After several hours in the cold, barren cell, Life fell into a fitful sleep, wrapped up in the thin reedy blanket they’d provided for him. He awoke shortly after dawn, but the sunlight that filtered through the small square holes in the top half off his cell did nothing to warm the room.
He judged the passage of time by the sunlight that filtered through his room. After a while, he was brought a paltry, watery gruel which he nevertheless forced down. Morning gave way to afternoon and afternoon into evening before they brought him another tray of gruel.
“I’m not a bad person!” he cried, but the guard who served his meal ignored him.
Life shivered through another night, sleeping even worse than before. The gruel upset his stomach terribly, forcing him to spend half the night hunched over the poor excuse of a latrine in the corner of the cell.
He despaired during the night, wondering if he had been poisoned and if he would die—and what would happen to Denny if he did.
It was well into morning by the time he saw anyone beyond guards. This time the approaching footsteps rang out on the hard stone floor, echoing in a way that told him more than just one man was coming. Despite his wretchedness Life dragged himself to his feet and stood facing the cell door.
Somehow, the man revealed when the door opened was General Haepsha, the man who had conveyed the title of General on Life all those months ago. It was as if King Disata himself had come to look in on him.
“Captain Jarae,” Haepsha said, shaking his head. “I had thought better of you.”
Seeing this as his only way out, Life decided to act quickly. “Sir, please. I apologize for my transgressions, earnestly I do. Can you tell me the location and health of the Arislean man that was taken with me last night?” He shivered and shook his head. “No, no, it was two nights ago.”
“In time, Captain.” Haepsha pulled out a parchment scroll and unrolled it. “You’ve managed to accumulate quite a list of offenses and fines in the short few months since we last spoke. Do you know they’re considering trying you for treason?”
Life’s eyes widened. “Treason?”
“There are quite a few who can fathom no other reason why you’d desert your Feorean post to strike out virtually alone for Korvalstieniav.”
“You know perfectly well that I went to rescue the man that your men are keeping in another cell! As well as the-the-the—“ Life suddenly sneezed and shivered again, miserable. “As well as the fact that I brought back plenty of information about Korvalstieniav, Tykovalt, the status of their fleet, even what their new Tyria looks like! You call that treason!?”
“I don’t, no, but there are those who do.” Haepsha looked at the scroll again, shaking his head. “You may not be brought to charge for treason, but there is still plenty here you can’t deny. You did leave your post. You took two unauthorized ships through the Tarsil Ocean. You set foot on enemy territory without kingship authority—that could have started a war, Liar.”
“We were already at war!”
“Even so, that wasn’t a move you were authorized to make.”
“So, what now? What do I do? Are you going to just leave me in here? Are you going to put me on trial when you should be focusing on running the Korvalvs out of Arisle? Or will it just be execution? Take my steam ship technology, bind me to Feor with an assignment I never asked for or wanted, then punish me when I take matters into my own hands to rescue someone I love?”
Haepsha focused on his scroll, clearly at a loss for words. “That certainly wasn’t my understanding of the situation. If you didn’t want the assignment, you should have turned it down.”
“I was never given the chance! One moment I’m on the bridge of my ship and the next King Disata is there making mea Feorean citizen and a general of the fleet!”
“That was an extremely high honor!”
Life shivered again and had to sit down. “It doesn’t matter now, does it? What’s done is done. Just tell me how to get out of here.”
Haepsha scanned his scroll again. “Your house, shipyard and belongings were auctioned off yesterday and today. The proceeds from these will be applied to the fines you have incurred.”
“What?” Life felt his chest tighten. It was awful enough to consider losing his house and business, but some of those things had been Denny’s—many of them irreplaceable.
“I’m sorry but it is standard procedure in a case like this.”
“Fine. Now tell me about Denny. Oden Ironforge—the Arislean man you arrested me with.”
Haepsha studied Life carefully. “Ordinarily we would have him deported back to his own country. As that isn’t possible, we’ve released him provisionally, with the warning that any further infractions will require us to treat him as though he were an accomplice and a Feorean citizen.”
Life sank back down onto his bench, exhausted. At least Denny wasn’t spending another night in this place. Life only hoped he could find Paramis. Life had slipped into such a zone that it took a few moments to realize Haepsha was still speaking.
“—of extreme interest, so it will probably not take as long. Of course, you’re not expected to win the trial, but these things must be done for show. After sentencing, you will most likely be deported to Fioryss, though it depends on what the sentence is.”
“Wouldn’t want a Fioryssean criminal in your cells, would you?” Life drew his feet up onto the bench and hugged his knees, though he was so cold it provided no warmth. “Why not just kill me?”
“Execution is a possible—though unlikely—outcome. I wouldn’t wish for it if you don’t truly want it. You may get off with just the fine and a few months hard labor.”
“Oh.” Life stared hatefully at him. “That’s not so bad.”
“I don’t believe you understand the severity of what you did, Captain Jarae. Your actions put this entire country at risk.”
“And you never would have known about it if your government hadn’t swooped in and made me a citizen so you could steal my ideas. Forgive me if I’m not overly apologetic.”
Haepsha neatly rolled up his scroll. “That attitude won’t reflect well at your trial, I’m afraid.”
Life told him to go away in very crude Fioryssean and didn’t look away from the wall until Haepsha gave up in talking to him further and departed.
When they brought him gruel that night, he poured it directly from the bowl into the latrine. He wondered if eventually he would be processed like a real prisoner and given a proper uniform and recreation breaks and palatable food. He wondered if Feoreans even had rules and regulations like that for common prisoners.
After three days his body was so exhausted that despite the discomfort and the cold, Life eventually fell into an unpleasant sleep. He dreamed he was on a ship in the middle of a freak blizzard. There was no lightning, but the thunder was immense. One of the masts snapped in the wind, sending the crow’s nest into the bridge. The tossing of the ship set the metal nest grating against the wood on the deck and the hammering sound it created echoed louder than even the thunder.
Before long, the ship transformed into Life’s house, and the crow’s nest was scrapping over the sandstone floors and walls. Around him, the waves were breaking down the walls of his house and he came awake as a cloud of sand rained down on him.
Choking and disoriented, Life started up, fell off the bench and sprawled on his back as he watched the sandstone bricks disappear from his cell, revealing a pattern of familiar stars.
Half believing he was still dreaming, Life scrambled to his feet. “Hello?”
Paramis’ face appeared in the dark opening, her dark expression brightening considerably when she saw him. “Life! We got it right! Come on, get out of there.” She extended her hand through the hole.
Without thinking about it, Life climbed up on his bench and began working his way out of the hole in his wall. He saw Cannon on the other side, hurriedly reining in the scaling hook he’d used to pull down the wall. He knew it was an understatement, but all he said was, “Thanks.”
Cannon smiled brightly at him. “You look like shit.” He glanced down. “They didn’t even give you any shoes?” He took off his jacket and handed it over, which Life gratefully accepted despite the fact that it was comically large on him.
Despite the warmth of the jacket, Life was shivering violently and wasn’t sure how good he’d be at rescue. “They barely even fed me. I hope you’ve got a plan because I’m not sure how far I’ll get.”
“Let’s not waste anymore time then.” Paramis gave his arm a squeeze, then turned and headed down the dark alleyway the cell had looked out onto.
Running on the sandstone ground was uncomfortable, but Life was so numb it was nearly painless. He didn’t look forward to thawing out later and discovering just how much he’d really hurt himself. After several blocks, they reached Kovel, who was holding the reins of two huge waalla beasts.
“Life!” Kovel smiled upon seeing him. “You look terrible!” He turned away to get the animals ready and any witty retort Life might have once had for him was lost in a sea of confusion.
“Can you ride?” Cannon didn’t wait for an answer as he picked up Life around the waist and deposited him onto the warm flanks of the waalla.
“I think I can about manage to hold on.”
“Good enough.” Cannon climbed up after him, making the waalla bray, but they were soon galloping along. Life was only vaguely aware of Kovel and Paramis following on the other beast. The sleeping city passed by in a cold, strange blur punctuated only by the strange smell coming off the animals. In a great and very many ways it was all so absurd that Life felt he must be dreaming still.
They came eventually to the shipyards, where they abandoned the waalla beasts and hurried down the docks. There was not yet a sign of alarm from the prison behind them, though Life imagined that would be only true for a few more minutes.
No soon had he stepped on the bridge of the Phoenix than did Denny fling himself into Life’s arms. He was blissfully warm and solid and so real Life’s knees buckled in his arms and he collapsed to the deck right there, holding him. “I was so worried about you!” Seeing Denny alive and well was so overwhelming he wasn’t even sure which of them had said it.
Paramis stalked up to the bridge. “All right, everyone. We’re going to have the entire Feorean military wanting our asses in minutes! Let’s get this ship out of here!”
Life closed his eyes and sank into the welcome warmth of Denny’s arms as the rest of the crew gave up a whooping cry of support.
Life slept through the night and when he woke he found himself in a little cabin on the Phoenix. Denny sat on a stool near him, quietly tuning his lute with a series of scales. It was the sound of the music that roused him out of the warm cocoon of sleep, where he might have otherwise stayed.
“Denny?” he croaked.
Denny stopped playing. “You’re awake!” He set aside the lute and hurried to the cot Life lay on and wrapped his arms around him. “I was so worried.”
Life held him back, still quite disoriented. “What happened? How did you get away?”
“They knew they couldn’t hold me for anything, so they let me go after a few hours. I went immediately to Paramis and told her what had happened. They tried to go back to your place, but we discovered it was swarming with collectors pricing your things for auction. In the morning, Paramis went to the jail to try to get you released, but they wouldn’t. The rest of us tracked down the auction site and ended up buying back anything of yours we could afford and thought you’d really hate to lose.” He nodded. “Including my things that they sold off too.”
“Denny, I’m so sorry.”
“Shh, it isn’t your fault.” Denny kissed his brow. “I’m just glad you’re all right.”
Though he felt foolish for it, Life curled up against Denny. “And now I’m a fugitive.” He didn’t lift his head and Denny soon was stroking his hair. “Where are we headed?”
“Cannon suggested we go to Dislan, at least for now. Paramis figures they’ll expect you to flee to Fioryss or Korvalstieniav, so they won’t likely look for us in Dislan.”
“Mm. That’s wise.” He reluctantly pulled away from Denny. “Did you save any of my clothes?” He wanted to go back to bed, but he knew he needed to talk to Paramis.
“Yes, a few. Not as much as we would have liked. None of us had much money.”
“Anything other than this shift will be a blessing.” Life got up and found the things they had saved. It was more clothing that he had expected, and far more than he usually brought on a ship with him. He picked something warm but comfortable in neutral blue and green tones so he felt more Arislean than he did wearing the usual beige and browns of Feor.
Life stopped at the galley first, where Denny helped him to some hot stew and bread and warmed koess wine before he made his way to the bridge, where Paramis stood at the wheel.
“Good to see you up and about,” she said with a smile. “We’ll be in Dislan before nightfall.”
“Thank you.” Life found it hard to look at her and so instead stared out at the water. “You’ve done far more for me than I could have ever hoped for. You didn’t have to come, let alone rescue my possessions from auction. Somehow I will find a way to repay you.”
Paramis chuckled softly. “You’re family. None of us could have left you there.” She looked him over. “I just don’t recommend getting caught again.”
Life smiled tightly, his heart aching with fondness for this crew. “They’ll be after us before long. You’d do better dropping me off in Dislan and putting as much distance between us as you can.”
“Mmm. Probably.” Her gaze shifted over Life’s shoulder.
Turning, Life found that Denny had followed him up. The wind was billowing his dark hair, which had continued to grow over the last six months. A thrill ran through him as Denny stepped close and put an arm around Life’s middle, despite the fact that all the crew could see them.
But this crew knew and loved both of them, and though it sent a warning chill through Life still, he feared nothing. Swallowing he looked back to Paramis. “There’s a shipyard in Aenor—near the Aeoss Leor bay—that still owes me a favor. If they won’t look for me in Dislan, it’s even less likely they’d think I was still in Feor. With your permission, of course, we could have them convert the Phoenix to steam. Then even if they do find us, we could manage to outrun them. Or at least put up a good chase.”
“Speed isn’t everything, you know.” She put her hands on the wheels, tilting her head in thought. “Aeoss Leor, though. I have always wanted to visit. We’ll see.”
They spent six weeks in Dislan, resupplying the ship and laying low from the Feorean military. News from the war trickled through, and they discovered more Korvalstieniav ships had arrived in Arisle. In response, more and more of the newly built or converted Feorean ships were launching there as well. Dislan had, for the most part, remained neutral, though the lush green island supplied quite a significant portion of the wood that ended up in the Feorean ships.
In Dislan, Cannon introduced them to his mother, who treated them all to a host of wonderful—albeit quite spicy—traditional Dislan foods. They had arrived a few weeks before the annual winter Dislan holy days, which consisted of almost a month of festivities and celebration. As far as shore leave went, it was some of the best Life had ever had—though perhaps the fact that he spent those six weeks sharing the experience with Denny, as well as with Kovel and Amist who were no longer trying to hide anything, had something to do with it.
It was also during those weeks that Life noticed Paramis beginning to sometimes return Cannon’s fonder glances.
Before long, Life recovered from his ordeal in the Feorean prison, and when he wasn’t celebrating with the Dislanders, he found what work he could, trying to earn money to give to Paramis in repayment for all that she had risked and done for him over the last six months. While Paramis refused to take the money, she had Life invest it in Dislan wares, which they stocked up in the storage hold. That combined with some of the intricate Korvalstieniav embroidery and sewing that Mila was able to produce earned them a fair bit of money.
It was with considerable reluctance that they eventually finally said goodbye to Dislan and began the journey south to loop around the Aean peninsula and into the bay that opened into Aeoss Leor.
Spring came early to Aeoss Leor and with the Phoenix they were able to sail through the bay, into the Ae Aoa—the God’s Eye lake that joined the bay to the Aegean River—and that brought them quite near the town of Aenor, where Life had spent quite some time, developing his original steam ships. They came as a trade ship, though their relative proximity to Dislan made many of their wares uninteresting to the people of Aenor. They still managed enough to live off of and the people were eager to have any customers before the usual summer tourist boom.
Much of Aenor had changed since Life had been there. Many people had recognized the southern city to be something of the birth place of steam technology and the city had grown with the technology. Most of Life’s original toys and boats were still being sold and traded locally. Quite a few people even recognized him. If his bad reputation had reached them here, no one seemed to mind.
Before a week was out, he located one of the ship builders he had befriended originally. He did not even have to remind the man of how he had helped him out to get a favor. The man had since learned a great deal of things about steam ships, increasing his business exponentially; all because of information he had learned first-hand from Life. As a result, he was more than willing to lend his help—free of charge—to begin converting the Phoenix to run under steam power as well as sails.
Paramis watched closely and approved every move and adjustment they made. It caused the conversion to go considerably slower than Life had anticipated, but the result was something spectacular. With Paramis’ keen eye and desire to keep the lines of her ship intact, the converted version of the Phoenix ended up looking almost identical to the way she had before conversion. From a distance, the only way you could tell she was steam at all was when she had steam coming out of her well concealed stacks.
The evenings not spent working on the ship were given to leisure, and after such a short trip from Dislan to Aenor, Life didn’t know what to do with so much shore leave. Denny took to playing his lute in pubs and bars in the evening, and soon was earning more money that Life could pull in from a full day of hard labor.
As spring truly got underway, Denny took Life shopping and ended up buying him a new wardrobe. They sold many of his old ragged clothes, replacing them with garments dyed in jewel tones. Denny himself began wearing powder on his face again, though not as heavy or white as before. He also took to ringing his eyes with dark sooty kajal, something traditionally worn on the cheeks and around the eyes eyes when crossing the desert in summer to block out the glare of the sun. On Denny’s fair skin, it was quite striking, and before long Life noticed other Aenor locals sporting the look.
One evening as the Phoenix neared completion, Denny led Life down to the beach. Together they went strolling hand-in-hand along the coast, as they had done many times before. The locals paid them no mind at all, save to occasionally nod their heads in pleasant greeting.
Denny rested his head against Life’s shoulder for a few moments. “You know, I really think I could spend the rest of my life here, with you. It’s so hard to believe this is part of the same desert country we first saw upon arriving.”
“The southeast coast of Feor gets much more rain than the rest, that’s for sure. I’m afraid you’ll hate Fioryss if we ever go there—though that’s unlikely. It’s drier by far than even Misanti.” He glanced to the waves rolling in. “I love Aenor, but sometimes I find myself longing for the dryness of Lianess. The days can be scorching, but there’s nothing like the cool summer nights there.”
“You’re much more acclimated to that sort of weather, of course. I’m afraid I’d wilt like a flower should I spent one summer day in Fioryss. And I’d miss the snow, eventually. It doesn’t ever snow here, does it?”
“No. Sometimes in the mountains during the winters. There have been stories of snowfall in the distant pass, but those were very rare indeed. With the recent drought, we’ve had almost no snow for years.”
“Of course, we don’t have beaches like this.” Denny tugged Life’s hand, pulling him back a little. “We’ve walked past this clump of trees so many times the last few times we’ve walked this route, and I’ve thought about this every time. Now it’s finally warm enough.” Life stared at him in surprise, and Denny’s answer was to stretch up on his toes and kiss him.
Kissing in semi-public like this was something of a shock for Life, even though he’d seen no one else along the coast where they were, and the trees hid them from any eyes that might be watching. He enjoyed the sensation and the way Denny felt against him while the evening breeze tousled their hair. It was when Denny started for his belt that he pulled back in surprise.
“Are you shy?” Denny laughed, smiling up at him. “Oh, Lie. You’re so wonderful sometimes. You’ve never passed these trees and thought how wonderful it’d be to make love on the beach?”
Life choked up a nervous laugh. “No, uh, I can’t say I have. But I certainly am now.”
Denny gave him a nice grope through his trousers and his smile lit up brilliant. He tugged Life down onto the sand and soon had a very splendid time with him.
By the first days of summer, the Phoenix’s conversion was complete. Besides adding steam technology, some of the interior structure of the ship had been changed as well. The captain’s cabin had been bisected and a section that had once been a largely unused office and reading nook had been converted into a small private cabin just large enough for two.
After watching the way Amist and Kovel had been growing closer, Life had assumed the room was for them, so he was hugely surprised when Paramis presented it to him and Denny. It thrilled Denny even more than it thrilled Life, and before the day was out all their things were transferred over and the room was redecorated in a strangely striking mix of Arislean and Fioryssean fashions.
Though Paramis could no longer deny Amist and Kovel’s relationship, she still kept them in separate quarters. While she never said anything to discourage them, her eye was always critical when they got too close. Though her eye seemed to go blind on evenings they shared at the long table in the galley, laughing and passing around wine.
As summer wore on, the tourists from the north began arriving and both Life and Paramis felt it was too unsafe to remain and risk being seen by someone who knew Life and would stand to benefit from turning him in.
She sought him out one warm summer night when he had found a spot near the bow to lie out on the deck and listen to the rigging creak. “Lost your boy tonight, have you?” She sat on the railing, her back to the sea.
Life didn’t stand, staring through the ropes up at the distant stars. “He enjoys bathing more than I think is strictly healthy.”
Paramis laughed. “It’s nice to see you alone once in awhile, at least.”
“Mm.” Life propped himself up on his elbows so he could look at her better. “I suppose this means there’s something you want to discuss?”
She tilted her head, smiling softly. “You know we can’t stay here.”
Life grunted and lay back down. “Where else can we go?”
“There’s still a war going on. I heard some good news today.”
“Oh?” Despite himself, Life was curious.
“I don’t know how true it is, but I overheard some tourists today talking about the base on Koshael and how it’s allowed them to recover much of the northern coast—including Pamel’s Cove.”
“Really?” Life sat up, fully interested now. “How old is this information?”
“I don’t know, but if true it could mean the tide of the war is turning. I feel like we should be there, not here, soaking up the sun like laggards who don’t care about the turmoil of the rest of the world.”
“We do care! We’ve just been running so hard for so long with so little to show . . .”
“I know. All the same, I think it’s time we resupplied and headed back out. They’ll have almost no jurisdiction over you in Arisle. I know Den wants to get back to see the fate of his sister and family and . . .” She put her head back and stared up at the stars.
“I’m not sure I should tell you.” She took a deep breath and then met his eyes. “It sounds like General Visnek is back in Arisle as well.”
“So you think bringing Denny and Mila back there is a good idea?”
“I think it’s an extremely dangerous situation for Denny’s family and that it’s entirely possible Visnek will hurt them irreparably before he realizes they’re not hiding him and genuinely don’t know where he is.”
Life remembered Carelle’s tiny little courtyard, a verdant oasis in the desolation that had gripped Pamel’s Cove. He remembered the little white faces of her children. Cursing under his breath, Life got to his feet and dusted himself off. “When do you want to leave?”
Paramis didn’t smile, but he could see she was pleased. “By the end of the week?”