by Sarah Ann Watts
Chapter 16: The Lady Karishma
I dream and think myself still in the land of dreams when I wake to the sound of human voices and find my boat grappled by a boat hook at the prow. There’s a crew of fishermen looking down at me. I’m caught in their net and couldn’t resist, even if I wanted to. Eleven days now since I heard the sound of any voice but my own and that only when I sang myself to sleep to make the nights less lonely.
Seeing me dazed, they pull my boat alongside and willing arms urge me aboard their ship. When they pull my boat up on deck after me I see the name painted on the bow with the shape of the moon like a crescent eye: Lady Karishma.
It seems her name is held in some honour by the crew, for they greet me politely, eying the moonstone I wear. I take care that they should see the knife sheathed on my arm, too, but they offer me no violence. From their talk, I discover they are five days out from port. They’ve filled their nets and are even now heading home.
They tell me the name of the island they hail from, and I consult the map that Jarmil gave me. It’s only now that I begin to appreciate his thoughtfulness and realise that from the first he must have meant for me to survive.
I allow the fishermen to believe that I serve the Lady as a devotee or priest of her cult, and Bedros, their chief, treats me with reverence. More to the point, they feed me, offering beer which I drink sparingly and fish that is cooked, bread and olive oil. I feel I’m celebrating my survival, and the Lady Karishma looks like a battered trophy.
I realise she will fetch a fair price and wonder if that is why I was rescued. I rig my hammock in a corner of the deck and resolve to keep watch, but as the night hours pass, I begin to believe I have fallen in with honest men.
Four days later they sail into a harbour where a trading caravel anchors off shore. She is lateen rigged with two masts and sits low in the water, heavily laden. Bedros tells me this ship, the Pietrina, is bound for Keroessa, city of the Goddess. It will take me ‘home’.
They lower the Lady Karishma and Bedros comes with me. ‘To buy your passage’, he says. He already knows I have no coin, nothing to trade but my knife, and I won’t be parted from it. My suspicions rise again. But I’ve no wish to be stranded on their island. It may be that I can trade skills with the merchants, and even a slave can live to buy freedom.
Captain Devin greets Bedros with respect. He asks me many questions about where I have sailed from and when I mention the Fortunate Isles, he grows pale and treats me deferentially. It seems I’m to be treated as a Child of the Sea; as one taken from the waters they owe me honour and will see me safe to shore lest ill-treatment of me bring them bad luck and anger the Lady in their next voyage.
I spend the next two days relegated to the status of a passenger, though, to my amazement, I find that my journey in my little boat has gained me respect. The caravel generally sails in sight of land, and my navigation by the stars is new to them. They take it as a sign of favour from the Goddess and welcome me on deck.
The helmswoman, Ciara, is happy to talk to me and tell me of the storms this ship has endured and tales of the fabulous sea monsters of the deep and the isles that lie beyond here. She makes the sign to ward off evil and then mutters, ‘No offence,’ at me.
I enjoy the stories, and at dinner Captain Devin greets me as his guest and shares his wine. Ciara sits at table with us. She tells me she has been a sailor since she was a child of 12. I judge her little more than 19 now, but she has sailed the nine oceans and seen more of the world than any who came from my kingdom.
The ship carries a cargo of wine and olives and fine fabrics, and the captain expects to make a profit on the journey. He smiles, passing Ciara a glass of wine and puts his arm around her shoulder.
Seeing my look, he laughs and says, ‘There are sixteen years between us. Ciara is my daughter, and we have sailed together these many years. One day I will make my fortune, another couple of cruises, if the gods are good to us.’
He looks at me expectantly, and I murmur what I hope he will think is a ritual invocation to the Lady, a benison on the ship. ‘My young lady can deck herself in silk and satin and take a noble to her bed.’
Looking at the sensual curve of her mouth, her sun-kissed skin, and her figure beneath seaman’s attire, I think the noble will be lucky. I smile at her, but she tilts her chin at me.
I remember that I am meant to be a servant of the Goddess and, thinking of certain half-forgotten lessons and stories, begin to wonder if she thinks I’m less than a man and this is why she treats me with indifference. That maybe she does not find me attractive is only a fleeting doubt. I’m irritated to find her so unresponsive, though Devin’s protective attitude warns me not to make a nuisance of myself.
Later at the end of the meal, Ciara leaves us to take up her duties on deck explaining she has the first watch. I am tempted to join her, especially as Devin lights up a pipe and blows fumes in my face. He offers me a similar pipe and I’m about to refuse, fearing the effect on top of a bounteous meal.
After my meagre survival fare, chicken, vegetables, mangoes and strawberries are a feast. The sweet aroma tantalises my senses. At this stage I have drunk just enough of the golden wine to be reckless and I have no power to resist.
There pass a few dreamy hours through the short night. The captain pours more wine and tells me stories something more colourful than his daughter’s until finally I make my excuses and stumble up on deck.
* * *
I see the skyline lit up with the lights of a great city that stretches for leagues along the shore and rises up in tiers to a palace at the summit. At the end of the pier, most wonderful in itself, a light burns to show the channel and prevent ships being driven onto the shore.
To me those lights are like a string of diamonds calling me home, and I stare in wonder like any peasant.
The girl Ciara laughs softly. ‘Have you never seen a city?’
‘Never one like this.’
‘So you make a pilgrimage for the Goddess? You have not seen her greatest temple?’
I shake my head but suddenly I don’t know what to say. I never expected to survive that journey on the open sea. Having my life back, I’m at a loss, not knowing where to go next.
I have the clothes I stand up in, a map, a compass and a knife. Other than that, a cloak and the moonstone I wear round my neck. I have no friend in this city, and it occurs to me that stranger as I am, I could do worse than take myself to the temple of the Goddess and at least give her my thanks.
