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Winter Ship

by Sarah Ann Watts

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Chapter 19: Changeling

part 2

I lie awake for the rest of the night with the feather clasped in my hand, beneath the blanket where none can see. In my culture such a gift could only have one meaning, but he is different.

His feathers were bought by his patrons and lovers, but even in my misery it occurs to me that this feather was given, not sold. It is at least an act of faith on his part that I will not betray him. It could be so much more. Has he given me part of himself and, if I take it, could I fly again?

So from now on the nights are different. Kras is gone for longer and longer each night, and I lie awake waiting and wondering if he will return. I sleep most in the daytime. There is little enough to keep me awake, shut off as we are from the life of the ship.

Kras says that if he finds land he will find a way to take me with him. But I can’t see how and begin to regret that I was so hasty in destroying my boat, the Lady Karishma.

It seems strange that I have seen no other boats while on the Winter Ship. Even when we boarded her in summer’s cove so long ago, it was the landlord who played the ferryman and loaned his boat.

The sailors grow restless and begin to talk of a great white bird that comes to the ship at dawn. They are superstitious and say an evil spirit haunts us.

I fear for Kras, knowing there are crossbows on board, and I beg him to be careful or to choose some less conspicuous form. He looks at me as if the notion is absurd. He says the messenger birds are sacred to the gods, and the sailors choose to see something they understand rather than a man with wings.

It occurs to me then that I have never seen him make the change. I assumed that he shifted his form as I used to, but always he is gone before I miss him, and when I see him return, coming out of the dawn light with the sun at his back, the image is blurred.

I whisper, ‘You can fly and you don’t shift?’

‘It is easier to shift what they see rather than what I am. I cast a charm so that others see what they think they should, or what they want me to be. The blankets deceived even you, Kyran, and your eyes are sharper than theirs.’

I remember how I always thought there was something hawk-like about his eyes, the irises flecked with gold like his hair, those long nails not unlike claws.

Now there is the look of a predator in the curve of his smile, and I don’t envy anyone he gets his talons into. For me it is far too late. I feel the arrow twist every time I wake to find that he has gone.

Everything is changed between us. The ship coasts on its way, untroubled by storms. Every morning Kras returns and shakes his head briefly. We sail for another moon, and when the new moon rises he gives me a second feather.

I should know nothing lasts forever. I notice a growing disquiet among my companions. Lorcan still makes his daily visit, though in truth there is little cause for it. Kras is healed. Razvan occasionally visits in the manner of a jailer checking on prisoners consigned to his care.

Naraya and Daan spend their time below decks, making charts, we are told. It concerns me that Lorcan says they are mapping our voyage and yet no one seems to know where we are going or why.

* * *

Then the night comes when Razvan rouses me urgently from sleep and invites me below. I’m terrified he will discover that Kras has gone. The night is heavy with the promise of rain, and I know Kras can’t fly far if his feathers are wet. The weight would drag him down to the sea. Already he has been gone for longer than I thought, and when I realise how close to the dawn it is, I am afraid.

I’m thinking that if I can keep the Guardians occupied below deck there is some chance of him making his way back.

Razvan takes me below to a stateroom at the stern I have never seen before, luxuriously appointed with a window seat with a red velvet cushion. A loveseat for Naraya and Daan, I think with some amusement as they sit together.

There are armchairs for Razvan and the captain, and Lorcan perches on a stool, looking rather like a bird, himself, though his form is usually more wolfish. It seems that Lorcan’s tale, that Naraya and Daan are mapping the course of our voyage, is true.

The floor is polished oak, there is a decanter with a tray of glasses and rich velvet curtains at the window. It is a world away from rough shelter on the open deck.

Lorcan brings a stool for me and I sit. Kras’s feathers are inside my tunic, They tickle my skin and I feel like my companions’ eyes can bore through and see them.

To my surprise, Razvan greets me with strained courtesy. ‘I’m sorry, Kyran. It seems we were mistaken about you; but, for the sake of the crew and for the success of this voyage, we have kept you sequestered.

‘We couldn’t take the risk that you had succumbed to the wraith. I am also sorry that we have shut you out from our counsels. Please accept our apology.’

I bow my head. ‘So you think that I am safe now, and you will trust me again?’

Naraya at least has the grace to blush, and Lorcan looks uncomfortable, though Daan is imperturbable as ever.

Razvan’s fist clenches, reminding me not to court his anger. ‘We did what we must.’ His tone is curt. ‘Now we are willing to make amends.’ His words make me feel churlish.

‘You can join us below decks. We will return your old cabin to you. From now on you will eat with us. We need you, Kyran. We need your knowledge of the stars and navigation. We have lost our way, and the course we follow has changed since our last voyage. The isles we sail to have disappeared.’

While I’m startled by his confession, that the Immortals are lost and seek my help, he has another shock for me. ‘Tell me Kyran: has the Soul Thief found any sign of land?’

For a moment I stand staring at Razvan and I have no words. Then my anger takes over. ‘His name is Kras. Why don’t you ask him yourself?’

Then everything slows to a stop and even the ship herself seems to halt on the waves. The illusion doesn’t last. I suppose they must always have known, but why summon me below decks to betray my friend if they know the secret already?

Naraya looks anxious. So she should, I think savagely.

‘We are not lesser life forms,’ I say. ‘Is this the way you work: now that we are useful we are in favour again? You wanted to set Kras adrift not long ago and now you expect him to give you news and work for you?’

It is Lorcan who speaks. ‘We can’t talk to him. Kyran, don’t you know what the Soul Thieves are?’

I shake my head. I feel so tired of all this senseless prejudice. ‘Do you think Kras can help who he is? Which of us can? We are as we are born and nurtured. None of this is his fault. He helped me.’

‘He bonded to you.’ Naraya’s tone is curt, with a hint of distaste.

‘So what if he did? We were both lonely. That’s between him and me. Kras is my friend. He tried to save me.’

Daan laughs. ‘You really believe that?’

I am too weary to reply. I turn my face away from him. The next thing I know Daan, Lorcan and Naraya are leaving the room and Razvan and I are alone. Then suddenly I’m afraid, knowing they have brought me down here, and Kras is alone on deck with the crew and their crossbows.

‘Don’t worry,’ Razvan says. This seems so unlike him that my fears crystallize, and I know Kras is in danger. I make for the gangway but Razvan stops me and I struggle to free myself.

‘Don’t worry? They think Kras is less than human.’

‘They won’t hurt him. They won’t go near him. They can’t.’

‘Some religious scruple?’ I put all the scorn I have into that.

‘No.’ I watch as Razvan strives to put a lid on his temper. ‘Kyran, the changelings are not born, they are made, created to order. That’s why the slave trader took you, and why it was so important for us to recover you before he found out that you were human.

‘He thought you were merchandise, a stolen design. The changelings can be commissioned or reproduced from a living matrix of cellsl. That is what Kras thinks you are.

‘He doesn’t understand why you are broken, that you can’t mend as he does. Damage him, and he will always recover in time. He doesn’t know loyalty or love. He serves each and every patron. Any of us could command him with a word, and he would go to us. That’s why we leave you two alone: out of pity, not fear. You must break the bond, Kyran. Let him go.’

‘You’re lying!’

‘Kyran, he isn’t truly alive. He’s a changeling, a created life, like your mother was.’

‘Leave my mother out of this!’ The anger is reflex, not thought. No wonder I am drawn to Kras if he is one of my mother’s people.

Razvan goes on as if I haven’t spoken. ‘For now, you are his god. That’s why he ran with you, because he believes you are his original and that he was made in your image.

‘He doesn’t understand that you are flesh and blood; that you can die. When he learns the truth, he will destroy you. You must break the bond between you and set him free.’

I wrench myself out of his grasp. ‘How can you be sure? That he is the changeling and not I?’

Razvan gives me an odd look. ‘I’m not. We don’t know what you are, Kyran, other than an aberration. You should not even exist.’

Proceed to Chapter 20...

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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