What sort of skills do you want her to have?”
“Has she ever sailed before?”
After a short conversation, Denny shook his head. “No. But she’s willing to learn and work hard.”
“Small thing, though, isn’t she?” Kovel gestured to the woman. While it was clear she was not a girl, she was slight and did not stand very tall; from a distance she would be taken for a twelve or thirteen year old girl.
“We’re not leaving her behind,” Denny fiercely said.
“I wasn’t even considering it.” Life focused on Kovel. “We need all the help we can get. It might just be her stature will get us into a place we otherwise couldn’t reach.” Life looked her over once more before nodding. “All right. We’re going to cut through here toward the docks. Hopefully the snow will keep us from being noticed.”
Kovel grumbled under his breath. “This is suicide.”
“You are the one who insisted on coming. Do you have a better plan?”
“Yeah, we go back to Rajnar or one of those other little cities where no one will notice us creeping about, or care if they do.”
“What good will that be if the Lightning is twenty miles away in Tykovalt?”
“We should’ve considered it before we got here.”
“Well, we didn’t. Now we must make do with what we did plan for.” Without waiting for Kovel to reply and argue more, Life slipped out of the alley, ducking from shadowy building to shadowy building.
Lights shone from some of the doors and windows, and from those that did came the noise of people enjoying a warm meal or drink after a long day. Life did his best to navigate them around the pools of light, sometimes crossing the street to avoid walking through them.
Before long, he could hear the crash of waves on the surf and taste the salt on the wind. He noticed as they approached that it had stopped snowing, though the wind continued to blow what had already fallen about.
They soon reached a business district alight with taverns spilling boisterous Korvalstieniav songs and laughter into the night. Drunken men staggered out into the snowy cold, wandering out of one tavern and into another. Though there was enough light that they could be easily spotted, Life risked the chance that drunken men wouldn’t bother them much.
“Watch out, Life.” Kovel grabbed him by the arm, redirecting his attention.
As Kovel pressed the group into the shadow of a building, a group of three military officers strode down the street. They grabbed one of the drunks that had passed out against the wall outside, and hauled him to his feet. After a brief interlude, one of the military officers began helping the man inside, while the other two continued to patrol down the street.
Once they passed, Life maneuvered them to a better hiding place in the shadows of an overhanging balcony. “I didn’t expect patrols.” He chaffed his hands together. “We’re going to have to find another way through if we want to avoid them.” He pulled out the map again, but within seconds he could tell the part of town they were now in was not depicted as anywhere near accurate.
Kovel stood at the corner of the building, watching the patrol officers as they proceeded down the street. “They’ve moved past us. Perhaps they won’t come back this way for a bit?”
Life didn’t look up from the map. “If there’s another route, I’d feel safer taking that.”
“I’ve been in this part of town,” Denny said, nestling up close to Life. “Let me see if I can make sense of the map.” The wind blew, knocking snow off the balcony above them. Denny brushed it off the map and didn’t look up until Mila said something short and sharp.
AS one, Denny and Life looked over to her, but her eyes were fixed on Kovel.
Kovel was staring back at them. “Tell her to be quiet!”
Overhead, a large cracking sounded just as Mila pushed away from the wall. She knocked Kovel into the street seconds after an icicle directly above him broke off the balcony.
“Kovel!” Ignoring the danger, Life rushed after them.
The remains of the icicle were shattered on the street, save for the point which had cut right through Kovel’s thick winter coat, digging itself several inches into his left shoulder.
Mila was speaking quickly in Korvalstieniav and had put her hands around the shaft of ice, trying to staunch the blood now flowing forth.
Kovel let out a string of colorful Arislean curses. “Did she stab me?”
“No. Shut up, both of you.” Life glanced up and down the street, but so far their commotion had gone unnoticed. With Kovel’s blood staining the snow in the street, though, he knew that wasn’t likely to last long. “She just saved your life.”
Kovel, stunned, twisted to try to look at his shoulder. “What? What?”
Denny knelt beside him, resting Kovel’s head on his thigh. “It was an icicle. If she hadn’t pushed you out of the way, it would have gone right through your skull.”
Kovel cursed again and twisted. “Shit. It really hurts.”
“Help me lift him,” Life said, carefully gripping under Kovel’s arms. “We’ve got to get him out of the street. Tell her to hold it steady.”
Denny did as instructed and then took up Kovel’s feet. They carried him down the side street, well out of the way of the balcony they’d taken refuge under before.
“Bring me the bag,” Life said. “Then try and clean up some of that blood.”
Denny brought the bag, stared forlornly at Kovel a moment, and then turned and began trying to cover up the trail of blood with snow. Life dug through the pack until he found the small medical kit they’d brought with them. He pulled out a bandage and salve, along with a small leather case. He nudged Mila aside so he could wrap the bandage around the base of the icicle. Then he emptied the contents of the case onto the snow and held the case near Kovel’s mouth. “I’m going to pull this out now.”
Kovel cursed again, but squeezed his eyes shut and bit down on the leather.
Life took a deep breath and then pulled the icicle out, wincing as the leather swallowed up Kovel’s scream. He quickly used the bandage to wipe down the blood, applying pressure. Looking up, he focused on Mila, who was staring at the events with wide eyes. “You can sew, right?”
She looked at him, uncomprehending.
With his free hand, Life reached into the snow and picked up some of the contents he’d just dumped out of the case, including a medical needle and thread. “Sew.” He held up the needle and gestured to Kovel’s wound. He made a sewing motion with his hand. “Can you sew?”
Kovel spit out the leather case and cried, “You’ve got to be joking!”
“I assure you I’m not. Do you want to bleed out?” Life picked up the case again and jammed it back into Kovel’s mouth. “Denny!”
Denny hadn’t quite finished with hiding the blood, but hurried over at Life’s call. “Is it bad?”
“Yes.” Life handed him the needle and thread and returned to applying pressure to the wound. “Explain to Mila we need her to stitch the wound closed.”
“You’re not serious!” Denny looked at Life’s face and blanched. “You are serious.”
“He’ll bleed out before we even get to the docks if we don’t.”
Denny, hands shaking slightly, explained to Mila what they needed her to do. She shook her head negatively several times before Life grabbed her hands and forced the needle and thread into them.
“Tell her he will die if she doesn’t and that it will be her fault because she has the power to save him.”
In the end, Mila nodded gravely in agreement. She took a deep breath to calm herself, and a strange resoluteness over took her. Her hands soon steadied.
Life took away the gauze, wiped the wound down with snow and then laid Kovel in a position so he couldn’t thrash about. Denny took up Kovel’s hand, squeezing it as he sat down beside him.
Mila steadied herself further, took a deep breath and then got to work. Her stitches were small and neat, drawing the torn flesh together. Life stroked Kovel’s hair as she went, but to his surprise Kovel was fairly calm about the ordeal. Compared to the pain of the wound, Life imagined the needle pricks were probably only minor discomfort.
When Mila finished, Life checked the knot to ensure it wouldn’t unravel. Then he took the bag and tore some of the exterior into strips. Using two long pieces over the wound to create as much of a tourniquet as possible, he then used a bigger piece to act as a sling.
Mila staggered off to cleans her hands in the snow, and Life helped Kovel sit up. “That’ll do for now,” he said. “Danae’s the ship doctor; she’ll be able to patch you up better when we get back.” He smiled. “Maybe Amist will even mop your brow.”
Kovel clenched his teeth. “Shut up.” Using his right arm, he reached up to grip Life’s chest. “Help me stand.”
With considerable effort, Kovel got to his feet. His face was drawn and pale, his skin waxy. Bags seemed to have suddenly formed under his eyes. Life knew if he’d let him go, Kovel would drop to the ground like a sack of sandstones. From the way Kovel grimaced, it was clear he was still in a lot of pain. “All right?”
Kovel tried to smile. “Don’t suppose you’re offering to carry me?”
Frustrated at Kovel getting needlessly hurt and them wasting more time, Life picked an alternate route almost at random. “I could just put your out of your misery, like a lame horse.”
“Ah, Life, you are the best of friend a man could have.”
“I’m sorry.” He pulled Kovel’s coat back up, holding it in place. “Can you walk?”
“Yeah.” Kovel winced. “For now, at least.”
Over his shoulder, Life checked on the others. “Denny, get our supply bag.”
Denny grabbed it, handing his lute to Mila before hurrying to catch up.
They didn’t get very far before Kovel’s movements slowed and he began sagging, even with Life supporting him. “I need to rest. I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right.” Life found another shadowy alcove for them and propped Kovel up against the wall. He stood and stretched. They were still in the business district but growing ever nearer to the sea. Most of the businesses were not open, but those that appealed to sailors were, including alehouses, inns and brothels. Life searched the bag for some of the Korvalstieniav money they’d brought with them.
Giving it to Denny, he said, “Tell Mila to go into one of these alehouses and get some hot wine. Women can travel freely here, can’t they?”
“Yes.” Denny stared at the money. “He’s lost blood, though; he shouldn’t have alcohol.” Seeing Life didn’t understand what he mean, Denny shook his head. “Arislean medicine is more advanced than Fioryssean; just trust me. I’ll tell her what to get.”
Life wanted to protest, but he knew in his heart that Denny was right. Instead, he just returned to Kovel and sank down beside him, making the most of the rest that he could. “Mila’s gone to get you something warm to drink.”
Kovel didn’t open his eyes, but grunted softly. “Is sending her off safe?”
“Mmm, probably not.” Life tugged Kovel’s coat more securely closed where it hung open over the wound. “She ought to be all right though. No one here should be looking for her yet.”
“Yeah.” Kovel cracked one eye open, focusing on Life. “Suppose it’s good we’ve . . . someone who speaks Korvalstieniav after all.”
“Yeah.” He felt his mouth curve in half a smile. “You want anything in the meantime? Water? Maybe some cheese?”
“I’ll wait until Mila comes back. Nice girl, isn’t she? Woman.”
“Yes. Just rest as much as you can.” Life checked Kovel one more time to make sure he was securely covered up, then went and joined Denny by the edge of the building, to watch for Mila’s return.
Denny’s face was set and he didn’t look away from the tavern Mila had disappeared into. “Will the three of us be enough to launch a boat?”
For a moment, Life hesitated, not sure what to do. After a moment, he gave in to the urge to slide a hand around Denny’s middle. A flood of warmth and relief ran through him as Denny leaned back against him. “It won’t be easy, but we can do it.”
“Perhaps we should wait until sunrise. We could hire a boat to take us. If we claim Kovel is drunk and you’re . . . perhaps some sort of servant, my Korvalstieniav is probably decent enough that Mila and I could pass as locals.”
Life swallowed down his dislike of that idea. “By morning chances are your escape will be noticed. They might question such a strange mix of people.”
Denny twisted around in his arm. “You came all this way; I don’t want things to fall apart now.”
Life kissed Denny’s brow, above the coronet. “It won’t.”
Denny’s eyes widened. “We could try to hire someone now. Do you think the ship is already there?”
“One of these drunken sailors. They’ll only be too glad of some money to ferry us a few hundred feet to a waiting ship.” He pulled back to look up at Life. “You can buy silence, too, you know. How much money do you have with you? I’ve got a few things that should be worth a trade. We’ll hire someone to take us out!”
“But he’d have no reason not to tell where we’ve gone after that.”
“So? We’d be on the ship already.”
Life blinked. Denny was right—and he didn’t even know how fast the Lightning was. “That actually might work.”
Denny beamed. “I always was the brains between us.”
Mila returned before Life could reply, but he was happy for the distraction and took the things she’d purchased. He reluctantly let Denny take her back out to orchestrate the hiring of a Korvalstieniav sailor, while Life carried the new supplies over to tend to Kovel. There was hot broth in a mug, which was so tempting Life wanted to drink it himself.
“Here. It’s soup.” He put it to Kovel’s lips.
After Kovel wordlessly drank, a little color returned to his face. His eyes focused past Life, noticing the absence of the others. “What’s going on?”
“Denny’s made a suggestion that might save us all a lot of trouble.”
Kovel tipped his head back for more broth and sighed out a puff of steam when he stopped drinking. “Decided to leave me here, have you?”
“Well, now. That would be easier, wouldn’t it?” Life smiled and shook his head. “We’ve decided to hire one of these drunken Korvalstieniav sailors. Give them enough money and they’ll be quiet long enough to get us to the Lightning. By the time they can alert anyone, we should be well out of reach of even the fastest pursuit ships.”
“Mm.” Kovel sipped again. “I’m sure there’s something terribly wrong with the idea, but my hands are too numb to put a finger on it.”
Life grinned. “We can still leave you behind, if you think its wiser.”
“Hiring drunken sailors it is, then.”
The man Denny and Mila eventually coerced into the plan wasn’t drunk, but he wasn’t exactly sober. He introduced himself as Nasha and his Arislean was so poor Life was glad he stuck to Korvalstieniav—he was easier to understand that way.
The man’s ship was hardly seaworthy, and Life was glad the worst they’d experience on the short voyage was some wind and snow. He was reluctant to take such a passive role in their escape, but Denny had convinced the man he and Mila were a wealthy Korvalstieniav couple, that Kovel was his sick half-Arislean brother they were taking to a foreign doctor and that Life merely his manservant.
Life held to Kovel as they launched, trying to minimize the jostling Kovel had to endure as they set out, though he wasn’t convinced he’d done any good.
Kovel’s eyes were lidded, but he remained conscious, staring up at Life. “You could kill him, you know.”
Life took his eyes off Nasha and Denny, trying to follow their conversation. “What? Who?”
“That drunken Korvalv. He . . . he wouldn’t tell anybody, then. Just . . . just slit him with . . . a knife. Dagger. Paramis’. Slice.”
Unsettled, Life stroked Kovel’s hair. “Shh. Just rest now, my friend. We’re almost there.”
“I’m so cold, Life.”
“We’ll warm you up soon.” Even in the darkness, Life could see the dark blood seeping through Kovel’s coat. Though he was quite cold himself, Life pulled his coat off and wrapped it around Kovel. Then he caught Denny’s attention, waving him over.
Denny made some excuse to the sailor and picked his way across the small ship. His expression fell as he looked at Kovel. “Is he . . . ?”
“No, but he’s not doing well. We should be close, though. I need you to sit with him so I can operate the lamp signal.”
They traded places and, shivering, Life made his way to the bow of the ship. He felt Nasha’s curious eyes on him, but did his best to ignore it. It wasn’t like he could explain what he was doing even if asked. Lifting a shield on the lamp to block its light from the shore, Life began a series of signals, covering and uncovering it in different patterns. He repeated it west, south and east and, after waiting five minutes, repeated the process.
After an hour, Mila came to sit by him, draping a heavy canvas sack over his shoulders. It didn’t do much to warm him, but it did block some of the wind. “Thank you,” he murmured, forcing his numb fingers into operating the signal again.
Behind him, the sailor began to complain.
Life couldn’t understand what he was saying, but it wasn’t hard to guess his meaning. It was cold. They’d be floating listlessly out in the ocean for over an hour and the man’s drunken buzz was starting to wear off. Life began the almost mindless task of operating the lamp signal again, only now genuinely starting to wonder what he’d do if the Lightning never showed; if Paramis and the rest of her crew had been captured or wrecked or killed.
Trying to steal a ship to get back to Arisle the long way was impossible with Kovel’s injury. Life could teach Denny and Mila, but with Kovel in his condition, they wouldn’t have enough manpower. Securing food for a six month trip, especially in this weather, would also be impossible. Their only bet would be fleeing to Nan or one of the other eastern countries and hoping that their authorities there didn’t immediately turn them back over to the Korvalstieniavs—or execute them on site.
Life started when he felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see Denny settling beside him. It took a moment to realize Mila was now sitting with Kovel. He hadn’t even noticed her leaving. Though he was ashamed of his failure to complete the rescue, he grateful for the company—and for Denny’s warmth. “How is he?”
“Cold.” Denny hugged the heavy canvas draped around Life, resting his head on Life’s shoulder. “As are we all.” He stared into the dark. “Do you think they’re out there?”
“Would I still be doing this if I didn’t?” He sighed. “Everything took so much longer than we anticipated. We were supposed to meet up with them at dawn. We’re about twelve hours late. It might just have been too long for them to wait for us.” Exhausted, Life closed his eyes, simply drinking in the warmth of Denny beside him.
For a while, Denny was silent. Then, quietly, he spoke. “Even in my dreams you never came for me.” Denny reached up to stroke Life’s hair, free now that he was no longer wearing a hood. “After all this time, I thought you’d forgotten all about me. You never wrote me back.”
Life took a breath so deep the cold hurt his lungs. “I should have. I wanted to. It just took so long . . . I thought surely by the time a letter reached you, things would have changed. I kept putting it off, and the longer I put it off, the harder it was to fix.” He shook his head. “I didn’t want to give you false hope.” He breathed a mirthless laugh. “I kept wishing you’d forget all about me.”
Denny nodded, his brow pressed against Life’s shoulder. “I did try. If I’d never heard from you again, I would have done all right. After a few years, I made it a point not to pine. I knew I’d always love you; I couldn’t change that, but . . . I could live without you.”
Life opened his eyes, staring into the darkness. “Did you go with Visnek willingly?”
“Not exactly.” Denny sat up. “I knew he was interested and that he would take me either way.” He bowed his head. “I also knew I’d be better treated if I didn’t fight him. I realize how pathetic that makes me sound. I’m not proud of my actions.”
“It isn’t pathetic. You didn’t have many options. You took the situation into your own hands as best you could. That’s admirable. I’ve heard some Arisleans were killed trying to resist.”
“They’re the ones that history will remember.”
Life turned, taking his arm off the lamp so he could draw Denny close and kiss him. “I would rather you alive any day.”
Nasha gave an exclamation of surprise, which caused Life to spring back from Denny, aware that his ruse as a manservant had just been discovered.
To Life’s puzzlement, Nasha was not staring at either of them, but to the darkness off the starboard side of the boat. At first, Life couldn’t see what it was that had startled Nasha; having stared at his signal lamp, his eyes weren’t as well adjusted to the dark.
It took only a few seconds for dark shadows to stand out against the darker sea. Soon, it congealed into a small boat with figures on it. One of the black shapes split with a brilliant white crescent, and Life knew it was Cannon smiling like a beacon in the night.
“Cannon!” Life set aside the light and surged to his feet, rocking the boat more than he had intended. His heart was pounding in his chest and the cold vanished. “What’s going on?”
“Hello, Life!” Cannon rowed his boat alongside Nasha’s, and began lashing them together. “The Lightning is hiding a little bit away from here. Couldn’t answer your signal flare without risking it being seen from shore. You were so late . . . Paramis—that is, Captain Spectre thought it safest to send the boat first.” He glanced at the passengers. “Did you meet with success?”
“Ah, yes. This is Denny—Den—my, uh.” Life wet his lips.
“Yeah, I know who that is! Hello, Den. So glad to see you’re all right. I’m Cannon. Want to come on board?” He held out his hand.
If Denny were put off by Life’s inability to label their relationship, it didn’t show. “Hello, Cannon.” He took Cannon’s hand and effortlessly glided from one boat to the other.
“Kovel was injured,” Life said, moving toward the stern of the ship. “An icicle fell and got him in his shoulder. He’s lost a lot of blood. Oh, and this is . . . uh, this is Mila. She’s also coming with us.”
“She’s Korvalstieniav and doesn’t speak Arislean.” Life bent over by Kovel. “Kovel? Hey, Kovel. Guess who’s finally here? It’s Cannon. Come on, let’s get you into the other boat. Everyone’s waiting to see you. Kovel?”
Kovel’s eyes cracked open, and while he gripped Life with his left arm, he didn’t seem to be very aware of what he was doing.
“Hurt his right shoulder?” Cannon asked, and when Life nodded, Cannon just reached over and picked Kovel up, slinging him over his shoulder. It set the boats rocking, but Cannon held his balance and set Kovel down in the stern of the Lightning’s boat, where one of the other shadowy shapes immediately tended to him.
Beside Cannon, Denny called to Mila, explaining to her what was happening. Reassured, she let Cannon help her across.
Soon, Life found himself alone with Nasha and turned down to shake the sailor’s hand. It was easy to tell by Nasha’s slack jaw that this was not at all what he had expected. Life shook his hand anyway, said a few words of thanks that he doubted the man understood and then crossed to the other boat himself.
In a matter of minutes the two ships were untied and Life took up one of the oars, eagerly rowing into the night to meet up again with the Lightning.