Ciara is looking at me scornfully. ‘They will give charity to such as you. You’re not really a priest are you?’
‘I serve the Goddess. I am her child.’
‘We are all her children, but the Goddess demands a harsher sacrifice. One, I think, you would find difficult to give her. Even with your soft hands and face, I think the service of the Goddess would come hard to one like you.’
I nearly laugh in her face, holding out my blistered sunburned hands, calluses where I have gripped the tiller and held the line.
‘You expect me to be impressed?’ She opens her palms, and I see they are like finely wrought leather with a wiry strength to them. She runs her finger down the side of my face, and there is a roughness to it, but I have seldom thrilled to any touch like hers. She notes my response and smiles. ‘You haven’t given yourself to the Goddess have you?’
I’m taunted by her remarks, but there seems little way of proving myself to her, not unless I want to end with a noose around my neck, hanging from the spars on the ship.
‘You’ve lived soft, seldom had to fend for yourself.’
‘And you, are you still a virgin as your father thinks?’ The stars are wheeling, I’m flying. No one can touch me. Nothing is real and I should never have said it. She flushes crimson as if I have struck her.
‘You are one of those who tease and taunt and keep your legs shut. Whatever the riches your father keeps in his hold, you know no noble will wed a slut. You keep yourself chaste like a miser hoarding gold.
‘I could show you some things, lady, except I think your treasure grows stale. Better hope your father makes his fortune soon, before you lose your looks. There’s always a market on the waterfront!’
She goes for me then, but I hold her back while she spits and swears at me, calling me some names that are new. I guess a girl bred at sea will never grow up with delicate language. I laugh and release her. ‘What’s the matter, Ciara? You insulted me first.’
She draws herself up, a slim cobra ready to strike. She is furious but unwilling to give me the satisfaction of tears. I give her credit for not playing that card. Truly, she is the vision of a dream, and I doubt any would resist her. I begin to think that risking my neck would be worth it.
‘Poor girl, all those tales of sea monsters, but you don’t know any bedtime stories.’
She chokes and I’m ashamed, thinking she will weep after all, but she is laughing. Her nails have marked my arms. ‘My father thinks you are a eunuch, else he would not let me sit with you over supper.’
My host is now lost in slumber. The sound of his snores echoes up the passageway, and she giggles.
‘Your father was mistaken, lady. Do his tastes run that way? I am afraid he was... incapable.’
Then she really does flush scarlet, and I am glad the knife is still in the sheath on my arm for she looks like murder.
Our exchange has so far been unobserved, but then she opens her mouth.
I look at her. ‘You have only to scream rape.’ The marks on my wrists would bear out her story.
‘No.’ She is looking at the deck. ‘Kyran, I’m sorry, you think I like my life? You think I want to exchange this freedom for a house, for women’s pursuits, talk in the marketplace and babies?’
I haven’t ever thought about women’s lives. Not as a prince or a slave. No girl ever talked like this before and seemed so furious with her lot, and I’ve no idea what to say.
Ciara gives a snort of contempt.
‘I’m sorry for what I said. I was shocked. You are beautiful; you will have many lovers if you want them.’
‘I’m a child of the sea, not a child of the Goddess.’
I’m confused but flounder on. ‘Half the nobles in the city will be on fire for you. You could be a queen if you chose. I’m sorry for my taunts. I should know better.’
Graceless enough as an apology, but I am shaken, the wreaths of the treacherous smoke receding. I’m cold, feel sick and just want to sleep. ‘I’m sorry I insulted you.’
‘Only half the nobles?’
She is smiling at me, but I can’t take any more of this scene. The night’s excesses are catching up with me and I make an undignified dash for the side. As the great and glorious city of Keroessa draws ever closer, I hang like a rag over the side, throwing up my guts until there is nothing left.
When I turn, wiping my mouth, she is already gone. I stumble below and lie on my hard bunk, hands pressed against my eyelids, shutting out thought.
* * *
I miss it all, our sail into the great harbour and the scent of spices on the breeze and the sight of the tall ships, one of the greatest views in our world while I, Kyran Shade, Prince of Castle Crag lie sick on my bunk, heart sick for a girl, groaning dismally and then passing out into a sodden slumber.
So the ship docks at the great horn in this city of gold, temples and palaces.
On the morrow, Devin bids me a cursory farewell and asks if I will sell my boat. Though it costs me a pang, I have no way else to support myself. I accept the sale, and he places a meagre handful of silver in my palm. I am sure he is cheating me but think better than to pick a quarrel, especially with Ciara looking on.
She wears a silk gown and a cloak pinned to her shoulder with a ruby. Her bracelets are heavy gold chased with precious stones. She has let her hair loose from the scarlet ribbon and wears a circlet at her brow, not unlike mine. I wonder if it sits gathering dust or locked away in a chest at my brother’s court. It hurts to look at it, even though I think it is only for ornament. It is beautifully wrought, craftsmen’s work, a queen would not disdain to wear it.
I stand before her and her father and I bow my head and thank them for their courtesy. He appears a merchant prince, and they are gracious but abrupt as they bid me farewell.
In truth, I have no disposition to linger but it is only pride that prevents me confessing my friendless state and throwing myself on their mercy. That and Ciara’s smile, pinned to her face, which tells me if I choose to tell tales, my fate could alter for the worse.
Still I feel some recompense is called for. I unclasp the moonstone and present it to her. ‘My lady, I offer a token to thank you for your kindness. I am grateful for safe passage.’
It seems a poor offering, and indeed she looks at it dubiously before taking her cue from her father. She acts the gracious lady and accepts it. His face softens and I think my gesture politic. I’m lucky to have kept my life and my freedom.
I descend the plank, and the quay rises and falls beneath my unsteady feet.
Proceed to Chapter 17...
Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts